Packing up your entire life into just a few suitcases to move to a whole new country is daunting, no doubt about it. Between luggage limits, new climates, and new styles, it can be difficult to decide what to bring and what to leave. Here is my comprehensive guide on what and what not to bring when moving abroad.
When I first moved abroad, I was fresh out of high school in a small town in the Northeast US. Suddenly, I was on my way to Prague, Czech Republic, a city I had never been within 200 miles of. I had no idea what I needed to pack. I threw everything I thought I needed into two massive suitcases and quickly realized… Prague is nothing like Connecticut.
A year and a half later, I was yet again packing up my life to move to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a 6-month exchange. This time, I thought I had it down. I brought only a carry-on and a small duffle bag. Spoiler: I didn’t have it down. I didn’t overpack this time, but I was definitely missing some essentials.
Now, back in Prague, going on my fifth year of living abroad, here’s what I’ve learned about what (and what not) to bring when moving abroad.
A few things you should remember, no matter where you are moving:
First, don’t go into packing with the mindset that you’re packing for 3 years, 4 years, or the rest of your life. Don’t pressure yourself with being prepared for the next 6 years as much as being ready for the first 6 months. Trends will change and your own personal style will shift after you move. The reality is you’re going to go shopping sooner or later. And, if you’re anything like me, being in a city full of new cute shops means it won’t be too long before you’ll want to expand your wardrobe.
This leads me to my next point, don’t go on a massive shopping spree right before you leave! It's so easy to panic thinking you won’t be able to find your favorite jeans or whatnot in your new home.
First of all, you’ll spend money you wish you had later when you discover a boutique or thrift shop in your neighborhood.
Second of all, you’ll end up filling valuable luggage space with things you easily could have bought after arrival.
Third, you’re just delaying the inevitable moment when you’ll run out of [insert whatever it is you thought you couldn’t live without] and you need to find the local equivalent. Speaking from experience, it’s much better to dive right in and find out which stores have the essentials right away before you’ve been living in a city for 3 years and have no idea where to buy underwear.
Lastly, think of the irreplaceable things you can’t live without. Obviously your laptop, phone, passport, etc. But think about the things you would really miss if they got lost. Those jeans that fit perfectly? The sweatshirt you wear to bed every night? Those boots you saved up for forever? These are the things you will miss if you left them behind. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that everything you own is one of these things, but take the things that immediately pop into your head and don’t forget them. It will help with the immediate homesickness if “Damn, I wish I had that top,” isn’t constantly popping into your head.
When thinking of the specific location of your big move, keep these things in mind:
Things I wish someone had told me before I packed my bags:
Think about the climate! As much as you wish summer will last forever, it probably won’t. I brought about 6 pairs of shorts to Prague only for the temperature to drop to the 60ºFs (20ºCs) within two weeks. Or if you’re moving somewhere with a year-long summer, think of the reverse — nobody likes jeans in heavy humidity.
How will you be getting around? This is so important for several reasons. Growing up in the US meant I used a car to get everywhere. I didn’t realize how much walking and taking public transportation influence what you’ll want to wear every day.
Winter will feel a lot colder and summer will feel a lot hotter. You no longer can jump in the car and throw on the heat or A/C. You’ll be spending a lot more time walking around and waiting for trams and buses. You’re gonna want clothes warm enough to keep you warm during your everyday commutes.
Walking everywhere means sneakers will become your best friend. But if you are moving somewhere with cold winters, you’re also going to want some sturdy boots to keep your feet warm and dry. I love my Doc Martens and Blundstones for this reason. They’re cute and I can fit warm socks in. If you’re moving somewhere hot, try to get some breathable sneakers and sturdy sandals. When I lived in Kuala Lumpur, I wore my Nike Air Forces and Birkenstocks everywhere around the city and used my old vans for jungle treks and exploring less developed areas.
Cobblestones look nice but aren’t so nice to your ankles. If you’re moving to Europe, say goodbye to the days of walking down a flat sidewalk. For this reason, heels are wildly unpopular in Prague, even in clubs and bars. I have worn heels once since moving here and it was for my university’s ball (and truth be told I kicked them off after about an hour anyway). But if you know you’re going to need heels for one reason or another, opt for a platform or chunky heel and look for a sole with some grip.
What do you know about the local style? It’s up to you how much you want to conform to the local style. In more conservative societies, it’s best to adapt out of respect for the culture. But sometimes you might just not want to stand out as a foreigner so much.
Most importantly, be respectful of your host country. Consider the climate; just because somewhere is hot doesn’t always mean you should walk around in shorts and a crop top.
There’s a common stereotype that Europeans dress better than Americans. I guess that’s a matter of opinion. What I have found true is that, in Prague, people tend to dress nicer on a daily basis. I’m not totally sure if it's a Europe versus America thing or a city versus rural thing. While my typical outfit in high school was very relaxed, usually leggings and a sweatshirt, I now tend to wear jeans or trousers and a top or sweater.
If you’re someone who might want to blend in with the locals more, I suggest saving your money to shop once you arrive rather than guessing what people wear from thousands of miles away. Also, leave at home the things you think might not be such a popular look in your new home. For example, I brought like five pairs of leggings when I really only needed one, and I never wore any high school apparel- I’m not sure why I thought I would.
That being said, wear whatever you’re comfortable in. If you are most comfortable in athleisure, wear it! If you want to wear a ball gown around, go for it! I say, as long as you’re being respectful to the local culture, wear whatever you want.
Luggage limits are a sad reality of flying. And, honestly, you might be thankful for them once you’ve arrived and you have nobody but yourself to help lug three heavy bags up to your new apartment. Keeping airline regulations and your own strength in mind, the best way to tackle this is by focusing on your versatile basics. Think of it as creating a capsule wardrobe of sorts. Focus on pieces that are:
Made well, so they will last
Have been a staple in your wardrobe for years, which are less likely to go out of style
Pieces that match, so no matter what you throw together, you’ll have an outfit. (We all have that top that we love but never wear because it doesn’t match anything, leave it. If you don’t wear it now, you won’t wear it in a new country.) Your future self will thank you.
In the end, your packing list will depend on you. You might bring something you were sure you couldn’t live without, and find that after a few months, you’ve only touched it once. You might find that something you thought you wouldn’t need is what you miss most. There’s no way to know for sure, especially when it’s your first time moving abroad. But none of it is worth stressing over too much. Be flexible, remember you’re about to jet off to a new and exciting place. You’re starting a whole new chapter of life, maybe that new chapter will come with a new wardrobe.
Good Luck and Happy Travels!
Edited by Sophia Pedigo