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Ask CF: What Should I Pack for a Semester Abroad?

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Welcome to the latest edition of Ask CF! Every few weeks, we select a reader fashion question and answer it here on the site. Do you have a specific fashion question for us? Scroll to the bottom of this post to learn how to send it our way!

Ask CF Question

Dear CF,

I will be studying abroad next semester in Italy and am finding it difficult to figure out what/ how much to pack for the 4 months I will be there. Could you do an article on outfits to bring for those who will be studying abroad for a semester? It would be very much appreciated! Thanks!

Sincerely,

Future Traveler

Our Response

Dear Future Traveler,

As a recent study abroad alum (I studied abroad during Spring 2012 in Salamanca, Spain), let me first start off by saying how extremely excited I am for you to go on this adventure! I can honestly say that studying abroad was the most amazing experience of my life.  And I am so excited to know that others will soon embark on their own journeys.

One year ago, I was a “future traveler” just like yourself so I can totally relate to your question. Both based on my own experiences and the experiences of my friends who have traveled abroad, I have developed a guide to assist you in packing for your four months abroad including a list of things to bring and things to leave behind. Additionally, I’ve created a few looks that you can make with the essentials in your packing list.

Brace yourself; it’s a long one. But I hope you find it helpful and more importantly I hope that your time abroad is memorable, safe, fun, and, of course, educational. Buon viaggio! 

Sincerely,

Jessica

Top 4 Essential Study Abroad Packing Tips

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1. Resist the urge to bring the biggest suitcase you own.

This of course depends on what types of suitcases you have. In my case, I had a huge suitcase, a large suitcase and a small suitcase to choose from. I opted to bring the large one rather than the huge one, though, because I knew that at full capacity it would be over the weight limit. Bringing the smaller suitcase ensured that I wouldn’t go over the weight limit even if I stuffed it full - those fees can be killer!

As for your carry-on, consider bringing one that not only fits within the requirements on your flight there, but that also fits other dimensions and regulations for future travel plans. (If nothing’s set in stone, research typical dimensions for carry-ons on the airlines you might use.) I highly recommend a rolling suitcase, but in the end, it’s up to you.

2. Know the climate.

Even though I knew it was going to be cold in my city, I didn’t realize that it was going to be so cold for so long. For that reason, I brought far too many sandals and pairs of shorts that I only wore a few times. Understanding the weather patterns for the entire time you are abroad will help you pack accordingly.

3. Know the cultural dressing customs.

Before you start packing, it is good to know the cultural dressing norms of the city you are moving to and the places you will potentially travel to. In many parts of Europe, for example, it is not as acceptable to show up to class in work-out attire as it is in the U.S. Also, some museums and holy sites require visitors dress modestly - and “modest” can mean different things in different places.

Overall, it’s best to do your research and familiarize yourself with the way locals dress before you leave. That way, you won’t waste suitcase space on things you won’t wear.

4. Know yourself, your interests, and your habits.

In my case, I knew (or, rather, my dad knew) that I wouldn’t be able to resist shopping while abroad. So before I left, my dad made me empty half of my suitcase so that I would have room for my new purchases. If you enjoy working out, for example, it might be in your interest to bring exercise clothes and shoes. If you don’t normally work out (but just want to), 5 pairs of running shorts probably won’t get worn. Overall, know what your interests are and be realistic about yourself and your habits. 

Another thing to think about is how you feel about brand loyalty. Do you ONLY wash your hair with a specific shampoo? Are you a loyal Colgate customer? Do you need to have your daily peanut butter fix to function? Little things like toiletries, medicines, and little snacks will probably be available wherever you end up (except peanut butter and Cheez-its. I’m still trying to figure out how Europeans function without them) but remember, the same brands you are used to may not be available everywhere. 

So if it doesn’t bother you to switch up your conditioner, bring a small container and buy a larger one when you get there to save room in your suitcase. But if you would never let any ol’ brand touch your locks, you might have to bring enough to last you the duration of your stay.

Things to Bring

Snacks
Some of my favorite snacks from home that I was craving. Luckily, I have some amazing best friends who sent me a care package with all my favorite foods for finals!

  • Versatile clothing: Think tops that you can wear during the day for classes and sightseeing, and a night out. Versatile bottoms, like jeans, are an obvious choice. Pack jackets and sweaters in neutral tones. Grab one or two pairs of shorts that will work for a beach trip and look great layered with tights. The key here is to bring things that you can easily mix and match. 
  • Plenty of undergarments: Depending on your living arrangements and travel plans, doing laundry might not be a routine thing. It’s best to be prepared. Note: Buying more of these once you get there is a viable option, too.
  • Comfortable shoes: No matter where you plan on studying abroad, you will probably be doing lots of walking. Whether it’s sightseeing, going on a hike in the countryside, or walking to the metro to get to class, life without a car takes its toll on your feet and shoes.
  • A water bottle with a filter: This might not be an obvious pick, but this was one of the things many of my friends regretted not bringing. Mine came in handy mostly when traveling, as I could fill it up at the bus station, train station, or airport no matter where I was, but it also came in handy in my dorm.
  • Over-the-counter medicines: I am one of those people who never gets sick. Or, I was… until I went abroad. I was probably sick more times in those six months than I had been in the prior six years combined. So of course, I had to buy medicine there. After drinking too many cups of dissolvable powdered  medicine -yuck!- to combat my never-ending cold, I would have sold my soul for some NyQuil. (Note: When bringing these, make sure you follow all airport and customs protocols for traveling with medicine.)
  • Photos of loved ones: Whether they are photos of your parents, your siblings, your best friends, your S.O., or your pet (or all of them!), little reminders of your loved ones back home can help when you get a little homesick. Also, they’re the perfect way to decorate your space without buying extra stuff!
  • A journal: A great way to keep track of your experiences is to bring a travel journal. Use it to record small things about your daily life. Write down useful phrases you learn from locals, places you visit, whatever you want. When you return, it’ll be a great keepsake.
  • Snacks: This is the one thing I wished I had packed in larger quantities! Things like peanut butter, Pop-Tarts, and Ramen might not seem important when they are always available at home, but once you realize they are nowhere to be found in your new country, it’s likely you’ll miss them. You can get by without bringing them, of course, but these snacks can be a nice reminder of home (especially after a meal your host mom prepares that wasn’t your fave).

Things to Leave Behind

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  • Valuable items: In other words, don’t bring things that would devastate you if they were lost, stolen, broken, or left behind.
  • That top that you wear once a month: If you hardly wear something already, chances are you won’t want to wear it every week when you’re abroad. Only bring things you love because you will be wearing each and every piece A LOT.
  • Uncomfortable shoes: In my final packing hours, I had to nix a few things. And the first things to go were my heels. Yeah, a lot of locals wore them going out. Yeah, I did miss them once in a while. But all in all, the amount of space they would have taken up was not worth it. I did end up bringing one pair of versatile black heels, though, that I wore for special dinners, events, and a few nights out when I was feeling brave. For me this was plenty. And I probably would have been able to go without them if I wanted to.
  • School and living supplies: Things like notebooks, binders, scissors, hangars, shampoo, lotion, etc. can all be bought for cheap once you arrive. Also depending on your living arrangements, some of those things might already be provided for you. It’s best to wait and see what you need than to lug around trivial items.
  • Non dual-voltage hair dryers, straighteners, curling irons, etc.: Trust, people are not lying when they say  your electrical beauty items won’t work because of the wattage conversion. I know a lot of people who tried to use theirs (even with an adapter and converter – which reminds me. Bring those!) only to blow the fuse on their $100 straightener. Either make sure your tool has “dual voltage” (and will work with the voltage in your new city) or buy an inexpensive version once you arrive.

Outfit #1: Exploring Your City

Ask cf study abroad packing everday
Product Information: Blazer, Top, Coat, Tights, Shorts, Boots

One of the best things to do when you are abroad is to become acquainted with your city. And the best way to do this is to explore. That’s where this outfit comes in – for exploring, you want something that will be comfortable but still look pulled-together.

Note: I styled each of these four outfits for a cold climate, however, I used layers so that you can tailor each one to warmer destinations and seasons. For example, in this look, you can wear the top and denim shorts on their own, or with a pair of tights, boots, a blazer, and a coat for cold climates. No matter where your city is and what time of year it is (with, perhaps, the exception of Siberia and northern Sweden in winter), this look is functional and is built on versatile items that can be worn many different ways.

Outfit #2: Class

Ask cf study abroad packing everyday 2
Product Information: Coat, Dress, Sweater, Tights, Earrings, Boots

Much to many students’ annoyance, the word “study” is an inseparable part of the phrase “study abroad”. That said, you will feel much more focused (and comfortable) in class if you dress the part. For this look, I chose to dress down this blue frock with an oversized knit sweater. I then added the same grey coat from the first outfit and finished the look with versatile black accessories.

Outfit #3: Traveling

Ask cf study abroad packing tourist
Product Information: Coat, Top, Scarf, Jeans, Blazer, Boots

Another great aspect of studying abroad is getting to travel to other destinations. For this outfit, I went for something comfortable and modest; perfect for a day of traveling and sightseeing in a variety of cities. All you need for this look is a printed tee, some denim skinnies tucked into knee-high boots, and a comfy infinity scarf. Finish accordingly with your trusty blazer and/or coat.

Outfit #4: Dressing Up

Ask cf study abroad packing dressing up
Product Information: Necklace, Dress, Blazer, Bag, Ring, Shoes, Tights

I created this last look for the less casual activities during your time abroad. As you can see, I used the same dress as above, but this time, I swapped in accessories like a statement necklace to make it appropriate for night. Black flats are always a good option – especially on cobblestone streets – and this bag is also useful for both formal and everyday purposes.

Note: In addition to dresses, I found skirts to be very useful for my nights out. Though not pictured, I would probably pair a bandage, trumpet, or circle skirt with the floral t-shirt or teal top from above, and add on this necklace for another going out look.

More Study Abroad Fashion & Packing Tips

We’ve covered this subject a lot here on CF, so if you want even more info, here are our past posts on studying abroad – some location-specific, and some general.

Do you have a fashion question? Send it our way!

Is there something in your closet that you can’t seem to figure out how to wear? Do you have an event coming up and need an outfit idea? Do you have a specific fashion conundrum you need help with?

If you have a question you want to see answered in this column, just send it on over via email to askcf  @ collegefashion.net and one day you might see your question answered right here on the site!

Please note: We get A LOT of email and unfortunately we will not be able to respond to every single question. However, we will read through each question and then decide which ones will be most helpful to the most readers. Thank you for your understanding.

What do you think?

Will you be studying abroad soon? Have you studied abroad before? Where are you going? Where did you go? How long will you be there? How long were you there? What are you planning on taking? For those of you who’ve been, what did you wish you had packed? What do you recommend leaving behind? Please let us know what you think by leaving a comment below! 

Posted on on December 19, 2012 / Filed Under: Fashion Tips / Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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36 Responses to “Ask CF: What Should I Pack for a Semester Abroad?”

  1. 1
    December 19th, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    This post is such a lifesaver! I’m studying abroad in Madrid next semester and I’ve been experiencing mild panic every time I start thinking about the packing process. This will definitely come in handy. Thanks!

  2. 2
    December 19th, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Great post! I’ve never studied abroad before, but I think one thing that would be a good idea is shoe insoles for arch support. I try to avoid tennis shoes when not working out, so this will help with your boots, flats, and canvas shoes when you’re out somewhere walking.

  3. 3
    December 19th, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Since you Americans seem to be obsessing over your peanut butter I thought I would add that we do actually have peanut butter in Europe, maybe not some specific brands (in some parts of Europe) but there is peanut butter in general, haha. Also note that, if you are going to be studying in the northern parts of Italy you should expect hot summer and really cold winters, but the seasons are a bit less harsh on the south. And of course, you should get to know how the metric system works because it used in entire Europe. Other then that, I really liked the article and the outfits.

  4. 4
    December 19th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Amazing article!! I’ve traveled quite a bit to many places-and am no stranger to packing, airports and other hassles. This post hit the nail on the head, especially in remembering adapters, the travel diary, and the limited packing space. Great job!

  5. 5
    December 19th, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    yupp this sums up my study abroad. you WILL shop more than you think- make sure you leave plenty of room! the first time i traveled, i had to send home a box and it cost me $100. i definitely could’ve used that elsewhere, so she is not kidding!

  6. 6
    December 19th, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    thanks for this!! Im going on a semester abroad to China next fall! So this will be a real adventure!!

  7. 7
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    I went to Orvieto, Italy last Spring and believe me when I say that if you’re going to Italy… pack really warm!! I’m from Az and I was NOT prepared for the snow and ice and the cold!! Add like 3 layers to the outfits above and you’re golden!

  8. 8
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Agree with luggage costs! Outageous! Great post!!

  9. 9
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    One great tip I got about shopping for clothes abroad was to thrift shop. Even if you don’t normally thrift you will find such unique things that it’s a lot easier than in the states–I got a lot of cheap but special items this way (instead of dropping a bundle at chain stores for new pieces).

  10. 10
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    She should know that southern and northern Italy’s climates differ drastically. Have any amazing time, and don’t forget to try the cremosos and Kinder’s Happy Hippos :) Even during the summer it rained and poured one day and would be 112 degrees the next (Vicenza, Northern Italy).

  11. 11
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    I have studied as an exchange student in Sweden and got my Masters in UK. My experience shows – don’t bring more than you would for a regular 2 week vacation. You will end up buying new stuff anyway (unless you absolutely hate shopping). In just 5 months I got 3 times more stuff than I had in the beginning. I had a very tight budget, but I got into sales fever and bought many new clothes for a very reasonable amount of money.
    I would suggest bringing one set of clothes that can be mixed and matched for most typical situations like suggested in the post. Bring only your favourite things.
    I would suggest to check prices in online shops of the country you want to go. In Sweden buying clothes was cheaper than to buy nice stationery. Also, check the food and public transportation prices – they might be much more than you would expect.

  12. 12
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks for this! I’m actually going to Salamanca next semester, and I’d love some more tips based on Salamanca fashion and weather.

  13. 13
    December 19th, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    Really love these outfits, they’d work for so many different occasions all over the world! Also, don’t worry, there is peanut butter in Europe, or at least here in the UK and Ireland!

  14. 14
    December 19th, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    As a European (British), who has studied abroad in France and Spain, I’d say: bring nothing, buy a new wardrobe when you’re there ;P that way when people back home say to you “I love your dress/shoes etc, where did you get them?” You can be all smug and say “Oh, I bought it in Italy…yeah, I totally lived in Italy. No big deal.”

  15. 15
    December 19th, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I am currently studying in Padova, Italy and agree that if you live in the North of the country during the winter months, you need be ready for cold and snow. I had to buy a really nice coat from H&M, such a shame haha. Anyway, enjoy, studying and living abroad are one of the richest periods of life, including for style inspiration! Baci!

  16. 16
    December 19th, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    I actually studied abroad in Florence this past summer and discovered that Italian women do NOT wear shorts. No one gave me this heads up, but hopefully you can avoid my mistake…

  17. 17
    December 19th, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Thank you so much!

    I really needed a few of these tips because next year I’ll be spending an entire year abroad in Germany and thinking about how I’m going to manage that entire time out of one or two suitcases has already been a worry. I will be putting this to good use.

    Thank you,
    Jesss

  18. 18
    December 20th, 2012 at 12:03 am

    I definitely busted a $100 straightener in Germany, even with a converter/adapter. But then when I lived in Northern Ireland, I used my $100 with just an adapter and no converter – supposedly a no-no – and it worked fine. In fact, it still works fine. So it’s pretty hit-or-miss, haha.

  19. 19
    December 20th, 2012 at 1:41 am

    One thing about planning on buying underwear: I lived in Thailand for the last two years of high school, and I had trouble finding inexpensive bras and cute underwear that fit well – and I was only a B cup! My sister is a D and it was super super hard for her. Most things I liked were too small or very…ermmm…old-ladyish. You can find clothes (which are extremely cheap! Bangkok is awesome!) for a wider range of sizes, for the most part, but undergarments above a C or a size 6 or so generally had to be bought at expensive stores to find anything decent that fits. 16-year-old me did a lot of squeezing into $3 A cup push-ups because I was too cheap to buy a bra that fit, haha. Anyway, just something to keep in mind!

  20. 20
    December 20th, 2012 at 10:41 am

    If you wear shorts to France, they WILL know that you’re a tourist. Just a heads up.

  21. 21
    December 20th, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Also, if you wear those ankle boots in europe, they’ll know you’re a tourist. Ankle boots are out.

  22. 22
    December 20th, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    I actually would not nix the heels. When I studied in abroad, you were expected to wear heels to get in to clubs. I was turned away at the door because of my shoes! Made nights out with friends pretty tricky :D

    I would suggest bringing as many multi-purpose items as possible, especially when it comes to winter/ rain coats, and shoes that won’t be ruined by water. And stay away from things that need to be dry-cleaned. When you’re in another country, “dry-clean only” immediately becomes “unwashed for 4 months”. yuck.

  23. 23
    December 20th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I’m not planning to study abroad any time during college, but I found that this article was very well written and the outfits were intelligently created. It is good to know how to create new and occasion-appropriate looks with the limited items one can bring while traveling.

  24. 24
    December 20th, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Just got back from a semester in Chile and i agree with everything you said! Definitely break your shoes in before going abroad…dont want blisters –experienced that and it was absolutely the worst!

    Bring lots of advil–lots of partying!

    Sounds strange but I recommend bringing yeast infection meds…I got one while abroad in Spain last summer and their medicine for it was quite different from the US…so I recommend bringing the US version JUST IN CASE!

    umbrella or raincoat/jacket too!

    agree on no dry clean only…and bring a jacket for when its cold and going clubbing but know it will reek of smoke after so have a designated club jacket!

    shoes that can be rain shoes/are okay to get wet! most abroad cities you walk a lot or use public transportation so there isn’t really escaping to your own car when its pouring down rain!

  25. 25
    December 21st, 2012 at 10:11 am

    This post came out one semester too late! I wish I could’ve read this before I left for my semester abroad, then I could’ve avoided so many mistakes I made that was addressed in this post. Instead, I had to throw away many things just so I wouldn’t exceed the weight limit =(

  26. 26
    December 21st, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Another thing I might mention is that since you will be re-wearing clothing items a lot it is probably best to go for quality as opposed to cheap. No point bringing all of your Forever 21 items that will most likely fall apart after the second wash. Clothes that can stand a bit of wear and tear are your friend when traveling abroad.

  27. 27
    December 22nd, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    I just got back from fall in Florence. Just wanted to point out something about Italian clothing, particularly women. Stick to neutral colors. No matter what the weather. Tan, cream, navy, black, browns, dark green, etc. Not that they hate color or anything, but your teal and peach ensemble kinda makes you stand out big time. Also, in terms of sneakers, all the locals were rocking converse.

  28. 28
    February 3rd, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I studied abroad my junior year in Greece, and this may be a bit of topic , but I would recommend packing tampons if you use them, because they can be really difficult to find. I was happy I had a friend worn me about this before I left, as I didn’t see any in a grocery store or pharmacy while I was there. I had the best time studying abroad, if you’re on the fence just go for it!!

  29. 29
    February 28th, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    I am really happy I found this article. I am going Italy in May and I’ll be staying there till June 18th for a study abroad program at my college. I was wondering how big are Italians on shorts? I will be staying in the Tuscany Countryside and will be also going to Florence, Rome, and Pisa. I know fashion is different in parts of Italy. So I guess is it okay to have a few pairs of shorts or should I get more skirts? (I wear shorts more). Also what type of shoes should I bring? I am also planning on shopping so I wont be bringing to much. Any help is welcomed :D

  30. 30
    March 24th, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    This is such a great list. I’m going to Heidelberg, Germany for a year (Leaving in august) I’m considering just…. buying all of the outfits you put here because I love them and…. buying the rest of my clothes there hahaha

  31. 31
    April 19th, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    I’m going to Seoul for a summer study abroad program, and just thinking about packing is giving me a mental breakdown..I always over pack =\
    Supposedly it’s smouldering hot there and a lot of rain…but at least this article will help me know where to start with the packing. Thank you College Fashion!

  32. 32
    August 14th, 2013 at 1:45 am

    hello. so i’m very much an overpacked–all my friends know I am. I hate being not prepared, but then again i hate bringing too much. What would you suggest i do?

  33. 33
    August 14th, 2013 at 1:46 am

    over packer* & I am going to london in the fall for study abroad.

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