Packing for a any trip can be a tedious process; packing for a long voyage, one that crosses climate zones and can span multiple seasons, to a city whose weather may be markedly different than your own, is a nerve-wracking gamble. When preparing for a study abroad experience, you have to balance what you know you need with what you think you’ll need, and what you already own with what you hope you can purchase. This is all constrained by the finite nature of your suitcases. And while many people may believe that limitations are the mother of creativity, packing is rarely considered to be an art. The essential smallness of your suitcase may be inversely proportionate to the amount of your questions.

This is the dilemma faced by all international students, especially those coming to a country as big and as climatically diverse as the United States. Clothes make up the bulk of what you are going to bring, and may raise issues beyond occupation of space. You’ll have to decide what is important to bring, and what is not. But don’t fear- everyone has to go through this, and there are a few tips that can help you breathe easy.

Packing for study abroad

If your suitcase looks like this, you may be packing too much.
Image from Flickr User Highways Agency

You May Need Help from a Meteorologist to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

There is no “American climate” as there might be in a smaller country, or a location more rooted to a particular latitude or longitude. So unless you are going to be in Florida, southern California, or somewhere in the southwest, chances are you are going to be experiencing a variety of seasons.  Even being in the “Deep South” isn’t a guarantee of mild weather.  You’re going to have to do some research to discover what the normal weather conditions will be for the time of your stay.  Different geographies require different clothing.

Let’s say you are going to be in New England. This means you’ll be there for the tail end of summer, for the colder seasons of fall and winter, and then a mild spring. Research what kind of weather New England typically expects. You’ll probably benefit from packing more clothes that will keep you warm and bringing two or three jackets to keep you warm and dry. There might be unseasonably warm days, but it is better to be able to take off a sweater or jacket than to not have one at all. If you assume that it is going to be warm all the time, and just bring summer-type clothes, you will end up regretting it.  Clothes that are good for the fall tend to also be ideal for the winter and spring, whereas summer clothes are very specific. You don’t want to pack a lot of items that are seasonally specific.

What to Buy

That being said, you shouldn’t worry about packing for every possible scenario. You may have a favorite umbrella at home, but it will just take up space in your bag, and American stores are loaded with accessories like umbrellas. Seasonal items like umbrellas, raincoats, windbreakers, swimwear, flip-flops, etc- items that are only going to be used in specific situations- are generally inexpensive enough to purchase. Keeping this in mind will help you make decisions when it comes to packing. And don’t forget apprpriate shoes and boots…snow, rain and ice can be very challenging.

Part of studying abroad is the adventure and being open to anything and planning for every single situation can limit your opportunities. Yes, you might be invited to a party with a Roaring ‘20s theme, but if you pack your flapper dress, you might not have room to pack a dress that you will be able to wear to many less-restrictive get-togethers.

The (un)Importance of Fashion

The party scenario brings up an interesting question, and it is one faced by teenagers all around the world: how should I dress to fit in, to be liked, or (at the very least) to not be an outcast. This is obviously doubly true for students who already may feel alienated by a language barrier. The school you are going to attend may have a dress code, which will alleviate some pressure, but regardless, there will be social interaction outside of school. For any teen, this can be nerve-wracking

But here’s the thing: don’t worry about it. Don’t pack your bags filled with things that you think will impress your new classmates. Unless you’re on the absolute cutting edge of fashion- and maybe even then- it probably won’t help. You may spend too much money and all your baggage space on clothes you think will be great, only to find out fashions changed during a layover on your flight. It happens. So dress to be comfortable, dress to be yourself, dress to be happy. People will be more impressed by the courage it takes to leave home and go to another country than they will with what you are or aren’t wearing.

If, during the course of your travels, you find something you like and can afford, by all means buy it. Maybe the fashion here suits you. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry. Trust me: it is a country of over 300 million people. The huge majority don’t care at all. I know some successful and talented people who have been wearing the same sweatshirt for 15 years.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.

A solid hooded sweatshirt

A solid sweatshirt is far more valuable than the latest fashions.
Image from

Now, obviously, clothes aren’t the only thing you are going to need to bring. We’ll talk more about electronics, toiletries, food you can and can’t bring, how to deal with airport security, and other issues in future articles. But remember: your suitcase should be filled with clothes- not with anxiety. Smart packing can make the whole journey more enjoyable.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.