Moving Abroad: What to Take, What to Leave

Moving Abroad: What to Take, What to Leave


For people moving internationally for the first time, what to take can be a daunting question with many multi faceted answers. The short, and admittedly flip answer often given to people packing for their first international move is to “take only what you can’t live without.” The truth is – if that was our true packing criteria – we would take very little with us. Most of what we need to survive, after all will be procured at our destination. As I pack for my sixth International move, I’m beginning to figure out what I need to take, and what I can live without, and this is my honest packing advice.

My Samsonite F'lite and my Eagle Creek Duffle
My Samsonite F’lite and my Eagle Creek Duffle have made every move with me for the last decade.

1. Know your limit, set your goals…and stick to them.

Everyone will have a different limit. Are you moving with a generous shipping allowance that allows you to transport most of your household goods or are you moving only with the allowed luggage for an international flight? Even if you have a moving allowance – how much luggage do you really want to transport in the airport? For each situation and each move, this answer will be different.

Regardless of the size of your budget, you will want to take the opportunity that moving provides to reassess the importance of objects in your life and to try to stick to personal goals you set. If you say you will only take 3 suitcases, then pack and repack, assess and reassess until you have three suitcases.

2. Take things that make a new place home

little, brass camel bell
My family bought this little, brass camel bell in Yemen shortly after our first International move in 1988.

For me this one is the most important, and the step I always do first. It is also a list that I am constantly revising. The things I am talking about are the things that have always been in every home you’ve ever had.

It is important to choose these objects carefully. They are the things that will make a new and unfamiliar place feel like home, but it is important to take only those things that offer the most emotional “bang for your buck.”  My first international move as an adult, I packed my collection of model ships.  Model. Ships. Badly painted, easily broken model ships that collect dust in a closet at my aunt’s house. Don’t pack the model ships.

I take a little brass camel-bell that sat on a book shelf when I was a little girl and that I later commandeered from my parents. I also take a knitted afghan – the last Christmas gift my grandmother ever gave me. I also take a painting my mother painted for me that has hung on my walls for years, my hat collection and a handful of coasters I’ve acquired through my travels. It isn’t much, but these objects have been in every adult home I’ve ever had and when I pull them out of a suitcase, I know I am home.


3. Take the things you can’t get there

This one takes some research, and it is worth finding out what is and isn’t available in your new home. When I was a kid, this meant a year’s supply of non-fat powdered milk because non-fat milk was not available where we lived.

The first step here is to assess the products you use each day and decide whether brand is important to you. Do you have to use that particular brand of deodorant, or will another brand do? I like to brush with Crest toothpaste which can be hard to find (Colgate, on the other hand, is everywhere) so I often throw a tube of that in my suitcase if I have space.

Food products are especially tricky since in America we take for granted the universal likability of certain products. One example of this is peanut butter. Few people like peanut butter as much as Americans, so you might find that it is harder to find and more expensive in other parts of the world. If Jiff Peanut Butter is really important to you, find out if you can get it where you are going and consider saving some space for a jar or two.

Other food products that can be hard to find are liquid vanilla extract (most places use powdered vanilla sugar in their baking) and marshmallows. For the record, I relish the challenge of cooking only with locally available products – so, as a rule I don’t pack any hard-to-find baking items. Instead I modify my baking habits to fit my new home.

4. Take some clothes and shoes (but not too many)

Don’t expect to be able to find clothing to fit big or tall people so be sure to carry enough work clothes to get you through a couple of months while you search for clothing sources – I try to budget my clothing pretty tightly. I also make sure I purchase sports footwear in the US or in Europe as quality is significantly higher – Don’t believe me? Buy a pair of Adidas in the US and buy one in Mozambique and see which pair lasts the year…even the “real” Adidas are at a lower quality in developing countries than in Europe or the US.

I like to take one pair of high quality work shoes and then purchase lower quality flats when I arrive.


5. Take your hobby

Don’t underestimate the importance of this one. If you are a musician – be sure to take you’re instrument and some music to play as you may or may not be able to find these in your new home. If you are a photographer – take your gear. If you are an artist, take supplies to get you through the first month.

I have known many people who have lived to regret not bringing their guitar. Yes, it is pretty inconvenient to carry a guitar onto an airplane – but it can be a lot less convenient to pay insanely high prices for a piece of plywood junk in your new home.


PART II:Don’t take that! (Why Would You Take That?)

1. DVD’s 

Unless you also plan to take a region 1 DVD player (or purchase a black market multi-region player once you arrive, DVD’s will be completely useless to you. Instead, create a digital library that you can transport on an external hard drive, or begin to invest in digital copies of your favorites.

2. Books

Books are wonderful, there is nothing like the musty smell of paper and that gritty feel you get as you turn the page. Books are also heavy and will eat through your allowed luggage weight faster than you can imagine. Get an e-reader – where you can carry a whole library in your carry on.

3. Your Entire Wardrobe

Clothes can be heavy and trust me, you’ll feel pretty foolish when you discovered that you payed $20 per extra kilo for the pair of jeans that was just a bit too small. Be practical. Take only the clothes you will wear often and that you need for your job. You can gradually rebuild your wardrobe in your new home.

What’s in my suitcase?

I move light.  I travel with one Samsonite F’lite Suitcase and one Eagle Creek Duffle Bag.

In my suitcase you will find: my hat collection (around 65 hats I’ve collected over the last 20 years), my Grandma’s afghan, my mother’s painting, a Nikken Duvet, My work clothes and some other miscellaneous sentimental things (including the brass camel).

In my duffle bag you will find: My Vaude backpack – (the piece of luggage I use the most when I’m not moving) trekking poles, tent, sleeping bag, other hiking gear, and casual clothes. It also holds my pbone (a plastic trombone) and some of my spare camera lenses.

In my carry-on, you will find my laptop, my Kindle, cell phone, and camera, my universal outlet adapter, and power cords, and my journal.

Total weight for both pieces of luggage: 35 Kilos (75 pounds).


What did I forget?

Is there something that belongs on this list? Leave a note in the comments, we’d love to hear from you.

Please follow and like us:

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Skip to toolbar