The Ultimate Packing List For Living Abroad

Here’s what we brought — how to start a new life with only a few suitcases.

For those who don’t know, my husband and I moved abroad (from the US to The Netherlands). When we moved to the Netherlands, we came with only 3 nesting suitcases and one backpack each. We had to be strategic, so we made a packing list for living abroad. (This list was an expanded version of my packing list for study abroad that I had made in college.)

While 3 suitcases may sound like a lot, it’s space that goes quickly. Especially once you get a few winter coats and beanies in there. So let’s dive in: how did we prioritize, organize, and ultimately decide what to bring? And what did we actually pack for our life abroad?

Prioritizing Items: Making the Packing List for Living Abroad

Making a packing list for an overseas vacation is tough, let alone a full-on move. If you’re making this packing list for living abroad or just studying abroad, I hope this article is helpful. (Disclaimer: If you’re studying abroad, please don’t sell all of your belongings — skip over that step!)

Here’s what we did:

  1. We sold everything that was bulky, big, heavy, unimportant, etc. (i.e. anything more expensive to ship than replace on arrival).
  2. Next, we safely packed and stored the family heirlooms, sentimental things, wedding gifts that meant a lot to us, etc. with family (thank you family!)
  3. We read blog posts (like this one) from people who had done it to help us find what we were missing/overlooking in their perspective and made a list.
  4. Then, we sorted through our remaining items and created three piles: must-haves, don’t needs, and nice-to-haves.
  5. We donated the don’t-needs and then set about organizing to see what would fit in our suitcases.

Organizing Items: How Does It All Fit?

We had a few logistical reasons why we were limited to just our suitcases.

First, we had quite a bit of travel before we made it to our final destination. I was starting grad school in Oxford (in the UK) and we’d be there for a few months before we made it to The Netherlands. During those few months, we had 4 or 5 Airbnb swaps in 3 different countries (France, England, and Scotland) before we ultimately made our way to the Netherlands.

Second, we didn’t yet have an address in the Netherlands, so we had nowhere to ship extra things to. That mixed with customs, fees, and import duties had us reconsider what was important.

So, back to organizing, how did we make it all fit and work with all that travel? *Note, there are affiliate links in this post. All linked products are the exact products we purchased, use, and love.

  1. These space saver bags were an absolute lifesaver. If you only get one thing from this list this would be my recommendation. We shoved big coats, ugg-style boots, jeans, blankets, etc. — anything a little bit bulky — into these bags and vacuumed out the air using the travel hand pump. These are fantastic (and we reused them after each stop). Amazing.
  2. A luggage strap for each of us. For under $10, these were SO worth the money. The idea of each of us traveling around Europe with 3 pieces of luggage each was daunting (to say the least). These straps are a low-tech lifesaver in this situation. They connected our two biggest bags so we only had to pull one handle to make them both move — beautiful.
  3. Our suitcases themselves were a secret weapon for us. The hard outer shell is extremely useful for getting a full suitcase closed without breaking the zipper (it gives you somewhere to distribute pressure — i.e. I could sit on it — to get it closed). They also have the ability to free spin, which makes them much easier to travel with (you can keep them upright and not bear the weight yourself).
    To be clear, I don’t think you need to buy all-new luggage to make the move. The main deciding factor for us was that the luggage we had was quite old and we knew how much travel we were going to put them through.

We had the trifecta of packing — a strong set of suitcases, space saver bags for bulky items, and a luggage strap to pull it all together (literally).

All packed up! Excited, exhausted, and ready to go.

What Exactly Did We Bring? Here’s Our Packing List for Living Abroad

I’ll break this list into 3 parts: the obvious, the not-so-obvious, and the comforts.

The Obvious

  • Our Dog. She is the light of our life (but also the most complicated part of the whole move process). I have a blog post on how we moved our dog abroad for you here if you’re interested in that journey. But for packing purposes, I’ll share that we used this carrier, which has been wonderful. It’s an airline-approved size and flexible enough to fit under a plane seat, but strong enough to stay up and give our dog the room she needs to move around. We’ve taken this carrier to 10 countries and on countless planes, trains, metros, and automobiles and it’s still sturdy as ever — 10/10 recommend this if you have a small dog on your packing list for living abroad.
  • Electronics. We both have laptops, plug hubs, cell phones, a camera, GoPro, fitness watches, headphones, an e-reader, an iPad, and more (which I’ll share in a later section) that we brought with us.
  • Clothes + Shoes. This category will depend on you. We both minimized our wardrobe to include only our high-quality durable (and mix-and-matchable) clothes so we could get the most wear out of the smallest number of items. We essentially created an all-season capsule wardrobe for ourselves.
  • Passports + Paperwork for Us and Our Dog. (Obviously.) The details of this paperwork I covered in this Medium article about our move.
  • Energy Adaptors/Converters. A few good-quality adaptors and converters were key. We were bringing electronics with us that we had no plans of replacing on arrival, so we packed several of these (we packed 3 but honestly, I wish we had brought more).
  • Medications + Prescription Information. This included glasses prescriptions, dental records, medical records + prescriptions, vet records for our dog, etc.
  • A Travel-Friendly Credit Card. We knew we wouldn’t be eligible for a bank account for a while. To circumvent this, we used a currency-conversion-fee-free credit card until we got one to minimize fees and expenses.
  • Neck Pillows + Sanitary Wipes. You’ll always find neck pillows strapped to the side of our carry-ons and sanitary wipes inside them. Comfort and cleanliness.

The Not-So-Obvious

For the most part, we still bring a lot of these things back with us to the Netherlands if we go to the US for a visit.

  • Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications. DayQuil/NyQuil, Tums, Ibuprofin, allergy pills, etc. are great to stock up on and bring with you. You can find everything you need here in the Netherlands, but not necessarily everything you want. These OTC medicines are weaker (and often not available OTC or at all) in Dutch pharmacies.
  • Spices. Pumpkin pie spice mix, chili spice mix, everything-but-the-bagel seasoning, etc. You can replicate many of these spice mixes by hand-mixing common spices when needed, but we find it nice to have them on hand and worth the inconvenience of bringing them.
  • Measuring Cups. We didn’t bring these with us initially, but I’m noting it here for your packing list if you like to cook using American recipes. Conversion to the metric system is possible, but not always straightforward in the beginning.
  • Deodorant. If you like stick deodorant, bring a good supply with you. It’s not easy to find here.
  • Pens. I prefer using my own pen to fill out customs/declarations forms for sanitary reasons so I have a few stored in my carry-on for that purpose.
  • Our Hydroflasks. We both have a 21oz Hydroflask that we bring with us everywhere. When traveling we store it empty in our backpacks, then fill it once we’re through security using a drinking fountain or restaurant in the airport.
  • Pet Pads, Harness, Toys, Leash, and Dog Food. This one took a surprising amount of space. We brought a few days worth of food, a few of our dog’s favorite toys, and (of course) her gear. Our small dog is trained to use indoor “potty pads.” We knew that we wouldn’t know where to find these once we arrived, so we packed enough to last us a few weeks without worry.
    (Note: She goes outside to do her business too, but she’s so small that she can’t hold it for hours if we’re not there to take her out, so this gives her more control.)
  • Backups of Favorite Makeup and Hair Products. This isn’t necessary (you can buy these things anywhere), but something I was grateful to have since we started with so much travel (and I didn’t yet know where in the Netherlands to find trusted cruelty-free brands).

The Comforts

When moving to a country within the European Union, trust that you’ll be able to find and replace most things (even if it takes a bit of research to figure out where or how). Because of this, we focused more on what we’d need immediately and what we wouldn’t be able to easily/affordably replace.

Once you have the basics squared away, the last thing I’d recommend you pack is things that bring you comfort or joy. For us, these fall in the “can’t replace” category.

  • Non-Essential Electronics. My husband brought his Playstation (and DVD/BluRays that we love — stored in one case) and I brought my beloved Vitruvi diffuser and our Google Home with us. Again, these are not necessary, but things we use daily and immediately make our space feel more like “ours.”
  • My Favorite Blanket. Yes, as an adult, I have a favorite blanket.
  • Miscellaneous Decor. We brought a few small trinkets with us that we found comforting to place in a home.
  • Yoga Mat. I love my yoga mat, but sadly for me, it was too heavy for our bag (it’s a sweat-wicking mat that weighed almost 10 pounds alone). I’m adding it here as an honorable mention.

Final Step: Weigh-in

We were able to get all our bags within weight by shuffling/rearranging/sharing space between all 6 bags. (Note: Double-check that all of the items in the carry-on can be there).

Then, we were off to start our new life!

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