The first step is done: You have a brand spanking new ESL job in the location of your dreams and your biggest adventure yet awaits you.
Step two is figuring out how to pack your whole life into a suitcase in the most efficient way possible. In many cases, this proves to be the hardest part of the journey. What should you pack to teach abroad and what should you leave behind?
When setting off to your new temporary-home country, you seldom know how long you will be gone or if you will even return.
You want to take everything and the kitchen sink but also leave space to pick up things along the way.
These kinds of conundrums can make your transitional phase a logistical nightmare and it is easy to become overwhelmed with the nitty-gritty.
But not to fret, thousands have gone before you, and thousands more will come. It is just a matter of assessing your personal needs and researching your destination country.
By process of elimination, your new journey can be off to a smooth start if you learn from others’ mistakes and let go of too much sentiment.
Here are some of the key things to remember when packing to teach abroad.
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Assess Your New Work Environment
If you have landed a high-flying job at a private or international school in Asia or the Middle East, or even a position at a public school, you can be sure you will be packing a fair amount of office-appropriate formal clothing.
In these professional environments, you are expected to dress the part and it is best to pack tailored clothing in muted colors.
A few suits should be paired with blouses and shirts that are not low-cut, bright, or see-through. Your shoes should also be comfortable but presentable and sneakers or casual shoes are often prohibited.
Volunteer teachers are usually sent to more rural areas where jeans and shirts are more commonly accepted. These programs also don’t last much longer than a few weeks so a couple of basics will suffice.
A good rule of thumb is that cities and metropolitan areas expect formal clothing and rural areas are more relaxed. It is still important to contact your future employer in this regard as there might be some exceptions you need to meet.
Study the Culture and Sizing Trends
Your clothing options might seem suitable for you back home, but it is important to be respectful of cultures wherever you go. This means understanding what is allowed in certain societies and what is deemed inappropriate.
In Japan, it is customary to cover tattoos and piercings so you might need to stock up on long-sleeved items. In the Middle East and other predominantly Islamic countries, it is expected that women be more covered up and your wardrobe could need some adjusting.
Sizing in each country differs too and is adjusted to local medians. So, take extra care when researching the sizing of the country you are heading to.
Asian countries tend to have vastly smaller shoe sizes than western countries and underwear is equally petite. You know your body and you should prepare to pack accordingly if your sizing or preferred style will not be available.
Pro Tip: Pack for the season you will arrive in. It is easier to buy clothing for the changing seasons once you have arrived and settled in.
When it comes to your documents, rather be over-prepared than underprepared. Once you are abroad it can become time-consuming and costly if you have forgotten one original copy or need to get one last stamp.
This often requires FedExing your documents across the world at exorbitant rates, which is a risk you do not want to be taking.
Make copies of all your documents, licenses, passports, and insurance cards and store them securely online and in your baggage. Remember to give one trusted person access to your documentation in case of emergencies.
Have all your certificates on hand and make sure you have all the relevant stamps and translations from the embassy in your country. TEFL accreditation companies will send you a hard copy of your certificate upon completion of your training.
Your certificate is one of the most important documents you will carry with you and it is imperative that you keep it safe and secure.
It goes without saying that you should check your passport validity as well as your bank cards and license expiry dates. You can request to have these sent to you sooner if your expiry dates are approaching soon.
Pro Tip: Request that your bank sends your OTP to your email address if possible if you will not have access to your phone number anymore.
Toiletries can become bulky and heavy if not approached carefully. We all have our favorite eye cream or shampoo but adjusting to a new country and its products is all part of the journey.
If you do not have particular sensitivities or medical needs, try to keep your toiletries to a minimum. Decant a couple of weeks-worth of hair products into smaller containers and pack one of each of your smaller items like toothpaste or night cream.
Research is also very important on this front if you have special requirements like cruelty-free products or natural ingredients. Look ahead to see if there are popular brands available at your destination that you are familiar with.
In Asia for example, many toiletries are made with whitening agents which do not agree with every skin type. For this, you might need to pack a few extra lotions and potions.
When it comes to medicines, things get a little more complicated. Thoroughly research the local laws as some medications might be prohibited where you are going.
On the other hand, some medications might be available without prescriptions and you do not need to take a whole dispensary with you.
In Vietnam for example, eye care is very affordable and many opt to stock up on contact lenses once there. Georgia on the other hand has a history of chronic thyroid-related illnesses and thyroid medication is more readily available than elsewhere.
Some countries do not sell birth control over the counter and in other countries, you do not need a prescription for antibiotics. Thorough research into local medicines is highly recommended as the added pressure of a language barrier can make your trip to the pharmacy even more headache-inducing than normal.
Electronics are an essential part of 21st-century life and they are a teacher’s lifelines. Try to service your devices before extended travel because nothing is worse than having your laptop breathe its last breath at an inconvenient time.
Also double-check your phone’s SIM capabilities as certain phones are not compatible with foreign SIM cards.
You would think everybody knows to check the local power outlets of a destination but this tiny detail goes unnoticed all too often. Check the wattage of outlets and see which converters you need. Try to get multiple outlet converters as you will most likely want to use more than one socket at a time.
Invest in a proper battery back, this will save you on more than one occasion. The cute unicorn-shaped packs from the dollar store might look nice but they will most likely not give your phone enough juice to get through the day.
You can also preload your phone or tablet with your favorite songs or a few movies to get you through those long layovers.
Pro Tip: Back your most important chargers in easy to reach places in your hand luggage. You will be very thankful when you are scurrying for a charging port in the airport.
Packing for a Classroom
Clothing and beauty things aside, you are after all going abroad to teach, and teaching supplies are a necessary addition to your luggage load.
Online teachers and in-person teachers have different requirements when it comes to teaching resources so understand what is expected of you from your future employer.
Online teachers might need to prepare more when it comes to props and backdrops and packing economically becomes increasingly more difficult.
Opt for a foldable and sturdy backdrop that is universal. A map or material with fun prints on it is a popular choice while other teachers travel with a green screen.
A few fun laminated props will serve you well when you start out and you can head to your local toy store once you have settled in.
If you are teaching at a school, you should check with your employer regarding the resources that will be available to you.
Most schools have wonderful materials and props and you can use them at your own discretion. But bringing something unique from your home country always adds a nice personal touch to your classroom.
I Didn’t Think About That
There are a few essentials that you might not have considered as they don’t already form part of your current essentials.
A good raincoat will be a lifesaver on more than one occasion. Tropical areas have harsh and unpredictable rainy seasons so if you are heading in such a direction, invest in a raincoat.
Think long and hard about whether you need a hard case suitcase or a big travel backpack. Both have their pros and cons but you need to assess your needs and understand what your lifestyle will entail.
Will you settle down in an apartment or will you be hopping from one town to the next? This is a big-ticket item you can splurge on because it will be with you for many years to come.
Find out which apps are used locally and pre-load them on your phone. All countries don’t use Uber and having Bolt, Yandex, or Grab on your phone on arrival will save you lots of time. The same goes for food delivery apps, online shops, and public transport apps.
Have enough cash to last you at least two weeks. It will take a while to set up a local bank account and international banking fees can be a nightmare.
Luckily swiping has become increasingly convenient, but don’t forget to notify your bank of your travels! Being stuck abroad with a blocked bank card is the very definition of inconvenience.
What Not to Bring
There are plenty of DO’s when it comes to packing for a teaching job abroad, but what can you most definitely leave at home?
Many people want to take a few creature comforts: a favorite snack, a bulky jumper, fancy clothes in case you go out… You never know! This mentality is best left to a-list travelers; those confined to 1 piece of luggage and a carry-on should reconsider most of our choices.
Books are a big no-no. How many times will you really read that novel again? Most destinations have plenty of book exchanges or coffee shops with books you can borrow. As travelers leave they always leave books behind or donate them online so you will have something new to read in no time!
It is hard to leave your favorite things behind but you must understand what will be practical for your new lifestyle. Moving abroad often involves much more walking than you are used to so your strappy sandals might not be the best option.
Your funky backpack looks great with that one outfit but will you get much other use out of it? You will have to value function over form and have one of each practical item.
If you have never been abroad you might think you absolutely must pack your favorite candy or snack because it will be years before you see it again. But most cities have stores with imported goods especially for travelers like you.
You can find Marmite in Malaysia and Reese’s in Romania. It’s just a matter of searching hard enough so don’t waste valuable suitcase space on snacks that will only satisfy you for a split second.
Can You Repeat That?
Understand the dress code at your new job.
Research the weather and pack accordingly.
Respect local traditions and customs.
Have knowledge of medication at your destination.
Don’t over-pack on toiletries.
Get the correct power adapters.
Make sure you have the correct teaching resources.
Copy all of your documents and store them online too.
Think twice before packing extras.
Starting your teaching abroad journey is one of the most exciting times of your life. There are tons of adventures that lay ahead of you but packing correctly is the first hurdle you will need to overcome.
There is no way to do it perfectly the first time but you will be a master at packing soon before long. But to avoid saying “I wish I had” or “ I shouldn’t have brought” down the line, follow these tried and tested guidelines to get you off on the best possible start!