What to Bring With You on Your Exchange Year 

 June 25, 2014

By  Laura Kosloff

Every year my incoming students want to know what they should bring with them to the U.S., and what they should just buy here. It’s not a one-answer-fits-all question; it depends on the student, prices in the student’s home country and in the U.S., and the student’s budget once she gets to the U.S. It’s particularly difficult because we advise students to try to travel with just one suitcase given the expense of excess baggage fees. Recognizing the potential confusion, here are some useful “do’s” and “don’ts” that have remained more or less constant in the 11 years we’ve been hosting international students.

A small English dictionary that can fit into a purse or pocket, or an electronic translator. We don’t want the students to rely on these too heavily; we prefer that they listen, focus, and concentrate on the conversation. But there are times when it just makes sense to pull out the dictionary and look up the concepts one is trying to communicate. In answer to the question I know readers will ask: yes, Google Translate and other online options are also available. But online options may not be available all the time; students may not be permitted to use smartphones in the classroom, for example, or may have limits on their Internet access due to host family rules.

phones and laptops 166107706Camera. Being able to email your photos to your friends and family, or to post them on Facebook, means you can share your life here in the U.S. more easily. The smartphone camera is the camera of choice more and more often; even if a student does not have continual online access, these cameras are handy and photos can be uploaded at a later time.

Laptop computer. Many more students bring their own laptops or tablets than we used to see even just a few years ago. Students do need to remember that if they want to buy one here in the U.S., they will need to also an adaptor for the power cord and that they will always, for the lifetime of the computer, be using an adaptor when they return home.

Do bring prescription medicines. Students who take prescription medicines on a regular basis (for example, for asthma, acne, or more serious conditions such as diabetes) should absolutely make sure to bring enough with them to take them through the year if possible. If a student needs to get more medicine in the host country, it can require a doctor’s visit and a new prescription. In the U.S., such a visit and new prescription can be expensive and may not be covered by the student’s medical insurance.

Don’t bring non-prescription medicines. We tell our incoming students every year not to bring with them any medicines that they can easily buy without a prescription. We also tell them to please tell their host families and program representative about anything they do bring with them. Yet every year, students coming to the U.S. show up with a pile of antibiotics, prescription-level painkillers, and other medicines that can easily be overused or cause complications — and they don’t tell us until we accidentally find out during the year. This can create health problems for the students! So, to the parents back home and students reading this post – prove me wrong this year, don’t bring these with you and tell your host parents about everything you do bring along! I’m hoping some of my readers will hear the message.

Don’t bring your mobile phone, or at least don’t expect it to work. The question of what is an appropriate amount of contact with home is a separate subject. For today, consider the following. Mobile phones and smartphones produced for sale in other countries just don’t work well in the U.S. (We tell our students this, too, every year. We get messages saying “OK” – and the student will still ask us after they arrive “why doesn’t my phone work?”)

One solution is for the student to buy a Sim card after arriving. She can put the U.S. Sim card in her phone (storing her home country Sim card in a safe place so she doesn’t lose it during the year). That sometimes works, if the mobile phone was “unlocked” prior to arrival. The easier – and more common solution – is for the student to buy an inexpensive pre-paid/pay as you go phone for use while he or she is in the host country. Costs for these plans in the U.S. vary from provider to provider, but seem to average $25/month for just calls and texts, and $50/month if one adds a data plan.

Many U.S. high schools do not allow use of phones during school hours, and many families in the U.S. do not allow their children unlimited use of the Internet when they’re at home. Exchange programs generally support these limits, so students need to recognize that they may not have unlimited use of their smartphones. Moreover, the cost for using phones and Internet in a foreign country can be very expensive, so we tell students to remember to turn off all data and roaming on their phones and rely on wi-fi access.

Clothing. Ah, clothing. It’s tough to say if this is a “do” or a “don’t.” From a parent’s point of view, it’s a “do” – parents generally want to make sure their child has what he needs (and they may not want their child to be running amok in a foreign clothing store). Students, on the other hand, consider this a “don’t” – after all, they want to buy clothing that’s fashionable in their host country, and the exchange rate may make that even more attractive. This is something that parents and students should talk about before the student leaves on his or her exchange.

girl about to travel 476249979On the serious side, students should talk to their host parents or program contact and find out whether the host school requires uniforms or a particular clothing style. In most U.S. public schools, for example, students wear casual clothes like jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts to school. There may be rules about what T-shirts can say and other clothing limitations, and sometimes European-style teenage clothing isn’t considered appropriate in the U.S. We encourage our students to bring at least one nice outfit for special occasions or for going to church with their host family.


Everything in this list provides a great topic for students and parents to talk about with the student’s host family or program representative, both of whom should be approachable even before arrival. Start the relationship now – why not?


Photo credits: ©2014 Thinkstock.com unless otherwise noted
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