French class was one of my favorite parts of the day as soon as I started taking it in seventh grade, and I think I started dreaming about studying abroad in France about halfway through my first class.
Eight years later, I landed at Marseille-Provence airport, thrilled to be starting my year in an immersive study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence. It remains one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and the memories of lavender-scented sunshine, rich red wine, and olive oil-soaked baguettes topped with creamy cheese haven’t faded a bit. I hope your experience will be every bit as wonderful as mine was.
For short-term travel I pack as lightly as possible, but when you study abroad, especially for a full year, you’re essentially moving to your destination, and you need a bit more. I took one big, jam-packed suitcase, one massive duffel bag (that really should have had wheels…), a daypack and a small purse. It was a lot to manage coming and going, but for me it was worth it. If you’re more comfortable living a bit pared-down for a while, feel free to shorten this list to suit you.
Despite the intimidating reputation of the French fashion industry, you don’t need to be a fashionista to blend in. The key is in embracing classic basics and avoiding logos, baseball caps, shorts, hoodies, and running shoes. I’d recommend underpacking rather than overpacking in this category (I speak from the experience of having done the opposite my first semester!) – France has plenty of fun boutiques, markets and chain clothing stores with reasonable prices if you find you need to expand your wardrobe.
5-7 shirts and blouses – Avoid t-shirts except plain, nice ones in solid colors.
3-5 sweaters – This depends on what time of year you’re going. Make sure your shirts/blouses work with them as layers!
2-4 skirts/dresses – A little above the knee or longer is preferable – Mediterranean men are incorrigible enough even when you’re not showing any skin.
2 pairs of jeans – Unless I’m doing a lot of hiking, jeans are my all-purpose pants. Substitute whatever yours may be.
1 pair of nice slacks/trousers – It never hurts to be prepared for a dressier occasion.
1 swimsuit – For the fabulous Mediterranean beaches!
1 light jacket – I bought mine for €50 (that’s 50 €, à la française) at one of Aix’s open-air markets and wore it virtually non-stop every spring and fall for the next five years.
1 winter coat – Yes, the South of France gets cold. Bitterly so in November and December, although snow is rare in most places near the coast. I took a gray pea coat and never felt out of place.
1-2 scarves – Although with the beautiful selection available throughout France, you may have more fun buying them once you arrive! The same goes for hats, if you’re a hat person.
7 pairs of socks – Here’s that winter chill factor again. If nothing else, you’ll want them so you can wear two pairs around houses that aren’t heated anywhere close to U.S. standards.
1 pair of winter gloves – I cannot reiterate enough that, despite its beachy reputation, the South of France does actually experience winter.
1 week’s worth of underwear
2 sets of pajamas – One for warmer weather, one for colder.
1 week’s worth of activewear (optional) – I go a little nuts if I can’t exercise, so this was a must for me. For my year in Aix, I took 2 pairs of 3/4-length exercise leggings (again with the Frenchwomen-don’t-wear-shorts thing), 3 workout tops, one of them long-sleeved, 2 sports bras and a ratty old sweatshirt with just a small logo on it that I didn’t mind getting sweaty. I went on a few hikes throughout the year, and my running gear came in handy for those, too.
One thing you’ll notice about French women is that many of them don’t have huge wardrobes, they’re just very choosy about the quality of what they do buy. It’s also common to wear the same clothes in different combinations two or three times in the same week – my host mom, who insisted on doing my laundry, refused to wash shirts I hadn’t worn twice.
Living in France generally means doing a considerable amount of walking, so comfort is key in every pair of shoes you pack. And don’t forget that what’s comfortable on sidewalks may not be on cobblestones! I ended up relegating a pair of cute, low-heeled shoes that were perfectly comfortable on the streets of Washington, DC to the bottom of my suitcase, because trying to walk a block in them on Aix’s cobblestone streets was utter agony.
Another tip is to pack just a pair or two if you plan on shopping once you arrive – I bought two pairs of shoes in France that never gave me a moment’s trouble on European streets and lasted for years.
1 pair of flats – For everyday walking, and for dressy occasions.
1 pair of boots – For walking when you need a little extra warmth (or want an extra splash of style). I’d recommend flat boots, but if you have a heeled pair that’s super comfortable, they certainly won’t be out of place.
1 pair of flip-flops – Convenient for wearing around the house, running quick errands, going to the beach, and for those days you just can’t be bothered wearing actual shoes.
1 pair of running shoes – Absolutely, under no circumstances, to be worn for anything other than running/hiking/other assorted outdoor activities. Nothing will make you stand out more as a non-native than wearing a pair of sneakers just for wandering around.
Any toiletries you need will be available in some form in France, but if you’re particular about brands, you’ll want to bring your own. If you’re from North America, you may want to bring your own anyway, just to avoid the extra expense, as toiletries and beauty products tend to be more expensive in Europe. The extra bonus with bringing your own is that you’ll wind up with extra space in your luggage by the time you’re ready to head home.
Deodorant – This is one thing I’d really recommend bringing with you. French deodorant tends to be of the spray-on, “Lasts for 48 hours!” (except it really doesn’t) variety.
Toothbrush & Toothpaste
The Diva Cup – I wasn’t using one yet when I studied abroad, but wow, would it have made things easier. Instead, I crammed enough tampons and sanitary pads for an entire year into my luggage.
Makeup essentials – I’m not a makeup person, but given that most Frenchwomen refuse to leave the house without a flawlessly made-up face, even I felt like I should make a little bit of an effort and threw on mascara and powder a few days a week, with the rare addition of lip gloss and eye shadow for special occasions.
Laptop – My host family didn’t have a computer, let alone internet access, so I only used my laptop to download photos from my camera and watch a few movies, visiting internet cafés and using the computers at school for any actual computing. Try to get a feel for what your situation will be, but you may be able to leave the laptop at home.
Camera – A must! Unless you’re a serious photo junkie, you don’t need anything fancy, but you’ll definitely want memories of your time living in another country.
Adapters – You probably won’t need a converter in addition to the adapter, but don’t forget to check, just to be safe!
Backup SD card – Better safe than sorry, especially when it comes to your photos.
International calling card – Calling overseas from European mobile phones is crazy expensive.
Mobile phone – I rented one for the duration of my stay and used a pay-as-you-go plan from SFR LaCarte. My handset was an old, basic Nokia, but all I needed it for was texting local friends and receiving calls from home, and for that it was just fine.
Bilingual dictionary – Study being a key word in “study abroad!” My bilingual dictionary was my best friend for my first few weeks in Aix, as the immersive program I was in threw my brain into vocabulary-learning overdrive.
Money – It’s always a good idea to arrive with a little local currency, just in case. Check with your bank before you leave to be sure you know what fees you’ll incur by withdrawing money from French ATMs (which are everywhere – no worries on that score). For example, the U.S.’s Bank of America, Australia/New Zealand’s Westpac and the UK’s Barclays are all part of a global alliance that includes France’s BNP Paribas, meaning withdrawals from their ATMs with a bank or debit card within the alliance don’t incur any fees.
Medications – Be sure you have what you need for the duration of your stay, or a letter from your doctor that will help you get a prescription from a local doctor.
Journal – Recording your thoughts and feelings is a great way to process new experiences, work your way through any culture shock, and keep a record of your time abroad.
Photos from home – I brought a handful of my favorite photos of my family and friends with me to tack up in my room. I didn’t know anyone in my study abroad program going in, and having those familiar, smiling faces to look at made the first few weeks until new friendships solidified a little easier.
About the author: Jessalyn Pinneo is a traveler and a student – both in the classroom and of human nature around the world. She has yet to meet a guidebook that didn’t make her itch to start planning a trip or a chocolate she couldn’t eat by the pound. One year abroad wasn’t enough, so she’s just finished a double Masters degree at Macquarie University and is nearing the end of a two-year stint in Sydney. The mishaps, quirks and person-to-person connections of her journeys are recorded at Diary of a Wandering Student and @Nomad_Student on Twitter.