Packing Do's and Don'ts for International Students

Take spices, not shampoo when heading to college in the U.S.

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Pack a souvenir or two from home but don’t stuff your suitcase with necessities that are easy to obtain in the U.S.
Pack a souvenir or two from home but don’t stuff your suitcase with necessities that are easy to obtain in the U.S.

Congratulations, you've been accepted to an American college! Are you ready to start your four years of exciting intellectual and cultural adventures? Goodbye, curfew and hello, caffeine! You will need it to fuel late nights of furiously cramming for finals or impromptu hang-outs with friends.

If you have never been away from home and have no idea what to pack, you are in luck, because I happen to know a great deal about what to bring and not to bring. I acquired this knowledgeby making every single possible mistake one could have made while preparing for an American college. Oh well – you live, you learn, right?

[Get more advice from the International Student Counsel blog.]

1. Do pack herbs, spices and recipes: If you don't know how to make at least of few of your country's traditional dishes, please put on an apron right now and follow your mother around in the kitchen. Nothing – I repeat – nothing makes Americans happier than authentic ethnic food.

Throwing a dinner party featuring homemade food from your country is the best way to get people to become your friends. And chances are that there are some spices and herbs specific to certain dishes that will be hard for you to find in the U.S.

So do rack up the spices – make sure they have labels that clearly show the ingredients though, or they might not get through customs.

[Learn how to make friends as an international student.]

2. Don't pack any kind of meat, either dried or fresh: U.S. Customs is very strict. They take precautions to make sure that no foreign bacteria or viruses get into the country, and meat is a carrier of those. Don't even bother trying to sneak in any kind of meat in your suitcase.

Learn from my experience: I love Vietnamese beef jerky – it's made of prime filet rolled in Sriracha hot sauce, garlic and lime – which is the most amazing thing I have ever tasted. Every single time I travel back to the U.S. from Vietnam, I have been asked to toss my 10-pound bag of beef jerky away at customs.

By the way, asking them if you could just have a bite before throwing it away, then proceeding to ingest half of the 10-pound bag, will result not only in strange looks, but also a toothache that lasts for about three months. Check the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website ahead of time to see what you can and can't bring into the country.

[Find where international students get the most financial aid.]

3. Do bring cheap, easy-to-carry souvenirs: Something that seems commonplace to you right now might be what you will miss most once you are away. For me, they are the straw hats that many Vietnamese still wear.

It's not easy to carry a full size straw hat on a plane, but don't put it past me. I rocked that hat on my flight from Hanoi to Denver! I also got some souvenir-sized straw hats that I could fit into my suitcase. I have given them to many friends too, and they all loved them. Some even hang theirs on their walls!

Every country has something that is representative of their culture. Make sure to bring something that you love from home, and share that love with others.

4. Don't pack a large amount of everyday items: If your mother worries like mine does, you will likely be forced to bring enough shampoo and toothpaste to keep a medium-sized community hygienic for six months.

And this, as it turned out for me, was a mistake, for two reasons: One, you are wasting valuable suitcase space taking items like soap and conditioner, and two, you really can buy that all of that in the U.S. within the first two days of arrival.

Trust me, someone will definitely ask if you need a ride to the nearest supermarket. That person could be the international student coordinator, your roommate or that cute guy or girl who has been looking for a reason to hang out with you!

Tra Ho, from Vietnam, received full financial aid to attend Colorado College in 2004. She graduated magna cum laude in 2008 with a degree in mathematics and is currently working as an actuary for a consulting company Washington, D.C.