Obviously, it is much better to be as prepared as you can when traveling to a foreign country, especially if you’re like me and had never traveled outside of the country before. This is everything I can think of that may be helpful if you are going to China in particular:
Get a Passport and a Visa
If you don’t have one already, go apply for a passport now. Like, right now. Even if you pay to have it expedited, it can take weeks and weeks for it to be ready. My studying abroad was sort of a last-minute decision, so waiting for my passport to be ready was agonizing. You will also need to get a visa, which you cannot get without a valid passport. This can also take weeks. For me it came down to a matter of hours when it came to getting everything submitted on time.
Research Your Destination
This is somewhat of a no-brainer, but I thought I would mention it anyway. You will be safer, saner, and more confident if you are aware of what you may be in for. What is the weather like? Are there certain customs you should follow? What might offend people of a different culture? Will you have internet access? How will you pay for the things you want and need? Will you be safe in certain areas?
Take a look at the State Department’s travel page for LOTS of useful information: State Department Travel Info
What to Bring
I’m sorry to say this right off the bat, but if you are black, bring all the hair and skin products you will need for the duration of your trip; it is almost impossible to find shea butter or make-up that matches our skin tones. Bring your wide-tooth combs, Denman brushes, hair butter, body butter, makeup, all that.You can also plan to have them shipped to you, which is expensive and may be fairly difficult depending on where you will be. Be warned, as the Chinese standard of feminine beauty gravitates toward the lighter end of the spectrum, many Chinese skin products contain bleach. I had no idea until about a month in, and was not happy to find that out. Also, consider having your hair braided or put into some other long-term protective style. A lot of Chinese tap water in untreated, so washing frequently is probably not the best idea.
Alright, ladies. If you are partial to tampons or anything else that is not a pad, bring as much as you will need, and then some. I recommend using Instead Softcups. They are extremely portable and can be worn for up to 12 hours. They can be a bit messy to insert and remove, but I think it’s totally worth it; you won’t have to waste luggage space packing boxes full of tampons, and you can also feel great about being so eco-friendly!
Also, this may seem weird, but hand wash your panties in boiled water. Many of my female classmates complained of yeast infections, which was said to be the result of washing their clothes in untreated water.
Where I stayed, having sheets available upon arrival was pretty much a game of luck, and even then, they were sheets that the last occupant left behind. I arrived in Chengdu in mid-January and was greeted by a humid kind of cold that just seems to stick with you, and my heater was not working that night. On top of the jet lag, that made for quite a long, uncomfortable night.
Chinese clothing sizes skew thin, simply because the Chinese tend to be more petite. I am a medium in the U.S, but a large and sometimes larger in China. However, there are many western-based clothing stores in the main city center, but it can get rather pricey. Clothing dryers are very rare, so be prepared for your clothing to stay stretched out, and to hang everything to dry. Depending on how humid your room is, this can take at least a day. Because of this, I suggest bringing at least 2 weeks worth of underwear.
On top of the obvious prescription medications, bring pain relievers, sleep aids, anti-diarrheal medications, allergy medication, cold and flu meds, multi-vitamins, all of it. Aside from the occasional westernized convenience store, these things are hard to find. Eastern medicine is still very much alive in China, and you will be exposed to different plants, animals, food, air, and micro-organisms. Having no way to treat yourself comfortably is no fun at all.
If you want to be able to use Google or stream Netflix, you will need a good VPN. There are TONS to choose from, free and otherwise, so do some research before you choose one. I used Express VPN, which you pay for, and never had any problems. I do know of people who used free services and fared well. When it comes to cell phones, I would just get a Chinese one. An international cell phone plan can get very expensive if you plan to use it a lot. Our study abroad program actually made a small field trip out of getting cell phones for everyone, so set up was easy, and we refilled our minutes and such at a machine at the Hongqi convenience store around the corner from campus. Plus, your Chinese phone will make a great souvenir!
Not only was China the first foreign country I traveled to, my flight there would be my first I took alone, anywhere. If you are like me and are not so knowledgeable about traveling, ask around and research what you can and cannot have with you, or you may have some crucial things confiscated by customs, some prescription medicines will have to be approved prior to depature. While my program did have group flights available, after which students were greeted by the program coordinator at the airport, I opted to go it alone because that was $800 cheaper. The trip was interesting, but I’ll get into that later.
Overall, the Education Abroad Office is a great place to visit if you have any questions about your program and how to prepare for your trip!
UMD Education Abroad Office