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What to Pack

As we mentioned on the Key Questions page, it is critical to pack very selectively for an international project.

It sounds absurd, but you can pack less for a long trip than for a short one! On a short trip, you don't have time to locate places to buy things such as clothing and you often can't rely on having a laundry service. But you typically have some time at the start of an international project to “get settled,” and this usually means you can locate stores and services, often costing far less than at home.

There are many tricks to packing light:

  • On one trip where we needed to bring a stack of paperwork, we had a copy shop convert it all to double-sided. And since we had the original back home, we simply left the paperwork with the client.
  • Luggage organizers are cute, but they take space. The case which holds all your toiletry or cosmetic items individually in padded compartments probably takes more space than the toiletries themselves.
  • To best use our luggage space, the “rolling” method of packing clothes seems to work for us, as does stuffing small articles into shoes.
Finally, consider shipping stuff to your project destination ahead of time. But realize that the trip may take a long time — several months is typical — unless you pay exorbitant shipping rates.

Passports, Visas, and Customs

You will typically need a passport from your home country, and possibly a visa for travel within the country you are visiting. It is also a good idea to review the customs requirements of both your home and destination countries.

Try to have your passport in hand long before your trip. Rushing to get your passport at the last minute is stressful and more expensive. Depending on your home country, obtaining a passport by the least expensive but slow route can take 2 months or more, so get started early. Most countries require you to appear in person to obtain a passport for the first time. Some countries allow renewal by mail.

If you already have a passport, check the expiration date. Make sure it is valid for the duration of your trip. Also note that some field organizations and some countries require that your passport be valid well beyond the end of your trip (typically six months).

Some Middle Eastern and African countries will not issue visas or allow entry if your passport indicates past travel to Israel. In this case, you may need to get a fresh passport issued.

After you receive your passport, make sure to sign it and fill in the emergency information page. You should sign in ink, but fill in your address information in pencil. Then make two good-quality copies of the passport identification page, to facilitate replacement if your passport is lost or stolen. Carry one copy with you, but keep it separate from your passport so that both cannot be lost at the same time. Leave the the other copy at home with a friend or relative.

Check the visa requirements for the countries you will be visiting. Your field organization will probably provide assistance in this area, and they might even handle the paperwork for you. However, as a traveler, it is your ultimate responsibility to obtain valid visas from the embassy or nearest consulate of the countries you will be visiting. As soon as you receive your visa, check it to make sure there are no mistakes!

Here are some useful sites for passport, visa, and customs information:

Carry-On Luggage

On the longer flights typical with international projects, careful consideration of your carry-on is important.

Airlines have very specific limits on the size of carry-on luggage, and are getting more stringent about restricting over-sized carry-ons. Check with your airline about these restrictions, and try to pick a carry-on which maximizes the allowed size.

Here are some “don't forgets” for your carry-on:

  • Lots of reading material.
  • Eyeshades, if you are intent on trying to sleep.
  • Toiletries to freshen up an hour or so before arrival, especially if you will be met at the airport.
  • Bulky socks you can wear around the plane when you remove your shoes for comfort.
  • Water. The air at altitude is very dry. Many travelers get dehydrated, and don't realize that a large part of “jet lag” is often the effects of dehydration. Most airlines do not serve enough water to prevent dehydration. Take your own water and drink often.
Consider also that there is a chance that your luggage will go astray. If it does, it would be really helpful to have enough stuff to last you a day or two. This would include critical medications and a spare shirt and underwear.

If you can, try to arrange an overnight stopover enroute to your project. You break up the trip, get a good night's sleep, and have a brief chance to take in the sights of another city.

On our way to Calcutta, we spent a night in London and took in a show. This was key, since our direct flight to Calcutta was cancelled, and we had to take two flights with a substantial delay. We got into Calcutta very late at night and the extra sleep helped us deal with the barrage of sights and sounds of this new culture.


Not only are gifts appropriate and welcome in developing countries, they make excellent ballast! As you distribute the gifts, you have room to pack the “artifacts” you will certainly collect on your travels.

You'll want to consider bringing gifts for a whole range of people - children you meet on the street or while touring, casual business acquaintances, your clients, your hosts, and any associated house staff.

We like to bring one or two hundred balloons for kids on the street. They are inexpensive and light. Kids (and their parents) are instantly charmed and many are happy to pose for photos. Pens are even better - kids love them, and in some really poor areas they don't have pens or paper in school. We learned not to bring candy. In many areas, children were not familiar with candy wrappers and ate the candy with the wrapper still on.

For casual business acquaintances, consider small gifts which are useful, but most of all durable. Solar calculators with no batteries are excellent small gifts. Consider packets of seeds for farmers (although there may be customs restrictions on bringing in seeds). And people typically appreciate merchandise with logos from your country: postcards, T-shirts, caps, key chains.

If you are working with a company, consider all the levels within the organization. For the top level manager at your company, books on appropriate topics would be appreciated.


Find out what standard of dress is appropriate. You may be surprised to find how formal dress is at companies in developing countries. Laundry service is often available inexpensively, but dry cleaning services are often rare or non-existent.

Check out the average temperature range for the season you will be in each country. The Washington Post Weather Database provides on-line access to historical data on thousands of cities around the world. Just type in the city or country name, and you can access average temperatures, humidity, rainfall, etc.

So, stick to basic, functional, and versatile clothing items. This is especially true for shoes, which are heavy and bulky. A business pair and a travel pair should suffice, and both should be well broken in and very comfortable for extensive walking.

Bring a basic wristwatch, earrings, necklace, cufflinks, but leave the good jewelry at home — you won't need it.


We were surprised that many establishments in Japan work on a cash basis. This was especially true of the small, remote ryokans and restaurants that we preferred. We were exasperated to find that banks would not convert a check into cash, even if the check had been issued on that bank.

Every credit card or ATM system is convenient and universal, if you listen to the advertisements. The reality of obtaining cash in remote areas of developing countries is often less than straightforward.

Travelers’ checks can help, but they are not universally accepted, and often carry a fee, both to obtain them and to use them as payment.

The cost of converting currencies can be minimal or huge, depending on your location and the vendor. And given that exchange rates vary continuously, determining the best deal can be a nightmare.

You can either get the advice of a local or a person from your field organization, or bite the bullet and do the math with a calculator. If you fire up the calculator, remember to include both the spread between the buy and sell rates as well as the transaction costs or commission.

The next adventure is the exchange rate. Check out the current exchange rate at the OzForex Quick Currency Converter.

An important number is the rate of inflation, or the volatility of the currency exchange rate. You can check our Country Guide for a general measure of inflation in recent years. For historical exchange rates, you can visit Oanda or the US Federal Reserve Statistical Database. Check the exchange rate a year or two ago and compare them with today's rate. Is it vastly different? If so, you will want to exchange your currency as close to the time you need it as possible.

Here is our strategy:

  • Obtain local currency before your trip. Make sure you get some small bills or change to use for tips. We convert as much as we are comfortable carrying. However, check the conversion costs or transaction fee.
  • Establish a small bank account in a bank that is based in our destination country, and has a branch in our home country. This turned out to be the easiest way to obtain cash on our second trip to Japan.

However you decide to convert currency, use only an authorized currency agent. Don't be tempted to use an illegal or black market! (Unless you want to explore the legal systems of developing countries).

Personal Items

We were introduced to dental hygiene in the bush in Zimbabwe by Foster, our local guide. Every morning, he broke a branch off a particular type of tree, shredded the end with his knife, and proceeded to brush his teeth with the stalk. Fortunately, we brought enough toothpaste for the entire trip.

Prescription and non-prescription drugs are often not readily available, so you should bring all medications, including cold remedies.

Here are some thoughts on personal items:

  • Bring paperback books — once you have finished reading them you can leave them as gifts.
  • Bring a small, lightweight piece of home. A photo of friends or family or a small memento can bring a smile on a long trip.
  • If you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses, bring an extra pair.
Also, think about your practices and habits, and what you would be unhappy living without each day. Do you require caffeine? Coffee and tea are not completely universal! We pack a small stack of green tea bags or a small bag of instant coffee for “emergencies.”

Adapters and Converters

The world has a bizarre array of power and telephone connectors and standards. You have two choices: show up prepared, or buy when you get there.

Going prepared will save you some worry and hassles, but will cost more. Also, you can never predict exactly what you'll find (“Oh, those adapters only work in the Northern part of the country”). Sometimes, different adapters will be used depending on the age of the building. If you try to be prepared for every situation and you need more than one adapter, it can get expensive.

Shops at almost any destination will sell electrical and phone adapters for appliances from developed countries. However, you may not be able to purchase voltage converters, surge protectors, or noise filters, since they tend to be more expensive.

Adapters (or “gender benders”) convert one style or shape of plug into another. All they do is make an electrical connection possible for power or telephone. The same result (electrically) could be achieved with wire cutters and a soldering iron, but with much less convenience.

One problem with adapters is that they often omit the ground/earth wire. This makes them more “versatile,” but less safe in certain situations. Not every appliance or situation needs to be grounded/earthed. For short-term activities like running a portable computer and recharging batteries, the lack of a ground/earth rarely causes problems. For long-term setups or for appliances that require a ground/earth connection, you should obtain an adapter that provides a ground/earth. You may need to visit hardware or electronics stores at your destination to find the right adapter.

Converters and transformers serve an entirely different function. They change the voltage from one level to another. They convert, for example, a 240 volt power supply to 120 volts. To make matters more complex, there are different kinds of converters for different kinds of devices. Some converters are designed for electronic devices (televisions, radios, laptops), and some are used specifically for high-wattage non-electronic appliances (hair dryers, irons, food and bottle warmers).

You will need to survey the appliances you want to use to see their power rating. This is typically on a panel on the bottom or back of the device. Some appliances can take 110, 120, 220, and 240 volts interchangeably. Some have a switch setting (usually hidden and hard to change accidentally). And some will require a converter to operate safely.

Also consider taking a surge suppressor for your electronic devices. They are inexpensive in comparison to the damage that a voltage spike can cause. The better ones have a higher “energy absorption” rating — try to get one rated for at least 250 joules.

A related device is a phone line filter. These filter out EMI/RFI noise and can make a big difference in transfer speed and reliability when using a computer modem over phone lines.

So, you may need some or all of these devices to cover your appliances:

  • Phone adapters. To convert your phone or modem plug into the style of the foreign phone socket.
  • Power adapters. To convert your appliance power plugs into the style of the foreign power outlets.
  • High-wattage power converters. For high-wattage non-electronic devices that require a different voltage.
  • Low-wattage power converters. For electronic devices and other low-wattage appliances that require a different voltage.
  • Surge protectors. For electronic devices subject to interference and voltage line irregularities.
  • Phone line noise filters. For cleaning up telecom interference when using computer modems.
TeleAdapt is an excellent resource for determining what style of sockets and outlets are used in your destination. They are a vendor of every style of adapter and converter you could need.

One convenient device is the Black Box Modem Sentinel - model SP925A. It combines a surge protector for a grounded AC power outlet with a phone noise supressor.


Elephant at sunset in Zimbabwe

Be prepared to take lots of photos! If you use a digital camera, have a convenient way to store lots of images.

For “old technology” film cameras, bring lots of rolls of unexposed film. You can easily shoot a roll a day on your trip. At the airport, carry both exposed and unexposed film in a plastic baggie in your carry-on. Do not check it in your luggage since some airports have new X-ray equipment that scans checked luggage that can ruin film.

Bring spare batteries for the camera, since they may not be widely available.

Test your camera before you depart, and bring the camera instruction booklet.


See our Pre-trip Health page on suggestions for what to pack for medical supplies.


With some notable exceptions, most toiletry items are available inexpensively in many developing countries. However, you may wish to pack your own, especially for projects that run a month or less. This avoids the hassles of finding the needed items and getting accustomed to the local brands.

Some items to consider which might not be available at your destination:

  • Sanitary napkins or tampons.
  • Tissues. In some countries, you need to carry tissues with you at all times, because public toilets do not have toilet paper.

Packing List

Here is a list of “don't forgets” that we use:

  • Gifts
    • Pens, balloons, solar calculators, postcards
    • Business gifts - books
  • Business
    • Business cards
    • Project or business paperwork
    • Writing paper, pens, pencils, and other small office stuff.
  • Clothing and Personal
    • Business clothes
    • Casual clothes
    • Touring clothes
    • Spare eyeglasses, sunglasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Mosquito repellent
  • Personal
    • Money and local currency
    • Books to read
    • Mosquito candle or smoker
    • Travel Documents
      • Passport, visas, local and international drivers licenses, and other credentials
      • Plane tickets
      • Immunization records
      • Prescription for all prescription drugs
      • Insurance information
      • Copy of your travel documents kept separate from the original
      • Copy of credit cards and travelers’ checks, and phone number to call if they are lost or stolen
    • Medical (see Pre-trip Health for a more comprehensive list)
      • Antibiotics
      • Malaria prevention medication, if appropriate
      • Laxatives and diarrhea medication
      • Disinfectant (alcohol swabs)
      • Cold medication
    • Toiletries
      • Your brand of standard toiletry items
      • Sanitary napkins or tampons
      • Tissues
  • Electronic
    • Laptop, charger, software
    • Phone and power adapters, converters, surge suppressor, noise filter
    • Small flashlight or headlamp
  • Touring
    • Small fanny pack
    • Local maps, travel books
    • Camera, spare batteries, film
    • Language phrase book
    • Water bottle
    • Small calculator
    • Sunscreen
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Site Version 1.75 - Last updated December 20, 2006
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