10 Things to Pack when Moving to Asia: A Woman’s Guide

Prom tickets are for sale, yearbooks are circling the campus, and the students have traded their long pants and tennis shoes for jean shorts and sandals. It’s officially the end of the school year, and I’m counting down the days until I board a plane to Florida.

As a longterm expat, and international school teacher, I look forward to summer for so many reasons. Obviously it’s a chance to get in some much-needed friend time, family time, and pool time, but it’s also a chance to stock up on products that are hard to find (or just ridiculously expensive) on this side of the world.

When I first moved to Asia in 2009, I was clueless about what to pack. And even though I arrived to Seoul with three overstuffed suitcases, I never seemed to have what I needed. Granted, Seoul and Shanghai are both very international cities, but there are still things that are extremely difficult to find. And as a 5’7 blonde woman with size 9 feet, the struggle is real.

In order to help my fellow ladies heading over to this side of the world, I’ve put together a list of my personal must-haves:

1. Framed Photographs  

This one is important for anyone moving anywhere in the world. True, it’s easy to print photos from USB’s, but this is just one more thing to figure out. Being able to settle into your new apartment with photos already framed makes such a difference.

2. Cosmetic Products

Regardless of what some of my ex-boyfriends may tell you, I am pretty low-maintenance. However, I do have certain makeup and face care brands I’m loyal to, and they are impossible to find abroad. So every time I’m home I order a year’s supply of Glo Mineral’s  pressed base and bronzer, and hit up Walmart and Amazon.com for my favorite face wash and skin creams. 

 3. Haircare Products

I have personally adopted the ombre hair movement, and thank God every day that roots are “in.” However, in order to keep my bleached ends healthy and not brassy, I bring back a few bottles of purple shampoo and conditioner formulated for blonde hair. I have yet to find these types of products anywhere in Asia, and if they are available in some Western hair salons, I don’t want to know what the bill would be.

4. Shoes 

Bigger (and wider) sizes are coming more available on this side of the world, but it is still a struggle to find comfortable, moderately priced shoes. I particularly load up on boots, as I have larger calves and don’t want to deal with the embarrassment that comes with trying to cram them into something made for women with legs the size of my arms.

4. Jeans

Again, Asian women are built differently than most Western ladies, so if you have some curves, I would suggest coming with several pairs of bluejeans and pants. I personally haven’t had any trouble in Shanghai, but I did in Seoul, and I have struggled buying clothes in general in various parts of Asia.

5. Medication and Vitamins

In many of Asia’s larger cities, it is very easy to find prescription medicine; however, it is important to check before you make the move. I know in Seoul it is extremely difficult to get antidepressants, and if you have a particular brand of birth control you favor, make sure to see if it is available in your future home. Over-the-counter medicine is obviously available everywhere, but again, your favorite brand may not be present. I suggest bringing a large bottle of pain medication like Ibuprofen, a pack of DayQuil, a pack of NyQuil, and a big bottle of allergy medication. Also bring along any vitamins you take on a regular basis.

5. Tampons

Asian women seem to prefer pads over tampons, so it isn’t common to see packs of tampons for sale anywhere on this continent. If you’re a tampon gal, add that to your must-pack list. Or invest in a menstrual cup and be done with it.

6. Deodorant 

It seems that most people in Asia don’t wear deodorant. If you do, you may want to bring a few containers. I personally pack two sticks of Tom’s tea tree oil variety and it lasts me the whole year.

7. Bras and Underwear 

Again, more clothes. I know, it’s ridiculous. When I moved to Shanghai, I came with four suitcases, and three of them were filled with nothing but clothing and shoes. But as I’ve said before, if you’re a curvy girl, or if you have your favorite brands, you may be out of luck when you get to this part of the world. Now I wasn’t blessed with the largest of breasts or the roundest of butts, but heavily padded bras and extra-small panties are not a good look for me.

8. Adapters and converters

First, know that all Mac products can be plugged directly into the sockets here. Surprisingly, my Chi hair straightener does too; but if you want to bring any other electronics, you need to check the voltage. Adapters and converters are two different things, so make sure to do a little research. I suggest leaving things like hairdryers at home, as you can buy them for cheap in Asia.

9. Sunblock and self tanner

Asian skincare products are infamous for containing whitening agents–especially the sunscreen. If this isn’t your thing, make sure to bring your own. Sure, there is SPF available minus the chemicals, but it’ll cost you. And self tanner is nonexistent.

10. Spices 

If you’re a cook, bring your favorite spices. I’ve been able to find basic ones (salt, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric), but if you’re serious about flavor, bring your own. On a similar note, I don’t recommend packing too many food products. You can often find good alternatives, or in many countries you can order online. And if not, go local!

If you have any specific questions, feel free to comment. I will be happy to offer advice!

31 thoughts on “10 Things to Pack when Moving to Asia: A Woman’s Guide”

  1. Hi! Thanks for this blog. I’m moving to Xi’an in August with my 6yr old daughter. I will be having some things shipped and I’d love to know what restrictions I ought to be aware of. I take Effexor for anxiety and I’d like to know if I can ship protein powder. Also can I bring seeds to plant oregano and basil in a window pot rather than just died spices?
    Thanks in advance

    1. Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad I can help you. Xi’an is a really cool city; I hope you enjoy it! It’s a great idea to bring protein powder. They are fine with that sort of thing in China. In fact, it’s possible to buy some brands while here on a site called Tao Bao (http://taobao.com/). You can actually find many things on it. It can be overwhelming at first, but you can search in English. Get a Chinese friend to help you set up Alipay and a Tao Bao account once you arrive. I would think it would be fine to bring seeds. And as for the Effexor, I would make sure that particular brand is available in Xi’an. Better to be safe than sorry. Best of luck 🙂

      1. Well we survived our first week and a half here in Xi’an. All my freight shipped with no obstacles but sadly some of my ceramic mugs didn’t survive so I definitely recommend bubble wrap. I’ve also found it impossible to use my Visa or Mastercard here. I thought that some of the larger grocery stores or international chains would accept it but I haven’t been able to use it at Wal-mart, McDonalds, KFC or anything like that. Luckily local food is really cheap! Thank heavens I brought all my cosmetic and hair products! I also brought framed photos but I did see a few frames in Wal-mart in the center of Xi’an. Another thing that was tricky to find was silverware. Forks are hard to come by as well as butter knives. There are so many things about moving to China that I never would have been prepared for if it weren’t for blogs like this. Thanks so much! I started my own little blog to share our experiences with our friends and family.

        1. Hey Melissa, thanks so much for the comment! Always interesting to hear how things vary from city to city. I can’t believe you have a Wal-mart in Xi’an!! Although, we have an IKEA here in Shanghai, and it has made settling in SO much easier! I will be sure to check out your blog 🙂

  2. Thanks for writing this article! You are right on point for all of it! Especially the size struggles for western women. We moved to Shanghai this past January and I have already realized one suitcase will be nothing but shoes for me and my boys! And I am not a shoe-horse. Cannot find any shoes that fit my 9.5 size feet, and the boys quickly trash their shoes in this environment. enjoy your summer!

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I appreciate the comment, and welcome to Shanghai! I personally find it pretty easy to find most things in Shanghai, but shoes are a biggie! Enjoy your summer as well 🙂

  3. Great tips! Even as an Asian-American woman, I still find the selection of cosmetic products dreadful. There is way too much focus on whitening.

    For those moving to China, I’d also suggest bringing some good 3M face masks for bad air days. The quality/authenticity of masks bought locally is very questionable.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment, Ingrid! Great suggestion for the 3M masks; I will be buying some when I’m home for myself and for guests 🙂

  4. Great article! I’ve noticed that in many Asian countries you can sometimes find tampons in bigger super markets (like Walmart/ Carrefour in China or Tesco Lotus in Thailand) but the moment you’re out of the big cities it becomes nearly impossible. I should so invest in a menstrual cup, but I really don’t know where to buy one right now – I guess I’ll get one when I’m home for Christmas, as I’m getting tired of walking around with a huge bag of tampons haha

    And omg I can NEVER find shoes in local markets.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Laura! I know this is a major overshare, but I got a Diva Cup the last time I was in the States (via Amazon) and I love it. Admittedly, it took awhile for the to get used to it, but you end up saving a lot of money and frustration! 🙂 xo

  5. Great tips, I remember when I was in Korea it was hard to find deodorant and when I did find it, it was very expensive. I’m not moving to Asia anytime soon, but these are great tips for those traveling there on vacation too.


  6. Such a great list! When I moved to Jakarta last year I completely blew it on the whole packing thing. I only brought a few months’ supply of makeup, face wash, deodorant, etc. I figured I’d be able to find these things in Jakarta…and maybe even for less than in the states. I was so wrong! If I could find my brands they were WAY more expensive than in the US. I’m moving to Cambodia in a couple months. When I’m back in California next month I plan to purchase a year’s supply of all of my favorite brands. I’m determined not to make the same mistake on my second go around as an expat in Asia. Oh my gosh…the whole bra and underwear thing. I need to do some serious stocking up 😉

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Justine! I’m glad you agree with the list. I’m returning after the summer for my 4th year in Asia…each year it gets easier, and I get better at packing! Hope you enjoy Cambodia. One of my favorite countries. xo

  7. Great post – something I wish I had read before moving to China! Completely agree with all your points especially the tampons and deodorant (though these are easy to obtain though it’s hard for me to find one which doesn’t contain a whitener as you’ve said for sunblocks!). Got to be even more cunning with your packing if you travel with carry-on only – which is my next challenge!

  8. Great list! Love the idea to bring a framed photograph! Next time I go on an extended trip I’m going to have to do this! Love your blog–beautiful photographs!:) xo

  9. Great list! I recently finished 2 years at an international school in Beijing and know what it is like not being able to find things that fit. Luckily I was prepared as, like you, I had also lived in Korea and South America. I always brought my own bathroom and make up products to Beijing as I’m fussy about what I use and hey, we get the shipping allowance so why not stock up? I like products for blonde hair and specific face creams that don’t contain whitener agh..! Though they did have more places like Mac, Benefit etc- but it was more expensive that back home. Shoes- I don’t remember ever looking for shoes in China but I know my friends had trouble for sure! I just brought a bunch with me. I remember being in Korea and looking for shoes and the man telling me they don’t have big foot shoes! Haha! But actually, I have quite small feet for a British woman and found them in that store with no problem haha! Underwear- yeh I didn’t even try haha. I just ordered it online and had it sent out when I wanted more (luckily it all arrived which was not usually the case with my mail in China!). Do you have somewhere like Jenny Lou’s (an “international”) supermarket in Shanghai? I found all the spices I could ever need there (and in some other similar shops too. We had a cute French one near my hutong). I never had problems finding tampons in those kind of stores too- but definitely in the smaller, local store it’s only pads! Aww I’m not going back this year, we decided to move to the US instead (my husband is American but I’m British) so definitely going to continue reading to get my international teacher stories!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Joella! Seems like we’ve had a very similar international experience!! Hopefully you have an easy time adjusting to life in America. Things seem VERY easy (almost too easy) after living in China and South America! Good luck to you 🙂

  10. I’ve been living in China (Zhengzhou) for 4 years, and there’s more and more western products available in my opinion, but still not everything I want/need!
    Watson’s sells quite a lot of the same brands as back in the UK and usually sell AB brand tampons. The prices are similar but maybe more expensive to the UK though.
    As for clothes and shoes, I’d recommend ASOS.com – they do free worldwide shipping if you order over £20 or £25. (They have an American site too).
    I always bring back loads of hair products, because there isn’t the same range over here and I can’t understand half of it. The water where I live really dries out my hair and skin, so I make sure I have plenty to last the full year!

    1. Thanks so much for the insight, Emily! I agree that it is much easier to get ahold of things now than it was 5 years ago, but I also miss my hair products! I bring an entire suitcase full of blonde shampoo, hair masks and mineral makeup! 🙂

  11. Thanks so much Emily, I have been trawling websites to try and help with our move from Sydney, Australia to Shanghai and I couldn’t find the type of information I really needed and was feeling down about it- then I found you! Thanks so much, I feel like I am going over now knowing so much more and changing my expectations. I will be loading up that company paid for storage crate for sure! I am hoping to keep my lifelong blonde hair too now 🙂 Thanks so much Emily

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