The Do's and Don'ts of Preparing for A Semester in London

Jan 16, 2019 11:08:00 AM / by Sarah Mai

In her first post, Sarah makes a case for preparing everything early—from applying to study abroad and collating documents to packing for your needs. Check out some of these lessons and save yourself from several headaches as you get ready for a new semester abroad!

(Original illustrations by Sarah Mai)

There seemed to be an endless list of things to do before my flight off to London. When I completed one task, three more appeared in my email inbox. Determined to complete everything on my own, I worked through each of the steps of pre-departure, ending up finishing my task list the morning of my flight day—which I do not recommend (more on that in a second). Despite my shortcomings, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and I learned some very important lessons before I set my feet on British soil.

Pre-DepartureFirst, for any student planning time abroad, doing things as early as possible is generally the best. This was not what I did. I applied a week before the deadline, my passport was received within a margin of when I needed it, and my visa nearly kept me from making my flight. For peace of mind, begin the CAPA application with a cushy amount of calendar space from the deadline, especially if you are planning on doing an internship. It will ease the process by preparing your resume, cover letter, application questions, police record, and letters of recommendation by the time you begin the quick and easy online app (it should take an hour or two). Give yourself some extra time to complete the application in case of any unexpected delays for documents!

As for the documents after acceptance, if you do not already have a passport, you should apply for it around the same time you submit your application. It was not difficult to apply for! At the passport office, I filled out about three pages of personal information, brought in my old passport, and got my ID picture taken. If your school provides free passport pictures, I would consider that option. Aside from the actual passport, which is about $100, some offices charge around $20 for a passport picture. Saving some extra cash is never a bad idea.

VisaNext comes the visa, which seems to be the source of headache for many students (and parents). Do not hesitate to ask lots of questions if you are confused at any point. I contacted my program director many times throughout my hectic visa experience, and she was an immense help! First, begin as soon as you receive your visa information from your advisor. For the online portion, follow the step-by-step directions provided to you and it will go very smoothly. After that, you will need to attend an in-person biometrics appointment once you have completed the online application. Remember: the visa itself costs about $500, not including the shipping costs of the documents, which may reach about $50. If you expedite, there will be upwards of $300 of extra fees—so begin as soon as possible. Also, make sure to get the fastest shipping available through UPS (2-day air or next-day air) when you send your documents to the scanning hub. My documents were sent to me by UPS Ground, which led to me driving an hour to the nearest UPS processing center several hours before my flight to pick up my visa and passport. If you cannot tell, this was scarring enough to write a nice big paragraph about how to avoid this situation at all costs.

Packing For London

Now for the physical packing—as you may already know, you can’t bring everything with you to your study abroad location. There are, of course, necessity items that must be gathered before you leave. Prescription medications, epipens, inhalers, phone chargers, wallets, passports, documents, and other essentials should all come with you in your carry-on bag so they do not get lost if your checked luggage is lost or delayed a few days.

Whatever Will I BringAs for clothes, toiletries, and other home items, I packed as lightly and efficiently as I could. This led me to create a system to decide what I was going to need for my travels. If I found the item could easily be purchased abroad, I left the shopping for my arrival day, such as deodorant, normal-sized toothpaste, and a towel. If there were multiples of similar items in my home closet, like t-shirts or sweaters, I picked the most versatile of the bunch. And to attempt to reduce my plastic waste abroad, I picked up shampoo and soap bars which travel very easily and can be stored away tidily (and produce no plastic waste)!

Yellow SweatersFor clothes, I picked out basics and items I use every day in neutral or easily mixable colors (aka the no-brainer packing items). For my tops, this was:

  • One black and one white long-sleeve t-shirt
  • A white button down
  • One black tunic top
  • One black turtleneck
  • One striped cotton t-shirt
  • One striped sweater
  • One cardigan
  • One collared sweater
  • One short-sleeve button down
  • One comfy t-shirt for sleeping. 


For bottoms, I included:

  • Three pairs of leggings
  • One pair of yoga pants
  • One pair of hiking pants
  • One pair of brown work pants
  • One pair of linen travel pants
  • One skirt
  • One pair of high-waisted paper-bag trousers

For dresses, I brought black and navy work dresses and one casual cotton dress. And from personal preference, two pairs of overalls. Of course, appropriate amounts of socks and underwear are needed, and for the winter weather, a hat, scarf, and gloves were also included in my bag.

ShirtsIf I questioned whether I was going to use an item or not, I decided to leave it behind. For makeup, I picked out some small and handy items for a clean and polished look (leaving the glitter behind, unfortunately). For shoes, since they are often the bulkiest and hardest to pack, I decided on a pair of comfortable leather walking boots, a pair of black tennis shoes, and a light pair of heels for my internship. Since I did not own a pair of dressy flats, if I need them I will pick them up in the city as I live very close to a wonderful shopping street!

ShoesSome miscellaneous items I decided to bring with me were two sketchbooks, some watercolor paints, a pencil case with drawing tools, my laptop, a stuffed animal, a tote bag for groceries, and a water bottle. This is super helpful for staying hydrated in the airport, and most restaurants will fill it up for you for free! Also, some stores in London will charge you for a plastic bag, so while it is eco-friendly, it is also budget-friendly.

Overall, pack first for your immediate needs, then add things that you know you will use or a few comfort items (e.g. the stuffed animal). Pretty much anything you can get in the US you can get in the UK, so don’t load up too much on little things! Consolidating everything into a bag or two will be super handy for travel and the tube, and will save you £60 on a taxi from the airport. Make sure to prep your travel documents a few days before your travels for peace of mind, and then relax and take your time in the airport. The tasks are not as daunting if you begin a little early, and your travels will be smooth from there on. Have fun and best of luck on your prepping and packing adventures!

Thanks, Sarah!

Sarah Mai


Sarah Mai is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English and Art major at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, she is studying abroad in London this semester.

Sarah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA London Program

Topics: London, England, Predeparture & Study Abroad Preparations