It is wise to pack light (to avoid airline overage fees) and very few things are absolutely indispensable to carry with you, since you can pretty much always find an excellent equivalent in Spain (one of the great shopping destinations of the world). However, it makes sense to arrive prepared for the first week so you need not make an urgent trip to a store or suffer an unnecessary anxiety attack. The items marked in red on the following list are essential.
- Your passport and visa + 2 color photocopies of the two facing pages including the photograph (see the Passports and Visas sublink under the main Before You Go link for more information). Once you are in Spain you will want to stash your passport in a safe place, either in the orientation site or in your homestay in Madrid. However, in Spain (as elsewhere in Europe) by law you are required to carry evidence of your legal identity on your person at all times. In the US we have the peculiar custom of using a driver´s license for this purpose. Spaniards have a national i.d. card called the d.n.i. For foreigners in Spain, the document would be your passport (or your residency card if you-re staying for the year). And you will certainly need to have your passport on you for official business (such as visa-related procedures, banking, and, in some cases, medical care). However, since carrying your passport at all times is risky business and it´s too precious a document to lose (or have stolen), we have found it´s usually enough to carry a good photocopy of the two facing pages including the photo (you don´t need to photocopy the visa pages). This at least must be carried on your person at all times in Spain. Not even a Spanish university i.d. is a substitute. If you undergo a police check (it´s rare, but it can happen and police have the right to ask for your id) and the official in question is not satisfied by the photocopy, you can explain that you have stashed the passport in the hotel or your homestay and provide address and telephone number. This compromise solution has generally been sufficient, to cut down on lost passports on the one hand and to abide by local law on the other.
- Your SOS (Wesleyan) and On Call (Vassar) international insurance and standard American health insurance cards. Your SOS and On Call cards provide contact information for emergency and health-care pre-authorization instructions and should be PRINTED OUT and always carried on your person while abroad. Make a photocopy to store at your home in Spain (whether the orientation site or the homestay in Madrid) and be sure all relevant pre-authorization instructions are easily available to you in both printed and digital form in the event of an emergency throughout your stay in Spain. See the Health and Safety link under Life in Madrid as well as the Health Insurance link under this Before You Go section.
- Call your phone provider in the US and ask if they can “unlock” it so you can use the phone in Spain (with a different provider and/or SIM card). Otherwise, you will be able to buy a phone and a wide range of provider services in Spain. The Spanish phone market is very competitive and you can spend as little or as much as you like on the service. Moreover, if you want to save money you can decide to buy a barebones telephone and corresponding service (rather than a smartphone), although that will limit your ability to use internet and wifi applications. First find out if you can use your American phone abroad by unlocking.
- Whatever you will need to tide you over for two days in your carry-on bag (in case your suitcase does not arrive with you)
- Necessary medications in your carry-on–bring what you need for the whole stay and bring your prescriptions (you probably can get anything in Spain, but it may be cumbersome or a doctor may not be in agreement with your prescription, so why risk it?)
- At least two credit and/or debit cards for use in ATMs: you always want at least one back-up in the event an ATM decides to eat your card (Go to section “Life in Madrid” for more information on money). Call your credit and debit card companies BEFORE you leave the U.S. to inform them of your travel plans. Otherwise, they may well BLOCK your use of the cards abroad.
- Comfortable walking shoes or boots
- Small suitcase or bag as carry-on–it’ll be useful for all your weekend trips (low-cost airlines only permit small carry-on luggage without a fee)
- Large suitcase permitted by the airline of your transatlantic flight–check the measurements and weight allowed on their website (or be ready to pay for extra weight or for a second suitcase)
- A good pocket Spanish-English dictionary or APP
- Make two photocopies of all wallet or purse documents (American and, once in Spain, Spanish university id cards, driver’s license, medical insurance cards, credit and debit cards) and leave one set with your parents in the U.S. Save the other one for your home stay in Spain. The photocopies will speed replacement in the case of loss or theft. Leave all documents you cannot use abroad at home in the U.S. (library cards, American store cards, etc.).
- Scarf, gloves and hat
- Sneakers (good brands are more expensive in Spain)
- A warm coat/jacket (winter temperatures will never be as cold as in NY or CT, but it can get cold, especially in those beautiful old buildings you will be visiting….)
- A couple of warm sweaters
- Several short- and long- sleeve shirts and underwear for at least a week (you may only be able to do laundry once a week)
- A bathing suit
- A watch (to tide you over till you buy your Spanish cellphone if you cannot use your American one abroad)
- Your favorite beauty or skin-care products if you insist only on your favorite brands in the US–they can sometimes be more expensive in Spain. However, bear in mind that Spain has an ancient and innovative tradition of superb, inexpensive, and widely available toiletries of its own. NO ONE in Spain relies only on supermarkets for these products. For a far greater range of choices head to specialized franchises, stores, and department store sections called perfumerías. Bear in mind they do NOT just stock perfumes and colognes: this usage covers the whole range of cosmetics and toiletries including soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, conditioners, including shaving gels and other mens’ accoutrements, etc. Primor stocks a variety of Spanish and international brands in stores that sprawl for up to three floors. There´s one on Gran Vía and another on Sol, but in fact they can be found elsewhere in Madrid and Spain. Douglas is another excellent franchise with multiple stores in Madrid and elsewhere. Give the excellent Spanish (i.e., local) brands a try, including Babaria, Heno de Pravia, Instituto Español, La Toja, Puig, and many others..
- Your favorite brand of pain killers and cold or allergy remedies if you are wedded to the familiar–bear in mind Spain has a large and powerful pharmaceutical industry of its own and you certainly can get over-the-counter medication here, often similar to what you have in the US, but there can be some differences especially regarding brand and generic names and dosage.
- Go to an electronics store or online and buy an adaptor plug for your laptop (an adaptor plug not a converter) or you will not be able to use your laptop right away in Spain. Spain’s standard for plugs is shared by many European Union countries. These plugs can be purchased in Spain of course but the electronics stores may be closed when you arrive.
- Small appliances (hair dryers, straightening iron, etc.)–Spanish voltage (220-240 volts) is different from the U.S.’s, and even with current converters these appliances don’t fare well. You can find inexpensive ones in Spain.
- Bedding stuff such as sheets, pillows or sleeping bags.
- The many things you can easily buy in Spain– so long as you don’t insist on your brand from home, you can buy almost anything in Spain including high-quality, inexpensive toiletries, over-the-counter medications, and an enormous range of fast and slow fashion. Bear in mind that upon arrival in both semesters you´ll be landing smack in the middle of traditional sales seasons! Many students in the past have decided they might need to overhaul their wardrobes a bit to keep up with stylish Spaniards!
- Too much stuff–every one agrees on this piece of advice!
Do not send packages: if you can help it, and tell you relatives not to send packages either. The post service takes for ever and, once a package has arrived, it is really difficult to get it as you require a Spanish ID card. You can find here almost anything you can find in US.