Expat Hacks / Expat Life

What (Not) To Pack For Your Move To China

What to pack?



Oh man…This question (and others like it) was/were the bane of my existence in the wake of our expatriation to China; questions that kept me up at night as I contemplated which things to discard, donate, sell, or ultimately haul with us on our 6,000 mile transcontinental journey.

What would we need there?

What wouldn’t we be able to buy there?

What couldn’t we take there?

So many questions, and with little way to know before the moving company arrived on our doorstep.

In the end, there were many things I’d wished we’d brought with us, and even more things I wish we’d left behind.


We really only needed about six of the 89 boxes we had packed…

Clearly, just what to bring will depend largely on your personal circumstances and where exactly you’re moving. Are you single? Do you have kids? Do you have budget constraints that will dictate the size of your apartment or your ability to buy new home goods when you get to China? Are you moving yourself or is your company paying to ship your goods?

Likewise, Shanghai is an incredibly international city (we have like 12 Ikeas for crying out loud) and it’s relatively easy to get a lot of Western food/home goods/appliances; this may not be the case in other cities.

Generally speaking, however, here’s a list of what I’d suggest packing (or not packing) if you’re moving to China:


The last thing you want is to have your shipment get held up in customs because you packed something you shouldn’t have. Be sure to check with your moving company to determine exactly what can/can’t clear customs. For example, we couldn’t ship fresh foods, beans, rice, cereals, or any seeds.

  • Condiments: Ketchup and mustard are cheap and easy to get
    • Maple Syrup (crazy expensive)
    • Ranch Dressing (impossible to find)
    • BBQ Sauce
    • Mexican sauces/hot sauce
  • Spices: Many stores have a limited selection, but they can be expensive, even salt and black pepper! Basil, oregano and cumin are pretty common
  • Baking goods/Baking ware: I was shown an amazing Western store that sells really cheap baking goods, but I never would have found it if I weren’t friends with a chick who owns a cinnamon roll shop! Stock up on baking goods before you come, Chinese people don’t bake, so the selection is limited/expensive
    • Flour
    • Sugar/Brown sugar/Confectioner’s sugar/Stevia etc.
    • Vanilla extract
    • Chocolate chips (Think $8-10USD per bag here…)
    • Baking powder (Baking soda is cheap)
    • Food coloring
  • Hot chocolate/Crystal Light/Drink Mixes
  • Snack foods: Whatever snack foods you eat regularly. If you can pack cereal or non-instant oats, do it, they’re really expensive here. While Western snacks are common, they can be quite expensive. Whatever your kids like to eat, pack those too
  • Organic/Specialty Foods and Supplements
  • Oils: These two oils are super expensive here:
    • Olive oil
    • Coconut oil

By far my FAVORITE box that came in our shipment…

Noodles, beans, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter (Skippy), jelly/jam, instant oatmeal are easy to find and not too expensive. Unless you like the taste, I’d pass on bringing powdered milk. While fresh milk is expensive here, imported UHT milk is relatively cheap and tastes fine to me.


  • Bedding: If you bring your own bed, bring your own bedding. Chinese mattress dimensions are different than US and your sheets won’t fit a Chinese bed/Chinese sheets won’t fit your bed etc.
  • Storage: If you didn’t live in a big city before moving to China, you may not be accustomed to apartment life. We could have done with more/smarter storage to organize our considerably smaller living space.

Personal Goods

  • Medicine: We brought a little OTC pharmacy with us. While pharmacies are everywhere, don’t count on finding brands you’re used to, and instructions and ingredient lists will be in Chinese…
    • Cold/cough medicine
    • Sleep aids/Melatonin (great for jet lag)
    • Thermometer (especially if you’re used to Fahrenheit)
    • Pain Reliever
    • Benadryl/Allergy
    • Children’s medicine
    • Prescriptions (I’ve heard birth control options are limited here, worth looking into)
  • Bug spray: We have lots of mosquitos and quality insect repellant has been hard to find
  • Lotions/cosmetics/hair dye: If you’re not white with dark hair or you’re not trying to make yourself look super pale (this is the Asian color palette), you simply won’t find makeup/hair coloring to match you
  • Shampoo/Conditioner: If you have temperamental hair or like salon brands, bring your own. But you can find Pantene ProV, Clear, Head and Shoulder, Dove, etc.
  • Tampons: Pads are common, good tampons, not so much…
  • DEODERANT: You can find it here, but it’s not the same (mostly roll-ons or sprays). Just bring extra with you; you (and anyone who lives with you) will thank me later
  • Nail polish remover: I feel like you have to be able to find this cheaper, but I just paid $9USD for a bottle at the one pharmacy I found that sells it…You’ll probably have to take it in your checked luggage (moving company wouldn’t pack it)

Household Items

  • Photos or decorations: You’re going to want your home to feel like home. Many people I know came with no photos or personal items from home and regretted it
  • Books/Magazines in English
  • Important documents
    • Insurance cards, immunization records, marriage certificates etc. Know what you’ll need for traveling/visa paperwork

FYI, foreign DVDs won’t work in Chinese DVD players.


  • Quality kids toys: You can buy lots of junk super cheap, but name brand stuff like Legos are expensive
  • Formula: I’m nursing my little, but I don’t know any expats that buy Chinese formula (probably due to the 2008 formula scandal)
  • Bottles: Super expensive here and mostly glass
  • Baby Food/Snacks: Kids tend to be way pickier than grown ups and the move will already be challenging for them. Keeping their food relatively familiar will be a huge comfort for them. Just pack the mac ‘n cheese and fruit snacks and Goldfish crackers
  • Kid shoes: The quality of Chinese shoes hasn’t been that great for us so far

Unless you use cloth diapers, I wouldn’t worry about bringing a ton of diapers from home. They sell Pampers and Huggies here (along with other imported brands people seem to like), along with Johnson’s baby wash and wipes.


  • Adult shoes: If you have big feet, like over size 8 for women or size 10 for men, you will struggle to find shoes here
  • Bras: Larger than size 34 are tough to find
  • Board shorts for guys: Unless you like wearing Speedos…
  • Swim caps: Everyone MUST wear swim caps in public pools
  • Pollution mask: We bought a stack of N95 masks before we left, and bought cloth Vogmasks for the kids. You can find them here, but they’re more expensive, and you want to make sure they’re actually N95 respirators or else they won’t be filtering the real harmful stuff


I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand much about electricity (I barely passed Electrical Engineering in college…), but I knew that when our US hand mixer started glowing that wasn’t a good sign. Big appliances (or those not rated for 220V/50Hz) will pretty much explode here unless you use a transformer. Honestly, you’re probably better off just buying appliances here so you don’t fry yours, and you can buy almost everything you need once you arrive, including blenders, toasters, crock pots, etc.

  • Laptop with VPN set up: Get your VPN set up before you arrive, it will make life way easier for you
  • Converters/Transformer

Other Tips:

  • Don’t plan on seeing your home goods for awhile: Our shipment couldn’t leave the US until our visas came through (about a month after our arrival in China). Our goods were then held up in US customs for almost another month before it spent another six weeks at sea and almost another week in Chinese customs. By the time our stuff arrived our daughter couldn’t even fit in the diapers I had put in the shipment…
  • Pack light: It’s been harder for us to get rid of things here. See if your company will pay for a storage unit, leave things with family/friends, or just toss what you don’t need. If you forget something, chances are you can buy it here. If you can’t, someone can probably mail it to you, or you can bring it back with you the next time you return home.
  • Bring enough for the first month: Be sure to bring about a month’s worth of necessities in your checked luggage, whether that’s diapers and wipes or shampoo and condoms. When you get here, you will be frazzled. You will be overwhelmed. Make your transition easier by bringing enough of your favorite brands of things to get you through those first few weeks, until you can explore and find stores near you with brands you like.
  • Pack enough child entertainment: If you’re like us and spend three weeks in a hotel while you’re house hunting, your kids will get stir crazy and will hate Chinese cable; your foreign DVDs won’t work in Chinese DVD players. Put movies and tv shows on your iPad, bring books and toys and favorite treats, or you’ll have a mutiny on your hands.

What did I miss? Anything else you absolutely wish you’d brought with you when you moved to China? If you have specific questions click here and let me know 🙂


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