Preparing to study in Melbourne: what every international student needs to know

Don't get stuck at the airport check-in counter unglamorously repacking your suitcase. Photo: Krystin Low

SO, YOU’RE headed overseas to get an education. Let’s start with a pop quiz:

You’re packing your suitcase. You’ve spent the entire night at a farewell party with friends. You’ve got an hour to pack for your flight to Australia. Your mum’s nagging you and insisting you take along that rice cooker…

How much can you actually fit in the 20kg luggage allowance you’re given on an international flight? Let’s break it down.

  • Hard suitcase: 7kg
  • Clothes (including winter clothes): 10kg
  • Toiletries: 750g
  • Misc electronic gadgets (plugs, cables etc): 1kg
  • Care package from mum (favourite snacks, photos, etc): 1kg
  • Favourite stuffed toy: 300g

That’s it. The rest of your hand-carry luggage will comprise a laptop, documents and whatever else you want to jam in there. That’s not much to take considering you’ll be potentially making a new home overseas for the next few years. There’s definitely NO room there for the rice cooker and wok that mum’s insisting you take…not unless you want to be unglamorously repacking your suitcase at the airport check-in counter.

Which segues away nicely into my own embarrassing episode. Way back in 2001, I was a short-haired, fresh out of the army geek, getting ready to leave Singapore for Australia to undertake my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Melbourne. Dad was working for Singapore Airlines, so being a typically kiasu (scared to lose) Singaporean, I asked him to bump my luggage allowance to, get this, 100kg!

Travel light, says Lonely Planet asia travel editor Shawn Low.

Travel light, says Lonely Planet travel editor Shawn Low.

Apart from the suitcase full of clothes, the hoarder in me meant I took along several heavy books including a DICTIONARY and some of my favourite novels. While there wasn’t a rice cooker, I took along my desktop computer (then a blazing Pentium III with Geforce 2 graphics) and a 17” CRT monitor. Anyone remember those? Suffice to say, I got directed straight to customs, where a bemused officer scanned my bags, boxes and asked a kazillion questions. Oh, did I mention that they confiscated my mum’s care package? It was packets of Chinese herbs. ‘You can buy these here you know,’ said the officer.

I slunk away, red-faced, out of the airport.

So, having lived through severe embarrassment, and with some life experience under my belt, I’m here to help you hit the ground looking like a pro.

Leave the rice cooker at home.

Odds are, you’re not going to a backward nation where everything is expensive or unavailable. I keep talking about a rice cooker because I’ll never forget a friend of mine telling me that not only are rice cookers hard to find in Australia, they cost DOUBLE (his emphasis, not mine). Bollocks. Almost everything you could possibly need can be found where you’re going, possibly at the same price too. In fact, when I got to Australia, I found that CDs, DVDs, PC parts, among other things, were actually cheaper in Australia. Yes, I did find a rice cooker too.

Australia has strict quarantine restrictions. Best to check before you pack any foodstuff. Photo: Aun Ngo

Food. Don’t bring any.

Some countries such as Australia are notorious for what you can or cannot take into the country. I know that mum wants you to boil her favourite soup with gingko/ginseng/goji/insert weird herb here. But the customs officer at the airport isn’t quite as concerned about your health. Why bother with the hassle of bringing in your favourite foods? There are plenty of speciality grocers where you’ll find what you need.  Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Italian, Greek, Indian etc. In fact, you actually find a better variety of food in Australia that you do back home! That includes weird herbs.

Go on, have a little fun!

I was actually quite alarmed when a friend of mine told me that she didn’t know how to get to Brunswick St in Melbourne. She lived in the city, 10 minutes away from one of Melbourne’s most-famous streets. And she had never been there in the year she had been in Melbourne. Yes, the primary reason for going overseas is to study. But as the cliché goes, “all work but no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Think of your time overseas as one big study/holiday.

Travelling broadens the mind through new experiences. But there’s no mind-broadening to be achieved if all you end up doing is staying at home with the Xbox 360 for company. Spend the school break travelling. Why go back home when you’ve got the rest of your life to spend back there? Take a trip around the country. Hire a car and go on a road trip around Outback Australia with some mates. Heck, you don’t even need a long school break to see the country. A weekend is more than enough time to take an $80 return flight from Melbourne to Hobart in Tasmania. Not exactly a bank-breaking sum.

Have feet, will travel. Don't stay cooped up at home, use your time overseas to explore Melbourne and beyond.

Have feet, will travel. Don't stay cooped up at home, use your time overseas to explore Melbourne and beyond. Photo: Aun Ngo


If you want to do more than just travel, try volunteering. It’s a great way to meet fellow travellers and feel good about it. Conservation Volunteers Australia runs over 2000 projects around Australia each year. These range from tree planting, to wildlife surveys, and walking-track conservation. The Willing Workers on Organic Farms is a chance for you to trade labour on an organic or biodynamic farm in return for bed and board. Earthwatch has animal conservation projects all around Australia. Projects last anywhere from a weekend to several months.

Do an exchange!

It might seem bizarre to suggest doing an exchange if you are already an overseas student. But consider it getting “two for the price of one”. If you’re studying in Australia, there’s really no harm applying to do an exchange program in the United States for example. In theory you won’t pay anything extra apart from the airfare. Your school fees would be covered, you will also be paying for accommodation, food, albeit in a different country instead. Being in another country opens up yet another set of experiences.

There you go. Hopefully, you’ll have an idea as to what to expect when preparing for that big trip overseas…Yes, there will be an expectation to do well at university, but there’s no reason why you can’t have some fun at the same time! Bon voyage and may your grades be as good as your travel adventures.

Shawn Low is based in Melbourne. He writes and blogs for Lonely Planet. Find him on Twitter @shawnlow.

Lonely Planet publishes over 500 different guidebooks as well as mobile applications. Find out more about your study destinations on

There are 6 comments

  1. karenpoh

    Hey Diane, many of us have all been there. I think it’s the need for comfort and security. But hopefully we get better as the years go by?

  2. gee

    Yes I remembered when the soles of my sneakers were checked for soil by the customs. But i guess if you hide a packet or two of coffee within your intimates in your luggage they wouldn’t be bothered…

  3. Ellie

    Unfortunately, I was one of those who brought a brand new rice cooker from home. BUT, it broke down after one month!!!! Yes, of course, they sell it here!!

  4. Doreen Chew

    Let me see:
    Ive still took over stuff to Melb everytime I go home for holidays.. 🙂 Rice cooker, Steam cooker, CNy cookies.. (went through the quarantine officer)…. 🙂 🙂 Couldn’t agree more with the need for security from home. These items remind me of home and where I come from.. 🙂 so there.. 🙂

  5. Melbourne Rental Search

    Another important thing to consider is where you are going to live when you arrive in your new city. Many universities in Australia offer different options for student housing but if you are planning on renting your own place it can be a very time consuming and frustrating process!

    We recommend arranging some short term accommodation either with a friend, in a hostel or somewhere on Air BnB in a really central part of the city. You’ll probably need to stay here for up to 6 weeks to give yourself time to adjust to your surroundings and find your new rental.

    Alternatively, if you are in Melbourne we can find your new home for you. Please get in touch with us or visit if you’d like to find out more 🙂

Post Your Thoughts