The questions start to sit in as you stare at your full closet and your empty suitcase. Will I find my razors in India? Do they have Vegemite? Should I bring cotton balls?
Emotions drift from one side of the pendulum to the other. I’ll just buy everything when I get there vs. I will take every paperclip I own.
When you start packing for India, begin with four rules that will help you make your decisions on your packing list.
Rule #1: If a very stressed-out version of yourself might possibly go on a rampage if this item is lost, stolen, or broken – don’t bring it.
Things have a way of breaking, rusting, corroding, and falling apart here. The last thing you need on a bad day is to have your maid accidentally knock over your Stradivarius and watch it splinter on your tile floors.
Rule #2: Keeping in mind Rule #1, if an item brings you a large amount of happiness and sanity, bring it.
Everyone needs a bit of home sometimes. A cooking pan you’ve had for 15 years that makes eggs just right is worth bringing. You won’t regret having that favorite pair of scissors that cuts so well you feel embarrassed how much you like them. You can’t buy the emotional stability they offer. Apply this rule to your favorite brands as well.
Rule #3: The longer you plan to stay in India, the fewer foreign items you should bring.
If you will be here for more than a year, it is better to get used to products you can buy in any Indian store. It takes time to adapt, but it’s worth it in the end.
Conversely, if you are staying for less than a year, it’s probably not worth the stress.
Rule #4: Go easy on commodity items.
India has toothpaste and soap. You can get toilet paper, Oreos, Dairy Milk, and many other things. Pack enough items to get you through a few weeks, but you’ll likely find what you need here.
Keeping in mind the four rules, here are some specifics:
Personal care items:
High-quality makeup – You will probably find what you need in high-style malls, but many women prefer to stick with what they know.
Insect repellent – It’s here, but foreign repellent is usually stronger and easier to apply.
Sunscreen – Findable, but not easy.
Specialty hair products – Bring your favorites. However, your hair might react differently to the new climate, so don’t be surprised if you need to change your regimen.
Roll-on or ‘stick’ deodorant – Possible to find, but not as common as spray-on.
Tampons – The kinds with applicators are very difficult to find (or so I hear from reliable sources).
Prescription Medicine – Medical shops are plentiful, but it may take some time to find what you need and many medicines go by a different brand name. Over-the-counter Indian equivalents are good and safe.
Handwipes/Hand cleaner – You will be in many strange situations in your first weeks, and may not be able to find a sink. These can help ease you in.
Perfume/Cologne – You can find most major brands at the big malls.
Extra pair of spectacles (glasses), and a prescription for a replacement – You can get good eye treatment in India, and can get more for your money when buying eyewear. However, you don’t want to stress if your regular pair breaks in the first week.
Furniture – No need to bring anything large unless it clears Rule 1 and 2. Furniture ranges from cheap cane furniture to designer brands. You can even get it custom-made.
Cookware – It needs to work well with gas-powered stoves. If you want to do a lot of baking, high quality bakeware and utensils are difficult to find and are worth bringing.
Linens, mattresses, pillows – All of these things are available here, but fitted sheets (the kind with elastic around the hem) are nearly impossible to find.
Small Flashlight – Easily available, but nice to have in your first week if you are unprepared for an outage.
Sealable Plastic Baggies – Hard to find, great for packing.
Aluminum foil/Shrink wrap/Parchment paper – Not impossible to find, but if you use it in large quantities, you should start with a good supply until you can source them here.
Earplugs – It will be just your luck that the night you arrive is a festival day and the local temple starts blaring film tunes at five in the morning.
Small Tool Kit – You will use a handyman for most of your larger projects, but having a small set of basic tools (screwdriver set, adjustable wrench) will free you from calling and waiting for him every time something small breaks.
Holiday/Festival Decorations –Medium and small artificial Christmas trees and decorations are available, but these are the things that might fall under Rule 2.
First Aid Kit – You will eventually find what you need here, but it’s better to come prepared with what you know.
Most items are available, but the price may be significantly different (either lower or higher). You can also go to a roadside shop and get many items for half the price, but they don’t give refunds, so buyer beware.
Large appliances – Not worth bringing.
Small appliances – Your home won’t come with a large oven, so you will need an OTG (Oven-Toaster-Grill) that usually maxes out at 40 liters. Coffee grinders and juicers are not common. Otherwise, you can find everything else.
Mobile phones – If you want to keep using your existing phone, make sure it is unlocked from your current provider. Get a SIM card here, and you are ready to go. However, you can also buy fantastic phones here at good prices.
Computers, Laptops, Printers, Accessories – Nearly all major brands and products are available here. Most voltages convert well, but it’s ok to be cautious.
Cameras and accessories – The high-end casual photographer will find nearly everything she needs here. The professional might want to bring her own.
Hair Care – A high quality hair dryer is hard to find, and a straightener even more so. If these are a part of your everyday life, bring them, but check the voltage requirements.
Plug converters – You can get them here, but bring a few with you to get started. Indian outlets take three round prongs arranged like a triangle (technically called a type C and D plug). If you don’t travel much, it’s better to purchase an India specific adapter rather than a universal one as the latter tend to be bulky and impractical for everyday usage.
Step down converters – If you are coming from the US, voltage converters can be useful for your more expensive electronic items.
Most major metros have import stores where you can find a lot of the items you are used to. Other supermarkets will have items that are similar, but not likely exact.
Although not all specifically banned, it is not a good idea to bring fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, or meat items. Pig and bird meat are prohibited in India. If you are bringing in a significant amount of any other plant, dairy, or meat item, you should get clearance first.
If you are on a very specific diet, you may not find as many gluten-free, sugar-free, etc., items you are used to.
If you are a baker, bring your basics like vanilla and almond extract and other small items.
You can find nearly every style available in the metros, and you can also get both Indian and western clothing tailor-made for you.
Climate – Keep in mind that places like Delhi are very hot in the summer and very cold in the winters. Bangalore and Mumbai are moderate to hot throughout the year. You have no business bringing a coat to Chennai.
Women – Expect to dress modestly when outside your home. Even inside your home, you are likely to have delivery men, workers, maids, etc., around the house, so bring clothing you are comfortable wearing around lots of unfamiliar people. Western clothing is fine, but Indian clothing is usually better suited for the climate. Many women are not satisfied with the choice and quality of Indian underwear and bras, so expect to bring a good supply.
Men – Men basically dress the same in India as in western countries. You can pick up a traditional Indian outfit a day or two before you get invited to your first wedding.
At the office – Like other countries, IT companies are usually very casual (but no shorts), while finance is more formal.
Big Sizes – If you are regularly above an XL size, clothing will be hard to find here. Average shoe stores will max out at a US size 12 for men and 8 for women.
Shoes – As long as your size is available, you can find basically every style and price point.
Swimwear – Even if you have your own private pool, you may have house staff walking around at all hours of the day, so wear something you are comfortable being seen in. Bikinis shouldn’t be worn in public places. Most pools require everyone to wear a swim cap as well, but you can buy those here.
High-Quality Winterwear – If you are going to a cold climate and have the perfect pair of gloves or an elegant yet warm hat, bring it.
Most basic sporting goods can be bought in the major metros, but bring your specialty equipment if you intend to play a lot.
The following sports are all played to some degree in India, although some may be harder to find than others:
- Cricket, tennis, badminton, table tennis, squash, golf, billiards, football (soccer), basketball, volleyball (usually only men), chess, field hockey, trekking, carrom, roller skating (for kids), and ultimate
Other activities like swimming, running, dance, and fitness are also common. Yoga as practiced in the west (fitness-centric) is also fairly easy to find.
Adventure sports like scuba diving, surfing, and paragliding are not common yet in India, but can be done if you are willing to search, travel and pay.
Check out the Get It Together article for all the documents you will need. In addition, you may want to consider bringing your medical records and school transfer documents for children. Show a family member where you will keep all your other important documents in case something needs to be sent to you later.
There are plenty of mother/baby stores in the metros that sell high-quality goods (bottles, nipples, sterilizers, monitors, strollers, high chairs, car seats, etc.) The costs are high though, so bring them if you already have them. There are no rules about children sitting in car seats in India, so these are just for your convenience and peace of mind.
Toys are plentiful across the spectrum, but remember to allow Rule 1 & 2 to apply to your kids as well.
If you are giving your baby formula, options are more limited here and not as advanced as other places.
If you have a specific question about packing for India, add it to the comments and others can respond with their experiences! Happy packing!