On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

OK, seriously. Christmas is a lot of things to expats – a package in the mail, a chance to return home (or talk to the friends and family), or simply the chance to give and receive gifts.

The challenge? Expats (especially long-term expats) don’t need a lot of physical stuff to lug around to the next country. Gifts, at some point, need to be practical, useful, and not too bulky.

Luggage. I could lie to you and tell you good luggage is supposed to be expensive. American Tourister is the brand I own myself, and both pieces handled the move to Thailand without incident just fine. Feel free to spend more than the $50 or so American Tourister asks for their 21″ Upright suitcase, of course.

Along the same lines, vacuum-sealed space bags help with getting more stuff in said luggage. Whatever you do, don’t get the sort that can only be filled by vacuum – a device the expat may not need or have while living abroad. Rolling out the air (as these Ziploc bags allow) should always be an option.

Scottevest (men’s version and women’s version) – what you need to pack it all in. Replacing your purse, manbag, and possibly even your entire carry-on is reason enough to make the 17-24 pockets hold everything you need. A few different colors are available, but black is probably most likely to go with all your clothes.

Business card case. The term ‘stocking stuffer’ comes to mind. At around $7, you’re not exactly breaking the bank here, yet it’s a fitting start to the practical sort of thing an expat might need.

Universal converter / surge protector. The exact model you’ll want depends on where your expat is, but the ideal one will accept flat or round plugs. This one has round plugs (so it’ll work in Korea, Thailand, Laos, and plenty of other countries), and also sports 2 direct-to-USB plugs to bypass the charger for your smartphone.

A slightly fancier version runs about $20 and offers five USB plugs to charge every device you brought. For about $6, you may only need (or want) the one plug to fit in the wall, and only have one thing that doesn’t fit… This may do the trick.

But what if you’re traveling and you’re nowhere near power? That’s where the external battery comes in handy. There’s plenty of variety here, but what you’re looking for is a large power supply, number of ports to charge devices, and small size. This one ticks all the boxes – 15,000 mAh (lots of juice to store), two USB ports, and so on. My only quibble: it doesn’t come with a wall charger – add an extra $8 and throw it in.

A couple of kick-butt towels. Lightweight, doesn’t take up much room, dries fast… Get past the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ references, and you’ll discover how useful a fast-drying towel truly is. This ain’t your momma’s terry cloth towel – this is a 29″ by 55″ (0.74 by 1.39 meters) microfiber towel that doesn’t need to hit the dryer. In countries where an electric dryer is a nice luxury, towels are often the last to dry.

A daypack / camerabag. Lowepro bags come in plenty of sizes, from backpacks to carry every piece of photographic gear you own to smaller camera bags. This is the exact bag I own, which holds a full-frame DSLR, an extra lens, a Lonely Planet, a bottle of water, and a little internal pocket for my passport and a couple of band-aids (you never know!). For the non-DSLR owners out there, these bags are built to last, and can also hold a full-size iPad (exception: if you have a bulky case for the device, it may not fit except on the diagonal.)

Passport wallet – more than just a case, the idea here is to house your passport and your other travel-critical papers someplace that both protects it and keeps things closer. For $13, having it block the RFID part of your passport should appeal to the tinfoil hat-wearers, while the ballistic nylon and leather are the sort of materials to make it last. Comes with a string to wear around your neck (and under your shirt if you feel so led.)

A big external hard drive. Yeah, 2 terabytes oughta do it. Note there are devices that store more, but this one is both small in size (0.8 x 3.2 x 4.4 inches, or 2 cm x 8cm x 11cm) and lightweight (8 ounces, or 227 grams). This is a MyPassport from WesternDigital, one of the most reliable names in the business. If your expat isn’t moving that often or needs that extra terabyte or two, this 4 TB hard drive should take quite a bit of time to fill with movies and music.

An Amazon gift card: ’nuff said. Beyond selling virtually everything under the sun, it’s a pretty good guarantee that your expat can get whatever they want. An Amazon Prime subscription may be of less use depending on the country, but see if they’re able to borrow any of the 350,000+ books or take advantage of the streaming video and two-day free shipping.

A WD Live – think of this as a portable HD drive that connects your movies to whatever TV in your apartment. If you’re in a country where you can stream Hulu or Netflix, the box does that as well. Alternatively, if your friend’s over and has a USB drive with the movie du jour, there’s a port for that. No need to fiddle with the TV and hope it works. On a practical note, it’s lightweight, works with 110 or 220 volts, and makes watching almost anything on the TV a trivial task. Note this is somewhat similar to a Slingbox, but that device ships what’s on your TV to another device (and is a bit more expensive, for what it’s worth).

Honorable mention:

A VPN subscription. Some countries make accessing anything ‘dangerous’ or ‘naughty’ a bit more difficult. This isn’t just porn – in South Korea, most anything regarding their neighbors to the North are blocked. Music services and video sites block anyone from outside the US from accessing their goodies, which is plain unfair. This Lifehacker article goes into great detail, while keeping the discussion mostly tech-free. In general, of course, you’ll be looking for ease of use, ability to spoof a selected country at will, and cost. For anyone that doesn’t need to stream the whole season of ‘House of Cards’, I’ll also suggest the ‘Hola Unblocker’ plugin (available for Chrome and Firefox) – not a Christmas gift, but unblocks or makes available those goodies from the Western world. Start at hola.org to learn more.

Storage space: best of all, this one (should) cost you parents and homeowners nothing. Right now, for example, my wonderful parents are storing a couple boxes worth of jackets, books,  journals – stuff I can’t bear to see thrown away, but things I don’t really need to carry with me everytime I move (especially to Thailand – haven’t worn a jacket in a long time!)

Expats, what are you asking for this Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa?


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