Technology for Expats
Advances in technology have made it much easier for expats to stay in touch with friends and family back home, and even to work remotely from their new locations. There’ve been lots of changes since I last wrote about technology for expats.
While they may make your expat life easier or more convenient, the choices can become overwhelming.
One area that’s been changing rapidly is mobile phones. If you’re confused about all the information about smart phones, “dumb” phones, Android and apps, here’s some basic information that will help you sort through the muddle.
As previously discussed, purchasing the right unlocked phone lets you transfer your phone service pretty seamlessly.
In most of the world, you can use any mobile phone with any provider. It’s only in the US that phones are “locked” to a single company’s network. Generally if you buy an AT&T phone, you can’t use it with Verizon or T-Mobile or Sprint.
However, by buying an unlocked phone you circumvent that nonsense.
(Note that Sprint, Metro PCS and a few other companies use a network that’s completely incompatible with the rest of the world. )
GSM stands for “Global Systems for Mobile Communications.” It’s used throughout Europe, Asia and Central and South America. Different GSM systems use different frequencies: 850, 900, 1800 and 1900. When a phone can use all four, it’s called a “quad band” phone.
For starters, look for a quad-band GSM phone. With it, you’ll be able to make and receive calls from almost anywhere in the world.
These phones use SIM (subscriber identity module) cards where the phone’s number and other information is stored. When you arrive in your new country, just sign up for new service and swap SIM cards. Easy peasy.
If you plan on traveling back and forth frequently to your home country, or living abroad just part of the year and you want to keep your same phone number in your home country, choose a phone that uses two SIM cards! So-called “world” phones can switch back and forth with the touch of a button. No card swapping required.
A smart phone, in addition to talk and text, gives you internet browsing capabilities and the ability to use apps.
When choosing a smart phone, you should be aware of some differences in the way data is handled in different networks and select a phone that will do the best job for you in the countries you’ll be spending the most time in.
For example, the 3G network in the US uses different frequencies than the 3G network in Europe. A phone built for the European market may only be able to use a slow connection like EDGE in the Americas. (I found this one out the hard way.)
If you’re moving to a smart phone, you also have a choice of operating systems. There’s Apple’s iPhone, of course, or you can go with an Android or Windows operating system.
My personal choice is Android, which is the biggest seller worldwide. If you’re already using Google’s tools like Gmail, Calendar and Tasks, it’s a pretty easy move, and there are tons of great apps available.
Some phones, like the one pictured above, have actual keyboards that slide out when needed. They add a little extra weight, but are easier for some of us to use than the virtual keyboards.
Smart Phone Apps for Expats and Travelers
An “app” is a program for a smartphone. Many are available free and some of the most useful generally come preinstalled on the phone.
- Mapping and Navigation.
In an unfamiliar place, maps and GPS apps are extremely useful. (Unless you’re so far off the beaten path it hasn’t been mapped by satellites yet.) Look for a GPS navigation app that will show you the map, a written list of directions, and will also talk you through the trip (in your language of choice).
You can find dictionaries, apps that will translate what you say or type into another language and “speak” it for you, and even apps that will take a picture of a sign or menu and translate it for you.
- Currency Conversion
These apps will tell you what a price means in terms of your familiar home currency.
- Video Chat
Programs like Skype and Google Chat help you stay in touch using your phone’s built-in camera.
There’s nothing like a mindless game on your phone to take your mind off an extended airlline delay. Have you tried Angry Birds?
What’s the smart phone app you rely on most while traveling?
Balanced Melting Pot
The only thing I would add to that is to find out which smartphones are most used where you’re going. Before moving to Venezuela I was a big Android fan, but after about 6 months I finally transitioned to BlackBerry because everyone usese it. The messenger feature has been great for keeping in touch with friends and family all over the world.
That’s interesting, since more people in the US seem to be transitioning away from BBerry. What is the messenger feature you mention?
Another thing to consider is that many tablets can use SIM cards for making phone calls or video conferencing. The I-fad…err…I mean Ipad through AT&T or Verizon and the Motorola Xoom have options to use SIM cards with them (along with the data plan to further rip money from your wallet/bank account), so you could increase your versatility even more.
The iPhone 4 (I think it is the newest but maybe another has come out since) uses a new type of SIM card that is much smaller than normal ones. Even if you have a unlocked version of one of these phones it won’t work overseas because you can’t put the other SIM cards in. I found this out when I was attempting to get the phone unlocked before an extended trip to Asia. (I had just been talked into buying it by an AT&T sales person a month before)
I ended up buying an unlocked iPhone 3G in Bangkok and was able to use it just fine in Bali. But in Thailand I had to stop using it because it charged me for being on the internet even when I wasn’t. If the phone was on, the phone company just assumed it was using the internet. I just didn’t have the tech skills to get that one figured out.
When I returned to the States I gave my unlocked iPhone to my daughter. We tried to just put her AT&T SIM card in that phone, but we ended up having to call the company and set up the phone switch before her service was activated on the new phone. That made me wonder: once you use an unlocked phone with an American service like AT&T, does that mean the phone is now locked?? Is it even worth it to bring it overseas again – or would I have to unlock it now?
If that’s the case then it seems you need to have a separate phone for overseas travel than the one you use in the U.S. Let me know your thoughts on this.
Speaking personally, my response is, don’t buy an iPhone. There are plenty of very good options out there that will allow you to use the same phone at home and abroad.
The US is the only country I know of where phones are “locked” to specific providers, so if you live elsewhere are are planning a move or visit to somewhere other than the US, you really don’t need to give it another thought. . .
A lot depends on whether you need the bells and whistles. I bought an inexpensive Sony Ericksson GSM quad-band (2G, but serves my communication needs) 2 years ago to use while in Panama with service from Movistar. I turn it on as soon as I land and begin to use it. I add time as I need it.
I use my MagicJack for calls back home (no cost) and do my internet work strictly on computers. It’s true that I do have a phone for the US and for Panama; but with minimum expense, I can make any calls I need to make within the country and to friends and relatives back home.
I am a minimalist when it comes to phones. I still do not use the internet on my phone in the U.S. I still prefer my PC, MAC, or laptop for that. So, even at home I have a minimum cell phone expense.
I personally love the iphone and can’t wait for the iphone 5. I know alot of places you don’t need a whole new sim, you just pay extra to make phone calls or sms, or am I mistaken?
True, but if you’re living in one country you’re not going to want to pay all the additional charges for using the phone on your original country’s service. At least I wouldn’t. So the trick is to get a phone now, wherever you are, that you can use at home and then set up with new service when you move.