How to Stay Connected While You Travel Overseas

How to Use Your Laptop and Phone to Make Phone Calls and Get Online

A young Cambodian checks social media from an internet cafe on April 9, 2014 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
An internet cafe in Cambodia: one of the few places where you can find one these days!. Omar Havana/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Heading abroad to study or play and need to stay connected with family, friends, and/or professors? Fortunately, it's super-easy to stay connected while you're traveling. Wi-Fi can be found pretty much everywhere these days, and unless you're heading super remote, you won't have many difficulties in finding an internet connection and getting online. 

Here's how to phone home, whether you're in the Amazon or downtown Amsterdam.

Finding Internet While Traveling

Practically every hostel or hotel you'll opt to stay in will have a free internet connection that you'll be able to connect to with your laptop as you're traveling. Just be sure to check if it's a listed amenity before you book your stay if that's important to you. If you opt to stay in Airbnb apartments instead, you'll be almost guaranteed to have an internet connection, and as you won't be sharing the place with dozens of people, you'll have much higher speeds, too. 

It's worth noticing that the more remote destinations you opt to travel to, the less likely it is to get online, and the more expensive it'll be if you do find some internet. Australia and New Zealand both offer slow and pricey Wi-Fi that's rarely free in hostels, and other places in the South Pacific, like the Cook Islands, or in the Caribbean can work out to be extremely expensive for internet.

On top of that, the less infrastructure a country has, the more likely you are to encounter internet problems. I had terrible internet speeds when traveling in Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, and Tonga recently. 

What About Internet Cafes?

Back in the old days of travel, you used to have to find an internet cafe in order to get online and email your friends, but they're pretty rare to find in the world now. If you don't want to take a laptop with you, but still want to occasionally get online, you'll be better off packing a smartphone or just relying on the old desktop computer you can usually find in hostel common rooms. If you need internet, head to Starbucks or McDonald's and use their free Wi-Fi for as long as you want. I can't remember the last time I even saw an internet cafe while traveling!

 

How Do International Calling Cards Work for Travelers?

You can buy calling cards in the country you'll be visiting to make international calls while traveling, or you can buy international calling cards before you leave home. We'll get into why you shouldn't bother with these below, but if you're convinced you need a calling card, here's what you need to know:

There are two types of international calling cards: prepaid or billed monthly. With most carriers, you'll simply call a toll-free number to connect. 

Prepaid phone card advantages:

  • You'll never run out of minutes.
  • You may use cards on a public payphone.

And the disadvantages:

  • You'll probably pay a monthly fee.
  • Surcharges may apply when using a public payphone.
  • Paying the bill when far from home may be difficult unless someone back home will pay it for you (some carriers will allow you to bill it to a credit card, however).
  • When was the last time you saw a public payphone?

Prepaid phone card resources:

Should You Choose to Travel With Calling Cards?

I personally wouldn't, and after six years of travel, I've actually yet to meet anyone who uses them while they're on the go. They're dated, expensive, and unnecessary in the age of Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp. When it's so easy to keep in touch with people, calling cards are outdated. 

The only exception I can think of would be if you knew you would need to make a phone call and were heading to somewhere like Myanmar, which has atrocious internet speeds (it took me six hours to download an email that only contained one paragraph of text with no images attached there!) and offers local SIM cards at an unreasonably expensive price, so you wouldn't be able to use Skype to make a phone call.

Other than that, Skype, WhatsApp, or Google Voice over an internet connection is a much better, easier, and cheaper option for travelers. 

How to Make Sure Your Phone Will Work Overseas

To understand SIM cards and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones, you need to understand how cell phones work overseas (and why they may not work for you and your U.S. cell phone).

The problems with using a U.S. cell phone abroad are these:

  • GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones work on international bands.
  • Some US cell phones are either not GSM (quad band) phones, or they are locked GSM phones.
  • If you've got a locked GSM phone contracted with a US company (like Verizon), making phone calls overseas on your cell phone can be done but may be horrendously expensive because you're roaming from the US.
  • US cell phone carriers tend to lock GSM phones so that you cannot use other companies' SIM cards.

So -- to avoid those roaming charges, you must have an unlocked GSM phone so you can buy local SIM cards for it when in other countries.

What is a SIM Card, Though?

GSM phones call for a particular type of international cell phone -- the quad band we're talking about above is best -- and a computer chip called a SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module); a SIM card is the size of a fingernail with embedded circuitry that's inserted into a GSM cell phone to get cell phone service on your GSM network.

In other words: it's a small card that you place into your phone that allows you to connect to a network, and therefore make phone calls or use the internet. 

How do SIM Cards Work?

SIM cards enable you to make phone calls in the country you're in, give you data so you can get online, and provide you with a local phone number. They're available in every country around the world -- most of the time, you simply turn up, head to a convenience store or cellphone store, ask for a local SIM card with data (and calls if you'll need them -- most travelers don't because they can just use Skype), and you'll be good to go. Most of the time, the staff at the cellphone store will even set up your SIM card and phone for you to make sure it works before you leave the store.

If it doesn't work after half an hour, you can return to the store to ask for help. 

You can also buy SIM chips in advance, but it's not normally necessary. You can usually get your SIM cards from the airport or find a store that sells them close to your hostel. If in doubt, ask the hostel staff where you can buy one, and they'll be able to point you in the right direction.  

Where Can I Get an Unlocked GSM Phone?

If you can't get your phone unlocked for travel, your next step should be to buy an unlocked phone on Amazon. One of the best options for travelers is the Moto G4 phone -- it costs less than $200, comes with 32GB of storage, and isn't much worse than a top of the range smartphone. You'll be able to get online using the free hostel Wi-Fi, or even pick up local SIM cards as you travel, in order to have cheap data as you explore a new city. 

How to Unlock Your Current Phone

Your first step should be to talk to your phone provider. In a lot of cases, they will be able to unlock your phone for you -- especially if you bought your phone outright and aren't tied to a contract. 

If your service provider refuses to help you, there are usually dodgy little stalls in markets where you can leave your phone with a guy who can unlock your phone for you. I've used these services before and they've managed to unlock my phone for me in just a few hours. 

More on why you should travel with an unlocked phone and how it can save you money.

About Satellite Phones

Most satellite phones are entirely unnecessary for travelers. The only time you'll really need one is if you're heading way off the beaten track. As an example, the only travelers I've met who were traveling with a satellite phone are a guy who was hiking in Afghanistan and another guy who was hiking in remote areas of Greenland. They were using their phone for safety in emergencies and to keep in touch with friends every so often. 

In short, satellite phones are expensive, heavy, and only necessary if you'll be doing some seriously hardcore travel, won't have any data while you're there, and are concerned about your safety.

Making Free Phone Calls With Skype

How did I ever live without Skype? Thanks to this service, I frequently make international phone calls for pennies, and if the person I'm calling has Skype, the call will be free. Before I left to travel, I set up my parents with a Skype account and now get to keep in touch with them multiple times a week while I'm on the move. 

If you´re unfamiliar with it, Skype is a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) app that allows you to make phone calls on your phone or laptop. Download the app, buy some credit if you need it, and you're good to go with phone calls from pretty much anywhere to pretty much anywhere. Since I travel with a laptop and a phone, I can have video calls with my family for free, no matter where I am in a the world. 

What About Sending a Postcard or Letter?

This is surprisingly easy to do overseas, so if you need to keep in touch by letter or simply want to send a postcard to let somebody know you're thinking about them, you don't need to panic. There are post offices across the planet and I've never struggled to find one anywhere in the world. If you need to send a postcard, you can usually buy stamps from the tourist shops where you can buy them. Once you have a stamp, you can take it to a post office or simply place it in a postbox that you've spotted around town.

 

 

This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff