Ask the Expat Q&A
The Wired Expat
Being connected to the web and having high-speed and instant access to the Internet, data and information has become a way of life for millions of people around the world. The number of people accessing the mobile internet is growing at an enormous rate. In 2009 there were an estimated 450 million mobile internet users worldwide, and this figure is expected to double in the next few years. The ITU (International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency) estimates that mobile web access with laptops and smartphones will overtake desktop web access within five years.
With the advent of broadband internet access, wireless 3G networks and widespread Wi-Fi access in public places, most of us have slowly become addicted to fast wireless connectivity over the past few years. Checking stock portfolios, online banking, watching sports and TV shows, and staying in touch with friends on social networking sites have become an integral part of our daily routine, and few of us can imagine a life without being constantly connected to wireless networks. And thanks to smartphones, currency converters, weather reports, maps and GPS data, foreign-language phrase books, and travel information, are now all available with the touch of a button.
Unfortunately, taking your wireless gadgets with you when you move to another country is not without difficulties, and having access to the same level of connectivity as at home can be a challenge. Even in the U.S. people complain about the slow 3G data networks compared to Wi-Fi, but you can expect even slower speeds from data networks in other countries. What few computer and smartphone users realize is that it requires enormous infrastructure investments to provide customers with high-speed data services and Internet access. Most developed countries are on par or even ahead of North America, when it comes to high-speed Internet access and wireless data networks, but most developing countries only provide data networks in large cities and urban areas where there is a sufficient customer base.
Should You Bring Your Smartphone?
Most smartphones today use the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard and are compatible with all major cell phone frequencies around the world. But if you have an older phone that you would like to take abroad, make sure it is a GSM phone with at least three frequencies, or it might not work at your destination. The cheapest solution is to find a local service provider as soon as possible, to avoid expensive international roaming and data transfer charges. Problems only arise if your phone has been locked by your service provider at home, in which case it will not work with a different provider overseas. You can ask your provider to unlock your phone, or you can have your phone unlocked by a third-party company for a fee. Once unlocked, you can switch out the old SIM card with one from your new service provider. The only disadvantage is that your unlocked phone may not support all the features offered by your new service provider, or the new provider many not support all the features you previously enjoyed.
However, the functionality of your smartphone overseas depends largely on your access to data networks and how much you are willing to pay for data roaming. In most cities around the world you will generally have access to either a 2G (older and slower) or 3G data network, but coverage is often spotty or non-existent in rural areas. If you are planning to stay in one region for a longer period of time, you should find out which carrier (if any) provides a data network, before signing up for a smartphone plan. If the area you will be living in has no data network coverage, you can always fall back on Wi-Fi to access the internet.
Should You Keep Your Data Plan?
In addition to speed and availability of data networks, you need to be concerned about the charges you accumulate for using your smartphone overseas. You can use most cell phones while traveling abroad, but continuing your U.S. cell phone plan beyond the first few weeks at your new destination can be very expensive. Worldwide data and call roaming plans are available for customers of all major mobile phone providers in North America, but to avoid exorbitant charges you should consider signing up with a local phone and data service provider as soon as possible.
Every time you access the web, use Google Maps, watch videos on YouTube, send and receive e-mail on your smartphone, you accrue charges for the transmitted data. Before traveling overseas you should spend some time getting all the details about international roaming charges and international cell phone and data plans your service provider at home may offer. Each North American mobile phone provider has its own phone and data plans for international cell phone coverage. Make sure you read all the details, and sign up for a plan that best suits your needs and that offers predictable charges without surprises. Keep in mind that charges vary from provider to provider, and from country to country. Some plans charge per kilobit of transferred data, while others are based on bulk amounts such as 100mb a month, which is much cheaper. For example, an international pay-per-use data rate of $0.0195 per kilobit (AT&T) sounds cheap, but under such a plan, downloading a 2 megabyte photo would cost $39.
If your current provider does not offer service at your planned destination, it may be best to put your account on hold, and buy a cheap local cell phone and data/phone service. To avoid unwanted data and roaming charges, turn off all e-mail and automatic roaming functions that may access data networks even when you are not aware of it. If you need to check your e-mail or access social networking sites, go to a place that offers Wi-Fi for free or a reasonable fee. That way you won’t incur international roaming charges.
What Features and Applications Will Work Overseas?
What software applications and smartphone features you will be able to use overseas depends on a variety of factors. If you keep your phone and your provider while overseas, most of your standard smartphone features, such as push-email, texting, three-way calls, etc. will also work.
Keep in mind that some applications and features only work with phones within the U.S., and some apps work only in the regions or countries for which they were written (such as GPS navigation apps). If you have a restaurant locator for New York City installed on your smartphone, it most certainly won’t work overseas, but with a little patience you may be able to find a similar application that works at your destination. There are apps that are Web-based (i.e. you need access to a data network for them to work), such as weather reports, currency converters, map and navigation software, and there are applications that are fully downloaded on your smartphone and don’t require Internet access, such as unit converters, foreign language phrasebooks, voice translators, or pocket travel guides. Before switching to a local service provider at your destination (which is the only long-term solution for expatriates) make sure you find out what smartphone features and apps you will be able to use at your new location. The best way to find out is to contact the software developer and ask them if there is a version of their product that works at your destination.
Also keep in mind that because of international copyright and royalty issues some of your favorite apps may not be available at your destination abroad. You may not be able to watch your favorite TV shows, sports broadcasts, or listen to your favorite internet radio stations.
Author's note: This column has an interactive format, and readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries, some of which will be addressed in the upcoming issues of the Transitions Abroad Webzine. If you have questions about living abroad that you would like have addressed, you can send them to email@example.com.