Communicating from Abroad Has Never Been Easier
It was 1990. I was 17, 5,000 miles away from home and desperately wishing I could easily communicate with my friends and family. But there were only two options: novel-length letters or POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). Fast forward to the 21st century and keeping in contact while abroad has become a breeze.
With the advancements of technology, the plethora of Internet Cafés, handy computer notebooks, and the various communication choices available, it is as easy as a mere click of the mouse to call home. Read on to learn the best ways to stay in touch whether you are an expat, exchange student, or vagabonding traveler. (Editor's note: All relevant links are available at the end of the article.)
Moving beyond POTS
In the 20th century a land line telephone was the quickest and most expensive way to say "hello." Still among the speediest forms of verbal interaction, the phone has made leaps and bounds towards being a cost-effective means of communication.
The big step towards cheap, long distance telephone service was the development of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). VoIP is based on the concept that sound bites travel through high speed Internet connections the same way an email does, creating a clear telephone connection. The lightening fast exchange of information supports conversations with any other type of phone, whether or not it is a POTS. The only requirement is for your phone or computer to be connected to WiFi or a data port.
Originally created in 1973 with the conception of the first computer network, VoIP steadily moved towards easy consumer use. By the mid 90s VoIP had infiltrated the masses by means of the VocalTec Internet Phone which included voice mail and caller ID. The drawback was that it was only compatible with other VocalTec users. By 2004 the technology had advanced enough to create two different offspring of the original VocalTec concept. The first is an analog telephone adapter, a device that connects with an Internet broadband connection and a phone jack. Companies offering this system include Vonage and Comcast.
The other direction taken towards cheaper communication over the phone involved a program that is easily downloaded to any computer. Companies such as Skype and Gizmo5 have taken advantage of VoIP technology by creating a program that supports various forms of communication once downloaded to a PC or Mac. With either company you receive a phone number from your place of choice; Skype offers 21 country options while Gizmo5 offers 60. Your phone number remains your personal number for the length of account activity. For example, my Skype phone number is based in Lake Tahoe, California even though I live in Bariloche, Argentina. People calling from the U.S. often do not realize that the Californian number they called is ringing 7,000 miles away. A personal IM id, voice mail, and Instant Messenger are also included with the private phone number.
There are two major differences between companies like Skype and Gizmo5 as opposed to Comcast and Vonage. Skype, as well as Gizmo5, work by running closed source software, meaning that they are run by independent programs that can be downloaded to any computer. They also have compatibility with cell phones; Skype has its own cell phone (Skypephone) and Gizmo5 works with your mobile phone. Comcast and Vonage, on the other hand, work off of a high speed Internet connection via a phone adapter plugged into a router. Also, Comcast and Vonage are only applicable to residents of the United States, Canada and the U.K.
Despite variations in companies, the majority of people living abroad use either Skype or Vonage. Sergio, a member of Buenos Aires Expat Forum, expresses his findings when he says that “Vonage is fantastic. You can choose any area code and speak through a phone, just as though you are in the US. For USD$30 a month you have unlimited calls to the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico plus unlimited fixed phone calls to the U.K., Ireland, Spain, Italy, and France (no charge for calls to cell phones in North America but to Europe there is a charge—not to fixed phones). It's an incredible service that really reduces distances.”
Others prefer Skype. Another associate of the forum, Allcraz, uses Skype. “I call through the Internet using Skype. I can call land lines and cell phones anywhere for a small fee or talk computer to computer for free.” For the world traveler Skype or Gizmo5 may offer more flexibility. Skype offers instant messaging, video conferencing, call forwarding, and cheaper prices for a personal phone number and long distance coverage. Gizmo5 additionally offers compatibility with other VoIP operations, a free built in recording system, access to LiveJournal (a virtual internet community where you can create a blog, journal or diary), and is recognizable (unlike other companies) as the correct phone number on some inbound United States caller-ids.
In addition to VoIP there is also a service available for renting a cell phone that is capable of global service. Global Phone Works offers both cell and satellite phones at competitive prices. The company will ship the phone, chargers, a converter, and business cards with the cell number to your address before travel departure date. They have programs for short term trips and a yearly contract for longer stays.
For those that are not computer literate there are always the more old fashioned phone cards. These handy cards resembling a credit card are sold around the world. Some companies sell minutes that are added to a re-useable card, others are disposable with a pre-determined amount of time. The cards are sold at most markets and are used at any public phone operation. It is important to check usage fees due to extra costs being applied with certain plans and companies. If you want to buy phone cards before departing for your travel destination, check out speedpin.com. You can research prices for international calls as well as purchase cards with this online service. They are 100% guaranteed throughout the world.
The increasing feasibility of real-time communication would not be possible without the Internet. Luckily for today’s traveler Internet cafés and WiFi hot spots are becoming a common occurrence. Quality computer notebooks have hit prices below USD$500 making it more financially feasible to own one.
“For me, the laptop and reliable connection to the internet is what makes living abroad do-able,” says three-year United States expat, Jamie Schectman. “I live in Patagonia in the middle of a national park and run three different international businesses from my PC. It’s pretty amazing.”
Easy access to the Internet has basically abolished the need for mailing letters. In its wake is gratuitous virtual mail service. Web based companies such as Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail offer free personal email accounts. These accounts are accessible from any computer or Internet compatible cell phone or blackberry. Some programs like Gmail can act as a base station for other additional email programs. This works well if you only want to correspond from one account, but would like to send using different addresses.
Another way to reach the masses is writing a blog. A blog has different services. One is using it as a virtual post card. It can be used as a basic diary, helping your loved ones know your travel story. The only difference being that your readers can respond to your letters instantly. Another is the sharing of information; creating a place for people to learn about a unique aspect to your life abroad. My husband and I write a blog on our lives in Patagonia, www.livinginpatagonia.com. Most of our readers return because of our ability to keep them updated on news and happenings in Bariloche (a notoriously difficult area to find reliable information about). In addition to being a good way to stay in contact, it is also a way to earn a few extra dollars with Google AdSense and Amazon ad programs. Websites such as blogabroad.com, blogspirit.com, diino.com, squarespace.com, wordpress.com, to name a few, offer easy-to-follow programs to create an experience-sharing blog.
Another great way of communicating via internet is Instant Messaging or IM. IM is a real-time communication tool to speak to others, whether two people or more, via an internet connection. There are various sites that offer IM. Companies such as Skype (the largest IM provider other than the Chinese customer-majority company QQ) offer programs, in addition to a personal phone number. Also, for increased security, other private users have to ask permission to be a part of your network before they are able to chat with you. Other companies, suchJabber, Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, Gmail Chat, as well as others, have made the instant messaging phenomenon a standard in computer communication. It is as easy as signing up for the chosen system; all which are free of charge. The only necessary component is that the person or persons that you wish to communicate with are also a member of said company.
There are various options for communicating, but what do you do if you are in an area that does not have cyber cafés or WiFi? That is where portable satellite equipment comes in. Portable satellite systems are compact, metal boxes (about the size of a laptop) that create a high speed Internet connection regardless of your location. BGAN Store sells three different models of satellites that offer superior bandwidth, the exchange of large files, as well as video and audio connections. The satellites are around US$2400, plus a monthly fee, and range from two to seven pounds. Their small size makes traveling with them a breeze. The set up is also minimal.
There are times when snail mail is needed. It is important to have a safe place in your home country that will receive and store mail for you. It is also nice for registering and ordering items while abroad. Private mail box companies, such as Mail Box, etc., offer this service for a nominal monthly or yearly fee. The company will give you a regular street address and private mail box number. With prior arrangements made, the chosen business can email when an important document has arrived, send accumulated mail to your address abroad, or package mail for friends or family coming to visit. This is especially useful for receiving occasional online purchases that cannot be shipped internationally.
For those living abroad or thinking about doing so, the communication options of today makes the process much easier. It truly is a small world. Thanks to technology, keeping in touch is just as easy whether you are close by or far away. And while you are abroad it is nice to know that loved ones are no farther than the push of a button; a convenience that is important for both the person venturing out into the world and those left behind.