Taking your Laptop Computer Overseas
Practical Tips for Staying Connected Abroad
|Traveling with a laptop computer overseas, or an even smaller device, is now perhaps the common form of communication.
Since the year 2000, I have had one faithful companion on many overseas trips: my laptop computer. While this companionship has not been without challenges, I have found my computer to be an indispensable tool on most of my travels, especially on long-term trips. As a travel writer and researcher, my laptop is a necessary tool to work on stories and meet research deadlines. But bringing your computer along can also be a liability. Most travelers who bring a computer on a trip depend on it for a living, and so you should ask yourself how urgently you need your personal computer while abroad. Ask yourself realistically if you will really have time to use your laptop. Review your travel itinerary and assess the likelihood of actually having enough time to sit down and get work done. Last year, on a trip to India, a friend of mine brought his laptop along to work on some grant applications, but he found his itinerary was so tight that he rarely had time to work. As a result, in retrospect, he wasn’t able to fully enjoy the trip as he should have. He always felt the urge to be working on his laptop, to be connected to his work and to others, even while crossing the surreal and majestic Thar Desert of Rajasthan in a jeep. Nevertheless, most laptop users, like smart-phone users, have learned or are learning how to balance direct experience and online or digitally connected time.
There are common threats laptop computers face when taken overseas: power surges, theft, climate factors, damage from wear and tear, etc. Unless you plan on using your laptop very frequently and spend hours working on your projects, you may be better off leaving it at home. Consider just bringing a few important files on an external USB storage device, such as the cheap small flash memory sticks, and work at Internet Cafés from time to time. Tablets are another option, since they are now not expensive to replace, they are more portable and they need not be hooked up to a power supply so frequently.
Preparing to Take your Laptop
So you have decided that you will travel with your laptop or not travel at all. The next step is to figure out how to prepare yourself and your computer for the challenges that await you both overseas. If you plan to access the Internet with your laptop, you need to make sure that you have the latest security updates installed as well as a firewall. Both will help to prevent unwanted intrusions from outside computers, including ever-more-sophisticated adware and spyware.
Here are some possible strategies to keep your mind at ease while traveling:
- Make backup copies of all your important files, and delete everything that is unnecessary, as well as sensitive information that you do not need overseas. You can save important files to external USB drives, many of which now store 32 gigabytes or more. Keep your backup USB drives in a sturdy containers separate from your computer, and in different locations. Often you will carry digital copies of your passport and visa in case of loss, so it is very important to include a copy in a small money belt, for example.
- Encrypt all the files on your laptop computer and as well as on your USB drives, so they become unreadable for anyone other than the user with the correct password.
- Back up your files to a free secure online data storage service, such as the Google Drive. Microsoft, Yahoo, Dropbox, Amazon, and others all provide such options, often for free and at minimal cost per year for many gigabytes of storage space. Note that services that provide 2-step encryption provide even more security for peace of mind.
- Back up your files to the many low-cost cloud-based solutions such as Crashplan, Carbonite, Ibackup, Evault, among others when you are at locations with WiFi.
- Leave your important files at home and retrieve them through remote access by connecting to your home computer via your home IP address. All you need to do is configure your home computer to allow remote access and set up a user name and password to access it from anywhere in the world. Check your computer’s manual and help function to find out the details about how to connect to your computer remotely. The disadvantage to this approach is that your home computer has to be always up and running, and you need someone at home many need to check up on the status. Remote access does leave your computer open to sophisticated hacks, so some opt not to go this course and use the "cloud" instead.
- Bring a backup of the operating system via USB stick or CD, as well as backups of important software that needed for your travels.
- Bring a repair USB stick or CD from which you can start up your computer, in case you have hard disk problems. Most anti-virus companies now offer disk repair and file backup software, often to their cloud. These programs can perform scheduled hard disk checks and back up vital file information, in case you need to restore your hard disk.
- Instead of bringing a portable printer, bring a portable, external USB storage device, save the files you would like to print, and then take it to a print shop or Internet café for printing. A friend of mine brought a small USB drive to Argentina, which he wore around his neck for ready access. An external USB drive is also great for backing up important files that you are working on, or for storing encrypted passwords.
Power and Connectivity
Although you can get power adapters for airplanes, I have rarely found a power outlet in economy class. So unless you travel in business or first class, it will be difficult to take advantage of your airline adapter. The excellent Seatguru.com website provides diagrams of the fleets of many airlines marking the rows and seats with power outlets for laptops, provides information on the availability of WiFi access, and offers many other resources. If you plan on using your computer for an extended time during your flight, you should bring a second battery, and change your laptop’s power settings to extend battery life. That way you won’t have to depend on getting a seat or an airline with a power outlet available.
The power grid is often unreliable in many developing countries, and a surge protector can save both your power adapter and your computer in case of a power surge. If you plan to send to sign on to the Internet via WiFi or even a modem, your surge protection should also include a phone jack. Many new laptops no longer have built in modems, so you may need to bring an external one to be safe, though WiFi access is now becoming commonplace worldwide.
Unlike other electrical appliances, laptops don’t require an electrical transformer to work overseas. Most laptop power adapters can convert voltage from 110-240 to power your computer, which is very practical for traveling. All you need is a plug adapter to accommodate the type of electrical plug used at your destination. To be sure, read the labels on your power adapter, which will tell you the input voltage range of your unit.
With power supply unreliable in many remote areas and developing countries, bringing an extra battery is a good way to ensure that you can put in the working hours you need. Keep in mind that older batteries can suddenly lose charge, and you don’t want to be stranded abroad without a working battery. Many travelers make use of downtime while waiting for a train or flight by working on their laptops—so make sure your batteries are in good working condition.
Although dial-up connections via modem are no longer common for home or office use, it is still good to be prepared during an international trip to use a phone line for Internet access, in an emergency, if you have no readily available broadband or WiFi connection. You may find fewer WiFi hotspots in some locations around the world except at airports and major hotels, though this is rapidly changing due to an upsurge in expectations due to generational demand. But if connectivity is critical for you, and you are staying at hotels with a telephone in your room but no WiFi there or nearby, it might be prudent to consider a local dial-up service during your travels. Many Internet service providers overseas have low-cost options that allow for prepaid dial-up access to the Internet for a certain amount of hours per month. But such a need a fortunately now a huge exception rather than the rule.
Keeping your Laptop Safe and Alive
Bringing a laptop lock can help secure your computer in your hotel room, and may deter theft, but it is not a surefire guarantee. Hide your laptop when you are not in your room, so it is not immediately noticeable. I have had little trouble with hotel theft on my travels in over 40 countries, but it that does not mean it has not happened to someone you know at some point.
WiFi access is a great innovation that makes connected traveling very easy. However, since public WiFi networks are open to anyone, there are certain security risks. You never know who is trying to spy on your Internet activities, and I recommend not accessing bank accounts or transmitting vital information while linked to an open WiFi network at hotels, businesses, airports, or coffee shops.
While it is common for people in North America to work on their laptops in public spaces such as cafés, this is much less the case overseas. In many developing countries a laptop computer is a sign of wealth that exposes you to the risk of theft. The less openly you carry your laptop around, the better. For the most part I have limited myself to working on my laptop in my hotel room or at a friend’s house. I also usually put my laptop case in a backpack when out in public, so it is not immediately noticeable as a computer. I have found this to be helpful at bus and railway stations, where theft can be quite common in some less wealthy countries.
Hard drives can be damaged easily when a computer is dropped or when it experiences heavy vibration or knocks. There are a number of laptops today (Apple, Hewlett Packard, just to mention a few) that include motion sensor drop protection, a technology that senses when your computer suddenly changes its position and then locks the read/write head of the hard drive so it won’t be damaged during a drop or sudden movement. This is a nice feature if you are out and about with your computer a lot.
I always thought that computers are immune to climate change. I was wrong. The high humidity in the Brazilian Amazon accelerated the corrosion on ribbon cable contacts of my laptop keyboard, and slowly I lost the function of more and more keys, until I had to use an external keyboard. I also wanted to keep my computer protected and out of sight while traveling, and I realized too late that the dark and humid environment of my laptop case promoted mold growth. After I opened my laptop after a week, the keyboard and screen were green with mold, and my hard drive no longer worked.
If you travel abroad for a long time and have regular work to do on your laptop, you might want to find out if your computer manufacturer sells computers in the country you are traveling in. This could make it much easier to get replacement parts or have your laptop repaired. As an Macintosh user, I had no way to get my hard drive repaired in the Amazon or buy a replacement, since Apple computers are not widely used in Brazil. The nearest repair shop was in São Paulo, a few thousand miles away.
If you plan on watching DVDs on your laptop while traveling, be aware of the fact that there are six global region codes for DVDs. This is basically a protective system put in place by the entertainment industry to protect their movies from being easily pirated and sold abroad. A North American laptop will not play DVDs from Europe, since your laptop is programmed to play "Region 1" DVDs only. You can change the region code on your laptop to play DVDs anywhere in the world, but you can only change your computer’s region code five times. If you plan on watching a lot of foreign DVDs or if you travel for a long time, it may be worth switching your computer’s region code, but you need to keep track of how many times you are switching DVD regions, so you will be able to go back to your original region code after you return home from your travels.
Of course, if you have WiFi access, streaming services are often the best bet for entertainment. Some people even bring along devices such as AppleTV, and have hardware to access scores of streaming services linked to their cable provider back home, if they have cable.
For more information about staying connected, check out our Staying Connected While Abroad resources. If you prefer not to lug along your own laptop when traveling but wish to stay connected via the Internet, see my article on Using Internet Cafés Abroad for some practical inside tips.
For More Info
Internet Access and Computer Connectivity:
Laptop Travel, www.laptoptravel.com, is an online store offering laptop mobility products as well as information and advice for laptop travelers.
Roadnews, www.roadnews.com, provides info and resources for international travelers with laptop computers; also hosts a forum for information exchange.
Boingo, www.boingo.com, is a monthly paid service providing access hotspots worldwide.
Hard Drive Diagnostics, Repair and Restore Software:
Norton (by Symatec) System Works, us.norton.com.
Techtool Pro (Macintosh only), www.micromat.com.
Online Data Storage:
See reviews and links to the many great options for cloud backup storage, which is very useful, if not indispensable, at home and overseas. You never want to lose photos and docs and there is no reason to anymore if you have an Internet connection. Absent onlne storage, thumb/flash cards are still useful.
You can use Google docs, Google Drive, GMail, and much more
Read Nora Dunn's Protecting Your Laptop Computer and Sensitive Information Abroad for more information about important security issues.
Travel writers or bloggers might wish to read a concise article on the Best Travel Laptops by the fine Women on the Road blog.