Ask the Expat Q&A
Taking Your Electronic Devices Overseas
by Volker Poelzl
From time to time readers send me questions about the electronic devices they plan to take overseas. In this column I summarize the most important issues travelers and expatriates should be aware of when taking their cell phone, PDA, laptop computer, or other electronic devices overseas. Among the primary concerns expressed by readers regard compatibility with local electrical standards, high-speed Internet access, and cell phone and data transfer frequencies that vary from country to country. The good news is that there is an increasing global compatibility of these devices with each new generation of products and wireless networks
Cell Phones and Smartphones
The first item on most people’s list of what to take overseas is their cell phone. Beware however, that the frequency bandwidth of cell phone networks varies from country to country, and most common cell phones sold in the U.S. only support the two frequencies used in North America (850 MHz and 1900 MHz). If you plan on bringing your cell phone with you, make sure it is a UMTS (one of the third-generation cell phone technologies) or GSM mobile phone with multi-band capabilities. If you have the above cell phone types you can either use your provider’s international roaming service or switch out the SIM card and sign up with a local provider at your destination.
Some cell phones are locked by the service provider to assure that they can only be used on their network, so make sure that your phone is unlocked before you go. There are several companies that sell kits to unlock your phone so you can use it with other providers. You can also purchase an unlocked cell phone at home, but they cost quite a bit more than locked mobile phones bundled with a service plan. If you own an unlocked UMTS or GSM cell phone, you shouldn’t have any problems taking it overseas and using it with a local provider.
If your phone won’t work when you arrive at a destination, you have several options for buying a cell phone overseas: You can get a cheap pre-paid mobile phone. Unfortunately this option does not usually include data transfer services for e-mail and Web access. These pre-paid phones are limited to phone calls and text messaging. The advantage is that you do not need a permanent address, which is great for shorter overseas stays, or if you move around a lot. Another option is to buy a mobile phone or smartphone overseas and then sign up with a local service provider for phone calls, e-mailing, and Internet access.
If you plan on traveling to several countries within a short period of time, you might be better off bringing your phone from home and signing up for an international roaming plan with your provider at home. Regardless of your cell phone service provider at home, international roaming plans for phone calls and data are usually quite expensive once you leave your provider’s area of coverage. Most major cell phone service providers have roaming agreements with overseas companies and offer reception in large regions, but you should research the details before your trip to assure that you will have a signal when you need it to avoid disappointment.
If you stay overseas for a longer period of time, you have the advantage of being able to sign up with a local wireless network, which is much more cost effective than paying for roaming charges with your cell phone or wireless plan at home. This requires some shopping around, but it will save you a lot of money in the end.
PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants)
Unless you are a business traveler who depends on a PDA for calendars, daily organizers, and e-mail, it is probably best to leave it at home. Most PDAs depend on WiFi access for data transmission, but in many countries WiFi access is not nearly as common as it is in the U.S. Depending on where you travel, WiFi networks are often hard to come by except at major hotels, airports, or convention centers. Smartphones are increasingly taking over the functionality of PDAs, and they have the advantage that they work with data networks provided by their mobile phone service providers, making you independent of local WiFi networks. But if you decide to travel with your PDA, you need to be resourceful to find those WiFi hotspots. I have found that many cafés in popular tourist attractions around the world as well as restaurants and bars owned by expatriates provide WiFi access—sometimes even for free.
Power Compatibility and Other Issues
If you are bringing your cell phone or PDA with you, make sure that the power adapter will work with the voltage at your destination. You may need a plug adapter to fit the local power outlet. Make sure that you have easy access to replacement parts, such as batteries and power adapters, either by researching if they are available locally or by arranging for an easy way to have them shipped to you. It can be very inconvenient to have a dead cell phone or PDA battery and not be able to find a quick replacement. This is also true for other electronic devices that use chargeable batteries that only work with your particular model, such as MP3 players, digital cameras, and video cameras. When the rechargeable battery on my digital camera burned out in Guatemala, I was fortunate to be in the country’s second-largest city at the time. It still took me an entire afternoon involving visits to over a dozen electronic stores before I finally found a shop that could place a rush order to have the battery shipped from the capital. Another concern is power surges, which can be common in developing countries. To make sure that your power adapter or charger is not damaged during a power surge, you might want to consider taking along a portable surge protector.
For advice on using your laptop overseas, check out my article: Taking your Laptop Computer Overseas—Practical Tips for Staying Connected Abroad.
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 (TAzine). If you have questions about living abroad that you would like have addressed, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volker Poelzl is a frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.