How to Take Your Electronic Devices Overseas
by Volker Poelzl
From time to time readers send us questions about the electronic devices they plan to take overseas. In this column we summarize the most critical issues travelers and expatriates should be aware of when taking their cell phone, laptop computer, or other electronic devices overseas. Among the primary concerns expressed by readers concerns 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
For detailed advice on taking and using your laptop overseas, check out my article: Taking your Laptop Computer Overseas—Practical Tips for Staying Connected Abroad.
Cell Phones and Smart Phones
The first item on most people’s list of what to take overseas is their cell phone, most often packaged with sophisticated smart phone capabilities. If you plan on bringing your cell phone with you, make sure it is the now widely adopted GSM mobile phone with multi-band capabilities. GSM has become the de facto global standard for mobile communications, with over 90% market share, and operates worldwide. If you have a GSM phone you can generally use your provider’s international roaming service or preferably switch out the SIM card and sign up with a cheaper local provider at your destination.
Some cell phones are locked by the service
provider to assure that they can only be used on their own 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 some can cost quite a bit more than locked
mobile phones bundled with a service plan. If you own an unlocked GSM cell phone, you shouldn’t have any problems taking it overseas and using it with a local provider, but again, be aware of the costs.
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 email 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 smart phone overseas and then sign up with a local service provider for phone calls, emailing, 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 may 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.
Power Compatibility and Other Issues
If you are bringing your cell phone 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 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 ensure that your power adapter or charger is not damaged during a power surge, you might want to consider taking along a portable surge protector.
The good news is that options for web access via cell phones, tablet, and laptops is become more common by the day, and in many countries speed and WiFi hot-spots surpass what you experience at home. As with all aspects of travel, preparation and research is the key.
Note: As of June, 2017, there are airports where the transport of devices in the cabin are not permitted, laptops in particular. Please check the current regulations before you book, as many may not wish to leave expensive equipment in the cargo. I sure would not wish to do so.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.