It’s now easier than ever to stay connected 24x7x365. But that doesn’t mean it’s all mausoleums and mimosas.
There are so many options for staying connected it can be challenging to find what’s right for you.
I’ll break down the most common options and provide some tips and tricks. I’ll admit it, most of the time I do not like being offline.
Mobile Data Connectivity
In your home country you probably don’t even think about it. Your mobile phone and data just work. If you’ve got an in-expensive plan, or no plan, you might have to add credits/money once a month.
Outside your home country your home data may not work. It may cost you a flat daily fee. Or worst case it will charge you for every bit of data you download. (Bonus if you’re a geek like me and get that joke. 😉 )
Check with your provider to see if your data will “roam” with you and how much it will cost. Congrats if it’s free. Read on if it it’s not.
Obviously, free global roaming data is the best and most convenient option. You don’t need to buy anything else, configure anything, or change your setup.
If you can’t roam for free, the next cheapest option is often a local SIM (subscriber identity module). The downside is you’ll likely have to go to a store, during business hours, buy the SIM and wait while the clerk sets it up, which could take up to 72 hours (it generally doesn’t). The next downside of a local SIM is you will need a device to put it in. You could put it in your normal mobile device, but then your old SIM/phone number is offline and unreachable.
Many people use a mobile wifi (or mifi) puck device to create a private cellular wifi network and attach their devices to it. (This is what I do.) It’s a good balance of accessibility and connectivity. I can use my “home” mobile for calls, SMS and two-factor authentication (2FA) and my puck for data. I’m not excited about carrying 2 devices all the time, but I need 2FA almost every day, so it’s this option, or put my home SIM in a burner phone and my local SIM in my primary phone.
My current puck is an unlocked NETGEAR Nighthawk MR1100 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot Router (affiliate link). TIP: It is CRITICAL that you get an UNLOCKED device. This allows you to use any local SIM. A locked device will only work with a SIM provided by that carrier. I like the NETGEAR because it has good battery life (14+ hours of continuous use) and an ethernet port if I want to created a wired network. I’ve used it in multiple countries without any issues. I just pop in a local activated SIM and all my devices connect immediately. NOTE: They do need to be connected manually the first time.
TIP: Try searching for SIM discounts before you land in a new country. You may score a better deal by reserving online in advance.
Full Disclosure: I am not getting any money, discounts, coupons or freebies for the recommendations below, just helping everyone wander smarter and safer.
TRICK: If you are wandering and using local SIMs I recommend ezeTop. There’s no need to find a shop that’s open to add money to your account. Plus people back home could send top ups to your account!
If a host of local SIMs, is too much hassle you can get a global service from GlocalMe, Skyroam Solis, SapphireGo, and others. You will pay a much higher cost per MB download for the convenience of not having to swap SIMs.
Satellite wifi used to be only available for governments and big corporations, but now individuals (with generous bank accounts) can get it for $60-500/month + start up fees and equipment. It’s a bargain compared to even 10 years ago when similar options would cost you $5000-$50,000 per month. Popular providers are: HughesNet.com, Viasat.com, and Starlink.com.
Voice and Text Connectivity
Now that you’ve got the data covered, you can now leverage it and stay connected with voice calls and text services for no additional costs. I wish there was secure all-in-one messaging app, but currently there is not, so I have multiple duplicative apps depending on who I’m texting or calling.
I first learned of WhatsApp when I was in Delhi, India in 2013 for a friend’s wedding. The guests were coming from all over the globe and my mobile provider didn’t roam to India. Many of us downloaded the app on wifi and were happily texting updates to plans immediately. WhatsApp is MUCH more capable now, with group messages, voice, video, and more. It’s easy to change your number (if you need to swap SIMs) or share your contact info via a QR code.
It’s a useful app, providing many of the same features as WhatsApp. Voice, video, and group messages are easy. You can also set it as your default SMS app (not recommended for privacy reasons).
My default SMS app. Signal is safer than many messaging apps because it uses end-to-end encryption, which ensures that no one (not even Signal) can intercept and read your messages. Plus it isn’t owned by Meta and doesn’t mine your contacts for data. And it doesn’t require recipients to use Signal, they can use their preferred SMS app, tho’ the messages won’t be encrypted.
Yet another app. I include Skype because you can add money/credits and then make and receive calls from anywhere in the world for about $0.02/minute. A significant savings over the $4.00 minute I was charged in India in 2013.
Once you’re online you may need a VPN to access some websites, but that’s a post for another day.