Dear Mom and Dad,
I thought I’d share with you a few of the ways that you can stay in touch with me even while I’m abroad. I may be outside the country, but unlike when Dad traveled around the world in the 70s, this is a very different world. We’ve got computers and smart phones and iPads and e-mail. There are still postcards, of course, but when sending an SMS (text message) is instantaneous, there’s very little reason for us to not be able to communicate quickly and easily.
This guide is to help you understand how we can stay in touch when either of us is abroad. We’re in the 21st century and even though we don’t have flying cars (yet), we have developed some incredible communication tools. A lot of great start ups have improved the way we communicate. The way we can communicate from just about anywhere! You may be in Hong Kong and I may be in Berlin, but Skype will still work for both of us, so long as we’re connected to the internet. You’ve got a cell phone in the USA which allows you to make a phone call to India with just a few buttons. It might cost 10 cents a minute, but for a 5-minute phone call, it’s still less than your Starbucks coffee. And really…wouldn’t you be treating me to a coffee anyways?
Mom and Dad, I want you to realize what an incredible world we live in—how easy it is to communicate with both strangers and those that we know and love. This how-to guide is for you. And let’s be honest: it’s for me, too. Because even though I may be living abroad as an expat, I still like to speak with you and hear your voice, to see your face when I can. Even if I’m on top of a volcano in Guatemala or on the beach in Spain, we can still stay in touch. So, in such a highly connected world, let’s make sure we stay connected.
How to stay in touch when traveling abroad
Connect anywhere with Skype
This is probably the most popular tool used by travelers, by students studying abroad and by expats. Skype allows you to set up a free account and so long as you use their software, it’s free to make video calls or send chat messages. That means I could log in to Skype on my iPhone, and my parents could be logged into Skype on their computer…and we can video chat for free.
Alternatively, Skype also allows you to buy credit which you can then use to make regular phone calls from abroad. I’ve used Skype to call my bank in the USA from a hostel in Cairo, or to get a hold of my Mom when I really needed to speak to her (on her cell phone). The service also allows you to buy your own online number so that you can receive voicemails. It’s probably the most useful, free tool in the world for connecting people and yet I still have plenty of friends in the USA who just don’t use it. Get on board!
Learn more at skype.com
Send messages & photos for free with iMessage
With Apple products, the text messaging app offers a free messaging-to-messaging service. Anyone who has an iPhone or iPad can send a free message to one another so long as they’ve turned on and activated the iMessage feature in their settings. It’s an incredibly useful feature and works across borders. My iMessage account is active on my iPhone and is connected to my e-mail and my phone number. This means that anytime my phone is connected to a wifi network when I’m outside the country, I can send and receive iMessages—for free.
iMessages can be sent with photos or text, so this is really an awesome feature. And when I use my data connection on a cellular network with a local SIM card (see below), I’ve got free unlimited text messaging. So long as the people I want to write to are also using iPhones or iPads.
WhatsApp: cross-platform free phone messaging
Just like iMessage, the cross-platform WhatsApp works in a similar way. It allows for unlimited text messaging (and photos!) from just about every type of smart phone. Unlike iMessage though, you have to have your WhatsApp connected to a phone number to initially set it up. The biggest benefit to using WhatsApp is that my friends who have Android phones can still contact me for free (anywhere in the world) on my iPhone. It’s pure brilliance.
I tend to use WhatsApp equally among my friends back home in the USA, as well as my international friends here where I live. It’s pretty much universal at this point as a cost-effective way for just about anyone to communicate with anyone else anywhere in the world. There are other similar services popular in different regions of the world, ones that aren’t necessarily tied to a phone number (such as kik), but WhatsApp is what I’m most familiar with.
Learn more at whatsapp.com
Video chat on FaceTime
Another Apple-only product, FaceTime allows for video chat across Apple products anywhere in the world. It works best over a decent wifi connection, but can also work over cellular data. You just have to be weary because it’ll drain most of your data plan; video is quite the data hog! FaceTime works pretty much the same way as Skype or other similar video chat software, but I’ve found it to be mostly reliable. Plus it’s easily embedded within Apple products so my parents who each have iPhones have found it easier to use on a mobile device than other third-party apps (like Skype).
Learn more at apple.com
International SIM cards—phones work everywhere!
You know what’s so spectacular about a globalized world? Mobile phones are just about everywhere now. And in many countries it’s quite easy and affordable to buy a SIM card giving you a local phone number. The world’s mobile phone network is pretty spectacular if you think about it—satellites and networks making connections between people on just about every corner of the globe.
When traveling, I tend to pick up a local SIM card depending upon the length of my stay. One month in Thailand? Sure, I can grab a cheap, pay-as-you-go SIM card at a 7-11 and have the ability to make local AND international calls. With a phone number, my friends and family back home can call me whenever they feel like it. Sure, there might be pay-per-minute fees, but in the big scheme of things, the cost is often quite cheap. My Dad used to tell me about dropping a few Euros (well, Francs back then) in a pay phone in Paris whenever he had some spare change—just to make a quick call back home to his parents. With mobile phones there’s no need to seek out a pay phone, but instead, just charge a few bucks onto your phone and make a call. Easy.
There are also lots of services which rent SIM cards to travelers. You can usually order them before a trip or else pick one up at the airport.
Read more: Staying connected while traveling
E-mail and snail mail
Oh to live in our modern times! While there are lots of ways to stay in touch with family and friends that involve phones, voice and video, it’s still quite possible to stay connected through more traditional means: mail. Whether it’s e-mail or postcards this is a still-reliable form of communication. Of course, it’s not perfect. Letters can be lost in the mail, and e-mail can be redirected to spam, but these are the exceptions rather than the norm.
As an expat, I’ve got a permanent address abroad so it’s quite easy for me to receive mail and packages (hint hint).
Social media: Foursquare, Facebook & etc
There’s quite an aversion to social media by people of a certain generation. However, they’re missing the point. In a global society where things are instantaneous, sure you get a lot of crap—but there’s still nuggets of gold mixed in there. Apps like Foursquare allow users to “check-in” to a specific location, sharing their whereabouts with friends. I like it because it’s real-time but it’s also relatively accurate. I only use it to check-in to places when I’m there, so that my friends and family who follow me can see what I’m up to.
Facebook also allows for check-ins but you’re allowed to do so after-the-fact. Foursquare is based on geo-location and is mostly a mobile-only app. Social media still works in wonderful ways, though. Facebook offers video calling through their website as part of their integration with Skype.
If you have any tips for how to stay in touch abroad, leave them below in the comments!