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Expat Technology: What You Must Have to Get By

North Americans are blessed (or cursed, depending on how you want to look at it) with the reality of never having to worry about staying connected or having access to reliable technology. As a result, the lack of dependable means of communication is one of the biggest concerns many potential expats have when preparing to make their move abroad.

They worry they’ll have trouble working if internet service is spotty, or that they won’t be able to access their bank account or favorite websites, or merely that they’ll lose touch with family and friends if communicating becomes increasingly difficult.

The good news is that–with improved phone and internet service in many developing countries and a whole host of apps that help simplify the expat lifestyle–Living, working, and communicating outside the U.S. has never been easier.

Here are a few must-have apps, devices, and services you need to embrace for a smooth transition abroad.

Shinichi Higashi

Shinichi Higashi

Start with a few key devices

Before you make the move, make sure you have at least a few of these devices in carry-on. Don’t think you’re going to be able to get a much better deal on one once you arrive in your destination, as electronics are often slapped with a hefty Value Added Tax (VAT), making them even more expensive than in the U.S.

Laptop computer

With a laptop, you can access the internet in order to email or Skype (more on this app later) with friends and family. You can also use it to watch TV shows, work remotely, and all the other things you currently use your computer to do.


A tablet has the double benefit of handling many of the same tasks as a computer, while being smaller and more portable. It can also duplicate many functions of a smartphone, yet with a much larger screen for games, movies, or ebooks.


There are a number of different brands of these available, each with its own unique benefits. The reason they’re helpful is that many U.S. publications, like books and magazines, aren’t as readily available overseas. Purchasing ebooks or subscribing to digital magazines are great options for keeping up with what’s current.

Smart phone

This one is easily the most important device to have when moving abroad. By unlocking your phone (which can be a breach of contract or void any warranties, so be careful), you swap your U.S. SIM card for a foreign one and then swap it again when you come back for visits.

There are a number of different phone and data plans available in most countries. You can opt for a U.S. based international plan that offers unlimited text and data. Another option is a pre-paid plan, which as it turns out isn’t just for teens and drug dealers.

Phone plans are generally cheaper outside the U.S. But you should still make sure you have a good understanding of how your plan works, including any roaming charges, data limits, etc.

Steve Douglas

Steve Douglas


Meet Your New Best Friends, VoIP and VPN

No matter what other services you subscribe to, like cable, internet, or cellular, you’re definitely going to want to familiarize yourself with these two.


Short for Voice over Internet Protocol, this is a service that uses a device to allow you to make calls over the internet using a standard landline phone or your computer. One great example is magicJack which also has an app that allows you to access the service with your smartphone when you’re on-the-go.


A Virtual Private Network can be thought of as a private tunnel remotely connecting your computer with a server of your choosing, i.e. a U.S. one. There are a number of reasons why you’d want to do that.

For starters, many banks and retailers only allow access to their websites from within their own country. So in order to manage your U.S. accounts or stock up on J. Crew clearance, you’ll need to do so from a U.S. IP (internet protocol) address, which is only possible via a VPN.

Other benefits are that VPNs act as a secure virtual firewall, which is especially important if you’re using wi-fi hotpots. They also allow you to access sites that might be blocked by a particular country’s government.

Another little-known fact is that many travel-related businesses, like airlines and car rental companies, adjust their rates based on your location. So, the cost to rent a car in Germany might cost you more if you book from Panama than if you use a VPN based in California.

Sam Azgor

Sam Azgor


There’s an app for that…

No matter what your need when living or traveling abroad, as the slogan goes, there’s probably an app that can help you. Here are some of the most popular options in a few important categories.

Calls and Texting

Skype is a VoIP service that charges on a per call or pre-pay basis, rather than with a monthly subscription (unless you’re a business user), and has a very user-friendly app. Like other VoIPs, you can use the internet to call any number anywhere, for very reasonable rates.

If you’re using a VPN with a U.S. IP to make a call to a U.S. phone number, that’s considered a domestic call. You can also communicate for free with anyone else who has a Skype account.

Viber, for Mac users, mimics the free user-to-user calls and messaging of Skype. It also gives you the capability to transfer ongoing calls from one device to another. WhatsApp Messenger is a mobile messaging app that allows all smart phone users to send free text messages, images, audio, and video.

Social Media

If you don’t want to talk or text, the many social media sites and apps are a great way to stay on top of what’s happening in the lives of people you know or in the world. You can use apps like Facebook and Twitter to connect with other expats and keep abreast of developments in your area.  

Blogs are another great way to record your new experiences as an expat and share them with friends and family back in your home country. WordPress and Tumblr are two popular ones.


Netflix is a great way of catching up with all the U.S. shows you were hooked on or seeing new releases before they make it to your new country. Make sure you’re using a VPN with a U.S. IP address, or those shows may be blocked.

If you don’t have an e-reader, apps like Kindle or Nook allow you to read your selections on your smartphone or tablet. Finding familiar music can often be a challenge abroad and, although Pandora doesn’t yet have widespread usage, there’s always iTunes Radio and TuneIn, which allows you to listen to almost any radio station in real time.

Translation and Conversion

Since you’ll likely have a new language to contend with in your new location, try the app Duolingo to help you hone your bilingual skills. It uses fun tools to teach several languages and is also kid-friendly.

For on-the-spot translation, try Google Translate. You can input words using your voice, the phone’s camera or keyboard, or even your handwriting to have them immediately translated into up to 90 different languages. A recent upgrade allows you to access saved languages even when you’re offline.

For currency conversions there’s XE Trade, an app that provides up-to-date exchange rates and a currency calculator to help you figure out prices and track expenses.

Finding Stuff

Worried about navigating a foreign country? Fear not. It’s good ole Google Maps to the rescue! However, you can forget not being pegged for a tourist, as the app’s avatar has an American accent and pronounces everything accordingly regardless of her location.

If you need to find an internet hotspot while you’re traveling, try Wi-Fi Finder which can find service anywhere in the world. Apps like Doctoralia can save the day, or maybe even your life, if you find yourself in need of medical care in an unfamiliar area. Not only can you find local health centers and professionals, you can also read reviews left by other users.

Or for those suffering from technology overload

Who knew there were so many options to allow expats to stay connected abroad? The only problem is if your idea of the perfect expat lifestyle involved a slower pace of life where you didn’t feel obligated to make yourself instantly available to anyone at any time.

If that’s the case, there are plenty of places where you can conveniently slide off the grid and under the radar. Even if you still find your expat destination a little too technologically accessible, feel free to hit the “Off” button on any or all of those essential devices. Even the most savvy expat needs a little time to recharge.


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