Staying connected while abroad is important for both the student and the loved ones back home; make a communication plan! Many of your friends and family are anxious to see your updates and hear from you while you're abroad. However, through our overly connected world it is important to find the balance between staying connected and experiencing the culture of your host country and city. Prior to going abroad, do your research and find the best options for staying connected for you and your international experience.
Some things to think about are:
- How long am I going for? Does it make sense to activate my U.S. plan or should I look into international plans?
- What is internet access like in my host country?
- Be sure to test any option you choose prior to going abroad to see if it will work for you. Example: My plan is to use WhatsApp for non-emergency communication: Put your phone on airplane mode, connect to WiFi, see if your app works.
Cell phone technology changes quickly, so make sure to do your research on your travel destination before going abroad. Many locations around the world use cell phone systems that won’t allow you to use your US cell phone while abroad. Many students buy or rent inexpensive cell phones upon arrival. Make sure to talk with your program coordinator or friends and acquaintances who’ve traveled to your location to find out cell phone availability and pricing. International phone plans CAN be very expensive, so it is critical you do your research ahead of time.
Some students will opt to purchase a SIM card upon arrival in their host country, which can prove to be a very quick, convenient, and affordable way to get cell phone service. Oftentimes, however, SIM cards require an unlocked phone, so it's important to ensure the phone you bring with you from the United States is not only compatible with the cell phone system used in your host country (typically "GSM" outside of the US), but also unlocked and able to accept a SIM card. Once in country, SIM cards can usually be bought at airports, train/bus stations, supermarkets, and convenience stores.
Be sure to do some research about the availability and reliability of internet access before you go abroad. Many students will opt to use WiFi connections as opposed to data plans for their phones as well as for non-emergency communication apps (listed below). However, keep in mind that internet connections may be slower than you are use to and the further you are from major cities, the less reliable access tends to be.
Skype is a popular option that will allow you to call home for free from your computer. If you choose to use Skype while abroad, make sure your loved ones back at home know how to use it as well, and even consider setting it up for them. They’ll love the experience of getting to see and talk to you while you are abroad!
WhatsApp is an app you can download for free that works on iPhone, Android, and Windows phones. It allows users to send texts, pictures, and video to other WhatsApp users, just as you would at home with your US phone. WhatsApp WILL require you to have a valid phone number to create an account, so you'll need to be sure and setup your account prior to leaving the U.S. Similar apps that are popular outside of the US include, but are not limited to Viber, LINE, and Facebook Messenger.
Social media can provide you with the perfect platform to share your experience abroad with family and friends back home, however, it's also important to take advantage of your time abroad and not spend extensive amounts of time using social media. You're going to go abroad, take it all in, and don't waste precious time on social media. Your experience shouldn't be spent counting the number of likes your latest post received, but something you do for you.
A blog can be a wonderful tool to keep your family and friends informed of all that you're seeing, learning, and doing abroad, but also a great way to keep track of all the memories you're creating. A "greener," and perhaps more manageable alternative to keeping a paper journal, blogging can be a very rewarding experience for both you and those you care about. Many students not only find that blogging while abroad gives them a way to reflect on their experience, but also helps them to "relive" their experience abroad upon their return back to the United States. Free blogging sites include Blogger and Wordpress.