Many of the questions that I am often asked about living overseas have to do with technology and connectivity. How do you stay connected to people in the US? How do you call home? Move money back and forth? Get your mail? Technology has DEFINITELY made living overseas easier. Like everyone in the US, we use Google chat, iMessage, and Viber to text internationally. I love being able to text my siblings just like I would if I were back in the US. Once you get past texting, the recommendations are less clear. We have gone through a fair bit of trial and error before landing on these suggestions. I thought these tools might be helpful for those considering a move overseas or an international assignment.
Some expats have their mail sent to a relative’s house, or have a relative or friend check their PO box. If you don’t have a relative to do this for you, (or you would rather not), consider using a mail forwarding service. I know several people that use US Global Mail, and have been very happy with the service. They can provide you a US address for shipping, bills, etc. You get a PDF scan of each piece of mail, and then tell them what pieces to send to you or discard.
International Phone Calls
We primarily use Skype to call/video chat with friends and family in the US. In addition, we paid for a Skype local (US) phone number, in our parents’ area code in Texas. You can set it up to forward to your international phone at no charge to the person calling you. That way, we can always give a US phone number to people who need one. Our skype number is forwarded to Brad’s Irish cell phone. We also get email notification when a voicemail has been left on that phone number (which we can access online.) Sometimes the call forwarding doesn’t work perfectly, or we get a notification that we got a voicemail, even though the phone never rang, but it hasn’t ever been a major problem. It can also be helpful to give to vendors that require a US phone number.
Calling while in the US
Expats tend to take longer trips home than most people. When we come to the US, we try to stay at least 3 weeks. If you are taking a long trip back to the US, you don’t want to pay international charges to use your non-US SIM card. Solution: embrace the pre-paid SIM card! I think that pre-paid cell phone service has an unfair bad rap in the US – as in only teenagers, drug dealers, and those with dodgy credit use pre-paid service. But it is a great option for expats! We use a pre-paid T-Mobile plan when we are in the US. It provides both Brad and I with US cell phone numbers, and we just switch out the SIM cards, and away we go. This helps us avoid costly international charges, and our friends and families can reach us via our US numbers whenever we are in the country. We top up at least every 90 days so that we can maintain our US numbers. (The most difficult issue with this arrangement is keeping up with the *tiny* SIM cards!)
We use unlocked smartphones so that we can use both US and Ireland SIM cards. Electronics are generally cheaper in the US (no VAT!), so buy the phone you want before moving overseas. On the other side, phone plans are much cheaper in Europe as compared to the US. You can easily find a monthly plan or a pay-as-you-go plan. In fact, Brad and I still use our pay-as-you-go plan, because the company will direct debit the monthly payment, and there are never any surprises about the bill.
If you are like us, your US expenses don’t end simply because you are living overseas. Getting paid in another currency adds to the complexity. You still need to do online banking, pay bills such as credit cards, mortgages, or student loans. Or perhaps you want to buy something from a US merchant and have it sent to a destination in the US.
VPN – If you haven’t done so already, pay for a virtual private network (VPN). You can set it up to give you an IP address in the United States (or any other country, for that matter). This will come in handy when you need to access US-specific sites that are not accessible outside the US. We use WiTopia personalVPN Pro, and have found it to be very reliable.
Currency exchange. If you are living overseas, at some point, you’ll either need to move dollars to your current country, or vice versa. For that, you can use a wire transfer through a bank, which can be very expensive, or a currency exchange service. We use XE Trade to move euros to dollars to pay US expenses that we might have, or to move money into savings accounts in the US. It isn’t instantaneous, and takes a few weeks to set up the accounts (to prove you aren’t laundering money!), but it is reliable and fairly efficient at moving money between currencies. There are other foreign exchange services, but we have found XE Trade to work best for us. Also, it pays to check around for terms and conditions of different currency exchanges. The best service for your needs may be different, depending on how much money you are looking to move around and into which currencies.
Hopefully these tools will make an overseas move smother, and a bit less frustrating. Did I miss anything? What other questions do you have about living overseas?