Using Your Phone Outside the US

A friend of mine was asking about using his phone outside the US while on a vacation. I’ve done this, but while on long stays abroad (several months). Still, I’d probably do this for short-term stays.

Google Voice
Before my first stay abroad in 2013, I ported my cell number to Google Voice. If you’re not familiar, it allows you to send/receive text messages, receive voicemails, with just an internet connection. When you get a call, it will ring all US numbers you specify and route it to whichever picks up first. So after I ported my cell number, I just got a new one and told GV to call it. And, it does all this for free!

This allowed me to send and receive text messages, and receive voicemail, anywhere in the world where I had internet/wifi. So someone could call and leave a message, then you just text them back that you’re on vacation. That covers most situations, but GV also allows you to make phone calls internationally for a fee, if you configure it with credit. I can’t speak to this as you’ll read in a minute.

However, Google Voice also rings all the phone numbers you control. One option is to have it call a friend, family, or answering service. But instead, I set it up to call a…

Skype Number
Skype allows you to purchase a regular phone number. You call that number and it will route to your Skype. As long as you have internet/wifi, you can talk to anyone who calls you. There is a fee for the number, but not a fee to receive calls.

Of course, you can load your Skype account with credit so you can to text or call phones. Right now, it’s 2.3 cents/minute or $3/month. I pay per minute since I use it so infrequently. GV saves me from Skype texting fees (a ridiculous 11.2 cents/text!), but I have called people from Skype before. I’ll add that if you need to call a business with a toll-free number (credit card company, insurance, etc.) then there is no charge to call from Skype. I’ve done this many times while abroad.

Of course, you can make free Skype-to-Skype calls and I have many friends and family in Skype, and if not, I can text them my Skype ID via GV or email them for free. There is one more option or twelve:

Facebook Messenger
WhatsApp
Line
Viber
Snapchat

You think of these as messaging (texting) apps, but did you know you can call people like it’s a phone? Even video calls, or just sending voicemails. All you need is the internet and it’s free.

Getting Internet

That’s how you talk to your friends, but how do you get internet abroad? Or even phone service?

Pocket WiFi
This is basically a wifi hotspot about half the size of your cell phone and it gets mobile data – typically LTE – from a local cell phone company. It’s rechargeable but should have enough juice to last you on your day trip. Many Airbnb places I rented offered one to guests. But if not, many places will rent them to you, possibly in the airport.

NOTE: If you are going to Japan, this is the only to get mobile data because they make it very hard to get SIM cards. They are trying to eliminate burner phones as too many senior citizens were getting scammed by people calling on burners claiming to be grandchildren requiring money.

SIM Card
I don’t go anywhere for less than a month, but honestly, I think this is a good way to go for shorter trips, too. For one, it eliminates the chance that roaming will kick in, although you should be able to go through your phone’s settings and turn that off. Also, prepaid mobile plans abroad are way cheaper than in the US. This will be about $20-25/month.

Before my trip, I ask on expat forums which mobile company has the fastest data for the city I’ll be living in. If you’ll be traveling around the country, ask who has the best service nationwide, because they are frequently different. One company will serve fast internet in the cities, another will be slower but have towers throughout the countryside (AKA the provinces, the villages, etc.).

If they have a shop or kiosk in the airport, I’ll buy a SIM card before I leave for my apartment/hotel and get a good data plan with basic voice. Otherwise, I ask a local for the main office in the city and travel there. It will have the most techs to deal with your phone issues and more people who speak English well.

Don’t forget your passport – it’s required for a SIM card.

VERY IMPORTANT! DO NOT LOSE YOUR ORIGINAL SIM CARD! Bring something like a waterproof key holder to keep it in. Yes, that’s way too big and bulky, and you’ll thank me when you don’t lose it. I’ve lost mine and it’s a pain to get a new one and port your number back.

Remeber, for a short trip, you might want to just bring your tablet or an old phone and put a SIM card in that. Then you don’t worry about losing your original SIM card. It’s now a bigger, bulkier pocket wifi.

Hardware
I always buy a factory-unlocked phone and then use a prepaid plan, as this saves me money in the long run and avoids lock-in. Very important if you’re prone to leaving the country for months at a time.

In general, I’m looking for a phone with the most bands so it can be used anywhere. In 2012, before my big trip, that was a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 International Edition, which had the most bands but no LTE support. It’s also very big, which is great when you use it like a map while exploring the city.

Eventually, no LTE was a big disadvantage. On a Christmas sale in 2015, I purchased my current phone, a Nexus 6P. This gets me LTE in every country an has, I understand, every possible band there is. It’s like a Star Trek communicator. Again, factory unlocked, which really makes things go smoothly in the phone shop. The tech is used to people coming in with locked phones, so “factory unlocked direct from Google” is like “open sesame” for carrier tech support. It doesn’t hurt that it had the top rated low light camera at the time.

Given that good experience, I will probably upgrade to a Pixel XL when my 6P becomes unusable or there is a killer feature introduced. Right now, the only thing that amazes me about the Pixel 2 XL is how much they are asking for it – $750 vs. the $450 I paid for the 6P.  If you have a phone that works awesome globally, please comment!

The Information Diet

The Information Diet

I’ve just started experimenting with an “information diet” and the effect on my productivity has been enormously positive. This concept was invented years ago and at the time I thought, “sure, I guess some people need that.” But not mois! However, after years of avoiding it, I’ve recently joined Twitter, and while not an enormous time suck on its own, it caused me to look at everything I do that isn’t making progress toward my goals. As I’m in the process of expanding my consulting practice into something serious, I really want to focus. So here’s what I have cut out on my diet days:

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • News sites (including Hacker News)
  • Wikipedia
  • IMDB
  • Yelp1
  • Web stats – Google Analytics & Webmaster Tools, WordPress Stats, etc.

It kind of pains me to write that out because it really highlights the unimportant stuff I’ve been doing every day. Yes, social media is part of marketing a business, but there’s a lot of nonessential distractions that happen while you use those sites.

So what was allowed?

  • Actual work
  • Books that make me better at my job
  • Urgent & important chores (walking the dog, cooking, laundry)
  • TV while eating

I knew it would be tough, and easy to put off, but thought that I should be able to do it for one day. I’m giving up sweets for Lent, which I do every year and never find it to be a problem, other than not getting cake on my birthday. However, that’s a unique situation. I’m not a terribly religious man (I can’t remember the last time I went to church), but when you promise God you’re not going to do something, you just don’t do it.

Heck, if I promise just about anyone anything, I follow through. But when you promise yourself something, you really have nobody to hold you accountable. And I was worried this was something I could put off indefinitely, so I used an oft recommended trick, which is to start now, not tomorrow. I’m guessing it works because there are many tomorrows, but only one “now.”

Here’s the problem: I was watching The Wolf of Wall Street when I thought of this. That itself wasn’t the problem; I wasn’t telling myself I had to shut off the movie. The problem was that as soon as it ended, I desperately wanted to hit Wikipedia and read about Jordan Belfort. What an outrageous story! What parts were true? This lasted for a solid 36 hours and I probably should have called my doctor. But as a fountain of useless knowledge, this was precisely the type of thing I would learn and retain for years, displacing some equally unimportant fact, like the value of pi to 2 decimal places.

Here’s the remarkable thing: I still don’t know any more than Martin Scorsese saw fit to tell me. As far as I know, the whole thing’s true. Because the day after my “fast,” every time I used a junk food site, I was acutely aware I was not making optimal use of my time. I felt I had to be careful. It was kind of like when I pass an awesome ice cream shop after hitting the gym. “Hell no! I am not destroying the progress I just made.”

And after a couple days of junk info, today I went back on the diet. It was a lot easier, and I feel good about it. It reminds me a lot of a low/slow carb diet. Tough at first, but when you see progress you want to keep going. Only I’m getting results way faster than I do on low carb.2 It seems like something I could do more than 50% of the time. Which is definitely what I should do.

  1. Foodies can spend silly amounts of time looking for a place to eat lunch or get coffee []
  2. I am not one of those people who loses radical amounts of weight without feeling hungry. I’m hungry after months on that diet. []

Syncing Thunderbird Contacts and Calendar with Blackberry

Sometime late last year I switched from Outlook 2003 to Thunderbird.1 I liked Outlook, I was used to it from work, so I didn’t want to switch. But it didn’t take long before it’s abysmal IMAP support drove me nuts with bogus error messages. I know Microsoft makes money off Exchange servers, not IMAP servers, but how hard can it be? Every other free mail client works great with IMAP!

This includes Thunderbird. Sure, it’s not as polished or mature as Outlook when it comes to contacts2 or tasks, but I am no longer getting error messages every 10 minutes. Unfortunately, Blackberry Desktop software won’t sync Thunderbird contacts and calendar items.

Enter Google. Now, I still haven’t jumped on the Gmail bandwagon; I use Yahoo Mail for my spammy accounts, simply because I already had that account. But I do have a Google account, and I recently learned that their Contact Manager and Calendar apps have their own home pages that don’t require Gmail accounts. And they allow 2-way syncing! So here’s what you need:

A Google Calendar – use the links above. Make note of the private XML link; to find that, you must click on Settings, then the link for your calendar.

Lightning
This Thunderbird add-on gives you calendar and task functions. I’m assuming you already have this installed.

Provider for Google Calendar
This Thunderbird add-on allows syncing with your Google calendar. Unfortunately, your current Thunderbird calendar is no good anymore. If you already have stuff in it, you have to export it. Use iCalendar (.ics) format! The other formats do not support recurring events like birthdays or any weekly reminders you have set up. Import that file into Google Calendar, disable your current Thunderbird calendar (under Properties), and then create a new Google calendar within Thunderbird (this requires the private XML calendar link).

Zindus
This Thunderbird add-on syncs your contacts with Google Contact Manager. Make sure your contacts are clean before you sync. For instance, I imported my Outlook Contacts into a Contacts address book, but Thunderbird defaults to a Personal Address Book. I should have copied them over right away, but didn’t. Thunderbird automatically collected addresses, so I wound up with duplicates I had to merge or delete. Zindus will spot duplicates during the syncing process and let you pick one and delete the other, but it’s probably safer to do this by hand. When that’s done, go to Tools >> Zindus and sync.

Google Sync

This mobile app syncs your contacts and calendar with what you just set up on Google. It can be installed from within Google Mobile, which I already had installed so I could get Google Maps Mobile.3 Install it, sign in, and you’re done!

  1. This was after switching from SquirrelMail to Outlook. []
  2. Why can’t I highlight text on the contact card? This drives me nuts! []
  3. BTW, Maps is way better than Sprint Navigation. Sure, there’s no voice nav (which I admit is important), but for seeing where you are, scrolling around that map, and doing local searches, it wins hands down. Its routes are far superior, so if you can remember the directions, you’ll get where you’re going faster than the Sprint voice navigation. []