Staying Connected Overseas

While moving to a foreign country and drinking in the all the experiences it offers is exciting it can also be unnerving to move so far away from friends and family and still find ways to keep in touch.  Leveraging today’s technology can help shrink the distances and make things more manageable.  In this article I’d like to share a few insights about cell phone companies and apps to help inform those looking to stay a little more connected while they’re a lot further away.

Cell phone plans can be a bit tricky over here.  Bills are best paid with automatic bank withdrawals.  Inside the PX one can sign up for a phone plan with the convenience of talking to someone who speaks English and German and is willing to call the phone company auf Deutsch in your behalf.  Off post this language barrier can be more daunting.  It’s a good idea to research all the plans before signing up.  You might want to pay for a shopping experience that works for you even if it doesn’t make financial sense on the surface.

Cell phone companies over here have less competition than they do in the states so some of the features from the stateside carriers like T-Mobile aren’t championed over here to provide competition to the market.  Among the carriers off post to investigate include Vodafone.de and 1und1.de.  While some of the smaller communities such as Graf and Vilseck may not have stores for these carriers, they do offer competitive deals that make them worth looking into.  For example, 1und1.de offers a €30 per device monthly plan that includes roaming in other countries and 4GB of high speed data.  Most other carriers work on a contract basis that can be difficult to get out of especially if PCSing early.

Once you’ve decided which carrier to choose, you can quickly find your phone bill going through the roof calling back to the states.  Today’s app ecosystem makes it easy to stay connected to friends and family by switching the conversation from minutes to data.  Sometimes the number of apps people use can be a bit confusing.  I’d like to do a quick rundown of some of the most popular.  

WhatsApp:  This app is extremely popular.  This easy to use application is owned by Facebook and makes secure calling, chatting & group chats reasonably easy.  Once each person adds the other to their contacts and installs the app WhatsApp will enable a secure communication.  Since only phone numbers are exchanged this app reduces the amount of private information used to create the account.  Because it’s owned by Facebook though the privacy settings and user agreement are subject to change.  Right now Facebook only captures the metadata of the conversation (to include phone numbers) and there’s some kerfuffle over recent changes to the EULA.  After getting your stateside friends to add the app to their phone you’ll be able to call using your phone’s data plan without a hitch.  There is a blackberry app available.

Telegram:  This app is less popular among Americans than WhatsApp, but has similar security features.  It was designed for use by Russian journalists to keep the prying eyes of one of the most intrusive governments away from their communications.  It allows one of the easiest interfaces to share documents of all types and has desktop and web applications that allow you to communicate using your full keyboard in addition to the one on your phone.  The current version does not allow you to make voice calls.  Adding people to telegram is as easy as adding the app and adding them to your contacts.  This app contains more robust group chat features and search which can be very helpful for large group conversations.  Tags can help you easily sort and manage conversations.

Facebook Messenger:  This app makes it easy to do voice, video, and group chats with people you select as friends on facebook.  That can be a huge convenience for some people.  There are some features of this app that cause concern.  Every conversation is secure to Facebook’s servers, but they have full access to the conversation and will use the information according to their EULA.  Earlier versions of the app itself were known to drain battery life.  Keeping in touch with some friends will naturally lead you to keeping this app on your device, but having to make everyone you want to talk with your Facebook friend will limit your ability to make this the one app to rule them all.

Google Hangouts:  This app is free, allows group voice and video chats and is browser compatible with most modern browsers.  The app uses email addresses to be able to connect people and so folks reluctant to share their personal email address will be off-put by using this communication method.  In addition there are parts of the app that feel less polished.  For example you can’t remove people from a group once the group has been created.  There’s no distinction between a group admin and group member like there is with WhatsApp or Telegram.  Like Facebook Messenger all of the data is secured back to Google’s servers where it remains completely searchable to the company to use the information in accordance with the EULA.  Folks with a google voice number will find the app helpful as they can use it to make voice calls to regular US land lines.  Despite being designed for Android there is also a iOS application that works equally as well.

iMessage:  This application secure and robust.  Apple has taken great care to ensure that its users’ information is protected.  The drawback of this application is that there is no Android equivalent.  iMessage is only available to iOS users who have added other iOS users to their contact list.  There is a desktop app available for the mac.

SMS:  This messaging service is basic and functional.  It provides no security or searchability.  It also subjects you to all types of carrier fees from your cell phone provider.  Roaming text messages may apply a hefty fee depending on which countries you choose to visit.

In the end you’re not going to get one app on your phone to rule them all.  Some of the people you stay in contact are going to stick with what they know no matter how insecure or costly that method is.  Knowing the above should help you select the right blend of applications that work for you and the network of people you want to stay in contact with.  

Did I miss something?  Let me know in the comments below.

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