Author’s Update, 2/12/14: It’s been over a year since I wrote the below post. While most of the recommendations stand true, I’ve switched from using magicJack as my primary phone for international calls to Skype. magicJack still works as described, but overall Skype connections have been more reliable and clear. Check back soon for Apps for Expats II, with more input and suggestions!
Ask anyone who’s moved abroad or traveled for extended periods and they’ll agree: staying in touch with folks back home is one of the keys to adjusting to a new life. For those with friends and family in another country, being able to communicate easily can make the distance seem a little less.
Fortunately, casual communication across international borders has never been easier or cheaper. Virtually gone are the days of expensive international calls and internet chats with spotty connections. And while apps like Skype and FaceTime are hugely helpful for calls and chats, there are plenty of other tools for more specific needs. Here are just a few apps – all of which can be downloaded for free – that I love and use regularly:
WhatsApp – This little beauty allows you to text mobile-to-mobile for free. The texts beep when they come in, just like regular text messages. As with Blackberry Messenger, the texts appear as conversations, so it’s easy to see the history. The app allows users to send photos, too. In addition, the app shows you whether the person you are contacting is online (or if not, what time they were last online), if they are typing, etc. – so that you can have some idea of whether to expect an immediate response. WhatsApp also allows users to display a status, e.g., “In a movie,” if they so desire.
Viber – Viber works similarly to WhatsApp when it comes to messaging, though Viber’s capabilities are more expansive. Viber supports sending texts, photos, and video. The user interface is a little too busy and garish for my taste – I prefer WhatsApp for just plain text messaging. However, unlike WhatsApp, Viber also allows you to make actual, free phone calls to other Viber users. This means that I can call my mom in the U.S. for free from my cell phone in Colombia. I will confess that I don’t make too much use of this calling function because, unfortunately, both users need to be connected to very high-speed internet in order to have good call quality. Still, in a pinch, it’s nice to be able to make that emergency international call for free from a cell phone.
NPR News – Oh, NPR, how I love you. Yes, I am addicted. When we first moved to Barranquilla, I went through some serious withdrawal – and then I discovered this app. I can access a huge list of member stations and listen live. Even better, I can select the show I’d like to listen to – for example, Morning Edition – and click on “Find Live Stream” and get a list of stations currently airing Morning Edition. Because of time zone differences, this means I can listen to the program I want at virtually any time of the day! Hawaii’s NPR member station airs Morning Edition pretty late in the day if you’re on Eastern Time. And since I can get all this over my cell phone, I can literally put NPR in my pocket and annoy my husband by walking around the house with it playing on the speaker… but I digress.
Outside of free applications, there’s also a wonderful little piece of hardware to buy:
magicJack – If you live abroad or have friends/family in another country and want to talk on the phone regularly, you must get magicJack.
It really is magic, I swear. You buy this rectangular gizmo that plugs into either your computer or your modem. (In the latter case, you don’t even have to have your computer running to make/receive calls – magic, I tell you!). Then you plug a regular old phone – cheap and crappy or cordless and fancy – into the little magicJack gizmo and BAM! you can make totally free phone calls over the internet and receive totally free phone calls to a U.S. number that you set up for yourself. For example, my husband and I have Miami phone numbers, so people can call us just as if we were in Miami.
The only cost is the one-time hardware purchase ($60-ish U.S., I think). You might have to also purchase some very cheap minutes if you plan to dial into one of those free conference call lines in the U.S. – for some reason, magicJack makes you pay for that – but otherwise, it’s totally free. It’s also fairly portable as long as you don’t mind packing a regular telephone with your laptop. That way, if everyone gets used to calling your magicJack number, you can take it with you when you travel back to the U.S. or elsewhere. You do need a relatively high-speed internet connection, but since you’ll likely be using MagicJack from the comfort of your home or hotel, this is less of a problem.
I am no techie, so I’m almost definitely under-utilizing the above goodies. Plus, I’m sure there are other great apps out there; I wouldn’t have known about three of these if someone (Michele! Gio!) hadn’t told me. So… if you straddle the border between two countries, please let me know what apps help you communicate and keep informed. I know I’ll thank you for it!