There are many communication options while abroad including landline phones, cell phones, e-mail, Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) software (usually via a program like Skype), laptops, journals & blogs, and of course, letters and postcards.
When you go abroad, remember to bring the addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of everyone with whom you may want to stay in contact (don’t forget family work numbers in case of an emergency). Also keep a list of UI e-mail addresses and telephone and fax numbers, like those of your major department, your academic advisor, and the Study Abroad office [319-335-0353]). You should provide information on how you can be contacted abroad to your family and friends before you leave (if that information is not available before you leave, do so soon after you arrive). Also provide others with the phone number of the program’s main office and resident director or contact person, as well.
Upon arrival in your host country, you will probably encounter some differences in phone usage. In many foreign countries, both domestic and international phone calls are very expensive compared to rates in the United States, and phone bills are not itemized. Service can be poor: static, echoes, and disconnections may be common. Much like in the United States these days, you may find that there is no landline at all in your house, apartment or dormitory. Public phones, however, are more common in many places than they are in the U.S..
Never make a call directly to the United States if you are staying with a host family, because of the cost and the lack of itemized phone billing. Instead, purchase a calling card and use it to call home. Calling cards are often cheaper and more effective if they are purchased locally (in the country in which you are staying), but for certain locations it may be wise to buy one before you leave home (the ISIC card can also be activated as a phone card). You can also make collect calls. When using your host family's phone, try not to tie up the line for long periods.
To receive calls from the United States, make sure that the people who might call you have the correct country and city code for your location. From the U.S., all international calls start with 011 and are followed by a country code (e.g. 52 for Mexico, 34 for Spain) and then possibly a city code before the actual phone number. You'll need to learn the international dialing procedures for the country in which you are staying. Also, suggest to your parents that they enroll in an international long distance plan with one of the long distance carriers. You can schedule a reasonable time and day for parents or friends to call you on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, but make sure to consult with your host family or roommates to make sure the time you chose is suitable for them, as well.
Once abroad, make sure that you know the phone number of your program’s director or contact person and memorize the local equivalent to 911 (if it exists) or the police and fire departments.
Cell phones are now quite common in most places, and many students find them useful while studying abroad. In most places outside the U.S., mobile phones are purchased with prepaid minutes, to which the user can add minutes (or "credit") anytime in abundant small shops and newsstands. Mobile companies overseas tend to charge very high rates for outgoing phone calls, but incoming calls (from anywhere) are often free, so this is a good option if family or friends are not able to call your apartment or your host family's phone.
Text messages are usually the cheaper option, and students overseas tend to send each other texts rather than make calls. A prepaid phone may even include a certain number of free texts or free minutes. These phones are usually quite affordable and often reusable, so most students either pitch or sell them at the end of their study abroad term.
"I loved having [a mobile phone] in London. I couldn't use my host family's phone, but having a cell phone made it so I could exchange numbers with people I met and helped me build a bigger network of friends outside the students on my program." Tina Sherwood, Study Abroad Peer Advisor
Letters and Postcards
Uncommon as they are these days, letters remain a rewarding form of communication for students studying abroad. Letters are cheaper than phone calls; they tend to be more personal; and they make great keepsakes. Postcards are fun to receive, easy to write, and can quickly be done while absorbing your surroundings at a park or café, on a train or in a plaza. The drawback, of course, is that mail can be slow and unreliable. If you do decide to use the mail system in your host country, never send money or valuables and avoid receiving packages. International express services can be very expensive and might take much longer than you anticipate.
E-mail is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family in the States while you are abroad. You can share impressions of the host culture instantly, learn the latest about goings-on at home, and minimize the re-entry shock everyone might feel when you return.
However, internet access abroad may be more limited than we are accustomed to here. Even if you are bound for Western Europe, expect fewer shops and residences to have free internet access. It is even rare for foreign university campuses to provide 24-hour access to the Web.
On some programs, you'll find that your instructors do not mind if you hand in work "the old-fashioned way" — handwritten. Check out the policies when you arrive at your destination. Maybe you can save yourself the headaches of computer access and improve your penmanship during your time abroad.
Many programs do provide their students with computer access, albeit on a more limited basis than here. You may find yourself standing in line in a university library in order to check e-mail, for instance. Or there might be a computer lab connected to the headquarters of your program overseas, but it may only be open for a few hours each day. Internet cafés are popular places to catch up on e-mail and make calls on Skype (more on that later). Prices vary, so ask local students for recommendations.
The internet is a great tool while studying abroad, but avoid spending too much time on it. Many students tend to retreat to Facebook, for instance, when they need a dose of home. This is normal — but in excess, it can become a crutch that prevents you from getting the most out of the place you are staying. It is perfectly healthy to stay in touch with friends at home, but study abroad goes by very fast, and the internet can be a drain on precious time.
Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) software has become a very common communication tool worldwide. The most popular of these programs is Skype, which is free to download, and which can run on any computer and on many mobile devices. Skype is also available in many internet cafés, some of which may even have dedicated machines or private booths for the purpose. Skype allows users to talk with one another using the computer's microphone and headphones, or a headset purchased separately.
Calls from one computer to another computer, even internationally, are always free on Skype. Alternatively, Skype users can make calls from their computer to a landline or mobile phone domestically or abroad at very competitive rates. These rates are available on the Skype website, and vary based on the country one is calling to rather than where one is calling from, and also based on the type of phone to which one is calling (calling landlines tends to be cheaper than calling mobile phones). Calls to phones in the United States cost just two cents per minute, making this the most affordable way to call home.
Skype also works with webcams for video chat and even conferencing with more than two users, making it even easier to keep in touch with multiple family members and friends at once. Instant messaging is also a common communication method abroad, although it is slowly being replaced by VoIP software. In fact, programs like Skype also have instant messaging capacity.
Taking a laptop is a good idea for those that have one, but students should keep in mind the above notes about limited internet access in some places.
Even without internet access, your laptop can be an invaluable study tool, saving you much time and frustration by allowing you to write papers, reports, and do homework at home. Once you have a document ready to hand in, you may need to copy it to a CD or flash drive and take it to a computer lab or internet café to print it.
Some students also enjoy being able to use their laptop to watch movies, use Skype (described above), blog at all hours and keep their music collections up to date. One drawback of bringing a laptop is the possibility of it being stolen. Laptops are valuable, and may be best left at home if you know you are going to have other means of accessing the internet abroad. In any case, be mindful at all times of keeping it secure.
If you decide to take a laptop, be sure to take it as "carry on" baggage. Don't check it — if you do, it might arrive in several pieces. Neither should you mail it, as you might have to pay large customs duties to "import" it into the country. Always keep your laptop's documentation with you, including your receipt that proves where and when you bought it.
The notes about the internet use in the above E-mail section also apply to laptops in general: they can be a great tool, but overuse can prevent you from appreciating your surroundings.
Notes on Electricity
If you plan to take a laptop, make sure that it can run on the voltage common to the country where you are studying. Almost all laptops have built-in converters in their power supplies that will allow you to switch between 110 volts (standard in U.S.) and 220 volts (standard most other places in the world). If your laptop doesn’t, or if you need a voltage different than above, consider investing in a good voltage converter designed for the place to which you are going. Paying more for a good converter means you’ll pay less in repair bills if the voltage fries your machine.
Other personal electronics, like phones, mp3 players, and cameras, also tend to have small converters built into the charger cord, and do not require a bulky external converter. Electric appliances, on the other hand (hair dryers, curling irons, etc.), require the use of a converter, or they will overheat and fail, sometimes spectacularly. For these reasons, buying these appliances locally is a smarter choice; this leaves more room in your suitcase and will be less of a hassle.
In many developing countries (and California), the voltage fluctuates rather than staying at a constant level, and there may be frequent power outages. Voltage converters aren't going to do the trick under these circumstances. You may need to invest in a voltage regulator/uninterrupted power supply. Laptops, however, provide a way around these problems. Simply charge your battery (which can handle the fluctuations/interruptions), unplug the power cord, and then type away on your battery-powered laptop.
There is a key distinction to be made between the converters discussed above, which you may or may not need, and adapters, which are essential to every traveler who brings an American electronic device abroad. Adapters are not themselves electrical devices, but rather are pieces of hardware which attach to a U.S.-style plug (on your laptop's power cord, for instance) and make it compatible with foreign outlets. There are kits available with adapters for many styles of foreign electrical outlet, and it makes sense to have more than one adapter.
Printers are very sensitive to voltage changes, and even those with internal converters can be problematic abroad. If you decide that you need a printer, you might want to wait to get it until you’re overseas, and can buy one that’s designed for your new environment. You can even pool your money with several other students and buy one printer that’s shared among all of you.