How to be a Nomad: cell phones, laptops and more

nomad tech gadgets

I’ve been working on a series I’m calling the “How to be a nomad” series.  The idea behind this series is that perhaps some of my readers are interested in the nomadic lifestyle, but have a lot of questions about how that life actually looks.  What about all the practical things?

If you want to start at the beginning and check out a conversation about savings and preparation for travel, check out the How to be a Nomad: Introduction post.

And if you’re curious about the technical gadgets involved in our nomadic lifestyle, this is the post you want to read.

So let’s jump right into it.  Other than the obvious clothing and toiletries, etc etc that many have already blogged and blogged and blogged about, what other things do we pack?

Practical things…

1.) 2 MacBook Pro’s

2.) An external hard-drive (or two)

While the average person may not need this per se, a nomadic person will likely be filling up SD cards frequently.  We keep our laptops from getting bogged down by putting our photos and videos onto an external hard drive.  Plus, it feels safer to have an external hard-drive to back up our important files.  If someone steals our computer, hopefully they won’t also find and snatch our hard drive. (When we visit my parents, we back up important files onto a hard drive there as well.)

We like the “My passport ultra 2 tb” because it is conveniently small for how much storage space it has.

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3.) International outlet adapter

Ours is just like this one (don’t know the brand) but basically any that are “universal” are good.

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4.) Multi outlet adapter cord (built to safely endure different voltage systems)

Because we only have one international outlet adapter, and yet multiple things that need charging, it’s nice to be able to increase our outlets with this cord.  We chose the “Monster Power: outlets to go 4” because it doesn’t…explode when you plug it in to a different voltage system.  We tried a normal outlet adapter cord before and…I can’t remember but I’m pretty sure we blew a fuse.

We found out about this better option via Gary Leff’s review.  So we don’t blow fuses anymore.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.20.43 PM

5.) 2 iPhones that no longer have cell plans

I’m sure you can buy these things on ebay but we just had a friend who had kept her old iPhone after switching to a new one.  It was in perfect condition but just wasn’t connected to a phone plan anymore.  We love it.  It’s like a mini laptop.  It signs on to wifi, which comes into play for our phone strategy…which we’ll talk about in a bit.

Art/Vocational things…

1.) Canon 5D Mark II

This is my favorite camera.  We bought it used, so it wasn’t a gabazillion dollars.  This is another thing that many travelers will just not need.  But if your job-on-the-go involves photography at all, this is a really great DSLR camera.

Guatemalan street food

2.) Wacom tablet

Again this is under the “not everyone will need this category” but these are actually surprisingly easy to pack for anyone with a design-related job-on-the-go.


Phone plan

Above when discussing the non-phone-plan iPhones, I eluded to the fact that wifi is the source of our “phone line.”

Now, there are lots and lots of different strategies for phones abroad, some of which Drew has already written about, but I am going to focus first on the super-easy, super-cheap strategy we’ve had for the last 2-3 years.  (Though…disclaimer…we may change our ways here in a bit…)

1.) Skype

Obviously, we all know that Skype allows free Skype-to-Skype communication.  This works for scheduled chats with family, etc but is not great for…let’s say…calling to cancel a credit card or chat with your mom as she drives to work.  Or calling customer service for any odd thing.

Skype has other options though, that can be great.

For starters, you can buy a phone number for $30 a year.  On its own, this is only so useful.  It will allow you to receive voicemails and caller information.  And it will allow you to make and receive calls to/from landlines and cell phones.  That is, if you power it with minutes…Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.05.27 PM

There are many options for setting your Skype account up with minutes.  Pay as you go rates are at 2.3 cents per minute.  But if you’d rather pay for a subscription, your cents/minute rates get better and better the more minutes you buy, obviously.Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.02.51 PM

For the last years we have had the unlimited plan for $6.99/month.  For this plan, you simply select the country you want unlimited minutes for and that’s that.

These Skype subscriptions are much more flexible commitments than normal phone plans too.  Most of the choices offer a 3-month or 12-month commitment, but the unlimited plan offers a 1-month, 3-month, or 12-month commitment.

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2.) T-mobile Simple Choice Plan

First I must send you over to Ben’s review (or rather his friend’s review) of the international service experience with T-mobile’s Simple Choice Plan.

Personally…I’m skeptical about how convenient this plan would really be for nomadic folks like us.  The one I’ll look at here is the cheapest global option for a single, non-family-plan person: $50 a month for a single plan.  As you can see below, the unlimited talk, text and data is “while on our networks.”  Also I’ll add, calls to the US using wifi are free.  Otherwise, calls made internationally without wifi are apparently 20 cents per minute.  Yikes.

So after scouring the fine print, a few interesting things to note:

A.) International to US talking rates are high (in my opinion).  20 cents per minute.

B.) When you go over your 1GB of 4G data, the quality goes down to 2G, which may be all you can access internationally anyway in the first place.

C.) 128 kbps speed internationally.  Probably enough to make a phone call via Skype or Google Voice?  I’m not sure…

D.) Most of your usage MUST be from the US or you will be shut down.  This is practically a deal-breaker for us unless we convince a family member to get the plan, and tag along as their family member.  When I’m in the States, I’m with my family…so I’m not calling them…

In short…this is not going to be super-perfect but for something that works in the US for unlimited calls, texting etc, and a sort of diluted version of the same internationally…it might be worth the $. The kicker is the stipulation that most of your usage must be in the US.  For some travelers that may be easily achieved and others may want to consider tagging along on a US-stationed family-member’s plan.

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3.) Google Voice (transitioning to Google Hangouts)

Google Voice is a bit of a mystery to me.  Drew and I both have gmail accounts.  He signed up for Google Voice before I did.  Now, I don’t know if I accidentally signed up for a different one of the 5 Google voice options, or if I just signed up too late, but for whatever reason, my account does not allow me to call phones for free via Hangouts, while his does.

So unfortunately, the best I can do is tell you how it works for Drew’s phone, and link to a wiki-how article on the subject that may help you avoid making whatever mistake I may have made with my account.  (Whatever that may have been.)

When you click on the little speech bubble icon at the bottom left of your gmail screen, it will bring up your google hangout options.

You’ll need to click on the phone icon to bring up your dialing window.Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 7.36.36 PM

Once you dial the number and hit enter, it should say “free” next to that number.  If you’ve signed up too late or signed up for the wrong kind of google voice as I may have done, it won’t say “free” it will say “you need more credits!”

Now, I tried to set up a brand new gmail account to start this google-hangouts attempt from scratch.  Unfortunately, every time I visited, it directed me to a how-to page and never the actual google-voice set-up page.  I don’t know what this means.  Do they not offer it anymore?

4.) Magic Jack

Well, if you’d rather you can just forget about messing with google voice because the app “Magic Jack” does the very same thing- allows you to make calls for free from the app using wifi.  Now, as far as I can tell it generates a different number for you each time you make a call, just like basic google voice.  But they can call you back by dialing the same number you just used to call them.  I doubt they can continue calling you with that number once you’ve changed location or once enough time has passed, but I know that if they call back within a short amount of time a call to that number will go to your app.

Pretty sweet.

But what about recieiving calls?

4.) That brings me to Talkatone.

If you wanted to combine two apps that together make a decent, free phone technique, you could put “Talkatone” and “Hangouts” apps on your non-phone-plan iPhone or iPad.  While Hangouts or Magic Jack allow you to make a call for free, but not text or receive calls, Talkatone does just the opposite.  It provides texting and the ability to receive calls for free by assigning you a phone number.

So, tell your family and friends that you have two numbers, but they should call the Talkatone number and expect to receive your calls from a randomized or unknown number.




Your turn…

Another concept for this series is to build it together.  I’d love for this to be a comprehensive resource for anyone looking to become a nomad.  So please, if you know of any other helpful international-calling strategies or other tech gadgets that make nomadic life easier, include your thoughts in the comments and I’ll add what I can to the post.

2 Comments on “How to be a Nomad: cell phones, laptops and more

  1. Thanks for sharing these options. I would just add that you can also use an “unlocked” phone, then buy local SIM cards and prepaid minutes/data wherever you go. It may not be as cheap but it would give you a reliable number to receive calls.
    On our latest trip to Europe for 6 weeks, we used T-Mobile Simple Choice because my husband is on his parent’s family plan. We didn’t need to make too many calls but when we did, we used Wifi or made urgent calls for less than a minute. Data and texting were free. It worked out pretty well.

    • Thanks for this input!
      I have heard about the SIM card strategy but never really understood it fully. Some SIM cards come with minutes too, is that right?

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