Home. Transitions Abroad founded 1977.  
Travel Work Living Teach Intern Volunteer Study Language High School

Taking your Laptop Computer Overseas

Practical Tips for Staying Connected Abroad

Travel with a laptop computer overseas is common
Traveling with a powerful laptop computer overseas, or even smaller devices such as smartphones and tablets, are now the most common forms of communication.

Since 2000, I have had one faithful companion on many overseas trips: my laptop computer. While this companionship has been challenging, I have found my computer indispensable for most of my travels, especially on long-term trips. As a travel writer and researcher, my laptop is necessary to work on stories and meet research deadlines. But bringing your computer along can also be a liability. Most travelers who bring a laptop on a trip depend on it for a living, so you should ask yourself how urgently you need your computer abroad. Ask yourself realistically if you will have time to use your laptop. Review your travel itinerary and assess the likelihood of having enough time to sit down and finish work. Last year, on a trip to India, a friend brought his laptop along to work on some grant applications, but he found his itinerary was so tight that he rarely had time to work. As a result, in retrospect, he couldn't fully enjoy the trip as he should have. He always felt the urge to work on his laptop, to be connected to his work and others, even while crossing the surreal and majestic Thar Desert of Rajasthan in a jeep. Nevertheless, as with smartphones, laptop users make their own choices as to how to balance direct experience and online or digitally connected time.

There are common threats laptop computers face when taken overseas: power surges, theft, climate factors, damage from wear and tear, etc. Unless you plan on using your laptop frequently and spend hours working on your projects, you may be better off leaving it at home. Consider bringing a few critical files on an external USB storage device, such as a cheap small flash memory stick(s), and try to work using secure WiFi. Tablets are another option since they are now not expensive to replace, are more portable, and need not be hooked up to a power supply so frequently. Of course, the powerful new models of smartphones are bigger now, and you can accomplish much blogging and social media with them. Still, you need access to WiFi, or the roaming or international charges can be substantial.

Preparing to Take Your Laptop

So you have decided to travel with your laptop or not at all. The next step is to figure out how to prepare yourself and your computer for the challenges that await you overseas. If you plan to access the internet with your laptop, you need to ensure that you have the latest security updates installed and a firewall. Both will help to prevent unwanted intrusions from outside computers, including ever-more-sophisticated adware and spyware.

Here are some possible strategies to keep your mind at ease while traveling:

  • Make backup copies of all your essential files, and delete everything unnecessary and sensitive information you do not need overseas. You can save important files to external USB drives, many of which now store 32 gigabytes or more. Keep your backup USB drives in sturdy containers separate from your computer and different locations. Often you will carry digital copies of your passport and visa in case of loss, so it is essential to include a copy in a small money belt, for example.

  • Encrypt all the files on your laptop computer and your USB drives, so they become unreadable for anyone other than the user with the correct password. There is plenty of information on the various ways to do so on the web, some quite simple.

  • Back up your files to a free secure online data storage service, like Google Drive. Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon, and others all provide such options, often for free and minimal cost per year, for many gigabytes of storage space. Note that services that offer 2-step encryption give even more security for peace of mind. Wired has a good article on further measures to take to back up to the cloud with maximum security.

  • Back up your files to low-cost cloud-based solutions such as Crashplan, Carbonite, or your favorite when you are at locations with WiFi.

  • Leave your important files at home and retrieve them through remote access by connecting to your home computer via your home IP address. All you need to do is configure your home computer to allow remote access and set up a username and password to access it from anywhere in the world. Check your computer's manual and help function to find out how to connect to your computer remotely. The primary disadvantage to this approach is that your home computer must always be up and running, and you need someone at home to check the status. Remote access does leave your computer open to sophisticated hacks, so some opt not to go to this course and use the "cloud" instead.

  • Bring a backup of the operating system via USB stick or CD, and backups of the necessary software for your travels.

  • Bring a USB stick or CD from which you can repair or start up your computer, if you have hard disk problems. Most anti-virus companies now offer disk repair and file backup software, often to their cloud. These programs can perform scheduled hard disk checks and back up vital file information if you need to restore your hard disk.

  • Instead of a portable printer, bring a mobile, external USB storage device, save the files you want to print, and then take it to a print shop or internet café for printing. A friend brought a small USB drive to Argentina, which he wore around his neck for ready access. An external USB drive is also great for backing up important files you are working on or storing encrypted passwords.

Power and Connectivity

Although you can get power adapters for airplanes, you often need a power outlet in economy class. So unless you travel in business or first class, taking advantage of your airline adapter won't be easy. The excellent website provides diagrams of the fleets of many airlines marking the rows and seats with power outlets for laptops, includes information on the availability of WiFi access, and offers many other resources. If you plan on using your computer for an extended time during your flight, you should bring a second battery or even charged "brick" with enough power to charge your laptop and change your laptop's power settings to extend battery life. That way, you won't have to depend on getting a seat or an airline with a power outlet available.

The power grid is often unreliable in many developing countries, and a surge protector can save both your power adapter and your computer in case of a power surge. If you plan to send to sign on to the internet via WiFi or even a modem, your surge protection should include a phone jack. Many new laptops no longer have built-in modems, so you may need to bring an external one to be safe, though WiFi access is now becoming commonplace worldwide.

Unlike other electrical appliances, laptops don't require an electrical transformer to work overseas. Most laptop power adapters can convert voltage from 110-240 to power your computer, which is very practical for traveling. All you need is a plug adapter to accommodate the electrical plug used at your destination. To be sure, read the labels on your power adapter, which will tell you the input voltage range of your unit.

With unreliable power supplies in many remote areas and developing countries, bringing an extra battery is an excellent way to ensure you can work the necessary hours. Keep in mind that older batteries can suddenly lose charge, and you don't want to be stranded abroad without a working battery. Many travelers use downtime while waiting for a train or flight by working on their laptops, so ensure your batteries are in good working condition.

Although dial-up connections via modem are no longer standard for home or office use, it is still good to be prepared during an international trip to use a phone line for internet access in an emergency if you have no readily available broadband or WiFi connection. You may find fewer WiFi hotspots in some locations worldwide except at airports and major hotels. However, this is rapidly changing due to an upsurge in expectations due to generational demand. But if connectivity is critical for you, and you are staying at hotels with a telephone in your room but no WiFi there or nearby, consider a local dial-up service during your travels. Many internet service providers overseas have low-cost options that allow for prepaid dial-up access to the internet for a certain amount of hours per month. But such a need a fortunately now a huge exception rather than the rule. But such a need a fortunately now a huge exception rather than the rule.

Keeping your Laptop Safe and Alive

Bringing a laptop lock can help secure your computer in your hotel room and may deter theft, but it is not guaranteed. Hide your laptop creatively when not in your room so it is not immediately noticeable. I have had little trouble with hotel theft on my travels in over 40 countries, but that does not mean it has not happened to someone you know at some point.

WiFi access is a great innovation that has made connected traveling very easy. However, there are certain security risks since public WiFi networks are open to anyone. You never know who is trying to spy on your internet activities, and I recommend not accessing bank accounts or transmitting vital information while linked to an open WiFi network at hotels, businesses, airports, or coffee shops unless you have VPN access via software on your laptop. For anyone but incredibly remote workers, or those conducting financial transactions while traveling, VPN is a must in these days of hackers and potential censorship.

While it is common for people in North America and Europe to work on their laptops in public spaces such as cafés, this is much less the case in some other countries overseas. In many developing countries, a laptop computer is a sign of wealth that exposes you to theft. The less openly you carry your laptop around, the better. For the most part, I have limited myself to working on my laptop computer in my hotel room or at a friend's house. I also usually put my laptop case in a backpack in public so it is not immediately noticeable as a computer. I have found this helpful at bus and railway stations, where theft can be common in less wealthy countries.

Hard drives can be damaged when a computer falls or experiences heavy vibration or knocks. There are many laptops today (Apple, Hewlett Packard, to mention a few) that include motion sensor drop protection, a technology that senses when your computer suddenly changes its position and then locks the read/write head of the hard drive so it won't be damaged during a drop or sudden movement. Such protection is a nice feature if you are often out and about with your computer.

I always thought that computers are immune to climate change. I was wrong. The high humidity in the Brazilian Amazon accelerated the corrosion of the ribbon cable contacts of my laptop keyboard. I slowly lost the function of more and more keys until I had to use an external keyboard. I also wanted to keep my computer protected and out of sight while traveling, and I realized too late that my laptop case's dark and humid environment promoted mold growth. After I opened my laptop after a week, the keyboard and screen were green with mold, and my hard drive no longer worked.

If you travel abroad for a long time and have regular work on your laptop, you should find out if your computer manufacturer sells computers in the country where you are traveling. Getting replacement parts or repairing your laptop is much easier. As a Macintosh user, I could not fix my hard drive in the Amazon or buy a replacement since Apple computers are uncommon in Brazil. The nearest repair shop was in São Paulo, a few thousand miles away.

Other Considerations

Of course, streaming services are often the best bet for entertainment if you have WiFi access. Some people even bring along devices such as AppleTV and have the hardware to access scores of streaming services linked to their cable provider back home if they have cable.

Check out our Staying Connected While Abroad resources for more information about staying connected. If you prefer not to lug along your laptop when traveling but wish to stay connected via the internet, see my article on Using Internet Cafés Abroad (where available) for some practical inside tips.

For More Info

To start, make sure you purchase the best of the current travel laptops for your needs, of course.

Online Data Storage:

See reviews and links to the many great options for cloud backup storage, which is very useful, if not indispensable, at home and overseas. You always want to retain photos and docs; there is no reason to anymore if you have an internet connection. Absent online storage, thumb/flashcards are still very helpful and sometimes indispensable.

You can use Google Docs, Google Drive, Gmail, and many more types of software to generate documents, email, listen to music, etc.

Read Nora Dunn's Protecting Your Laptop Computer and Sensitive Information Abroad for more information about important security issues.

Hard Drive Diagnostics, Repair and Restore Software:

Most modern hard drives, including my Dell, have S.M.A.R.T. technology (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology). Such technology actually monitors in real time your drive in order to detect a failing disk. My Dell computer, for example, will automatically notify me before data loss occurs and it can be replaced while it is functional. Windows itself provides such functionality. It is helpful to know these features in general, but there a few other third-party tools for your laptop that also can help out. Get to know them before you jump on the plane for a peaceful or productive trip!

Norton by Symantec System Works (PC)

MAC Repair Tools (Macintosh only)

Related Topics
Independent and Solo Travel
Best Staying Connected Websites
Related Articles
Protecting your Laptop Computer and Sensitive Information Abroad
Using internet Cafés Abroad

About Us  
Contact Us  
© 1997-2024 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy Terms and Conditions California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Opt-Out IconYour Privacy Choices Notice at Collection