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How to Take Your Electronic Devices Overseas

by Volker Poelzl
Resources updated 1/25/2020 by Transitions Abroad

Take your digital devices overseas

Readers often send us questions about the electronic devices they plan to take overseas. In this article, we summarize the most critical issues travelers and expatriates should be aware of when taking their smartphones, laptop computers, or other electronic devices overseas. Among the primary issues concerns compatibility with local electrical standards, high-speed internet access, and whether smartphone and data transfer frequencies vary from country to country. The good news is the ever-increasing global compatibility of these devices with each generation of products and wireless networks

Laptop Computers

For detailed advice on taking and using your laptop overseas, check out my article: Taking your Laptop Computer Overseas—Practical Tips for Staying Connected Abroad.

Cell phones and Smartphones

The first item on most people’s list of what to take overseas is their cell phone, now most often packaged with sophisticated smartphone capabilities. If you plan on bringing your phone with you, make sure it is the now widely adopted GSM mobile phone with multi-band capabilities. GSM has become the de facto global standard for mobile communications, with over 50% market share, and operates worldwide. If you have a GSM phone, you can generally use your provider’s international roaming service, or even better switch out the SIM card and sign up with a cheaper local phone service provider at your destination or new home abroad.

Some cell phones are locked by the service provider to assure that they can only be used on their own network, so make sure that your phone is unlocked before you go. Several companies sell kits to unlock your phone, so you can use your device with other providers. You can also purchase an unlocked cell phone in your home country, but some can cost quite a bit more than locked mobile phones bundled with a service plan. If you own an unlocked GSM cell phone, you shouldn’t have any problems taking it overseas and using it with a local provider, but again, be aware of the costs.

If your phone doesn’t work when you arrive at a destination, you have several options when purchasing a cell phone overseas: You can get a cheap pre-paid mobile phone. Unfortunately, this option does not usually include data transfer services for email and web access. These pre-paid phones are limited to phone calls and text messaging. The advantage is that you do not need a permanent address, which is excellent for shorter-term stays abroad, or if you travel around a lot. Another option is to buy a mobile phone or smartphone overseas and then sign up with a local service provider for phone calls, email, and internet access.

If you plan on traveling to several countries for a short time, you might be better off bringing your phone from home and signing up for an international roaming plan with your provider at home. Regardless of your cell phone service provider at home, international roaming plans for phone calls and data are usually quite expensive once you leave your provider’s area of coverage. Most major cell phone service providers have roaming agreements with overseas companies and offer reception in large regions. Still, you should research the details before your trip to ensure that you will have a signal when needed to avoid disappointment.

If you stay overseas for a longer period, you may have the advantage of being able to sign up with a local wireless network, which is much more cost-effective than paying for roaming charges with your cell phone or wireless plan at home. Doing so requires some shopping around, but will save you a lot of money in the end.

Power Compatibility and Other Issues

If you are bringing your cell phone with you, make sure that the power adapter will work with the voltage at your destination. You may need a plug adapter to fit the local power outlet. Make sure that you have easy access to replacement parts, such as batteries and power adapters, either by researching if they are available locally or by arranging for an easy way to have them shipped to you. It can be very inconvenient to have a dead cell phone battery and not be able to find a quick replacement. The same is true for other electronic devices that use rechargeable batteries (often lithium) that only work with your particular model, such as mp3 players, DVD players, and digital video cameras. When the rechargeable battery on my digital camera burned out in Guatemala, I was fortunate to be in the country’s second-largest city at the time. It still took me an entire afternoon involving visits to over a dozen electronic stores before I finally found a shop that could place a rush order to have the battery shipped from the capital. Another concern is power surges, which can be common in developing countries. To ensure that your power adapter or charger is not damaged during a power surge, you might want to consider taking along an inexpensive and light portable surge protector.

The good news is that options for web access via cellphones, tablets, and laptops is become more common by the day, and in some countries connection speeds and WiFi hot-spots surpass those in your home country. As with all practical aspects of travel, preparation and research is the key.

Note: As of June 2017, there are airports where the transport of devices in the cabin are not permitted, laptops in particular. Please check the current regulations before you book, as many may not wish to leave expensive equipment in the cargo. I sure would not wish to do so.

Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for He has traveled in over 40 countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.

Related Topics
Taking Your Laptop Computer Overseas
Cheap Alternatives to Your cell phone Abroad

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