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How to Keep in Touch When Teaching Abroad

Frustrated teacher making a call in a kitchen.TEFL teachers head abroad all the time to spend a year or more teaching in a new country.

During that time it’s important to stay connected by phone and email and on the internet, not only to keep in touch with family and friends back home, but also to access the myriad of TEFL resources online which you can use in your lessons.

This article is all about staying connected when you’re abroad for a year or more without breaking the bank or compromising your safety. It’s based on the many questions we get asked about this subject from our teachers and students.

New Arrivals Abroad

Firstly we’ll deal with the situation when you have just arrived.

Let’s assume you got off the plane a couple of hours ago, you met your new boss and now you are in a hotel room, relaxing, and waiting for your more permanent accommodation to be sorted out.

You want to phone home to tell everyone you’ve arrived safe and sound. What are your options?

I don’t have a phone!

If you are one of those people without a cell phone, get down to the state phone company in town (if there is one) and you might be able to make an international phone call from there.

Alternatively, your best bet is probably buying a phone card; you can use these in public phones although try to find a quiet spot to phone from to avoid traffic noises!

We wouldn’t advise phoning from the hotel room; costs are often very high as you’ll pay the international call charge plus a hefty markup for the privilege of using a grubby hotel phone!

And if you want to get online then you’ll have to use an internet cafe. Look out for these. It’s a reasonable option but remember these are public computers so don’t use them to check your bank balance or anything sensitive like that. Simply put, too many public computers (including those in hotels) have viruses and spyware and you have no idea who is checking them after you’ve gone to see what you did!

But let’s face it, not having a cell phone isn’t a good idea and you need to get one as soon as you can!

I have a basic cell phone.

Firstly, don’t pick up your phone and call home straight off because it could cost you the earth!

When you’re at home you pay a fixed monthly charge for so many minutes of phone calls. Making those calls abroad will cost a lot more.

International roaming charges (i.e. the cost of using your phone in a country outside of your own) are notoriously expensive and vary a lot. In some countries you will find that the cost of calling home is a few cents more than a local call, in other countries you could face a huge bill.

Also, you might find that one phone company charges the earth while the next company charges next to nothing.

So it’s important to find out how much it will cost you to use your phone before you dial your Aunt’s number across the other side of world!

The best way to do this is to contact your phone company before you leave and get an international tariff off them. This way you can be sure and avoid any unpleasant surprises by signing up for call roaming.

You will also find that some phone companies will offer special packages. You might be able to get cheap roaming calls for a few weeks in your new country which is ideal so you can use your phone till you get settled in.

Note that if you haven’t got roaming but still want to let your folks know you’ve arrived safe and sound, send an SMS instead. It’s much cheaper and will put their minds at rest for the time being!

I have a smartphone.

Great. And if you don’t have one yet, get one.

It’s not just about phone calls. Easy access to the internet is incredibly important for many TEFL teachers.

By using a smartphone you can make your phone calls but also access the internet. When you get roaming from your phone company to make cheap phone calls when you are abroad, you should also get data roaming. This allows you to connect to the internet when you’re away from home.

Note that normally your phone is connected to the internet all the time. At home this won’t matter because it’s part of the usual monthly fee you pay. However, when you’re abroad make sure to turn off data roaming when you don’t need it and only turn it on when you do. This way you’ll avoid unexpected bills!

Using your smartphone you can install an application like Viber or Skype (and make sure your family & friends at home have it) and you can call them for free when you’re abroad – as long as you have data roaming turned on. Of course both these applications are also available for your tablet or laptop…

I have a tablet/laptop

But phones aren’t ideal for surfing the internet. To do that you’ll have taken with you your laptop or tablet.

So the next question is how to connect them to the internet.

Possibly there is WiFi available in your hotel but oftentimes this is expensive or only available in the lobby which isn’t ideal.

One solution is to use your smartphone as a wifi router. Many modern smartphones can be connected to data roaming and then you can “tether” them to your tablet or laptop and access the internet via your phone. (Check your phone manual to see how to do this.)

Just be careful with your data allowance. With international data roaming you might only have a few MB per day allowance and if you go over this you’ll incur extra charges so it’s probably best not to download entire films via your phone!

Alternatively if your phone doesn’t allow tethering, you can buy a small device called a MiFi – it’s basically a tiny WiFi router. You put in your SIM card and use it as a WiFi router and connect your tablet or laptop to this.

Long Term Solutions

After a few days it makes sense to get a local SIM card and number.

This will let you make local calls easily and cheaply (to your school, to new friends and so on) because of course you don’t want to be calling them on your expensive foreign number!

It’s easy to swap the local SIM card for your original one, just check your phone manual to find out how. (Some teachers will also take with them an old, second phone to use to avoid chopping and changing SIM cards in one phone.)

Again, your local SIM card will also allow you access to the internet and you can connect your phone to your laptop or tablet as above.

Note that depending on the country, you may need to take along your passport and contract to get a local SIM card. Check this with the school beforehand.

Once you’ve moved into your apartment you’ll probably look for something a little faster. Bear in mind that in some countries it can take months and months for a landline to be installed and set up for broadband internet access. Alternatively, of course, it could only take a few hours in other countries!

Internet Around the World

The internet is present in pretty much every country around the world. However while you can find extremely fast and efficient systems in many places, some countries either do not have the infrastructure available or severely restrict internet access through censorship.

Before you head to your destination, read a little about what internet access is available. You want to look out for several main things.

Internet Speed

The speed may surprise you. Whilst South Korea and Japan have famously high speeds of 40-50 Mbps (compared with the US at 21 Mbps and the UK at 23 Mbps) the “fastest” countries in the world are Hong Kong at 72 Mbps then Singapore at 61 Mbps and Romania at 56 Mbps.

At the other end of the scale is Afghanistan at less than 1 Mbps, Egypt at 2 Mbps, India at 4 Mbps.

Why is it import to know this? Well you’ll be able to warn your family and friends that connecting may be quite difficult and using video calls with Skype is not going to be a possibility if you’re heading off to a country where the internet is slow.

Internet Censorship

A map of internet censorship.Some countries censor the internet more than others. Usually these are political sites or pornographic sites, however some countries will censor seemingly at random.

Famously China has the ‘Great Firewall’ to keep out unwanted sites, but it’s not alone and much of the Middle East has heavy censorship along with some central Asian countries. In addition, some countries “watch” the internet carefully: Australia, South Korea, and India to name but three.

So before you go, check to see what the situation is like in your country of destination – click the map on the right to see more.

But remember, there are a number of ways to bypass internet censorship. Whether you want to do this is up to you, but methods include VPN (Virtual Private Network) or Proxy servers. One of the best available is HMA.

Useful Sites

TV from Back Home for English Teachers Abroad – how to view your favorite tv shows when you’re abroad

Internet Speeds Around the World – a report from Ookla

Internet Censorship by Country – from Wikipedia

5 Ways to Bypass Internet Censorship and Filtering – a low-tech article on how to do this

HMA – accessing the internet in restricted countries

Viber & Skype – to keep in touch

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