Stranded Abroad: Guide for Digital Nomads and Travelers affected by the coronavirus

I’m one of over a billion people that travel. Moreover, I work in the tourism industry and the global spread of the new virus is partly caused by the freedom of movement we have had. COVID-19 pandemic is (according to the history) a once in a century occurrence. Beyond worries of family health and global economic implications, this situation creates another serious layer of complications for all digital nomads, travelers and economic migrants. This article is a summary of practices and tools to help you during this period.

stranded abroad
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Contents | Spis Treści hide | schowaj
6 The basics of staying connected while on the go

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nerdontour.net/stranded

Who am I?

Part of my job as a tour manager is to take care of tourists that found themselves in a dire situation. I go with them to hospitals, embassies, and police stations. Help with translations, buying prescriptions and organizing logistics. Everything is done on the spot in destinations where English language skills can be low and where laws are quite different from what you know from your home country.

Regardless of where I work I always leverage digital tools. Researching local rules/apps, controlling mobile data usage or navigating in a new territory – these skills are my second nature. Most of the time it’s literally on the go – in a tour bus, plane or ferry. Fellow tourism specialists and travelers find my approach useful and I’m happy to share it.

In recent years I stay for a majority of time in apartments and co-living spaces abroad while working remotely. It’s my version of digital nomading (aka slow nomading), where I can appreciate local cultures by syncing into their rhythm of life. Feel free to dig into my origin story, if you are curious why this site is called Nerd on Tour.

Piotrek Bodera

Disclaimer

The following procedures and tools were tested by me and other fellow vagabonds in various scenarios and regions. Yet, please keep in mind that I can’t give any guarantee that they will work for you in your current situation. Even though institutions have contingency/emergency plans, the pandemic affects everything and everyone on such a deep level that laws and rules can be changed on a daily or even hourly basis.

What’s not written down, it doesn’t exist

official document
Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

If you are in doubt – consult your embassy, lawyer, financial advisor, doctor, an insurance company or other official institution and always ask them for a written confirmation. Either in the form of a scan, PDF, email, website link, screenshot or another file that can be saved on your device and used as a legal document. Especially in times like these remember the phrase – “what’s not written down, it doesn’t exist”.

World Health Organization logo

Before we begin – advice from the World Health Organization

Maybe you saw it before. Even if, it’s vital to learn these simple precautions by heart:

Do

  • Wash your hands regularly for a min. of 20 seconds, with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub that’s min. 60% alcohol.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue or flexed elbow when you cough or sneeze.
  • Avoid close contact (1 meter or 3 feet) with people who are unwell.
  • Stay home and self-isolate from others in the household if you feel unwell.

Don’t

  • Touch your eyes, nose, or mouth if your hands are not clean.

Source and more information: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public

Quick coronavirus explainer

Partly because of global freedom of movement (traveling) the coronavirus became a pandemic, which means that it affects “pan-” – “everything/everyone”. In the ongoing noise on the Internet, it’s vital to learn more from the scientific consensus. Kurzgesagt is known for its rigid fact-check method and I’m confident in spreading its message further.

Kurzgesagt sources: https://sites.google.com/view/sourcescorona

The basics of staying connected while on the go

I’m fortunate to be born before the Internet and mobile phones gained global momentum. I was growing up with these emerging technologies and became a tech enthusiast, by pushing the boundaries of what is possible with devices connected to the network of networks. Especially while traveling. Therefore, in my opinion, there’s nothing more important than the ability to stay online. Internet connection lets you be informed, manage your finances, buy services/products among countless other vital activities of modern life.

For the purpose of this guide, I assume you already have a smartphone, a source of electricity to charge it and a SIM card – either from your base country, local one or other international roaming SIM.

With this one device, you’re able to access any website, download necessary mobile apps and stay in touch with other people, while keeping safe physical distance. If for some reason you are currently without a smartphone, you should be able to buy a new one in any open electronic store, supermarket or an airport.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

How to make international and local calls for free/for a low price?

Regardless of your current situation, you need to be able to make and receive phone calls. With smartphones you have two distinct ways to call:

  1. Via the “traditional” mobile operator network.
  2. Via the Internet – that includes all apps that can carry voice over Wi-Fi or mobile Internet.

The rule of thumb is that phone calls are paid by the minute and location you try to reach. Mobile operators are predominantly allowing free and/or unlimited calls to local numbers but double-check if this applies to all numbers. Some operators charge a fee if you are calling landline phones. Most embassies, Immigration offices, and similar institutions don’t use mobile phone numbers.

On the other hand in regions where there’re many expats/migrants, operators are allowing free/low charge phonecalls to specific countries. Lycamobile, which I wrote about in a separate article, seems to have one of the biggest international phone allowance coverage.

Mobile internet is becoming the major feature of handheld devices, especially for younger generations. Therefore many operators around the world are offering mobile plans that include solely an Internet package – without phonecalls or text messages (SMS). That’s usually fine for me, as even if I need to call – I use one of the following methods.

Prepaid is better than postpaid

The subscription model is a strict and long-term contract that in most cases works best for the operator. The company is in charge of measuring and counting fees. They can force you to pay high amounts at the end of the billing cycle (postpaid), by suspending your mobile services.

As customers, we don’t have a direct method of checking the accuracy of the operator’s measuring equipment. What we can do, is control how much money we give them upfront. This limits the risk of excessive fees. Today most operators offer 30-day plans with an appropriate allowance. The contract is not binding, which means if anything works incorrectly – just switch to another mobile operator.

These two paragraphs were published before in my article about Lycamobile.

List of the telephone country codes

Regardless of the app, you’ll use to call, I advise you to always type country code before the phone number. This will prevent calling wrong numbers. Also if you plan to call any number more than once it’s better to save it in your contacts.

Install the official operator’s app or log in on their site

More and more operators around the world release and maintain their official mobile apps. The quality and features vary greatly but in most cases, you are able to:

  • check your current plan/allowance
  • top-up money and buy packages
  • contact support and/or check nearest stores

To download and set up the app you usually need to follow these steps.

For iPhone (iOS)

  1. Search for the app by typing the operators’ name, country and “app” keyword in Google i.e. “T-Mobile USA app”.
  2. Download the official app.
    1. If you get a message that the app is not available in your store – create a new Apple ID in the operator’s home country.
  3. Setup your account by following prompts in the app. Usually, you need to confirm your account with an SMS code and/or with an email activation link.
  4. Now the app should show your current plan/usage/allowance.

For Android

  1. Search for the app by typing the operators’ name, country and “app” keyword in Google i.e. “T-Mobile USA app”.
  2. Download the official app.
    1. If you get a message that app is not available in your store – try to download the app by adding “APK” to your search query.
  3. Setup your account by following prompts in the app. Usually, you need to confirm your account with an SMS code and/or with an email activation link.
  4. Now the app should show your current plan/usage/allowance.

On the website

  1. Search for the site by typing the operators’ name, country and “website” keyword in Google i.e. “T-Mobile USA website”.
  2. Find a login/account section and follow prompts. Usually, you need to confirm your account with an SMS code and/or with an email activation link.
  3. Now the site should show your current plan/usage/allowance.

Even if you are in a region where English is not an official/supported language many operators recognize that there’s a number of foreigners using their services. Therefore their main websites and apps are usually properly translated.

If that’s not the case then try to navigate the website with Chrome web browser and built-in feature to automatically translate content to English.

Official operator apps I use on my iPhone

smartphone on the go
Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Call via the default “phone” app

Before you call any number – triple check what is the cost per minute and if you have enough funds on your card. You never know how long the call will last.

Keep in mind

  • Calls should work even in places where the mobile Internet is slow/unreliable,
  • during emergencies all institutions can be overwhelmed and call waiting times can be very long; they rarely have voicemail and will not call you back if you hang up.
  • depending on the operator’s policy and call destination the price per minute can be unknown until after the call/billing period,
  • your operator can specifically filter out locations and number types that you are allowed to call and numbers that can call you.

Use the Wi-Fi calling feature

This is a feature present both in iPhones (iOS) and Android smartphones. It was designed to allow you to make and receive regular calls in places where cell phone coverage is weak but where Wi-Fi is strong, including while being abroad. Due to the fact that it requires changes in the operator’s infrastructure, it’s not widely adopted. Some operators offer it within their official mobile app or limit it only to specific devices (i.e. only for Android phones).

The only way to check if your operator supports it is to Google operators name + country + wifi calling i.e. “T-Mobile USA wifi calling”.

VoIP

Voice over IP services usually require some level of configuration but their low calling rates and additional features are worth the time. The most important part is that the VoIP number appears for others as a regular landline/mobile number. Because the connection is done via the Internet, it allows you to call your home country or any other international destinations with low fees, regardless of your current location. Your VoIP number can also work to receive calls from others, like any other home country number.

If you are temporarily out of reach, VoIP provider usually offers voicemail that can send the recording to your email address. Mind that it can be an additional/paid feature.

  1. Depending on your preferred currency and spoken languages search for “VoIP provider + country”.
  2. Compare and choose the one that looks the best for you.
  3. Set up your account and top up a minimum amount of money.
  4. If your VoIP provider offers an official mobile app – download it

VoIP apps I use on my iPhone

  • Telefon FCN” app from Polish VoIP service called FCN
  • Google Voice / Hangouts
  • Skype
google voice logo

Google Voice

This is a service predominantly targeted towards American customers. Mostly because their current regulations allow them to connect a mobile phone number with Google Voice service and gain a full spectrum of features.

Even if you don’t have an American mobile number I do recommend using Google Voice as an outbound VoIP service because:

  1. The minimum top-up amount is just 10 USD.
  2. You can call a variety of international numbers (including USA, UK, Australia) for as low as 0.01 USD/minute.
  3. Calls are done with the same robust and global network of cloud infrastructure that supports vital services like G Suite. You can rely on them even when other VoIP are failing.

Keep in mind: You don’t need to link any number to use Google Voice as an outbound VoIP service. Even if the website/app is prompting you to do it.

For regular Google Account users (if you have a Gmail account)
  1. Go to voice.google.com and sign in with your Google account.
  2. In the settings select Payments and top-up money.
    1. In my experience USD rates are better than EUR or GBP, but change it, if you prefer to be billed on other currency than USD.
  3. Download the Google Voice app from the App Store or Google Play.
    1. If you get a message that app is not available in your store – download the Google Hangouts app.
  4. Use either Google Voice or Google Hangouts app to make calls to any number.
  5. After you type/select a number, the app will show you the rate per minute.
  6. (Optional) in Payments choose to have Auto-Recharge, to be sure that you continue your calls, even if your funds are low.
For G Suite users (if you have a company/school/institution account)

Google Voice service needs to be activated by your G Suite admin and it’s billed as a monthly subscription. Calculate if this is a valuable solution for you. If not – set up Google Voice on your personal Google Account and use it as a prepaid service.

If you choose to use Google Voice within your G Suite and it was activated by your admin, then follow these steps:

  1. Download the Google Voice app from the App Store or Google Play.
    1. If you get a message that app is not available in your store – download the Google Hangouts app.
  2. Use either Google Voice or Google Hangouts app to make calls to any number.
  3. After you type/select a number, the app will show you the rate per minute.
  4. Subscription/call fees will be added to your G Suite billing.
Additional features

Beyond outbound, VoIP Google Voice can serve as an inbound VoIP, voicemail and online SMS service among others. G Suite users can have additional options like an automatic transcription of voicemail to email. These features are subject to change and region availability. To unlock them you first need to link the current number you already have. If this is too troublesome I recommend using the Hushed app.

Skype

Popular VoIP service owned by Microsoft, that allows you to call any number with moderate fees. Depending on your region, you can top-up and pay for calls only in your home currency. Additionally, for a monthly fee, you can buy a local number to receive inbound connections. Before you pay for Skype services, calculate if you can have a better offer elsewhere.

Due to high fee calls I only use Skype as a backup solution. When all other VoIP services fail to connect me with the desired number.

Use messaging apps as a “telephone”

If all institutions around the globe would have an “Internet phone” calling would be essentially free – as long as you’re online. In the beginnings of Skype (years 2003-2006), that was exactly the case. Sharing your Skype nickname/number or a widget on a homepage was quite popular.

Skype is still here but their focus is on business customers, while the general public uses all kinds of messaging apps. I also encourage you to get several of them on your smartphone and stick to these that work the best for you. Just keep in mind that depending on companies’ policy and business model they can use your data for advertising.

Most of the messaging apps work in a very similar fashion:

  1. Download an app.
  2. Register your account with your telephone number or email (as always use a password manager to create and save a unique password).
  3. Verify your account with an SMS/email code.
  4. Allow access to your contact list.
  5. Using an Internet connection call or send a short audio clip to anyone you already know.

Remember that calling and sending audio clips requires more data than sending a text message. Be mindful of that if you’re short on mobile Internet quota. More about texting with messaging apps in the following paragraphs.

Messaging apps that allow sending audio clips and calling to other users without extra cost:

How to send and receive text messages (SMS) while being abroad?

Text messages can be expensive and are very limited in comparison to Internet-based instant messaging platforms, but at the same time they can be essential for:

  • setting up online accounts,
  • transaction confirmations,
  • second-factor authentication,
  • receiving flight status – delays, cancellations, reschedules,
  • receiving event, deadline reminders.

As a digital nomad I’m used to switching SIM cards, carry second/backup phone and play around with multiple eSIM plans. Whenever possible I choose code Authenticator for second-factor authentication and/or confirm with a registered mobile app notification. These are much safer options than SMS codes.

Some services (like Booking.com or Banking apps) are forcing their users to use SMS codes and are currently not compatible with Authenticator apps. On the other hand, you are currently abroad, where you use a local SIM instead of the one from your home country. Regardless of the situation, I do recommend setting up a “software SMS” on your smartphone.

Hushed – software SMS on your smartphone

The app market itself as a secure and fast solution for people who need a temporary phone number. The key features are:

  • keep the “temporary” number for as long as you want,
  • add new numbers from supported regions,
  • safeguard the app with password/PIN/biometrics.

Now you only need an active Internet connection – either via Wi-Fi or mobile. The possibility to send/receive SMS is now within an app that’s not tied to the SIM card you currently have in your smartphone.

How to setup Hushed?
  1. Download the Hushed app from App Store or Google Play.
  2. Create your Hushed account with email and a strong password (as always use a password manager).
  3. Choose a phone number from any supported region.
  4. Choose and pay for a plan that’s suited for your needs. In my case, it was the annual plan.
  5. Add password/PIN/biometric requirements every time you open the app.
  6. Save the new number in your contacts.
  7. Provide your new Hushed number to all the services that require you to receive SMS codes.

Can Hushed receive a text message from ___?

In my experience, most of the services, including banking apps, have no issues with Hushed phone numbers. This includes:

  • Revolut (for personal accounts)
  • Revolut Business
  • TransferWise (for personal accounts)
  • TransferWise Business
  • Kantor Alior Bank
  • Airlines – i.e. AirAsia, JetStar, Scoot
  • Social Media – i.e. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin

Due to different security policies in every service, Hushed does not guarantee that receiving SMS will work.

Hushed phone numbers are NOT guaranteed to work with third-party verification due to blocks implemented by certain services, for example, Social Media, Banking, Email, Apps, etc.

As per official help article from Hushed – source

The bottom line is to test it by yourself. Try getting SMS codes with the cheapest Hushed plan. If it doesn’t work for you, then the alternative it to create a custom solution with a programmable SMS from Twilio.

Beyond text messages

Additionally, you can use Hushed phone numbers to make/receive calls as a regular VoIP service. I don’t recommend it, as Google Voice or VoIP providers from your base country are most likely to offer a better deal.

SMS with the SIM card from your home country

In order to make it work you need to be sure that your operator turned on international roaming on your number. Depending on their policies you:

  • already have it turned on by default – just be aware of the fees,
  • need to turn it on manually via the web or official app,
  • are required to contact your operator and confirm to turn in on.

Once the international roaming is on, most operators do not charge for receiving text messages – regardless of your location. But do double-check that.

Sending SMS, making/receiving calls and using mobile Internet are paid features and they can be included/excluded in your current mobile plan. The rule of thumb is that if you’re staying a long time in one country then it’s cheaper to use local SIM cards, instead of international roaming. Yet some operators do offer generous international plans as long as you follow the fair use policy. Examples:

SMS with a local SIM card in your current country

Receiving text messages to your local SIM from any number should be free but do double-check that. Also, be aware that receiving SMS from online services can be restricted by local regulations and can change over time. Twilio a communication platform for developers does offer a comprehensive list of what is possible in which region. If some features are currently marked as not supported/restricted, it most likely means that you won’t be able to receive SMS from an online service. Of course, if you already have a local SIM, you can test it out by yourself.

Remember to switch the number in your online services, every time you change the country. Some services will require an SMS code from the previous number and to the new one. To avoid this kind of issues I totally recommend using the “software SMS” app like Hushed.

iPhone 11 | Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash

How to make calls, use SMS and mobile Internet with eSIM/Dual SIM?

If you have a device that has two (or more) slots for SIM cards than you can easily utilize mobile plans from a local operator and your home country with regular SIM cards. If you’re not sure how to do it – just search the name of your device + dual SIM settings and learn how to manage mobile connections.

Google’s Pixel 2 released in October 2017 was the first Android smartphone to have eSIM. Since then many other manufacturers followed and eSIM is becoming a standard element for every new flagship Android device.

Apple added eSIM to its iPhones in September 2018. Therefore only users of iPhone XS/XS Max/XR and newer models are able to use it. Note that Apple did introduce an iPhone with a slot for two physical SIM cards but only for the Chinese market. In all other markets, iPhones are equipped with eSIM.

In short, eSIM is an embedded SIM module in your device. Instead of having a physical SIM, you scan a QR code or use an app to set up a new plan for your phone. This kind of “software SIM” allows you to:

  • quickly switch between operators,
  • remain online in any location,
  • choose a new operator in areas where one’s coverage is an issue,
  • share a number or mobile plan with other devices (i.e. tablet, smartwatch),
  • use your phone without physical SIM,
  • decide to keep your home country number on physical SIM or eSIM.

Besides Android and Apple smartphones many other smartphones and smart devices are being equipped with eSIM. Reach out and verify with the operator if they support your device.

Use eSIM with your home country operator

This is a solution fit for people who need to have their home country numbers available at all times. In this scenario, eSIM is the equivalent of your home country physical SIM card, because it allows you to use phone calls, SMS and mobile Internet. There are a few points to consider:

  • check if your operator supports eSIM,
  • compare mobile plans and choose the best one for you,
  • double-check if you can start the plan on your phone or if you need to visit a physical store,
  • know your international roaming plans, before you cross borders.

If this works for you then you can use the empty physical SIM slot for a local SIM and gain better Internet speed/quota.

How to use mobile Internet on eSIM?

My work mostly relies on the Internet connection and rarely on phone calls and text messages. Also, mobile Internet, even when it’s slow, gives me a wide range of apps, tools and communication channels. Mobile Internet usage statistics also tell us that the majority of traffic is within specific apps – instant messaging, social media, etc.

Services described below will not offer you a new phone number with the ability to make phone calls and use SMS. They are specifically designed to offer you plans for mobile Internet in specific regions or globally.

eSIM database – comparison site for eSIM mobile plans

If you want to quickly compare and find the best plan in any location that does support eSIM – go to the esimdb.com website. Mind that the site is created based on publicly available data. Some operators offer special promotions that are accessible only inside their app, email newsletter or other internal communication.

Also, be aware that the site is run by a company eConnect Japan Inc. that offers pocket Wi-Fi and other mobile services in Japan. It’s possible that some mobile plans could be a direct competition to what eConnect Japan is offering. If you are unsure about the credibility of provided prices/mobile plan terms – verify it directly with eSIM operator.

Flexiroam – eSIM and physical SIM global mobile Internet operator

Flexiroam is a Malaysian-Australian company founded in 2011 and focused on people who are traveling internationally. They currently offer mobile plans with:

  1. Physical SIM card.
  2. eSIM.
  3. Microchip – aka SIM sticker.

I don’t recommend using the microchip because:

  • it requires precision tools to literally stick it to your current physical SIM,
  • the microchip may not work, even if applied properly,
  • your smartphone may not detect it,
  • your current physical SIM or the microchip can be easily damaged,
  • you can only apply microchip to one SIM,
  • some device manufacturers and operators consider them illegal, so it can void your guarantee or mobile plan policy.

Both the SIM card and eSIM work similarly, so it depends on what is a better fit for you.

Flexiroam is very active on their social media channels and within the app. Very often they offer promo codes and discounts if you order a mobile plan in advance. I’m satisfied also with their customer support and ease to contact them within the app, via email or WhatsApp.

Airalo – eSIM online store

Airalo is a mobile app that tries to do something between esimdb and Flexiroam. They combine a list of local providers and allow you to buy mobile plans directly in the app. Their offer seems to be less flexible than the one from Flexiroam but it’s worth to compare prices and choose the best option. They also have good customer support and clear design, which I appreciate.

PS. Due to the pandemic, they currently offer a free eSIM – reach out to them.

How to manage (mobile) Internet connection to don’t run out of data?

If we like it or not, mobile Internet usage is always limited – even if your operator promotes it as “unlimited”. The moment you buy a mobile plan you agree to terms that specifically (sometimes vaguely) restrict you from some online activities. The bottom line is that the mobile Internet has these bounds:

  • quota – usually measured in GB or MB
  • maximum speed – described in kB/s
  • timeframe – set in a number of hours or days
  • protocols/features – blocked connection types i.e. torrenting or tethering

You as a mobile Internet user need to stay in control of your data allowance. Here are some tools on how to do it.

no-wifi-only-wine-italy
In some places, there are no Wi-Fi hotspots, but if you find one, it’s worth to connect

Download everything on a strong Wi-Fi

In my experience co-working and co-living spaces are the best “hubs” to find proper, well-maintained and reliable Wi-Fi connection, even when many people use it at once. Most of them will allow a hot desk paid by the hour with free coffee or tea. If possible connect to 5 GHz (sometimes written as 5G) Wi-Fi network to have higher speeds.

I can’t recommend regular cafes as their approach can vary from “we have wine, not wifi” to “yes we have wifi, just type this code, login with Facebook, provide your deepest family secrets and once NSA verifies your true identity, you’ll be able to connect for 15 minutes”.

The biggest advantage of Wi-Fi is the direct connection to the Internet infrastructure along with electricity on a cable. It’s a simplified description, but these two features – unlimited data cap and ongoing power source are allowing for truly “heavy usage” like:

  • downloading/uploading important documents, scans, photocopies, images,
  • video calls with your family and friends,
  • downloading podcasts, movies, music, audiobooks and games for long flights,
  • saving offline maps.

Mind that everything that you already store on your device will work even if you’re completely off the grid. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s vital to prepare and manage your digital backpack every time you’re in a range of proper Wi-Fi.

Use your operator’s official app

As described in the previous paragraph, using this app allows you to directly control your mobile plan, add packages and features. This applies to all SIM types, as every app can be for every physical and embedded SIM card you use.

Additionally, it’s worth checking local promotions within the app. Some operators may offer useful packages like:

  • unlimited mobile Internet for 2 hours – perfect for video call when there’s no reliable Wi-Fi nearby,
  • roaming packages for nearby countries – i.e. Malaysian SIM card with a special plan for other South-East Asian regions,
  • data sharing with a partner or a friend.

Data Flow widget – daily usage quota

Both iOS and Android have built-in measurements to count how much mobile data has been used by your device. It’s not 100% accurate and your operator may have a bit different calculations – especially if you use two or more SIM cards to access the Internet.

Instead of digging inside the settings to control the usage, I prefer seeing the remaining data in a widget. To quickly check remaining data in the current billing period I recommend using a free app called Data Flow (on iPhone). The widget shows the amount left for a day and until the end of the period.

I’ve not been using Android for quite some time now, therefore I cannot recommend Data Flow equivalent for that system. Check a few options from the “data usage” section and choose the best one for you.

Low Data / Data Saver mode

If you want to preserve your Internet quota, then the best way to minimize the transfer is to turn Low Data mode in iPhone (iOS) or Data Saver mode in Android. Both of them restrict background usage and in some cases may disrupt the functionality of some apps – especially these that require more data – i.e. video streaming, online games.

In my experience, Low Data mode is extremely useful when the cost of the mobile Internet is high. In some places, I need to stay connected to get emails/instant messages but I don’t want to lose data quota on activities that can wait until I connect to Wi-Fi.

Brave – web browser with an adblock

When you need to quickly search for relevant information it’s likely that you’ll get results from various news outlets. Unfortunately, the great number of them rely on aggressive and intrusive advertising, that overflow smartphone screen with pop-ups, toolbars, autoplay videos among others. These unwanted elements consume massive amounts of mobile data, therefore it’s best to block them.

One of the best web browsers that are doing a good job in automatically blocking ads and other surveillance capitalistic techniques is Brave. It’s a free and open-source app developed since 2015 by former CEO of Mozilla and creator of Javascript. It’s available on all major operating systems. Keep in mind that they experiment with their own ad network based on cryptocurrency but this feature is optional. You can still use Brave as a regular web browser.

Google Alerts – be notified about new search results

Google Alerts is this simple web tool that allows you to monitor what’s happening around the Internet.

  1. Go to google.com/alerts.
  2. Sign in with your Google account.
  3. Type keywords you are looking for i.e. “USA travel restrictions”.
  4. Click Show options.
  5. Choose:
    • frequency of the notifications,
    • sources,
    • language,
    • region,
    • selection of the results.
  6. In the delivery field, you can switch between your email inbox or RSS feed.

Repeat the steps for every search query you are interested in. When you narrow down to the specific topic that’s relevant to you in your current situation, Google Alerts becomes a powerful and helpful tool.

Feedly – use RSS reader to stay in the loop

The alternative method of reading news articles and following specific topics is with a proper RSS reader. Feedly is the best web-based RSS reader service with a generous free plan and multiple additional features in paid plans. You can subscribe to many popular news outlets directly within Feedly or copy and paste an RSS feed from any website/blog that supports this technology.

The key advantage of reading articles via RSS readers is that it gives you a “stripped” version of any publication. What remains is the actual content that matters – headings, paragraphs, and images. Feedly has a clean design both on the web and on mobile. Their paid plans allow them to integrate Google Alerts, Google News, Twitter feeds and implement advanced filtering with Leo – AI research assistant.

Twitter – account notifications

I like Twitter for three reasons.

  1. Tweets are publicly accessible which means they are easy to search and share.
  2. The content length limit forces users to be specific and useful.
  3. Many scientists, public figures and institutions have their official/verified accounts there.

As everywhere on the Internet it’s crucial to stay in control of your feed. Now during the pandemic, one feature is particularly useful. Once you follow an account i.e embassy of your country, you can click the bell icon to be notified of All Tweets.

With that you’ll see the full tweet content in your notification screen.

  • It consumes only a tiny chunk of data
  • You don’t need to open the Twitter app
  • Some embassies, airlines, hotels, etc. are tweeting the most important statements so it’s easy to stay informed

Just keep in mind that you’ll receive ALL tweets from specific accounts. Turn “do not disturb” (iPhone/Android) mode or turn off these notifications according to your needs.

Use messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, iMessage

The amount of mobile data you need depends on your Internet habits. The more multimedia is your activity (videos, online games, live streams) the higher quota is needed. In my perspective messaging apps are the best use case for mobile devices because:

  1. A tiny chunk of data (measured in kb) is needed to send and receive a message.
  2. Communication can be asynchronous or real-time depending on the current situation.
  3. Any type of data can be easily shared – links, images, videos, audio, docs, etc.
  4. Messaging works even on poor and busy networks – 2G/3G/4G/5G/Wi-F.
  5. While spoken words are easy to forget, text remembers everything, so it’s easy to dig up information from the past.
  6. Quickly start conversations as many apps already use your current contact list.
  7. Very low battery consumption in comparison to apps that require high-quality graphics (games) and fast Internet speed (video streaming).

Personally I prefer to use iMessage and Telegram whenever possible. Due to ongoing privacy issues with Facebook, I try to limit the use of WhatsApp and Messenger but in some situations that can be the only available communication channel. If you’re interested I wrote more about different messaging apps in my article about Lycamobile.

How to unfilter the information on the Internet (in any region)?

Depending on your location, tech regulations and provider policy, your Internet access is to some degree restricted. Local government and/or tech companies may prioritize some Internet protocols while diminishing or completely blocking other ways to use the Web. If you suspect that’s that the case or you just want to compare the search results, then I recommend using the following tools.

1.1.1.1 and WARP+ from Cloudflare

Cloudflare is one of the biggest Internet companies that keep websites secure. Their popular service for the general public is a free and fast DNS called 1.1.1.1. DNS is an index of all website addresses – crucial for the Internet to work properly. By default, your device is using the DNS from your provider and this is one of the layers where Internet restrictions can be implemented.

Additionally to their DNS, Cloudflare released WARP+ which is technically a Virtual Private Network that secures the connection between your device, Internet source you’re using and the website or app you want to access.

How to use 1.1.1.1 on a smartphone?

  1. Download the 1.1.1.1 app.
  2. Switch the big toggle from Disconnected to Connected.
    1. Agree when your device asks you to install a VPN profile.
    2. The app will prompt you to turn WARP+ – it’s an optional VPN subscription plan with additional features.
  3. (Optional) In the top right corner choose settings and switch between free 1.1.1.1 and WARP+.
  4. In advanced settings go to connection options.
  5. Disable for cellular networks.
  6. Switch to any other app, the 1.1.1.1 connection will run in the background.
  7. If needed go back to 1.1.1.1 app to turn off the connection.

In my experience, 1.1.1.1 is best to use on public and unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots i.e. in airports, train stations, cafes. I don’t recommend using it on mobile Internet (cellular networks). The strength of a cellular signal varies, especially if you’re commuting and this causes significant interruption for the VPN connection. Constantly reestablishing the connection can drain the battery and cause longer loading times in apps and the Web.

1.1.1.1 can be also be configured on other devices like computers, tablets, routers. Yet, keep in mind that in some cases changes in DNS on your device can cause general connectivity issues. Luckily a quick way to solve it is to go back to your default DNS settings.

Tor / Onion Browser

Tor network stands for The Onion Router and it’s a technology that allows you to anonymize your connection via “onion” layers. Every time you browse the Web, one or more layers (computers) are rerouting the path, to hide the data that can identify you. Tor network, much like cryptocurrency is often described with negative associations, and some countries prohibit the use of it. For the purpose of this article, I only focus on specific situations that it can be in use for you.

  1. The Tor browser works similar to any other web browser, but loading times can be significantly longer, depending on where you are and what you want to access.
  2. Use it as an alternative to your default web browser to compare search results or if you cannot access some specific site.
  3. If you’re not ready to pay for the WARP+ or commercial VPN, then use the Tor browser – which is free.

Keep in mind that because of the open-source nature of the Tor project, there are multiple different browsers that use this name and add additional commercial features on top of it. The best way to download the tor browser for your system is to go to https://www.torproject.org/download/

For iPhone (iOS) there is currently no Tor browser created and managed by the Tor Project. Yet, there’s Onion browser, reviewed on Tor Project blog and done by Mike Tigas. It’s a crowdfunded app and in my opinion, is the only Tor browser you should use on your iPhone.

NordVPN

Virtual Private Network is a necessary tool if your work or livelihood relies on accessing specific apps/services. Both 1.1.1.1 and Tor are designed more for a general public, who can be OK if things are working slow or not at all. If you want to have a proper tech solution that will redirect your Internet connection on many devices and in any circumstances, then you need to pay for a VPN.

Three most important scenarios for using a commercial VPN provider are:

  1. Using a public Wi-Fi that does not require passphrase – on airports, cafes, libraries, hotel lobbies.
  2. Wanting to access geo-restricted content or service – some banking apps, video streaming, news outlets, your business software.
  3. Having doubts about your current Internet Service Provider (ISP) and you would like to add an additional layer of security to your connection.

I have been using a couple of VPN providers for many years. For me, VPN is an indispensable tool, vital in the ever-changing international landscape of Internet policy. Instead of hoping that the connection in my next destination is will obey high standards of net neutral I prefer to have an alternative proven solution.

NordVPN is a provider with important features:

  • Easy to use apps for all major operating systems and web browsers.
  • Connects 6 different devices at the same time including routers.
  • Supports streaming platforms and peer-to-peer without throttling and logs.
  • Ability to connect to over 5500 servers in 59 countries.
  • It’s registered in Panama, which has no data retention policies is not part of Fourteen Eyes alliance.
  • Obfuscated servers allow you to connect even if your current network restricts VPN.
  • Offers a 30-day full refund guarantee.
  • (Optional) Uses dedicated IP – crucial for dedicated business services.

Besides the above points, I can recommend NordVPN because Piotr Konieczny is also advising to use this provider. He’s the most known cybersecurity expert in Poland. Received multiple awards for his activity, taught over 15 000 people how to remain secure on the Internet and runs a popular website (over 3 500 000 views/month) – Niebezpiecznik.pl. Thing is that on the rare occasion when NordVPN has some issue, Niebezpiecznik is not shy to publish an extensive report on what went wrong and what does it mean for users.

Much like a mobile plan, VPN is a subscription service, because the company behind it needs to maintain servers and work on new features. Feel free to choose the billing period that works the best for you, but keep in mind that the longer the period – the better deal you get.

How to quickly access key information about your surroundings?

Regardless of your current location, it’s vital to stay informed of what’s in your vicinity. Even if it’s not visible at a first glance and especially if you’re not fluent in the local language. Whenever possible I like to use widgets of the following apps to stay in the loop of what’s happening.

Weather app

I use the widget of the default Weather app on the iPhone because it gives me a clear forecast and current conditions. The accuracy varies depending on the country but it’s good enough to know when to put sunscreen, how to dress up and if rain protection is needed. Most Android versions also have some default weather app that comes with a widget.

Sometimes local apps – provided by a national meteorology institute, offer more accurate forecasts. Be sure to know their pricing model and check if the design is fine for you.

Airvisual

Air quality is a very important factor for me. Airvisual is a service that monitors air pollution around the world, combining:

  • weather,
  • public data,
  • user-generated reports.
  • algorithms to calculate pollution in places with not enough data points.

The widget shows an Air Quality Index (AQI) score for your current (or nearest) location along with advice on who can be most affected by the pollution. The AQI is as accurate as the available data in your place but bears in mind that your exposure to air pollution depends greatly on your daily activity.

  1. How much time do you spend indoors/outdoors?
  2. Do you walk a lot in nature or along busy streets?
  3. Do you smoke or are you a passive smoker?
  4. Is your work/home environment properly ventilated?

These are just some of the important questions that help you determine how the air around you affects health and mood.

Sickweather

Prevention is always better than hospitalization. Therefore I try to stay healthy at all times. One element of minimizing the risk of exposure to common sickness in my vicinity is knowing what health issues are there. Sickweather gathers publicly available data and user reports to show a SickScore in my location. They also offer optional doctor consultations and prediction models for companies.

World Time Buddy

Our global connectivity allows for a frictionless conversation with folks in all time zones. Yet, it’s kind to know if you’re reaching someone in the middle of the night or during the weekend. It’s even more important if your banking app or the insurance company doesn’t operate in full-scope outside their business hours. Finally, you can’t fly overseas without knowing local times, as all airports operate in their respective clocks.

Time zones managed by governments of each country with unnecessary daylight shifts are already a messy thing, that causes confusion and sleep disorders. Some regions like Europe are trying to eradicate daylight saving but we have still a long way to go to make it more simple. To stay on top of it I recommend setting up Time Buddy with all time zones important to you. They offer multiple solutions on their website, but for me, the most useful are the mobile ones with widgets.

Google Maps

Google Maps is one of the few Google services that’s actively used by over a billion users. Business owners, public transport operators, everyday commuters among others are contributing to one of the most comprehensive online maps. Chances are that you already use this app, therefore I focus on protips:

  • You can navigate the app with just your thumb. Double-tap and hold to zoom in/out.
  • Search by category rather than by the brand/business name. Some restaurants, stores, businesses may use names/phrases in the local language. Category search is automatically translated so if you’re looking for a “vegetarian restaurant”, Google Maps knows which places to show you.
  • Download offline maps for all planned destinations in advance. Especially airports and nearby cities, because you never know if the flight disruption will force you to stay overnight in an unknown location.
  • Sometimes when you are in rural areas where cellular coverage is weak, the app can crash, even if you have downloaded offline maps. If that’s the case then switch your phone to airplane mode or turn off mobile data for this app in the settings of your phone (iPhone | Android).
  • Log in to the mobile app with the same Google account you use on a computer to save places, see location history, provide feedback if you see that a local business is closed.
  • Share your ongoing location with a partner or family member. If you’re OK with Google’s privacy policy then it’s a great and free solution to stay in the loop with people you care about. Alternatively, on the iPhone, you can use Find My app that offers similar features and works according to Apple’s privacy policy.

Food delivery

Much like car sharing, food delivery services quickly spread to all major cities around the world. Their quality, availability, prices and user experience varies but almost everywhere it’s a similar process:

  1. Google for “food delivery” + name of the city where you are.
  2. Download a few most popular apps.
  3. Register your account – as always use a password manager to create and save a unique password.
  4. Add your payment method – if possible use Apple Pay / Google Pay or a virtual card to increase the safety of your transaction.
  5. Browse through food selection, prices, promos, and delivery costs.
  6. Choose the app that works best in your area.
  7. Order what you like.

The main reason why I like using these services is how effectively they are widening food options while keeping overall costs low. In some places, they can be the only way to get a healthy meal, because some restaurants don’t have enough occupancy or are solely open for delivery.

Google Translate and Google Chrome

Even if you know the local language, there are always words or phrases that can be new to you. Google Translate app is probably the most universal dictionary/translator with loads of available languages. Important tips:

  • Download offline packages for all major languages and these relevant in your region – you never know when they’ll be needed.
  • When translating whole sentences/paragraphs – always do it between foreign language to English or English to foreign language. Accuracy is much much better than if you would try to use it between your mother tongue and another language.
  • Use the camera or handwriting to input non-latin characters. The more clear is the image, the better will be the results.
  • Keep in mind that many cuisines are using “poetic” or vague names for whole dishes, so translating the food menu is not helpful. Try finding a recipe and translating/researching specific ingredients.

Chrome, the Google web browser, both in mobile and desktop app is using the same Google Translate technology to help you navigate websites in foreign languages. Depending on the structure of the site translating can be limited or don’t work at all. You can always try to copy and paste paragraphs directly to Google Translate app.

If you want to translate text from major European languages, then you can use alternative solutions, developed by EU-based companies. Often they can offer more accurate translations, so use them along with Google Translate:

XE – currency converter

Coming to a new country or transferring through several of them in a row can cause confusion around the value of products and banknotes. Additionally, when financial markets are going crazy, it’s vital to stay on top of the current situation. Not as a stock trader, but as a traveler in uncharted territory, who’s making one step at a time.

XE currency converter app
Current value between my base currency USD and local currency – here it’s MYR

XE mobile app offers a personalized list of currencies relevant to you. They are updated every minute and the last currency value is stored on your device, so use it even offline. The built-in calculator can help with exchanging bigger numbers. My favorite feature is the ability to set “10 USD” as the denominator on top and then the local currency of my current country in the second position. With that in the widget area, I can quickly assess the value of a meal in any given region where I’m in.

Cached View – visit a website even when it’s down

During the coronavirus pandemic majority of people are advised to stay at home, so naturally, the Internet traffic is surging. Robust networks are prepared for spikes like this but some websites don’t have implemented CDNs, caching or strong enough servers to handle the demand.

Luckily there is an easy tool that uses Google Web Cache and Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Both of these projects keep copies of websites – Google does it for better search indexing and Internet Archive as a non-profit do it for posterity. Google is making a cached copy of every website daily, while the Internet Archive allows you to select a date in the past to see changes on a site. Both of these backup repositories can be easily accessed via site cachedview.com.

  1. Google site you want to visit.
  2. If it’s loading too long it may be because the site is in high demand.
  3. Copy the whole web address including the “https” part i.e. https://www.imi.gov.my/
  4. Go to cachedview.com and paste it in the URL field.
  5. Click Google Web Cache.
  6. A new tab with the date of when the site was cached will open up.
  7. Remember that the live version of the site may have some updates that were not yet cached.
Photo by Maxim Ilyahov on Unsplash

How to protect yourself against online threats?

Fear is an emotion that serves its purpose when we face perceived danger. A pandemic is definitely a threat that affects us all, so we need to help each other. Unfortunately, it’s also a period when increased online traffic means an increased activity of “bad actors” – spammers, scammers and all sorts of tricksters.

Whether you are already hunkered down in an apartment with strong Internet or on-the-go counting your mobile data, it’s vital that you follow basic rules of online safety.

Encrypt your online connection

In what place do you connect?

When you are on a public Wi-Fi make sure that you use a VPN or at least 1.1.1.1. With the mobile Internet, it shouldn’t be an issue. If you are ever in doubt – turn VPN / 1.1.1.1 – just to reassure yourself.

Are you paying online or submitting any personal data?

Most web browsers, including these on mobile devices, are now informing you if there’s a safe (encrypted) connection to a site (a padlock icon). When you use a computer I encourage you to install HTTPS Everywhere plugin from the EFF.

If the website you need to use (i.e. a contact form on your embassy site) doesn’t have the padlock icon – then DON’T makes payments or send personal data. Try to send an email or call them. Also, check if the website/service has an official mobile app – maybe you can make the payment or send the contact form with it.

More and more companies and governmental institutions have their official profiles on social media and messaging apps. If that’s fine for you, then try to reach them on Messenger, WhatsApp or Twitter. On a rare occasion, you’ll be able to perform transactions directly within these services.

Are there websites/apps you cannot access?

Depending on which country you are and what’s their Internet policy you may be restricted from reaching a particular service. Keep in mind that sometimes it can be false positives and in periods of high alert, additional checks can be mainly automated as there are not enough people to validate the system.

In such situation your best solution is to try 1.1.1.1 and if this doesn’t work, then use the VPN.

Never open links from untrusted sources

When governments are sending mass SMS announcements, email inboxes are flooded with companies reacting to the pandemic and social media platforms have just one major hashtag #COVID19 – it’s easy to fell into a trap.

Simply – don’t open the link if you have doubt about:

  • Who is sending the link?
  • Why they’re sending it?
  • Is the website content really important to me?

In most cases you can write back to the sender, requesting more details. The clue of the message can be conveyed in a plain text, so if the sender really cares about you – they’ll elaborate. Stay vigilant and triple check before sending any money or signing up for a service.

Pathogen Resistance | xkcd (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Block outside contacts

Every modern device, app, online service has an option to block users/contacts. You can set it by default – i.e. only Friends of Friends can invite you on Facebook. But you can also do this on an individual basis – i.e. block a specific person from reaching you. Use this feature when you are losing trust in an individual.

Here’s a handy list of how to block a user/contact on major devices and platforms.

Filter out the noise

During uncertain times like these, we need to keep high hygiene standards both for our bodies but also for our minds. Stay informed of the situation in your vicinity but at the same time don’t be overflowed with “news”. Every platform has methods to filter sources, people or topics. Moreover, you can control the app time spent on particular activities on your device. Lastly – kindly settle with folks in your online communities/chat groups what are the new rules – when and where it’s OK to talk about the coronavirus and where we don’t talk about it.

How to use filters in major services?

Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash

Apple devices

I understand that now is probably not the best time to buy new devices. Yet, I need to emphasize the built-in security, privacy, and reliability of most Apple devices. That’s a good example of one (buying) decision that eliminates a hundred other decisions. As a nerd I thought that tinkering with hardware/software on my devices is paramount, so for the longest time, I was Windows/Android user. Things changed around the year 2012 when I started to work long-term abroad and the best device that never let me down was Apple iPad 2.

Since then I choose to switch to iPhones and Macbooks as my only work devices. Apple’s ecosystem that perfectly converges beautiful apps with efficient operating systems with high-quality hardware – is the best user-friendly tech solution. Default security measures are strong enough that an average user doesn’t need to worry about:

  • the right anti-virus software,
  • downloading tempered/broken apps,
  • confusing privacy app settings – location, ad tracking, contacts, etc.

If you never used an Apple device long-term, I’m sure that you’ll feel a positive change once you make a switch from another ecosystem. Moreover, if you keep your Apple in great shape (always use protective cases/screens), then it retains high value over time. The second-hand market is always in demand for their devices so you can always sell them, donate it to someone or trade-in an Apple store.

Which Apple device should I buy?

The shortest answer is – the iPhone. It’s a flagship product that highlights all the best and newest mobile tech features that Apple has to offer. Mac computers and iPads are more stationary in use, so read reviews, test them and decide what’s the best fit for you.

Should I buy new or second hand Apple device?

If you can afford the newest generation – buy it. If not, you can always check electronic stores for previous generations. It’s a still new device with a manufacturer’s guarantee and at a lower price.

You need to be very, very careful when buying second-hand devices because you never know how extensively it was used. If possible, try to find refurbished devices with a store chain guarantee.

Should I buy AppleCare+ (extensive guarantee program)?

Yes. Mobile devices are much more at risk of being damaged during our travels, commutes or other unforeseen circumstances. With a relatively low price for an AppleCare+, you get:

  • extended warranty and tech support period,
  • quick and effortless device replacement if it cannot be easily fixed,
  • ability to get help online and offline in most countries around the world.

Where should I buy Apple devices – iPhone, Mac, iPad, AirPods, Watch, etc.?

If you decide on the newest generation – I recommend buying it directly from Apple Store. I assume you’ll use the device in more than one country, so be sure that you are choosing an iPhone with eSIM and Mac with the right keyboard layout.

To optimize the costs of your new device compare its official price across countries and currencies. The price differences between regions are due to local customs, tax and environmental policies. As a non-resident, you may be eligible to get tax-return. Quickly compare all official Apple prices on macindex.com.

Some countries do not have official physical Apple Stores, but they do have an official online store with free delivery on most products. Alternatively, look for Premium Resellers and the biggest electronic store chains in your area.

If you prefer a second hand/refurbished device – check online marketplaces i.e. eBay, Amazon or the one that’s dominating your current country. Of course, take every possible safety precaution before making the transaction. If anything goes wrong many platforms offer buyer’s protection and you can always use chargeback mechanism on your payment card.

G Suite – more secure Gmail

In the previous paragraphs, I described how to use different tools to protect yourself from online threats. If you use Gmail as your main email inbox then you’re accustomed to their extensive and growing list of features, including specific safety measures. With that mind, be aware that Gmail is a free service because it helps Google to collect more data about users and sell targeted ads. This business model has many flaws, as described in books like “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism“, “Targeted” and “Permanent Record“. Eventually, the feeling of safety, that we all are striving for, can be abused by advertisers and those who pretend to be advertisers.

I am a long time user of Google Services including their Business offering – previously called Google Apps, now known as G Suite. I really do enjoy their incredible reliability, speed, and flexibility, but at the same time, I am not OK with how targeted advertising is affecting governments and individuals. Therefore I switched my free Gmail account to G Suite under my own domain. Now “[email protected]” is the main online entity that lets me access all essential Google Services including – Gmail, Google Drive, YouTube, etc.

G Suite is a System as a Service cloud solution designed for companies, therefore their infrastructure is certified with – ISO 27001, ISO 27017, ISO 27018, SOC 2/3, FedRAMP. This level of data protection and fact that there’s a different privacy policy for G Suite users than for free Gmail users, means there’s less chance that your personal data will be abused.

Even though G Suite aims for the biggest companies – anyone can use the service. Freelancers, sole traders, artists, digital nomads, Internet creators among others can have their own more secure Gmail under their own domain. My company Nerd on Tour LTD is an official G Suite Reseller and I have experience in migrating accounts, efficient system administration and setting it up for individuals, small and medium businesses.

If you’re interested in G Suite send me a message on [email protected] or fill this contact form.

Photo by Agus Dietrich on Unsplash

What’s your visa status?

Wherever you are, there are international and local regulations that affect your rights to travel/stay. In normal circumstances, you’re allowed to enter most countries with e-visa or visa on arrival and stay for a set number of days. COVID-19 pandemic is changing these rules on an hourly basis and there can be contradicting information circulating in the news, social media and among people.

Check official immigration websites

The best source of information regarding your allowed stay is the official immigration website. As the main bridge between foreigners and locals the site should be fully translated into English and additional languages. Please, be empathetic. This is a hard time for us all, so it’s possible that:

  • due to demands site is down – try to access cached version,
  • the relevant info is not yet translated into English – use Google Translate / Google Chrome,
  • visa rules are not clear, because the government is still debating – contact your embassy,
  • follow updates via their official social media channels, RSS feed or Google Alerts.

Reach the embassy/consulate

In all international matters, you are represented by the diplomatic mission of your country – the embassy or a consulate. Depending on additional treaties you may be supported by another country that has ties with your homeland. For example, citizens of the European Union traveling outside of the EU can seek help in any European consulates.

Especially when you’re hearing mixed reports about your visa status and border restrictions it’s vital to get a second and possibly third opinion. Consul the chief diplomat in the country where currently stay, should have up-to-date information. They are usually in contact with immigration offices and can translate official documents to answer your specific question.

Keep in mind that pandemic is affecting opening hours and may result in long waiting times on the phone line. Minimize calling costs or try to send your query via email and/or official social media channels.

Check Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ advice

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your home country is the official institution in charge of policies that affect citizens abroad. They may publish general precautions regarding specific regions, countries or cities. During emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, rules can be much more strict than usual. Be aware of what’s happening and how to get help from them – if needed.

Store important documents offline – screenshots, notes, links, passport photocopy

As described in previous chapters your smartphone is your most important asset while abroad. Even if you are completely off-the-grid or in transit without the Internet connection – you can still use it to store, manage, edit and present important documents. To ensure you have additional backup copies it’s best if you combine it with cloud services – i.e. Google Drive, iCloud Drive, Dropbox.

Papers please!

Digital Nomads and regular travelers don’t carry many paper sheets, because “everything” can be done digitally. Keep in mind that when dealing with immigration offices, embassies and ministries – you are often required to file paper forms, passport photocopies, flight bookings, etc.

Fortunately, in many places you can still find Internet cafes or printing stores – look for them on Google Maps. To do basic document edits a computer is no longer required. Use these mobile apps for document editing:

Papers can be also important on the border, so be sure to have a document folder to keep them neat.

Where should I stay when I don’t have a home (in a traditional sense)?

Before you make any decision – take a deep breath. Asses what is your exact situation by asking yourself these questions:

  1. What is my current visa situation?
  2. Can I extend the visa while in the country? What’s the process?
  3. What is the advice from my embassy/consulate/ministry of foreign affairs?
  4. How are my family members/friends doing? Can I help them from a distance?
  5. Do I have a safe and clean place to stay in my current location?
  6. Do I have a safe and clean place to stay in my home country?
  7. Is there a simple/direct transit between my current location and home country?
  8. What are the costs – visa renewal, accommodation, transport, etc.?
  9. What is my work situation? How much savings do I have?

Should I stay or should I go back to my home country?

It all depends on your circumstances. Do thought experiments and consider at least two/three different long-term scenarios. How many days can I legally stay where I am? Does it affect my work? How to ensure safety if I need/I’m forced to travel?

I definitely discourage overstaying your allowed visa period. Violating these rules can result in fines or even lifetime travel bans. Coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented event, where one of the major pieces of advice is to stay at (your current) home. But make sure you do absolutely everything to have a right to stay in a guest country. You never know how this will affect your ability to travel in the future. Mind that the travel restrictions you could get from one country can influence entry to the whole region i.e. Schengen Zone in the European Union. Another example – a travel ban to go to Japan can have a negative impact on your visa status in Australia in the future.

Wikipedia list of Travel restrictions by country: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Travel_restrictions_related_to_the_2019%E2%80%9320_coronavirus_pandemic

In what type of accommodation should I stay?

Again it all depends on your budget, work conditions, visa status, and local regulations. Some hotels are turned into homeless shelters, some serve as governmental quarantine centers and others are actually selling quarantine packages to stranded travelers. I would definitely avoid any congested accommodation i.e. cheap hostels. Even if local authorities are not (yet) implementing lockdowns and activity restrictions, then it’s not wise to be part of a “petri dish” (for any kind of disease).

people at the Hatchery place
Me, Kevin, Guillaume, Elaine and Sam at The Hatchery Place

Co-living space

I prefer to stay and work in cozy co-living spaces, even when it’s not a pandemic. In one spot I have a private room to rest at night and work in the common area during the day. Currently, I’m in The Hatchery Place in Kuala Lumpur, where I’ve been on and off since October 2019. Getting to know my hosts and other guest nomads allowed me to build bonds that tremendously help during this tough time. If you plan to hunker down in one of the co-living spaces – make sure to reach out to the hosts first and asses the situation with them. Be empathetic – even if some places are open, they may not accept guests. You can get a list of co-living places around the world at coliving.com.

booking.com logo

Booking.com

When I travel for short trips, either related to my tour leading activities or my leisure time I almost always use Booking.com. It’s one of the biggest travel accommodation portals that aligns with what I appreciate:

  • clear design both in mobile and web app,
  • easy way to compare properties,
  • the seamless booking process,
  • no need to print confirmations for check-ins,
  • huge and diverse database of accommodation – hotels, hostels, rental houses, apartments, etc.

Moreover, there are many places where you can book your stay with free cancellation. That’s especially important during the uncertain period of various travel restrictions. Lastly, I’m glad that Booking.com is clearly communicating its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is so significant (Force Majure) that you can try to request a full refund without any cancellation fees. Just be sure to reach out to the property staff, Booking Customer Service and patiently wait for the response.

airbnb logo

Airbnb

For me, Airbnb is a good place to find whole apartments/houses for a family/group of friends. Also, it works great when you want to find a spot for longer than 30 days. Discounts for a long-term stay can be significant but remember that you need to pay upfront. Airbnb excels in:

  • stellar design of the entire service,
  • innovative offering – experiences, boutique hotels, retreats,
  • community programs for hosts.

Airbnb was one of the first to offer full refunds to the guests affected by the coronavirus pandemic. They also support hosts with a special relief fund. Keep in mind that many private houses that offer rooms or shared facilities are not prepared to have the highest sanitation procedures in place. Reach out to hosts/Airbnb Support to asses the situation, before booking a place.

What other travelers/digital nomads are doing?

Pandemic caught us all by surprise and we need to figure out things on the spot. I firmly believe that globetrotters have a unique experience that helps us in these unusual times. The magnitude of the coronavirus is, of course, bigger than any misadventures we have had before. Yet we do have necessary ingenuity to find shelter, food and human connection wherever we go. Here are some unusual places where travelers decide to stay:

  1. Camping – one British couple in their trailer van in Denmark.
  2. Sailing – Sarah Steenland is an Australian comic artist living on a boat, currently anchored in Malaysian island.
  3. Kabarnet, Baringo County, Kenya – Stephanie Nasbe Johnson after assessing her situation she decided to stay in her current settlement that’s fairly sustainable.

Rolf Potts is a travel writer mostly known by his “Vagabonding” book. He records a regular podcast that recently featured many more seasoned travelers, who are affected by COVID-19.

flight on a plane
Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash

How to find flights?

If you decided to fly then be prepared for what’s coming. Many flights are canceled last minute, countries implement travel and transit bans and different sets of rules are created for citizens, residents, visitors and migration workers. While prevention and sanitation methods vary from country to country and from airline to airline it’s in your discretion to ensure that you’re safe during transit. To make your flight safe and sound I advise having your own:

  • facemask,
  • tissues,
  • hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% alcohol,
  • rubber gloves,
  • reusable bottle of water,
  • food supplies.

Repatriation missions

Many governments are organizing special flights to bring back their citizens to home countries. The flights can be partially or fully funded. Flight routes can be different than the regular connections and they can be organized in cooperation with other countries.

  1. Google “repatriation to (your country)” or “flights back to (your country)”.
  2. Check the dates, conditions and safety precautions.
  3. Register on the site.
  4. Book the flight.
  5. Arrive at the airport at least 4 hours before the flight to have a buffer for additional procedures.
  6. Have a safe flight.

Can I flight to this country? What are the restrictions, treatment/testing procedures?

One of the most effective ways to fight with the pandemic is to know more about the best practices that were used in the past. One of them is flattening the curve. Even if many people will need medical assistance, it’s much better to widen the overall period with methods like social distancing. If we don’t do that, the number of people who need hospitalization (due to coronavirus or other health issues) is going to be higher than the health care capacity in any given region.

Flatten the curve graph | © SafetyWing

In other words, it’s best to know what’s the current status of each country/state – health-wise and travel-wise. The team behind SafetyWing nomad insurance created a dedicated site where they share:

  • containment measures
  • testing and treatment information
  • travel and transit bans
  • local helpline numbers
  • additional resources and governmental official websites

The flattenthecurve.global is updated daily and is based on available data. Be sure to cross-check information if you are in doubt and reach out to your country officials.

Search for regular flights

I prefer to look for flight connections in Google Flights or Kiwi.com. They both have a nice design, clear comparison charts, and useful features to make better buying decisions. They try to inform you about possible travel restrictions on your route but do additional research before paying for the flight.

Flightfox – the best combination of software/human flight hacks

The aviation industry rapidly grew into a very complex international business that involves a lot of moving pieces. Airport fees, transit connections, currency conversions among many other elements affect the flight price. There are guide books and dedicated forums where people are spending an ungodly amount of hours to find the best deals.

I use some of these techniques but don’t like spending too much time digging and comparing all possibilities. That’s why every time I’m looking for long-haul flights I ask for a second opinion from Flightfox. They’re the flight experts working with companies to optimize aviation costs, but individuals can also use their service.

It works like this:

  1. Research the best deal you can get – using any knowledge you have.
  2. Go to flightfox.com and create an account.
  3. Write all the details of your trip and include the link(s) from your research.
  4. Pay (actually pre-authorize) the amount based on the complexity of your inquiry.
  5. Flightfox experts compete with each other to find the best deals and one will be in contact with you within hours.
  6. If you’re not satisfied with proposed routes – you can always ask about an alternative itinerary.
  7. Use the links they provided to book your flights.

The best part is that they guarantee to find a flight cheaper than the one you find yourself. I use their services a couple of times since 2017 and I assure they keep the promise. Several times they found much cheaper connections and other times I already streaked the best deal, so they release the pre-authorization from my credit card. Even though pandemic is significantly complicating air travel, they keep providing their service.

It’s not a great time for travel, but if you or anyone you know is having trouble getting home due to border closings or other travel restrictions, make sure to get in touch.

Our unique approach to travel (i.e. humans + software) is the best solution in times like these. In the past few days we rescued 25 students from Morocco, 3 people from Ghana, plus a handful of individuals having trouble booking flights home. When countries “close” their borders, even to transit passengers, we can still find solutions.

Email sent by Flightfox to its customers

[UPDATE] Due to coronavirus pandemic Flightfox just added a new feature – Canceling flight to maximize your credit or refund. Here’s the full message.

Do you have a flight or hotel booking that you need to cancel due to the virus crisis?

We’ve canceled thousands of bookings in the past few weeks, so we know who to call and what to say to maximize your credit or refund. We also have priority access to many support teams (Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, etc.).

If you would like us to handle your cancellation, even if originally booked outside of Flightfox, we charge a flat fee of USD 50 per booking, but ONLY if we get the best result according to your travel provider’s policy and rules. For that fee, we’ll wait on the phone as long as it takes and work our magic to get the best result.

Email sent by Flightfox to its customers

I highly recommend Flightfox. They never let me down.

Flight status

When the flight is booked add it to your calendar app and be sure to choose time zones corresponding to origin airports. I prefer to use Google Calendar under my G Suite account and share trip details with my family members to keep them in the loop.

Remember about the connectivity basics to receive instant flight notifications:

airhelp logo

AirHelp – effortless flight refunds

Flying can be a memorable experience if everything goes according to the plan. Delays, cancellations, strikes can happen and the complexity of a whole system is not easy to grasp. With natural disasters or global emergencies comes another layer of complications. When I’m eligible for a flight refund? What documents do I need to file? To whom do I file the complaint? Does the protection laws apply to specific residents or flight routes?

To be honest I don’t know all the details. Even if I find rules and manage to file papers I don’t have time and resources to follow the legal procedures. That’s why I prefer to outsource this kind of “battles” to experts. AirHelp describes itself as “justice as a service” and that’s exactly how you can think of it.

  1. File all disrupted flights you had in the last three years via mobile app or website.
  2. Wait until AirHelp solves the situation.
    1. If you’re entitled to compensation AirHelp will deduct a percentage for their service and send the rest to your bank account.
    2. If you’re not entitled to compensation AirHelp will not charge any fee.

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cover made of colorful umbrellas
Photo by Ulises Baga on Unsplash

How to get proper insurance that protects me from the coronavirus?

While traveling and nomading is a fascinating lifestyle, it always involves a risk of accidents. They can be related to:

  • transit – delays, cancelations, overbookings,
  • material – theft, loss, damage,
  • civil liability – when other people/property is involved,
  • health – pre-existing conditions, rescue missions, medical treatment,
  • additional coverage suited for your needs.

I’ve been fortunate enough to not have any serious medical interventions abroad. But I did support in emergencies many tourists during my years of experience as a tour leader. Life and death situations are already so stressful that people involved can lose reasoning, emotional balance, and track of time. The last thing they want to worry about is if they have enough cash to pay for hospitalization, rescue operations and treatment bills. Especially when the accident happens in a foreign country with a different language, currency, and health system.

If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford traveling

Do you already have a travel insurance?

If so, please do the following:

  1. Go to their website.
  2. Read their official statement regarding COVID-19.
    • If there is no statement – call or message them, asking about the policy.
  3. Re-read the terms and conditions of your travel insurance.
  4. Pay close attention to exclusions.
  5. Check how the “trip” is defined in the policy – i.e. “a trip no longer than 180 days outside of your home country and/or country of residence”
  6. Save all contact details – phone number, Skype nickname/number (if they use it), email address on your phone.
  7. Reach them when you need help.
safetywing logo

SafetyWing – solid insurance for nomads

I think that the insurance company should work as an immune system. It’s invisible, but when the disaster happens, it’s here to protect us. One way of confirming that the system is in place to tackle what’s coming is by providing proactive advice. Another important factor is when an emergency occurs, there is a timely response to the situation development. Last but not least the system still works, even when the danger persists.

This is exactly the case for SafetyWing – modern insurance designed specifically for nomads and remote workers across the globe.

  1. When the first COVID-19 hotspots were emerging, SafetyWing was informing day-by-day how this affects nomads and how to proceed with insurance help.
  2. SafetyWing timely assesses the situation based on CDC and WHO reports and helped my co-living friend to perform the “political evacuation” (repatriation flight) to his home country.
  3. Now COVID-19 is considered as a “warned-against disease” and coronavirus treatment is not covered under the regular nomad insurance, BUT it is covered under the remote team plan.

Again, it’s remarkable to see this level of transparency from an insurance company. In fact, they’re unusual in many other aspects too:

  • the whole team works remotely,
  • they received over three million dollars in funding from Y Combinator,
  • their design is minimalistic and cartoonish, but the wording is clear and straight to the point.

Comparing to other “travel” or “nomad” insurances it’s vital to underline SafetyWing features:

  • You can sign-up while being abroad.
  • Coverage is provided by acclaimed insurance group Tokio Marine HCC.
  • Certain underwriting is done by Lloyd’s of London.
  • The plan can have specified dates or can work as a 4-week subscription – pay only for the exact time you need it.
  • Visits to your home country are included.
  • Young children are included without an additional fee.
cashless payments
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Why cashless payments are now essential and how to make them?

I spent a great amount of time in the online world, which means that almost all services that I rely on (described above) are not tied to a specific location. This flexibility allows me to travel and work on-the-go but comes with a price. To be specific it comes with many prices in various currencies and I’m not a person that nervously follows ups and downs of financial markets. At the same time, I like to automate payments and minimize the costs of everything that involves personal and business finances.

To remain calm, especially during the turbulent pandemic period I hold on to my strategy:

  1. Pay online and in apps with a virtual card.
  2. Pay at physical stores with Apple Pay / Google Pay.
  3. Use debit cards only when Apple Pay / Google Pay is not supported.
  4. If possible store money in local currency on a sub-account in my online banking – if not, default to USD or EUR.
  5. Always choose the local currency for the best currency conversion rates.
  6. Avoid storing cash (especially coins) of the local currency – it’s easy to steal and expensive or impossible to convert to another local currency.
  7. Keep minimal amounts of banknotes in the wallet – use it only as a last resort, when all other payment methods are not available.

This strategy is improved over time and it all started with a weak currency of my own country. In Poland, we use “złoty” (PLN) and due to economic ties with the rest of the European Union, euro is the common denominator of value. I like hundreds of thousands of other Poles prefer to earn in euro or other major currencies – USD, GBP, AUD – and only when it’s needed we convert it to PLN.

The travel lifestyle combines with online convenience and personal economic needs. Here are the most important features for nomads and travelers:

  • freedom of moving and managing money,
  • subaccounts for different currencies,
  • ease of use – both in a mobile app and on the web,
  • currency conversion with the lowest fees (possibly with the mid-market rate),
  • fast international transfers,
  • compatibility with payment processors and online marketplaces,
  • single multi-currency debit card to use for payments,
  • automatic transaction protection with chargeback system,
  • ability to use the card with Apple Pay / Google Pay.

In the current reality of practicing high hygiene standards, I advise avoiding cash. The research has been done years before the COVID-19 pandemic and showed that banknotes and coins are very filthy. We can only guess what other people are doing with money before they hand it out.

Additionally, many delivery services around the world are choosing online/contactless payments as the only viable option. That’s done to protect couriers and customers alike while improving speed and frictionless of all transactions.

revolut logo 2020

Revolut – the one bank app for nomads and travelers

That’s without a doubt the best-suited bank service that I’ve been actively using since 2018. Revolut is a British fintech company that’s successfully creating a mobile-first bank in the app. Absolutely all operations you want to perform are possible with well-designed and maintained mobile app.

Revolut is also offering currency conversion with mid-market rates, international transfers and any ATM cash withdrawal – free of charge. Premium and Metal plans are optional and I recommend using them when you want to increase the quota of free currency conversion or cash withdrawal.

I really like the speed of Revolut’s operations and introduction of new features.

  • With the Revolut card connected to Apple Pay / Google Pay, my phone became the standard way to pay for anything.
  • Brexit didn’t stop them with international expansion (like it did for N26). They continue serving European customers with their Lithuanian bank license.
  • They got a green light for the American market and added support for currencies in popular destinations in South East Asia.

The main bank account for my British LTD is with Revolut Business, so I can instantly move any currency to my personal Revolut account. When I want to support my family and friends who also use Revolut, the transfers are also instant, regardless of the currency and if they’re abroad.

Probably the most crucial feature during the ongoing lockdowns and logistic hurdles is the fact that you can start using Revolut account and cards the moment you verify your credentials!

  1. Download the app.
  2. Follow the registration prompts.
    • Use your main email address to always catch important messages from Revolut.
    • Be sure to provide the mobile number that’s able to receive SMS codes (i.e. Hushed).
  3. Make your first top-up from another card or bank transfer.
  4. Choose your Revolut plan.
  5. If you’re not sure that you can receive a new card by mail to your current location, choose to send it to your home country or to your family member.
  6. You can add this card right away to Apple Pay / Google Pay, from the app and start using it!
  7. Alternatively, generate a new virtual card and add it to Apple Pay / Google Pay.
transferwise logo

TransferWise – fast and affordable money transfers

To some degree, TransferWise is similar to Revolut. They also offer multi-currency debit cards for people and businesses from various regions and allow you to manage the account with the mobile app (and also in a web browser).

The key difference is that they don’t offer any subscription plans. Instead, you pay a small fee for every currency conversion and money transfer. Fees are much much lower than the alternative systems – Western Union, PayPal or SWIFT via traditional banks. The bottom line is that TransferWise excels in the ability to send money to any person, business or institution, regardless if they have an account with TransferWise.

Additionally, you can also accept payouts in USD, EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, PLN with bank accounts run in respective countries/regions. This is a very useful feature when working with businesses or customers operating in these currencies.

Keep in mind that you’ll need to receive and activate your physical card first before adding it to your Apple Pay / Google Pay.

How to find local help?

You’re never alone. Even if you feel like it, there’s always some honest and kind person nearby, who can help. Maybe a stranger, who is not fluent in your language, but is willing to go an extra mile for you. Previous adventures may give you a glimpse of that universal generosity. Don’t get yourself sucked into a vortex of infinite bad news. Breath and reach out to others around you.

In my experience, I found the most helpful people in passionate communities. Even if now we need to practice “social distancing” and we can’t gather in groups in physical locations, we can still support each other online.

  1. CouchSurfing – due to health risks you probably won’t be able to find a host to stay for a night. But CS members including local experts (“ambassadors”) passionate about backpacking/vagabonding are very active in dedicated groups. Mind that these groups sometimes communicate on WhatsApp, Facebook Groups or elsewhere.
  2. Nomad List – while the main site is a feature-rich comparison tool, the most intriguing part is the global community of digital nomads. Real time conversations are on Slack and long-form threads are on Discourse forum. Participation requires a monthly or one-time fee, but I totally recommend it.
  3. Telegram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Slack groups – there are many groups, especially in major cities that consist of local guides, expats or residents willing to support temporary visitors. Find and join these groups on the platform of your choice.

As always – trust your intuition and common sense. Use filters and block features to stop topics or accounts you have doubts about. I believe that skills that help you navigate in new territories will also be useful in the online world.

Crisis Text Line

Online communities can be a wonderful place to hang out with like-minded people. But there are serious situations when you need better support from someone who knows how to talk about suicidal thoughts, abusive relationships, mental struggles among other topics.

Since 2013 there’s a text line help service that currently works in English-speaking countries. They’re expanding to other regions and languages soon. If you require support from a trained professional send a text message/Facebook message to a Crisis Counselor, who can chat with you during this tough period – https://www.crisistextline.org/

digital nomad journal
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Travel tech consulting

Mobile-first tools are always in my utility belt. They allow me to embrace local cultures and tell stories. Even if the world is upside down the connectivity hacks allow us to stay in touch with loved ones. Then we can gain more time and take steps to move further on our journey.

This comprehensive guide is here for free for everyone. Although, if you run a travel business or you are a travel personality or a digital nomad in need of travel tech consultation – I’m here to help. My work as a tour manager and web developer experience gives me a unique perspective on how to solve travel tech problems.

Additional resources

healthy eating habits
Colorful veggies | Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Final words

It’s a tough time for me too. That’s why I double down on activities that ground me. I like dancing to release energy and train yoga to gain balance. Veggies are primarily what I eat to feel light and conscious.

Thank you for reading the guide. Stay safe!

Please send the link nerdontour.net/stranded to those who may need it.

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