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Communicating While Abroad

The below advice was compiled from a survey released to all Northwestern students who traveled abroad in the fall 2017 quarter.  


  • Find an app accessible through your smartphone and/or your laptop to communicate with friends and family back home
  • Have more than one messaging app available in the event there is a disruption to service
  • The Find My Friends app can be useful to check in with your friends who are abroad, especially those who are staying alone in homestays
  • Create a GroupMe that contains all of the students on your program
  • Use Facebook and other cloud-based communication services since they are free
  • Download WhatsApp before you travel abroad. It is the most popular communication tool outside of the U.S. Before you depart, make sure your contacts are saved in WhatsApp. Be aware that some WhatsApp users with two phone numbers (local and U.S.) have reported being locked out of their account because the app could not determine which phone number to associate with their account
  • If you are traveling to China, consider downloading WeChat, which is the country’s most popular messaging app. Also note that WhatsApp is blocked in China
  • Signal is an encrypted messaging app
  • LINE is a popular communication tool for travelers in Japan
  • KakaoTalk is used heavily by travelers in South Korea
  • Snapchat’s Snap Map is not reliable. Find My Friends is a better equipped tool to locate friends
  • Connect with program leaders on Facebook to reach them via Facebook messenger


  • Don’t forget to check your Northwestern email for important updates or security alerts
  • Google’s Gmail is blocked in China
  • Use VPN to access sensitive sites like your Northwestern email

Mobile Phones

  • Before You Go
    • Research and select a phone plan prior to travel
    • Using a local SIM card is usually the most affordable and easiest mobile phone option. In Europe, a SIM card with a good data plan can cost as little as $17/month
    • If you want to use a SIM card abroad, you’ll likely need to unlock your phone before you travel. Check to see if an old cell phone can be used with a local SIM. Another option would be to buy a used cell phone in the U.S. to use abroad with a SIM card
    • If possible, consider buying a phone that will work in each of your travel countries
    • The major cell carriers in the U.S. have international phone plans (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint). Sprint is known to have a good 3G international plan
    • AT&T has a reputation for not allowing travelers to use foreign SIM cards
    • Students complained about the quality of phones from BLU Products, which sells rebranded and low-cost mobile phones
    • Pre-program all essential and emergency contacts into your phone before departure
  • While Abroad
    • Some travelers use their U.S. phone only to communicate with friends and family back home, and use a cheap local phone to communicate with local acquaintances
    • Understand the limits of your data plan before you start using it
    • On most local SIM cards, incoming calls are free, so if you need to talk on the phone, try to have your contact call you
    • If you purchase a SIM card with a limited data plan, save your data for app-based transportation (Uber), navigation (Google Maps, Waze,, and emergency situations. Use W-Fi for all other communications
    • For travel in the UK, data plans from Vodafone are known to be relatively inexpensive and provide good cell service. GiffGaff is another popular data plan in the UK. It is known to be cheaper than Vodafone, but may not offer as broad of mobile service
    • If you get a new phone number through a SIM card or local mobile phone, remember to tell your essential contacts about your new number
    • For an international plan to work, the roaming setting needs to be turned on
    • If you do not have an unlocked phone, it can still be used to access Wi-Fi
    • There have been issues with some of the phones that are rented by study abroad program providers
    • Since most people outside of the U.S. do not use iPhones, do not rely on iMessage to communicate with your local acquaintances
    • Limit excessive phone-use so you can enjoy your time abroad. Use it as an opportunity to get off the grid and engage with the local community
    • For travel to Ethiopia, phones must be registered through Ethio Telecom if a traveler wants to use mobile data in the country. International plans (e.g. U.S.-based carriers) are restricted to voice only in Ethiopia


  • Inform friends and family back home about the frequency you will be communicating with them while you are abroad
  • Tell your friends and family back home about your preferred method of communication
  • Use multiple communication platforms to connect with people locally and back home


  • While traveling with a phone that does not allow texting or calling is possible, not having data or Wi-Fi can be very inconvenient for a traveler
  • If you are traveling to a developing country or to a remote location, do not assume that Wi-Fi will be available. Data plans are recommended in locations where Wi-Fi is not common
  • In some very developed locations (e.g. Hong Kong, London), data may not be necessary since Wi-Fi is a mainstay
  • To prevent roaming, turn your phone on airplane mode and turn on the Wi-Fi
  • Having a phone that has Wi-Fi and/or data capabilities is very helpful, especially when a traveler does not speak the local language
  • If using AT&T, the roaming setting needs to be turned on to use the phone abroad
  • Connect to Wi-Fi whenever possible to avoid using your data
  • Consider buying a Wi-Fi hotspot