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Internet privacy on the road

2: Online security while travelling with your own device (part 2)

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This page deals with using a smartphone/phablet when travelling (possibly in conjunction with a computer).

The previous page deals with using an ultraportable computer when travelling.

Buying a new phone for Internet access abroad.

You can use a smartphone both as a Wi-Fi source for your computer or as an safenetInternet-connected device on its own, with no computer attached. While this page covers both scenarios, you can read in more detail about using a smartphone in conjunction with a computer for Internet access on the previous page.

If you are already travelling abroad, you'll likely face two problems when trying to buy a new phone. First there is the language barrier when you are in the shop, making it difficult to obtain explanations of which phone's features match what you want (unless you already have a model in mind). Then there is the thorny issue of whether the phone's guarantee is valid in your home country - caveat emptor (buyer beware) in both cases. It's nearly always best to buy a phone before you leave (and be sure not to lose it or have it stolen once you have it!).

Be certain your phone is ‘unlocked’ – that is, not tied to a specific provider such as Verizon or Virgin. You can pay nearly any phone shop to unlock an existing phone (easiest) or you can do it yourself with a few bits of software downloaded from the Internet. That's more risky on two fronts: the software may not be entirely trustworthy (the newly-unlocked phone may do more than you asked for, such as spy on you) and the unlocking attempt may snarl up and "brick" your phone, meaning you'll have to take it to a phone shop anyway.

Your phone needs to be suitable for use internationally. As a minimum it needs four bands and run on both 2G and 3G networks; better yet would be to add LTE bands and 4G networks. 3G is quite peppy for data: your computer will behave as if connected to a fairly sluggish DSL or cable outlet. 2G is really very slow, but might be all you can get in some locations or countries. 4G - faster than 3G - is still being rolled out in many areas so coverage is uneven. You might also see the terms GSM and UMTS, which correspond to 2G and 3G.

Each person will have their own idea of whether they want Apple, Android or Windows as the system running on the phone. It might just come down to price, which is a good point, as a stolen or dropped $500 phone hurts more than a bargain basement one. You'll also be fairly decided on the screen size you are willing to carry along with you. If this is going to be your primary Internet access device, try to see how useable your favourite websites are on the screen area you plump for (most stores have trial phones you can use on their Wi-Fi links). A small screen means a lot of scrolling left and right on websites, and probably more if you go for reading PDF or eBook guides on it. Here's the twist: a large screen means shorter battery life, or the need to carry either an extra battery or a 'power bank' (an external battery you plug in to extend the life of the internal one).

Nearly all new phones will have Wi-Fi features. tethering Your chosen phone must, at the least, be capable of connecting to a Wi-Fi network - for example at the airport or in a coffee shop. It is also useful if the Wi-Fi feature allows you to employ the phone as a Wi-Fi source where you connect something else to the phone's Wi-Fi (see the diagram). This is sometimes termed "personal Wi-Fi hotspot" or tethering. It permits you to use the phone on a later trip as the source of your computer's online connection. That brings more convenience but of course much more weight and complication.

A dual SIM phone will give you more flexibility (and saves fingernails as you prise off the cover to swap over SIM cards each time you want to switch provider) when travelling if there is more than one cellular network provider you intend to use.

What other useful features should you have on the shopping list? Well, it would be helpful if the phone had Bluetooth connectivity (most do, but check if you are buying a cheap brand with a Chinese name) and a decent battery life. Bluetooth allows you to connect an external keyboard to the phone and allows you to type more than 100-word summaries as emails home. If you plan to maintain a blog on your travels, you'll bless the day you decided to take an external keyboard along for the phone. For photography, both forward and back-facing cameras makes life easier if you aim to use the phone as your main picture device.

A fast processor and large RAM size will mean the phone is faster when loading applications, but it won't affect your surfing speed once everything is fired up. Look for at least 1GB of RAM (memory) though, or editing and resizing images from the phone's camera will be painfullly slow.

Connecting to the Internet on the move.

You are probably best buying a SIM card in your destination country (a prepaid plan is best). You need to be sure you buy a card which allows data as well as voice connections (as long as you intend to use a phone - obviously with a dongle you'll need just a data plan). For data, most people find a minimum of 2GB per month is needed for surfing the Web, checking emails and uploading photos. Your phone will have some means of monitoring your data use, and when you begin using it in the new country, look at the data use to get a feel for how long is needed before you top-up or recharge the data plan. It's easier to buy and activate a SIM card in some countries than others. The SIM card wiki for prepaid plans is an excellent first stop to see what buying a SIM card entails and which cellular network operator you have to choose from in your destination country.

You’ll have to check your data use fits within the plan you purchased to avoid being cut off somewhere you can’t arrange a top-up of your data plan. Continuing with your home telecom provider through roaming will probably be wickedly expensive.

Some people have reported good results with an international SIM card. These are cards you buy before you leave and can offer very much lower roaming rates than your home cellular network provider. However, examine the rates for data use very carefully (roaming charges, data allowances).

Whenever you can, connect with local free Wi-Fi for Internet use and save on your purchased data use. There is a drawback here, though, as without any other measures, public Wi-Fi is not safe for connecting to critical sites such as your bank. You'll need to add a VPN (virtual private network) service if you intend to do any internet banking or credit card payments on a public Wi-Fi network. If you are using an Android phone, here is a helpful tutorial for setting up a free or paid VPN on your phone. Even easier is to download an app which does the VPN setup for you. Opera offers a free VPN service though its partner company SurfEasy. The Opera browser for desktop computers already has VPN enabled; this is the way to add it to your phone.

Finding a suitable free Wi-Fi network for your phone is easiest using an app which will locate one for you. Instabridge derives its information from a crowdsourced database of Wi-Fi hotspots so its information is very up-to-date. Instabridge is free and available for both Android and Apple devices. The Android version is more feature-rich than the iOS one, being able to log you in to hotspots automatically. The JiWire Wi-Fi Finder is also useful and available here for Android and here for iPhone (you will need a running GPS function on your phone to use this app).

Adding a keyboard to the phone.

The onscreen keyboard on a phone begins to get tiresome after the first line of any message. If you are maintaining a blog, or want to write detailed messages, it's sheer torment typing with thumbs on a tiny touchscreen. For little extra weight (350g, 0.8lb) you can add a freestanding keyboard to your phone and still be lighter than someone using an ultraportable computer. As it connects wirelessly, the keyboard does not require a physical connection to your phone. Once you have tried a physical keyboard, you'll never go back to picking at the tiny touchscreen keys again. The effort is less. You will notice how easy it is to select symbols such as #?( = without needing to switch between two or more virtual keyboard screens. There are many different types of Bluetooth keyboard available - some of which may be specifically designed for your mobile device.

If you are using an Android device, the Samsung EE-BT550 costs about £30 in the UK and is compatible with smartphones using Android version 3.1 or higher as well as with Galaxy tablets.

bluetooth keyboard

[click on the small picture to see it larger]

Some keyboards are flexible and splashproof into the bargain:

Using a dongle instead of a phone.

Think of an Internet dongle as a way of fitting your computer with a SIM card. The dongle is essentially a mobile phone with just the radio bits and no display, microphone or input screen. It plugs in to your computer using USB. As when buying a new mobile phone, you can purchase dongles which have no SIM included or those from a cellular network provider with a SIM provided as part of a package. The latter option isn't recommended for international travel, as - most of the time - you are locking yourself into a contract with a monthly charge. A SIM-free dongle and a prepaid SIM is the best way to go.

The Huawei E3372, for example, is a multiband dongle (GSM four-band 850/900/1800/1900, UMTS dual-band 900/2100, LTE five-band 800/900/1800/2100/2600) without SIM, available for about £50 in the UK. The Huawei E303 drops LTE band support and is £20. Each of these dongles is about the same size and weight as a non-compact USB memory stick, which makes them the light, pocket-sized option for travel if you don't aim to use a separate mobile phone abroad. You will easily be able to make phone calls using voice-over-IP (such as Skype) on your Internet-connected computer if you wish, so a smartphone isn't needed if you don't need features like GPS.

Getting online with a dongle is exactly the same as with a mobile phone: you need either to pay roaming costs on your home cellular network provider (and possibly buy a second SIM if the SIM card size you have in your phone differs from the dongle's SIM size), add a new SIM from your destination country or buy an "international SIM". Remember, as it has no feature for making voice calls itself, you'll need just a data plan for the dongle SIM (see above, 'Connecting to the Internet on the move').

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