Looking back on it now, I realize how perilously unprepared I was for the expat life when I set out for Europe seven years ago. With my beast of a laptop weighing down my carry-on like a slab of concrete and my suitcase loaded with a miscellany of American treats that I was sure I’d miss while abroad, I jetted off to Budapest to begin my expat adventure, blissfully oblivious to the kinds of things I really should have prepared myself with before making the trip across the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong, those treats definitely came in handy the first couple of weeks and helped me enjoy some of the comforts of home for a little while, but those joys were fleeting and didn’t do much to help over the long haul.
Being at this whole expat thing for seven years now, though, I’ve learned a thing or two about what kinds of things are important for you as an expat to have at your side, things that can help protect your privacy, acclimate to a new culture, work while on the go, avoid having devices run out of juice, and securely store your important files in the cloud – things that can help you along the way and truly endure the long haul of the expat journey.
They say time is the best teacher, and I know that my time and experiences as an expat have taught me quite a bit about what you really need in this expat life. This is why I’ve decided to share with you my list of essential tech products for expats, so (unlike me) you can be fully prepared before you take off and hit the ground running as soon as you land.
So let’s get right to it – these are the five must-have tech products for expats that you definitely shouldn’t leave home without:
This is the big one. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you know that I’m a zealous proponent of VPN technology. Well, that’s because VPNs are easy to use, incredibly versatile, and can help expats in so many ways. I use a VPN every single day and I can tell you that once you start using a VPN as an expat, you’ll understand what I’m talking about and do the same.
This is essential for keeping your internet activity hidden from internet service providers, government agencies, hackers, network administrators, cybercriminals, and anyone else looking to snoop on what you’re up to on the internet. And it’s absolutely imperative for whenever you use public Wi-Fi hotspots, which are often left dangerously unsecured and present an attractive target for hackers and cybercriminals looking to steal sensitive data.
With a VPN, you can also bypass government, workplace, or school firewalls to access restricted sites and services, allowing you access to the open internet and the ability to access vital online communication tools freely, and keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues around the world. On top of that, you can use a VPN to unblock all kinds of geo-restricted content from around the world. Want to access your US Netflix library from abroad? No problem, just connect to a VPN server in the US and you can unblock it from wherever you are in the world. The real beauty of it all is that you can do this with virtually any geo-restricted content from around the world. All you need to do is connect to a server located in the country from which you want to unblock the content and you’re all set.
I’ve used more than a few different VPNs in my time as an expat, and the one I keep coming back to and find myself using most regularly is ExpressVPN. It’s a top-notch VPN provider all-around and is consistently regarded in industry circles as one of the very best in the world. That said, it does happen to also be one of the more expensive providers on the market, so if you’re in need of something a little more budget-friendly, then I’d definitely recommend checking out NordVPN, CyberGhost, or Surfshark. I’ve used all three of these as well and can recommend each one with total confidence. Each one is exceptional and will get the job done for you without breaking the bank.
2. Translation/language learning app
I was fortunate enough to know the Hungarian language and to be familiar with the city of Budapest before I moved out here, but I know that most expats wouldn’t have that same luxury when they move to a new country. Downloading a translation/language learning app can be a real lifesaver for you as an expat if you don’t know the native language of the country you’ve moved to. Apps like Duolingo, LinguaLift, and Memrise are great for learning foreign languages, and apps like HelloTalk and Google Translate can help translate your conversations in real-time. These types of apps are getting better and better all the time, so you’ll be able to acclimate that much easier to the language and culture of your new country. Some apps will let you even automatically translate printed words by simply pointing your camera at a piece of text – helping you avoid ordering something unexpected at a restaurant and helping you stay safe in public by translating foreign signage, for instance.
3. Slim, portable laptop
Yes, I still have my humongous laptop here with me. It really is a magnificent machine, and it’s great for using while at home, but it isn’t exactly the most practical for when I’m on the go. Early on, I took it on a few trips, but I found it to be too overwhelmingly burdensome to lug such a hulking piece of technology around with me whenever I went somewhere. It was like trying to take a Cadillac Escalade to a small Italian seaside town where the narrow, winding roads would much better accommodate a Fiat 500. Not practical in the least. So a few years back, I decided to get myself a "travel laptop” that I could just drop into my bag and easily whip out whenever I needed it during my travels. My little, compact 11-inch MacBook Air has served me quite well as an expat – not much bigger or heavier than a full-sized tablet, but with a full keyboard, sufficient performance, and supremely portable. I’d highly recommend getting something similar if you’re an expat who travels, whether for business or for pleasure. Just make sure you use a VPN when you do!
4. Power bank
When you’re out and about, the last thing you want is to have your phone’s battery run out. Seeing your battery indicator dwindle precipitously towards empty can be incredibly stressful – especially when you rely on your phone to help you navigate new surroundings, translate foreign languages, communicate with others, take photos, and so on. Power outlets or charging stations aren’t always available, and when they are, they can present their own set of security risks (e.g. ‘juice jacking’). When you’re traveling as an expat, you need to get yourself a power bank so you can have peace of mind that your phone won’t run out of juice and so you can avoid the risks associated with charging your phone in potentially compromised USB charging stations.
5. Secure cloud storage
Investing in a secure cloud storage provider is always a good idea for any expat. Doing so will allow you to back up and store all of your important files remotely in a secure environment in the cloud. You may think that cloud storage options like Dropbox and Google Drive are sufficient for getting the job done, but I want you to know that there are cloud storage providers out there that take a much better approach to security and user privacy than some of the other big-name providers on the market. Cloud storage providers take your privacy seriously and store all of your files securely with end-to-end encryption, so you know that no unauthorized party will ever be able to access your files. The most secure providers are also built around a zero-knowledge policy to ensure the provider itself has no way of accessing your files, even if it wanted to. Secure cloud storage is essential for expats because it will allow you to free up space on your devices, preserve copies of all your important files should any of your devices get lost or stolen, and securely collaborate and share files with colleagues across the globe.
If you want to wing it like I did at the beginning and jump into your expat life unprepared, then obviously that’s your prerogative. That’s what I did, and I can’t really complain about how my expat experience has turned out thus far. With that said, though, I would have definitely appreciated some advice on how I could take advantage of various tech tools that could have helped me tremendously from the very moment I touched down in Budapest. Believe me, I wish I had known all this before I set off from the US seven years ago. But I hope, at least, that the tips I’ve shared with you in this post will help you get into the swing of things a little more quickly and a little more easily as you begin your expat journey.