Digital Nomad Communications

One of our many concerns in planning for digital nomadism was figuring out how we could stay in touch (beyond email) with family, friends, and work back in the US without breaking the bank. It turned out the solutions were pretty easy and cheap. Jason Lengstorf of Untethered had suggestions, and in addition I googled to see what others were doing.

In the end, here’s what I did:

For business calls/messages:

My company is using Skype for Business, which ties to Outlook. I have the Skype for Business app on my phone and laptop. We can create meetings in Outlook and choose “Skype Meeting,” which will include a link to join the meeting as a conference call in both the Outlook event and in the Skype application. So when the time comes you just click “Join” to connect to the conference call.

I call in to our daily “10@10” call and our weekly project management and strategy meetings with no problem. My boss and I use Skype for Business to have a weekly call to catch up also.

I have so few calls with people outside my organization. I just call them through regular Skype (see below).

The power does go out with some regularity in Nicaragua. At the coworking space, after a moment, generators will kick on. But I do have the risk of a call being interrupted if the power goes down (and thus disconnects the wifi).

For other calls/texts to/from the US:

1. Ported my mobile phone number to Google Voice. I have had the same number since 1999 (first as a landline and then as a mobile number) and didn’t want to lose or change it. So I transferred it from AT&T (my mobile carrier) to Google Voice. In GV it became a forwarding number, no longer tied to any service. GV forwards it to whatever number I want. So, folks could continue calling and texting me on that number. I just had to decide where GV should forward it.

2. Signed up for a Skype number and International Skype Plan. I already had a Skype handle for computer-to-computer Skype calls (which I can still do, anywhere in the world for no charge). But for GV to forward calls somewhere, I needed to give them a phone number. I paid an annual fee for a Skype number, and it was 50% off because I also paid for a calling plan. The plan literature said international calls are generally $0.20/min but so far in checking my account online, none of the calls I’ve made or received over the first two months has cost anything per minute (they all appear to be covered under the $13.99 monthly fee so far).

3. Told GV to forward calls to the Skype number. People call my same number and GV forwards to the Skype number. If I don’t answer, it goes back to GV and people can leave voicemail there. Texts also just go to the GV number. I can send & receive texts in the GV app on my phone or via their web interface, and listen to voicemail as well in either app or web. GV also does a decent job transcribing voicemails so I can read them in the interface (usually well enough to get the gist even though the transcription isn’t perfect).

If/when I return to the states permanently and want a phone plan, I can let the company assign me whatever number, and change GV to forward to that new number. So my number can always remain the same as far as my friends and family can tell.

For local calls, texts, and data:

It’s handy to have a local number for making reservations, and I wanted local data for using maps and any other things I might want to use my smartphone for when away from the trusted WiFi of the coworking space or our lodgings. It’s less important to have a local number for texts (based on just Nicaragua so far) because Nicas mostly use What’s App for messages. (But we might find being able to get local texts is useful in some countries; and anyway, texting capacity comes with local calling plans).

For local calls/text/data, I bought a local pay-as-you-go SIM card on arrival in Nicaragua and replaced my existing SIM card (for my AT&T plan, which was defunct since I moved to GV/Skype — I dropped my AT&T plan). It’s inexpensive to top up minutes/data once a week or so as I use up what I paid for. I drop into pretty much any bodega, pulperia, internet café, etc. and they recharge my card for me in about 30 seconds.

The deal I’ve been getting in Nicaragua is 110 Córdobas for 7 days of service (500 MB data, 20 minutes of calls, 20 SMS). So that’s about $3.50/week, $15.75/mo. Add to that my $13.99/mo Skype plan and I am paying about $30/mo for phone/text/data. (For reference, my AT&T plan was about $97, including unlimited data, 500 minutes of calls and 1000 texts. I barely used any minutes and few texts.)

So, while it was a little juggling to do the Google Voice thing, it wasn’t hard and I was up and running in a few days. Communication with locals as well as people back home has not been a problem!