Finding New Ways to Connect With Family Back Home: The Smartphone Revolution.

For expats, staying connected to family and loved ones back home was once an expensive or time-consuming endeavour. Telephone rates were high, and snail mail was never the fastest way to get a message across. That changed in the 1990s, when sending messages via the internet became more affordable and accessible to people living in the United Kingdom.

Today, there are a myriad of ways to reach out to family and friends, many of which are nearly or completely free for those who use them. Apple, Android, and other smartphone devices are making it possible to text, send photos, and even FaceTime with those we love. These video conferencing and instant messaging technologies have reduced homesickness and helped people to retain a strong connection to their roots.

Smartphones for Affordable Communication

According to The Guardian, just over half of all UK residents–expats or not–owned a smartphone as of 2011. That number has been estimated at an even more generous seven out of 10 by other sources as of 2013. There’s a very good reason for this; smartphones are now one of the most affordable ways to connect with those we love.

In fact, Ofcom’s Communications Market Report for 2013 suggested that almost 50 per cent of people living in the United Kingdom were connecting to the internet, too, directly from a smart device. The report also suggested that of those 50 per cent, nearly a quarter used a smartphone as their sole connection.

Innovative Apps

When it comes to connecting through smartphones, people in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand are turning to apps to bring down the cost of international telephone calls and messages. It is especially affordable when individuals on both ends of the communication have access to the same app or program–as many such apps are free:

  • FaceTime is available to iPhone users
  • WhatsApp is free and supports text and IM
  • Skype provides free IM and chat (but charges an affordable rate for calls)
  • Kik Messenger ensures quick messaging and simplicity for free
  • ooVoo provides video conferencing for Android and iPhone
  • International Cheap Calls by VoIPSwitch does just what the name says
  • Talkatone allows free SMS and calling

As there is with most beneficial programs, there is a downside–these apps all make use of a smartphone data connection to send signals out. In order to make use of the services they provide, most people will need to have a fairly robust data plan in place. But even this is not a true barrier to communication between expats and their loved ones back home; smartphone data is relatively inexpensive in the UK and New Zealand–especially when compared with other countries around the world.

High Billing Concerns: Preventing Overages and Being Proactive

Concerns about data charges have prevented many people from making use of these apps in the past, as it was difficult to work reactively to adapt smartphone plans to the amount of data being used. As little as five years ago, exceeding a 1GB data plan on your smartphone by even 100MB could result in nearly £5 in overage fees.

To combat dissatisfaction in this area, many providers are now offering mid-month purchasable boosts, changing of data plans at any point in the month, and unlimited data plans that protect consumers from high bills. While there is always a cost associated with going unlimited, purchasing an unlimited plan and making use of the apps above can certainly result in savings for expats.

What to Avoid

Expats should try to avoid purchasing boosts month after month when possible. Research done by PCPro showed that using a boost versus upping your plan permanently cost nearly £5 more per month for the users that needed more  data. It’s advisable to monitor your data for the first 30 to 60 days carefully. After this point, choosing a plan that is tailored to your needs will become much easier. Of course, don’t be afraid to shop around and investigate the best pricing.

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