15 Tech Essentials for Moving to a Developing Country

Wondering what tech gear you should pack to a developing country or add to your moving abroad checklist? Here are 15 essential travel-tested gadgets for your next move.

By Dave

Filed in: Expat Life, Global

Maybe you’ve just accepted an assignment or volunteer post in a developing country or region for the first time…

Or, perhaps it’s your third or fourth assignment, but your looking for small and inexpensive gadgets to add to your moving abroad packing checklist that might make a world of difference in a less-industrialized, resource-scarce environment?

Living and working in developing countries (or just less-developed places, anywhere) presents an array of challenges not frequently encountered in more industrialized regions of the world—and those challenges often multiply the farther you get from urban centers.

Here are just some of the technology-related challenges I’ve frequently encountered over the years, in numerous corners of the world (Yes! There are even many rural places in North America and Europe where a lot of this applies):

  • Unforgiving heat, humidity and rainfall;
  • Frequent [and lengthy!] power cuts;
  • Scarcity of power outlets for charging devices;
  • Poor (or nonexistent) WiFi;
  • Poor cellular signal or expensive roaming charges for foreign carriers;
  • Lack of decent quality (or, simply lack of) electronics or replacement accessories;
  • Poor quality print/copy shops (or non-functional ones due to power cuts, transport strikes, clerk slept in, etc.);
  • Lack of bookshops with books written in anything other than local language;
  • And others…

Personally, I often find that the added hardship and lack of certain modern conveniences can set the stage for deeper, more satisfying overseas experiences (as it most certainly means less time spent with machines, more meaningful interactions with actual people, and more time and space for mindful single-tasking).

With that said, I’ve also found that a little 21st century technology can go a long way in cutting out a lot of the crap that can easily suck up hours of my day (needlessly fiddling and troubleshooting—particularly when trying to work remotely, set up a Skype call, run an online business, etc.). Call me crazy, but I’d rather be spending that time doing, well, anything else.

Here are 15 tech gadgets to add to your moving abroad packing checklist

1. Signal Booster External WiFi Antenna

Ever found the perfect place to get some work done or catch up on email at a coffee shop or guesthouse only to find you can barely get a WiFi signal, or the signal is non-existent? As you might imagine, it’s even more pervasive in places with limited infrastructure. Plug this puppy in and stop banging your head against the hammock post.

2. Eye-Friendly E-Reader

If you love to read and are moving overseas to an under-resourced place that doesn’t speak your native tongue, you’ve got a choice to make: Load down your luggage with a bunch of books; hope that others with books in your language will want to swap; or…get an E-Reader. I prefer E-Readers like this Kindle Paperwhite over tablet computers, because, quite frankly, I spend too much of my day as it is staring at a computer screen. It’s better for your eyes, cheaper, lighter, and easier to use if all you’re doing is reading.

3. WiFI Extender Internet Booster

More often than not in developing countries, I’ve found myself with a 3G/4G mobile WiFi unit in the house rather than a big ol’ hardwired router. Often these places lack fiberoptic networks or have invested heavily in mobile phone infrastructure. Even the best mobile WiFi units (like the one below) have fairly limited reception. Add a good WiFi extender to your house, and problem solved.

4. Dual Voltage AA/AAA Battery Wall Charger

If you’ve got anything running on AA or AAA batteries (alarm clock, bluetooth mouse, headlamp, A/C remote, etc.) save yourself a ton of headaches (not to mention money and the environment), and pick up one of these bad boys. In a lot of developing countries, batteries are cheap and pervasive, but SUCK. Like I-JUST-INSTALLED-YOU-LAST-NIGHT-AND YOU’RE-ALREADY-DEAD suck. We were already using a dual voltage charger in the U.S., so we just brought that (i.e. most other countries use 220-240 voltage, so it’s handy to have something that works everywhere, like this one—see notes below). If you’ve got anything that requires D-size batteries (such as kids’ toys) a D-size Parallel Battery Adapter set is a great, lightweight and eco-friendly alternative.

5. Unlocked 4G/LTE/3G Mobile WiFi

As mentioned earlier, I’ve yet to use a hardwired (cable/DSL/fiberoptic) WiFi router in my own home in developing countries. Many of these countries have either skipped the cable/DSL implementation or are just now rolling out fiberoptic. Either way, the vast majority have invested heavily in recent years in 3G/4G mobile networks, utilizing USB “dongles” or, more recently, Aircard-style mobile WiFi units. Often, such units can be costly (and poorly made), so it pays to pick up one of these puppies ahead of time.

6. Portable Universal Solar Phone / USB device Charger

You could find this useful for a number of reasons, particularly while traveling in remote areas with abundant sunshine. In many urban areas, it’s helpful to have a solar charger if you experience frequent power cuts, find yourself working all day on a Tablet PC with no nearby power outlet, or use 4G/LTE on your phone for several hours (which can really drain the heck out of it, as you may have noticed). They’re also great for keeping your phone or GPS device charged on multi-day treks.

7. Rugged Water Resistant 4TB External Hard Drive

Getting not just one, but two rugged water resistant external hard drives for storage and backup is one of the best overseas/travel gear decisions I ever made. If you use your laptop for work (or take a lot of photos like I do), it goes without saying that you’ll want to back that stuff up—which you probably should be doing already. It becomes even more crucial in developing countries, as hard drive recovery services can be rare or very expensive, and shipping backups from your home country (or trying to restore from a web-based backup service) can be a nightmare. On top of that, if your drive does go down, a high-quality replacement drive might not be easily available (or cost-effective). Lastly, durability and weather-resistance is an crucial consideration in very hot, humid, and stormy climates.

8. Unlocked GSM/CDMA Phone

A good, solid, dependable phone that you can use anywhere in the world saves time and money. Many of the most popular smartphones on the market (such as the most recent iPhones) have versions that will work on any GSM or CDMA network (just make sure that it is the Unlocked GSM/CDMA version). That way, you’ll be able to take advantage of prepaid call/text/data rates at local prices (which can be very cheap compared to roaming), AND you’ll have all your contacts, photos, and the rest of your data available everywhere you go.

9. GoPro Hero Session

I didn’t think I needed a GoPro until I got one. Okay, no one NEEDS a GoPro. But it makes family travel in the tropics a lot less stressful (and we’ve gotten some really awesome results from ours). The GoPro Hero Session is the cheapest GoPro currently on the market, and the one that I have. Honestly, most people probably don’t need more than the Hero Session. Plus, it’s 100% waterproof down to 10m (33′), so you’re covered for swimming, snorkeling, or getting caught in a tropical downpour.

10. Durable, High-Capacity USB Flash Drive for Your Phone

If you’re working or traveling in remote or underdeveloped areas with a phone but no laptop, and taking a ton of pictures, this little do-hicky can be a lifesaver. This one is for iPhone, but they’re made for any phone connection under the sun. It’s essentially a thumb drive for your phone, allowing you to back up all your data while you’re on the move. I’ve seen phones break, get rain-soaked, or just give up the ghost in extreme heat and humidity in the tropics and having one of these would have saved a lot of heartache. Again, great for multi-day hiking or trekking as well.

11. Portable Scanner

I use this portable scanner on a regular basis to scan everything from medical receipts for health insurance reimbursement, to important documents that I have no intention of carting with me to the next post. I love this particular scanner as it’s ultra-portable, quick and easy to use, and produces very high-quality scans. Paired with a quality portable printer, I can get photocopies virtually indistinguishable from the original.

12. Portable Printer

Portable printers like this one are great for a lot of the same reasons as the portable scanner mentioned previously. Why do you need one when moving to a developing country? Well, I haven’t found copy and print shops to be the most reliable (or fun) places to visit in developing countries. Print and ink quality can vary wildly as well (and some places will even use draft quality to stretch their ink supply, often making for illegible copies and printouts). Consequently, a printer at home that doesn’t take up an entire suitcase can be a godsend.

13. External CD/DVD Drive

In many countries, if you want to watch movies or listen to music, particularly those produced in your host country—and your laptop doesn’t already have a built-in CD/DVD drive—you can find yourself in a tough spot. And forget about Netflix or Spotify if your internet connection sucks or you’re paying by the megabyte. Thankfully, today’s external CD/DVD drives are better, more compatible across brands, and smaller and lighter than ever.

14. Slim Waterproof Smartphone Case

Something small and inexpensive that can prevent a world of hurt—in the tropics, at the beach, and/or in places where direct replacements are virtually impossible to find or prohibitively expensive.

15. Rugged, Dependable Laptop

Last, and certainly not least—the laptop. One of the biggest gear mistakes we ever made was moving to a remote, tropical part of a developing country (Belize) with a cheap laptop. Our thinking was, “If anything happens to it, we’re not out a bunch of money.” Well, yes…and no. Within weeks, multiple components on the motherboard failed (likely due to heat and humidity) with literally no viable replacement within hundreds of miles. After a long wait, a traveling colleague was able to bring out a replacement. That was five years ago. And the MacBook Air we replaced it with? Still cruising along five years later.

Worth Noting

I’ve listed 15 tech gadgets here that I’ve found incredibly useful at one point or another overseas. While I do recommend adding many of these to your moving abroad packing checklist, I do want to stress that what may have worked for me and my circumstances may not necessarily work for you and yours, and vice versa.

You may have noticed that some of these items are quite pricey. My wife and I are frugal and fairly minimalist when it comes to buying stuff. With that said, we don’t buy crap. If we invest in something, it’s for the long haul—and believe me, you are rewarded for it in developing countries. I’ve had too many times where I’ve bought crap in the past and it couldn’t hold up to the day-to-day rigors of a tropical climate, dust, public transport, or whatever. Never again.

Now, you’re probably wondering about safety and carrying around a $1,000 laptop, etc. Personally, I’ve never had a problem (<em>knock-knock</em>). I know people who have, and most of them weren’t using common sense at the time. I known more people who’ve had their laptops and phones grabbed from them at Starbucks or walking down the street in Washington, DC. Don’t flaunt your stuff. Don’t walk around with it at night. Keep your stuff hidden/secure when you’re not using it. Done.

Also, all the items listed here either work on 110v-220v power, or plug right into your computer via USB. With that said, you still may need an adapter to get the plug into the power outlet in your host country, depending on where you’re moving to.

Finally—and most importantly—you don’t need all this gear. I don’t need all this gear. I don’t know anybody who needs all this gear—certainly not all at once. But I’ve used each of these items (or older versions) at one point or another in the last decade depending on the job or the living situation. I prefer to pack as light as possible, and packing for a move overseas is hard enough without bringing a ton of unnecessary gadgetry. Add what you need to your moving abroad packing checklist and forget about the rest.

Pack smart. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Do it better the next time.

Happy Packing!

Cover photo by Anqi Lu on Unsplash.

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