19 January, 2015

Communicating Overseas

A not-so-small facet of everyday life that is affected by moving abroad is communicating with people back home. In previous centuries, people would have to rely on slow moving letters to communicate with each other, or more recently they resorted to long-distance phone calls. Luckily, technology has advanced enough to allow easy communication no matter the distance. But even the instant forms of communication we rely on so heavily these days can be complicated when national borders stand between people. The primary method of quick textual communication in the United States, the text message (or SMS, as it is known in Europe), quickly becomes prohibitively expensive when international fees are added to every message, including incoming ones. So what are you to do when texting your sister the details of your breakfast suddenly comes with a hefty bill at the end of the month?

There are, in fact, many alternatives to the traditional methods of calling and texting. If you don't mind waiting a while for an answer, email can be a good bet. Everyone on the planet who has any other online presence has to have at least one email address, so you know you can always fall back on email as a last resort. However, for some unknown reason, some people simply do not respond to emails. I don't know why, but that's how it is.

If email fails, the next logical option is Facebook and its accompanying Facebook Messenger. While you can catch most people with this net, there are some oddballs out there who do not use Facebook or who, like me, do not have Facebook accounts at all. *GASP!* (The Facebook-less experiment has since failed, for reasons I explain here.) If this is the case, you can move on to the next option, one which, perplexingly, seems to be almost entirely ignored by the population of the United States:


There are an array of smartphone messaging apps available, and they work basically like regular texting except the messages are sent through the app via wifi or cellular data instead of through your phone provider. This means that messages can be sent to anyone in the world who also uses the same app at no addition charge. You just have to download the app of your choice to your smartphone, have access to wifi or cellular data and you are good to go.  Here is a run-down of the best and most popular messaging apps used either by me or in Germany in general:

The most popular messaging app by far in Germany is called WhatsApp (www.whatsapp.com). It is used by basically everyone under the age of 30 who has a smartphone and by many older people as well. With WhatsApp you can send text, audio, picture and video messages, create group chats and share your location with your friends. This app is available as a free download and use for the first year is free, but after the first year you have to pay 99 cents (USD) per year (89 cents in euros). A possible drawback to WhatsApp is its lackluster track record in terms of privacy and security. Although it claims that messages are secure from hackers, the reality has been anything but secure (see this article for more information). I use this app because so many other people also use it, but I would rather use something else. When it comes time to pay for the next year I may simply stop using it.

Another option is called Threema (www.threema.ch/en). This is also popular among Germans because it is more secure than WhatsApp. (I've found that the average German cares more about online security than the average American.) All messages sent with Threema are encrypted, so no one except the intended recipient can access the messages, not even the people at Threema. The app also contains several more layers of privacy, one of which is the unique Threema ID given to each user. This randomly generated code can be shared with other Threema users and it allows them to message you without knowing your phone number. There is, however, a price for all this security: $1.99 per download (also 1,99 in euros). However, unlike with Whatsapp, this is a one-time charge and covers life-long use of the app. As long as you use the app for more than two years, Threema is more cost effective than WhatsApp, in addition to the added privacy and security. It includes the same features as WhatsApp as well as the option to create polls.

But you don't have to pay for messaging if you don't want to. There are good, free options out there. One that I use and really like is called Telegram (www.telegram.org). Like Threema, Telegram has more built-in security than WhatsApp, and downloading and using Telegram is always free. One of the added privacy measures is a "secret chat" feature, in which either member of the chat can set the messages to "self-destruct" after a certain amount of time. For example, if the self-destruct timer is set to one minute, the message will disappear one minute after the recipient opens it. The timer options range from one second to one week. Telegram also gives you the option to create a username, which allows you to message other Telegram users without giving them your phone number. In addition to the smartphone app, you can use your Telegram account to send messages through their website and you can download the desktop version of the app to continue your conversations on your computer. Telegram combines the ease of WhatsApp with much of the security of Threema, with the added bonus that it's free.

The next messaging app on my list is one that I use frequently but that isn't only for messaging: Google Hangouts. Hangouts combines the capabilities of Gmail Chat and Google Voice and is Google's all-in-one messaging and video chatting program. It includes the same messaging features as the other apps listed above and also allows you to video chat with one person or a group. I like Hangouts because of its versatility; it can be accessed and used through your Gmail inbox, Google+ or the Hangouts smartphone app. And since it's integrated with Gmail and Google+, it's easy to find friends and family members to chat with. Use of Hangouts and download of the app are free, just like with Telegram.

If video chatting is more your thing, you can also use Skype, which is perhaps the most popular and well-known video chatting program out there. It also has a text messaging function, but I have had trouble with messages not sending if the other person is not signed in or actively online, so I use Skype exclusively for video calls. Skype is also free to download and use, and it is available both as a smartphone app and as a desktop program for computers. 

Bonus Round: iPhones 

iPhone users have the added bonus of using Apple's iMessage and FaceTime programs to communicate with other iPhone users. iMessage, which sends text messages, and FaceTime, which makes normal and video calls, come standard on all new Apple computers and on all iPhones released since at least 2012. These apps come already installed on the device and do not need to be downloaded separately. Furthermore, to use iMessage you don't even have to make any extra effort, you simply type a normal text to a phone number (or email address) that belongs to an iPhone and it is automatically sent as an iMessage. Messages through iMessage and calls through FaceTime are, as with the other apps, sent through wifi or cellular data and not through a phone provider, so they are free to send anywhere in the world. A caveat, however: if wifi or cellular data is not available, iMessages will be sent as regular text messages and you may be charged international fees unless you turn the iMessage-as-SMS setting off. Also remember that iMessage and FaceTime only work on Apple devices and cannot be used on any other platform. 

To communicate with my own friends and family back home in the States, I use a combination of the above options; the only ones on this list that I don't use are Facebook and Threema, and I may soon stop using WhatsApp. Honestly, if you already have and use Facebook, Facebook Messenger is probably your best bet. But as a recently converted non-Facebook user (and I urge others to wean themselves from its powerful grip as well), I of course am biased toward other options. If you are looking for a single alternative to texting, I highly recommend Telegram. It's fast, it's free and your privacy and security are protected. If you take away one thing from this blog post, it should be this: download Telegram!

However, if I'm being realistic, you will probably end up using a combination of several apps to keep in touch with your loved ones around the world. That's what these services are here for, and I urge particularly the Americans reading this to think outside the box of your unlimited texting plan and explore these apps. They have more features, more options and more chances for personalization (did I mention customizable backgrounds?) than those texts you're sending through your phone provider. Go on, give it a try. What do you have to lose?

If you use other messaging apps that you would have liked to see included in this list, let me know in the comments. I know there are many more out there that deserve some recognition. Also, if you like what you've read, feel free to share the post on social media. Thanks for reading!


  1. I think the reason messaging apps haven't taken off in the U.S. is because most of the people Americans communicate with are probably other people within the U.S., since it is so big. Since countries are smaller in Europe and there is easy transit between most of them, it's probably more common to know and therefore want to communicate with people who live in another country. That's my guess anyway.

    1. Very good point, I'm sure that definitely has an impact. I think it's also much more common in the US, if not completely standard, to have unlimited texting as part of your cell phone plan. Many Germans don't have this because it makes the plans more expensive, and so they use messaging apps instead that can work on wifi or a small amount of cell data. I happen to be one of those people who has unlimited texting on my plan, but since so many people don't text I rarely use texting anymore. It's almost useless to even have a texting plan in Germany these days.