Overlander Headache: how to get Internet on the Road
Regular readers will know that we are travelling through South America in our own overland camper. Mostly, we like to explore sights away from main highways – closer to nature. Large cities don’t usually hold much attraction for us. But, at the same time, we are leading a contemporary life and do our best to update this blog and various social media channels, like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. So we need internet access on a regular basis.
It’s not only our online presence that requires us to be connected. As most people know, nothing much is possible any more without internet! Every organisation or company you use – insurance, customs, immigration, you name it – will ask you to download information or forms from the internet. Family and friends also want to keep connected via Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp or email.
All news travels through cyberspace. Even if you don’t care about politics, you do need to know if, for example, highways might be disrupted by demonstrations or recent bad weather at your next planned destination…
Like it or not, our life in the 21st century requires access to the internet!
In many places, South America doesn’t have the same highly developed infrastructure as perhaps North America, Europe or many parts of South-East Asia. And so internet coverage can often be ‘substandard’, be it wired or through mobile networks.
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Fixed Internet or WiFi
As overlanders we hardly ever hook directly into a network but we use peoples’ WiFi quite frequently. Almost every business or household seems to have a WiFi router. Along most major highways many fuel service stations and restaurants provide free WiFi to their clients.
During our first trip (2006 to 2009) we found plenty of open WiFi connections. In general this is a thing of the past, and 95% of all networks are locked. Yet many towns offer free WiFi in their city centre, or around public buildings like schools and town halls. Although speed and uptime vary widely, we usually manage to get something done.
When we need WiFi, Yasha will sit in the passenger seat scanning with her phone for an open network. This can be hit-and-miss if I’m driving normal traffic speed, but we have developed a feel for where we should slow down.
In order to access WiFi you either need to be close to the source, or you need a signal booster antenna. Close to the source might mean that you end up sitting in a noisy restaurant or on a park bench with your laptop balanced on your knees. It is most likely that you won’t find a power point to plug into, so your online session is limited by the life of your battery.
Let’s face it, a Skype call in a busy coffee shop or restaurant in never pleasant. You have background noise, the waiters interrupting at the most inconvenient moments, and your conversation is certainly not private.
For these reasons we prefer to access WiFi from the comfort of our camper. We also seem to get more done without disturbances, and we can plug into the inverter of our camper and don’t need to worry about power.
And we’re absolutely pleased that we bought this WiFi extender – we wouldn’t want to be without it anymore! It can boost a weak, basically unusable one bar signal to full five bar strength. In order to use this boosted signal on all our devices we create a local hotspot with Connectify – very useful and easy to install software .
From our experience we strongly recommend that you buy some sort of WiFi extender or booster before you leave home. The choices can be confusing and the most expensive solution is not always the best. We stood at Balneario Iporá near Tacuarembo with some fellow German overlanders who had a “Mile Long Range Outdoor USB WiFi Antenna” installed on their roof – we managed to get better reception of an unlocked WiFi signal (coming from some cabañas across the lake) than they did.
Fellow overlanders usually recommend these three external WiFi booster antennas:
the Alfa AWUS036NH 2000mW Long-Range WiFi Network Adapter
the Alfa AC1200 Long-Range Dual-Band USB 3.0 Wi-Fi Adapter
or the BearExtender Outdoor RV & Marine USB Wi-Fi Extender Antenna
The latter one is weatherproof and can be positioned outside, but only supports Windows computers; the Alfa extenders also work with Linux and Apple iOS.
Since the booster antenna can only plug into one computer, we have purchased Connectify . This software gives you the option to create a local hotspot, using the WiFi adapter of your computer, to share the incoming boosted signal with other devices. This can slow down weak WiFi connections a little more, but at least we can both get something done…
Mobile Data in Individual Countries
UPDATED OCTOBER 2016
Depending on where we are travelling, we may not find any WiFi for several days. We like to update our social media accounts regularly, keep an eye on our blog host (if problems develop), and Yasha prefers to be reachable by her family. So in every country we have invested in a local SIM card for our phone and bought a pre-paid data plan.
Why do we go through the hassle of buying a local SIM? Because we are travelling slowly and spend months in each country. Roaming would be way too expensive over such a length of time.
A good solution for many could be a Dual-SIM phone ; you can keep your home number on roaming and use a local card for day-to-day access. Otherwise, before you deactivate your home number or let it expire, make sure that you don’t have any 2-step-verifications connected with this number (Google account, email, internet banking – they all want to force you into this!) For more please read our article describing the pitfalls of 2-step-verification for travellers. The article contains some tips for alternative options.
Of course, you also never know if your mobile provider from home has a reliable roaming partner in the destination country. Most likely they will have one, but it could be an international communication conglomerate with weak coverage in that particular country.
To research upfront, which provider is supposedly the best in each country, we use the Prepaid Data Wiki , a website we have found to be very reliable and up-to-date with their information. So far locals have always confirmed that we have bought our SIM from the best company for nationwide coverage. Our own experiences seem to support this.
Once you have a SIM card, recharging seems to be very easy in all countries. In Chile and Brazil we often did it at supermarket check-outs or small kiosks. In Brazil the second port of call is usually pharmacies. Otherwise we look for any small shop with the phone company logo at their door.
Local Mobile Providers Used by Us – by Country
[We will update this list as we go]
Croatia: (yes, that’s not in South America) this was the first country where, in 2013, we relied on the recommendation from Prepaid Data Wiki and were very happy with TOMATO, the cheapest provider for data.
Chile: Yasha had a Claro SIM in her phone. Coverage in Santiago was excellent. But once we left Santiago de Chile she often couldn’t get any or ’emergency calls only’ coverage. I had a USB-data-stick from Entel, the national carrier, and was often positively surprised that we had good reception in out-of-the-way locations. I wrote a dedicated blog post about my Entel experience . You need a RUT number (local tax file number) to activate a SIM, which makes the process difficult for foreigners (ask a local if you can use theirs). Prepaid cards are not sold in the branded stores; you have to find a small kiosk to buy one.
Argentina: we knew in advance that Argentina has no really good network. There are three nationwide carriers: Claro, Movistar, and Personal. We decided on Personal, after recommendations from other travellers, and bought the SIM at a local kiosk. Their coverage was very patchy. Occasionally they would offer phone roaming through Movistar, but more often there was no signal at all once we left the outskirts of a town behind. This improved a little in the east of the country. Their prices are expensive, particularly for data, and we often lost credit for some inexplicable reason. An Argentinean friend simply shrugged and said that all phone companies cheat with their pre-paid tariffs.
Uruguay: in most guide books you are told that you need to register your cell phone with customs when you enter the country in order to buy a local SIM. Customs has a special form for this, which we easily got, but we were later told that it is not required anymore. We went with Antel, their national carrier, and were amazed: coverage was good to very good – much better than we had expected. Their data rates are also very reasonable. You buy the SIM at one of the many Antel stores. The city map from the tourist information in Montevideo shows their locations.
Brazil: we had used a SIM from VIVO and overall were satisfied with it. Brazil is a huge country, bigger than Australia (as we learned), so coverage is not perfect in all locations. In the sparsely populated far south, we were surprised to find only Vivo towers. And they were always reasonably close to each other. Towards the end of our stay, driving through the far west of Brazil, coverage was less than perfect.
Prices are okay and with regular recharging you get bonus packets of data for free. Late during our stay (Sept. 2016) the company introduced new rates for Vivo Turbo, where a 1GB packet was R$19.99, valid for a week. But we could always buy new packages once we had exhausted our bandwidth.
You buy the SIM card from a Vivo store. The initial process was a little time consuming due to language problems. We visited a Vivo store another time when we re-entered Brazil after several months and our card wouldn’t work anymore. Again people were initially a little baffled as to what to do with foreigners having a local card, but a little persistence brought us the desired outcome. Beware: in Brazil you pay for incoming calls from all other networks and from the same network once you have left the state where you bought the card. So think twice about answering unexpected calls from unknown numbers as it will cost you!
Bolivia: we bought a card from Entel in San Ignacio, soon after we had crossed the border. The SIM card was B$10 without any credit. Every fifth store in Bolivia seems to sell SIM cards. Except in San Matias where we crossed the border – all stores were sold out. Your phone needs to be registered for which you need a) competent vendor who knows how to do this for foreigners, b) your passport, c) your phone. When we bought the SIM this wasn’t done correctly and our phone stopped working after roughly 2 weeks. The issue was fixed at an Entel store in Sucre.
Recharges with Entel come in numerous packets: daily, weekly, monthly. You simply dial *10# and go through the options. We always used the daily packets because for a long time we didn’t know what would happen once the expiry time was reached. Later we learned that, as long as you buy new data packets, your left-over bandwidth is carried over. Prices for daily packets are cheap: 60MB for B$2, 120MB for B$4, 460MB for B$15. Recharging your account is no problem as there are shops doing this everywhere. To get your balance you dial *105#
The coverage of Entel really surprised us! Every small village has reception. You leave the radius of a village, sometimes only 5 kilometres, and reception is gone. We learned to use our lunch breaks to get important things done online. Along major roads coverage is fairly consistent. I’m writing this in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni, which has coverage all across!
We will continue this list as we reach other countries and gain new experiences.
DISCLAIMER: several links on this page are affiliate links for Amazon, where we receive a small commission. Should you decide to place an order you will support the future of our trip without having to pay a Cent more. Thank you!
How do you get internet whilst travelling?
Have you ever bought a local SIM at your destination?
Or have you tried one of the so-called international mobile data providers, like ‘Project Fi’ from Google ?
What are your experiences with these?
Please tell us in the comments below!