Being a global cruising sailboat sailor or other such nomad comes with special challenges to modern life—mail, phone plans, keeping in touch with friends and family, and more. Here are the tools I use to keep things in order while cruising.
Note: Some links on this page may help support Weathermuffin by earning a modest commission. However, recommendations made are based on first-hand experience actively using the services while cruising.
1. Google Voice
Google Voice is a service that gives you access to a U.S. phone number from anywhere in the world.
When you sign up, you’ll be assigned your own personal, unique phone number to use. This way, friends and family have only one phone number to remember for you, and it will work wherever you are, provided you have internet connectivity.
Other benefits include:
- Call screening
- Can make and receive phone calls over the internet
- Access text messages, phone calls, and voicemail messages through web site or phone app
- Can receive transcripts of voicemail messages via email
Note that Google Voice is considered a “voice over internet protocol” (VoIP) service, and as a result, some businesses (in particular, banks) may not accept a Google Voice phone number.
One bank accepted my Google Voice number before I left the U.S., then in the future, and without warning, silently stopped allowing log-in security codes to be texted to the number. This was a little tricky to deal with, so just be aware it’s a possibility.
2. Earth Class Mail
How do you continue to receive mail while you’re overseas?
The answer’s simple: sign up at Earth Class Mail.
I’ve had nothing but a great experience with them. When mail arrives, it’s scanned, and I’m notified by email. I can download a PDF of the mail, and then forward or shred it. This is all accomplished easily through their web site or app.
(PDFs of my mail also help with my goal of a mostly paperless lifestyle.)
Most months I’m only paying the base $19/month rate. It’s only more if I need something forwarded or another special service.
One caution though: Be sure to dispose of (shred or forward) the physical mail… storage fees can accumulate quickly and catch you by surprise.
One additional tip: If you’re using a U.S. address for filing U.S. taxes, but you’re not a resident of that state (if, say, you’re using a mail service’s or even a relative’s address), consider proactively filing a return for that state when you do taxes. Probably you will not owe any taxes, since you’re not a resident. But the paperwork sets the record straight in the state’s eyes. I failed to do this when I lived overseas, and after returning got slapped with a huge tax bill from a state I didn’t live in. The state had assumed I resided there since I used an address in that state on my federal return. In the end I did not owe any taxes to that state, but it was quite painful and time consuming to get resolved. Of course, discuss this with your tax professional.
3. IMG Health Insurance
IMG global and travel health insurance plans are useful for sailboat cruisers, world travelers, and other nomads. The reasons I went with IMG include:
- An inexpensive way to comply with France / French Polynesia visa requirements.
- They offer decent options for coverage in the U.S., even if you’re a U.S. resident.
- It’s easy to browse plans, get set up, and get started online.
Their Patriot International Lite plan is an inexpensive option for complying with France / French Polynesia visa requirements. You can quickly and easily obtain a confirmation of coverage to submit with your visa application. I used this health insurance plan to successfully obtain the French Polynesia long stay visa.
For longer-term world-wide coverage, consider one of their Global Medical Insurance plans.
Note that generally speaking, the global and U.S. coverage options do not meet Affordable Care Act requirements, and so may not be appropriate for use if you are a U.S. taxpayer and plan to spend much of your time in the U.S.
Of course, be sure to research all the details of any plan to make sure it’s going to suit your unique health circumstances!
4. Airalo eSIM
Today’s travel can be highly dependent on online connectivity: formalities, texting or emailing documents to the authorities, immigration video interviews, ride sharing apps, mapping for getting around, language translation, and so on.
It’s hugely convenient to set up a phone and data plan before leaving port to have service in place immediately upon arrival at your destination country.
Airalo is a service that offers eSIMs for over 200+ global destinations. It’s very easy to set up:
- Choose your destination country (or a Global eSIM)
- Purchase an option that meets your needs
- “Install” the eSIM on your phone
Of course, this requires a phone that supports eSIMs, but most (if not all) flagship brands do these days. See What devices support eSIM? for details.
If you’re not familiar with eSIM, it’s a way to obtain mobile phone service without the use of a physical SIM card. If you’re a world traveler and accustomed to swapping SIM cards, you’ll find eSIM much more convenient.
eSIMs are fairly simple to set up in your phone. Your Airalo eSIM comes with instructions on how to do this.
If you plan to be in your destination country for an extended period of time, it may still be worthwhile to pick up a local SIM card after you get there. But the convenience of having connectivity immediately upon arrival is hard to beat.
(Charges for wi-fi access can be pretty steep in some places these days. Furthermore, shore-based phone service often extends to cover the anchorage, whereas wi-fi may not reach that far.)
I never bothered with phone service while overseas—only data. I was often able to save a bit by going for a data-only plan. Between Google Voice and WhatsApp, I found phone service completely unnecessary.
5. Norton VPN
Once you’re outside the U.S., you’ll quickly discover that many of your familiar web sites change their behavior or fail to function at all.
(This is really silly and in many ways defeats the purpose of a global internet, but I understand why it is this way, and will save my rant for another day.)
For me, this included important sites like banks and tax filing, as well as less practical ones like video streaming, where the rights to media are often restricted by geographic location.
For this reason, you need a VPN, which—in a simplified description—lets you connect from anywhere but makes it appear to web sites as if you’re in another geographic location.
There are many VPN options out there, but my needs are simple, and I used the Norton Secure VPN service, and had a good experience with it. Using this service, web sites believed I was accessing them from the U.S. even though I was overseas.
6. Photos PDF App
The Photos PDF : Scanner Converter app lets you use your phone to “scan” documents into a PDF file.
This is a big deal for staying organized, and if you’ve ever tried to keep important paperwork dry on a sailboat.
I use this app to scan practically everything: receipts, immigration/customs forms, passports and visa stamps, vessel documentation, instruction manuals, contracts, important documents, and business cards, just to scratch the surface.
Small, fast, and lightweight, this app does everything I need without being cluttered or bogged down with things I don’t want.
Yes, it’s owned by Facebook. But WhatsApp is a convenient way to stay in touch while overseas. Over wi-fi or a data plan, you can call and text anyone with the app. Additionally, conversations are end-to-end encrypted.
Besides these benefits, WhatsApp is popular overseas, with many individuals and businesses using it regularly. You may find it handy for communicating with AirBnB hosts, a favorite taxi driver, friendly locals you meet, and so on.
ProTip: Use your Google Voice number as your phone number for WhatsApp; then you don’t have to change your number with WhatsApp as you travel around.
I’m a huge fan of multi-factor (or two-factor) authentication (MFA), which in simple terms, is an extra method of verifying your credentials besides just a username and password.
You may have noticed this, as more and more web sites want to text you a code for additional verification when you log in.
Why would you want this? Imagine you’ve set out on a weeks-long ocean crossing, and while you’re blissfully disconnected, a hacker guesses your bank account password…
It’s well-known now, though, that while text- and phone call-based MFA is better than no MFA at all, it’s the least secure MFA option and should be avoided if at all possible.
9. Garmin InReach
The Garmin InReach is a relatively inexpensive satellite texting device and service you can use to keep in touch with friends and family while offshore, and allows them to track your location for peace of mind.
As software engineer who’s worked on satellites, I was impressed with how easy the service was to set up. It’s slick, and just works without a lot of fuss. I can tell you there’s a lot going on behind the scenes to make the experience so smooth.
Setup is fast—just follow the straightforward and easy instructions. Allow an hour or two for setup and testing. Being somewhat tech savvy helps, but is not necessary.
The service allows unlimited sending of a limited set of pre-defined messages that you can customize. This permits messages to be sent using only a minute amount of actual satellite bandwidth, and it’s this feature in particular that enables the service to be so affordable.
Pre-set messages are the way to go; you won’t be chatting people up. Just set them up before you head offshore. Download the Sync app to customize these pre-set messages and recipients. This way you can send friends and family occasional “All OK” messages so they know you’re well. They will also be able to message you and reply via the web interface.
The device also offers an SOS feature. Although on a sailboat an EPIRB should function as your primary rescue beacon, the InReach’s SOS feature may be useful from a redundancy perspective.
In my first-hand experience with the device, I also found that its GPS position is very accurate.
I’m unable to offer an opinion about contacting customer service, since because the InReach was so easy to set up and use, I didn’t need it. Some folks online, though, have indicated that customer service was better under DeLorme.
Even if you already have an Iridium GO! or other satellite system, the Garmin InReach is so affordable you may want to consider having one aboard as a backup.
Full disclosure: I’ve not yet personally used the StarLink service. But I know world cruising sailors who do, and who are very happy with the experience.
It’s easy to see how high-speed internet on the high seas is a game changer. No more clunky Iridium GO! No more limited weather data. No more blurry satellite imagery.
Now that StarLink Maritime prices have come down significantly (see Starlink vs. Iridium GO! Exec), it may be time to seriously consider making a move.
|Whether you connect via wifi, StarLink, or Iridium GO!, the Weathermuffin app‘s got your back.|