This guide is a brief compilation of everything related to internet connectivity & remote work in Western European that I wish I had known before moving across the Atlantic. Some of the highlights include public wifi accessibility, where to find sim cards & possible resolution to connectivity issues you may encounter.
A Few Helpful WiFi Tools
A common theme to my remote nomad background is I am not a tech person nor I work in tech, so my connection needs are not nearly as refined as someone that works in software engineering or graphic design. I do not categorize myself as a fair judge of “good” WiFi, but I have a few connectivity recommendations that would be part of my “Digital Nomad Starter Pack” to all remote workers.
The Speed Test
Strong & reliable WiFi is a requirement for nearly anyone working in the our current era, but our online requirements vary. A quick way to determine if a WiFi location will be sufficient for your work day is with this website. Speed Test allows a user to search any WiFi location & measure the ping, download and upload speeds before you even arrive.
This is a free app available on Androids & iPhones, it automatically connects your phone to all free public WiFi or WiFi passwords shared with the app. This app will provide you with a map of all WiFi hot spots in the surrounding area with walking directions as well. You can look up any international city to see what WiFi spots are available with this app.
The Right & Wrong Technology
There tends to be strong brand loyalty amongst the techies. I am here to tell you to dismiss any technology prejudices you may have if you really want to be a working nomad.
Your tech needs will vary based upon your job so your equipment will be a personal judgment call. I had been a Google Chromebook evangelical for the last 6 years, but I had to breakdown & purchase an Apple Macbook after Year I of being a Digital Nomad. I am still a bit disgusted at myself for spending so much money on a piece of technology that does not even do everything I need, but it has made international remote work significantly easier.
I do not work in tech or design so my laptop does not need a lot of frills, but the main issue I encountered with my Chromebook was connectivity while abroad. The short story is I could not connect to WiFi in certain European countries. The long version is many Chromebook generations do not connect to 802.11ac routers, which are still extremely common in countries like Italy or Germany due to restrictive corporate laws & outdated WiFi infrastructures.
There were smaller headaches with my Chromebook as well, like I had to have dual interface software because Chromebook does not support remote-program essentials like Skype & Join.Me.
I will not try to convince a fellow Digital Nomad to purchase an Apple product because I am still not a convert, but I am here to tell you to be realistic about your technology needs as a traveling remote worker because it will be vastly different than a student with homework or standard work-from-home employee.
Access to public wifi in developed countries is not created equal, especially in Europe.
While Italy may rely on outdated routers, free public WiFi is plentiful & I have spent many working hours on various park benches in small Tuscan towns because their network is so extensive. I have never seen a cafe that did not offer free unlimited WiFi in any Eastern European country. Then we will look at the leader of the European Union, Germany: I have spent hours wandering around Berlin & Munich while failing to find any internet cafes or public WiFi squares. If I do manage to find a cafe that hosts WiFi for customers, there is no guarantee that the connectivity will be stable enough to complete a work project.
There are a few different issues going on in Germany that create the perfect nightmare for every Digital Nomad & foreign tourist. Free public WiFi hosting has legal ramifications in Germany, businesses or cafes are liable for all customers’ online actions ranging from illegally downloading a movie to cyber attacks. While this liability law is changing, the infrastructure still needs to be built so it may be a while before public WiFi becomes commonplace.
Another issue when it comes to connectivity at cafes or hotels has to do with the building materials. The average American home usually has unlimited WiFi from a single router, however “internet extenders” are fairly common in Austria & Germany because the WiFi signal cannot pass through all walls. Once a WiFi signal passes through an extender then it is automatically weaker, which may be too slow of a connection for the type of work you do or it may not reach where you are located at all.
Cafe Culture & Co-Working Spaces
I am an American, I could not imagine a cafe or pub without WiFi based upon my experiences in my native Chicago until I moved to Europe.
I want to begin writing specific city guides for working remotely because every European city will vary based on what is has to offer remote workers. I will state that a digital nomad should not be surprised if they struggle to find European cafes or pubs with WiFi for customers, unless it is within the UK. Legal liability for customer actions vary, but cafe culture seems to play a greater factor as well.
Remote work & studying is a common activity in American cafes, but cafes are a much more social experience in many European countries. I had the worst time finding public places that offered WiFi in Vienna, Austria; the wait staff even seemed horrified when I would ask.
If you’re unfamiliar with co-working spaces, it is a shared working environment. It is easier to imagine co-working spaces as many individuals from different companies working in the same space instead of a single business occupying the space. I have seen this type of working space more commonly in Asia or Latin America where WiFi may not be as stable. However, these type of spaces are commonly found throughout Europe as well, especially in countries like Germany where free public WiFi is less common.
I do not use co-working spaces frequently, but co-working options will vary greatly based upon your location. Nomad List is a website that hosts a lot of great remote nomad information, but co-working spaces is a common topic in the forums. Share Desk is another website that is a specialized co-working space locator with over 180,000 international locations.
Hot Spots & Phone Tethering
This is the ultimate Digital Nomad accessory, taking the internet connection with you wherever you are in the world. Hot Spots & Phone Tethering serve the same function as a WiFi host, but each have their own benefits depending on you want out of your connectivity.
The most basic tool for both of these devices is a sim card, your personal data storage. You can either purchase a single international sim card or local sim cards depending on your location.
International Sim Cards
There are a few sim card options that operate within the European Union or world wide. It is a convenience to only need one sim card for all countries & save the hassle of searching for a sim card retailer in every new country, however coverage quality will vary between countries & these type of plans tend to come at a higher price point.
If you are interested in an international sim card, here are a few options:
WorldSim: This option seems to have the best international coverage & infrastructure for fastest possible internet, but it is the most expensive [Prices will vary depending on your preferred plan].
Project Fi: If you are familiar with the T-Mobile [Duetsche Telekom subsidiary] “unlimited” international 3G data plan, this is the same re-branded deal. It is one of the most affordable options, but coverage heavily varies between countries because it needs to tether onto existing wireless infrastructures.
OneSimCard: This company promises unlimited 4g coverage throughout Europe, but the pricing structure is unclear & appears it may be expensive.
GoSIM: This is another international option, but the pricing structure is very unclear.
Local Sim Cards
International sim cards are becoming a thing of the past. The European Union began regulating unruly telecom companies charging inflated roaming fees in 2016, though all roaming fees within the EU are set to be abolished 15 June 2017. There are a few companies that have already eliminated EU roaming fees like Vodafone (Netherlands), Ortel (Germany) & Meteor (Ireland).
The most intimidating part can be purchasing the local sim card, especially if you do not speak the national language. However, English is a very common second language throughout Western Europe & tourists frequently go to telecom retailers for vacation sim cards. I have purchased the majority of my sim cards either from airport vending machines or grocery store chains, Hofer / Aldi sells HoT sim cards as an example. These type of sim cards typically require online set-up, the instructions will be listed on the packaging.
Examples of local sim card plans:
Italy: 1000 domestic minutes & 4gb of data for €15 / month via Tim
Austria: 3gb of data for €5.90 / month via HoT
There are benefits to using a hot spot instead of tethering to your mobile phone’s data plan, particularly if you’re a nomadic couple or family. Battery life is much longer for hot spots in comparison to mobile phones & hot spots can supply WiFi to more devices while mobile tethering usually can only support up to 5 devices.
However, I would have a difficult time recommending a hot spot over mobile tethering. You can get stable, high speed WiFi for more than one person while mobile tethering. You are most likely going to already have a local mobile data plan or sim card if you are living in the area so why bother purchasing another sim card & WiFi package if it is unnecessary?
Mobile Phone Tethering
Phone tethering has been my savior while working remotely abroad. If the WiFi cuts out at a cafe, I can still submit a work project while using my mobile as a hot spot. I can travel during work hours instead of my free time because mobile tethering allows me to work anywhere.
There is a lot of misinformation in regards to phone tethering online so I want to relieve some outdated fears in regards to roaming charges & astronomical phone bills.
Phone tethering should never be your main source of internet, especially on a daily basis. If you use phone tethering in this manner, then you will definitely use all of your mobile data very quickly if you do not have an unlimited plan. I only use mobile tethering for work purposes when I am traveling & I have no access to home or free public WiFi.
There are typically sim card options that are mobile data only, they also tend to be the cheapest plans available. I personally have never needed to use a mobile plan with unlimited talk minutes or texts since I travel alone. Most locals & digital nomads have communication apps that function on data, like WhatsApp or Skype.
Keep your mobile phone fully charged & keep a mobile charger with you. Phone tethering is an active function so it will use battery life.
How to Set-Up Wireless Phone Tethering
This information is for iPhone’s only, though Android tethering set-up should not be vastly different. It is also important to note this only will work if you have an unlocked phone & local sim card.
Go to “Settings”
Turn on “Bluetooth” & “WiFi”
Turn on “Personal Hot Spot”
Once the Hot Spot is turned on, you will see a space below to “create a WiFi password”. You will have to enter this password on your computer in order to connect with the mobile data. It also keeps from everyone around you from using your mobile data.
Connect your mobile phone by going to your computer WiFi, then select your network name [Typically this is your name or account number] & password.
If you are unsure what the name is on your phone you can go to Settings > General > About > Name & this will be the name of your network
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I hope this general overview of remote work option in Western Europe was helpful! If you have any questions or would like to request remote work guides to specific cities, please let me know!