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International travel and your laptop

July 13, 2009

The good news is that you don’t have to worry about an Internet connection. That was a problem back in the days of dial-up modems, because phone systems vary between countries, and because your local ISP would have been one very expensive toll call. But ethernet and WiFi are international standards, and if your hotel doesn’t offer Internet access, a nearby café will.

The biggest issues you’ll actually have to face are bringing your laptop across international borders, and plugging it into a power socket.

You risk trouble every time you carry a laptop across an international border, and that includes returning home. Most countries allow custom officials to search anything you bring into their country, including the contents of your hard drive. They may even insist that you decrypt anything that’s encrypted. And different countries may have different definitions of espionage and pornography.

If there’s anything on your hard drive that might cause trouble, remove it before you leave the country: Make an extra backup, then securely remove it with a program like Eraser. If you’re going to need the information on your trip, email it to yourself or ftp it to someplace on the Internet from where you can retrieve it.

It’s all very silly, of course. You can’t physically take some kinds of data into the country, but once there, you can retrieve it from cyberspace.

There’s an additional issue waiting when you come home. If your laptop is fairly new (say, less than six months old), you may need to prove to your home country’s customs agents that you didn’t buy it overseas, in which case you’d have to pay a duty tax on it. Receipts or registration paperwork should do. See the U.S. Customs document Know Before You Go (PDF) for additional advise.

Now then, what about electricity? Once you leave North America, the electronic devices you take with you won’t be compatible with the wall sockets you’ll encounter. The plugs will have a different shape, and they’ll be designed for a different voltage.

Luckily, virtually all laptop AC adapters can handle a wide range of voltages, so that probably won’t be a problem. Examine the tiny print on the adapter for something like “V100-240,” which means it can take handle everything from 100 volts to 240. To my knowledge, every country on the planet has AC power in that range. North America uses 120 volts; Western Europe, 230. If you’re concerned, check the International Voltage Guide for the country you’re visiting.

If there’s no such information on your adapter, contact the manufacturer and ask about it. You can buy voltage converters if you need to, but for a laptop, you probably won’t.

Even if voltage isn’t a problem, the physical plug will be–these vary greatly from one country to another. You’ll need a power plug adapter, which should be easy to find and cheap to buy. In about two minutes, we found an All-in-One Travel Power Plug Adapter that supports several countries for only $6. Of course, we can’t tell you if it’s any good, however!

Read the original forum discussion at http://forums.pcworld.com/message/233923.



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