Man working on a laptop in paradise

How To Find Good WiFi as a Digital Nomad

Once you’re on the road, high-speed WiFi is the most prized amenity there is.

Picture this: you’ve found the perfect getaway—great weather, affordable prices, friendly locals. You check into your accommodation and open up your laptop, only to find that it takes ten agonizing minutes to open up your email.

Uh oh. You’re in no-man’s land for digital nomads. You can forget about taking that Zoom call, uploading content on G-Drive, or streaming your high-focus playlist on Spotify.

You need a plan B (and maybe a plan C). It wouldn’t hurt to learn about the art of WiFi spotting, either. Your work and sanity depend on it.

Accommodation with WiFi

Train your eye to look for Airbnbs, hotels, and hostels with excellent WiFi. Sometimes a listing will advertise high connectivity when, in reality, it’s not really up to scratch.

Below the description of the place, look at the user reviews and skip to the comments that mention keywords like “WiFi” and “internet.” You can do this with the search shortcut on your laptop, either Command + F for a Mac or Windows + S on a PC.

You can also call ahead of time and check if there’s high-speed WiFi available in one of the common areas, like a hotel lobby or campground lounge.

Co-working spaces

If you don’t mind an office environment, co-working spaces are a great place to crank out your to-do list. They are usually much quieter than a coffee shop and the WiFi is lightning fast. 

There are usually amenities on site, ranging from complimentary coffee and free snacks to a full-on kitchen with a fridge and bathrooms with showers. If you’re a dog owner, call ahead of time to make sure your pet is welcome.

One downside is that you could encounter server issues. Before you commit to a membership longer than a day, drop in and test your device to make sure everything is working as it should.

Coffee shops

If you can find ones with outlets and open tables, coffee shops offer a cozy ambiance for working remotely. You’re also supporting a local business, which contributes to the town in a positive way.

One consideration is the cost, as a daily trip could impact your budget more than you realize. In the states, for example, the average cup of coffee is $5, which translates to $150 per month on beverages alone. You might be able to find a co-working space nearby for the same price that offers unlimited coffee and snacks.

Tipping culture is another consideration. There’s one American coffee chain that prompts $1, $2, and $3 as a minimum tip if you pay with a card. If you’re one to cave to social pressure, you could end up tipping 50-150% on something like a $2.50 tea, for example. It all adds up quickly. Your safest bet is to tip in cash at a rate you’re comfortable with.

Coffee shop etiquette

To avoid overstaying your welcome or getting kicked out, plan to purchase one item for every 2-3 hours of work. Try not to hog precious table real estate during the most coveted cafe hours. If you can, go later in the day after the morning rush.

Restaurants

If you’re a digital nomad in the United States, restaurants and fast food chains are another safe bet. They’re often open later than coffee shops and the WiFi is just as good. You can grab a small bite and work inside or park in front of the restaurant within range of the router.

Libraries

If you’re the type who needs a muted environment to work in, a library will offer unmatched peace and quiet. Public libraries are open to everyone and university libraries may allow non-students to drop in for a certain period of time.

Not only is the WiFi fast, but there are plenty of nooks to work in, there are myriad outlets to choose from, and you won’t have to worry about distractions or buying another coffee just to keep the barista from kicking you out.

Keep in mind that library hours may be more limited than other WiFi options and it might be necessary to get a library card. But hey, anything for those cozy chairs, right?

Mobile hotspots

Mobile hotspots make it easy to power up your laptop and connect to WiFi wherever you have coverage. The challenge, of course, is that unlimited 5G hotspots are only reserved for customers who are willing to pay a pretty penny and lock into a long-term plan.

The good news is that all of the large names offer cellphone service in other countries by contracting with local providers:

  • AT&T: 210 countries
  • T-Mobile: 215 countries
  • Verizon: 220 countries

If you’re going to be under contract for a while, call your carrier and ask about the international packages on offer. For example, AT&T’s International Day Pass costs $10 a day but maxes out at $100 per month, ensuring that you can keep your phone number and connect to a hotspot wherever you go, no hassle required.

If you’re gone from the US for a long time, there’s a chance that you could get smacked with a notice that your service is being terminated. It’s rare, but worth noting.

Local SIM

Many digital nomads prefer to get local SIM cards to stay out of contracts, pay a cheaper price, and get the best service in every country.

If you don’t already have one, now would be the time to order a phone that’s unlocked and compatible with any carrier. You can find great refurbished deals on Amazon and Backmarket.

You’ll also want to look for a SIM card with unlimited data. If you can, order it online ahead of time or purchase it away from the airport, where prices tend to be the most expensive.

Before you pick a carrier, read the fine print, as some brands will reduce speeds after you use a certain amount of data, rendering your hotspot all but useless.

If you’re going for a regional SIM, the data may vary depending on what country you’re in. In the European Union, for example, the card may work globally for calls and texts, but the data may have a cap in certain territories, limiting your ability to connect to WiFi on your laptop.

eSIM

An eSIM is similar to a regular SIM, except that it’s all done digitally. There is no physical card to insert into your phone. You’ll just buy the service online and scan a QR code, easy peasy. 

To check out the best eSIM options for your destination, use the eSIMDB tool. It’s a directory that will compare all the options, akin to Google Flights for airlines or Expedia for hotels.

Universal SIM

A universal SIM is an eSIM that works in several countries around the world. 

The nice thing is that you can use a traditional SIM and a universal SIM at the same time, ensuring that you’re connected to your primary carrier or backup at all times. One consideration is that the plans are more expensive than local SIM cards.

As a good rule of thumb, look for something that offers at least 20 GB of data, which will keep you covered for 8 hours a day or 240 hours per month.

Portable WiFi hotspot

If you have a little extra luggage space, a portable WiFi hotspot could be the way to go. Like a phone plan, you’ll select a bundle based on how much data you need. 

With the Keepgo Lifetime World Mobile Hotspot, for example, the hardware costs $129 and then you buy $3 to $250 worth of data, depending on what you need, making it suitable for your primary WiFi source or a backup option. It works in 100-plus countries on local 4G networks.

If you’re looking for faster speeds, the GlocalMe Numen Air connects to local 5G networks on a similar pay-as-you-go model. The hardware costs $210 and data packages range from $119 to $159 per month.

Tools to verify WiFi connectivity

With a few tools and browser extensions, the hunt for solid WiFi gets easier.

  • LumoSearch: a Chrome extension to summarize the reviews on any Airbnb location, including comments about WiFi.
  • VerWifi: a Chrome extension and complete a speed test at your Airbnb, which logs it for future travelers.
  • SpeedDeets: a tool to look up connectivity speeds at any address on the planet.
  • Speedtest: a tool to run a speed test at your current location.
  • The Wired Nomad: a tool to log and share your WiFi speed with other nomads.

    How much speed you need

    In general, the higher the megabits per second (Mbps), the better.

    • 1-6 Mbps: you can check your email and browse the internet on one device.
    • 7-24 Mbps: you can watch videos on YouTube and upload content on WordPress.
    • 25-49 Mbps: you can stream music services and take Zoom calls.
    • 50+ Mbps: you can use multiple devices for a seamless experience

    Tips for better connectivity

    If your Airbnb host is on-site before you get there, ask them to confirm the WiFi by running a speed test in the Airbnb app.

    Look for accommodation options with services like Netflix or Hulu, as streaming services are a good indicator of a strong WiFi connection.

    As often as possible, stay in places located near a co-working space, cafe, library, or another backup option nearby. If you’ve paid for a month upfront and it turns out there’s no WiFi, you’re going to need somewhere else to go.

    Schedule your Zoom calls for earlier times in the day, when fewer people will be online sharing the WiFi.

    Quick summary

    • Before you book accommodation, look up the WiFi speed on SpeedDeets.
    • Always have a back-up spot (or two) in mind, just in case your WiFi is unreliable.
    • Install a universal eSIM in your phone or pack a portable WiFi hotspot as a backup to your primary system, so you always have a way to connect.
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