12 Reasons Why I Travel With TWO Smartphones

travel with two smartphones cropped
How did I take this photo? With my versatile Microsoft Surface, of course!

Few things in life are free.  Fortunately, this tip doesn’t require buying any new gear.  Almost everyone has an old smartphone laying around.

So why do I carry a heavy, redundant phone when I cut zipper pulls of my bags to save micro-ounces?  I have twelve reasons…

01 Distraction Management

My phone is my travel alarm clock.  When I use my primary phone, I always stay in bed for an hour while I check the news and browse social media.

Instead, I use my 2nd smartphone (that I deliberately leave without internet access) as my alarm clock.  My primary phone is kept out of reach from the bed.  This forces me to get out of bed earlier and start my day.  This tip alone has saved me hundreds of hours in my life already.

digital nomad bedside table products
My travel “bedside table”

[Highlighted items in above photo: Anker 6' USB cable, Microsoft Surface, Travel surge protector, the *best* sleep mask]

This same strategy helps when working.  My work requires the intermittent use of various smartphone apps, but this opens me up to steady streams of distracting notifications and messages.

To combat this, I put my work apps on the 2nd phone and keep my primary phone, with all of my communication apps, on silent and out of reach.

02 Use old phone for riskier tasks

When living in Thailand and Cambodia, I mounted my smartphone to the handle bars of my motorbike to use as a navigator.  The constant vibration can damage smartphone cameras and it is vulnerable to rain and dropping.  If you forget to remove the phone, it will quickly be stolen.  For all of these reasons, I used my old smartphone for the task and kept my expensive new phone in my pocket.

smartphone on motorcycle

As an ancillary benefit, if one phone’s battery dies, I can use the 2nd for navigation, emergency calls, translations, etc.

Another good time to deploy the backup phone is when going to the beach.  Sand is the easiest way to scratch a nice phone screen – not to mention risk of getting wet.  Also of concern is theft.  (However, I always recommend swimming with your phone using a waterproof phone bag like this.)

03 Travel Security System

Edward Snowden backed an app called Haven.  This app uses your phones sensors to detect movement, vibration, and sound.  When triggered, it records video of the event and sends the evidence to you over the internet.

Safe Haven app

I use this if I will be out of my apartment or hotel room and I am worried about theft or intrusion.  (Think nosy housekeeper having a look around.)  I discretely place the phone on a shelf with a good view of the area I am concerned about.  I leave it plugged in using an Anker 6' USB cable (travel essential) to reach the nearest outlet.

04 Use as a “party console” if throwing a house/apartment/hotel party

This is one I bet you haven’t thought of!

Sometimes I like to have little parties in my apartment – whether with friends or for a fun atmosphere when having a girl over.  My portable entertainment systems consists of two items – my old smartphone and a Google Chromecast.

google chromecast with phone

If you aren’t familiar with Chromecast.  It is dongle that plugs into any TV’s HDMI port and connects to your WiFi network.  It lets you ‘cast’ YouTube videos to your TV with the touch of a button in the YouTube app.  You can also ‘cast’ the screen on the Chrome web browser.

At a party, I let people pass around the phone and use it to change the music or show funny videos on the TV screen.  They also can use the phone’s camera to take spontaneous party pictures.

I don’t keep any personal information on this phone, so I am carefree to pass it around.  If someone drops and breaks it, no biggie.

Everyone calls it the “party phone.”

05 A Gift

When living in Chiang Mai, I became friends with a maintenance worker at my apartment complex.  He was a refuge from a little known conflict in Myanmar between the government and Shan State.

One day he saw me setting up the navigator app on my smartphone.  I could see that he really wanted to understand how it worked (He was very poor and only had an old Nokia brick phone).  I showed him how I could select a point on the map and then the device would show me the route.  (I believe it was his first time ever seeing a map.)  I had him jump on the back of my motorbike and watch how it gave me turn-by-turn instructions.

His eyes lit up as if I had shown him magic (which for all functional purposes, I did.)  I could see the gears turning in his head for the possibilities of this.

I couldn’t help but give him my old phone as a gift.  I set it up for him in Thai language, which he had an understanding of.  Later he used the navigator to take his girlfriend on a trip to Doi Inthanon – the highest mountain in Thailand.  Later they showed me all the photos that they took with that very same smartphone.

doi inthanon thailand
Doi Inthanon, Thailand

Seeing the joy they experienced was worth the price of ten new iPhones.

This gift cemented a lifetime friendship.  He and his girlfriend (now wife with two children) still send me photos on Facebook.

[Karma – this connection will also prove helpful to me in a future endeavor.  I want to make an expedition to Myanmar to visit the amber pits where prehistoric insects preserved in amber are being unearthed.  My friend told me that he knows guys in the area that speak English and can be my guide.  In a war-torn country, trusted friends are invaluable. I gained one with a simple gift.]

06 To translate text of apps that are in a foreign language

Sometimes I need to use an app that is only in a foreign language (such as cellular plan management apps or local banking apps).  To translate the text on the screen, I use the 2nd phone as a tool to translate the text on the 1st phone.  Yandex Translate has a particularly useful photo translate feature, pictured below.

translating phone screen
Take photo on screen. App translates all words in photo.

07 Burner Phone

Most countries require you to present your passport when purchasing a new SIM card.  This means that you can be easily monitored and tracked by state entities.

liam neeson burner phone

[I always maximize my privacy, even if I’m “doing nothing wrong.”]

With two phones, you can have a private space.

On the first phone, you have the SIM registered in your name.  This lets a monitoring agency feel like they have you sufficiently monitored, and hopefully, cultivates complacently.  You use this for only benign, day-to-day things.

The second phone either has an untraceable SIM (purchased through a third party) or you only use it with WiFi hotspots at cafes.  You always leave this phone off – until you need it.

If you come under a serious threat, you simultaneously start using the burner phone while leaving your primary phone on as a distraction.  This brings to mind movie scenes where someone throws their phone into a passing truck to spoof their movements.

08 Use as my home WiFi router – cheap, unlimited internet

In most places I have traveled, 4G cellular connections are good and fast.  Data plans for cellphones (even unlimited) are always much cheaper than plans for cellular modems (hotpots) or cable lines.

To save money, I buy a SIM for my second phone and use it as a hotspot for my apartment.  (Leave it plugged in because the WiFi discharges batteries quickly.)

In Russia, I use a company that offers unlimited data phone SIM cards for $8/monthHowever, WiFi tethering does not work with the unlimited plan (somehow they can detect it and will turn off the data).

I get around this restriction by using an app called PDANet+ on my smartphones and laptop.  This allows you to tether in a way that cell carriers cannot detect AND you can share a VPN connection on the phone with all devices connected.

Pdanet hide tether usage
PDANet+ is an essential digital nomad tool.

09 Keep personal and business accounts separate

Any online business will cause you to have a mix of personal and business apps and accounts in use, often on the same platforms.  I find it is easier to simply keep them on distinct phones.  This also helps with the next reason…

10 Loaner phone for employees

I have lived the last several years in low cost of living, low cost of labor countries.  This allows me to hire employees even at times when my income is low by Western standards.

Unfortunately, people who will work for $3/hr aren’t the most tech savvy.  It is easier to set up all the necessary accounts and apps on a phone, teach them how to use it, and then let them borrow the phone.  (While a laptop is better for real work, this is taking them further out of their element – phones are the only computers that most people in the world are familiar with.)

Yes, theft or loss is possible.  However, I prefer to live my life by listening to my instincts, judging faces, and trusting.  So far, so good.

11 Going through privacy invasive countries

chinese airline security

When I was on a layover in China, security took me to a special room for extra security screening.  During this process, they actually plugged a device into the the USB port of my phone.  I have no idea what its purpose was, but I was not at all happy about it.

After that, they requested that I unlock my phone so they could look at my photos.  All of this on a layover!

I have considered carrying my backup phone in my pocket when going through airport security in the future.  I could leave my primary phone turned off in my carry-on luggage.

12 “One is None, Two is One”

broken phone

I saved the most obvious reason for last.  It is a major hassle to replace a broken or lost phone when traveling.

When you have two phones, you can swap the sim card in 20 seconds and carry-on.  Get a new phone at your convenience and don’t lose any precious vacation or travel time.

[If you don’t have a spare and aren’t ready to upgrade, I recommend the legendary Samsung Galaxy S5 as a cheap backup.  These devices are cheap/good for their age, waterproof AND have a removable battery.]

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