Backup Your Expat Life!

By andrew - November 2, 2010 (Updated: September 24, 2015)

Computer Crash

Don’t let this happen to you!

I dread the moment Alison tells me her computer is dead. Her whole life is computerized; especially as she is a digital artist and photographer. A dead computer not only means she can’t work, but she also risks losing all of  her existing work.

This scenario is not unique to her. Expat life and traveling, as both Alison and I have blogged before, are inextricably tied to computers, smartphones, and cameras. These devices are the foundation of our digital lifestyle. Even so, according to one survey, 82% of consumers don’t perform a regular backup. Even scarier, 54% don’t have any backup whatsoever. What happens if you lose your phone? What if you drop your laptop? What would you do if your computer was stolen? If you’re not able to answer these questions, there are some simple steps you can take to put your mind at ease.

The most important information you should backup is the data unique to you: photos, documents, passwords and license keys (for software), scans of important papers, contacts, email, etc. Everything else can be replaced at the expense of your time to re-install and re-configure. If  you are traveling and don’t have access to your software or you don’t want to spend time reconfiguring, then you’ll want to keep a backup of your entire computer, just in case.

Backup to an external hard drive

The simplest backup solution is an external hard drive. These come in different sizes, storage capacities and connection options. For expats and travelers, I recommend using a smaller drive (2.5 inch) but be aware they tend to also be smaller in storage capacity. If your new hard drive is USB (most are), simply plug it in and copy your important files to it. If you only have a few files, then you can probably manage this operation manually. If you take lots of photos or videos, you should consider using some software to automate the process and run it on at least a daily basis.

Automating Backups

There are a lot of backup software solutions available. Some external drives now come with backup software (e.g. a recent Samsung StoryStation drive I bought). To keep it simple though, for Mac users, Time Machine is the easiest to use. Windows 7 users can use the backup and restore utility provided. For anyone else, I would recommend Symantec’s products, as I’ve always found them easiest to use.  For power users, a combination of a full image backup (Norton Ghost or Windows 7 backup) plus SyncBack for file copying has been my preferred solution for a while now.

Once you have everything copied to a second, external drive, you are now among the 46% of people with a backup. Congrats! If you’ve automated the process to run daily, then you have joined the top 18%. Congrats!

Time for a cup of coffee!

What happens if your house burns down or the backup drive is stolen?

The next step really depends on your level of paranoia and the amount of risk you face. Having an extra copy of your most important files protects you from loss if your main computer dies, is stolen, or is lost. But what happens if your house burns down or the backup drive is stolen along with your computer? This last scenario is a very real possibility if you are traveling and you have your phone, camera, computer, and backup all together. If the data is really important, you will want some way of ensuring your backup and your computer are not in the same location. This requires planning for an ‘offsite’ backup.

Offsite Backup Options

An offsite backup could be as simple as storing a 2nd external hard drive, with a copy of your data, at your parent’s or friend’s house. But this won’t work if you’re traveling and creating new photos and videos every day. In this case, the best solution is using an internet based storage service, also known as a Cloud storage solution.

Online services are offered by companies like Dropbox, Mozy, Crashplan, and many more. A recent PC Magazine article ranked Carbonite, IDrive, MiMedia, MozyHome, Norton Online Backup, and SOS Online Backup Home Edition as “The Best Online Backup Services”. The article also provided some good thoughts on balancing price, capacity and flexibility.

I originally started out with Mozy for two reasons: their storage was unlimited and they had a data centre in Europe (Ireland). After the first year, Mozy changed their pricing and suddenly we would be paying over a thousand euros for their service. With Alison’s photography we don’t have gigabytes of data, we have terabytes. So although I was happy with Mozy I had to move us to a new service, LiveDrive.

LiveDrive promised unlimited storage, a UK-based data centre, and offered multi-year contracts. Scared they would also change their pricing, I bought a 5 year plan for €140. As of 2015 (when I updated this older article), we’ve been using for four years and I’m quite happy with their platform. We are now backing up almost 3TB of data with much more to come. Our LiveDrive online back up came in handy two years ago when one of Alison’s drives crashed. I was able to use a combination of local backups and LiveDrive to restore her files. Whew!

By copying your files to a storage facility situated somewhere on the Internet, you are ensuring you can access them from wherever you are in the world. The only downside is it takes longer upload your files and to download them again if you need to restore, but restoring files from the Internet should be your last resort anyway. A lot of online backup services offer free storage up to a certain limit and paid for storage above that limit (2GB seems to be a typical limit for free). I encourage you to sign up for the free option, test it out and then expand to the paid for version that works for you.

What strategy you use for backups is up to you and your tolerance for risk. The above are just some guidelines to consider; the devil is in the details. For expats and travelers I highly recommend you combine both methods, but focus on copying just the ‘important’ files to the online service while keeping a full backup on your portable drive. This gives you flexibility and peace of mind without having to wait ages for a backup to complete. Finally, be sure you test the ability to restore files. You gain nothing by backing up if the restore fails.

 Looking for more resources for living abroad? Check out our Expat Resources page.
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Andrew is our resident tech-geek and is normally found lurking behind the scenes on doing things with code that Alison finds mysterious. He comes out of hiding occasionally to write about history and technology. He is also part of the duo that produces Tech Brew, a podcast about beer and technology in Belgium. He loves castles, driving on narrow, twisty mountain roads and relaxing with a glass of peaty Scotch. Follow Andrew on Google+
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  1. Comment by Gilbert

    Gilbert November 2, 2010 at 12:59

    I swear by Acronis True Image for my daily backup to an external hard drive because it backs up my entire system, not just data. So If my PC bombs, I just get a new one and restore completely from it.

    And you can also go in and restore and individual file as quickly as it takes you to find it.

    • Comment by Andrew


      Andrew November 2, 2010 at 13:16

      Thanks for the tip, Gilbert! I think there are a lot of good tools out there so it’s really about finding the solution that fits you. Another solution that I’ve seen a lot on the forums for Home Media PCs is using Windows Home Server. I’m not using it, but from what I’ve read it’s pretty slick when needing to do a restore.

  2. Comment by paris (im)perfect

    paris (im)perfect November 2, 2010 at 13:06

    Thanks! Very helpful post. I’ve been meaning to figure out a more systematic backup plan as I’ve been pretty haphazard about it – tomorrow, tomorrow, I say. But what if my computer crashes *today*?! Thanks for the push – and for providing concrete places to start.

    • Comment by Andrew


      Andrew November 2, 2010 at 13:18

      You’re welcome! Please let me know if you find it too ‘general’. I can be much more specific if you like!

      Backups are always those things that are the lowest priority until you need them. If you read the PC Magazine article, they state that 10% of computers fail each year! Pretty good odds that you’ll want that backup handy 🙂

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  4. Comment by Nomadic Chick

    Nomadic Chick November 2, 2010 at 21:17

    Terrific post, Andrew. I’ve been dancing with this myself. Have an external hard drive, but definitely don’t back up as much as I often as I should. Will be doing that ASAP!

    • Comment by Andrew


      Andrew November 3, 2010 at 15:17

      As you will be doing a lot of traveling (Jealous!), I recommend you get set up with an online backup too. It doesn’t need to cost a lot (I use… runs about 55 euros a year for unlimited storage) and it is pretty easy to use.

  5. Comment by Lee

    Lee November 3, 2010 at 09:34

    Thanks, Andrew – always a timely reminder! Do you have any more specific ideas/suggestions re the online storage companies – I do the external harddrive route, but as another expat and photographer like Alison, I do worry about not having all my photos stored outside our apartment. I haven’t really found a good description of the pros/cons of the different online providers and was just wondering if you have any thoughts/research in this area to share. Thanks again!

    • Comment by Andrew


      Andrew November 3, 2010 at 15:44

      Hi Lee,

      That is a great question. I looked at a number of plans and I really liked both CrashPlan and Mozy. I liked them both because of the amount of storage I needed. I was also looking for storage… not a site where I can share files between computers.

      I liked CrashPlan because I read a good review (don’t have the URL any more, sorry) and it was unlimited at a good price ($54). They also have a service where they ship you a drive that you dump your initial content on and then they load that into your account. The only problem I had with CrashPlan was it was US only.

      When I looked at Mozy (backed by EMC), the price/capacity was the same, and it has a data center in Ireland ( Downside is that they don’t have the same service as CrashPlan.

      In the end I picked Mozy because it was in the EU and bit the bullet regarding uploading 600+ gigs of data. All I wanted was a backup of the files for a disaster recovery scenario, so this worked for me.

      I also use Dropbox, but just the free version for sharing files between people and computers. If you want something for synchronizing files between computers, this might be a better solution… but it’s a more expensive because they have to factor in the extra networking costs for synchronizing files.

      Hopefully this is helpful. I am thinking of writing a longer article about the online options. In the meantime, sign up for one of the free versions and see if their tools are what you want.

      Thanks again, great question!

      • Comment by Lee

        Lee November 3, 2010 at 21:19

        Andrew, thanks for all that information in response to my question! This is all great stuff and gives me a good starting point. I will definitely check all these options out, although for me, CrashPlan is probably not an option since we’re based in Italy at the moment (originally from the U.S. but via Canada before here). Although I love the idea of backing stuff up to a drive and shipping it to a place, instead of upload vast quantities over the internet; our service here in Bolzano is rather slower than ideal for large-scale uploads. 😉 But, like you, it would just be for disaster recovery, and the 500 Gigs upload wouldn’t be all the time, so the other options are definitely worth a look. Anyway, thanks for going through all this – and if you do write a longer article about the online options, I look forward to reading it. Thanks again!

        • Comment by Andrew


          Andrew November 4, 2010 at 10:03

          Just another idea: take a snapshot of your current data on an external drive and store it at a friend’s house. Then just focus on uploading your new work. Once that is in place you can work on uploading your older work at your leisure.

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