When we first started gallivanting around the world, keeping in contact meant email and dial-up internet and very, very expensive bills. Thankfully for expats, global nomads, world travelers and their friends and family back home, things are now cheaper, quicker and far, far more convenient – provided you know what to use, where. By popular demand, here’s the Defining Moves guide to cheaper international communication. Complete with a lovingly handmade PDF cheat sheet. You’re spoiled, you really are…
If you are a landline lover (landlubber).
While most of us rely heavily on the internet for communicating, there are still plenty of places where the service is too slow / expensive / inconsistent to be reliable or who have loved ones back home who prefer a traditional handset. If so, you should be checking your provider for a reduced rate package that you can add to your plan – rather like the unarranged overdraft at the bank, spontaneous international calls are charged at prohibitive rates, while prepaid or pre-authorized ones are far cheaper.
If you can’t reduced rates, consider asking (and if necessary, paying for) family members to add international calls to their package at home and have pre-arranged call times – most landline calls are free to receive, regardless of whether they are local or international. Over the course of an overseas assignment, the savings will be significant, and you have the added advantage of guilt-free calls.
Combine this with a service from Rebtel, which offers cheap international calls from any phone, whether landline or mobile. It involves setting up an account online, entering the numbers you want to call, and then using the new local numbers that Rebtel gives you for each of your contacts.
It’s far less complicated than it sounds (especially when most phones allow you to store contact details) and Rebtel even offers you a free call to try it out. The even better news? It’s global, so you can use the new numbers anywhere in the world for local rate calls, and their website is incredibly clear and easy to use.
As a last resort, there are hundreds of international calling cards out there that in exchange for a prepaid card and a little inconvenience, offer a much lower rate. Try www.comfi.com for comparisons of rates – and again, don’t forget to check for connection fees…
If you have home internet but like to have a traditional phone and number.
It has to be Ooma. It’s a square device (about the size of an answering machine) that plugs into your internet router and allows you to connect a regular handset. The unit itself costs around $200, but allows you to make free domestic calls and very low-cost international calls while only paying applicable government taxes. What we like? You pay up front, all call costs, fees and taxes are clearly displayed and user reviews love it too. The bad news? It’s currently only available in the US. Sorry.
Alternatively, Skype offers a Skype To Go number to use with a handset – either buy one with Skype functionality installed, or use a phone adapter. You have to buy Skype credit online to both pay for the number and subscription/pay as you go credit, so if you are setting it up for your less tech savvy family members or friends, you might want to help them set up automated payments at the same time. In the interests of full disclosure, reviews were scathing, both about the call and product quality, and customer service. Eek.
The current market leader has to be Skype, who offer low cost calling, no set-up, cancellation or contract fees, and a variety of products and services to keep the most demanding amongst us happy. Calls can be made through most devices with a microphone and speakers – computers, laptops, tablets and even cellphones with wifi capability – and for those of us who prefer to use a regular handset, they sell those too.
Calls to other Skype users are free and if you have a webcam, this includes free video calls – fantastic for keeping track of growing children, changing hair colors or home improvement projects. Not so good if you forget that you have video enabled and make calls in your pajamas.
The good news is that Skype is widely used, so you will be able to make free calls to most of your global network. The bad news is that you will need a high speed internet connection to avoid distortions and dropped calls and if you have a usage limit, you will quickly burn up a significant amount of data with video calls. It is also prohibitively expensive to call cellphones, their calling rates are buried in the darkest corner of the website, and their customer service is run entirely via email and video chat. Hmm.
If you prefer to use your cellphone, but don’t have a data package.
Enter Rebtel again, the patron saint of cheap international cellphone to cellphone calls. Sure, you have to sign up online and set up payment plan, but once you have a) saved their Rebtel number in your phone and b) practiced a few times, you can get regular cellphone to cellphone calls for local rates with no data, no hassle and great signal quality.
If you have a smartphone, data / wi-fi access, and love to talk.
Here’s where it gets really, really good, especially if your friends have smartphones and data packages (or wi-fi access) too, because there are some great products and apps out there. My personal favorite is Viber, which offers free cellphone-to-cellphone calls and texts to other Viber users. It integrates with your contact list so you can instantly see which friends and acquaintances have Viber, and offers you the option of free calls (for when you have plenty of data or a wi-fi connection) or a regular call for when you want to use your voice plan. We love its ease of use, the ability to easily invite others to join and the call and text reliability – but be warned; it looks very similar to your regular cellphone call application, so check twice before placing any international calls…
Next up is the Rebtel app – all the features of Rebtel, with the ease of an app. The calls are free to other Rebtel users and (Rebtel claims) 98% cheaper to non-users. We love the easy-to-use contact list, with clear labels about which calls are ‘free’, and which are ‘cheap’, and has the cost of each call displayed before you press ‘Call’.
Trailing in third place is Skype – the most well known (and widely available), but also the most clunky to use (you have to search for Skype user names or emails) and the least transparent in terms of cost. Like the previous two, calls are free to Skype users, and there is the added advantage of video calling for those of you with camera phones, the ability to using instant messaging and to send photos. The bad news is that video calling eats data, so make sure you either have unlimited data or are using wi-fi when making those calls, and that all of your Skype contacts are notified that your are ‘available’ unless you remember to change your settings. And its SMS feature is a pain to use, and at least in my experience, pretty unreliable.
For free international video calls, iPhone, iTouch, iPad and Mac users can benefit from Apple’s FaceTime application which again uses the internet to connect the call. For those of you using iPhones, be sure to click FaceTime rather than Call, unless, of course, you enjoy three figure phone bills…
If u prfr the writn wrd… International text messaging for free.
Viber is still up there for its free global messaging to other Viber users, but in terms of functionality, WhatsApp has to win the international messaging prize. It uses your existing contacts list to find other WhatsApp users, who can then be bombarded with texts, images, videos and goodness knows what else, for free. For those of you with TCKs, CCKs, global tweens and teens, it’s your passport to peace, family harmony, international communication, financial sanity and probably, Repetitive Strain Injury. Four out of five ain’t bad.
As a final note to those of you who travel frequently – consider getting your phone unlocked. While all of these features will help you save hundreds on communication costs, the savings are quickly overtaken by overseas data charges, and free wi-fi access is not always easy to find. An unlocked phone allows you to buy a Pay As You Go local sim card (cut it down to micro-sim size if necessary – instructions here) and stay in close contact with your network for less.
It’s good to talk. Or, for the more musically inclined…