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).

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partner

 

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 reauthorized 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 offer 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 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.

 

If you have home internet and a computer / laptop / tablet with microphone and speakers.expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partner

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.

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partnerEnter 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 get’s 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 a 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..

expat international call communication tools - Defining Moves, The Art of Successful Relocation. Information, Inspiration and Resources for the Global accompanying partner, trailing souse, expat partnerNext 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 how 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 it’s 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 it’s 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..

 

13 Responses to Keeping in Contact – The Essential Guide to Cheaper International Calling

  1. Expat Mammy says:

    love this vid, great post

  2. It was your handmade drawings that drew me in Rachel (pun intended), but I ended up learning some new things. I’ll definitely keep Rebtel in mind. Currently my elderly parents are able to Skype with us (for free), but I can foresee a time when we’ll probably need to switch back to phone calls for their convenience.

    • Rachel says:

      I think we should form a comedy duo – you can write the pun(chline)s and I’ll handle the cartoons. I think we may have a future..

  3. Emmanuelle says:

    Hello Rachel,
    Thank you for this great post and the others by the way! You are lucky: as I moved at 16 to the States, internet did not exist (gosh am I old!)… phone calls were too expensive, so I called y parents (States-Switzerland) twice a year: Christmas and Birthday! BUT, that is how I learned quickly English: I had nobody to talk French to!
    Now, I like Skype, but you have to seat and do nothing else… I prefer phone for the one-two(!) hours conversation with my Mom/best friend… while I iron :-)In most of the countries in Europe, we have very good packages and cheap phone calls. Yes you are right, it changes our lifes!

    • Rachel says:

      What a brilliant point about the hidden (but very hard sometimes!) advantage of no internet calling! Benny the Irish Polyglot uses the same strategy in his language hacking approach, and is now on his 35th (give or take a few) language!
      On the flip side, I have met quite a few people who use Skype and the others to learn / practice a language before they arrive and after they leave a country – don’t you just love the opportunities it all opens up?

  4. Walter says:

    Before moving abroad we purchased a magicJack (~$40) and chose a phone number in our local area code. You can use it with a phone or a headset. Their service costs about $20/year and includes unlimited calls within the US – the cost for international calls varies. When we moved overseas we brought it with us. Family and friends in the US can call as if it’s a local call. It has served us well.

    • Rachel says:

      Hi Walter,

      Thanks for that recommendation – I’ve just ordered one to test, so I’ll let you know how I get on!

      • Walter says:

        Just checking back to see if you got the magicJack and what impressions you have. :)

        • Rachel says:

          I indeed have the magicJack, and once I have found the desk, the internet cable and the power outlet behind the 7′ wall of packing boxes, I can’t wait to try it out. It sounds brilliant, especially for those heading overseas from the US..

  5. Ooooh, you did that? All for us expat people? That is truly awesome. As for the drawings, girl I should hire you to do my sketches…hee hee.
    Ok now all I have to do is sit down with a glass, my laptop, scan this list and I’m done. Whoa. Wait, it’s 10:17am. Oh well, it’s passed lunchtime back home. Thanks Rachel!

    • Rachel says:

      I am all heart. With possibly a little bit of OCD :)

      Glad you liked it – I’ve spent the last few months being driven mad by hearing people talk about their $200 telephone bills in matter-of-fact tones, so it’s long overdue!

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