Category Archives: Expat Guides & Toolkit

Expat family essentials: Estate planning checklist. Defining Moves: information, inspiration for the global expat family. Trailing spouse, supporting partner, expat partner, accompanying partner, international assignment

Expat Family Essentials: The Estate Planning Checklist

Expat family essentials: Estate planning checklist. Defining Moves: information, inspiration for the global expat family.  Trailing spouse, supporting partner, expat partner, accompanying partner, international assignmentWhen my mother came to visit us in Los Angeles, she neglected to bring her swimsuit, and was faced with the challenge of what to wear in our pool. My generous offer of a string bikini was rudely rejected with the words “Over my dead body”. I am taking her at her word, and when she moves on to a better place, we will be marking her passing with an open casket viewing and the aforementioned attire.

Just to compound your already low opinion of me, I also respond to unwanted maternal points for improvement with the words “ Just remember who’ll be choosing the nursing home”…

Let this be a lesson to those of you who are feeling complacent having written your will; if you also want a say in your care and send off, do in it writing, and make sure it can be found before the services (healthcare, financial or spiritual) have taken place. It applies to all of you, but if you are an expat, the risks are even higher..

 

There are four more documents that you need to consider preparing:

  • Guidelines for your funeral arrangements
  • Power of Attorney
  • Trust / Catalogue of assets
  • Letter of intent

Funeral arrangements. 

If, like myself, you have specific ideas about your funeral, you need to put a plan in place so that loved ones left behind can honor your wishes. For those of us with a somewhat warped sense of humor, it’s a great time to mess with everyone a little, but I appreciate that not everyone out there is as cruel as I.

The key points to cover include:

Location for service (church, crematorium etc.), preference for cremation or burial, memorial service, storage / distribution of ashes, etc.

Funeral preferences – hymns, caskets, flowers, donations, clothing (yours, but feel free to have a little fun with their dress code too…). You could even write your own eulogy and obituary, complete with an embellished (and  potentially wholly fictitious) list of accomplishments.

Funding – it’s the one we all forget, but if you are living overseas and wish to be buried in your home town, make provision for the costs of repatriating both your body and your family. Your embassy can give guidance, but the costs are entirely your own. Bear in mind that your heirs can’t easily access accounts left in your name once you have died – funeral expenses are deducted from the estate before it is divided between the beneficiaries, but flights etc are usually paid in advance, so ask your lawyer the best way to facilitate this.

Power of Attorney.

The Durable Power of Attorney / Enduring Power of Attorney is a document that designates a representative to make financial, health care, or other business decisions for you if you become unable to do so for yourself.

This can be general or limited / springing. A general durable power of attorney gives permission for whomever you name to make every decision on your behalf, if you are no longer able to advocate for yourself. A limited durable power of attorney cover specific events, like selling property, making investments (often given to financial advisors / brokers) or making health care decisions (also called an Advance Directive of Health Care).

You can choose anyone to act as your agent, but commonsense rules apply – choose someone trustworthy who has your best interests at heart, and who is physically able to make those decisions; while many decisions can be made remotely, those living overseas should consider choosing someone who is able to travel.

Trust.

I am not a lawyer, nor have any legal expertise or qualification, so I am leaving the explanation of what exactly a trust is to those in the know – click here for the best explanation I could find, or check out the additional resources at the bottom of the page. Your task is to go away and get legal advice on whether trusts are applicable to your situation.

Simply put, a trust is a legal holding zone for assets, which are controlled by individuals known as ‘trustees’, for the benefit of other named parties “beneficiaries”. You nominate multiple trustees and beneficiaries, allowing both flexibility (it is relatively straightforward to change the conditions of the trust) and smooth transition of both control of and benefit from the trust.

The vast majority of people set up trusts for financial reasons – properly crafted, your trust can help to avoid significant estate taxes. However, for expats, the ability for assets to be transferred seamlessly is often far more important; especially where the remaining spouse is on a dependent visa and no longer legally entitled to remain in the host country.

It also has the advantage not just cataloging major assets but also specifying how beneficiaries can access the funds contained in the trust, meaning that should the unthinkable happen and both parents die, they can leave instructions for funds to be released at appropriate intervals (for example, lump sums to cover college tuition and living costs, down payments on a first home etc) rather than giving total control when the children reach legal adulthood.. As someone with a 17 year old who is unable to manage his birthday money effectively, the thought of leaving him in charge of half our net worth in a year’s time sends shudders down my spine.

Letter of Intent.

Finally, it’s the easy one – your letter of intent. It’s not a legal document, instead simply some guidance to the guardians of your estate and your dependents about what your wishes, your hopes and your future plans for your dependents are.

There are two things to bear in mind:

  1. Think of your letter of intent as a set of guidelines, not rules. You are handing over the job to someone who is not you (and never will be), so let them do their best with the situation they have; if there are any ‘dealbreakers’, it’s probably a good idea to discuss them in person before you assign them the responsibility.
  2. Make sure you have the funds to back it up. There’s nothing like being left with a laundry list of expectations, and no money to do it. It’s the same lesson we teach our children; if it’s that important, you should be willing to pay for it with your own money..
  3. Don’t assume children are your only dependents; you may need to make provision for your parents, your pets or your clients.

So there we go – you are well on the way to getting your plans a little more ‘future-proofed’, whether in terms of money, care for your dependents, or what they say about you in your obituary. Just remember; your epitaph really is the one thing that is written in stone…

 

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture.

(Often Ignored) Expat Essentials – Writing a Will.

Yes, I know. You don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it, which is why I have been getting shifty looks from most of my expat network this week when I asked them the seemingly simple question: “Do you have a will?” Want to know how many people said “Yes”?

Two. Out of about thirty people, all of whom have high net worth, children from at least one relationship, and often dual citizenship / resident status. A little worrying, no? 

I can’t claim the moral high ground – we recently unearthed our Will, dusty from 10 years in an unmarked cardboard box in a storage container in Walthamstow. Not exactly accessible in the event of our demise, and even worse, was so out of date that the paperclip holding it together was rusty and the Feisty One was not even mentioned. So on her behalf, I am doing something about it… Here goes.

Expat essentials. Writing a will. Defining Moves - The Art of Successful relocation. Information, inspiration and resources for the global expat family, trailing spouse, accompanying partner, global services manager, relocation service provider, destinations service provider.. you get the picture. I have a new dirty word: intestate. For those of you who have been living a carefree life of blissful indifference, it’s what happens when you don’t have a will. For non-expats, the implications are unpleasant: it gives the state responsibility and control over the division of your estate, decisions about who will take care of your dependents, the timeframe it all happens and (of course) access to a large chunk of your assets via taxes.

It’s a simple fix – a Will. It’s the document that tells those left behind what you want to happen to your dependents and estate.  Most of us overthink it, imagining a torturous process requiring three weeks of desperate hunting for title deeds and old bank statements. Nothing could be further from the truth – the best wills are simple statements of intent, which give executors something to work with and a few clues about where you have hidden your treasure. Combine that with a good estate planning lawyer and you will create a plan that saves everyone time, money and heartache at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Introducing first part of the Defining Moves “Ducks in a Row” program. Our aims are simple:

  • To inspire you to act. Right now. Because this is important.
  • To get you to the lawyer on time. We want to prompt to you think, discuss, list and plan, so that any legal advice you get is based on reality, not just the bits you could remember in the car on the way to the lawyer’s office. And make sure that when whoever prepares your will asks a question, you know the answer and are not paying $300 per hour for them to watch you think about it / argue with your spouse / try to remember whether or not you mailed the last life insurance premium.

So grab your pencil and paper, and let’s get started…

 

Step one: The People.

There are three groups of people you need to consider when drafting a Will;

  1. your dependents
  2. your beneficiaries
  3. your executors

 

Dependents.

These are the people who rely on you for some sort of care, support and/or protection. Traditionally, these were children still living at home, but modern families are often complicated with blended families, shared custody arrangements, adoptive children, elder relatives and even pets added to the mix. Thankfully, lawyers have seen it all before, and, even better if you have a family as nutty as mine, are sworn to secrecy…

Make of the list of those who you are responsible for, whether physically, socially, financially or legally, and the type of care you provide. Keep it simple – the rest can be figured out later – at this stage, your task is to create a comprehensive list.

Now list any special circumstances that will have to be addressed.  For many families, this may involve shared custody, child support or special needs but for expats there may also be issues of differing nationalities, citizenship and resident status that may have tax and legal implications.

For those of you with your own business, bear in mind that you may also have professional responsibility for continuity of care of clients – check your licensing organization or professional code of conduct if you are unsure.

 

Beneficiaries.

Your beneficiaries are the recipients of your estate – usually immediate descendants, siblings, friends and charities. Typically, assets are divided equally between your children, so if you want to use a different split, make this clear to your lawyer so that they can prevent your will being subject to legal contest. Note also that laws differ about division of assets when you die intestate – half siblings, step and adoptive children are often treated differently, and the portion of the estate automatically assigned to the spouse varies widely internationally.

If you have any other people or organizations who you want to leave money to, add them to your list now.

 

Executors, Financial Guardians and Legal Guardians.

It’s your group of guardian angels, so pick wisely. These are people who you trust to administer your estate and make sure your wishes are carried out, to care for your dependents and to manage the finances of the beneficiaries if they are unable to do so. The roles carry huge responsibility, so discuss whether or not your intended choices are both willing and able. They can be family members, friends or lawyers; typically, lawyers are paid (and aren’t given custody of the children…) whereas family and friends are less likely to be.

Note that guardianship differs from child custody: while custody refers to the physical care provided by a parent (who may have no legal powers), legal guardianship may involve physical and/or legal custody, and continues until the child reaches adulthood or the guardian’s death. By contrast, especially in the modern family, custody is far more flexible and changes according to the situations of the parents.

Here’s where expats need to be especially careful, because the local laws may be very different to those of your home nation and custody / guardianship arrangements and next of kin may not follow familiar rules. In the UAE, for instance, if no will is in place, Sharia law prevails, meaning that assets and custody of children potentially follow the male line – your husband / partner’s parents, brothers and sisters. How is your relationship with your mother-in-law, by the way?

 

Step Two: The Money

Your estate is the sum total of your assets, and while many of you will be rolling your eyes that I am pointing out the obvious, I can guarantee that there will be plenty of things that you will have forgotten. The temptation is to run to the filing cabinet / junk drawer and fish out the most recent bank statement, and start noting down numbers, but don’t. Your assets are constantly changing, so you only need to include categories – current and savings accounts, property, jewelry stocks, shares, businesses, investment accounts, life insurance, digital assets (websites, videos etc) – and where those assets are held. For a starter list, click here for pdf cheat sheet.

While you are making your list, make note of who your beneficiaries are, and how they are reported. Typically, life insurance goes to the spouse, but in a world where divorce rates run at about 45%, there are a huge number of exes who are still listed as primary beneficiary. Take note, and make any necessary changes…

 

Step Three: The Decisions

Now that you have the information, you can start making decisions about how to pass on your legacy, human or otherwise. Your key priorities are the welfare of your dependents, so start with those and work from there.

Guardianship of dependents.

Who do you want to care for your dependents if you are no longer around to do so? Depending on the complexity of your family and the types of dependents, there may be more than one answer to this question, so set it all out clearly, naming each dependent individually. Talk to all the parties concerned before you head to the lawyer’s office – you may be surprised to hear who your children would hate to live with, or which relative is intending to move to Outer Mongolia next month – to prevent return visits. Factors that may affect your decision are not just emotional – also consider location (how will your children feel about leaving the country, for instance), age and health of potential guardians, relationship with other friends and family, support network and financial ability to provide care.

Include financial provision for your dependents and decide who you want to manage your estate for them if they are still minors. In many cases, life insurance helps to cover the cost of raising children, but once you include the cost of college education it may not go as far as you think.

Financial, legal and professional dependent provision will require discussion with your lawyer and with those who you nominate to take over; the good news is that if planned in advance, the process is straightforward (and certainly infinitely preferable to leaving your legal advisor / executor to try to unravel the mess in your absence).

 

Step Four: The Division

This is the fun bit, providing you have money to leave. But before you start divvying up between your offspring and the local cat protection league, here are a few pointers:

  1. Remember that your debts and liabilities (taxes, funeral expenses, etc) will be deducted from your estate before the remainder is distributed. You can offset many of these by establishing a Trust, which will will talk about in the next chapter, but for the moment, just remember to include your loans, debts and other obligations when you are cataloging your estate.
  2. Ensure that you own your assets outright before you will them away. Anything jointly owned needs careful consideration to avoid passing on a headache rather than a well-intentioned gift. If you hadn’t already discussed future plans with the co-owner(s), now is the time to do so.
  3. Now is not the time to make a point. Sure, you may have favorites, but remember that in many cases you are not just leaving behind a bequest, but a lifetime of family discord and ill-feeling – not to mention legal challenges. It may seem a lovely idea to leave the bulk of your estate to your newest grandchild/ favorite nephew or next door neighbor, but the resulting fallout can often sour the best of intentions. The same rules apply for property – find out which mementos, furniture or jewelry are most loved by your friends and family, and divide accordingly, informing all of them who has been given what. That way, any discussions, disagreements or disappointments can be directed at you, rather than unwitting recipients.
  4. While we are on the subject of leaving objects to people, think carefully about whether they want them, and the responsibility you are handing over. It’s difficult to part with things, no matter how ugly, unwanted or expensive to maintain without feeling disloyal to the person who gifted it.

Now you have done the difficult bit, it’s time to put pen to paper and make a rough outline to take to the lawyer’s office. If you are an expat, you may be advised to get legal input from both your home and host nation perspective – while the laws of your home nation usually take precedence, extended residence overseas may change the rules, so be sure to explain the situation rather than making assumptions.

You need to include:

  • Your name, and identifying details (usually your address, but if you are an expat, you will need to clarify your domicile (primary place of residence) with an experienced lawyer – it has significant tax and legal implications.
  • Names of beneficiaries; the people and organizations you want to leave your assets (whether money, housing, land, stock options, digital assets etc ).
  • The name of your executor (the person responsible for making sure your wishes are met).
  • Guardians of your dependents – Legal and physical.
  • Who gets what.
  • Your legal advisor should also include a “residual clause” that states the recipient for any assets you forgot to mention, or have been accrued since you wrote your will. “I bequeath any residue to” should take care of it.
  • Signature and date, with initials and date on every page.

Congratulations if you made it to this point- you are well on your way. In the next post, we’ll be introducing the fun stuff.. Planning your funeral, Living Wills and frustrating the tax man.

Bet you can hardly wait.

 

Further Resources:

Nolo.com – Legal encylopedia – Wills

USA.gov – advice on writing both social media and regular wills.

UK Citizens Advice Bureau information on writing a will.

Australia. gov – Resources on wills and power of attorney

Essential expat steps for speedier settling in - Defining Moves, Information, inspirations and resources for the global trailing spouse.

Essential Expat: Simple steps to speedier settling in.

Essential expat steps for speedier settling in - Defining Moves, Information, inspirations and resources for the global trailing spouse.I’m getting better at this moving thing. This comes as something of a relief, because this is the 8th house in 16 years. And despite the fact that we have bought yet another fixer-upper (there will be comprehensive mutterings on the dubious wisdom of buying this type of property as an expat, mainly because one consigns oneself to a life of finally getting somewhere habitable, only to leave within the next 3 months… it’s like clockwork…), on the whole I have remained emotionally intact, with only the odd descent into babbling incoherence – and then only when the drains back up for the fourth time in a month. Predictably, in the bathrooms that we just finished remodeling.

The more observant amongst you will have noticed that this calm and serenity comes at a price – namely the complete lack of any activity outside the house-hunting/mortgage application/signing on the dotted line/painting/tiling/grouting variety. Hence the echoing silence on the blog, causing those who know me well to be concerned by what for me is a very unusual silence.

Those of you who noticed and enquired about my life/health/sanity, thank you. I am now back, and your email inbox will once again be cluttered with occasional wisdom and eagerly awaited tales of the Other Half’s latest foray into home maintenance…

In the meantime, here are my essential steps to remaining sane, whether you are moving across town, across the country or across the world.

1. Know yourself.

It’s the defining moment of your first expat move – what to put in your household goods shipment. Especially if (like us) you have two small children and a container the size of the average office desk. What’s so important to you and your family, that you can’t leave it behind?

Eight years of expat life later, I know the answer, at least for myself. Our sense of family is strongest at mealtimes, so our dinner service – the plates, the silverware, the serving dishes – all get shipped. So do family pictures, treasured mementos, Christmas decorations and the numerous animals, but that’s about it. Furniture, clothes, books are all replaceable, so instead we use our allowance to take things that will make our future life easier. Things like industrial quantities of chocolate, laundry detergent and Bisto.

For you, it will be different. It may be bicycles, board games, films. The good news is that there is no right answer, there is only the answer that is right for you – and the only people who will ever know about your inability to part with your treasured collection of china cats will be you and the customs official…

2. Understand what lies ahead.

We all do it. Someone says they are being transferred to Hawaii, and we groan with envy; mention Angola and we wince – reactions purely based on second hand media reports and the odd travel brochure. Not exactly the most reliable source of expat advice, now we come to think of it. But there are plenty of excellent blogs, websites, forums, Facebook groups and networking sites, full of information and real, live people who have been there, done that. So do your own research from a wide range of sources, understand that the information you get will be from someone else’s perspective and use that to guide you.

3. Set up an expat and local support network before you go.

This is the era of the internet, of social media and of cheap VOIP calling, so you have no excuse for not staying in contact. Create your own expat preparedness kit; get an independent email address, set up social media profiles, sign up to cheap calling, get a comprehensive contact list, and start introducing yourself to your new network before you set foot on a plane.  If it all sounds too daunting to tackle by yourself, check out our guide and cheat sheets here and here.

4. Come prepared to make friends.

If you have done your research and made some social media contacts, you should know what other resident expats miss, what will be valued and what you can bring as ‘hostess gifts’. It’s an instant “in”, not because of the gift itself, but because you have shown you have what it takes to be a successful expat – the willingness to share, an interest in the welfare of others, and the understanding that not a single ounce/gram of luggage allowance should be wasted. Ever.

For those who are currently screaming the words, “I’m not moving to XXX just to mix with expats” at their screens, please don’t misunderstand me. I expect you all to get out there and meet whoever your heart desires, but take it from me, settling in and getting established is a whole heap easier with someone to point you in the right direction, who not only understands your language, but also where you are coming from. As a Brit in the US, I can assure you that there is plenty of scope for cultural misunderstandings, and I can only thank my lucky stars that the locals here are a forgiving bunch…

5. Know that you will have times when you want to go home.

That’s why you have set up your international communication strategy – so that when the rubber hits the road (or the other stuff hits the fan, and take it from me, it will, repeatedly), you have a voice at the other end of the line to help you get through it. In time, you will develop a local network, but for the first few months, use the “who wants to be a millionaire’ approach, and phone a friend. Preferably one who has the right answers.

6. Say yes.

You may have absolutely no interest in a tour of the local sewerage management facility / scrapbooking /fellwalking club, but if someone has invited you, say yes. It a) gets you out of the house, b) introduces you to a whole new set of people, c) shows that you are interested in trying new things (an essential trait in the successful expat) and d) if nothing else, gives you an excellent (and preferably hilarious) horror story to tell later (another accomplished expat characteristic).

7. Remember, it’s a numbers game.

The more people you meet, the greater your odds of meeting your expat soul mate, so the quicker you get out there, the better. No, you don’t have to commit to a lifetime study of yoga or the collected works of Agatha Christie – you just have to show up with a positive attitude, a desire to meet people, a willingness to go with the flow, and preferably, one of the aforementioned hostess gifts.

8. Give yourself space.

It’s the lesson that has taken me the longest to learn, because we all have such great expectations (some good, some bad) about our new life, but underestimate the amount of time, effort and sheer emotional energy that building it takes. For me, it meant taking an unplanned 3 month sabbatical from writing simply to move 5 miles across town. But I know from experience that my personal and family wellbeing are closely linked to a sense of home and a network of friends – and that takes work and commitment, so treat it like you would any other job and give yourself realistic goals, appropriate resources, and most importantly, time off. You need downtime, a moment or three where you are not on best behavior and where you get to please yourself and refill your cup.

 

As for me, things are gradually starting to get a little calmer; most of the walls are now painted, we have withstood the obligatory new home dramas and I am finally able to devote time to something other than project/crisis management. We are indeed, finally, settling down.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Keeping in Contact – The Essential Guide to Cheaper International Calling

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 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.

 

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 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…

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 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…