Welcome to the Gadling top 10 ways to make phone calls when you are abroad. This top 10 list will take a quick glance at 10 ways you can save on keeping in touch with people back home. It’s a well known fact that international calls are quite the racket, and making long calls back home can severely deplete your vacation spending money. Thankfully, technology has opened up all kinds of ways to save on your calls, and I’ll list the 10 that I think are the most important.
Your own phone
The most common way to make phone calls back home when you are abroad is of course to use your own phone with your own plan.
This is all fine and dandy if you only plan to call someone to let them know you arrived safely, but if you plan to keep in touch every time you see a cute giraffe walking down the street you’ll owe your mobile operator quite a lot of money once you arrive back home.
Before you start splurging on the newest technology, decide how often you plan to make a call, and compare the price of those calls with what you’d plan to spend on a nifty new way of making calls. If you only plan to make 20 minutes of calls back home ($20), then spending $50 on a new prepaid card may not be the best solution.
Prepaid mobile phone cards
When it comes to making cheaper mobile calls abroad, the prepaid SIM card is usually the first solution people think of. Prepaid SIM cards are more popular abroad than they are in the US, and you’ll usually be able to find a prepaid SIM card at any store, including kiosks at the airport.
A SIM card is the small chip you slide inside your phone to let your phone know who you are, and what your mobile number is. SIM cards are primarily used in the US by T-Mobile and AT&T (the GSM operators). Verizon and Sprint use a different system, but to make things complicated, they DO have some phones that are GSM compatible, and therefore use a SIM card.
One thing to keep in mind with any SIM card that takes the place of your regular SIM, is that your mobile phone has to be unlocked. You will need to contact your mobile operator to get your phone unlocked and not everyone will be eligible for a free unlock.
Before you consider using a prepaid sim card, it pays to research the rates of the different international operators. The differences in prices of calls back to the US can be staggering. A fantastic resource of all prepaid operators around the world is prepaidgsm.net. It may take 20 minutes to pick the cheapest mobile operator at your destination, but that time could easily save you $100.
For example; if you purchase a Vodafone prepaid sim card in the Netherlands, your standard rate for calls to the US is €0.75 per minute.If you purchased a KPN Mobile sim card, the rate is a whopping €1.45 per minute. With rates like that you’d be better off using your US phone instead.
Where? Anywhere prepaid mobile phone cards are sold
Price? “SIM Only” starter packs usually cost about $20, packs with a SIM card and a phone start around $40
Global roaming phone cards
Global roaming phone cards are not the same as prepaid phone cards – the technology behind them is the same, but these new cards are often issued out of countries with cheaper roaming rates, which allow you to carry the cheaper plan along with you, no matter where in the world you end up. One of the most popular cards on the market at the moment is the MAXroam sim card, offered by Cubic Telecom in Ireland (don’t worry, they’ll gladly ship to the US). The MAXroam sim card replaces the sim card in your current GSM based phone.
The rates on these cards are substantially lower than the rate offered by your own mobile operator. Per-minute rates from most European countries back home to the US are about $0.30.
Of course, you often can sometimes get even cheaper rates with a normal prepaid sim card, but the low rates on these global roaming cards means you won’t have to buy a new prepaid pack in every country you visit.
Another great advantage of these global phone cards is the ability to assign a normal US based number to them, which means you can give your friends and family an affordable way of contacting you when you are abroad, without them having to call an international number.
Where? Research global roaming cards at Prepaidgsm.net
Price? Starts at around $20
MagicJack is a tricky one; they offer a quality product, but cheapen the brand with horrible early morning infomercials and a never ending “buy within the next 4 hours” hard sell.
MagicJack is a $30 USB stick for your PC that provides unlimited local and long distance US calls. You will have to bring your laptop along with you if you want to make a call. Magicjack comes with a local US number, which means your friends and family won’t have to call a foreign number.
MagicJack also offers cheap international calls. I’ve been using MagicJack for some time now, and it’s never let me down. Of course, you will need to be connected to the Internet to get a dial tone. Calls can be made with a regular analogue phone, or by using a headset plugged into your PC.
Price? $39.99 (includes the MagicJack dongle and 1 year unlimited local and long distance phone calls)
Blackberry from T-Mobile
I’ve written about this option before, so I won’t go into too many details. The Blackberry Curve from T-Mobile (along with several other T-Mobile Blackberry smartphones with Wi-Fi) have the ability to roam onto Wi-Fi instead of a foreign mobile network. As long as you can get online, you’ll be able to make and receive phone calls. The advantage of this, is that as far as T-Mobile is concerned, you are “at home”, and will be able to take advantage of the local US rates or minutes included in your plan.
Of course, once you leave the Wi-Fi coverage, you are back on the expensive cellular network. T-Mobile is also the cheapest option for international data because they offer a $20 Blackberry flat-rate and unlimited plan for any email sent or received when abroad.
Where? T-Mobile.com or any T-Mobile authorized dealer
Price? From as little as free on a 2 year agreement + monthly service charges
Skype is one of the most popular Internet calling applications on the market. It provides free Skype-to-Skype calls, as well as fee based calls to landlines and mobile phones. Skype is available for your computer, as well as several brands of mobile phones, and even on portable devices like the Sony Playstation Portable.
To make a Skype call when you are abroad, you’ll of course need Internet access.
Price? Free Skype-to-Skype calls, $2.95/month for unlimited calls to US based phone numbers
Mobile phone add-on plan
Before you leave, be sure to call your mobile operator. You’ll want to do this for 2 reasons; first to make sure you are allowed to roam abroad, and second to ask whether
they have any international calling add-on plans.
These add-on plans don’t just apply to your regular mobile plan, many foreign prepaid cards also offer options to lower your per-minute rate for international calls. Using Vodafone in the Netherlands as an example again, their normal rate of €0.75 per minute for calls to the US can be lowered to just €0.30 by calling them and paying a one-time fee of about €10.
Where? Your mobile operator
Price? Starts at $5.95 (for example; the AT&T Wireless “World Traveler plan“)
Type, don’t talk
With roaming charges often as high as $4 per minute, it often makes more sense to send a written message instead of a spoken one. Many mobile operators offer add-on plans that add fairly large amounts of international data for as little as $20. Sure, an email may not be the most personal way of staying in touch, but at the end of the trip you’ll have a lot more money to spend on crap at the airport souvenir store than if you had made a bunch of phone calls.
Many mobile phones can be outfitted with instant messaging or Twitter clients that allow you to communicate in real time with anyone who has Internet access.
Just be sure to keep the data to a minimum as international data charges can be even more painful than phone call charges.
Where? Twitter.com or search for “mobile instant messaging client”
Price? From free
Picking the right roaming operator
When you arrive at your destination, your mobile phone picks the strongest signal it can pick up. This may not always be the cheapest provider. When your mobile operator negotiates prices with foreign operators, they won’t always get the same deal. A simple rule of thumb is to always try and stick with partners of your own operator, if you use T-Mobile in the US, pick T-Mobile in the UK and anywhere else you can find it.
Where? Check the international rates of your operator on their own web site.
Not making the call…
This one sounds pretty lame, I know. There is however some logic to it. Before you pick up the phone, always decide whether it’s really worth the money. Sometimes it makes more sense to just drop the folks back home an email. Just 15 years ago people survived fine without a mobile phone, and it can often be quite liberating to spend a week at the beach without the constant interruption of your Blackberry. I would not suggest leaving your mobile phone at home, as it always makes sense to have access in case of an emergency, but you do not need to keep your phone on 24/7.
One other tip to consider before leaving, is to turn off voicemail on your phone before you leave for your destination. If someone tries to call you abroad and reaches your voicemail box, you will actually pay the international rate for them to leave a message.
Do you have any other tips or ways you call the folks back home when you travel? I’d love to hear them, so please leave them in the comments!