As a traveler, it becomes necessary to communicate with your loved ones (and perhaps your not-so-loved ones, like your boss) from abroad. If you take your phone with you, you probably want to refrain from using it to call home, as the charges you incur can add up to a small fortune quickly.
How can I make cheap or free calls home from abroad?
As mobile technology improves each and every day, we now have numerous options for contacting others while abroad. And as there are so many options available, prices for using these services are very cheap, or even free, in some cases.
So, here’s how to call home when traveling internationally:
Get a Local SIM Card
My favorite option, and the first one I recommend if you will be out of your home country for more than a few days, is to buy and install a local SIM card in your phone.
A SIM card is what GSM phones (the majority) use to attach subscriber data to the phone, such as a phone number; it makes each phone unique and distinguishable to the phone company.
Most phones will be GSM, but some are not, such as if you use older Verizon Wireless service in the United States. Once you check to see that you already have a GSM phone, you need to determine whether the card is unlocked. Carriers (the wireless company) often lock the phone so that only their SIM will work in the phone; once you unlock it, it should be able to accept a SIM card from any other carrier.
Once you know that you do have a GSM phone and that its SIM card slot is unlocked, you will be able to buy and use a SIM card from a mobile carrier while you’re abroad. You can spend relatively little money to get minutes to use during your travels.
An added benefit is that you obtain a local number, allowing you to make local calls in your destination country for really cheap, and have a phone to use while there. However, calls back home are still not cheap, since it will be an international call, but they should still be cheaper than calling with your normal plan while roaming.
Also, most international carriers allow incoming calls for free, so you can have your friends and family back home call you instead, costing you nothing. Make sure to unlock your phone before you travel!
Skype & Video Calling Over the Internet
Skype is the most popular of the video-calling services that can connect you to another registered user over the internet. For all of the most important and basic features, Skype is free, allowing you to reach your loved ones from your phone (if you have a smartphone with the application installed) or computer.
All you need to have other than that is an internet connection, and it should be easy to find free Wi-Fi, as well. Skype also allows you to make calls to telephone numbers for a relatively low rate, and you can also use your smartphone application or computer to do so.
While Skype is the most popular, there has been a huge influx of video-calling companies to add to the field over the past few years. Facetime is an Apple proprietary application that allows iPhone and Mac users to video chat with others over an internet connection for free (must download app first, $0.99).
Google offers Google Talk, which allows subscribers to chat over the internet from computer to computer for free, as long as both parties have the plugin installed. They also offer Google Hangouts, which allows up to 9 people to video chat at the same time for free.
Google Voice / Gmail Calling
Google offers a feature called Google Voice (different than Google Talk, mentioned above), which allows users to make phone calls from their Gmail account. Once you have a Gmail account, simply sign up for the Voice service, and use it to call telephones in any country in the world for a very competitive price.
As a bonus for travelers who are originating from Canada and the United States, calling home is free from the Gmail account. If you have an iPhone or Android, you can also download the Google Voice app to make the same calls from your mobile, as long as you have service.
Almost all of us have Facebook, so why not use the popular Messenger platform to make calls? Calls on Facebook Messenger are free from profile to profile. The call quality is decent, though there’s an annoying survey question at the end of each call asking about call quality.
Use Dedicated Devices
If you have access to a landline phone or internet modem while abroad, companies such as MagicJack and Vonage provide devices that simply plug into either a phone jack or internet modem/router to provide you with VoIP calling (Voice over Internet Protocol).
If you sign up for these services from your home, you can get a local number from your origin, allowing your people back home to call you wherever you are for free, basically. The only downside is that you’ll need to be in your hotel room to use this kind of service, since it physically requires a connection with a phone jack or modem.
A cheap, albeit annoying, option is to buy a calling card to call back home. People all over still use this option to call internationally. Calling cards are readily available in most countries; you should be able to find them in groceries, gas stations, convenience stores, and elsewhere.
You can compare the rates of all the cards that are available to find you the cheapest ones to call your intended country. The downside of calling cards is that it is quite a hassle to dial all the numbers and codes to finally reach the party, but it works.
Consider Chat Applications, Instead
Though you may want to have the comfort of hearing your loved ones’ voices in realtime, you could also opt for using one of the many chat applications available. These applications run on most smartphones and most are free to use, and they utilize an internet connection to work.
Whatsapp is currently my favorite, and as long as I have an internet connection, I can text all my friends and family who also have the Whatsapp application installed (most of mine do). And besides texting each other, we can send our location, voice memos, videos, photos, and even files, all from phone to phone.
Viber is a similar service, available on many mobile platforms, that additionally offers voice calling to other Viber users.
All these options are great, but since information is being sent and received over the air or online, precautions are needed to stay safe.
To ensure you’re browsing safely on your trip and avoiding identity theft, check out our guide on online safety while traveling.