How to make cheap-to-free phone calls

by David Spark on August 29, 2007

About two months ago I interviewed someone for about 45 minutes. Forty minutes into the call I realized the person was from Canada. I didn’t realize the 519 area code was in Canada. Uggh I thought, I’m going to get dinged on that. While I have unlimited U.S. calling, that’s not the case for international calls. And while Canada is a friendly neighbor, it’s not when it comes to my AT&T bill. Yesterday I got the bill and I got nailed for $60 just for that one call.

Listen to the Spark Minute (John Scott and David Spark from Green 960 in San Francisco, CA) talk about some of the cheap-to-free ways you can make phone calls using the Internet and your phone (Run time: 6:45).

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Usually I’m prepared. I conduct lots of interviews with people in Europe and Canada mostly. When I do those interviews I purposely use Skype Out. Skype is the most ubiquitous PC-based voice calling application that was purchased by eBay. Skype Out is the service they offer that allows you to call from your PC (using a microphone and headphones) to any phone. You purchase an account in Euros (minimum 10) and that can last you for quite a long time as phone calls are usually pennies per minute.

There are an endless number of options for making cheap to free phone calls. Almost all of them revolve around using your computer and the Internet. Too many of them require major hoops to jump through, like purchasing equipment, setting things up, or signing long term contracts. Here’s my top advice for making cheap-to-free phone calls. Tips on how to do it and what applications to use.

Get an unlimited plan with your cable or phone provider – Unless you rarely call out of your state, everyone should purchase the unlimited plan with their cable or phone provider. These are flat fees and they cost between $20-$40 a month and they allow for unlimited calling within the United States. Note, the dollar amount they advertise is not the amount that shows up on your bill. There are always extra fees. Be prepared to pay a little more than what they promote.

Up your mobile minutes – For those of you who don’t have a land line and have gone fully to the mobile phone, make sure you’ve got enough mobile minutes. Practically every carrier doesn’t charge extra for calls with the United States. They simply just deduct your total minutes. AT&T Wireless (Cingular) rolls your unused minutes to the next month. But don’t think you can up your account for a few months and then reduce it to the bare minimum and keep the minutes. They caught on quickly to that scam and they don’t allow it. Also, unused minutes expire after one year.

Your favorite instant messenger lets you make cheap-to-free phone calls – All the popular instant messenger (IM) programs (Yahoo! Instant Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Skype, and Windows Live Messenger) allow for voice chat as well. If you already have an unlimited plan with your land line phone provider or you have tons of minutes on your mobile phone, you’ll probably want to use them for U.S. based calls. Making a call on a real phone (mobile or landline) is always far more desirable than calling from your PC. To chat with your international friends, you’ll want to take advantage of voice calling on your IM platform.

PC-to-PC calls are free – All of the instant messenger programs allow for free PC-to-PC calling within the IM platform. So Yahoo! users can talk with other Yahoo! users and Skype users can talk with other Skype users. Calling through instant messenger is very valuable because you can see if someone is available for a voice chat by sending a text message. If available, initiate the call from a traditional phone or through the IP application. Make sure your microphone is on (hardware and software) and you’ve got headphones on. If you leave the speaker on it creates feedback for the person on the other end of the line.

PC-to-phone calls are not free – All of these applications have an option to call a land line or mobile phone from your PC. The costs are usually just pennies per minute, but if you’re going to be calling a specific location more than others, check the pricing for that location. Here are the international rates for Skype, Yahoo! Instant Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger (AOL Phoneline has unlimited international calling to select countries for $14.95/month), and Windows Live Messenger (click link below to pop up international rates).

If you don’t have a preference, use Skype – If you’re not intrinsically tied to any one particular instant messaging platform, I highly recommend you use Skype. It’s the most powerful PC-based tool for making calls and its Skype Pro and Skype To Go services allow for making calls with your mobile phone. Great for international travelers.

Call a land line over a mobile phone – Universally, all of these services have lower prices for calling a land line in a country versus calling a mobile phone in that same country. If you have the option, call a land line. Prices can sometimes be 1/4th that of calling a mobile phone.

Use Jajah for mobile to mobile calls – Another great service getting a lot of recognition is Jajah which uses your PC as a matchmaker to place calls between two phones. You type your number and the receiving party’s number into the Web interface. Jajah calls both phones and completes the call. You need to create an account for the service, but if you and your friend in Europe who you call a lot both have Jajah accounts, you can call each other for free.

Free conference calls – Yep, it’s possible with I have no idea how these guys make money. I think it’s from people upgrading to more advanced conference services. Regardless, you can schedule a phone conference with multiple people with a call in number. The only catch is it’s not a toll free number. It’s a number somewhere in the states. But since you can make cheap to free U.S. calls, who cares? Great service.

I hate the PC and the Internet. I only want to use my phone. – If you don’t want to deal with any of these Internet services, call your phone provider and ask about their international calling plan. Most of them have a deal where you pay about $5/month extra and you get access to their low international calling rates. While the prices are not as low as Skype and other Internet phone services, they are just a few pennies per minute to many international locations. It’s worth it so you won’t get dinged $60 for a 45 minute call to Canada.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

simon September 2, 2007 at 8:21 am

If you use skype, if you like Jajah, you’ll love

Kevin Shankland May 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm

I work for a telephone service compnay that offers a VOIP intenet phone. the company is ACN. Bit of a hassle bringing the phone all over, but if you need a phone and not a computer this works in any internet connected site. I previously was in South America, Ecuador and Peru. I plugged the VOIP (video phone) into a data jack that had internet connectivity. I was able to call anywhere in N.America for free and my 10 min call to Ecuador was 70 cents. I bring my phone anywhere.

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