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How to make cheap-to-free mobile calls internationally

on March 22, 2011

There are so many different services that provide alternative ways to make international phone calls via your mobile phone. They all cost less than the “international” plan your mobile provider offers which is usually at least $1/minute.

If you use the services recommended here, international calls will probably be at most $.29/minute and probably a lot less. If you’re going to Europe, mobile phone costs will be as little as $.02 a minute to even free.

Before you choose a service

  • Make sure you have a phone with the right network chip (GSM or CDMA) for where you’ll be traveling. In general, Asia uses CDMA and Europe uses GSM. Although, you’ll be pretty safe with GSM for international travel. It’s pretty much available in all developed nations. Here in the U.S., Sprint and Verizon use CDMA and AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM.
  • If you’re going to swap SIM cards in your phone with an international carrier, you’ll need an unlocked phone. If you purchased your phone from a carrier, contact or check their website for steps on how to do this. AT&T nor Verizon will help you unlock your iPhone, you’ll need to hack it or pay for software to do it.
  • Either unlock your phone, or purchase a cheap phone with the appropriate chip to where you’re traveling. Unless you’ll be constantly traveling internationally, don’t buy an expensive “worldphone” which has both kinds of chips and is usually larger.
  • Don’t buy your SIM card beforehand. Purchase your SIM card, plus pre-paid minutes, when you arrive at your destination.
  • In except one case, all these services require you to prepay minutes, at least $5-$10. That’s often more than enough for a simple vacation.

Here are some recommended services. I’ve included the pros and cons of each.

Google Voice – Great to make international calls if you’re in the U.S.

  • You can port your mobile number over to Google Voice to take advantage of all the features such as integration of multiple phone numbers, speech-to-text transcription of voicemails, and free conference calling on top of cheap international calls. Most providers charge $20 to port over, but Sprint is making it a lot easier by offering porting for free. In fact, if you port over to Google Voice, all your international calls on Sprint will go through Google Voice.
  • You can make calls through the website or through any mobile phone (even if it isn’t Internet-enabled). Or, if you have an Android-powered phone, and you have the Google App installed, you can make calls directly from the phone’s native dialer.
  • You can’t get an international number or forward calls to an international number.

Jajah – Great for calling family internationally

  • To use, you must register for the service. Here’s the process. Enter the phone numbers you want to call, and you’ll get a local number to add to your phone. You’ll use that number to dial your friend. If the person you’re calling becomes a Jajah member as well, depending on where they are, you can talk to each other for free. Check the rates sheet to see where you can call your friends for free.
  • If you’re traveling, and switch SIMs, you’ll need to update your list of numbers with all new local numbers.

Skype To Go – If you’re going to be on your phone all the time

  • Similar setup to Jajah, but they also have a flat fee subscription that ranges from $8-$20/month for unlimited calling depending on where you’re calling.

Truphone – Great for traveling and calling locally or staying connected back home

  • Call locally where you’re at, plus call cheap to international calls. Give your family and friends a local U.S. number (works with Google Voice) to call while you’re traveling. No matter what international SIM card you have, people will still be able to reach you via the U.S. number. Plus, those calling you in the international location can use that local SIM number.
  • Doesn’t use your local pre-paid minutes if you’re calling within a Wi-Fi hotspot.
  • Has an unlimited plan for $12.95/month, but extremely limited locations for calling mobile phones.
  • Must install the Truphone app on your phone. Must have an Internet-enabled phone. Not available for all phones.
  • Having app constantly running can drain battery. Bring an extra battery.

Mobile Globe – Contract-free calling

If you don’t want to make a commitment to any one provider, Mobile Globe offers a call back service where you just SMS the number you want to call and you get a call back connecting you with the other party.

Final Tips:

  • Plan ahead.
  • Except in the U.S., you almost always pay a different price for calling a landline vs. a mobile phone. If you have the option, call a landline phone. It’s always cheaper.
  • If and when you purchase a local SIM, especially in a country where you don’t speak the language, ask the attendant at the store you purchased the SIM to set up the phone for you and add additional minutes. It will be impossible to follow the voice menus if you don’t speak the language. Give the salesperson a nice tip as a thank you.
  • You can check the prices, but in general they’ll all be the same. What you’re ultimately looking for is the service that provides the best convenience for where you’re traveling.
  • You don’t have to settle on just one. You can actually use a combination of these services.

I know this isn’t all the services, so if there’s one you really like a lot more, please let me know.

Stock photo images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • http://twitter.com/hsn_mhd Syed Hasan Mahmood

    For iPhone users I think Skype would be a great option.

    http://www.mobeezo.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=727271048 Hadara Alook

    thanks for the great review! JAJAH now has a mobile App for Android and iPhone. The app will load your contacts so you simply click to call. Android users dont even have to open the app to use it! First call is free as always. Check it out http://platform.jajah.com/mobi

  • yoannvalensi

    Hello,

    Thanks David for the post. I am the product manager of MobileGlobe and wanted to add a precision. MobileGlobe also has an app which is totally seamless on BlackBerry, Android and iPhone. It works for international call from your country (very similar to google Voice but no need of a Google number).

    And it works in roaming the way you are describing. But the user does not have to send an SMSif he has a smartphone, it is done seamlesly by the app (not even need to open the app).

    The SMS feature is mostly used by people who have regular devices

  • Luke

    A few words of advice about pre-paid sim cards, which I agree are the way to go pretty much anywhere in the world. First, it means your phone number will change, which can be a pain if people are trying to reach you (Google Voice can help there, at least to receive speech-to-text voicemails on your computer, FYI the text may not always resemble the speech?). One option is to have an old phone for the local sim card. Another reason besides language barrier to have someone at a phone/network operator shop set up your sim card is to make sure you are on the lowest price voice tariff plan (the standard ones can be a rip-off), and to make sure that any other services you want to sign up for (data plan for your voice sim, or a data sim for a USB dongle modem) activate correctly. More than once I have loaded money onto a sim card for data, had someone tell that a flat rate plan was activated, only to find out after leaving the store that it either wasn't working, or that I was being charged a very high per megabyte charge that burned through my credit very fast.

  • http://www.sparkminute.com/ David Spark

    Good tip, but I will tell you the great thing about Truphone is that it will keep your Truphone number (which is local to wherever you live) no matter what SIM card is in the phone. So you can give people one number back home, and keep switching SIM cards.

  • Evelyn Sorenson

    Hi there! I would like to add also that in choosing a perfect prepaid card, i must say that they should consider a friend advice or even look for some reviews that could help you.

    Evelyn Sorenson,
    International Prepaid Phone Card
    VoxCall

  • anon

    use any cheap SIP service in combination with Android + csipsimple.

  • http://www.rent-rooms.com.au cheap rooms to rent

    Hi, 

    Guys your article really very helpful for making cheap-to-free mobile calls internationally.

    Thanks guys.

  • http://www.unlockiphonezone.com/ unlock iphone

    The software like skype are the best especially for the iphone user who have stable GPRS access. I talk to my cousin regularly on iphone. otherwise before that i need to sit on computer and wait for hours and hours.

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