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Making Phone Calls To and From Overseas

When traveling in the U.S. or Canada, most of you now rely on your regular wireless phones to keep in touch—a fact attested to by the banks of unused public phones and empty phone wall mounts you pass in most airports these days. But even if you have a wireless phone, it might not be the best answer for overseas travel. And if you don’t have a wireless phone, you obviously need some other way to keep in touch.

A reader posed the question tersely: “How to make calls outside of the United States?”

As in most such cases, no one answer fits all. Your choice depends on how you balance cost and convenience.

Why You Need a “Solution”

In a perfect world, you would be able to use hotel-room phone for your communications needs, both outgoing and incoming, at reasonable cost. The problem is that hotels worldwide—and especially in Europe—have zeroed in on outgoing calls as a cash cow, adding absurd surcharges to the already-stiff international rates that most local telecoms charge. A five-minute call home from a European hotel could easily cost $25-$50. Clearly, unless you plan on calling home for emergencies only, you need a less expensive alternative.

You can, however, focus mainly on outgoing calls. Although some hotels add a small charge for incoming calls, I haven’t heard of any real gouges on calls from the U.S. or Canada— yet.

Your Regular Wireless Phone—The Easiest Answer

All of Europe and many countries in other parts of the world use the GSM system for wireless phones, as do AT&T, T-Mobile, and some smaller U.S. wireless providers. So if your current wireless phone service is with a GSM system—and if your phone is a three- or quad-band model, as many newer phones are—you can use that phone in many places overseas. I recently published a column detailing the several variations on the “use your regular phone” theme—probably the best choice for most travelers. You can keep your regular phone number or buy one or more local or regional SIM cards, with new numbers. Check the column for details.

But Verizon, Sprint, Nextel, and many other domestic wireless companies employ a different technology that is used mainly in the U.S. and Canada. If you’re with one of these companies, you can’t generally use your own phone overseas. So if you want a wireless phone, you’ll have to buy or rent one for the duration of your trip. Sources include Telestial, SimphoneE, Planet Omni, and US Tronics. And add Go-Sim to my list of SIM card providers.

Whether you own or rent, a GSM phone provides full functionality and independence—you make calls, get calls, hear the ring (or vibration), send and receive text messages, voicemail, and such, totally independent of local telecoms, computers, or Wi-Fi hot spots.

If you keep your regular wireless number, both your incoming and outgoing calls are expensive, but people calling you use your regular home number. If you use a local phone or SIM card, incoming and outgoing calls are much less expensive, but people calling you must pay for international calls to the country in which your temporary number is registered.

Now, Vonager

The latest high-tech ways to get no-cost or very low-cost international calls are through the Internet. Vonage and similar companies provide fully-featured phone service using VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology. You typically pay around $25 a month for unlimited domestic and some outgoing international calls.

If you already have such a system, you can unplug the adapter box in your home, stuff it in your carryon bag, and plug it into any wired Internet connection—in your hotel room, an Internet cafe, or wherever—anywhere in the world. The Internet knows your number and it doesn’t care where you are. However, you also need a handset, which may or may not be available to you. You enjoy the same full service you get at home—outgoing, incoming calls, voicemail, the works. But you have to schlep the adapter and perhaps a small handset, and your home loses service while you have the adapter.

Whether you’re a Vonage customer or not, you can call Vonage customers back in the U.S. via local access numbers in Canada, France, Mexico, Spain, and the U.K. All you pay is for the local call to access the Vonage system. But you can call only to Vonage customers, and this approach doesn’t handle incoming calls.

You Can’t Beat “Free”

If you’re toting a laptop, Vonage, Skype, and similar services provide a wide variety of two-way overseas calling options that use VOIP through a computer. Calls to/from others signed onto the same system may be free, and calls to others usually cost 1 to 3 cents per minute, much less than regular phone rates. They all require use of a computer—either a laptop or one you can find in a hotel’s “business center” or other public area.

Disadvantages: These systems require a handset—typically, a small earplug-plus-mike device you plug into the computer—and they work only when you’re connected. You won’t receive any incoming calls when you’re not online.

You can buy a self-contained “phone” that connects to Skype in local hotspots without the need for a computer. With a Netgear SPH200W, for $160, or a Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype for $180, you can call from most overseas areas either free or at very low per-minute rates, as long as you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot. Presumably, such a phone could be a good buy for a frequent traveler, but an occasional vacation traveler might find the price tag a bit stiff. Moreover, those phones won’t work in hotel rooms without Wi-Fi.

Ditch the Hardware

The easiest low-tech approach is to use a calling card. Calling cards work overseas the same way as cards you use here. In most countries, you dial a local or toll-free number to access to the card’s long-haul service, enter a PIN, and enter the number you want to call. Some overseas cards bill you for calls you make, through a credit card; others require prepayment of a “stored value” and deduct the cost of each call from the remaining stored value in your account. You can usually add additional value through your credit card if you need it, but you lose whatever value remains in the card when it expires.

When I last checked, the lowest international-to-US rates I found for phone cards sold in the US were around 3 cents a minute, from companies that route calls through VOIP systems. Next best were local-company calling cards sold through convenience outlets in most important overseas destination countries, with rates ranging from 5 cents to 10 cents a minute. Costs were similar for subscription calling cards such as Ekit, Nobelcom, and Pin City. Those highly promoted “call home” card services from major US phone companies were generally the most expensive: AT&T’s USA Direct program, for example, currently charges 89 cents for a connection plus 99 cents a minute.

Callback services are a near relative of calling cards. You place a very short call to a U.S. number—maybe even hang up after a couple of rings—where an automatic system accepts your call, detects the number, and calls you back immediately with a U.S. dial tone for connections. You pay either nothing (if you can hang up) or the minimum charge for the outgoing call, and the call you make is at a very low rate. Some callback operators claim to be able to process their return calls through hotel switchboards—I haven’t heard any reports, pro or con, from readers—but my take is that callback is most useful if you’re staying in a vacation rental and have the same local number for a week or two.

With a calling card or callback, you may face the added costs of access calls. Even if the access line is toll-free, hotels can still add a charge up to $2 for any call you make from your room phone. And pay phones may require a coin deposit up to $1, which you may or may not get back. As with several other approaches, calling cards and callbacks apply strictly to outgoing cards. Presumably, callers interesting in calling you can call you at your hotel or vacation rental.

For More Information

The best overall source of information on international calling remains Travel Insider. And the Escape Artist site displays an extensive list of international phone programs.

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