Save Money Calling Home From Overseas

By now, most of you have settled on your wireless phone as the best way to keep in touch with family, work and others at home while you're traveling around the U.S., Canada or nearby areas. Your phone works everywhere, and rates are reasonable. Overseas, however, you face significantly higher prices unless you make special arrangements. A reader recently asked:

"Is there anything new in calling home from overseas?"

The short answer is yes. Here's my latest update. Because it's the most important remote overseas destination, I focus on Europe, but the same principles apply to Asia, Africa or the South Pacific.

Why Not Just Call From Your Hotel?

Unless you haven't ever visited Europe, you already know the answer: Hotels there routinely gouge you for making international calls from your room phone. The last time I ran a test—several years ago—a three-minute call home from a London hotel room cost more than $15, and I suspect that's more now. Many hotels even charge for incoming international calls, and my experience has been that the more upscale the hotel, the bigger the gouge.

Obviously, sensible travelers don't use hotel room phones. And fortunately, you have lots of options to avoid the gouge.

VOIP—Cheap but Limited

Making international VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) calls with MagicJack, Skype, or a similar system is the cheapest way you can call from just about anywhere to just about anywhere else. The Internet doesn't care where you are; anyone you can call at no charge from home, you can also call at no charge from overseas. Specifically, you can use Skype or MagicJack whenever you have access to an online computer, either through a hotel's business center or at a Wi-Fi hotspot with your own laptop or notebook computer. And you can receive calls on the same basis. These VOIP systems, however, are more limited than conventional wire-based systems:

  • You need to take some sort of handset or headset with you.

  • Both you and the person you're calling have to be online to complete a call.

  • You may have to pay an extra fee to use a Wi-Fi hotspot.

  • With Skype, you have to pay extra to reach landline numbers, and you can't reach them at all with MagicJack. Verizon has recently cut a deal to use Skype with Verizon phones, but for calls originating overseas, local roaming rates apply.

Local SIM Cards

Installing local SIM cards for your regular GSM wireless phone has been the No. 1 recommendation for low-cost international calls for several years. It's still very inexpensive, and considerably more flexible than any VOIP system:

  • If your itinerary confines you to just one country, a SIM card for that country may offer the very lowest cost. In most of the world, you pay nothing at all for incoming calls or text messages, and your outgoing rates back to the U.S. can be as low as 8 cents a minute from the U.K., 30 cents a minute from France and 40 cents a minute from Germany. Intra-country rates are also low, but calls to other European countries are charged at higher "roaming" rates.

  • For a multi-country itinerary, you might be better off with one card that covers all or most of Europe. On some cards, rates are as low as 35 cents for the connection plus 50 cents a minute.

Each local SIM card has its own local number. People calling you from home pay the international rate, but most U.S. phone systems now offer reasonably low international calling rates.

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