Best Solutions for International Phone Calls While Traveling Abroad

International phone calls: I’ve been searching for a new international calling solution. My old throwaway cell phone died. My old favorite SIM card that was useful in several countries seems to be giving me fits. While I’m perfectly happy making calls via Skype (and that’s still the cheapest way to call out, less than 3 cents a minute to the US), my wife is less than happy with the call quality. Plus it’s not a great solution when you’re out and about without internet, or for people who want to call you who aren’t themselves going to be online when doing so. So it’s not enough.

Backing up a little bit here, I Skype all the time — for work or to make calls when abroad. I don’t mind it at all, and I always travel with a laptop. I’m currently traveling with my Samsung Series 9 which is as thin as a legal pad and not much heavier, but powerful enough to be my every day computer. The only thing I don’t really like about it is the track pad, but I’m getting used to it.

Years ago I used to have about the most complicated international calling regimen possible. I had an old cell phone which I unlocked (I got the unlock code from my service providers). It was tri band, meaning it worked on several frequencies and thus several networks and in several countries. So I had no problem throwing a local SIM card into the phone and going from there.

The cheapest way to make and receive calls is almost always going to be a local SIM card. Going to Hong Kong? Buy a Hong Kong chip for your phone. Going to Singapore? Buy one there. But that can be a pretty inefficient strategy if you’re only going to be somewhere for a few days and not regularly, if you’re going to strand money on the card, the cards themselves often cost money and may expire from inactivity. Plus – and though I have a neat little case for my SIM cards (they make ’em for flash memory cards but they work just as well to hold SIM cards), they can be easily lost too. They’re small!

So it’s much easier to have a single SIM card that is going to provide reasonably priced calling options most anywhere you travel. My own ‘regular’ blackberry service is from AT&T and while they charge about $3 a minute internationally, even with their ‘international’ plans that you pay extra for they’re usually still over $2 a minute. Ouch.

I used to use a SIM card from a company called 09 Mobile, they were out of Iceland and when that country’s financial system collapsed they disappeared. But they were great because you had free incoming calls in more countries than I had ever seen anyone offer.

And I could leverage that to make outgoing calls as well. I used a company called CallBackWorld. I would dial them, they would dial me back and then call a number for me. I was always getting an incoming call wherever I was in the world, even when I was calling out.

And CallBackWorld charged me less than 9 cents a minute to call an Iceland phone number, which is what I was using. So anywhere that had free incoming calls, I paid 9 cents a minute for outgoing calls.

But the really complicated thing about it was the double call back. Most international SIM cards work on a callback basis already. They provide cheap service by treating everything as incoming to begin with, you dial out, hang up, they call you back and connect you to the number.

Here I was actually dialing out, getting connected, calling out, getting connected. It was a double callback. But boy was it cheap, less than 9 cents a minute throughout half the world to be making calls from my cell phone. That was worth it to me.

With 09 mobile no longer effective, I gave up on CallBackWorld. I used an eKit SIM card for awhile, but that gave me a UK phone number and Callbackworld wanted about 44 cents a minute to call me. So I would double callback and still be paying almost 50 cents a minute. Not worth it. I would often just pay the same 50 cents with a single callback using that eKit SIM. The one upside, though, was that eKit gave me a US number as well to use for free.

I was fiddling around over the weekend and had a look at OneSimCard. What I especially liked about them — most of these offerings have free incoming calls in Europe, but are usually very expensive in Asia and I travel to Asia, several countries, at least a couple of times a year. Free incoming calls in Hong Kong. Cheap incoming and outgoing in Thailand. “It’ll work” in Singapore and the Maldives.

And the pricing isn’t crazy, $30 to get started or $45 if you want reasonable calling options for Canada too. I do, since I occasionally find myself up in Toronto especially, so I plunked down the dollars and they sent me the card. Testing it out so far works well.

Here’s the cheap old Motorolla quad band phone I’m using, it’s 5 year old technology but small/portable and gets the job done on most any network, along with the OneSimCard solution.

They send you an Estonian sim card. Now, those Icelandic cards were ‘da bomb’. But Estonian cards have always offered cheap calling solutions. There are networks which don’t like them. CallBackWorld won’t even dial them.

For an extra $20 a year (ouch) they’ll give you a US number. And someone calling your US number adds 20 cents a minute to the call. But you’ve got to have one of those, at least the way I use the phone. Because I’m giving the phone number to my wife’s parents, to my dog’s boarding place. It’s not the cost of the international calls I’m worried about, it’s that international dialing confuses the uninitiated.

But truth be told, they had me at “free incoming calls in Hong Kong.”

Their website is functional, you can set the SIM card to auto-reload or can be reloaded manually, you can check your voicemail online for free instead of calling in. So far I’m happy. And I’m happy to try out a new calling solution.

The basics:

  • Calling internationally with your US based cell phone is expensive.

  • The cheapest, and to me best, option is just to call out using Skype.

  • But when Skype isn’t an option — not online, near a computer, etc. or for people who would call you without Skype, you want an unlocked cell phone that works on various international frequencies (eg. “quad band”).

  • And you want to stick in either a local SIM card which you’ll need to load up with money, or a SIM card which offers you rates which aren’t as good as a different SIM for each country but that are good enough that you don’t bother getting a different one for each country.
  • For now, I’ll play with my Estonian SIM card from OneSimCard.com and my Motorolla Pebl U6. Should be good enough.

    How do you handle international calling on the road? Satellite phone? Local SIM cards? A favorite international SIM? Or does your ‘normal’ cell phone provider offer decent enough rates to use them while abroad?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Connect a pair of Mic headphones which are cheap to an ipod touch, iphone, or ipad and download skype. Connect to wifi and for a really cheap price you can call anyone in the U.S you want. Buy a Blackberry worldphone as your US cellphone and buy a Sim card when you travel.

  2. My head is spinning…Thank goodness for Skype and the fact that I prefer NOT to be called when out of the country!

  3. I’ve been using a company called searoam.com for the past 2-3 years. It was great pricing, global access, then the pricing changed, now the pricing is pretty much back to or better than it was. GREAT for Europe, not so great for asia. Cards include data roaming for about 1$ a MB in most places. I don’t think it is FREE incoming but it is about .05$ a minute incoming. One can also setup a USA DID for people to call you, it runs about 12$ a month to rent the number but then you’re only paying the .05$ incoming in places like all over europe. Great card to have, numbers are now +44 mobile

  4. I still think local SIMs are the way to go, even if you’re only staying in a place for a few days. It’s usually cheaper, and data is usually much more affordable as well. And with WhatsApp, I find that data is all I need to keep in touch.

    And if you’re worried about being reachable by voice, get a number from voip.ms and forward it to your local number(s), with voicemail being sent to your email in case you’re not reachable.

  5. I typically use Skype on my iPhone with Pingo (calling card) – works out to be a bit cheaper than Skype direct and you avoid the connection charges that Skype has. But I use Pingo almost every day anyway for making international calls from the US, so perhaps that is why its so easy for me.

    Outside of that, its the local sims as you mentioned for stays longer than 3-4 days. For brief 2-3 days, I find it cheap enough to just roam on my US cell.

  6. ive been using ekit for years. Google voice calls to the uk mobile number run 10 cents per min. I try to never call out, or if i do, i either call and hang up and the person calls me back, or i initiate the call on jajah.

  7. My head fell off!

    Way too complicated.

    I’m in France in October for five days — what’s the best solution for an iPhone on AT&T? Right now, I’m just going to be AIRPLANE MODE and use Skype.

    Anyone have a solution that is not as complicated as Gary’s Rube Goldberg solution?

  8. Unfortunately, no one has done a cheap data solution, and I am still stuck buying prepaid SIMS in most every country I travel to, since I need significant data. It would seem to be a great business plan to offer $100 for 1-5GB data to a bunch of counties with a decent VoIP client for voice…

  9. the best phone plan is Google Voice IMO. with a little twist, you can get unlimited incoming and outgoing minutes, a US phone number and free text as long as you have wifi worldwide. You don’t even need your laptop. You can then buy a cheap calling card to make cheap international calls. No need to buy another unlocked phone

  10. I like the idea of having one SIM card, but my usual option is to buy the local type SIM cards. Sure, these may expire, but they can usually be bought for like £5. A favourite of mine is Lebara: http://www.lebara.com

    For example, .15 AUD for a fixed or mobile AU call and .05 to fixed or mobile line in the USA!

    Finally, the main potential discrepancy with SIM cards seems to be higher rates to call mobile numbers, so check these with each provider.

  11. Hey Gary I am in that land right now and came across an app for iPhone, touch, or iPad called Whistle. It assigns you a number and you can make and receive free calls to and from the US over wifi. Again there is the limitation of wifi, but it is free whereas I believe Skype charges you. Also, you can purchase credits on whistle I think for .99 and make international calls for cheap, I believe Thailand was .03 a minute. But if you are calling back to the US this app is great and FREE to use for calls home!

  12. I use Skype a lot. I find that the voice quality is usually better than a cell phone, even in remote places.
    I have skype on my iphone and ipad – both work well but consume a lot of battery.
    If i stay longer in one place i usually also buy a local SIM. In most countries the rates for data are reasonable. I then use Skype with the local sim to call to other countries.
    I also have a SIP client on my notebook which is connected (via vpn – use openvpn and not the microsoft vpn since many hotels block this) to our Asterisk phone system.

  13. My US carrier is T-Mobile, and they offer a great option for US calls while traveling, provided your phone is WiFi capable. For some reason this comes as a great surprise to many people. They offer WiFi calls via their own servers, so as long as there is wifi (in your hotel or local coffee shop) you can make and receive calls as if you are in the US. They used to deduct minutes from your regular plan, and I heard they even stopped doing that (I never use all my minutes so don’t care).

    For my current trip I got an Orange SIM in the UK with 10 pounds credit (the SIM itself is free). Regular rates are decent, and you can buy “extras” with the credit, which are basically blocks of minutes, or blocks of MBs, this makes local calls and data very cheap. I used 5 pounds of the credit to buy 100 UK minutes (good for one month). And then I used the same SIM to roam in Spain. Again, bought an “extra” – the other 5 pounds bought me 30 minutes of roaming in western europe.

  14. Sprint has a great Canada roaming option for calls. Keep your usa cell and number, and use it like you normaly would. All your contacts transfer over. I don’t have the exact cost details but it was about 20c/minute which is the same cost as the local sim cards.

  15. For years now I’ve been using a prepaid dial-around card called Peanuts Long Distance. They’re not in every country, but in many and they have either 800 numbers, local numbers or both in most major cities. They also have cheap rates for dialing overseas from the US. Even when I buy a SIM card, it’s nice to know they’re there for back-up. Never had any trouble with using them, either.

  16. This is a great post, but I’m confused about pricing. You said the eKit SIM ended up costing 50c/min with the callback. How much does your new approach cost in total for Canada? I haven’t been able to buy a local SIM card for Canada.

  17. Skype is the way to go with Microsoft now improving the system. I don’t trust Google at all because they’ll record your personal use and then claim they don’t (they have already been caught doing so).

    Now Japan…that’s the challenge when using a cell-phone. In the past, I could just use a Japanese pre-paid cellphone and call to the US as if it were a Japanese local-call through KDDI. But when a law was passed claiming that [foreigners] were not allowed to be sold a Japanese pre-paid cell-phone without a sponsor in charge….well, time to find a [sponsor].

    It is funny watching people arrive at Narita airport with iPhone’s, and then having no Internet access. Softbank is the carrier for Japan.

    ED

  18. My most frequent destination is Japan, probably the most difficult first-world location to make affordable calls with a foreign phone (not to mention data). My solution as of late has been to bite the bullet and buy the AT&T data roaming plan (iPhone user). A few things I’ve learned (both positive and negative):

    1. AT&T int’l data plans are EXPENSIVE, but the one saving grace is they allow you to start and stop the plan mid-billing cycle and pay the applicable pro-rata amount. What this means is if you are going abroad for a week, you can call and tell AT&T to have an int’l plan commence on your departure date and cease on your arrival date in the U.S., and only pay 1/4 the monthly fee, but still have access to the full data cap of whatever plan you pay for (e.g. for one week’s worth of a 250MB/mo. plan you would pay 1/4 the monthly fee, but have 250MB of data usage available during your week abroad. This is an especially useful hack for people in the one int’l trip per month or fewer camp, like me (it gets complicated if you are starting and stopping the plan more than once a month). I recently paid ~$12 USD for one week’s worth of my liberal but not extreme level of iPhone usage in Japan. Skype over 3G works decently well (exception: see #2 below) enough to make calls. Pretty good deal if you ask me.

    2. iPhone users roaming in Japan be warned: your battery life will be 1/2 to 1/3 of what you are used to in the U.S. You will also notice your phone will lose signal very easily (while Japanese iPhones in the same location will not), and will generally be warmer to the touch. I’m guessing all three of these phenomena are related, but I’m not sure of the technical details.

  19. Gary, do you have a phone with built in GPS that does NOT require an internet connection? The best option I can recommend for you is to go Euro and acquire a higher end unlocked Nokia phone via online purchase like the Nokia E7 or Nokia N8. I highly recommend Amazon which offers a 30 day return policy from delivery date of the phone. Nokia phones often have an excellent camera for both photos and videos, but their maps are truly an awesome feature.

    Nokia’s Ovi maps which allows you to download and store maps either on the phone’s hard drive or micro sd card. Then you can access your maps and places while traveling for free. It will even offer you both drive and walking navigation. Ovi maps is offered in almost all the countries in the world. except for Israel, Japan, and Korea.

    Just make certain that you set your positioning to offline mode, so the phone does NOT access data packets and charge your SIM. Here is a link to amazon’s Nokia E7 page. http://tinyurl.com/3zlquha

  20. I used to Skype all the time but the call quality was giving me fits. That’s when I heard about OperatorOne.eu which is a fantastic solution. Been using it ever since from everywhere I travel. Call quality is always top notch since its basically a normal phone call. To top it off, it gives me SAS EuroBonus miles 😛

  21. @Chas, not to call this out, but I have never heard this about the AT&T international billing plans. The amount has always been pro-rated as has the usage allowed. Were this the actual case it would be all over the howard forums and other at*t or cell phone forums. It is the same as a calling or texting plan. If you book it for a month, but pro-rate for a week, they don’t give you the full amount 1000 minutes, or 1000 texts for just the week. ?

  22. I am using a mifi from tepwireless to provide unlimited data during my trip to Italy. For only about $5/day. I keep the mifi in my pocket and can use my iphone and blackberry in wifi mode all day. Free phone calls can be made using skype. They are based in the UK but deliver the device to your home before you depart.

  23. I spend 4-5 weeks in EU over the course of a year. I have a quad band blackberry so I can get email and my wife can call me any time.

    I also bought a “just a phone” at a GSM store in .NL and get SIMs wherever I land (there’s often a vending machine at the airport. The sims are labeled for local or EU or US or however they manipulate the pricing.) I use, fill if needed and then save in case I get sent back to the same country before the time expires. I use the phone for local calls (taxi, etc) and to call home, unless the hotel has enough bndwidth to support skype.

    Seems complicated, but it actually works out to be pretty simple for me.

  24. @tivoboy
    This is indeed how it works. I was surprised myself when the CSA first told me, but after confirming it with multiple CSAs, I gave it a shot. It has worked in this fashion for at least my past 5 trips now. I suggest calling AT&T rather than reading forums if you are curious.

  25. We use yahoo! voice when abroad. We just connect to the Yahoo! Messenger and make phone calls from there…its like 3 cents a min and the clarity is pretty good. Caveat of course is..u need an internet connection–but not a problem in Turkiye, Malaysia, or even Dubai, where they are notorious for blocking VOIP ports.

  26. I have an unlocked phone and SIM cards for every country I visit.
    I also carry around a MagicJack for Canada and the USA.
    Keep a Vonage line as well.
    I am sure better tech will come a long.
    I did get good value from the MagicJack as I was always
    calling the US and Canada.

  27. @chas. In point of fact, I did call AT&T yesterday and requested the same thing. (this was the business at&t since this is where our accounts are) It was pretty clear from talking with them, that If I only enabled the international data plan for a week, I would indeed be charged only a pro-rated fee and would be entitled to only a pro-rated amount of data use. I’d be very concerned to hope that it wouldn’t work out the way that they describe. As for forums i’ll say, the hofo forums are quite detailed and inaccurate or false information will quickly be clarified and cleared up. If you are able to get the whole package while paying for only a partial rate – they good on ya.

  28. I have used rebelfone.com for recent trip to the middle east. Worked well and you basically rent a SIM CARD for whatever country you are in

  29. if you have an android phone, using google voice and groove ip is the way to go.
    on your laptop you can use google voice (i have found the call quality better than skype even in hotels)
    you can use a vonage device or magic jack and call the device using the USA number or call out.
    these are just a couple things off the top of my head.

  30. I am so behind the curve on this. I just use Skype on the laptop, Rebtel on my cellphone in the US to call overseas for less, and buy local SIM cards when I travel.

    Reading your post and the comments has given me lots of new ideas!

  31. 1. If you have WiFi access, T Mobile offers free WiFi calling/txting with most plans. So as long as you have WiFi access you can make calls to and from the US with out a cost. Best part it uses your everyday phone number. Right now WiFi calling only works on the newest Android phones or phones that have been rooted.
    2. Before WiFi calling I used Google voice to make calls back to the US. Setting up Google voice to work over WiFi and/or local 3G was a pain the first time I did it but once set up it worked amazing.
    3. To make local call while over seas I just grab a cheap SIM and if I can find a good deal one that comes with 3G.

  32. I’m still grandfathered under the old $65 unlimited iphone data for US/International (in place of the $30 unlimited data plan). Since I’m in switzerland a bunch I got a Lebara sim and it’s 0.09 CHF/min for US calls (plus a call setup charge).

    Also an alternative to Skype is Textfree which gets you an incoming VOIP number for free (unlike Skype).

    Whatever you do you’re probably best getting Google Voice for the number you give out in case you change plans (and get a different US number). I’m hoping google will allow forwarding to international numbers at some point.

  33. No need to pay for a US number when you can use Google Voice. Simply set it up to transcribe messages, and you’ll get an email message immediately every time someone leaves a voicemail. Heck, you get an email even for missed calls. You can then dial them back at your convenience using skype (or not at all if it’s a robocall). As for family calls, I personally prefer facetime, I love to see Mrs. B and the kids, and the quality is usually very good. If my hotel doesn’t have in-room wifi I simply set up my own network by plugging the ethernet cable into my apple express. The bigger problem for me is the time differential from California to Europe or Australia.

  34. My son is in New Zealand for 6 months and is Skyping using is ipod touch. However, internet is $1 per minute. Is there a cheaper way?

  35. Am moving to Barbados and wish to keep my Canadian cell phone number. Was thinking of porting my number to VoIP.ms. Not familiar with these things. How would I go about receiving and making calls with my cell phone afterwards? I was hoping to not buy a new phone, simply get mine unlocked (iPhone) – assuming it is locked – and buy a local sim card and/or get a contract with a local service provider (with a local number and the ability to use VoIP). Any pearls of wisdom, please? Thank you in advance.

  36. I will be in middle east for couple of months, how can I keep my US phone and receive calls from us on that phone/number.
    I don’t mind to pay monthly fee
    thanks
    alan

  37. I used One Sim Card for 18 months—quality was very bad in Asia and Middle East—ok in western Europe——and the per minute price was high. Their customer service is handled by computer geeks so it is non-existent. I was in 50 countries in past three years—to have business quality calls I have to use local sim cards when calling between countries—by far the cheapest—-by far the best quality

  38. I used One Sim Card for 18 months—quality was very bad in Asia and Middle East—ok in western Europe——and the per minute price was high. Their customer service is handled by computer geeks so it is non-existent. I was in 50 countries in past three years—to have business quality calls I have to use local sim cards when calling between countries—by far the cheapest—-by far the best quality

  39. I use Smartgroshen app, simple, good quality of voice and sync with your phone contacts. Get 0.5 euro at start.

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