How to save on international phone calls

Overseas phone calls don't have to cost an arm and a leg - save on international calls with these savvy tips.
 
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01 .VoIP

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Australians are an international bunch. More than a quarter of us were born in a country other than Australia, and we’re heading abroad more often. So it comes as no surprise that many of us often need to contact friends and family overseas. The trouble is, if you’re not careful, that overseas phone call can cost an arm and a leg. Luckily, there are now plenty of options that can take the sting out of your next phone bill.

In this article you will find information on:

What is VoIP?

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows phone calls to be made over the internet, as opposed to the so-called public switched telephone network (PTSN). VoIP services offer free or low-cost calls overseas, as well as locally.

Call quality for users of VoIP has improved, with the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA) even claiming that VoIP reception can now be superior to landlines. According to ACMA, “VoIP services often provide a better-quality voice transmission than expected… Some VoIP services offer an enhanced audio quality not available on PSTN lines.” However, there are many variables that can compromise reception, including internet congestion and poor reception, and some users have reported continuing problems.

There are many VoIP options available. Some services require both the maker and receiver of the call to be using the same service, while others allow you to call any number in almost any country. We take a look at a couple of the options available here in Australia.

Skype

VoIP veteran Skype remains a firm favourite with CHOICE members. In our recent survey, 36.5% of nearly 4000 respondents told us they’d used the service to make calls.When you download Skype on your computer (or as an app on your tablet or phone), you can make voice and video calls directly from one user to another for free, or call landline or mobile phones around the world at cheap, per-minute, or flat monthly rates. You can even make group video calls.

Skype also sells dual mode phones, which give you a normal phone plus VoIP on a single handset. The main advantage is that the handset isn’t physically connected to the computer. One Skype user shared a positive experience with this setup. “It's generally quite good, although the line is never as clear on Skype as it is if you call on your landline,” he said. “Sometimes you have to call a couple of times to get a clear line without any noise, and sometimes it cuts out mid-conversation.”


Pros
  • Skype is cheap and easy to use.
  • It allows you to call regular phone numbers, though this service does cost money.
  • As it is hugely popular, there’s a good chance you can make free calls to your Skype-ing friends.
  • Skype Number is a paid service that gives you a normal landline phone number that people can dial, which is diverted to your Skype account. This is a good solution for those wanting to set up cheap calls to themselves for their less tech-savvy parents, for example.

Cons
  • Group video calls cost extra.
  • Credit expires after 180 days of inactivity.
  • Some Skype plans also include a one-off connection (flagfall) fee every time a call is made. As Skype reception can be patchy you may need to call a few times to get a good line, which can eat into your credit.
  • As with most VoIP services, you also need a working internet connection, whether on your phone or computer.

Viber

Viber allows you to text, call, have group conversations and share pictures with other users. It is easy to use – the joining process is quick and doesn’t require you to add your contacts manually. Once you sign up and enter your mobile phone number, Viber syncs your contacts, messages and call history with your mobile.

The trouble is, this convenience comes at a price – privacy. According to Viber, “when you install the [app] and register on the site, you will be asked to provide us with your phone number and to allow us access to your mobile device's address book”. This information is used to tell you when a person in your contacts signs up to Viber and whether they're available to chat.

Pros
  • Viber is free, convenient, and available for most platforms and operating systems.
  • Free group calls are supported.

Cons
  • You can only call other people who have Viber.
  • The storage of your contact book, with neither your express permission nor the permission of third parties, is a concern.
  • You must be online to use it.
 
 

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Phone cards

Phone calling cards are another option for those wanting to use their home phone or mobile to call abroad, but they come with their own set of problems. CHOICE has been reporting on dodgy card operators for years, and in 2009 told consumers that they needed to be aware of a range of extra and undisclosed fees and surcharges. ACMA warns consumers considering buying a card to ensure the provider is a Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) member and to check their critical information summary for details on hidden fees. Using your mobile phone will still incur local charges from your telco, so make sure you’re not racking up a mobile phone bill while trying to keep your overseas costs down.

Pros
  • Phonecards can be a cheap option for calling landlines and mobiles.
  • They don’t require additional hardware, an internet connection, or a smartphone.
  • They can be used to call any number.
Cons
  • Some cards have issues with confusing terms and conditions and excessive fees and charges.
  • Different brands offer differing value based on the destination called. For example, some may offer cheap calls to Europe but be very expensive for the Middle East, or cheap calls to landlines in Niger but expensive ones to mobiles in the same country. Make sure you check how much each call is going to cost you before dialing.

Apps

Not content to only host copious numbers of other companies’ apps in their stores, tech world arch-rivals Apple and Google have released their own solutions to your telecommunication woes.

Apple’s FaceTime facilitates free video calls from your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Mac to someone else’s. The app is now preloaded on Apple products, and requires very little setup.

Google’s Hangouts is less proprietary, supporting non-Google/Android operating systems and devices. Not only can you connect to friends who’ve also downloaded the app and group chat for free, but you can also stream your Hangout live on YouTube.

PennyMobile Pro, an app operated by Australian company Pennytel for iPhone and Android devices, allows users to call friends using the same app for free. Pennytel also provides paid services that allow users to call regular phone numbers, but the company is currently embroiled in court action, so be cautious.


ISPs

If you’re not keen on using an intermediary to call overseas and would prefer something with less mucking about, consider your internet service provider (ISP). Some ISPs, including iinet and TPG, set up home phone line rental and cheap VoIP calls straight from your regular phone. 

And some mobile phone operators, including Lebara, Hello Mobile and gotalk, can bundle cheap or free international calls with your mobile phone plan, allowing you to make international calls directly from your handset. But make sure you check the rates for the country you’re calling before ringing a new destination.

WhatsApp

But how about those times when you’re after a brief tête-à-tête rather than a full-blown conversation? Good news - for those occasions when everything you need to say can be put into a message, there are apps that enable you to send free picture, text, and video messages to anyone in the world.

WhatsApp Messenger, available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Android and Nokia smartphones, is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange free text and voice messages with friends who also have the app installed. Users can create groups, send each other unlimited images, video and audio media messages. After an initial year-long free trial period, WhatsApp costs US$0.99 per year. 

Pros

  • The app is cheap and supports lots of smartphone platforms.
  • WhatsApp doesn’t carry advertising, so you won’t be interrupted mid-conversation for a message from their “sponsors”.
Cons

  • WhatsApp’s terms and conditions state that they “may periodically access your contact list and/or address book on your mobile device to find and keep track of mobile phone numbers of other users of the Service” – so if you value privacy, it’s an issue.
  • Tablet devices aren’t supported, so you’ll need a smartphone to use it.

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