The Easiest Ways to Make International Calls While Traveling

More options are available than ever before

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Your options for making international calls while traveling are no longer limited to using calling cards and hunting down phone booths (yes, those still do exist). Today, you can keep in touch with friends, family, and coworkers while traveling abroad by renting a mobile phone or SIM card, using VoIP applications on your laptop, and, in some cases, using your current cell phone.

Here's a look at the pros and cons of these international calling options.

Purchase a Calling Card

What We Like

  • Easy to budget.

  • Most cards work anywhere you have access to a phone.

  • People can't bug you with calls on vacation.

What We Don't Like

  • Payphones — even Britain's iconic red phone boxes — are disappearing.

  • Reaching you can be difficult for others.

  • Confusing phone card pricing makes choosing a card difficult, and a lot of bad cards are out there.

Although it may not be the least expensive method on a per-call basis (depending on the card), and it is less convenient than having a cell phone on you, calling cards are popular with international travelers because they have fixed prices and are familiar to most people.

Bring Your Own Cell Phone

What We Like

  • Most convenient calling option.

  • Your contacts and information on your phone travel with you.

What We Don't Like

  • You must have the right cellular technology to access foreign networks (usually, GSM).

  • Roaming charges are expensive, especially if you have a smartphone that constantly eats up data.

  • Even if the phone works, voicemail might not.

  • You'll need adapters for the types of plugs used in other countries so you can charge your phone.

This is the most convenient option: Simply bring your current phone with you when you travel abroad. If yours is a GSM phone, you'll most likely be able to use it wherever you go; most of the world (more than 80%, per the GSM Association) operates on GSM.

Your mobile service provider might charge hefty roaming fees. Many providers offer special, far cheaper packages for international travelers that you can set up before you leave for your trip.

Besides the extra fees, the key caveats include:

  • Your phone must be a GSM phone. Although most phones outside of the U.S. are GSM, some Verizon and Sprint phones in the U.S. operate on CDMA cellular technology; these will work only in the U.S. T-Mobile and AT&T use GSM phones.
  • Your GSM phone has to be operable on the right band or frequency. U.S. GSM uses the 1.9GHz and 850MHz bands; Europe GSM operates in the 900MHz and 850MHz bands. The best bet for international travelers is to have a tri- or quad-band GSM phone for compatibility. Check with your phone manufacturer to find out if your model has this.

Rent a SIM Card for Your Cell Phone

What We Like

  • Typically less expensive than renting a cell phone.

  • You can take your current phone on your trip.

What We Don't Like

  • You must have an unlocked GSM phone.

  • You might have to get your phone unlocked.

  • Your contacts, if stored on your SIM card, won't be accessible with the rental SIM card.

  • You'll need to give out a new number for people to contact you.

If you have a cell phone that meets the technical requirements in the country you're traveling to, you can avoid the data roaming fees from your local carrier by renting a SIM (subscriber identity module) card that will work for your destination. This is typically less expensive than using your current provider's international pricing or renting a cell phone.

Your GSM tri- or quad-band phone has to be unlocked. Most cell phones are unlocked from their networks these days, and most service providers will help you unlock your phone if not. Nevertheless, some phones are locked, meaning you can use them only on the network of the cell phone carrier from whom it was originally purchased. Many cell phone unlock codes, hacks, and services are floating around the web to help you as well.

Rent a Cell Phone

What We Like

  • Cell phone rentals are available in more than 150 countries worldwide. (Many international prepaid mobile broadband providers offer international cell phone rentals.)

  • You can avoid surcharges and extra connection fees — no huge bill surprises.

What We Don't Like

  • Contacts and information you have stored on your own phone aren't accessible.

  • You need to give out a new number for people to contact you.

  • Phone choices can be limited, so you might have to learn to navigate an unfamiliar phone's options.

Though more expensive than renting a SIM card, renting a GSM cell phone that works at your destination allows you to be reachable at all times and to make calls.

Use VoIP Calling From a Computer or Phone

What We Like

  • Can be very inexpensive (even free) via Wi-Fi.

What We Don't Like

  • Others can't reach you immediately.

  • Might be more expensive, depending on connection method.

Using internet-based phone services such as Skype, which rely on VoIP (voice over internet protocol) technology, can be the cheapest way to make international calls; it might even be free if you use a free Wi-Fi hotspot. Using VoIP from an internet café can be relatively inexpensive, but both Wi-Fi hotspot and net café usage depend on your physical presence at a specific location.

You can also use VoIP on your laptop using prepaid international mobile broadband.