If you travel a lot internationally and are away from your home base for extended periods, you will have already faced the issue of how to stay in touch with family, friends and business partners. Learn how to make and receive calls, text and have unlimited roaming for $20/month (and some of it for free) in 100+ countries. All this on your shiny iPhone or Android device.
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Skype was the first real VoIP tool on the market, all the way back in 2003. Calls between two Skype accounts are free. Calls to a regular phone number either cost per minute or you can sign up for one of the various flat-rate plans.
Skype also provides you with an inbound number – this way you can receive calls on your laptop or mobile device.
A Skype Number costs $18.00 for 3 months or $60.00 for 12 months. You will receive a 50% discount if you are subscribed to a call plan and purchase the Skype Number for 12 months or 33% discount if you choose the 3-month option. Make sure you purchase the call plan (subscription) BEFORE you purchase the Skype Number.
What I like about Skype:
– easy and integrated solution, well-tested
– inbound numbers for a lot countries available
– outbound calling is free
– decent call quality even under bad connections
What I do not like about Skype:
– no real TEXTING!!! (only outbound texts)
– I really do not like the Skype app – it kills my phone battery instantly and is memory-intensive
– it is not free and if you miss payments, your number is gone
2) Google Voice
Google Voice can be used with any US Google account (make sure you have a US IP, or are in the US when you sign up). The account functionality can be a bit confusing, especially when you initially set it up. Google Voice will provide you with a free number right away.
Google Voice allows you to make free phone calls within the US (essentially any +1 number). The call quality is better then Skype on good connections, but horrible on a slow connection.
Phone calls to other countries are available for a small per minute charge. There are no flat-rate plans for Google Voice.
Calls to your Google Voice number ring in your Gmail (Google Talk) and Google Hangout on your phone via a forward. The phone does NOT need to be in the US – you can forward to any phone number – e.g. your SIM card outside of the US.
Google Voice also has a good voicemail capability if it can't reach you. The message will be sent to you via email in the original format and transcribed – this is very handy!
Texting within the US is free (it used to work internationally too, but not anymore) and it works both ways.
Google Hangouts is available for iPhone and Android and allows you to make and receive calls on your mobile device.
What I like about Google Voice
– it is completely free (unless you call outside the US)
– awesome texting functionality
– very lightweight app or browser-based calling
– the number you get is for life and will NOT be reassigned as long as you have a Google account (and Google is ready to run Google Voice)
What I do not like about Google Voice
– the setup is complicated and limited to US accounts
– the branding is mind-boggling with the same account/functionality used in Google Voice, Google Talk and Google Hangouts. This may change, though, in 2015.
3) iPhone and Android-based apps such as TextMe, Textfree and a number of others
These handy little apps can be downloaded from Google Play or the iPhone App Store. They work in a very similar fashion – you sign up and can choose a US number (you do not need to be in the US or have a US IP) and get started with a number for texting and calling.
Texting to other US numbers is usually free, while international numbers can be pricey. Outbound call rates are similar to Skype; inbound calls are usually free.
For me, the biggest drawback is that the numbers expire frequently – if you do not use them for a certain time (7-30 days), they will go away and you have to start all over.
This precluded me from actively using these numbers. It's still great if you need a new (temporary) phone number.
4) T-Mobile cell phone plan
I purchased a T-Mobile data plan and reviewed it here. I got it just for roaming purposes and I now love it so much that I'm hooked – here is why:
The smallest 'Simple Choice' iPad plan that I use goes for $20 a month and gives you 1GB of LTE data and 10GB of Data Stash (rollover data usage for a 12-month period).
However, these plans also qualify for unlimited texting and unlimited roaming in 100 countries. Note that unlimited texting is also only unlimited in a country where roaming is 'free'. Once you arrive in such a country, T-Mobile will send you a text to let you know if you are covered by the free plan or not.
I have used the roaming in a number of countries and gotten gigabytes of free roaming data and I'm very happy with it. Note that it is slow, but it saves you the hassle of getting a SIM card. In places like Japan or Israel, SIM cards are expensive and data is as well. Having a phone that roams in such places (albeit with 1.5Mbps speed) was fantastic.
Now since this a data plan, you can't make calls or be called back on the number. Nevertheless, even at slow roaming speeds you can make calls via Skype or Google Hangouts (Skype works better, though) almost anywhere in the world.
Texting also works both ways for free as long as you are in a covered country.
I was able to listen to Spotify streaming in rural parts of Sri Lanka on my ride to Sigiriya.
So what am I using?
I have a T-Mobile data plan (yes, it requires a credit check) which is $20 a month. My main number is now my Google Voice number. I use Hangouts and Skype for outbound calls – even in the free Skype version, you can define an outbound number (I use my Google Voice number). Callers only see one number from me whether I call from my phone or laptop.
For $20 a month this gives me:
– receiving and making calls in 100 countries (though call quality can vary from excellent to unbearable) from a US number
– unlimited texting in 100 countries
– data in 100 countries (at varying speeds)
– ability to use a local SIM card for an additional number or at better data speeds
That's pretty cool, isnt it?