Phone home from overseas affordably

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Ed Perkins

Even if you don’t intend to call home regularly when you’re outside the country, you may well need to be available in case some problem arises, either where you are or at home.

You probably already know that using your regular wireless phone can run up a huge bill: Even with an “international” package, you’ll pay close to $1 a minute each for both incoming and outgoing calls — plus, maybe, a connect charge.

Of the big wireless providers, T-Mobile offers no-charge foreign roaming in Canada and Mexico, and its Simple Choice plan lets you call from Europe and other popular destinations for 20 cents a minute. But with the other carriers, using your regular phone can be expensive.

Of course, if you plan to use your phone only in emergencies, paying $1 a minute or so may not be a deal-breaker. But if you want to talk a bit more than that, and stay with your current carrier, you still have some options.

I’m currently testing the two most likely approaches while on a trip to New Zealand.

Local or global SIM card

Lots of experts say that the best approach is to unlock your phone (disconnecting it from your current service provider) if it isn’t already unlocked, and then buy and install a SIM card that either provides you with a local number in the country you are visiting, or functions globally. (A SIM card is a removable memory chip inside a cell phone that has an identification number unique to the owner. It stores personal data, including information about your cell phone carrier and plan.)

I’m testing a global SIM card from Telestial.com that I obtained and installed before I left home. With this package, you get two phone numbers: one based in the United States, and a global number based in the UK.

Rates to call the U.S. are 15 cents a minute from most of Europe; 45 cents a minute from New Zealand. Incoming calls cost nothing through the global number; 15 cents a minute from the U.S. number, all with no connecting fee. Costs for text messages are about the same. Local calls within a foreign country cost the same, or somewhat more.

The Telestial SIM card cost me $29, and that includes $20 of phone credit. I can arrange for automatic replenishment of credit through a credit card. (You can also buy a local SIM card on arrival at most international airports. That option may be cheaper.)

The big advantage to inserting a SIM card into your unlocked phone is that you’re always available, as long as you’re in an area with wireless service. People can call you 24/7. (You may have a problem with Apple phones, which can be difficult to unlock.)

VOIP app

For a serious phone habit, you can’t beat an Internet-based calling program. As long as you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, you can call anywhere in the world for 2 to 3 cents a minute. And calls are free to and from other folks who have the same app as you do.

I’m testing the system from wirelesstraveler.com, but several others provide a similar deal. Costs per minute are based solely on the country you’re calling; not the country from which you place the call. Calls to the U.S. cost 2 cents a minute from most of Europe, and 3 cents a minute from New Zealand. Most incoming calls cost 3 cents a minute.

You download the free app, for either Android or Apple smartphones, install it, select a payment system, and you’re ready to go.

You get a U.S. number, which people can use to call you as if they were making a local U.S. call. Ease of use and voice clarity are a bit better than with the SIM card. Several travel companies offer their own “private brand” version of WirelessTraveler, with preinstalled connections.

The big problem with VOIP calling is that you have to be logged onto a local Wi-Fi network to make or receive calls. And logging in can be a bit cumbersome, at least for someone with a fat thumb who has lots of trouble entering network names and passwords from one of those tiny “keyboards” that mobile phones provide. Still, you can’t beat the low rates — especially the fact that calls are free to others on the same system.

The takeaway is that both approaches work as advertised. Pick your preference — or go with both.

Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net.

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