Using Google Voice and Skype to Make and Receive Calls while Abroad
Getting your communications set up abroad can be a real pain, particularly if you want to have regular international communication. I’m spending 2 months doing research in Cape Town, South Africa, so I wanted to find a cheap solution for keeping in touch with people back in the states. I ended up going with Google Voice & Skype to make and receive calls at a cheaper rate than what I could get using a carrier directly.
Of course I could have just used my Sprint Android phone here, but their international rates were obscene. And I couldn’t just slip a new SIM card in (Sprint is CDMA), so I started off with purchasing a cheap new phone at a Cell C store here (local phone company). If you’re also on a non-GSM phone, you should be able to purchase a cheap phone for <$50 wherever you are.
In an ideal world, your friend would call you using some sort of fancy VOIP landline, like Vonage, which would allow them to make free international calls directly to your international number (this is what my parents do). However, landlines seem to be mostly dead among our generation, so you have to give another option for friends who want to call you directly from a mobile phone.
I first set up a Skype Online Number (previously known as a SkypeIn Number), which is basically a local phone number that forwards directly to your Skype account. I set mine to be a local number for the SF Bay area, but you’d want to make it whatever is cheapest for your friends to call. Whenever someone calls this number, they will be forwarded to your Skype account (so you can answer them from your computer if you’re online, and neither of you will be charged any additional fees).
If you then want these calls to forward to your cell phone abroad, you can set up Skype Call Forwarding. This service will forward calls to a number of your choice whenever you are not logged into Skype on a computer. The rates are a bit confusing, as you actually go by the regular Skype pay as you go call rates (they don’t have any special rates for the forwarding service – it’s treated the same as if you used Skype to call a phone in that particular country). Some representative forwarding rates for mobile phones (charged to you, not your friend) include (from cheap->expensive): China – $0.024/min, United States – $0.024/min, South Korea – $0.084, Taiwan – $0.116/min, Japan – $0.177/min, Ireland – $0.227/min, South Africa – $0.268/min, UK – $0.291/min, Spain – $0.312/min, Peru – $0.352/min. These rates are much lower if you’re having them forwarded to a landline (but then, you should probably just pick the call up on a computer for free directly).
Finally, if you really want to simplify things for your friends, you can add your Skype Online Number to your Google Voice profile, allowing people to reach you on your international cell phone by just calling the Google Voice number they’re already used to. You can even set up rules and filters to make sure you limit who can actually reach your international phone directly.
In order to make calls, you’ll want to set up a Skype To Go Number. This is similar to the Skype Online Number (that people call from your home country), but it’s a local number generated for the country where you’re traveling (you can create multiple Skype To Go numbers, too, if you’re traveling to several places). Then, using your mobile phone, you can call the Skype To Go number where you’ll get a prompt offering to connect you with one of your contacts (you can set up to 6 contacts online beforehand). This is obviously suboptimal as you lose access to your primary contacts list. But it’s the best way I’ve found. Skype will also let you adjust what number shows up on your friend’s caller ID when using this method (so you could set it to be your Google Voice number, so they’d have no idea you’re calling from Timbuktu).
When receiving calls, the only fee you have to pay is usually the small Skype rate per minute (most pay-as-you-go phones don’t charge for receiving calls, so you don’t incur additional fees from your provider abroad). However, if you want to make a call to someone internationally, you’ll be paying whatever your international provider rate is to call the local Skype To Go number, plus the Skype call rate for mobile phones in your area (same prices listed above). For me, this works out to 1.50 Rand (~$0.21)/min. So I’d usually only do this to call a contact and then ask them to call me back (so I don’t get charged $0.268/min from Skype + $0.21/min from Cell C).
There are a number of other players coming up in this field. There are even several that could be cheaper than Skype (depending on which country you’re in). It’s definitely worth checking them out for your particular circumstances, but they all basically work how I described above. Competitors include Rebtel, Vopium, LocalPhone, TollFreeForwarding, and Ribbit Mobile.
Hopefully the Google Voice product will be extended to international calling soon, abrogating the need for this jerry-rigged system (and also giving you access to your entire contacts library when calling from abroad). It would also be nice to see all the major service providers using compatible networks, so users can easily switch their phones as they travel (I unfortunately didn’t think about this too much when I joined Sprint). But there have been a few perks to my brief romance with a “dumb” phone. The battery lasts for days, and I can definitely trust it to start up and shut down immediately when I want it to. Now if only the camera could take pictures with more than 17 pixels in them…
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