Using Google Voice and Skype to Make and Receive Calls while Abroad

Written by Rick Henrikson on August 9th, 2010 Posted in Productivity, Technology, Travel

Indian MobileGetting 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.

Receiving Calls


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.

Making Calls


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).

The Competition

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…

Update: According to @DouglasHwang, Skype fails behind the Great Firewall of China.  Lame.  Maybe one of those other competitors works, though.

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  • Adrian

    Hey Rick! Very interesting to read all the bits of international telephony in the third millenium. :-) Didn't realize most pay as you go providers only charge for outbound calls. Also, that SkypeToGo number is a great idea for extended stays. Hope you're having a great time, and to chat with you soon. ttyl…Adrian

  • RPM

    Thank you for sharing this. It was really helpful. I live and work in the US but since I telecommute 90% of the time, I’m planning on spending a few months at my hometown in Brazil while working. So from my understanding I will need a Skype Online number so that people can call me in the US and I can receive my calls while at my computer in Brazil. (I don’t think I will need a Skype forwarding since I will only take calls while working at my computer. I just got a little confused with the Skype to Go number. I understand this can be a local number in Brazil. But what would be the difference if I used Skype to call the US without the Skype to Go number?

    • http://www.overexpressed.com rhenrikson

      Hi RPM – if you’re just planning on calling using your computer then you don’t have to worry about getting a local number. That’s only if you’re planning on using a mobile phone in Brazil to call a few select contacts (then you’d have a local Skype To Go number to call for a smaller cost). All you need is a Skype Online Number that will direct to your computer, wherever you are.

    • Joaocccastro

      What was your solution?
      My problem is opposite: I used to have a Brzil SkypeIn but apparently Brazil doesn’t accept SkypeIn any more.

  • Mystic Sister

    HI there – so just to be clear.. Am I not getting charged the Skype rate + the rate to receive the call via the local sim card of whatever country i am traveling to? I can see that it makes the call cheap/free for my friends (Yay we want that) but it sounds very costly for myself. Am i reading this right?

    I also am not clear as to why not just use the skeypin number instead of adding google voice? What is the advantage of this? Does it decrease the call quality to have it go through so many carriers?

    • Jamescheng

      If you have an android phone, you can use sipgate+google voice+gv call back to receive and call out free in wifi zone.

      • http://www.overexpressed.com rhenrikson

        Sorry the post wasn’t clear enough – so I broke it down into two different types of transactions – calls in and calls out.

        For calls coming in, you generally don’t pay with most of the pay-as-you-go plans I’ve encountered (though this is likely country-specific). You’re correct, in this scenario you’re paying a per-minute Skype fee, as well as any charges with your international carrier. So the benefit is to your friends (free calls), and doesn’t affect you too much, assuming your local carrier doesn’t charge a lot for incoming calls. The only purpose of the Google Voice number is so that your friends can call your normal number as usual, like nothing has changed. No need to give out a new Skype number. Ideally Google will extend GV call forwarding internationally at some point in the future so you can just bypass Skype and this roundabout process altogether.

        For outgoing calls, you’ll notice Google Voice doesn’t play any role in my scenario (unless you list your GV number as a callback number in your Skype settings – just to help reduce confusion on your friend’s part).

        @ Jamescheng – Yes, there are lots of other ways to do free calling if you have a wifi connection (Skype, Fring, etc.). I was mainly looking at being connected when you don’t have wifi.

  • Jonnyb55555

    Is there a way to have someone call your google voice number, have it forwarded to your skype to go number, and recieve the call using a iphone/computer connected to skype over the internet without a phone service plan/SIM card anywhere in the world.

  • Allison

    Hi. I ran across this posting while searching for international calling ideas while overseas. I live in U.S. but will be in China for 4 months and want to stay in touch with my family back home. I thought that I had it figured out by turning off data roaming, data syncing and turn airplane mode on and wifi back on and just calling through skype. I was going to get a local sim card for emergency calls when I dont have wifi. Would this method that you described work in China if when I didn’t have a wifi connection or access to a skype to go number in China? Any suggestions? Would you suggest using google voice over skype? thank you for your help. :) Allison

  • Chris Deri

    This is all REALLY useful. Here is my quandry: I am in China with a China Telecom Android. China Telecom blocks being able to download skype app onto phone.
    I am going to the US (with my China phone). Will i be able to download skype onto my device while in the US (roaming on a US carrier network) and then will i be able to use this skype app once i am back in China??

  • Shush

    I don’t understand

  • Alisue

    Hi Rick – I too am heading to Cape Town, but for 4 months.  I hope your visit was great.  Did you try getting a local number with an unlocked phone?  I’d like to port my AT+T number to google voice, forward that to skype and then somehow get it on a phone with a vodacom sim card.  Any advice after your experience?


  • Airports Feel Like Home

    This is a great article.  For some additional detail on data and text to, check out: http://www.airportsfeellikehome.com/2012/02/15/phone-calls-data-and-text-messages-abroad/

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1004806857 Patrick Michael Truhlar

    OK, I have to be honest here. You wrote what I found to be the clearest, most helpful coverage on the topic. Well done. Nice contribution to the Internet.

  • Screwed in Rome

    This definitely is one of the most clear and concise of all the blogs I’ve read on the subject. Having already integrated GVoice and Skype Online with my international strategy, I began to implement Rick’s advice while here in Rome. Logging into Skype I navigated to the Skype To Go (STG) page to snag my supercool new number and thereby join the world of international IP freedom. Then came the face|palm. STG isn’t available in Italy. Portugal (yes, that little colony in the armpit of the Iberian Peninsula)? Check. Greece (which is presently burning to ground in financial ruin)? Check. Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia, from which it has been an independent nation for a mere 20 years)? Check. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia (aka Russia-lite)? Check. Luxembourg (basically Paris-North)? Check. Italy (the seedbed for the greatest world empire ever known to mankind; the crux of the Mediterranean world; home of the Eternal City; the progenitor of nearly all European languages; one of the most heavily traveled countries by foreigners in the world)? Niente. Great move, Skype. Great move. 

  • Joerg Kowollik

    Regarding to the screwed in Rome friend.

    Try to get a free number of euteliavoip.com in Rome, they get limited free numbers you can receive with voip-softphones or forward it to a sype account!
    It least I work with it in rome, too.
    Tanti saluti


  • Google Skype Pro

    A lot of people are saying this doesn’t work in China.  I used this exact set up with a China Mobile sim card from 2009-2011.  Worked like a charm.  People seem to be a little confused – skype isn’t ON your phone.  Skype is forwarding calls to your phone.  And in places without skype-to-go numbers (like China) you can’t make outgoing international calls easily using this method – you have to make them using either skype or google voice on your PC.  Things may have gotten harder recently with the newer crackdowns on VPNs and other foreign sites – but it worked for two years, as recently as two years ago.

    But I’m having a problem now – I’m in Vietnam, trying to set up the same thing and it isn’t working.  Here are the symptoms:
    1: CAN call the Google Voice number – rings to Google Talk Chat instantly
    2: CAN have Google Voice forward to Skype Online Number – rings on Skype instantly.
    3: CAN have Skype Online Number forward to local Vietnamese cell phone – takes 45 seconds to ring.
    When I try to have Google Voice forward to Skype Online Number which forwards to the Vietnamese Cell Phone – the wait seems to be too long for Google and it goes to Google Voicemail instead of ringing through to the Vietnamese phone.

    Any thoughts?  Google Voice doesn’t seem to have a feature that sets how long it should attempt to ring the forwarded phone before going to voicemail – but the threshold seems to be 30 seconds.  I need 45!  It takes too long for skype for foward the call!  And trust me, I’ve already shortened the skype forward time to 0 seconds….  

  • Anonymous

    The answer is to set up virtual numbers in the countries you want to connect with and have them forward to your Skype ACCOUNT, not Skype-In phone number.  Take the receiving phone number out of the question and now you have worldwide freedom.  Its amazing how few people grasp this concept.  Ring2me.com is one example.  Surely there are others.  

  • Aliasgar Babat

    Skype and Google voice are good social interaction software’s. But businesses prefer better security and guaranteed attendance: hence most of them use RHUB`s web conferencing servers. It provides maximum customization with total security.