Ultimate Guide to Making International Calls When Traveling Abroad (Part 1)

You may be wondering “How do I use my phone (in the traditional “phone” sense) while abroad?”  Well … the good news is that are some legit low-cost options out there.  No matter which path you end up going down, getting everything set up and tested BEFORE your trip will make you life way easier.

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Lets face it, leaving your phone at home is undoubtedly the best option to get a break from the technology overload we experience on a daily basis.  The more likely scenario is that the thought of not being connected causes you serious anxiety or you may need to be reachable via phone for personal or professional reasons.  In this two-part ultimate guide, I’ll show you how to configure your phone setup so you can easily make and receive phone calls while abroad.

Let’s start by looking more at your needs to see which situation is closest to your own.

***PICK THE GROUP YOU FALL INTO, THEN KEEP READING BELOW***

  • The High-Pressure Baller (Effort: Low | Connectivity: Good | Cost: High): This is the easiest, most obvious, and unfortunately most expensive option.  Basically you sign up for your current domestic mobile phone provider’s international voice service that works in your destination.  This option is great if you have money to burn, someone else is paying for your phone bill, or you want to invest as little energy as possible into getting your phone to work abroad.  Typically rates will be around $1 – $3/per minute (at least for US-based mobile phone companies) depending on where you are calling to/from and whether you are initiating or receiving.  I will not discuss this option further since you’re best off calling your phone provider to figure the details.
  • The Digital Travel Hacker (Effort: Mid | Connectivity: Best | Cost: Mid): This option is perfect solution for the digital nomad or other tech savvy person who wants to stay connected (for the short- or long-term) and doesn’t want to pay insane rates to phone company for international roaming.
  • The Classic Backpacker (Effort: Low-Mid | Connectivity: OK | Cost: Low): This option is great for the person who wants to spend the least amount of cash to be able to occasionally talk to friends and family back home and doesn’t need to be connected all of the time.
  • The Lazy Minimalist (Effort: Low | Connectivity: Bad | Cost: Free to Low): Use free Skype-to-Skype calls, FaceTime, or some similar service on a WiFi connection.  Easy does it.  Enough said.

***WHICH GROUP YOU FALL INTO ABOVE? PICK ONE AND READ BELOW***


Your Foundation for Making/Receiving Calls Abroad

As most of you already know, Skype-to-Skype calls are free.  What I’ll show you here is the minimal configuration you need to receive and initiate phone calls to/from landlines and mobile phones.  I highly recommend this complete setup for Digital Travel Hackers and urge Classic Backpackers to configure the ability(ies) to receive and/or initiate calls, as needed.

1. Create a Skype Account & Install Apps

I’m going to assume you have a functional Skype account and have their application(s) installed on your various devices (e.g. laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.).  If not, visit the Skype website and take care of this first.

2. Buy a Skype Number to Receive Calls

Go to your My Account page on the Skype website and click on the Skype Number box under the Manage Features section.

Skype Number Option on My Account Page

Next, click on big “Get a Skype Number” on the left side of the screen and pick a country you want your number to be based from (ideally your home country is listed here).

Skype Number Countries

Select a number (without spending a ton of time on finding the ideal one!) and tick the option for “Display this number when I call phones from Skype.”  (We may change this setting in a future step, but this is a good default option.)

Skype Caller ID Setting When Purchasing a Skype Number

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Finally, go through the checkout process and pay for a subscription duration you think you’ll need (either 3 or 12 months is available at the time of this writing).

NOTE: Your subscription will automatically be renewed unless you cancel it before the expiration date.  (You can even cancel the number now as it will remain active until the expiration date.  Do this by navigating to Skype Number > Settings > Cancel Skype Number > Yes, cancel Skype Number.)

3. Enable Outbound Calls to Mobile/Landline Phones from Skype

Next, let’s configure the ability to call phones from Skype.  There are three different paths you can take:

  • A: Get a one month free trail of Unlimited World.  Especially useful for travelers who are doing one trip planed for the time being and plan to only make calls to the U.S., Canada, and a few other countries listed here under Which Countries are Included?
  • B: Great if you plan to make many calls and/or long duration calls to a single country.
  • C: Great if you make infrequent/short calls that aren’t included in the Unlimited World countries (option A) and/or you call many different countries.

NOTE: You can combine option C with A or B.  Over the years I’ve found that mixing options B and C is the most cost effective for me.

A. ONE MONTH TRIAL OF UNLIMITED WORLD

If this is your only trip for the foreseeable future and you’ll be making calls to will be calling phones in Canada, China, Guam, Hong Kong SAR, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Thailand, and/or the United States (click here to see the full details of the Unlimited World plan) this is likely to be your best bet.

NOTE: Cancel your subscription before the trial period ends to avoid being billed.

You can sign up for your free month of Unlimited World here.

B. INITIATE FREQUENT/LONG CALLS TO A SINGLE COUNTRY USING SKYPE

This option has the benefit of buying the ability to call a single country on a monthly subscription which can save you money in the long-run.  It can be combined with step C.

To configure this option go to the Skype Rates page here, type in the country you will be calling in the search box, and scroll down to Subscriptions on the resulting page.  I’ll use Canada as an example.

Skype Subscription Rates to Canada

You’ll notice the first four options are Canada specific and they cover both landlines and mobile phones (which is NOT true for all countries – sometimes mobile phone plans are more expensive).  The last option – Unlimited World – is described in option A, above.

Next, hit the Continue button next to the option that best fits your needs and proceed with the checkout process and finalize this portion of the setup.

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NOTE: Your subscription will automatically be renewed unless you cancel it before the expiration date.

C. INITIATE INFREQUENT/SHORT CALLS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD USING SKYPE

This option enables you to to call anywhere in the world.  What you will do is purchase a certain amount of funds (aka Skype Credit) BEFORE you make any calls to landlines and/or mobiles phones.  Each time you place a call, its cost is deducted from your Skype Credit.  You can check out the Skype Rates here to place calls anywhere in the world.

To purchase Skype Credit go to your My Account page and click on the Add Skype Credit button on the left side of the screen.  Select the amount you’d like to add to your account (I recommend the lowest option as it will automatically recharge your account and bill your credit card as needed) and proceed with completing the checkout process.

NOTE: Your Skype Credit may be automatically topped up once you reach a certain “low balance” threshold.

4. How to Test Your Skype Setup?

This is pretty straight forward as you need to test incoming and outgoing calls.  Let’s start by making a call.

TEST INITIATING CALLS

Open up your Skype app on your preferred device and look for the icon that looks like a numeric keypad on a phone.  Click on this and dial a phone number to a phone that you have easy access to (a.k.a. your current mobile phone).  For more information on how to place outbound calls from Skype click here.

TEST RECEIVING CALLS

Make sure you’re logged into Skype on at least one Internet-connected device.  Call the number you purchased from in step 2 and make sure it rings you on Skype, you can pick up the call, and hear everything on both ends.

Nice work!  You’ve gotten the first part of this setup dialed in!


In Part 2 of this ultimate guide I’ll discuss:

  • Using your existing domestic phone number while abroad,
  • Configuring your Caller ID so no one knows you left home,
  • Ensuring that you can send/receive text (SMS) message (plus the best way to configure iMessage on your Apple devices) while abroad,
  • The benefits of buying a local SIM card at your destination,
  • What GSM is all about and why you should care, and
  • Staying super connected with plans B and C.

Stay tuned for part 2 …

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