Staying in Touch Internationally, on the Cheap
Staying in Touch Internationally, on the Cheap
By MATT GROSS - New York Times, 3/24/2009
Matt Gross for The New York Times My set up for inexpensive, international calls.

In Venice, a city of odd spaces, Gianni Colombo’s walk-in art installation “Spazio Elastico” (1967-68) at the Palazzo Grassi contemporary art museum, is one of the oddest. A nearly lightless room subdivided into rectangles by thin elastic cords that glow white in the dark and ever so slowly shift position, it’s as disorienting as a hall of mirrors, only without the mirrors.

And so, when my cellphone began to ring as I stood lost in Colombo’s funhouse, I almost chalked it up to art-induced hallucination. I realized the sound was real, and hurried out of the artwork and over to an isolated corner to answer it. It was my uncle, Gary, calling from Connecticut just to see how my daughter, Sasha, was doing on her first trip abroad. We chatted (even though I hate talking on a cellphone in a place like a museum), and four minutes and six seconds later we hung up.

Throughout the call, neither Gary nor I was particularly worried about the cost of the conversation. That’s because, over the past few years of traveling internationally, I’ve developed a system that not only lets me make inexpensive local calls but also allows friends and family back home to reach me cheaply. It’s a little complicated, but bear with me and I’ll explain.

The first thing you’ll need is an unlocked mobile phone — that is, a phone that’s not tied to one particular carrier. (In the United States, some carriers will unlock your phone if you ask; abroad, most phones come already unlocked.) Then, whenever you arrive in a new country, you can buy a local SIM card (the tiny, interchangeable chip inside the phone that actually lets you connect to a particular carrier; they’re sold at mobile phone stores and kiosks for $2 to $25, depending on the country) and make phone calls and send text messages without paying exorbitant international roaming fees.

Simple enough. But for folks back home to reach you, you’llphone2 need Skype. In the last few years, Skype has revolutionized how global nomads like myself keep in touch. Install its software on your Mac or PC, and as long as you’ve got an Internet connection, you can make high-quality audio and video calls to other Skype users almost anywhere on earth. (A few countries, like the United Arab Emirates, unfortunately block the service.)

Skype, however, also lets you call out to mobile phones and land lines (a service called SkypeOut) and enables you to have your own phone number in any of 23 countries, including the United States, Hong Kong, France and Italy (this is called SkypeIn).

Both SkypeOut and SkypeIn carry a relatively low fee. SkypeOut calls to land lines can be as little as 2 cents a minute, while calls to mobile phones are usually a bit more. In Italy, for example, Gary’s call cost me (not him) 30.8 cents a minute (not including tax). A SkypeIn subscription, meanwhile, costs $60 a year or $18 for three months. All I have to do before I leave home is set my American cellphone (an older-generation iPhone) to forward to my SkypeIn number, and all I have to do when I arrive in a new country is get a SIM card, go online and set the Skype software’s preferences to forward all calls to the new number.

So, here’s how Gary’s call to me worked:

He dialed my regular American cellphone number, which forwarded to my SkypeIn number, which, in turn, forwarded (via SkypeOut) to my Italian cellphone number.

Cost to him: zero. Cost to me: about $1.58, plus some small fraction of the 15 euros of Vodafone credit I’d put on my phone. (In two weeks in Italy, I never managed to use up that credit.) Certainly, the call could have been made for less — if, for example, Gary had bought an Italy-specific calling card. But when I travel, I can’t expect everyone to buy such calling cards and learn my new number. This system lets anyone, anywhere, reach me, at a minimal cost to myself.

If I wanted to call home and let my parents know how their granddaughter was doing, however, I had to use a slightly different system — one that made use of my iPhone. Ideally, this wouldn’t require much explanation. I’d just tell you to download Skype for the iPhone, and that would be that. Unfortunately, Skype does not exist for the iPhone.

Instead, I use a free third-party application called Fring, which functions as a kind of Skype-to-cellphone phone gateway, letting me access my Skype account wherever I have a Wi-Fi signal. (Fring also works on many other smartphones, and lets you connect to a host of other Internet communications services, like AIM, MSN Messenger, Twitter and Just open a Fring account, give Fring your Skype account details, and you’re set to make SkypeOut calls to anyone you wish.

Which is exactly what I did, one evening, as I stood on Corso Como in Milan, watching beautiful people strut by, I turned on my iPhone, found an open Wi-Fi network and called home. My dad and I spoke for eight minutes and two seconds — a chat well worth the 22.8 cents it cost me.

This well-honed (if complicated) system has served me very well in the last four years, but it may change in the near future. Two weeks ago, Google announced a new service called Google Voice that operates much like Skype — only cheaper! According to a New York Times article about Google Voice, “calls to international mobile phones are as much as a third cheaper than Skype’s.” Google says the service will be open at first only to users of GrandCentral (a startup Google bought almost two years ago); it will be available to the general public in a few weeks.

If Google’s new service does indeed simplify international calling at a lower price, I may find myself switching over in the near future — and then letting you know how to do the same.