Calling the U.S. Free from Overseas

As soon as overseas travelers find a wifi space, chatting or video chatting with loved ones back home can be easy and—believe it or not—free.
As soon as overseas travelers find a wifi space, chatting or video chatting with loved ones back home can be easy and—believe it or not—free.

Recently, my wife and I had a wonderful experience. We were driving along a California freeway when I received a request to communicate via Apple’s FaceTime on my iPhone. The person requesting to talk was our daughter who was sitting in a hotel lobby in Istanbul with our son-in-law. They were waiting for dinner and had a few minutes. Although I had to keep my eyes on the road, all of us had a delightful chat. Our daughter and son-in-law talked about the Greek Isles cruise they had just completed. And we gave them an update on our lives (which were much less exotic than theirs at the time). It was lots of fun.

“That’s nice,” you might say, “but, apart from the close family ties, what’s so special here? People have been phoning loved ones in the U.S. from overseas and vice-versa since the 1920s. In fact, the ability to see people as well as to talk to them live on a handheld consumer electronics device isn’t all that earthshaking, either.”

While that’s all true, what really intrigued me was that we could do all of this so easily, even while my wife an I were in our car driving down the freeway, and without any of us incurring any extra phone charges. Now, that—when I thought about the astronomical roaming charges I’ve paid while traveling over my years—was worth a “wow!”

One critical ingredient here, of course, is public wifi: a service that any traveler can now find in millions of places around the world from a coffee house in Santiago to a noodle bar in Hong Kong, to—yes—a hotel lobby in Istanbul. Once you find a public wifi space, you’re almost in business.

The other critical ingredient is what technologists call “platform compatibility.” You and the person you want to talk to both have to have tools and services that are synched up to communicate with each other.

This sounds like it can be a hassle, but it really isn’t. Here are some options you might consider:

  1. Skype. This is a great way for people to communicate for free across technology platforms. In other words, if I have an iPhone and wifi access and you have an Android or a PC, then we can video chat—as long as we both have Skype, of course. To sign up for Skype, just go to the Skype site. The process takes just a couple of minutes. And again, it’s free.
  2. Apple’s FaceTime. I love the quality of this app, and, if you’re an Apple user, it’s great. But both the caller and the person receiving the call must have an Apple device such as an iPhone, iPad, or Mac for everything to work. To learn more, check out the FaceTime page on the Apple site.
  3. Google Hangouts. If you and the person you’re calling both have an Android or PC, a Gmail account, and Google Hangouts, then this approach might be the answer for you. To learn more, just click the Hangouts page on the Google site.
  4. Google Hangouts with Apple. You can now also use Google Hangouts with Apple products such as an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. This is especially valuable, for example, if you have an Android and the person you’re communicating with has an iPhone. To do this, you need Google+ and the Apple users need to download the appropriate free Google apps from the Apple site.
  5. Google Voice and a laptop. At the moment, Google Voice only works in the U.S., but, if you like, there is a way to use it overseas. Before you leave on your trip, go to google.com/voice and sign up for a Google Voice account and (if you don’t already have one) a Gmail account. Choose a phone number from your area in the U.S. and then open mail.google.com and log in with your Gmail account tied to the new Google Voice account. After this, click the phone icon in the chat window to the left and dial a U.S. number to make sure it works.

You can always use your mobile phone service the old-fashion way, of course. But that will always mean ridiculously high roaming charges. And, with public wifi spaces now so numerous and widespread around the world, this just doesn’t make much sense anymore. More and more travelers take their iPhones, Androids, or other smart phones on trips both to take photos and to stay current with their email, anyway. Why not also use them (or other devices such as tablets or laptops) to call loved ones back home—for free? It’s a great new travel opportunity!

When going abroad, more travelers are also looking into various insurance plans for their smart phones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices. These are worth considering for various reasons. Smart phones, especially, are highly prized by thieves and easy for them to steal. They’re also easy for you—when you’re taking a picture of that beautiful waterfall—to inadvertently drop into a river or lake.

For more information about special plans that cover these devices, check out this page.