Keeping in touch with friends and family back home is a concern of most students who go abroad. For many, it is their first major period of time without that safety net.
I had rented a basic cell phone through RealCom Abroad but only used it to text or call other students in my program, tell my host mom I wouldn’t be home for dinner, or in emergency situations (fortunately I didn’t have any). Otherwise, I communicated with my family and friends back home via e-mail or Facebook. Although frequent, convenient, and free, this didn’t compare to hearing their voices, so…
Here are some apps for your smart phone that make it easy to talk internationally for free or close to nothing:
Starter note: These reviews are all based on my experience with my own iPhone. If possible, I would recommend downloading applications before disconnecting your phone service (if you intend to do that). Some other apps may need to send a code through SMS to verify your account before you can use it. I am providing basic information about the apps; more info can be found at the individual websites. Information here is subject to change at any time and is considered current as of August 2012.
Note #2: I put my phone service with Verizon entirely on hold and also kept my phone on Airplane Mode to make sure I would not be using any data services whatsoever while abroad. Check with your phone company about roaming, international use, etc. BEFORE departing, and take the necessary steps to avoid incurring charges.
Viber — no cost for download, mostly free to use
This app allows you to send texts and photos, as well as make phone calls, to other Viber users, all FOR FREE! My connection was somewhat spotty/fuzzy and had some feedback delay, but that could have been my weak internet connection. You can send texts and make calls using only wi-fi if you want. If you use a 3G connection, you may incur data charges (see Note #2 above about this). No ads.
Available for use with iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry.
WhatsApp — cost and subscription vary by phone
From their website: “WhatsApp Messenger is a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS.” You can send text messages, photos/videos, audio notes, and location information. You can NOT make phone calls with this app. No ads.
For use with an iPhone, there is only a one-time charge to download the app. For all other phone types, WhatsApp is free to download and use for the first year ($0.99 subscription fee for an additional year of service).
Note: You have to install and create an account while your phone service is still active, so that is most likely BEFORE you go abroad. You will receive a text message with a code to verify that you own the account. After that, you can use the app even if your phone service is disconnected.
Available for iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Android and Nokia.
Skype — various charges
I used Skype to occasionally video chat (IMO it’s kind of awkward on a phone… and in general), which is of course free to use when you are talking or sending messages on a Skype-to-Skype call/chat. What this application really came in handy for was calling land lines or cell phones, and sending regular SMS text messages to people without smart phones (mainly my mom). In my experience, the call connection was much better and clearer than with Viber. Prices vary depending on the country you are calling from, where you are calling, and what type of number it is (mobile vs. land line and so forth). Overall the calls were really cheap, much cheaper than if I had used my rental phone to dial an international number. For example, if I were to place a call from the US to Spain through Skype, the prices start from as little as 2.3¢/min (possibly cheaper with a monthly subscription).
You can buy Skype credit ($10 credit at a time, make sure you un-check the option for automatically purchasing more credit when you are running low) or a monthly subscription. Rates vary depending if you are paying monthly or by the minute.
Calls made with your Skype credit are subject to a connection fee, which depends on your calling destination and your selected currency.
More info on prices for calling through Skype here.
You will get this reminder from Skype often on their site: “Skype is not a replacement for your telephone and can’t be used for emergency calling.”
Available on Windows Phone, Symbian, Android, iPhone, and iPad.
Voxer — free
This “walkie talkie” app allows you to send audio, texts, photos, and information location to friends who have installed Voxer. It works with WiFi, 3G and any other data network. This is a very convenient application if the time difference is too much to bridge, since you can leave a text or voice message at any time instead of worrying if your friend is awake to take your call (through another app, since you can’t call with Voxer). The best aspect of this app, personally, is that you can still hear someone’s voice even if it isn’t a live phone call. No ads.
Available for iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and Android devices.
Tell your friends to download whatever app(s) you decide to use…. that way, you’ll have people to communicate with :P
Have any other recommendations? Leave a comment!