/ Technology

Calling family overseas – why’s it so expensive?

Phone cord wrapped around globe

My sister recently moved abroad and I’ve been shocked by the costs of calling her on my existing phone package so I’m on the hunt for a cheaper solution. Have you any tips to share?

I’ve been looking around for a new mobile phone deal since my sister moved to the Netherlands. I was shocked at how expensive it would be to call a Dutch mobile from my existing SIM only package with Three compared to alternative networks.

Three charge me 46p/min for a call and a whopping 25.2p to send a text to a Dutch mobile. On the other hand, GiffGaff charge 5p/min for a call and a mere 8p a text.

Whatsapp and Skype for overseas calls

To keep my calling costs down, I need to be a bit savvy. I already use Whatsapp and Skype to keep in touch with friends overseas for free, but my sister can’t afford a phone with such capabilities at the moment. Therefore, I need a UK plan that has large enough allowances to prevent me racking up a hefty bill by going over my minutes and data limits, but I also want to be able to call Europe at a reasonable cost. Am I asking for too much?

One of my colleagues, whose boyfriend lives overseas, has devised her own two-phone solution as the internet connection at his end isn’t that reliable. She has a smartphone on a UK contract and a cheaper basic phone with a Lyca SIM that gives her great rates on international calls. This certainly seems to work economically, but surely there’s an easier way?

How do you keep in touch with friends or family who live abroad, especially when using the internet isn’t always an option? Do you carry around multiple phones for calling different countries or do you have a nifty code that you can plug in before you make a call. Have you ever had a nasty surprise due to overseas calls when you’ve received your phone bill?


Errr…..what about using your landline??

Why should one have to use a landline? From a UK mobile, why for example are calls to US fixed lines charged at a much higher rate than calls to other UK mobiles? The termination rates for the former are much lower than the latter, so why is the former charged at more than the latter? It all seems to be about the British xenophobic approach of unreasonably surcharging for anything foreign; the same often applies to banking and car insurance for example.

My point is that the article didn’t even consider using a landline. Perhaps it’s an alien concept to many nowadays.

I doubt that an unreasonable fear of strangers has anything to do with mobile call tariffs. Mobile telephone firms exists for the benefit of their shareholders rather than for you to phone your sister in Holland cheaply: prices are set to maximize profits. Hence all the squealing from them every time the EU tightens regulations on roaming prices.

When I next move home, I’m not even going to bother with a landline; I don’t want or need one. The only fixed connection I need is high speed internet (>50Mbps). I can run a virtual landline over the internet if I really need one.

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

Understandable that you queried using a landline, but many younger people may be in rented accommodation and many contracts for landlines are for 12 months minimum (some are longer if you add broadband).

If you have unlimited internet on your mobile, and the ability to “tether” your tablet or laptop, then a fixed line is less important perhaps for someone young and single… all their friends call their mobile or text them etc…

As to the mobile networks etc, I think they are starting to try to differentiate themselves with the Three PAYG dropping the cost to 3p/min for calling landlines (01/02/03) and mobiles, or bundling lots of minutes etc, but the lowest prices for calls are usually to the most popular destinations, and not on xenophobic grounds, as you point out 🙂

Michael F says:
26 December 2013

“What about using your landline?”
I was with BT and am now with Virgin Media – I have family in Chile and charges on both of these are totally outrageous. I use 2 US-based carriers:
Voxofon http://voxofon.com/
Keep Calling http://www.keepcalling.com
They both provide UK geographic numbers which means calls are included in minutes on a mobile package or “free calls” on landlines.
Keep Calling is slightly cheaper but Voxofon allows you to assign a number to each of your regular contacts, so you can have them on speed dial.
I started with 10 USD dollars paid into each one and it seems to last for ever!

Ken Westmoreland says:
23 March 2014

“The British xenophobic approach of unreasonably surcharging for anything foreign”. Excuse me? While it is anachronistic for international calls to be charged at high rates, this is hardly unique to the UK – in South Africa, it’s also more expensive to call a local mobile than a US one.

When some people in the US and elsewhere in North America give out their phone numbers, they don’t include the international prefix because they assume you know they’re ‘number one’. The irony is that it is still cheaper to call the UK from the US using an international prefix than it is to phone Bermuda or Jamaica, which use the ‘domestic’ prefix.

A good option is http://www.voipcheap.co.uk and http://www.freevoipdeal.com – both the same company. You can make calls using a smartphone app and the call quality is excellent.

If you top up by around £10 every 4 months, you get unlimited free calls to fixed lines in many industrialised countries. Calls to mobiles come out of the credit at very low rates, for example €0.02/min to a Dutch mobile.

You can even use it to make calls for free while abroad. For example, I was in Moscow last week and using the app on my iPhone, I made a 45-minute call to the UK for free, excellent quality even over 3G data. As I was paying the Russian network 47p/day for 200MB/day, the amount of data the call used was not a problem.

Steve says:
7 September 2013

Thank you I will try this, next time I’m in the UK?

I use ‘Skype to go’ numbers. These are land-line numbers that are associated with a foreign phone of your choosing. You can then programme this into your mobile phone and if you have a tariff that includes free national calls then there will be no charge from your provider. If not there will be a charge at a local rate. The UK-abroad part of the call will be charged to your Skype account, which you need to pre-load with credit.

It sounds long-winded but is easy to set up and well worth it for the convenience of being able to call mobile to mobile at a relatively low cost. Once you have a Skype account set up you can set it to automatically re-charge your account so you only need to load your credit once.

I have a number of friends and family abroad and this keeps my calling costs really low.

This is good in principle, but because Skype is the best known VOIP provider, its prices are much higher than the competition. The provider I have already mentioned above is much cheaper.

You can try Vyke Mobile for cheap international calls and sms. The app provides calls over Wi-Fi, 3G or even using a local access number (great if you have unlimited local mobile minutes) straight from your mobile.

Once you verify your number it will even display when you call friends and family, and in the UK you’ll get 50p free credit to try it out (after you verify your number).

There are no connection fees, you only pay for the call and you can top up as you need to online. App is simple to use, just download it and dial a number.

I use Skype, Whatsapp and Viber but not everyone I need to call does, including my mother, so that’s when Vyke is really handy.

SPOILER: In case it wasn’t obvious, I work at Vyke (but it really is worth trying out!).

Ken Westmoreland says:
23 March 2014

That’s the problem – ‘Skype’ is even more synonymous with VoIP than ‘Hoover’ ever was with vacuum cleaners, and it’s very difficult to explain to people that there are alternatives. The one good thing about Skype is that you can phone US freephone and UK toll-free numbers free of charge without buying credit.

One source of annoyance to Skype users has been that when they divert calls to their Skype address to a phone number, it takes up to a minute before the phone starts ringing – not good for business users.

larry Levin says:
28 August 2013

on the moneysavingexpert website they have a page where it will find the cheapest way to call each country

you have to select whether the destination is landline or mobile and select which call provider u are using


Ciprian says:
28 August 2013

With T-Mobile’s Europe & Australasia Booster, for £5 a month, you get 60 minutes to call mobiles or landlines in most countries. There’s also the USA & Canada Booster which, for the same price, gives you double the amount, 120 international minutes, to call mobiles and landlines only in USA & Canada. Whichever is best for you.
I had the Europe & Australasia Booster for a while now and works great. If I need more than 60 minutes in a month, I have a cheap pay-as-you-go VOIP account and the Linphone iOS app, although the international rates charged by T-Mobile are not that bad.

Barry Howard says:
29 August 2013

My son is in the Netherlands and I used Localphone – 3.9p/min to a Netherlands mobile. And there is no connection charge like with Skype. You get a local number to you and as you add people to your address list they get allocated a local number. If you have free calls from you mobile you can call the allocated number and get charged by localphone at the 3.9p/min. You can also use for many other countries (obviously per min charge is different). I also use to call uk mobile numbers from my home phone (1.5p/min).

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

Really low cost. I found one from Dial To Save for just 5.5p a minute but the one you mention is even lower. Well done!

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

Just checked and it is 3.9p +VAT – it’s still cheaper (at about 4.7p) but not quite so different now.

liliane Tuypens says:
29 August 2013

Dear Sir or Madam

I noticed your advert on TV about your new magazine concerning Smart phones.As I am unable to use the 800 phone number to have one send over to my address in Spain,could you please let me know how I could purchase one.
Sincerely yours

Liliane Tuypens
Calle Inglaterra
Faro de Calaburras
29649 Mijas Costa

I use ‘access numbers’ to call abroad from a landline. These can be as cheap as 1p per minute for calling the USA! You dial an 08 number, which then asks you to enter the foreign number you want to be connected to. I’m not sure how the companies who run these lines make money from it, but it works for me!

Steve says:
7 September 2013

Hi Matt, You say u dail 08 and what?, you wait, or do you have to rejester, with some one?, Only I have not heard of this b4,,, What I do is buy a phone card, from the shop’s, you ask them, they ask you what country, for £5, you can get up to 450min’s, that’s what I do to phone Thailand, You have to ask, if there is a daly charge, as some card’s take money off of the card?, so do check? [comment edited by moderator]

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

Various companies offer these “access numbers”, and here’s the information off one of the web sites: Now that you have your cheap call access number it’s as easy as 1,2,3

1) Dial the JustCall access number for the country you want to call.
2) When prompted dial 00 then the country code (31) then the number you want to call.
3) You will be connected.

I just searched for “cheap calls to USA” and a few sites were listed, namely Planet Numbers, Cherry Call, JustCall.

So as Matt said, he dials an 08xx (in my example above it was an 0844 number, to be able to call a Dutch mobile for 5p/minute) and then at the prompt, dials 0031

You ask how they make money – they use one of the 084x or 0871 numbers where the company receiving the call gets a part of the call cost. They get paid for all the time you are connected. Since they buy in bulk (tens of millions of minutes a year) they pay very low per-minute rates, but they also get paid for time when your call never gets through… while you hear the foreign number “ringing”, but not being answered, you are still paying 5p a minute.

I think the big problem for Harriet (whose sister is abroad) is that she is using a mobile, and that makes even an 0844 number far more costly to dial. Of course the other problem is that her sister’s mobile and tariff don’t allow for fancy solutions like Voice over IP, Skype, etc

blueblee says:
29 August 2013

try 18185 I use it to phone italy and get local calls at 0p

Sophie Gilbert says:
31 August 2013

Some of my family lives in France and some in Spain and I use 18185 to call them (we all dislike Skype). It was easy to set up, I’ve had no problems with my direct debit, and it’s cheap enough.

Sheefa says:
6 September 2013

I use VykeMobile. It’s a VoIP App that I use directly from my Android phone. All you need is WiFi and some top up on your Vyke account. Works everywhere in the world but best to use from your home country when trying to call abroad. I’ve used it on holidays too and works well.

Steve says:
7 September 2013

A friend of mine, told me to down load an App cald TANGO, of which I did, at the time I only had a lap top, He had the new iphone, anyway, I went on Google,I ask if I could down load to my laptop, A guy game back to me,,,,, HE SAY YES,that it, it’s better then Skype, it don’t ask you to many question’s, of which Skype dose!, As Skype can lock you out, Then Ons has to rerejester!!!,
Tango just ask you for your mobile and yr name, That’s it!!

Steve says:
7 September 2013

By the way, It’s FREE to join & FREE to talk, IF U have a web cam,it’s even better, YES U can C 4 FREE

Hi all – we talked about this in this week’s Which? Tech podcast if you want to have a listen. I’m hosting 🙂

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

Attn Harriet – even if you don’t have a landline where you are living, if your parents (or other close relatives) have one, there may be a way to bring the cost down to about 15-20p per minute.

I use an indirect calls service (1899.com) which would normally (from a landline) be used to make a call to a foreign number by dialling 1899 00

You cannot dial from a landline (as far as I can tell from what you wrote) but if you register with 1899.com using a landline (of your parents/relatives) with their permission, then 1899 would work from that number.

Now, as well as working from that number, you can add alternative numbers. I added my sister’s home number because I stayed there a month after being in hospital, and it meant I could ring without my calls being on their bill. I have also added my mobile number.

From a mobile, you’d dial a London number (020….) and so long as you are a registered user (so it knows who pays the bill), you can make calls. I went to the 1899.com site, added my Three PAYG number, then on the PAYG, I dialled 020 xxxx then when prompted, dialled 00 1 818 701 xxxx (a friend of mine in Los Angeles).

Call was connected, actually to his business answerphone (it is probably 9am Saturday in LA), so I left a brief message explaining what I was doing and why.

I looked at my account info before the call 5.31 credit. After the call it was showing the same (not updated yet) but I dialled 444 and that says my PAYG balance is 5.25 (so they charged me 3p per minute for dialling the 020 number).

USA costs 1p/min and Netherlands mobiles cost 15p (+4p connection fee) so it would help bring the cost down to about 15p/min (+ whatever your per minute cost is on your mobile).

Peter Morgan says:
5 October 2013

Following on from considering 1899, I thought that the price (compared with a service using 08xx “Access Numbers” such as Matt Clear mentioned) was a bit high – perhaps 1899 has not lowered the cost over the years… For popular destinations (English speaking/ Commonwealth countries) their charges seem good value.

I did a bit more searching and found that DialToSave.co.uk (which uses New Call Telecom, the firm that bought Primus) charges around 5.5p per minute to a Dutch mobile, plus a connection fee of 11p. You’d have to dial an 020 number (the charge per minute may depend on the Access Number and you would then dial her number).

To get access you pay a fee up front of 5 pounds which can be done via PayPal or texting DTS. The credit lasts 90 days from last use (so regular contact is best). I really don’t see how they can offer such a low price given New Call Telecom (which provides it) has its own services and some are charging up to 15p a minute – perhaps they have not reduced their longest standing brands, and existing customers have not been looking around for competition?

Many years ago we paid the most to phone countries the furthest away. I was looking at mobile charges the other day and the most expensive calls were to the closest countries – why is that?

Peter Morgan says:
10 October 2013

re expensive to closest vs cheaper to some remote countries…

Probably based on volume of calls. Larger the volume, the lower the charge as the oceanic cable firms will give discounts for buying in the millions of minutes…

Although we are part of the EU, the EU has quite a number of languages. I suspect if you look again at the destinations, many have a Commonwealth link, or are English speaking, and conversations may be longer as a result of that familiarity… So calls to Australia, NZ, Singapore, HK, Canada, USA, are often among the cheapest, while Scandinavia, Greece, and east into the Middle East (and past Soviet Republics) and south across Africa, are not in such high demand.

Ken Westmoreland says:
23 March 2014

It’s got nothing to do with language or geography, or even demand. It’s to do with how much phone companies in various countries charge their counterparts in the UK – the rule of thumb is that the smaller or the poorer the country, the more expensive it is. The US and Canada charge the same for a call to a mobile phone as to a landline, as do Hong Kong and Singapore, but in other countries there’s often a big difference in price between calling a landline and calling a mobile. Anyway, now that there are large numbers of people from Poland and other Eastern European countries in the UK, there is demand for lower call rates to those countries.

When I went to visit my British fiance last year, all I used was Skype for a lot of things. I called friends and family with it, attended Italian classes from Preply, and ran my business from Skype, as well. It was very affordable for me.

[This comment has been slightly tweaked to remove a URL in line with community guidelines. Thanks, Mods]

Jumping in late here, There is a website that lets you make free international calls online without registration via your browser

The calls last 4 minutes but after 10 minutes you are free to call again and again

[This comment has been edited to align with our Community Guidelines. Thanks, mods]

I moved from the Netherlands to Belfast earlier this year. I use my landline to speak to my mum (on her landline), which sets me back more than £11/hour. I’ve tried to get an add-on for international calls, but EE makes it extremely difficult. These kinds of fees are incredibly outdated. Also, during a time when people can’t really meet up with anyone and checking in with distant loved ones is more vital than ever, it feels morally wrong to bleed people dry for speaking to the family they are unable to see in person.

Hi Chantal,
Have you tried Skype?

You can install Skype for free on a computer then pay extra to use it to call landlines. Costs are very reasonable although it probably depends on the country.

If your mum can also install Skype, calls would be completely free. If you both use laptops with inbuilt cameras, microphones and speakers, you would be able to see other while you talk.

It is amazing that until around fifty years ago family members communicated with each other by letter, often every week. I remember both my parents sitting down on Sunday afternoons with their pads of Basildon Bond and penning epistles to their relatives in the country. My parents had a telephone [albeit only a party line] but their parents and siblings did not. Replies to the previous week’s letters would arrive during the next day or so prompting the contents for the next exchange of correspondence. Strangely, I think families were closer in those days without the constant dialogue.