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Calling home can be expensive and phone systems abroad can be frustrating to use.  We give you five alternatives to reach out and touch someone.


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Travel Planning/Travel Tips-  Calling the U.S. while traveling abroad

Local calling cards   International calling cards  Callback services, International cell phone rentals  Using your cell phone

Be prepared before you call home from abroad if you want to avoid unnecessary expense and frustration.

Rule 1. Never call a number in the U.S. directly from a hotel. Many travelers make the mistake of calling home from their room, only to find out that their brief “We’re OK” call resulted in a $20 to $30 charge on their hotel bill. If you are tempted to place a direct call from your hotel, avoid unpleasant surprises, and call the hotel’s operator to find out the surcharge before you call home.

Local Calling Cards

. One of the less expensive ways to call the U.S. from abroad is to purchase a local calling card, usually available at a news or tobacco shop. The cards are normally offered by the national phone company of the country and provide good value.

  • Most of the “calling cards” are smart cards equipped with an embedded processor that debits the calls made with the card from the value remaining on the card.
  • Many foreign payphones require the use of a calling card to place a call and do not accept change.


Problems with the use of local calling cards are that you need to understand how to operate the phone and how to connect with long distance services.

  • If the phone does not have a menu in English (quite common in Europe), you may need to speak to an operator who may or may not speak English.
  • The second limitation of using local calling cards is that you need to find a payphone and cannot call from the comfort of your room.

We find local calling cards a “must have” during vacations in international destinations and use them to call home, as well as to make local and long distance calls wherever we are traveling. We buy a card with the equivalent of a $20 value and buy another if needed.

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International Calling Cards

Consider signing up for a “calling card” from a U.S. based telephone carrier such as AT&T. There is no fee for signing up and these cards allow you to use the carrier’s network to place calls from abroad to home. The cost of these calls will be charged to your home phone. In order to use these services, your phone company must have an agreement with the carrier whose calling card you use and you will not be issued a card if a cross-billing agreement does not exist between the two carriers.

The card works as follows:

  • Before you depart, check with the calling card issuer’s Web site where you will find a printable list of “calling card contact” numbers for countries around the world.
  • While traveling, call the toll free number for the country you are in and you will usually be connected to an automated system that will require you to enter your calling card id and pin. English speaking operators are available if you need assistance.
    • You cannot call a U.S. based toll free number ("800") using most calling international calling cards.

Some hotels place surcharges on calls to “800” numbers or their equivalents, so check to see if the hotel adds a surcharge to any calls that you might make to access your carrier’s service.

We often use these types of cards when traveling since they connect you to a reliable, long distance service available in English.

Another downside of the cards is that there is a surcharge if you use them from payphones.

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Call Back services.

   If you need to call back to the US often, you might consider signing up for a “Call Back” service. Call Back services provide you with a U.S. based number that you can call from any international destination.

  • When you call, the number will ring but not be answered.
  • After a few rings, you hang-up and the system will call the number you dialed from and provide a line that can be used to call the U.S. at a lower cost than many other methods.

If you are interested in this option, enter “Call Back services” in your favorite Internet search engine and you will find numerous companies who provide service plans that might meet your needs.


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International cell phone rentals.

   If you want flexibility and are willing to pay the price, consider renting an international cell phone from one of the many vendors who provide this service (enter “international cell phone rental” in your favorite search engine). Rentals of this sort are more expensive that using calling cards but cost about the same as using your own cell phone.

The advantage of a cell phone rental is that you will have one contact phone number for the duration of your trip (regardless of how many countries you visit).

  • The rental includes the phone and all adapters and accessories necessary for all of your destinations (which you disclose during the rental process).
  •  The phone will be sent to your home, so you need to arrange this service in advance. There is a modest fee for delivery and return of the phone.

Usually the rental will include a package of minutes (from 30 to 250) with the prices of a minute decreasing as the number of minutes purchased increase. It is important to note that most companies base the cost of any additional minutes you use on the price of the minutes included in the original package.

  • In essence, if you do not plan to call much and buy the minimum package you will pay a high price for the minutes in the plan and an equivalently high price for all minutes beyond those included in the plan.
  • In addition, most companies will rent you the phone and charge you for minutes only as you use them but this is the most expensive option, unless you plan on using the phone for emergencies.  Note: you pay for both incoming and outgoing call minutes.

The cost of minutes also varies by geography and countries are collected into “zones” where all calls are the same cost. For example, most European countries are included in a single zone and all calls to you or from you anywhere in Europe are charged at the same rate. If you call  a country in another zone, the price per minute is higher than an in-zone call, so check the countries included in the zones offered by the provider you choose.

Depending on the plan you select, you should be prepared to pay from $1.50 to $3.00 per minute for calls within a specific geographical zone and more for calls to countries in other zones.

If you are going to travel in remote destinations, you should consider renting a satellite phone, as other wireless services will likely be unavailable; of course, the prices for minutes on satellite phone systems are unbelievable.

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Using your multi-band cell phone.

If you have a phone that is designed to work in international locations, you should consider using it while on vacation.

  •  Most phones that work internationally are advertised as “global” phones that feature a multi-band capability (tri-band or better) provisioned to work with GSM (Global System for Mobile communications)  or other networks at home and abroad .
  •  GSM in the U.S. and abroad operate on different bandwidths, which is why the phone must be equipped to operate on three “bandwidths”.
  • In addition to using a GSM capable phone, you will need to have a roaming agreement with an international telephone service provider.

Information about you and your user account is kept on a SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module), a removable computer chip inside your phone (usually underneath the battery) that keeps track of your phone number and the services covered by your existing carrier contract.

  • If your carrier has an international roaming agreement, your existing SIM card will allow you to place calls internationally and have them charged on your wireless phone bill.
  • If you prefer to use an international carrier, you can sign-up for their service and use the SIM that they will provide.

Using your cell phone while traveling internationally (if it is capable of international service and appropriately provisioned) can be very handy but relatively expensive, with rates running $1 to $3 per minute.  (T-Mobile has extremely competitive rates but its service area in the US is somewhat limited)

  • Remember, calls to you from the U.S. will be international long distance calls.
  • If you want to use your cell phone just for outgoing calls, your carrier may be able to filter out U.S. based calls for you but will charge small monthly fee for doing so.
    •  If you are interested in this option, you must arrange it with your carrier before you depart the U.S.


We have covered many options for "phoning home" from abroad but recommend buying a local phone card as the most economical and flexible solution for most travelers.  Calling cards issued by a large national carrier that can be used abroad, however, are very handy and user friendly.

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