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What is the best way of staying in touch with friends and family back home?

Information provided by Ofcom accredited broadband, TV and phone comparison site

For many of our international students this will be their first experience of living away, so it’s important to stay in contact with friends and family back home. However, many students are on a limited budget, and our international students face even tougher demands on their finances, as staying in touch with home can be expensive.

Fortunately the UK has a wide range of carriers offering suitable mobile phone plans – plus there are some great alternatives such as International Calling Cards, ‘Simply Dial’ numbers and ‘Voice over Internet Protocol’ (VoIP) services that can cut the cost of overseas calls dramatically. Here’s our guide to staying in touch with friends and family – without running out of money.

Cheap international calls from your mobile phone

If you brought one with you then you should avoid using your existing mobile phone if you didn’t set up a specific ‘roaming’ service with your provider in your home country. Simply arriving in the UK, switching on your phone and making calls is likely prove extremely expensive. So the first thing to do is to compare UK carriers that specialise in overseas calls packages.

If your phone is unlocked (and most phone shops in the UK can do this for you quite cheaply), you can buy an international SIM card. All of the UK’s top carriers including O2, Orange, Vodafone and T-Mobile offer international and ‘bolt-on’ call plans to a wide range of destinations such as China, Malaysia, India and other countries including Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, the USA, Canada and Nigeria – often for as little as 1p/minute. These calls also apply to EU locations, making it a great way to stay in touch when out and about.

However, it’s important to do your research, and if you do already have a contract with a UK carrier then don’t be afraid to contact them and negotiate a new international call package. Remember that they want to keep you as a customer, so they may be willing to change your tariff to one that saves you money on overseas calls.

Don’t forget, if you have a modern smartphone, you can also use it to access mobile broadband services. It’s not always cheap, but if you have a good signal where you live it is possible to use mobile broadband as a substitute for fixed line broadband – plus you have the advantage of being able to use it anywhere. You’ll have to watch out you don’t exceed any data allowances, but you could use mobile broadband to access VoIP systems in order to call abroad very cheaply, and we’ll look at those services in more detail later in this guide. If you do go down this route, be sure to compare prices so you can be sure you get the best value mobile broadband deal. You can compare mobile broadband, using an Ofcom accredited comparison here.

Calling from a landline

If you have a landline phone in your student accommodation then it’s also worth talking to the provider about international call packages. For example, if you are with BT, you can change your contract to include an ‘international add-on’ that lets you make cheaper, long-distance calls. Other providers such as Virgin or TalkTalk offer similar options – contact the provider for more details.

If you haven’t actually got a landline, and need other telecoms services too, be sure to get them together as a package. These days you can compare broadband, TV and phone prices all together online, so you know you’re not paying more than you have to. This site allows you to compare them side by side to get the best deal.

International Calling Cards

These are a great way to pay for international calls, so you know exactly how much you’re spending on contacting your friends and family back home. They are ‘pre-paid’ cards that can be used from fixed landline phones, payphones and even mobile phones.

Rates start from as little as 1p per minute and allow you to call destinations all over the world including India, the Far East, the USA, China and of course Europe. Cards can be bought online or from shops locally and cost around £5 upwards. Call charges are low, but there is a connection fee for each call, so remember to account for that to avoid running out of credit half-way through a call.

How do International Calling Cards work?

The card will include a phone number to dial connect you to the system. There are often several of these numbers to choose from, all with different charges – so chose wisely.

If you are calling from a mobile then makes sure the number you use starts with an 01, 02 or 03 number. This keeps the cost of mobile calls down and if you have a contract rather than a ‘Pay As You Go’ (PAYG) plan, the cost will be deducted from your inclusive minutes.

However from landlines, use the 0800 number if there is one – just make sure there’s one available before you buy. These numbers are free to call from landlines. Unless it’s really urgent, avoid using International Calling Cards from payphones, as this can carry an expensive surcharge. And remember, many UK payphones no longer accept cash, so it can be very easy to rack up large credit card bills!

Simply Dial – simply dial, and talk!

Another alternative is to access a ‘Simply Dial’ site, which will give you access to cheap international calls to dozens of countries around the world. You’re not tied into any kind of contract or required to open an account, and there’s no nasty phone bills at the end of the month.

Simply search online for a Simply Dial site (there are many different providers so it’s worth doing a quick check to find the cheapest deals) to find the access number you need. Then simply dial, wait for the instructions, you then dial the full international number you want to connect to –that’s all there is to it.

There is a surcharge from BT payphones, but it’s not as high as using a calling card. You can also use the these numbers from mobile phones, enabling you to call abroad for much less than you would with a standard network contract. Calls can cost as little as 1p/minute, making them incredibly affordable. If you need to call a mobile phone in your home country, check the details as many Simply Dial services offer a separate number for this.

Voice over Internet Protocol – a mouthful, but very cheap!

VoIP offers a fabulous way to use your computer or smartphone speak with friends and family around the world. Whilst Facebook and other social networks are great (and free), sometimes you simply want to talk directly. This is where VoIP comes in.

VoIP uses the internet to let you make free voice or video calls to any destination in the world. All you need is a computer or smartphone, a webcam, access to a broadband service and the required software - most commonly Skype, but other services such as Google Voice and Vonage are available.

To make the connection, the person you are contacting also needs to have the same set-up. If they don’t then you can use some VoIP services to make low-cost calls to their phone as well. The cheapest way is to sign up for a monthly contract. This means that you don’t pay a connection fee and can take advantage of package deals too.

For example, if you want to call China, then Skype’s PAYG rate is 1.6p/minute. But this drops to 1.4p/minute if you sign up for a 60-minute monthly subscription. Likewise, calls to Nigeria are 7p/minute on PAYG, but just 5.8p/minute with a subscription. The more minutes you subscribe to per month, the cheaper the rate.

Calling more than one country

If you have friends and family spread around the world, then it’s worth looking at Skype’s international regional call packages. For example, if you have family in China, Hong Kong and Malaysia, then their Far East package may be the best alternative. If you have family in the USA and Canada then look for their North America package.

However, if you want to contact friends and family in different parts of the world, check their ‘bundle’ deals that allow you to purchase minutes to countries that are not included in their other package deals, such as Saudi Arabia.

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