Prior to internet calling, making international calls to the United States from Asia (or anywhere abroad) was both frustrating and expensive. Times have changed. Thankfully, the days of braving call centers with noisy connections are long gone. It's easier than ever for travelers to keep in touch with loved ones back home, particularly when traveling with a smartphone.
How to Call the United States While Traveling
If you need to dial a landline, your choices are limited to internet-calling services. Skype is still the most popular, although many travelers would argue that Microsoft's acquisition of the company in 2011 didn't do it any favors.
If your loved ones at home also install Skype on their smartphones or sign up for an online account, you can begin calling each other for free. The people you wish to call must also sign up for a free Skype account and be online at the same time. For this reason, you may wish to schedule your next call if someone will be using a headset and computer to talk.
To call regular landline numbers (including toll-free numbers), you'll need to deposit credit into your account and pay Skype's very reasonable calling rates (around 2 cents per minute). If you'll be spending a lot of time calling home, you can also subscribe to low-cost monthly plans for unlimited minutes.
Skype works the same way as other instant messaging platforms: You can add friends, update status, etc. Skype shows when your contacts are online; when they are available, you may either chat or connect for a voice call using your smartphone.
If the person you're calling doesn't have Skype installed on a smartphone, you can also make calls to their computer. Having a good headset (rather than relying on the built-in microphone) will really help call quality. If the connection is good enough, you've also got the option for video calling to liven things up.
Tip: Be careful when using Skype on public computers as it's easy to forget to log off. The program keeps running in the Windows system tray. Also, keylogging software installed on computers in internet cafes can capture passwords.
Using the Skype to Call Landlines
To call regular landline numbers with Skype, you must first fund your account with a minimum credit. In the United States, you'll need to deposit US $10 via credit card or Paypal.
Making international calls to the United States on Skype only costs around 2 cents per minute, but be warned: There is a small connection fee. You'll be charged every time you try a number, even if it was busy or went to voicemail.
The cost of each call is deducted from your initial $10 credit, which tends to last a surprisingly long time. When your credit runs out, Skype will automatically top up your account via supplied credit card or Paypal unless you turn off the auto-deposit feature in your profile settings.
Tip: When struggling with unreliable Wi-Fi connections such as those in remote parts of Asia, you'll be charged the connection fee each time you reconnect. These fees can drain your credit over the length of a frustrating call that drops many times!
Skype also offers a variety of subscription services where subscribers can pay a flat monthly rate and make unlimited international calls to the country of their choice. This is obviously the best option if you anticipate calling the same country frequently in the same month.
Important: Although calling the United States from Asia is inexpensive with VoIP (voice over IP) services, the calling rates for Skype vary from country to country. Calls to mobile phones usually cost more than calls made to landlines. Just to be certain, check the rate on the Skype website before calling those new European friends' mobile phones.
Using Smartphone Apps to Call Home
For travelers who take their smartphones to Asia, there are a number of messaging apps that allow you to make free calls over Wi-Fi and data connections.
WhatsApp, Line, and Viber are three popular choices for making calls. Of all the options, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) is the most popular. Assuming you have a decent Wi-Fi connection, you can make international calls to friends and family in the United States just as you normally would at home.
Note: All messaging apps have their own privacy policies; most users rarely read them carefully. You can rest assured that pretty well all of them collect data about your interests and activities. This data is used to customize ads and gets sold to third parties.
WhatsApp is an easy choice for calling other WhatsApp users, although you won't be able to use it to call landlines or computers. For convenience and quick communication home, you may wish to ask loved ones to install WhatsApp on their smartphones. Each WhatsApp user must have a real phone number.
Although you'll be limited to calling only from smartphone to smartphone, the connection is often clearer and faster than other options. Video and group calls are also options.
Warning: If you pay international roaming costs for data on your smartphone, even WhatsApp calls could cost you a lot of credit / money. Wait to call until you have a Wi-Fi connection.
Using International Calling Cards in Asia
A slightly more expensive and archaic option for calling home is to purchase international calling cards. These cards come in a multitude of denominations; each company has their own set of fees and rules. Be aware that most of the cards use “credits” to mask how much you are actually spending per call. Also, a steep connection fee for calling from pay phones is usually added to each call.
The instructions for using international calling cards at pay phones in Asia are not always obvious. If you have never used a particular calling card before, ask how to use it before purchasing.
Only use calling cards (and payphones) as a last resort in remote areas. There are usually much better options.
Unlocking Your Smartphone to Make International Calls
Although potentially expensive, calling home from Asia on your mobile phone directly without using an app or data connection is possible.
First, you must have a GSM-enabled phone. By default, most mobile phones in the United States will not work in Asia. AT&T and T-Mobile are the two best choices for smartphones that will work internationally. They also offer free international data roaming and SMS texting for customers.
Next, you'll need to have your smartphone "unlocked" to accept foreign SIM cards. Tech support for your carrier may do this for free (assuming your phone is paid off), or you can pay for unlocking service in phone shops around Asia. You'll then be able to purchase a SIM card that provides you with a local phone number (and perhaps a data 3g/4g connection) for the country you are visiting.
By adding prepaid credit to "top up" your phone, you can make calls from Asia back to the United States. Rates vary depending on the country and carrier, but you'll certainly pay more for voice calls that don't make use of an internet connection.
Use Your Phone Wisely
No matter how you choose to call the United States while traveling, don't make the common mistake of spending a large portion of your trip time staring at a phone.
With the accessibility of smartphones, the temptation for using calls and social media for mitigating loneliness and culture shock is there. Staying in touch with loved ones is important, however, that constant connection with home will make finding the magic of a destination more challenging.