The Best Free Apps for Keeping in Touch With Friends Worldwide

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Getting away from it all while traveling can be great, but sometimes we really want to chat to the people we've left at home. Thankfully, staying in touch with friends, family and loved ones is much easier than it used to be, with dozens of apps offering a way to swap stories at little or no cost.

Here are eight of the best free video, voice and messaging apps for travelers, each useful in their own way. Note that they're free both to install and use, and – if you're using a Wi-Fi connection, at least – you won't be hit with any charges from your cell company either, even if you're on the other side of the world. 

Facetime

If you and everyone you want to stay in touch with has an iPhone or iPad, Facetime is one of the easiest video and voice options you've got. It's already installed on every iOS device, and setting it up takes less than a minute.

Once that's done, you can call anyone in your contacts who has also enabled Facetime just by tapping the phone or camera icon. It works over Wi-Fi or cell data.

iMessage

For iPhone and iPad users who prefer text messages to video and voice, iMessage is the answer. Just like Facetime, it's built into every iOS device, and is equally easy to set up. It works over Wi-Fi or cellular data, and acts much like a better version of SMS.

As well as normal messages, you can also send images, videos, links and group messages. You'll see when your messages are delivered and – if the other person has enabled it – when those messages are read.

WhatsApp

If you're looking for an app that lets you quickly message people regardless of what kind of phone or tablet they have, WhatsApp is where it's at. You can send text-based messages and quick voice memos to other WhatsApp users on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry and other devices.

There's also a basic web-based version, but it requires your phone to be turned on and have WhatsApp installed.

You use your existing cell number to sign up for WhatsApp, but the app will then work over Wi-Fi or cell data – even if you use a different SIM card or have international roaming turned off while overseas.

Google Duo

This app allows you to connect with up to eight other app users, either with or without video. It works on both iOS and Android devices, is available on smartphones, tablets, computers, and other smart devices, and provides end-to-end encryption, so your calls stay private. When you place a call, the receiver can see a preview video of you before they pick up (the "knock knock" feature), so you're already greeting them before they can even say "hello." Or if they're not available, you're able to leave a video message for them just as you would a voicemail.

Google Hangouts

If you've got a Google account, you've already got access to Google Hangouts. It works in much the same way as Skype, but with a few extra handy features. You can make and receive voice, video and text messages and also make calls and send/receive SMS to almost any number in the US and Canada.

You can also sign up for a U.S.-based phone number that lets you receive calls and texts in the Google Voice app, no matter where you are in the world. As long as you've got access to Wi-Fi or cell data, all of the above features are available at no extra charge.

Hangouts and Voice are a powerful pair of apps, and run in the Chrome browser, iOS and Android.

Facebook Messenger

While there's nothing particularly innovative about Facebook Messenger and its text and video-based messaging system, it has one major advantage—with around 1.5 billion users, anyone you want to chat with is likely to have a Facebook account.

If you're already friends on the social network, there's no setup required – just send them a message from the website, or the dedicated Messenger app on iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Skype

Perhaps the most well-known free calling app out there, Skype lets you make video and voice calls to anyone else with the app. It runs on Windows, Mac, and most mobile devices, and you can send text-based messages as well.

Setup is relatively straightforward, and since the app is so popular, you'll likely find that many of your friends and family already use it. Skype offers all kinds of paid services as well (including calling normal phone numbers), but app-to-app calls have always been free. 

Telegram

Telegram lets you send text messages, photos, and other files. It looks and feels a lot like WhatsApp, but has a few important differences. For those concerned about security, the app lets you encrypt your chats (so they can't be snooped on), and set them to 'self-destruct' after a certain length of time. At that point, they'll be deleted from the company's server and any device they were read on.

Telegram can run on multiple devices at the same time, including iOS, Android, Windows Phone, desktop apps and in a web browser. It works well, is developed by a company that cares about security, and is currently my favorite messaging app.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo is a free video messaging app on iOS and the Google Play store. It's quite similar in concept to Snapchat except the videos aren't deleted after viewing. You can stay in touch with a group or with individuals by sharing short videos. If you can't record a video, it's also possible to send text messages. There are filters and stickers you can add to the videos you send. The app is ad-free and doesn't collect user data.

To use it, you'll have to connect your phone number, grant the app access to your contacts, and add a picture. Any contacts that already own the app will automatically show up. The only way to add a new contact is via phone number.

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