How to Call Friends and Family Overseas for Free

Although I haven’t seen them in over a year, I stay in pretty close touch with my family.

When I first came to China, that meant routinely strolling to the corner store to buy international phone cards.  After taking off the plastic wrapper and revealing the code by scratching with my fingernail, I’d call a long number, enter the code, and then the number I wanted to dial.

Aside from costing a lot (I paid 100 yuan per card, which sometimes lasted me a week), this method of calling overseas is really a hassle. It takes a long time to initiate the call and you frequently get dropped calls, frustrating everyone involved.

Fortunately there’s a much better way. I’ve been using it recently to contact friends and family in the United States from China for free.

VOIP: How It’s So Cheap

Over the last 6 years there’s been a major shakeup in the telecommunications industry as international calling has been getting swallowed up by the internet. Voice over IP has gone mainstream and the costs of overseas calls are plummeting to ridiculous lows (and in this case, free).

How is this possible? It’s due to a technology called Least Cost Routing. What this does is send your voice over the internet, for free – to a destination nearby the number you’re calling and then converts it to an analog call. Effectively making a call from any internet-connected device in the world a local call.

Google Voice and Gmail Integration

Calling overseas for free

A Voice keypad in Gmail

This summer Google integrated Voice into Gmail, allowing anyone with a Google account to make calls from within their email inbox. Instead of having to register an account and download software like Skype, you could make a call immediately using an account you already have. It took VOIP technology and Google Voice, which was something that few people understood or used, and brought it to prime time with Gmail as a delivery platform. edit: and today, they’ve renewed their commitment to it.

I was excited to see this unveiled since I use a lot of Google products and think they’re pretty great. I’m happy to report that this is no exception: it’s a cinch to use and call quality is fantastic – more clear than an ordinary call, provided your internet connection is adequate.

Here’s how to make calls for free to friends or family overseas for dirt cheap. Or free, depending on where your friends and family are located.

Calling The US for Free With Gmail

Voice integrated into Gmail offers super low prices to begin with. To give you an example, calling China from the United States costs $0.02 per minute – but in this case, we’re most interested in free. The reason this works is because Google offers domestic calls (within the United States) for free. All you have to do is appear to be in the US and you’ll be granted just that.

Here’s what required to make this work:

Requirements

  • An internet connected computer
  • Gmail account
  • A headset or earbuds with microphone, ideally
  • Working VPN or proxy connection

It’s a safe to say that the vast majority of people reading this meet the first two requirements already. If you don’t own a headset, you can pick one up and any computer shop in China and look kind of like you’re landing planes as you speak into a protruding plastic microphone attached to headphones. I use the standard Apple earbuds which came with my iPhone for this purpose – they have a microphone build in and are light and easy.

The VPN is bound to be the biggest stumbling block but everyday there are more and better options available. We’ve been using Freedur for the last year to access everything on the internet and it’s been great. But to be clear, in order for this to be free, you need to be accessing Gmail through a proxy or VPN with at least one server in the US.

Step by Step

  1. Fire up your proxy. If you’re using Freedur, this means installing the software and hitting the giant “On” button.Otherwise, you’ll want to go to System Preferences > Network (on Mac) and Start > Control Panel > Networks on Windows. From there you can set up a VPN connection by entering the username, password and server address. Your VPN provider will arm you with this information.
  2. Load Gmail and notice the Call window seated at the bottom right corner.
    Click call phone

    Click call phone

    If it’s not there, click “Call phone” in your list of Gmail chat contact in the left column. If it doesn’t automatically detect your settings (it did on my Mac), go into Gmail settings > Chat and select your microphone and speakers or headphones from the drop down list.

  3. Enter the number you want to reach and click call. The call connects and everything is seamless. I haven’t had it go any other way yet.If you aren’t going through a VPN or you’re calling another country, the cost of the call will be deducted from the pocket change that they grant you for free to begin with. If you decide you want to add more, that’s easy too.

Now go give your mother a call!

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About Charlie

Having lived in Chengdu for seven years, Charlie has traveled to every corner of China and back again, calling the Yulin neighborhood of Chengdu his home. He's a part time DJ and full time iPhone game developer, too.

20 Responses to “How to Call Friends and Family Overseas for Free”

  1. This looks like a great option. I wonder how the reception will be if my internet is not very fast though.

    • It does require a decent internet connection (ie. no one downloading torrents at the same time). I haven’t had a problem as long as nothing is downloading concurrently. The more bandwidth available, the better. Like I mentioned in the post though, the sound quality can noticeably exceed an ordinary phone call which is incredible.

  2. We “Facetime” to Chengdu from Pasadena, CA, USA going from my mac desktop and laptop to my sister in law’s iphone4 (In Chengdu) and it works great. Even though the iphone 3gs has only 1 camera, if you jailbreak it, you can still “Facetime” with it.

    • Facetime is great, although I haven’t had a chance to try it overseas yet. Going from computer-to-computer there are a lot of free options: Gmail, Facetime, Skype are the big ones. All free and work well, just require that both parties are at their computers (or iPhones). I wish my family all had iPhone’s though, Facetime would make it much easier. The only requirement is wi-fi access.

      • Facetime works great overseas. Since I’m in the U.S. and only have an iphone 3G and my sister in law has an iphone 4 I have to use my laptop or desktop to Facetime with her on her iphone 4. When I get an iPhone 4 then we will Facetime with each other phone to phone. True, you do have to be in a wifi hot spot to do this but these days wifi is so many places, even in the city in Chengdu I found many places that had hot spots. Also there is an app called “Fring” that is similar to Facetime that actually came out before Facetime which also works quite welll.

  3. I called my mother with this feature as soon as it was added, and she was sooo thrilled.

    What I really like is that it eliminates my need for skype- which has too many pop-up for my liking (at least the China version)- and integrates this function into my gmail, which is essentially the dashboard of my internetmobile.

    • That’s exactly how it went for me, hahah.

      Integrating this into Gmail was essential for its success. If they made it a separate application it wouldn’t have been nearly as practical, especially for the hundreds of millions of Gmail users.

      Someone has already asked me why I didn’t include Skype in this post – the reason is because there’s no real reason to use since it offers the same functionality in this context but doesn’t give you free computer-to-phone calls. It’s a little bit more clunky although it’s a good backup.

      • It’s only free for calling the US. For other countries the price is only slightly cheaper than with Skype.

        An awesome guide would be how to turn an old laptop or desktop in to a Skype server. For a small monthly fee you can get a real phone number from any country you choose attached to your Skype account. Then all you need is a USB dongle which plugs in to your existing home phone system. You can then make and receive calls cheap international calls using your home phone.

        • I’m not sure I understand: you mean setup the server in China, and link that to a local phone from another country, correct? That would be a great way to do it, but it seems like the computer might not even be necessary. Are there not devices which perform this task, without having to dedicate a computer to this?

          Through a Google search I found this, not sure how helpful it is in this context: http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/8592

  4. thanks for the tutorial — i use Jajah and have been pretty satisfied with it .. but it costs money hahahaha so I am making the change.

    • I use Jajah also, especially on my phone. It’s great to be able to initiate the call over 3G and make calls like this from anywhere. I haven’t figured out how to do this using the method described above (for Google Voice you apparently need a US phone number since that service is restricted to US-only). The only thing that sucks about Jajah is that it isn’t free, otherwise it’s worked very well for me.

  5. Not completely free but…

    What I did is get a Skype-In number in my hometown in the U.S. and forward my home phone number there to that Skype-In number. That Skype-In number is then set to call my mobile phone here in China.

    So my family and friends can still call me at the same number they always have and it will ring me on the computer if I happen to be on line (if I answer on the computer the call is free for me) and will also ring my 手机 and if I pick it up there it costs me something like 2.9 cents per minute.

    Even if I’m on line, I sometimes still prefer to pick up the call on my mobile and pay the small fee because I don’t have to put up with voice dropouts caused by the vagaries of the Internet.

  6. Lately i have been using Viber for iPhone, it works pretty good aswell ! Dont know about overseas though…

    • Can you only use Viber to call other people who have it installed on their iPhones? I haven’t figured out how to call land lines or non-iPhones yet.

      • Only iPhone and BB, my bad.

        • Most of my friends got it so thats why I use it much. Forgot to tell its only for ppl who have installed Viber on their phones ( thinks its only iphone and blackberry ) It can cut calling costs, just like Whatsapp does with SMS

  7. I have been using skype, facetime, and now I will try this. Great tip!

  8. This is the most useful info I’ve seen on this. Thanks! My question is: I’m calling from overseas (Nicaragua/Cost Rica) to US numbers. It shows in gtalk as “free,” but is it free for the person I’m calling?

    • Hi Paige,

      The person that you’re calling will essentially be accepting a local call, so they won’t pay any long distance fees. However, minutes used from calls accepted in this way will count toward their total monthly minutes allowance. So if they’re limited to 500 minutes per month, these calls will fall under that limitation. Let me know if this isn’t clear!

  9. anybody used IMCapture for Facetime ( http://www.imcapture.com ) ? I heard this is a good app too as a call recorder…

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