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
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:
- 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
- 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.
- Load Gmail and notice the Call window seated at the bottom right corner.
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.
- 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!