You’re traveling abroad and want to make sure you’re using the best international calling app for your needs. This article will compare the top contenders: FaceTime/iMessage, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Voice and Facebook Messenger. We’ll also give you the pros and cons of each (including a handy comparison chart), so you can find the best international calling app for you!
The Best International Calling Apps
Is Facebook Messenger the best international calling app?
Facebook Messenger offers video and audio calls and messaging so long as you download the app or message people through Facebook. The person you’re contacting needs either a phone number or a Facebook account. International voice and audio calls are free (not counting the cost of data) because they are made using wifi or cellular data.
Android users can now send SMS and MMS texts using Facebook Messenger, so carrier text messaging rates would apply and Android users could get hit with high roaming charges for sending texts while abroad. So to protect yourself from high roaming fees, Android users should check your Facebook Messenger app settings to turn SMS off (the steps will vary by phone). If you have an iPhone, your texts are sent using wifi or cellular data.
What else you need to know
The quality of Facebook audio and video calls has always been hit or miss but Facebook is working hard to improve their quality.
Is FaceTime/iMessage the best international calling app?
FaceTime audio and video calling is only available to iPhone users and can only be used to call other iPhone users over wifi or cellular. You just need someone’s mobile number or Apple ID if they don’t have a mobile number. So, FaceTime will only be the best international calling app for you if most of the people you need to talk to are also Apple users.
Similarly, iPhone users can only send iMessages to other iPhone users over wifi or cellular. If you have a cellular plan, iPhone users can use the iPhone Message app to send SMS messages to non-iPhone users, but they will get charged their carrier’s text messaging rates.
If you plan to use iMessage while you’re abroad and you replace your SIM card, make sure you follow these steps:
- In Settings > Messages > Send & Receive, make sure your Apple ID and an email address is added then make sure that email is chosen for START NEW CONVERSATIONS FROM (when you change SIM cards, you have a new mobile number, so you have to send iMessages from your email).
- If someone texts you and they don’t have your email address in their contacts with your cell phone number, it may not go through, so tell people back home to add your email address to your contacts. Or just iMessage your contact first, and they will be replying to your email address.
- Make sure to add a plus (+1) symbol in front of everyone’s number (you get the + symbol by holding down the “0”).
What else you need to know
The quality of audio and video calls can vary depending on the device. Because everyone using FaceTime audio or video is on an Apple device, the quality is generally good.
Google has a confusing number of calling and texting apps, including Google Voice, Google Hangouts, and Android Messenger (until recently called Google Messenger), not to mention a new carrier, Project Fi (click here for a comparison of international plans offered by U.S. carriers).
The Google Voice app uses your carrier’s minutes, so you will be charged Google Voice international rates. You carrier may also apply roaming charges (even if you have roaming turned off), so it’s not a good option to use internationally. Google Hangouts uses cellular data or wifi, and you can call almost any number in the U.S. or Canada for free even if you’re in another country. Google Hangouts also offers low rates for international calls. They’ll let you know before you make the call how much it will be, e.g., 15 cents/min if you’re calling a number in Portugal.
You can make a call in Hangouts directly from Gmail or on your computer by clicking on the phone icon underneath your Google Chat or through the Google Hangouts app. Unless you have a Google Voice account that’s linked to Google Hangout, the number will be shown as “unknown” on the Caller ID and the person will not be able to call you back. If you link your Google Voice account to your Hangouts account, your Google Voice number will be displayed on the Caller ID and someone can call you back at your Google Voice number. You can also have your U.S. number forwarded to your Google Voice number and answer calls to your U.S. number for free on Google Hangouts. This would be treated as a call to a U.S. number, so you can avoid paying higher rates for minutes on your international plan.
TIP: If you change your SIM card, you cannot have calls forwarded to your Google Voice number, because by taking out the SIM card, you’re disabling your carrier’s network.
You can only text from a Google Hangouts if you are an Android user or have a Google Voice number. You also can’t text an international number or have texts forwarded to your Google Voice number.
What else you need to know
You need to have at least a 3G data connection. So if you’re using T-Mobile or Sprint’s 2G, you may have issues connecting (although users have sometimes had success).
If you’re traveling internationally, always use the “+” sign and country code when dialing or texting your contacts and phone numbers, so if you’re dialing the U.S., dial “+1” before the number.
Because we don’t use Google Voice normally and more of our friends are on WhatsApp or Skype, it’s not worth setting up a Google Voice number, but Google Hangouts is a great tool to be able to call a U.S. number that’s not on Skype or WhatsApp for free. You also may be able to use Google Hangouts to check your voicemail on your U.S. phone. Verizon claims you’re unable to do so if you take out your SIM card, but we’ve been able to do it – just call your own number and press # and enter your voicemail password (how you check your voicemail will depend on your carrier).
Google also just launched Duo (video calling) and Spaces (a social chat network). Check out this article for a summary of these other options.
Is Skype the best international calling app?
After downloading the desktop or mobile app and setting up a Skype ID and password, you can call anyone else with a Skype ID for free over wifi or cellular data. If you want to call a landline or mobile phone, you’ll have to pay, e.g., 2.3 cents/minute for calls to the U.S. and 10 cents/minute for calls to Portugal (cheaper rates are available if you buy minutes ahead of time). The rates depend on where you call to, not where you’re calling from.
You can also send a SMS/MMS message from your Skype number to a mobile number by adding it to your Skype contacts at a rate that varies by country (13 cents per text to Portugal), but they can’t reply back to your Skype number, which seems to defeat the purpose of texting. Skype also offers instant messaging, and you’re able to message someone who doesn’t have a Skype ID, but that person only gets a temporary account good for 24 hours.
What else you need to know
Skype began by offering desktop video and voice calls and that’s where it shines. It has great quality audio and video calls. It has also added lots of business-related functionality, so if you’re debating using something for work and personal use, Skype might be your best app for international calling.
Is WhatsApp the best international calling app?
Calling and Texting
WhatsApp is a mobile and desktop app that allows you to message or make voice and video calls to anyone in the world for free (assuming wifi is free) so long as they also have WhatsApp. You can also send group texts to up to 256 people!
The downside is that as of now, you can only call mobile users who have WhatsApp. But once you download the app and you click on the Contacts icon on the bottom middle of your screen, it will tell you underneath each name if someone is using WhatsApp. If they aren’t, you just click on their name and click “Invite to WhatsApp” and they’ll get a text message with a link to download the app.
What else you need to know
If you plan to change your SIM card, or will not have access to cheap international texts, send the invitation texts described above to contacts before leaving on your trip. If not, you’ll get charged international texting rates to send the text invitation.
If you switch out your SIM card, your contacts at home can still reach you on WhatsApp so long as you don’t change your WhatsApp account to your new phone number. If you meet someone new, give out your U.S. number (with a +1) and they will be able to text/call you on WhatsApp for free no matter what country their phone number is from.
Are there other lesser known apps that might be the best international calling app?
We’ve only listed the most popular calling/texting apps, but there are many more out there. A few other apps available on both Android and iOS to consider in your quest to find the best international calling app:
- Viber: free audio and video calls and texting using wifi and cellular to other Viber users, calls to mobile and landlines for a fee.
- Rebtel: audio calls only, over wifi and voice network for a fee.
- Tango: free audio and video calls and texting using wifi and cellular but only to other Tango users.
Comparison Chart: The Best International Calling App
We’ve put together a comparison chart showing the pros and cons of each app.
| ||Facebook Messenger||FaceTime/iMessage||Google Voice/Hangouts/|
|How to use||If you download the app or message people through Facebook, you can contact anyone with Messenger App or a Facebook account.||You need an Apple device and can contact anyone with an Apple device (no mobile # is required).||You need a Google # to use Google Voice. Anyone with Gmail can use Google Hangouts to make calls to any landline or mobile #.||If you have a Skype ID and you can call anyone with a Skype ID for free. There's a fee to make calls to mobile #s and landlines.||If you download WhatsApp, you can contact anyone else with WhatsApp (WhatsApp users are marked in your contacts).
|Calls||Video and audio call capabilities over cellular or wifi; group video and audio calls.||Video and audio call capabilities over cellular or wifi; only group audio calls.||Google Voice uses minutes from your carrier and Google Hangout uses wifi or cellular data; group video/audio calls.||Video and audio call capabilities over cellular or wifi; group video/audio calls.||Video and audio call capabilities over cellular or wifi; no group calling.
|International Calling||Free international calls (not counting the cost of data).||Free international calls (not counting the cost of data).||If you’re outside the U.S., you can call almost all U.S. and Canada numbers for free and pay low rates to make international calls||Free international calls between anyone with Skype IDs. You must pay a fee to make calls to mobiles and landlines (rates depend on where you're calling to).||Free international calls (not counting the cost of data).
|Data usage test for a 10 min. call*||Audio: 4MB |
Video: 54MB (quality so/so)
|Audio: 3MB for 5 min.|
Audio: 3MB for 5 min.
Video: 7-15MB for 5 min.
Video: 22MB – 195 MB
Video: 36 MB
(quality pretty good)
Audio: for 5 min.
Video: 25 - MB for 5 min.
Video: 27MB (quality so/so)
|Texts||In the Messenger App, you can send both FB messages (using wifi or cellular) and SMS/MMS texts.||Can send photo/video texts (using wifi or cellular) to anyone whose number or email is connected to an Apple ID. Allows group texts.||Text is limited to Android users or those with a Google Voice number; you can send photos/ videos with Google Hangout||A fee for texts (rates based on country you're texting). Instant messaging capailities to another Skype ID.||Group texts (using wifi or cellular) to up to 256 people), can send photos/videos
|Changing your SIM Card||Has no effect on FB calls/messages, but SMS/MMS texts may be prohibited or subject to texting rates. ||Has no effect so long as you take certain steps (see above).||Has no effect.||Has no effect.||Has no effect if you keep WhatsApp associated with your U.S. number.
|Encryption?**||Only FB messages can be end-to-end encrypted but you must opt-in.||Messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted.||Yes but not end-to-end encrypted.||End-to-end encryption on calls over Skype, but not to a mobile # or landline; texts encrypted but not end-to-end.||Messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted (recent allegations claim there's a way around end-to-end encryption).
|Cost (assuming wifi is free)||Free||Free||Free to call almost all U.S./Canada, low rates in each country ($.15/min to call Portugal)||Free to call another Skype ID but there's a fee to call a mobile #/landline based on the country you call||Free
|Quality**||Hit or miss, the video quality was pixelated in our test.||Generally high and we found it to be the best.||Has traditionally not been good, which we confirmed, but Google is working to improve it||Generally high and we found both voice and video did well in our test||Voice is known to be better than video quality and that proved true in our test.
|Best for||Continue to use if you’re already an avid Facebook user.||Communicating with other Apple users.||Calling U.S. landlines or mobiles not on Skype or WhatsApp for free. Good video conferencing.||Video and audio calls using your computer,||Calling or texting other mobile users who are on WhatsApp; large group texts.
* The quality of the video or audio call will depend a lot on the internet connection and one app might work better than another in certain areas. So if you’re having a connection problem, try another app!
** These are estimates and quality descriptions are from 10-minute calls between someone in London with a good cellular connection and someone in Boston with a so-so connection.
How Do You Choose The Best International Calling App for You?
The online calling and texting apps we’ve listed are popular and perfectly sufficient. So make the choice based on what you’re already comfortable with and/or what you already use or have access to. If you already communicate with friends over Facebook messaging, keep using that. Or check to see who is on WhatsApp or if you have an iPhone, who is on FaceTime/iMessage. But if you need to call a U.S. landline, Google Hangout is your only free option.
Hopefully this helps make it easier to decide on the best international calling app for you. Do you want to learn more about using your cell phone in Europe, including 14 tips for saving data when traveling, how to download offline maps, what’s the best offline map app, and whether you should rely on your smartphone, a portable GPS device or in-car GPS? Then click here for links to all these articles.
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