Dan & I have a great relationship with our families across the pond, so when we moved we knew we needed a cheap and easy way to keep in touch. Enter VOIP via Skype. So easy my 96-year-old grandfather-in-law can do it.
Voice-Over IP is software that allows you to make phone calls over the Internet to another computer or directly to a land line. The biggest reason to use VOIP is that it is much cheaper than making direct calls abroad. Skype is free to call any other computer, and approx. 17 cents a minute to call a landline or cellphone (rate depends on your location). If you make many calls you can also purchase a monthly plan to call landlines.
Of course we opt to call computer-to-computer as much as possible for the better experience. When calling a computer, many services has a video option, so if you and the person you’re talking with have webcams you can see each other while chatting. The quality of the sound and video will be dependent on the Internet speed on both ends, but I can call my parents in Vermont without too much trouble; and they have satellite cable. Being able to see everyone back home helps alleviate some of the anxiety of living so far away.
Although less used, Skype also has a chat function. I find it handy for checking in with friends and family when I want a quick chat but we don’t have time for a call. The chat is realtime but uses less bandwidth and therefore is less dependent on having a good connection.
Although there are a variety of packages out there, the one I am most comfortable with is Skype. Skype has been providing VOIP services for a long time and they have services in many different countries. If you have it, Google Voice can provide an even cheaper experience (sign-ups are by invite only).
To set up Skype you will need to download the software to any computer you wish to use and set up an account for yourself. The website has an English option for those of us with paltry Dutch skills. If you wish to call a landline (say of your luddite great aunt), you’ll need to purchase a phone number for your home country and either calling credits or a monthly subscription.
Once you’re set up, you can start calling landlines and mobiles without the other party doing anything. If your family wants to use the video option they’ll need to download and set up a Skype account too, as well as make sure you both have a microphone headset and webcam. Built-in microphone/speaker hardware is usually sufficient to get you started, but you can get much better sound with a USB headset. After that, its just a matter of waiting for your family member’s account icon to turn green so you can give them a call.
The other reason I set up an American number via Skype was to facilitate my freelance work. I knew I’d be working with people in the US and having a US number makes it easier and cheaper for them to call me when necessary. When I send people my Skype number I let them know that it is for a VOIP service so they understand if I pick up and then scramble a moment for the headset. I actually feel more comfortable talking with someone on my headset than I do via my mobile.
VOIP is a great service, but it shouldn’t replace all your phone services locally. Firstly, local calls are generally free with a landline or mobile plan. Secondly, Skype does not support emergency calls, so be safe.