Travel topics > Communication > Phone service
Telephones are a crucial part of modern living while at home. While many prefer to leave them (and the endless calls from the office) behind while travelling, others — from business travellers to motorists — find they can be an excellent tool for keeping in touch, planning or obtaining roadside assistance.
Check charges in advance
There are many horror stories of travellers being presented with unexpected outrageously large bills — anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to tens of thousands — either by hotels with very high charges for calls from the room or by cell phone companies with painful rates for "roaming", making or receiving calls outside the home area. Even reputable hotels are no exception here. Often these bills can be negotiated down somewhat after the fact, but rarely enough to make them painless. The best defence is to find out in advance what calls will cost so that you can avoid using overpriced services.
Take care of your charge card information
Hotels which refuse to rent a room without a charge card most often bill a vast assortment of extra charges directly to the card. Euphemistically called "incidentals" by innkeepers, these can range from overpriced minibars and pay-per-view TV channels to local telephone calls at double or more the cost of a call from a coin-operated pay phone.
An international telephone number usually consists of the international dialling prefix, a country code, an area code and the local number.
The international dialling prefix is usually shown as a leading "+" in phone numbers. The relevant prefix is automatically substituted for the "+" on mobile phones and most other smart dialling devices, but must be typed in from most landline phones. Sometimes there are several prefixes to choose from. The prefix "00" will work in most of Europe (including all of EU), "011" in the USA and Canada, "0011" in Australia.
The country codes are listed in List of country calling codes, and the relevant one in country articles' sidebar (near the top) and Connect section (near the end). Some territories have special arrangements, not using their country's country code.
The area code traditionally connected the call to a regional exchange, which knew where to direct the call locally. Nowadays they are mostly a convenience for placing local calls, or just a left-over from the analog era. Similar codes can be used for special numbers or different mobile operators, and are usually treated as mandatory area codes when placing a call. In many countries the area code is prefixed by a "0", which should be left out when using the country code, in some countries all the area code should be retained.
The local part is what comes after the area code. In many countries only this part is to be dialled when placing calls inside the area. The area code can optionally be used also then in some countries.
Mobile phones are seldom bound to a specific area and thus usually have no real area code (the exceptions may be relevant to travellers to a few countries, see relevant Connect sections). The mobile phones know the technical details, and thus knows how to call a number given in the full international form, with leading "+" and country code. Entering all numbers in this form avoids confusion when crossing borders. Some numbers that can be reached only locally don't have an international form. This includes some service and emergency numbers.
The Wikivoyage guides give all numbers in the international form, if there is one, and directions on how to convert those numbers to ones usable from local landline phones, and how to convert numbers as written locally to the international form, are usually given in the country articles' Connect sections.
Parenthesis, blanks and hyphens are often used when writing phone numbers. These are for clarity only, and are ignored when placing a call. On Wikivoyage, the local part of phone numbers is often given in parts joined by hyphens, while country code, area code and local part are separated by blanks.
- Main article: Mobile phones
You may be able to bring your mobile phone and use it either with billing through your home carrier ("roaming") or by obtaining a SIM card from a local provider. Another option is to buy an inexpensive low-end prepaid handset at destination.
Depending on the length of your trip, it may make sense to buy a local pre-paid mobile telephone, an unlocked phone and a local SIM, or a local SIM card for use in your existing mobile device. Roaming with your existing phone may be manageable when visiting one European Union country from another, but further abroad the cost may be prohibitive or the service not available. Many prepaid handsets will not roam at all. In most of Europe a pre-paid SIM card is usually very cheap (€10 or less with some credit included). In some countries (e.g. Italy) users may need to present identification or a local tax code to buy one.
There are multiple, incompatible mobile phone systems (GSM, CDMA, UMTS) and the frequencies used also vary from one continent to another, and between countries and operators among those used on the continent. Some phones can cope with more networks than others. Some handsets are locked to one provider, making them unusable with a local SIM card unless unlocked.
If you have a smartphone, there are lots of travel-oriented apps to make your trip easier.
In remote locations, without cell phone coverage, a satellite phone may be your only option. One must be outdoors with clear line of sight to the satellite to make a phone call. The service is used by shipping, including pleasure craft, as well as expeditions to remote locations with no mobile infrastructure and disaster relief missions to locations where the domestic network is damaged or destroyed.
As the most expensive option, satellite telephony is used where no other service is available.
Satellite phones may be not available for purchase or illegal in Saudi Arabia, China, India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, North Sri Lanka, and Syria. They will, however, function in these areas. Some countries require a special permit for using satellite phones within their territory.
If you are going to be out of range of a telephone, but still want to receive calls, voice mail may be an option. Most telephone service providers offer a voice mail option, usually as an add-on to an existing land line, pager, mobile or Internet-based telephone number. Some offer it as a stand-alone service.
You can usually check your voice mail remotely; obtain the access number and login details from your voice mail provider before leaving home.
Many hotels and motels charge set rates for all calls made from in-room telephones, much higher than for residential or business phones. Some even charge for calls to toll-free numbers (such as 800 number). A few have been known to block calls to telco services like Bell Canada's "Canada Direct" or (more rarely) fraudulently redirect them to another provider who immediately asks for a credit card number. Check the call rates before making a call; upscale and sometimes even budget hotels may charge US$35/min or more for international calls.
Hotels and motels usually do not charge for voice calls you receive. Check for any received telephone charges before giving out a hotel or motel telephone number for people to call you.
Usually there are charges for received faxes.
As most hotels now provide some form of broadband Internet, it may be cheaper to run a voice-over-IP application on a portable device instead of using the telephone in the room. Budget hotels usually include Wi-Fi in their base price, while many high-end properties charge substantial extra hidden fees.
A rare few business hotels offer packages that include complimentary unlimited local and toll-free calls.
If in doubt, be sure to enquire before checking in.
If you can use a phone of a private host, be aware of costs of international calls. For some, they might be a significant expense, and regardless, they are an additional expense in lodging you. Pay them if you can; otherwise try to compensate them in a suitable way.
Voice over internet
- Main article: Internet telephony
Where you have full access to the Internet at a reasonable speed, making phone calls over the Internet (VoIP) is the cheapest option. Free calls are usually possible if you have compatible calling software or apps installed on your respective devices, are online at the same time, and don't pay for the data transfer. If you pay for the airtime, VoIP may still be cheaper than ordinary calls in some scenarios.
A voice call over Internet requires a good-enough internet connection, a way to get contact over internet to the device to be called, and suitable software (and the voice hardware, included in any phone and most laptops). You may pay for use of internet, and you may pay for the operator setting up the call.
Applications for the standard session initiation protocol (SIP) are available both for laptop PC's and small mobile devices like those running Android. Unlike a cellular phone (which incurs substantial "roaming" charges when taken out of its home region), calls to your device will be directed over the internet, the cost of which in the broadband case seldom depends on the amount of traffic. However, if your connection is via the mobile phone network or a satellite connection, the per megabyte cost may be heavy.
If your smartphone has Wi-Fi, making cheap phone calls may be as easy as installing a free app (either a generic SIP client, or a programme for one specific provider like Skype or Viber) and visiting a Wi-Fi hotspot. Similar "softphone" software run on laptops or tablets using the built-in microphone and loudspeakers. Nonetheless a headset with a boom microphone gives better audio.
To be able to place calls on the public telephone network you need a telephone number, and thus an operator providing one, while end-to-end VoIP just requires the other end to run SIP software (or a proprietary equivalent) and not to be behind a firewall blocking the call.
The quality of Internet telephone connections varies widely, based on the underlying network connection. Some publicly available networks can block VoIP, some have very high latency, some are unreliable (dropping too many packets), many are simply too slow, and in some countries Internet telephony can be blocked entirely to protect the revenues of national phone companies. Etisalat, the state-owned telecommunications provider of the United Arab Emirates, has been blocking access to Skype entirely; some hotels in the UAE may provide access through 'TheWayOut' Wi-Fi service.
You should install a VoIP app and select a voice service provider (VSP) to test your configuration before departing.
It may be possible to rent a computer with Skype from a local Internet store.
While still around, pay phones are diminishing in number and most are able to place outbound calls only. Trunk or toll calls tend to be expensive, with high initial minimums. Some cost saving may be possible using prepaid calling cards (which are necessary for some of the phones).
Coin-paid long distance calls were traditionally operator-assisted, so they carry the worst rates. A call which only reaches voicemail will still incur the full toll, even though there's no means for the other party to return the call.
Check the information in the booth before making a call, especially with payphone booths not branded by a major carrier. While sometimes an obscure third-party provider is cheaper, often specialist providers charge higher fees or a substantial minimum. These can be a rude surprise if you pay by credit card.
Often, courtesy phones at airports and similar places will ringdown a specific taxi or similar traveller services. Look out for these so you may not need to use a pay phone.
Some flights offer phone service via an in-seat phone. These typically cost around US$5/minute for a voice call, or US$2 per SMS.
Special calling codes
If you have access to a phone, but want to avoid paying the local rates of international calls (or have your host pay them), you may be able to get codes to use for placing calls via a local (possibly toll-free) number.
Pre-paid phone cards
In some areas every corner store is filled with a confusing array of pre-paid phone cards that can be used from pay phones or ordinary telephones. While most cards are good for calling anywhere, some specialise in providing favourable call rates to specific groups of countries.
Access to these services is often through a toll-free telephone number that can be called from most phones without charge. The call is then redirected to a cheaper, competitive long distance provider or a voice-over-Internet server. Be aware that some pay phones and hotel phones charge for toll-free calls; a toll-free phone number may also still incur airtime charges on a mobile telephone.
While these cards often feature excellent international rates, read the fine print carefully. This contains information on when the best rates apply. Many cards carry hidden charges (such as a substantially higher rate for the first minute of a long-distance call - which is incurred even if only an answering machine responds - or a per-month charge even if the card is not being used). These are a trap for the unwary as this can wipe out the value of a card rapidly, especially if you are mostly making short calls or leaving the card idle with minutes remaining on the balance. Calls initiated via toll-free numbers from U.S. pay phones may carry a higher rate or a surcharge, as the owner of the toll-free number must pay sixty cents per payphone call on top of any long distance charge.
PIN-less phone cards are offered by several vendors: register one phone number (for example your cell phone number) and add funds when balance is low.
Telco calling cards
Some telephone service providers offer a calling card, often attached to your existing telephone account, which can be requested before travelling.
These allow trunk calls while on the road, by giving the calling card number to an operator. You may also be provided with a number to connect to your home provider to place calls home from overseas, allowing you to speak to an operator in your home language.
These services are usually charged with a surcharge on top of the provider's usual rates. Depending on the telecommunication company, you may be able to get a calling card linked to just a credit card without having to have telephone service with them. Various third-party services may be reached by dialling an access number and then following instructions from there.