02 May Expat Life: How We Phone Home
Hey, readers! Here’s another guest post from Mr. Hola himself, Britton! He’s the tech guru in my life, and has offered to bestow his wisdom on how to call people in the US while living in the UK. Enjoy! —Ellen
How to call the U.S. from the U.K.
I’m often asked “Hey, Britton, what are the steps you take to implement all the weird, overly-complicated tech solutions you come up with to not only keep your life in check around the world but stay in touch with friends and family without spending absurd amounts of money?”
I’m glad you asked and boy am I excited to tell you about it!
Let’s start with the basics: phone calls. By this I mean: keeping in touch with friends and family without asking them to change what they do.
There are tons of different solutions out there, most of which you’ve probably heard of:
- VOIP (Voice-Over IP) services such as Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime
- Normal phone calls (that is, using your phone as a normal phone to call home)
- Calling cards
I’ll start with the terrible, low-tech ideas: normal phone calls and calling cards.
If you’re coming from the US (like me) and are thinking to yourself “Hey, my carrier allows calls overseas; all I have to do is sign up for their international plan!,” you should throw your phone in the nearest river right now, because you don’t deserve to have it. Why, you ask? Because all those plans are horribly expensive. By “horribly” I mean you should buy me some beer with all the extra dollars you’re sitting on. (Please, seriously, I love beer.) The current exception to the “horribly expensive” rule is T-Mobile, which includes a very basic international data plan, which isn’t suitable for living abroad.
In short, the US carriers charge you out the wazoo for international voice, text messages, and data. Here’s an example from AT&T’s website as of March 30, 2016:
This might not seem terrible until you realize you’ve already blown through your data allowance after two days from all those Facebook pics you’ve uploaded and the automatic photo stream uploads you’ve had going on in the background. Oops.
What about calling cards? No, just…no.
Turns out there’s this thing called “the internet” – you should check it out sometime.
I could go on for days about why purchasing plans from your US carrier is a bad idea, but this post is more about what I use now. I’m an expat, which is very different from going on vacation somewhere for a week.
Google Voice vs Skype vs FaceTime
I’ve used Skype in the past – why not use it now? Remember when I said early on I like using inexpensive solutions? Yeah, that’s where this comes into play. You can buy a phone number from Skype and sign up for a normal calling subscription. All those words mean “not cheap.” What about FaceTime? As far as I know, you can’t make normal phone calls with it or call anyone who doesn’t have FaceTime — you can only do FaceTime-to-FaceTime “calls,” which isn’t really what I’m going for. Plus, not everyone I want to talk to uses an iPhone.
Ok, so with that not-very-in-depth reasoning of why to ignore Skype and FaceTime, let’s focus on Google Hangouts, which is the clear winner in my book. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a service where you can sign up for a free, local US telephone number. Here’s why I prefer it:
- When you sign up for a free US number, you can call normal phones and people can call you via the Google Voice or Google Hangouts app (Voice/Hangouts are practically interchangeable for our purposes).
- It’s currently free to make and receive calls from US/Canada numbers (though other countries cost money).
- You already have a Google account. If you don’t, stop lying, yes you do.
- You can send text messages from the Google Voice account.
- You can do all of this from anywhere, as long as you have a data connection.
When we moved from the US, I had a cell phone through T-Mobile. The international data worked well on short business trips, but I was given a work phone when I got to the UK and saw no reason to pay for an extra phone. I therefore ported my phone number — the number people already have in their contact list — to Google Voice for $20USD. This is the brilliant part: by porting the number over, I took the phone carriers completely out of the equation on my end. Because Google Voice integrates with Hangouts, I can make normal calls to anyone in the US as though I’m calling from my old cell phone – all I need is an internet connection.
Since porting our US cell phone numbers over to Google Voice, Ellen and I have had no problems keeping in touch with people back home. If you’re trying to reach us, you literally do nothing different – you just call or text, and we respond, even though we no longer have US cell phones.
If we tally it all up, between us we have:
- Four US phone numbers – We each kept our old Google Voice numbers and ported the cell number over, so I technically have two US numbers and so does Ellen.
- My UK mobile number. This is great for making UK calls, but it’s paid for by my company so I don’t tend to use it for personal/international calls.
- Ellen’s UK mobile number, which we acquired after the move, and also don’t use for US or International calls.
Google Hangouts is the app we use to call and text. You set it up with your Google account and then download the Hangouts Dialer app, which integrates into the regular Hangouts app and lets you make normal phone calls. We spent quite a bit of time explaining to people that yes, they could indeed keep communicating with us as though nothing had changed, even though we were in the UK!
Ultimately, setting all of this up isn’t overly complicated, but isn’t the simplest thing in the world. There are plenty of tutorials online, but the basic outline is:
- Port US cell number to Google Voice (this could take a couple days, plan your beer intake accordingly)
- Install Google Hangouts app on your phone / tablet (Android (duh) and iOS)
- Install the Hangouts extension on your computer
- Log in to all the apps in all the places!
- Enjoy a beer.
If you’ve done everything right, this should be a one, maybe two-beer project (after Step 1). Porting the number will take the longest, and it’s all on the carriers to figure that out. Once you submit that request and cough up $20, you sit back and wait.
When someone in the US calls my old cell phone number, it rings on my laptop and cell phone, but that’s because it’s coming in as a Hangouts call, not a normal phone call. If someone texts me? It’s the same thing. How much does all this cost? Depends on which beer you bought, but porting the number is $20 and everything else is free, so the long-term costs are negligible.
Ultimately, as long as you have an internet connection, you can do pretty much anything you need. The great thing is it’s all dirt cheap. Can it get confusing switching between Hangouts, normal phone calls, and text messages all on your phone? I guess, but it sure beats paying some US carrier twenty times more than you should for something that doesn’t work as well.
Just my £.02.
I now carry two mobile phones – one for work, and a personal one tied to a UK number to help keep work and life a bit more separate. All the principles outlined above are still the same. We’ve largely switched to WhatsApp for better security (and because all of Europe uses WhatsApp) but still use Google Voice for phone calls to and from the US.