Nick | Edited by Steve N
Updated 23 Sep 2015
It's possible to call anywhere in the world free. If you've a steady broadband connection, free internet phone calls can slash the cost of calling abroad - and you can even save if you're out and about on 3G or 4G.
It sounds complicated, but making calls via the web is easy, especially if you've a smartphone. This guide includes apps that let you call for nowt, how to make free calls from your computer and the best way to call friends who don't do internet calls.
In this guide...
How to make free internet calls
If you and the person you're calling are both online, you can make free internet calls (barring any web access costs), no matter where in the world you both are.
There are different ways to make free calls via the web. Each requires an internet connection, though depending on the service you can make calls either via a computer, your mobile or even using your landline.
The best route for you depends on which service your family and friends use, because using the same as them will get you free calls. Here are the key options (we then list the top apps and services below):
- Smartphone-to-smartphone. If you've got a smartphone with web access, free apps will get you free calls as long as your friend's using the same service.
- Computer-to-computer (and tablets). If you've got a computer or tablet you can likewise use your internet connection to make free calls so long as your friend's using the same service.
- Tablet/computer-to-phone (and vice versa). You can use a computer to call a phone for free so long as it's a smartphone using the same service. It works the other way too. But if you're calling a landline or a mobile which isn't a smartphone from your computer it WON'T be free (unless it's a toll-free number, eg, 0800) - you may be better off using an override provider instead.
Someone using Skype on a smartphone in the UK to call someone using Skype on a smartphone in the US can call for free. However for web-to-phone calls, you'll pay.
For example, use Skype on an iPhone in the UK to call a US landline and it would cost 1.7p/min. A Vonage package costs £12/month for unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles in 34 countries - including Australia, the US and Canada - and unlimited calls to landlines only in 68 countries.
Yes, you can use your landline to make calls over thje internet - and it can often be cheaper. You'll need a special £20+ adapter that plugs into your home phone and broadband, which re-routes the calls. If you sign up with some services, on a monthly package, you can get the adapter included in the costs.
Can I receive calls over the internet from a landline?
Many providers allocate you a number on which you can receive calls. Some even provide an adapter that bypasses the computer altogether and plugs into your normal phone handset.
Free calls over the internet are made using what's geekily known as "VoIP", which is short for "Voice over Internet Protocol".
You may not have heard of it, but you've probably used internet telephony without even realising it. It's increasingly used as the background technology for normal calls too.
How exactly does VoIP work?
Here comes the science bit... With traditional phone calls, there's a constantly open pipeline with information streaming both ways, like this:
Make a free internet call using VoIP and your voice is split into tiny packets of data, using high-speed technology and computer processing power.
These are then bulleted along the line and decompressed at the other end. Other people's conversations are also bulleted along the line at the same time, so one line carries much more information, making it cheaper to operate.
As well as cutting costs while at home in the UK, using VoIP cuts costs if you're travelling abroad and need to call home. DON'T use data while abroad though, as this will cost BIG. If you've free or cheap web access, you can call at no or low cost (depending on provider), via a PC, your mobile or a tablet. This saves massively on hotel phone charges, and often beats overseas phone cards.
There are a few drawbacks to VoIP though, so it's probably not wise to ditch your landline or mobile completely.
VoIP calls require an internet connection. If your power goes or your broadband breaks, you won't be able to call.
Call quality depends on your broadband connection, and that of the person you're calling. Tempremental broadband could mean poor call quality.
Not all VoIP providers let you call emergency numbers - you would have to dial 999 from your mobile or a landline.
When using VoIP for free calls, providers are pretty similar, and the best one for you is really a personal preference. The crucial thing is to ensure you both have the same app. Also factor in your handset type and if you want to make video calls.
All the ones we've detailed below are free to download. To make completely free calls, you and the person you're calling needs to use the same provider. If not, you'll pay. Here are our VoIP provider top picks:
Most popular free web calls service - but calls to real phone numbers cost more
Used by over 600 million people around the world, Skype is the biggest name in VoIP, letting you make free voice or video calls to other Skype users.
You can use it on PCs and Macs (with speakers and a headset) and even on some smart TVs. To use it on your mobile, download the free mobile app (works on iPhones, Android phones and Windows phones). You can also make Skype calls using your landline via a home phone adapter, or a cordless home phone with Skype already built in.
Whichever way you choose, if the person you're calling has Skype too, you won't pay. So someone using Skype on an iPhone in the UK to call someone using Skype on their TV in the US is free, for example.
Never automatically use Skype to make a phone call
While it's free to call a Skype contact, using Skype to call real phone numbers abroad is by no means the cheapest way. For example, using Skype in the UK to call a US landline would cost 1.8p/min plus a 3.1p connection fee. Yet call via provider Localphone, and it's only 0.5p/min (no connection fee) – so always check competitors' rates.
- Cost to use: Calls are free to other Skype users, or chargeable if calling a landline/mobile number not on Skype, but the app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless you're on wi-fi
- Can be used on: Mobiles, tablets, Windows computers, Macs, landline phones, some smart TVs, some games consoles
- Feedback: Skype feedback forum discussion
Free video calls to other Apple users
If you've got an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you can make free video calls to other Apple users. Those with iOS 7 or later on their device can also make audio-only calls – "FaceTime Audio". Mac computers with OS X 10.6.6 or above are also compatible with FaceTime.
iPhone users with the 4S or newer can use the service over both wi-fi and with a data allowance (it only works over Wi-fi on the iPhone 4). Calling via 3G/4G will eat into your data limit, though the usage is minimal; Vodafone says a 10-minute FaceTime call will use about 30MB of mobile data.
- Cost to use: Calls are free, but the app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless you're on wi-fi
- Can be used on: iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, Macs
- Feedback: FaceTime feedback forum discussion
Calling and messaging all-in-one
Earlier this year popular instant messaging service WhatsApp launched free calling between its users. You can use it on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry – the apps are free to download and use for the first year, after which it costs 79p/year.
The benefit of WhatsApp over its competitors is that so many people use it, and – unlike Facetime – it works across multiple mobile operating systems. It's also useful for having all your web chats and contacts in one place.
While WhatsApp Web lets you use the messaging function through a browser, web calling can only be done from the smartphone app. You also can't use WhatsApp for calling non-users, only for free calls (and messages) to others with the app.
Unfortunately, we've heard that audio quality isn't the best, and occasionally calls drop out unless you're on anything but the strongest of Wi-fi or data connection. Hopefully this will improve with time as it develops the service.
- Cost to use: Calls are free, but the app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless you're on Wi-fi
- Can be used on: Mobiles, tablets, Windows computers, Macs
- Feedback: WhatsApp feedback forum discussion
Free Viber-to-Viber calls – and superior call quality
About 600 million people now use Viber after a rapid rise to global popularity. Like Skype, it lets you make free voice and video calls to friends and family who're fellow users.
You can use Viber on PCs, Macs, all mobile phones and tablets. To use it on a tablet or computer, you have to install it on your phone first.
To get it on your phone, download the free app and you can call Viber users anywhere in the world for zilch – it'll automatically recognise contacts in your phonebook that have it too, and list them within the app.
While you can't use Viber to make calls on a landline, its rates are at least cheap for calls from mobiles to non-users – via what it dubbs 'Viber Out' – from iPhone and Android devices.
We've also heard (literally) that call quality is better than you get with with some other providers.
- Cost to use: Calls are free to other Viber users, or chargeable if calling a landline/mobile number not using Viber. The app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless on wi-fi
- Can be used on: Mobiles, tablets, Windows computers, Macs
- Feedback: Viber feedback forum discussion
Most competitive rates for international calls
Another popular VoIP provider is Vyke. Like others here, it has a free smartphone app, which you can use to make cheap calls to landlines or mobiles over Wi-fi, or using your mobile 3G/4G connection.
Vyke works by transferring you to a network provider first (ie, BT), then transferring you to the number you called. The company says this improves the quality of calls, as opposed to a straight Wi-fi connection.
When we checked VoIP providers' pay-as-you-go rates across a number of countries, Vyke came out the cheapest for the majority of destinations. Alternatively, opt into its "VykeZone" and call any landline in its list of eligible countries – including Australia, China and the US – and pay 10p for an entire one-hour call.
You get your first 10 minutes worth of calls (to numbers in certain countries only) free to try out the service.
- Cost to use: Cheap calls to mobiles and landlines, but the app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless you're on wi-fi
- Can be used on: iPhone, Android mobiles, Blackberry, iPads, tablets, Windows computers
- Feedback: Vyke feedback forum discussion
Easy to use app, and decent rates
Localphone offers free calls to other Localphone users and a number of ways to make calls. You can call phone-to-phone, PC-to-PC, or PC-to-phone (though, as always, this can be chargeable).
Rates for calls to mobile and landline numbers are very competitive though, and, it'll show you the rate of the number before making the call – handy if you're calling overseas or premium-rate numbers. You get a free call for five minutes when you sign up.
We've received good feedback about Localphone, so it's worth trying. It often runs free call promotions to normal phones too. For example, at the time of writing students can get double credit on their first top-up, up to a maximum of £10.
- Cost to use: Calls are cheap to other Localphone users, or chargeable if calling a landline/mobile not using Localphone, but the app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless you're on wi-fi
- Can be used on: iPhones, Android mobiles, Windows computers, Macs, landlines
- Feedback: Localphone feedback forum discussion
Good for calls from non-smartphone mobiles
You can use Rebtel on smartphones (Including Apple, Android and Windows), iPads and Android tablets via an app using a mobile internet connection (wi-fi or data) or PC. Like Skype and Viber, calls are only free to other Rebtel users via the apps – you'll pay to call non-Rebtel users.
But Rebtel can also be used on non-smartphones by calling via a 'local access number'. Helpfully, it doesn't charge a connection fee, which makes it ideal if you tend to make multiple, shorter calls.
Generally its rates are beaten by Localphone's, though for calling some countries it can be cheaper, so always check first.
- Cost to use: Calls to other Rebtel users via the web free otherwise cheap calls to int'l destinations, but the app uses a small amount of data which may cost unless you're on wi-fi
- Can be used on: iPhones, Android phones/devices, iPads, Windows computers, landlines
- Feedback: Rebtel feedback forum discussion
Make cheap web calls via your landline
If you make a lot of calls overseas, and prefer to do so from your landline, Vonage offers plans from £12/month. It works by plugging an adapter into your broadband router (there's a £5 delivery charge for this).
There is also a £8/month plan for unlimited calls to just UK landlines, but this isn't much cheaper than what you can pay your landline provider directly for such a package, so we wouldn't recommend it.
The most basic plan for calling abroad, Talk World, gives unlimited calls to UK and international landlines in 60+ countries, plus 400 minutes to India, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
Vonage does offer a free app for calling and messaging other Vonage Mobile users over Wi-fi, though frankly you're better off going for a more widely used platform like WhatsApp or Viber if this is your intention.
- Cost to use: Calls are chargeable in the form of plans. Price plans start from £7/month.
- Can be used on: Landlines, Windows computers, Macs (with additional software)
- Feedback: Vonage feedback forum discussion