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 £11/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.
The MSE UK and International CallCheckers show that the cheapest override provider - depending on who your home phone provider is and where you're calling - doesn't charge by the minute but has a 5p connection-fee per call. So if you're calling someone from your landline or mobile who doesn't use VoIP, this can be the cheapest route.
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 1.7p/min. Yet the cheapest override provider charges 15p/call, which would be better for a longer call. To find the cheapest provider for each country, use the MSE CallChecker comparison service.
- 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. If you have a Mac computer with Mac OS X v10.6.6 or above, you'll also be able to FaceTime.
All new Apple devices come with FaceTime already installed, so you can start using it straightaway, without setting up a user name or password.
iPhone 4 users can only use FaceTime over wi-fi, however other iPhone users (4S, 5, 5S, 5C, 6 and 6 Plus) can use the service over both wi-fi and with a data allowance. However be wary of eating into your data allowance. Using your 3G or 4G connection will eat into your data limit, but the cost is minimal. Vodafone says a 10-minute FaceTime call will use about 30MB of mobile data.
Those with the iOS 7 operating system or later on their iPhone or iPad can use FaceTime Audio. This lets you make voice calls in the same way as above. Handily, it tells you how much data you've used on each call, helping you avoid eating into your allowance.
- 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
Free Viber-to-Viber calls - and beats Skype on costs to real numbers
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 it on PCs, Macs, all mobile phones and tablets. To get it on your phone, just download the free app and you can call Viber users anywhere in the world for zilch. To use Viber on a tablet or computer, you have to install it on your phone first.
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. There's a 'Viber Out' option, for iPhone and Android devices, which lets you buy credit to make these calls on a pay-as-you-go basis.
If you used Viber in the UK to call a mobile in the US it's 1p/min. The same call via Skype costs 1.7p/min.
To check that you're always using the cheapest provider for each country, use the MSE CallChecker comparison service.
- 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
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, and unlike most override providers, it doesn't charge a connection fee, which makes it ideal if you tend to make multiple, shorter calls.
Its per-minute rates don't tend to be as cheap as the override providers in our International Callchecker though. For example, someone calling via Rebtel to a mobile in the US (that doesn't have the app) would pay nearly 0.99p/minute, whereas the cheapest override provider only charges a 15p connection fee per call. So for longer calls you're better off going down this route.
- 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
App that works across most devices
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.
You can use the app on PCs, iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Blackberrys and tablets. You get your first 10 minutes worth of calls (to numbers in certain countries only) free to try out the service.
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.
It also means you can call any mobile or landline globally either via the web or using a phone signal. The latter could be an expensive option for some though.
Unlike most other VoIP providers, its rates to call real phone numbers abroad can be competitive. For example, calling landlines in countries within its "VykeZone" - including Australia, China and the US - would cost just 9p/hour, compared with 15p on the cheapest override provider. Though always compare rates using the MSE CallChecker to find the cheapest way.
- 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
App for iPhones and Androids
Localphone offers cheap 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 non-Localphone numbers are very competitive though. 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 (when it does, they'll be featured in the free MoneySaving email). These usually give unlimited calls for free to a certain destination, with no obligation to continue using the service.
- 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
Make free web calls via your landline
Sign up to Vonage and you can make free calls to other landlines and mobiles using Vonage, anywhere in the world, via your landline handset. You just need to plug an adapter into your broadband router.
If you make a huge number of long phone-to-phone overseas calls, a package with Vonage may be the most MoneySaving route.
Make just a few overseas calls per year, and a no-frills cheap override provider will be cheaper (see the MSE International CallChecker).
- Cost to use: Calls free Vonage-to-Vonage, other calls are chargeable. Price plans start from £7/month for unltd UK landline calls.
- Can be used on: Landlines, Windows computers, Macs (with additional software)
- Feedback: Vonage feedback forum discussion