Skype for International use. Skype, however, also lets you call out to mobile phones and land lines (a service called SkypeOut <http://www.skype.com/allfeatures/callphones/>) and enables you to have your own phone number in any of 23 countries, including the United States, Hong Kong, France and Italy (this is called SkypeIn <http://www.skype.com/allfeatures/onlinenumber/>).Both SkypeOut and SkypeIn carry a relatively low fee.
SkypeOut calls to land lines can be as little as 2 cents a minute, while calls to mobile phones are usually a bit more. In France, for example, a friend’s call cost me (not him) 30.8 cents a minute (not including tax). A SkypeIn subscription, meanwhile, costs $60 a year or $18 for three months. All I have to do before I leave home is set my American cellphone (an older-generation iPhone) to forward to my SkypeIn number, and all I have to do when I arrive in a new country is get a SIM card, go online and set the Skype software’s preferences to forward all calls to the new number.
So, here’s how my friend’s call to me worked: He dialed my regular American cellphone number, which forwarded to my SkypeIn number, which, in turn, forwarded (via SkypeOut) to my Italian cellphone number. Cost to him: zero. Cost to me: about $1.58, plus some small fraction of the 15 euros of Vodafone credit I’d put on my phone. (In two weeks in Italy, I never managed to use up that credit.) Certainly, the call could have been made for less – if, for example, my friend had bought an French-specific calling card. But when I travel, I can’t expect everyone to buy such calling cards and learn my new number.
This system lets anyone, anywhere, reach me, at a minimal cost to myself. If I want to call home and let my parents know how I am doing, I have to use a slightly different system – one that made use of my iPhone. Ideally, this wouldn’t require much explanation. I’d just tell you to download Skype for the iPhone, and that would be that. Unfortunately, Skype does not exist for the iPhone. Instead, I use a free third-party application called Fring <http://www.fring.com>, which functions as a kind of Skype-to-cellphone phone gateway, letting me access my Skype account wherever I have a Wi-Fi signal. (Fring also works on many other smartphones, and lets you connect to a host of other Internet communications services, like AIM, MSN Messenger, Twitter and Last.fm.) Just open a Fring account, give Fring your Skype account details, and you’re set to make SkypeOut calls to anyone you wish.
Which is exactly what I did, one evening, as I stood on Corso Como in Milan, watching beautiful people strut by, I turned on my iPhone, found an open Wi-Fi network and called home. My dad and I spoke for eight minutes and two seconds – a chat well worth the 22.8 cents it cost me. This well-honed (if complicated) system has served me very well in the last four years, but it may change in the near future. Recently, Google announced a new service called Google Voice that operates much like Skype – only cheaper! “Calls to international mobile phones are as much as a third cheaper than Skype’s.” Google says the service will be open at first only to users of GrandCentral (a startup Google bought almost two years ago); it will be available to the general public in a few weeks. If Google’s new service does indeed simplify international calling at a lower price, I may find myself switching over in the near future – and then letting you know how to do the same.