There was a time when making a phone call to another country was very expensive. The same was true for getting in touch with home while in a foreign land. The per-minute rates for calling international numbers were large enough to make even the most casual conversation prohibitively pricey. A dollar per minute was the minimum. And that was only if you were calling the “big” countries like the USA or UK. Luckily, then came calling cards to save the day. Read on to see what the fuss is all about.
The calling card – or phone card – is a clever workaround for people who need to get in touch internationally. Without forking out huge amounts of money, that is. Or even keeping calls super-short because every second counts – literally! They serve two main functions and can be handy for both, depending on your needs.
First, they give you access to a pool of pre-paid credit you can use to make calls, either locally or anywhere in the world. That pre-paid design lets you set a budget for what you will spend on phone calls. More importantly, it helps you stick to it. When the balance on the card runs out, the only way to make more calls is to either recharge the card or buy another one. That way, you’re not in danger of getting lost in conversation and going way over your budget, only to get a massive bill a month later. International phone plans aren’t the cheapest when you’re dealing with conventional providers, after all.
Why are they appealing?
The other popular feature of phone cards – and the one you’ll most frequently see them advertised for – is international calling at incredibly low rates. Phone card companies achieve this in various ways. Most commonly, they use internet-based VOIP solutions (similar to Skype) to connect calls. The outcome? Calls that cost cents per minute rather than dollars.
Another use for phone cards is perhaps less obvious. If you’re travelling overseas, you’ll discover that any method of using your own mobile phone account will be really expensive. Australian providers may have “roaming” agreements with telcos in other countries, but any call you make is going to be costly, regardless of your plan. By picking up a budget phone card before you travel (or even while you’re overseas), any payphone or landline becomes your cut-price connection to home.
How do they work?
With phone cards, to make a call you first have to call a (usually free) number provided by the card issuer. That will lead you to a voice menu where you are asked to enter the card number and PIN on your phone’s keypad. After that, you can call your number – sometimes by entering the number after yet another voice prompt, and sometimes after being redirected to a dial tone. It’s a bit like staying in a hotel and having to call down to reception to get an outside line. Just with a few more buttons to press. Simple and effective, it also has the real advantage of you never needing to enter any credit card or banking details. You have a card number and a PIN and you have a set balance. Once you use it up, you’re done.
Which card to choose
The question of which phone card to go with has always been a hard one to answer. These days, it’s almost impossible. There’s so many and varied cards available on the market (both at physical shops and online) that you’re best off relying on one of the many phone card search sites. You know, the ones that ask you to specify where you are calling from and where you want to call to, then pick from the rates and prices available.
The international phone cards market’s never been one to stick with office-like telecommunications names. However, the ease with which anyone can set up a business selling cheap international phone cards has led to a plethora of amusingly themed offerings. For instance, cards designed for specific countries’ people and marketed accordingly are common. But there’s also cards themed around everything from cricket and travel to babies and bananas (yes, the Golden Banana phone card is actually a thing – and its rates are good too!).
The Big Providers
Optus and Telstra both used to sell phone cards. Of the two, Optus seems to have totally abandoned them, though evidence of their existence can still be found on their website. Even Telstra is moving away from cards as a way to pre-pay for calls. Telstra’s PhoneAway cards have, for many years, been a great way to call while travelling around the world. They even provided a special voicemail facility for your card so you could keep in touch with home. However, Telstra discontinued PhoneAway and pulled the final plug on it last November. That leaves the reliable Phonecard – which lets you pre-pay for calls from Telstra payphones – as their only offering.
Should I just use my mobile?
If your mobile phone isn’t locked to a specific network (check with your provider to make sure and to unlock it if it is) you can easily pick up a global prepaid SIM card for it. That effectively cuts out the middle-man. You will make calls directly instead of going through a calling card service. For Australian mobile providers, this method pretty much became the norm when giving customers not only global call access, but also text messaging and data.
One example is Woolworths’ offering. It lets you buy a SIM that works in a vast amount of countries around the world. It comes with call, text and data fees a fraction of what your main mobile provider’s roaming service would cost. For example, if you were holidaying in Malta, you could receive all the texts you want for free, text anywhere in the world for 15 cents a time, and call back to Australia for 34 cents per minute. On top of that, you can buy data packs that cost little more than mobile data back in Australia.
Yes, there are potentially cheaper call rates available with traditional phone cards. However, using an international mobile SIM gives you full access to all your communications needs without having to set aside your mobile and look for a payphone.
Calling from home
Again, mobiles win out over phone cards in many (but not all) cases if you’re calling friends or family overseas from Australia. Providers big and small are offering plans with unlimited international calling to popular destinations. Deals are available even on prepaid plans, so there’s little need to go the phone card route. However, for less popular destinations, phone cards still have their place. If you need to keep in touch with family in Egypt, Iran or Iceland, you can find phone card that’ll get you talking at low cost.
Should I buy an international phone card?
If you’re travelling to remote corners of the globe or need to make a call from Australia out to those far reaches of the planet, international phone cards can be a godsend. Yes, mobile SIMs are slowly taking over the budget international communications market. But phone cards can still put you in touch with more countries – and from more countries – for less money. You’re never far away from a shop that sells one and, since they’re entirely prepaid, they’re risk-free. They even work in areas where there’s no mobile coverage at all. Assuming, of course, you can find a landline or payphone.