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How to make cheap international calls with SIM cards

There are now more options than ever when it comes to keeping in touch with friends and family overseas. Whether you’re planning to travel or need to get in touch with family back home, making international mobile calls can be expensive. Fortunately, there are loads of options when it comes to saving money on overseas calls. International SIM cards are one of them. In this guide, we’ll share some tips to save money using the latest SIM card deals. We’ll also take a closer look at what your other options are, and how they measure up to international SIMs.

Man making international calls from airport

What are international SIM cards?

International SIM cards aren’t tied to a particular country. These SIM cards can be used with any unlocked phone and offer a range of plans with data, calls and texts that you can use in over 100 countries. 

There are a few circumstances when it makes sense to use an international SIM card. The first is when you’re travelling, as you’ll be charged cheaper rates in comparison to roaming with your home network. 

The second is for staying in touch with international contacts, rather than paying by the minute for an overseas phone call. 

Some of the top providers of international SIMs within the UK include Vectone, LycaMobile and Lebara. 

Although plans will vary, most international calling SIMs have a few things in common. Look for the following features when comparing SIM card deals:

  • Rolling contracts: Most international calling SIMs operate with a rolling contract. This means you can cancel at only 30 days’ notice. 

  • UK calls included: If you purchase your SIM card from a UK provider, they’ll usually include calls to UK mobiles and landlines. Compare data and texts allowances as well when weighing your options. 

  • Premium numbers not included: International SIMs won’t work out cheaper if you’re planning to phone premium rate numbers. If you need to place a phone call to an overseas calling centre or customer support line, you’ll still have to pay extra for that. 

International SIMs also won’t come with the little extras that you’d expect from major networks. You won’t receive special customer perks or incentives, since the focus is on keeping international calling costs low. 

What types of international SIM cards are there?

When you compare SIM deals, you’ll see that there are a few different options to choose from. 

  • Single-country SIMs: These offer cheap or inclusive calls to a single country. If you tend to make international calls to the same country or person, these will probably be the best fit. 

  • Regional SIMs: This type of international SIM offers inclusive calls to a specific region, such as North America or Eastern Europe. If you have friends and family in a few different countries in the same region, this will save you money. 

  • Bundled SIMs: Another option is to purchase a SIM that offers a set number of minutes. Rather than specifying a particular country or region, you can use these minutes freely in hundreds of global locations. These are usually more expensive, but they give you more flexibility. 

  • Student SIMs: If you’re an international student in the UK, look for student-friendly SIMs that let you stay in touch with family and friends back home. A student SIM card is usually keenly priced but may come with some restrictions, so be sure to read the fine print. 

When choosing the best international SIM card, think not only about where you want to call but also your usual habits. 

Who offers international SIM cards?

There are plenty of providers selling SIM cards. Here’s a look at a few of the top options from larger providers. 

  • O2: You can purchase an international SIM from O2 and top it up with credit. You’ll then be charged by the minute, with rates determined by the country you’re phoning. Rates start at 1p per minute.

  • EE: EE’s international SIMs last for 30 days, available in a choice of packages. The £10 International Pack, for example, includes 500MB data, 150 minutes, and 150 texts. 

  • Sky Mobile: In addition to its international calling packages, you can choose from four SIM-only data deals. These include unlimited calls and texts for existing Sky TV customers. 

  • Lebara: This provider specialises in international calling. Its SIM packages range from the entry-level option with 1,000 UK minutes, 1,000 UK texts, and 100 international minutes to the higher-end plan with unlimited data, UK minutes and international minutes for £25 a month. 

The best SIMs for international calls when travelling

The types of SIMs mentioned above are UK-based, allowing you to place cheap international calls from home. International SIMs also come in handy when you’re travelling abroad, particularly outside of the EU where roaming charges can be quite steep. 

For business travel, an international SIM card allows you to place calls immediately when you step off the plane, without any need to waste time purchasing a local SIM card upon arrival. These are also useful for shorter leisure trips when you’re travelling from one country to the next. In this type of setting, a card with a set number of minutes to hundreds of countries will serve you well. 

Although you can purchase SIM cards at airport kiosks, they often come with expensive data plans. It’s often more economical to use an international SIM from your own country with rates you’ve approved in advance. 

International SIM card vs add-ons

All major networks offer international calling plans or add-ons that you can tack onto your existing calling plan. Like international SIMs, they’re usually available on a rolling basis which means you can opt in or out provided you give 30 days’ notice. The cost will vary depending on your plan and carrier, but you can expect an international add-on to cost anywhere from £3 to £15 per month. 

As we’ve mentioned above with the SIM cards, these calling minutes only apply to mobile and landline numbers. If you ring up a premium rate number, you’ll be charged extra. Utility companies, banks, customer service lines and government agencies tend to use non-geographic numbers which won’t be covered in this type of plan. 

Another limit to these bundles is that they often come with a maximum call duration (typically one or two hours). If you carry on past the cut-off time you’ll be charged with regular rates, so you’ll need to remember to hang up and redial. 

Here are a few examples of international calling bundles from major networks:

  • EE: EE The International Plan gives you 500 minutes to mobile and landline numbers in 50 countries, including Australia, India, Poland and the USA among others. At the moment, this add-on is £10/month. Need more options? Upgrade to the International Extra pack for over 100 countries.

  • O2: The O2 International Bolt On is also currently priced at £3/month and it lets you place calls to over 40 destinations at 1p per minute. Inclusive plans are also available to pay monthly and prepaid customers. 

  • Three: Three International Saver is designed for frequent international callers, with 3,000 minutes per month to landline numbers. This plan costs a bit more than the ones mentioned above, priced at just over £15 per month. 

  • Vodafone: Vodafone is one of the best options for those seeking a really cheap add-on, priced at £3 per month for 100 minutes to landlines and mobiles. You can upgrade to 500 minutes for £7.50. There are 100 destinations on the list as well, so your preferred country is likely to be included. 

Although not all major networks offer calling add-ons for international numbers, they might offer affordable pay-as-you-go rates for overseas numbers as an alternative. For example, in addition to its International Saver plan Three also offers prepaid calling rates to the country of your choice. You can phone Australia for 3p per minute or Canada for 1p per minute. 

Are international add-ons or international SIMs better value?

This will depend on the volume of international calls you place, but in most cases, an international SIM will offer better value. Bolt-ons from networks like Vodafone and O2 are a great option if you’re after a set amount of inclusive minutes. However, this comes as an add-on cost to your usual mobile plan. 

When you take out a monthly contract with international SIM networks like Vectone or Lebara, it automatically comes with a generous amount of overseas minutes included. You don’t have to pay extra for the privilege, as they’re designed primarily for consumers who make a lot of international calls. Monthly contract prices tend to fall in line with those of major networks, but it’s always worth comparing your options to see what’s available in your area.

International SIM card vs VoiP

How do services like Skype and WhatsApp compare to using an international SIM card or add-on? When it comes to making cheap international calls, VoIP services like these are also a great option. Rather than using a mobile phone network, you place international calls over the internet with either a home Wi-fi or mobile internet connection. 

Benefits of VoIP calls

  • You don’t need to worry about purchasing an international minutes allowance.

  • You aren’t restricted to an approved list of countries. 

  • You don’t need to worry about running out of minutes and paying out-of-bundle rates. 

  • All that’s needed is a Wi-Fi or mobile internet connection, without separate cards or devices. 

Drawbacks to VoIP calls

  • VoIP calls only work if you have a solid internet connection, whether it’s Wi-Fi or a 3G or 4G signal. The same applies to the person you’re phoning, which can be difficult when travelling.

  • If you don’t have Wi-Fi available, you might use your data allowance with 3G or 4G mobile internet. Data costs can be higher than per-minute calling rates, depending on your plan and carrier. 

The bottom line is that VoIP calling works brilliantly when you have Wi-Fi available. However if you’re travelling to remote or rural locations (or phoning someone who lives in the middle of nowhere), it may not be as cost-effective as an international SIM deal. It can also be very heavy on your data allowance unless you’ve opted for a network like VOXI which discounts your social media use.

Is a cheap international SIM best for infrequent calls?

While international add-ons and SIM cards are great choices for frequent calling, what should you do if you only make the odd call to an international number? In this case, VoIP services are a good choice. 

If you don’t have any type of international calling plan, it’s usually cheaper to place the odd international call from your landline rather than your mobile. This will all depend on where you’re calling and which mobile network you’re signed up with. 

Take the time to familiarise yourself with your providers’ call rates. A prepaid calling card might be a good option for infrequent phone calls, or you could switch to a network that includes international calling minutes as standard.