How to Make International Calls

© Theresa Burraclough / AFP/

Twenty years ago, approximately 200 million international calls were made annually from the United States. Now we average more than 6.2 billion international calls per year [source: Federal Communications Commission].

More and more foreign citizens are coming to the United States for improved education and job opportunities. Currently, the United States has an annual net immigration of 1.25 million people per year [source: Center for Immigration Studies]. In addition, the increasing globalization of business has led corporations to set up offices ranging from Indiana to India.

International travel is also a huge industry, with overseas citizens making over 185 million visits to the United States in 2004 alone [source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics].

All these factors have led to the rise in international calls. However, if you don't know the right way to make an international call, they can become extremely expensive. Many more international calling options exist today than there did even a few years ago. Several of these new methods rely on revolutionary new technologies like VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which makes phone calls over the Internet rather than traditional phone lines.

In this HowStuffWorks article, we'll explain how to make international calls easily and (in some cases) cheaply from landlines, VoIP phones, cell phones and within conference calls.

Let's start with the basics: making international calls from a landline.

Making International Calls from a Landline

Making international calls from a landline is similar to long-distance dialing.
Making international calls from a landline is similar to long-distance dialing.
© Photographer: Elena Elliseeva | Agency: Dreamstime

When making an international call from a landline, the number must be dialed using the standard international calling format:

  1. International dialing prefix
  2. Country code
  3. City code (area code)
  4. Local number

[source: United World Telecom]

International dialing prefixes vary depending on the country from which you're making the call. For example, the international dialing prefix when calling from a landline in the United States is 011. The international dialing prefix for landlines in Italy is 00 [source: International Dialing Codes].

Then you need to figure out the country code of the country you're trying to call. Country codes can be from one to four digits long. The country code for Malaysia, for example, is 60 and Panama is 507.

Just like the United States, most other countries' telephone systems are broken up into many different area codes or city codes. The area code for Sao Paulo, Brazil, is 11 and the area code for Cape Town, South Africa, is 21.

Last comes the local number, which can run from as few as five digits to as many as eight. Local numbers in the United States have seven numbers, while the Kyrgyz Republic only assigns five.

Here are some hypothetical examples of international phone calls and their corresponding numbers:

Pittsburgh (USA) to Morelia (Mexico)

International dialing prefix: 011

Country code: 52

City code: 443

Local number: 123-4567

What you dial:011-52-443-123-4567

Athens(Greece) to Varberg (Sweden)

International dialing prefix: 00

Country code: 46

City code: 340

Local number: 1234-5678

What you dial: 00-46-340-1234-5678

The cost of making international calls from a landline depends on your long-distance or international calling plan. The basic long-distance rate for international calls ranges from a few cents a minute to several dollars a minute, depending on where you're calling.

Most major U.S. long-distance carriers offer special calling plans designed around your calling habits. If you call Mexico twice a week, but hardly ever make national long-distance calls, you can usually negotiate a special flat rate with the long-distance company that will be much cheaper than the basic per-minute international rates [source: Federal Communications Commission].

Another option is to purchase a prepaid international calling card with the cheapest rates from your country to the country you dial the most. The calling card requires you to dial a toll free access number first, then the PIN on your calling card, then the international number.

Yet another option is to use a dial-around international calling service. Those are the numbers that start with "10-10-123" or some variation. By dialing these numbers, you bypass your local long-distance carrier and access a phone network with better international rates. These aren't prepaid services like a calling card, so you'll be billed on your regular phone statement [source: Federal Communications Commission].

We'll talk about another option, callback services, later in the article. For now, let's explain how to make an international call using a VoIP service.

Making International Calls from VoIP

Many call centers rely on VoIP technology for making international calls.
Many call centers rely on VoIP technology for making international calls.
David Silverman / Getty Images

Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is a technology by which telephone calls are placed over the Internet rather over the standard Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), also known as the landline network. For a detailed explanation of how to use VoIP and the technology behind it, read our article How VoIP Works.

Making an international call from a VoIP telephone line requires the same dialing format as a landline phone: international dialing prefix + country code + area code + local number. Depending on the VoIP telephone service you use, you can either make calls using a regular telephone connected to a VoIP router or directly through your computer using a headset microphone.

Making an international call with VoIP can be cheaper than using a landline phone. International calls using VoIP can be as cheap as two cents a minute to certain countries. But the biggest advantages of making international calls using VoIP is that you can choose to purchase a phone number in another country.

Let's say you live in the United States, but all your relatives live in England. VoIP calling services like Vonage and Skype can assign you a British telephone number, even if your phone is in the United States. That way, every time you call your relatives in England, it's charged as a local call, not an international call. The same goes for your British relatives. Depending on their local calling plan, they might be able to phone you for free.

VoIP calling plans are either subscription-based or pay-as-you-go. Vonage uses the subscription model. Vonage users pay a flat rate each month for a certain amount of minutes. That rate doesn't include international calls. Those calls are charged separately at rates that vary with each country.

Skype, another popular VoIP service, does not charge a monthly fee, but charges for each call made. Skype users load money into their account using a credit card or PayPal, and money is subtracted from the account each time they make a call. Naturally, international rates are higher than local rates, but still much cheaper than a landline phone.

On both Vonage and Skype, calls made from one subscriber to another subscriber are free, even for international calls. So if your family in England has Vonage and you have Vonage, you can talk to each other as long as you want for free.

Now let's talk about making an international call from a cell phone.

Making International Calls from a Cell Phone

International calls can be made from cell phones depending on your service provider.
International calls can be made from cell phones depending on your service provider.
Photographer: Alexsander Bochenok | Agency: Dreamstime

Making an international call from a cell phone is the most expensive calling option, but it's not as difficult as it sounds. Many cellular services are available for international calling.

For example, if your cell phone service provider is Verizon Wireless you'll pay 49 cents a minute to call Mexico, or $1.49 a minute to call France [source: Verizon Wireless]. Companies like Verizon do offer international calling plans that provide discounted rates for an extra monthly fee.

Similar to making international calls from a landline, you can get better rates by buying international calling cards that work with cell phones. Just dial a local access number, enter the PIN on the card and dial the number following the standard international format.

International travelers who try to use their U.S. cell phone in another country will find themselves paying extremely expensive rates, even when dialing numbers in the local country. That's because the U.S. phone is roaming on a foreign cellular network and is being charged at international roaming rates.

One way around paying international roaming charges is to buy an unlocked GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) cell phone. GSM phones are the standard in Europe, but are harder to find in the United States. Even harder to find in the United States is an unlocked GSM phone. Most American GSM phones are "locked" by the cellular service provider, meaning the phone will only work with one service like Verizon [source: The Travel Insider]. Unlocked GSM phones allow you to remove the phone's SIM card (Subscriber Information Module) and replace it with another SIM card from a different cellular provider.

There are many Web sites that offer cell-phone unlocking services. The process usually requires that you enter a special code into your phone.

What does this mean for international travelers who want to make local or international calls? If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can buy a new SIM card for each country in which you're traveling and making calls. When you're in Germany, you can go to a local cellular store and buy a $20 SIM card and some prepaid minutes. Put the German SIM card in your phone and now you're being charged like a local subscriber without having to buy a new phone.

There are even some new international cell-phone services like MaxRoam that work like VoIP for cell phones. Here's how it works:

  • You buy a special SIM card from MaxRoam and choose a phone number in the United States, France, England or Ireland for free.
  • You can also pay for up to 50 more local cell-phone numbers in over 40 other countries that will call your same cell phone. That allows your international friends and colleagues to call you for cheap.
  • When you dial a number and press "send" the MaxRoam system finds the cheapest way to route the call (over the Internet) and calls you back a few seconds later once a connection is made.

A service like MaxRoam is essentially an international callback service, which we'll talk about next.

Using an International Callback Service

A callback service rings you when the service is ready.
A callback service rings you when the service is ready.
© Photographer: Christian Delbert | Agency: Dreamstime

Many countries have phone monopolies that charge steep prices for making international calls. International callback services allow you to make international calls from other countries at U.S. rates, and they can save you money. Here's how it works:

  1. Register your foreign phone number with an international callback service. The phone number can be a landline phone, cell phone or VoIP phone.
  2. The callback service will assign you a local access number, much like the toll free access numbers provided by calling cards.
  3. To activate the callback service, call the local access number, let the phone ring once, then hang up.
  4. This is a signal to the callback computer to call you back and give you a dial tone on their local phone network, usually based in the United States where international rates are cheaper.
  5. Dial the number you want to reach


Not all callback services need to be initiated over the phone. There are services that allow you to send a text message to the international callback service with the number you want to call and the service will call you back with the connection already made. There are similar services that operate over the Internet. Simply access the service's Web site, enter your local telephone number and the number you want to reach, and the service will call you back [source:].

Different countries place different restrictions on making calls using international callback services. Some will block access numbers to prevent callers from bypassing the local phone system. When that's the case, look for callback services that allow you to initiate calls from the Web, since those are the hardest to block [source:].

Now let's look at one last option for making international calls: the international conference call.

Making an International Conference Call

International conference calls allow people spread through geographic regions to communicate.
International conference calls allow people spread through geographic regions to communicate.
Photographer: Artmann-Witte | Agency: Dreamstime

Making an international conference call is not much different than making a regular conference call. In fact, making international conference calls is simpler than it sounds. The same basic principles apply:

  1. Participants dial in to a conference call access number
  2. They enter the access code or PIN for their conference
  3. They join the conference

The only difference with international conference calling is that international participants need special access numbers to avoid paying expensive international rates for the call. Many larger conference call services offer an international toll-free number to access the conference. Others establish local access numbers in countries around the world where clients typically do business [source: Premiere Global].

For example, say you're located in the United States and you want to hold a conference call with colleagues in France, Israel and Australia. All of the parties would need to dial either an international toll-free access number or a local access number. Callers who use the local access number are instantly patched into the central conference bridge via a global IP network [source: Premiere Global].

Another option for saving money when making international conference calls is to use a dial-out system rather than a dial-in system. With a dial-out system, the conference call moderator dials out to each participant individually, absorbing the costs of each international call. This method is particularly useful if the moderator has access to cheap international calling rates, perhaps through a VoIP service.

The future of international phone calls is clearly going in the direction of VoIP. But for people unwilling to give up their landline or cell phone number, we're seeing a number of dual-mode phones that provide the best of both worlds. Dual-mode cell phones roam seamlessly back and forth between the cellular network and a wireless Internet network. And dual-mode VoIP handsets, like the one being offered by Skype, can make and receive calls over a landline or the Internet.

For more information about making international calls and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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