Making international calls on your prepaid phone can be very expensive. But it doesn't have to be.
True, most carriers really stick it to you when you call non-US numbers, even to Canada and Mexico.
Verizon and T-Mobile are the worst, they both add a surcharge of about $1.50/minute to calls to all European and Asian countries. AT&T is slightly better, but still costly with per minute surcharges as high as $1.09 to China or .89 to the Philippines. These surcharges are on top of the basic domestic calling rate of 10-25 cents per minute.
Fortunately, not all mobile operators are as greedy. If you chose your provider carefully you can be making international calls for as little seven cents per minute. Prepaid Phone News has gone over all the prepaid providers international calling options to find the prepaid mobile operators and plans that offer the least expensive international calling and messaging.
Rates vary widely and no one operator offers the best rate to all countries. To help you compare I've defined a prepaid market basket of five countries that includes the three (Canada, Mexico and the UK) that send the most visitors to the US; plus the three countries (Mexico, China and the Philippines.) with the most foreign born US residents.
For each provider I computed the average international surcharge per minute for calls to mobile phones in the five countries. To get the cost per minute I added the average surcharge to each operator's lowest per minute rate available on a plan costing $10 a month or less. The market basket price should give you a rough idea of which mobile operators tend to have the best prices for international calls.
I've included links to each carrier's international rates page to help you find the best deals for the countries you call.
First the hall of shame. The operators with the highest market basket prices are: T-Mobile $1.26, Verizon 1.26 and AT&T $0.68.
Now for the best deals:
Total Call Mobile is an MVNO using the Sprint network. Total Call's big selling point for international callers is that there is no surcharge for calls to over 60 countries, including all are market basket countries except for the Philippines. Other pluses are a minimum monthly cost of only $5 ($5 every 30 days) 10 cent/minute domestic calls and 5 cent domestic and international texts.
Unlimited talk and text is $39.99 and unlimted talk, text and data is $49.99
Total Call offers a limited chice of phones, including a couple of smart phones.
Unlike some of the other providers listed here which require entering an access code and waiting for a prompt or dial tone before dialing international numbers, Total Call supports international direct dialing.
Total Call Market Basket prices (.10/minute domestic base rate plus international surcharge):
Canada .10; Mexico .29; China .10; UK .29; Philippines .25 - Total 1.03 / 5 = .21
Total Call International Messaging: 5¢/each on pay as you go and free on the unlimited monthly plans.
H2O Wireless CDMA uses the Verizon network, which is generally considered to have the best coverage. There's no surcharge to 53 countries including all the market basket ones except the Philippines.
Refill with $20 every two months to get a domestic voice rate of .09 per minute. Texts are 10 cents each both domestic and international.
Usability is not so good though. Every time you want to make an international call you have to first enter an 11 digit access number, wait for a dial tone and then enter the international number - which can be anywhere from 12 to 15 digits depending on the country you are calling.
H2O CDMA Market Basket prices (.09/minute domestic base rate plus international surcharge):
Canada .09; Mexico .09; China .09; UK .09; Philippines .35 - Total .71 / 5 = .14
H2O CDMA International Messaging: 10¢/each
PlatinumTel uses the Sprint network and has low international surcharges to most countries. Other prices are good too. Domestic minutes are only 5 cents. Texts are 2 cents each (domestic and international), data is 10 cents per MB and you only have to add $10 every 90 days to keep your line active and get the best rates.
If you talk a lot PlatinumTel's $45 monthly plan includes unlimited domestic talk and text. You can add 2GB of data to the unlimited plan for $10. Monthly options for Android phones are $50/month for unlimited talk, text and 200 MB of data. A $60 Android plan ups the data allowance to to 1 GB.
PlatinumTel requires a 3 digit access code for international calls.
PlatinumTel Market Basket prices (.05/minute domestic base rate plus international surcharge):
Canada .06; Mexico .06; China .06; UK .06; Philippines .22 - Total .46 / 5 = .09
PlatinumTel International Messaging: 2¢/each
Red Pocket Mobile, which uses the AT&T network, lets customers call six countries for the same price (10 cents/minute) as calls within the US. No extra charge calling is available to landlines in Taiwan, landlines and cell phones in Canada, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City, Mexico. Calls to other countries incur a surcharge but prices are pretty good.The minimum refill is $10 every 30 days.
RedPocket's unlimited plan is $39.99/month and includes unlimited domestic texts, unlimited domestic minutes, a $2 credit that is good for up to 200 minutes of free international calling per month and 25 MB of data. You can get the same plan with 250 MB of data for $49.99 or with 1 GB for $54.99.
Red Pocket has international direct dialing (no access code required)
Red Pocket Market Basket prices (.10/minute domestic base rate plus international surcharge):
Canada .10; Mexico .23; China .10; UK .11; Philippines .20; Total .64 / 5 = .13
Red Pocket International Messaging: International texts are 10¢ to send on all plans. International MMS on 20 cents to send and receive on pay as you go and free to send on monthly plans ($29.99 and above).
H2O's GSM Minute Plan uses the AT&T network. There's no surcharge to 53 countries including all the market basket ones except the Philippines.
Refill with $10 per month to get a domestic voice rate of .05 per minute. Texts are 5 cents each domestic and 25¢ international.
H2O GSM uses a 11 digit international access number.
H2O GSM Market Basket prices (.05/minute domestic base rate plus international surcharge):
Canada .05; Mexico .05; China .05; UK .05; Philippines .36; Total .56 / 5 = .11
H2O GSM International Messaging: 25¢/each
Virgin Mobile, owned by Sprint, has the best international rates of any of the major carriers. Virgin has several plans. For light users the PayLo plan as the lowest monthly cost, requiring a $20 refill every 90 days. Domestic voice is 20 cents/minute and texts are 15 cents (domestic and international).
If you talk or text very much at all, Virgin's $35/month Beyond Talk plan provides unlimited data, unlimited domestic texts and 300 domestic minutes for $35/month. If you need more than that unlimited data, unlimited domestic talk and text is $55/month. International texts are 15¢/each to send on Beyond Talk plans.
Virgin has international direct dialing (no access code required)
Virgin Mobile Market Basket prices (Using .20/minute PayLo domestic base rate plus international surcharge): Canada .30; Mexico .25; China .22; UK .40; Philippines .45; Total 1.67 /5 = .33
Virgin Mobile International Messaging: 15¢/each
Boost Mobile is also owned by Sprint. The minimum refill is $10 every 90 days, domestic voice is 20 cents a minute, texts are 20 cents (domestic and international) and unlimited data is 50 cents/day.
Unlimited domestic texting, data and domestic calling on Boost is $50/month ($55 for Android phones, $65 for BlackBerrys). Unlimited monthly users can add a $5/month or $10/month International Connect Plan. The $5 plan provides unlimited calling to Canada and land lines in 150 cities in Mexico. The $10 plan provides calling to land lines in 34 countries (list of countries).
Boost has international direct dialing (no access code required).
Boost Market Basket prices (.20/minute domestic base rate plus international surcharge):
Canada 30¢; Mexico 40¢; China 35¢; UK 71¢; Philippines 40¢ - Total $2.16 / 5 = 43.2¢
Boost Mobile International Messaging: 10¢/each
Here's a table summarizing the best prepaid carriers for international calling:
|Operator||Market Basket Price/Minute||Network||Per Minute Base Rate||Monthly Plan Cost for Base Rate||Domestic/Intl Text Rate||Intl Access Code?||Data Rate|
|PTel||.14||T-Mobile (GSM)||.05||$5 ($10 every 60 days)||.02/.02||3 digit||10 cents/MB|
|H2O GSM Minute Plan||.11||AT&T (GSM)||.05||$10 ($10 every 30 days)||.05/.25||11 digit||30¢/MB|
|Red Pocket Mobile||.16||AT&T (GSM)||.10||$8.33 ($25 every 90 days)||.10/.10||None||$10/MB|
|Total Call Mobile||.21||Sprint (CDMA)||.10||$5 ($5 every 30 days)||.05/.05||None||data not available|
|H2O CDMA||.14||Verizon (CDMA)||.09||$10 ($20 every 60 days)||.05/.05||11 digit||data not available|
|Virgin Mobile||.32||Sprint (CDMA)||.20||$6.67 ($20 every 90 days)||.15/.15||None||1.50/MB|
|Boost Mobile Prepaid||.43||Sprint (CDMA or iDEN)||.20||$3.33 ($10 every 90 days)||.20/.20||None||unlimited .50/day|
América Móvil's TracFone, Net10 and Straight Talk brands offer low cost calls to a limited number of countries and can be a good choice for many people.
TracFone users can make has no surcharge calls to 60 counties by using an 11 digit access code.
Net10 has a low 5 cent surcharge to 100 countries and uses a two character (*1) access code. International calling is only available Net10's Pay As You Go and $25/750 Minute 30 Day Monthly Plans. Unlimited Plan customers can not make international calls except by using a 3rd party calling card.
Straight Talk also has a $60/month plan includes the unlimited domestic voice, messaging and data plus no extra cost calls to to most landlines in 32 countries (PDF list of covered countries) and to cell phones in Canada, China India and Mexico. This plan does not support international direct dialing (+1 - country code - city code - phone number). Instead you have to dial an 11 digit access code, wait for a prompt and then enter the number your are calling,. NET10 also offers the same plan for $65/month.
TracFone doesn't support sending international texts. Straight Talk and Net10's unlimited plans include unlimited international texting but only on their branded Android phones which run on the Sprint network.
I didn't include TracFone, Net10 or Straight Talk in the market comparison because their international calling options don't include the Philippines or mobile phones in the UK, which are both market basket countries.
Updated 16-Jul-2012: Updated rates and plans for all operators.
Globe image by ONT Design Some rights reserved