I recently traveled to Russia for a week, and while I was there I needed to call home quite often to keep in touch, participate in conference calls to keep up with my cases, etc. I had an AT&T calling card with me, but to use it for international calls I would have had to use 10 minutes of calling card time for every one minute of talk time, and that is on top of the fees that my hotel was charging me to get an outside line. I also could have used my iPhone to make an international cell phone call using a 3G service in Russia, but I suspect that would have cost me—and I am just guessing here—a million dollars a minute. (I don't know what the roaming fee would have been, but I presume expensive. My iPhone stayed in "airplane mode" the entire time I was abroad, although I did keep Wi-Fi turned on.) Instead, I decided to try out the Skype app for the iPhone. It was released a while ago and I downloaded it as a curiosity just because it was free, but I hadn't had a chance to use it yet. I was very happy to discover that Skype on the iPhone is truly amazing.
I know that there are many of you who use Skype on your computer all the time, either to video chat or audio chat with people or as an instant messaging client. I have used Skype for video chats once or twice before, but most of my family and friends have Macs at home so we instead use iChat to video chat. So essentially, before my trip, I was a Skype newbie. Before I left town, I had gone to the Skype website and purchased $10.00 worth of Skype credit. I wasn't even sure if it would work, but I figured $10.00 was a small price to pay to find out. I also set up an option so that if my $10.00 was used up, Skype would automatically charge my credit card for another $10.00.
I was happy to learn that my hotel in Russia had free Wi-Fi, making it very easy to use my iPhone to keep up with e-mail etc. When I needed to call home, I just fired up my Skype app on my iPhone. There are five buttons at the bottom of the screen: Contacts, Chats, Call, History and My Info. The My Info button tells you how much Skype Credit you have remaining, and to make a call I just tapped the Call button to see a familiar number pad:
To call a number in the U.S., I just dialed the area code and the number and tapped Call. After just a few seconds, I was talking just the same as if I was using the iPhone's normal phone function. The call quality was excellent, and people had no idea that I wasn't calling from a regular land line in the U.S. until I told them that I was out of the country. For short calls, I just held my iPhone up to my face (which causes the screen to go black, just like the regular phone app) but for longer calls, I used my Apple In-Ear Headphones (which I really love) and slipped my iPhone into my front shirt pocket. With this arrangement, I could even walk around while I was talking on the phone.
There were two times during long conference calls that I lost my Wi-Fi connection for a moment (after being on a call for about 30 minutes) and, of course, also lost my Skype connection. I was able to immediately call back as soon as I re-established my Wi-Fi connection and get back on the call. And once, the other parties said that they heard a lot of static from my line, so I tapped the "mute" button in Skype for a few minutes to solve the problem. But aside from those minor, isolated issues, I was able to call home without any trouble dozens of times.
Most importantly, the calls were incredibly cheap. Calls to U.S. landlines and cellphones from Russia (and I believe from anyplace in the world) cost just 2.1 cents a minute. Calls to 1-800 and other toll free numbers were free. If you want to use Skype to call numbers in other countries, the costs are a little higher, and you can click here for a chart with international rates. All told, after several dozen calls over a week, many of which lasted a long time, I barely used $4.00 of my Skype credit. As any of you who try to call the U.S. from other countries know, you can easily spend over $4.00 for a single call. Thus, as far as I was concerned, Skype allowed me to call home for essentially free. Indeed, if I had called people who were using Skype, my calls would have been completely free, but I didn't want to inconvenience anyone at home by making them use a computer or an iPhone to talk to me.
There is also a History button to see who you called and how long you were on the phone. You can also get that same information on the Skype webpage by looking at your account.
Using Skype to make phone calls is so much like using the normal iPhone Phone app that there was even one time while I was talking to someone that I exited the Skype app to check something in an e-mail, only to quickly remember that while I can do this on a normal phone call, the iPhone doesn't allow third party apps to run in the background, so exiting the Skype app caused my call to end. Oops. I quickly called back and apologized for dropping the call.
Note that I only used my iPhone to make calls on Skype, not to receive them. The app does allow you to receive calls, but I would have had to run the Skype app when they called me, and especially with the time difference that was just not convenient. Instead, I found myself checking my voice mail frequently, and after someone left me a message I would call them back. Other times, I scheduled phone calls with people via e-mail, and then I was always the one to initiate the call. Also, note that Skype on the iPhone cannot initiate or receive video; this is audio-only, just like using the normal iPhone Phone app.
If you plan to travel internationally and want to avoid expensive fees to call home, I strongly encourage you to download the free Skype app and purchase some Skype credits. You will have to find Wi-Fi to use it, but you can usually find Wi-Fi somewhere when you are traveling. Of course, you can also use Skype on a computer, but carrying a laptop with you while you travel is a pain, plus talking on a laptop is not natural. Talking on an iPhone is very natural because it is, after all, a phone.