free & easy international calling

Because some of my colleagues have been asking, I thought I’d explain in more detail what I’m doing for my voice and text communication while I’m in Croatia.

I’m using a combination of Google Voice (a service which gives you a US-based phone number that can receive voice calls and text messages and forward them to a US-based mobile phone of your choice), and an Android app called GrooveIP, which allows me to make and receive calls and texts from my phone using a data connection.

For this to work, you need (a) a Google account with email (an email address that looks like yourusername@gmail.com), and (b) an Android phone with data access; it can be an unlocked phone with a Croatian SIM card, or a phone without a local SIM that you’re using only on WiFi. The boys and I all bought unlocked Nexus 4 phones before we left, so that’s what we’re using; I bought SIM cards when we got here for me and for Alex with a local mobile company. If you’ve got an Android phone that’s more than a year old, and are on AT&T, they’ll generally be willing to unlock your phone for you–check with customer service.

We’ll start with Google Voice. It’s a free Google service, which you can sign up for at voice.google.com. You’ll be assigned a US-based phone number. (Back when I first starting using the service it was before Google had bought it, and you could choose your own area code, so I’ve got a 585 number–these days you don’t get to pick.)

In the settings for your Google Voice account, you can link your US-based phones–mobile or land-line. I’ve been using my Google Voice number on my business cards for a long time, because I can have the number ring on my office phone and/or my mobile phone. I can also set up rules about when it rings vs going straight to voice mail, and even set up different rules for different people or groups. If you’re setting this up for international travel, though, you don’t want the Google Voice number to go to your US-based phones. Instead, you want it to *only* forward calls and texts to your Google Chat ID. That’s what the second tool needs in order to work on your phone.

Once you’ve got Google Voice set up to forward to your Google Chat account, you can download and install GrooveIP on your Android phone. There are two versions, a full version for $4.99, and a free Lite version. The Lite version has ads, and works only over WiFi, which is fine if you don’t have a data plan, or don’t want to burn up too much data (GrooveIP uses ~1.2MB per minute for voice calls). Alex is using Lite, and I just upgraded to the full version.

GrooveIP has a pretty good setup guide online, and I found it pretty straightforward to link it to my Google Voice account. Once it’s installed, you can set it to launch automatically (Lite will launch automatically when you’re connected to WiFi, and disconnect when you aren’t). It runs in the background, and “listens” for calls coming in over Google Chat. When one does, GrooveIP will ring your phone, and you’ll be able to have a voice conversation over your data connection without using your local phone connection. You can also use the GrooveIP dialer to make calls to US numbers at no cost. I’ve used it quite successfully to make and receive calls to and from the US since I’ve been here, with very decent quality.

Update: If you’re on an iPhone, it looks like Talkatone will give you comparable functionality to what GrooveIP offers. I installed it on my iPhone 5 today (I brought it with me, but removed the SIM card when I arrived since we suspected our AT&T service while we’re abroad), and while it seems to have set up properly, I haven’t actually tested it with a phone call yet. Like GrooveIP, basic functionality is free, but you pay to remove ads and have slightly better quality. Unlike GrooveIP, it’s a subscription rather than a one-time charge.

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