Lisa and I both need an inexpensive and simple way to speak with family and clients in North America and around the world. The fantastic thing about this is that we didn't have to change anything to do it. We have been using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) for several years. It's a phone system that uses the internet to carry conversation rather than regular phone lines. There are countless services available and they are geared to various audiences. All of these service work over a standard Uruguayan DSL connection (they don't have cable internet here) and other foreign internet services (check the country you're headed to in order to be certain the internet is stable enough). I will describe several of options here. RingCentral
We currently have three VoIP services with our primary service being RingCentral. RingCentral offers a hosted plan. It's very easy to set up and you don't need any hardware other than a computer and a headset. RingCentral has a "softphone" panel that appears on your computer screen, looks like the face of a regular phone and operates in most ways like a regular phone. You can use the softphone from a laptop on the road over WiFi or 3G wireless card. It also allows you to send and receive faxes from your computer by either attaching a file such as a pdf or scanning your page right into the program to be sent off. Like many VoIP services, you receive your voice messages and faxes via email. I have tried Packet 8, Vonage, and efax. They are all fine service, but RingCentral blows all of these out of the water. It is comprehensive. You can route calls to various extensions if you have staff or contractors in other parts of the world and can all have US, Canadian, UK or other global phone numbers. It has a very simple interface and even works on your iPhone as a calling app. My clients can call me from anywhere in the world and have no idea that they've reached me in Uruguay unless I've told them. I called a client in Kazakhstan the other day on my RingCentral line to his Vonage line dialing a local US phone number. Call quality was great. I have yet to drop a call with anyone (I actually had more dropped calls in the States than I do here...weird).
There are many plan levels for RingCentral. The cheapest starting at US$9.99/mo. I have opted for a middle of road plan that includes a Linksys IP Phone. It's a regular business class phone that sits on my desk. The call quality is excellent. It's more stable than the softphone that I mentioned earlier. If you'd like to order the phone from RingCentral, you'll pay anywhere from Free-$100 depending on which service plan you go with. They also have a plan that includes unlimited use and four business IP phones with individual numbers for $99/month.
RingCentral comes with my highest recommendation if you're an expatriate that requires a business class solution. If you already have business numbers you'd like to keep, you can port them over no problem. Would you like an 800#? You can pick between 800, 866, 877 and 888 for free.
Of course many people know Skype. I use it regularly to call vendors and clients in other countries. If you'd like to give it a shot--you can download Skype. With Skype I can have video conferences or simply use it as a phone (again you need a headset with microphone or a WebCam for the video features). There are Skype Cordless WiFi phones that you can use in your house as well and can be purchased through various online and retail outlets. I've not purchased the cordless but had considered this option. Skype phones come in several versions. Some require a computer and some do not. Check the details.
Skype is a fee based service to call regular phone lines and a free service to have video calls and/or voice calls with other Skype users. If you never need to call a regular telephone--you won't pay a cent for this service. Just get your family, friends and clients set up with a camera and show them where to download Skype and you will be up and running in no time. For the younger set this is very easy to set up. If you are not exactly best friends with your computer, you might need a hand from your 11 year grandson or granddaughter. I referred this to one gentleman that has 90+ year old family members in various parts of the United States. They can't travel as easily anymore and Skype has allowed them to see family across the country and around the world with the free video chats.
Finally, now that I know the service, a MagicJack. The commercials and the website are really cheesey and it seems too good to be true, but this little thinga-ma-watchit really works and is a perfect solution for someone that needs a cheap solution that works great. You just plug MagicJack into your computer--it installs some software--you type in your confirmation info, and then plug in a standard corded or cordless phone and you're set. It dials like a regular phone. Once you pay your initial $30 or $40 bucks you have free calling to anywhere in the US, with inexpensive calls around the globe. We opted for an additional 5 years of service so we paid about $100 in one shot. Now we have free calling to family and friends. We also use the MagicJack in case one of our other services not working. Your voice messages can be picked up from your phone or via email since a small VM file is emailed to you. I have also set up an email rule to forward to Lisa's email as well so we both get messages on our computers. We treat the MagicJack like a land line with no payments in our case for 6 years. It's free for family to call and they don't need anything special to do it. Just your new phone number. At the time, I'm writing this you cannot move a current phone number to the MagicJack, but I understand that feature is coming.
There is so much more to say about phone and VoIP technology. I'm not covering many different other possibilities. Just know that you can communicate with just a little additional cost. In fact, you are probably going to pay less than you were at home, because you'll be ditching your land line and expensive cell phone plan in favor of one of these simple and inexpensive services. VoIP is one of the greatest, and most important tools to any expat. Shoot me some questions for anything that you'd like me to expand on. I've tried to keep this simple.