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International SIM card guide: how to make cheap overseas calls on your mobile phone

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Making calls abroad from the UK can be expensive. Depending on the network, the time of day and the country you’re calling, you could end up paying as much as £3+ per minute.

It’s always a good idea to check your provider’s call rates before making a call outside the UK. If you rarely make international calls, the occasional expense may be less of an issue, but with family or friends abroad, costs can mount up. Looking at other ways to stay in touch can help you avoid unpleasant surprises when your bill arrives.

SIM cards on a map

To cut the cost of international calls, you have various options. These include:

  • Using an international SIM card.
  • Getting an international calling bolt-on to your current plan.
  • Setting yourself up with an eSIM.
  • Using an app and making calls using data rather than a mobile connection.

When you’re making international calls from the UK, costs vary. Expect to pay around £1.50 a minute for international calls to India and around £3 a minute to China, according to Uswitch.

With international SIM cards, you’ll typically get discounts on overseas call rates or a certain number of calls abroad per month. Many providers offer cheap calls to an impressive number of locations outside the UK. However, the more locations included in your plan, the more expensive it’s likely to be. You’re also unlikely to get many of the perks that come with standard SIM only contracts.

You can get a better deal by being specific about the countries or regions you’ll be calling. For example, you can choose a SIM that covers a particular part of the world, like Asia, or a SIM for making calls to a single country.

If you’re studying in the UK from overseas, you may be able to cut the cost of calling home with an international SIM for students.

Many international SIM card deals include calls to UK mobiles and landlines, as well as texts and data. Most are also offered as a monthly rolling contract. If your needs change, you can usually switch with just 30 days’ notice.

Lebara and LycaMobile are both popular options, as overseas calls are included in your allowance. This covers calls to landlines and mobiles, as well as texts and data. However, big providers such as O2 and Vodafone also offer deals on international calling to help you stay connected. It’s worthwhile comparing international SIM deals to find the best one for you.

Think about:

  • How much you want to pay
  • Whether you want a contract or prefer to pay as you go.
  • Whether you want any extras, such as EU roaming
  • The countries or regions you call most frequently.
  • Bear in mind that you’ll have a new phone number with the international SIM. You’ll need to switch it with your home SIM when you want to use it.
  • If you get a rolling contract, remember to cancel it when you no longer need it.
  • Some providers limit download speeds on international SIM with unlimited data, so check this before committing.
  • Some providers charge if your international usage exceeds your UK usage over the same period.
  • Not all international calling plans allow you to use your SIM as a personal mobile hotspot.
  • If you’re a frequent traveller to the EU, look for an international SIM deal that includes free EU roaming.

Rather than changing your existing mobile contract, you may have the option to add an international calling bolt-on. Paying a bit extra each month can be an economical way to save money on overseas calls from the UK. It may also be cheaper than an international SIM.

Bolt-on prices start at just £3 a month, though they can be as much as £15. However, you could be paying as little as 1p a minute for calls.

If you’re on pay-as-you-go, this type of add-on may be a good option instead of an international calling SIM card.

If you can’t, or don’t want to, switch providers, an eSIM deal could be the answer. eSIMs offer convenience and flexibility over traditional SIMs. There’s no physical card. Instead, compatible devices are made with a tiny chip that supports eSIMs, which you then activate using a QR code. You can choose from voice and data plans starting from around £10 a month.

You can have multiple eSIMs in one phone as well as a physical SIM and eSim combination.

Find out more about eSIMs in our guide to SIM only deals.

One significant advantage of eSIMs is that you can easily switch between your existing network and your eSIM network by changing your phone settings. This means you can enjoy cheaper rates when you call abroad and keep your primary plan for UK calls, texts and any customer incentives you might be getting.

Although eSIMs are not yet widely supported by UK providers, they’re becoming increasingly available.

To buy an eSIM for international calling:

  • Check your phone’s compatibility
  • Find out which Android phones are eSIM ready.
  • Find out which Apple phones are eSIM ready.
  • Compare providers and find the best deal for you. You’ll find eSIM deals from EE, giffgaff, Lyca Mobile, O2, Three and Vodafone.
  • Select the amount of data you need. Options usually range from 1GB to unlimited.
  • Buy your eSIM online. Your provider will send you a QR code or email you your eSIM codes. In some cases, you may have to start with a physical SIM and then swap your plan to get an eSIM.
  • Use the QR code to install the eSIM on your phone. This could take 24 hours although usually it’s much quicker.

If you’re already paying for Wi-Fi or a 4G or 5G network connection, apps such as Apple FaceTime, Viber, Skype, Vyke and Google Talk allow you to call abroad at no extra charge. This includes making calls while you’re out and about as well as at home.

Known as VoIP apps (Voice over Internet Protocol), they use data rather than a mobile network. Speaking app to app is usually free. If you’re calling landlines and telephone networks, as you can with Skype, there may be a charge. The sound quality is often far better than calling overseas from a landline.

Some instant messaging apps also allow you to make free calls overseas. You have plenty of choice, including WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and Facebook Messenger.

There are a few things to bear in mind if you choose the data option for your calls abroad from the UK.

  • The person you’re calling must be online too.
  • You need a good broadband connection. Call quality depends on it. If speeds drop or there’s limited bandwidth, you may have trouble communicating.
  • Apps can be data-hungry. If you haven’t got an unlimited data package, you could end up paying extra.
  • Not all apps offer the same amount of privacy and may run in the background while you’re not using them. 
  • If you want to speak to a lot of people at the same time, choose an app like Skype which allows you to hold group conversations.
  • Not all numbers can be called over VoIP.
  • Some of the features you get with a landline or mobile connection are missing, like voicemail.
  • App to app calling is usually free. If you’re calling a landline or mobile number using VoIP, there may be a small cost or even a monthly fee to use the services.

You also have the option of plugging an adapter into your broadband router. This allows you to make VoIP calls from your landline. Vonage offers plans from around £12 per month. You can also send a Vonage box abroad and call it from your mobile or landline. Calls are charged at standard UK landline calling rates.

Compare international SIM cards

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