Q: What's the cheapest way to call my family overseas on my cell phone?
A: There are a couple of options here, including a new one that should be intriguing for frequent overseas callers.
You've probably realized, with a glance at your bill, that calling overseas from a cell phone without taking special precautions ahead of time is a real drain on the wallet. For example, it costs $1.49 per minute to call Colombia on a Verizon Wireless cell phone. On AT&T, it's $2.19.
If you've had the foresight to sign up for their international calling plans for $3.99 monthly, the cost is 20 cents or 17 cents a minute, respectively.
That's still expensive. You could get lower prices by getting a calling card, but beware of gotchas such as connection fees, weekly fees and billing in five-minute chunks.
Outright fraud is also rampant in the calling-card industry: A study released by the Hispanic Institute in December found that the average card only delivers 60 percent of the promised minutes.
With that in mind, it's worth looking at a new technology that you could call a "high-tech" update on the calling card, except the principle is really quite simple. It was pioneered by a Swedish company, Rebtel Networks AB, in 2006, but a couple of competitors, including California-based Jajah Inc., have started similar services.
You can sign up with one of these companies on their Web site. You enter your own cell phone number, and the numbers you want to call overseas. For each one, the Web site gives you a domestic number. (If you don't have access to the Web, you can call the main local access numbers of these services.)
When you call the assigned number, the call is redirected to the overseas party. There's no need to enter PIN numbers. Save the domestic number in your contacts list and use it again: it will keep connecting to the same overseas number.
Won't Rebtel and Jajah run out of domestic numbers after a while? No, because they give out the same numbers to many subscribers. When you call a number, the services use Caller ID to figure out who you are and route your call to the right overseas number.
Rebtel and Jajah charge fees for the international leg of the call -- 3 cents a minute to Colombia, or 2 cents a minute to Europe, for instance (for calls to cell phones, the prices are higher). Part of the reason these services are so cheap is that they route the calls over the Internet. You use your cell phone's air time minutes for the domestic leg.
Calls on both services can be completely free (apart from domestic charges) if the party receiving the call hangs up and calls back on a supplied domestic number. This feature is not available for all countries. There are a few competitors, such as Talkster, that have only this free way to call.