Google the term “prepaid calling cards,” and you’ll be hit with a dizzying array of options. But when it comes to calling cards, more options may not necessarily be better. In fact, sorting through all those calling cards can be a huge headache, to say the least - especially since many of these cards come with hidden fees and limitations.
Calling cards can still be a good way to make international calls on the cheap, though. So we've done the work for you so that you know what to watch for and which features to look for in the next international calling card you buy.
Buyer Beware: Fees Aren't Straightforward
According to a Consumer Reports article on calling cards, the majority of calling cards don’t tell you upfront how much your call will cost per minute. And since most of them include a variety of fees and surcharges, finding the best calling card for your money is tricky.
Consumer Reports notes that you'll usually only get the full face value of a calling card if you use all the minutes on one call. If you spread out the minutes over several calls, post-call fees, periodic fees, and other surcharges will eat into your minutes.
Calculating exactly how those fees will eat up your minutes is next to impossible, too, since most calling cards use vague language, don’t provide a per-minute rate, and have magnifying-glass-requiring disclaimers. One card that Consumer Reports checked out had a 500-word disclaimer!
Add this to the fact that per-minute rates and surcharges are astoundingly variable – anywhere from 2 cents per minute to nearly 50 cents per minute – and you can see where the problem lies.
So with all the confusion, what is it that you need to avoid when buying an international calling card? Beware of these traps:
- Expiration Dates: While some prepaid cards don’t expire until all the minutes are used others have a set expiration date or expire a certain number of days after you activate the card. Unfortunately, many stores that stock prepaid calling cards aren’t great about rotating their stock, so it’s possible to buy a card that’s already expired. Be sure you check it out before you buy.
- Added Fees: Many cards charge extra fees for calling from a payphone, using a toll-free access number, or hanging up from a call. Some even charge periodic fees every week or two from the time you activate or begin using the card. If you aren’t careful, periodic maintenance fees can wipe out your card’s value before you even get a chance to use it.
- Customer Service: Some of the larger companies that provide calling cards – such as AT&T – offer decent customer service and even have websites where you can get more details on your calling card. Smaller companies, though, have notoriously awful customer service. You can always try calling a card’s customer service line before you even buy it to see what the service is like.
- Changing Rates: One reason that calling cards don’t always tell you the per-minute rate upfront is that these rates fluctuate with time. There’s not much you can do about this, but you shouldn’t buy a handful of cards at once, since rates may change dramatically before you use all your cards.
What to Look For in a Prepaid Calling Card
Now that you know what to avoid in a prepaid calling card, let’s talk about what you should look for. Obviously the key here is to get as much value as possible for your money, and you’ll get the most value by purchasing a card that suits your particular needs.
This Consumer Reports prepaid calling card guide says, for instance that if you’re purchasing a card to make just one or two long calls, you’ll want to look for the lowest per-minute rates. On the other hand, if you’ll use a card for several smaller calls, look for lower fees - especially connect/disconnect fees, which can add up quickly.
Also, if you plan to exclusively (or mostly) call a specific region, look at cards specific to that region. Oftentimes, a card that’s advertised for a specific region will have much lower per-minute rates for that region. Usually, you can still use these cards to call other regions, but the rates will be much higher.
On the flip side, if you need to make international calls to several countries or regions, choose an international calling card, which will likely offer better per-minute rates on average.
When you look at a card’s details, be sure to look for one with a local access number. Oftentimes, cards with a toll-free access number will cost more per minute. But not all cards sold in your local area will have a local access number.
Finally, be sure that you look through all the information on the back or packaging of a calling card before you buy one. If a retailer won't let you look at the details, then buy your calling card elsewhere (or, if possible, look up details online).
Some Cards to Check Out
Since different prepaid calling cards serve different purposes there's really no "best" card option out there. But here are a few that are worth checking out:
- AT&T Virtual PrePaid Phone Card: With relatively low per-minute rates, this card features no expiration date when you buy it online. (Check the card’s details if you buy one in person though.) The only surcharge this card charges is for calling from a payphone (up to 10 minutes or 70 cents).
- Boss USA: This card has lower per-minute fees than AT&T, but it charges more fees, including a 69-cent maintenance fee every two weeks, a $1/call payphone fee, and a 1.4 cent per minute surcharge for using the toll-free access number.
- Clarito Internacional from Sprint: This card features particularly low rates to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Argentina. But it also charges a 69-cent weekly maintenance fee and a post-call fee of up to $3.99.