Fortunately, plenty of options exist to keep you and your child connected, and they don't have to empty your bank account. These include:
International Cell Phone Usage
If your child has Cingular or T-Mobile cell phone service, then his or her cell phone will already work overseas, in most countries. Call your provider to make sure it works in the specific country to which your child is headed, and while you have them on the phone, make sure the phone is set up for international usage. You can either pay a slight fee (between $1 and 2) per minute used, or upgrade your service to have a slightly higher monthly fee ($5-10 more per month) that allows for free international roaming.
If your child uses Verizon, Sprint, Boost or some other service, he or she will need to rent a phone. When renting a phone, make sure it is GSM, which is the international signal, and be prepared for expensive fees: with weekly charges between $29 and $59 per week, and with per-minute charges of $1.50 to $5, depending on where the country is. A more cost-effective way to use a phone is to buy a GSM phone and a prepaid SIM card. SIM cards determine your cell phone number and other services like voicemail, and can be purchased in advance with a certain number of minutes.
GSM cell phone usage rates are usually around 25 cents per minute, and all incoming calls are free. Your student can add airtime to the phone by purchasing an airtime voucher. GSM cell phones with SIM cards are prepaid, so there are no bills or contract fees to pay.
Depending on the length of time your child will be abroad, you might want him or her to purchase or rent a phone from the destination country. He or she will certainly want to communicate with friends met while abroad, and a mobile phone for cost-effective local communication in addition to periodic calls home might be a worthwhile option.
International Phone Cards
Getting your student an international phone card is beneficial because you do not have to be concerned with the bad reception or lack of signal inherent in many cell phones. The cards can be recharged and can be purchased in the United States or abroad. In some cases, they can actually cost less when bought abroad.
Many payphones these days do not accept cash. Instead, the phone cards can be swiped at the pay phone to make a call. And the cards can be used at regular landlines as well.
Additionally, your current long distance provider may be able to give you discounted rates for international calls. A monthly fee will apply, and your phone company can send your student an international calling card with a special access number. However, you will be billed the usual United States long distance rates.
The ISIConnect card is a prepaid, rechargeable phone card offered by the International Student Travel Confederation (ISTC). ISTC also provides the International Student Identity Card (ISIC) which is used by 4.5 million students each year. Students studying abroad can get a card and save up to 70 percent on calls in more than 150 countries. It can be recharged over the Internet or by phone, and the voicemail it provides costs family and friends nothing to leave a message for the student.
The ISIConnect card features faxmail, auto-login, speed dial and 24/7 multilingual customer service. Students can also listen to their e-mail and access their account history. Receipts for use are sent to the student via e-mail.
The ISTC also offers a mobile phone option for international calls that allows the student to use their local mobile carrier and cell phone. Students can save 30 percent in 200 countries, but you would be wise to check out the roaming charges before choosing this option for communication. ISTC mobile phones can be recharged on the Internet or by phone, and the auto-login featureso your student has no need to remember an account number or PIN.
Other features include text messaging, and students can control the mobile settings as well as receive free travel alerts.
Satellite phones are a more expensive option for students studying abroad, but are vital if your student will be in a less modern country, as they offer full service anywhere in the world, with no need for a cell phone tower. It can cost between $350 and $1,000 to buy a satellite phone, and you will be required to pay a $50 activation fee as well as a potential monthly access charge of $30 to $40. Voicemail typically costs about $35 per month, but can be free for rentals.
Outgoing calls on a satellite phone range from 99 cents to $1.50 per minute of use. You may opt to buy a satellite phone, or you can rent one from a company such as Telestial, Inc. (www.telestial.com). Rental costs can range from $200 to $400 per month, depending upon the carrier and quality of the phone. When you rent a satellite phone, outgoing calls cost between $1.39 and $1.75 per minute, while incoming calls are free. Length of stay may play a huge factor in which option is more cost effective. Renting may be more appropriate for short study terms while those planning to stay longer may choose to buy.
Internet Usage Abroad
The most cost-effective way to communicate with your student overseas is to use the Internet. While not as personal by far, Internet use can be a great supplement to you and your student between phone calls. Your child can e-mail you and share news as well as pictures, or can maintain a blog that is open to all friends and family, and allows you all to interact with one another.
Skype (http://www.skype.com) is another option. You can download a program that turns your computer into a phone. You simply speak into a microphone and your voice comes out via another computer's speakers. You will have to pay $10 to download the international version of the program, but once you have it, you and your student can talk as much as you want, for free.
Staying in touch while your student is studying abroad is important to your comfort level as well as your child's. You will worry less when you know that you have established ways to communicate with your child and keep up with his or her exciting adventures overseas.