Prepaid / International calling : Cheap phone and calling plans for NRIs in USA


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I moved to the US in 2013 and have been always looking for the best mobile plan which suits my customized need.  Let me profile my need, so if you fit this profile my choice might help you in choosing a best phone option. Disclaimer : This is a first person narrative, and not a paid review for any services I have called out

  • Cost of the Device / Contracts : Being from India, it was so hard for me understand how people see the carrier subsidized device like the 199$ iPhone  that is with a contract and high cost plans. I really hated those contracts and high monthly phone bills.
  • Price : Going with my frugality principle : A cheapest option for Voice , data & Text
  • Voice : Most of my calls are going to be International , especially to India. I was using very less talk time to call someone within US.
  • Text : Hardly used text, except those service messages from banks. Given we have WhatsApp, We-chat, Skype and gazillion option this is the least I wanted
  • Data : I even tried plans without data for a couple of months since I have Wi-Fi at home and office. But definitely could not survive especially some critical needs when I am out and needed to know about nearby restaurants / movies  or even for navigation using Nokia Here / Google maps. The need for data was critical, but I would say not something unlimited. I tried to log my average data usage to see what is my real need. Anything between 2GB- 3GB per month at 4g LTE / 3G speed is comfortable data limit and speed to manage. I even include the often usage of social apps, and my regular news reader Feedly , Mint etc. when I am not in Wi-Fi zones.
  • International Calling : I use about 1000-1200 minutes of international voice talking to my family and friends in India every month. Even though WhatApp , Viber, Skype, Facebook messenger offers voice calling free to folks who are in these apps , when I need to speak with some one in India who does not have a good internet connection or even a smart phone then definitely I need to call their mobile number or land line number. 

With the above needs, I initially scourged all the possible regular post-paid plans in T-Mobile, AT&T (GSM Only, since I had a GSM) and later even Sprint / Verizon. Overall the postpaid plans were definitely not cheaper options. Given I was one of those rare customers looking for Bring your own phone plans.  The next option was prepaid , which do not require any credit checks and you know what would be your monthly phone bill expense pretty clearly.  So all my options after this initial screening was only prepaid. If you have an unlocked phone with you and with the usage profile mentioned above, prepaid plans works out cheaper and most predictable monthly cost for most of you.

Prepaid phone with MVNO + International Calling cards : Prepaid options works out cheaper in USA for the usage something like above. The option that worked best in these were - Straight Talk bring your own phone from Walmart. This is a gem of a plan which is not so common outside of the college kids. You can get a 45 dollar +tax monthly pre-paid plan with unlimited voice & text (includes Global Text) and data. Here the unlimited data has a caveat - the first 5GB comes at 4G LTE speed and after which expect 2G speeds only. No carry over of the unused data speeds every month. Very fixed outgo you have every month with a solid service. Because you have choice to choose the GSM network when you buy. They have AT&T or T-Mobile option. My wife runs AT&T Straight Talk and I had T-Mobile. AT&T had better network coverage as expected. So if you do have auto renewal every month enabled, then including tax your monthly outgo per person is going to be only 48 dollars. Don’t bother about any huge bills every month. Best suited for 1 or 2 member family. 

Now for the international calling, first option I tried was Vonage. My decision after using was - please avoid this. They were giving 9.99 per month promotional 6 month plan but still you would pay about 25 dollars including some service tax +Fee. Post that expect 50 dollars for this service per month  which offers about 3000 minutes of international calling. Again this is a physical phone device at home using your internet to call. So my decision was to move away from Vonage after the initial promotional period was over. They do give a Vonage extension to call from your mobile directly. Even then it definitely does not fit my bill.

International Calling Cards : is the best one so far I have tried. To give a list of options I tried - IndiaLD, Reliance Calling Card, Viber Out, Skype Minutes, Rebtel. I landed with phone India as the best option because of price and ease of use. They give about 1400 mins at 10 dollar a month. You can have access numbers to call someone through your voice connection. Also it gives an option of an App - Keep Calling (Android | iOS). So both my wife and I had this app installed that pulled the contacts from our phone book. We also could tag favorites. So both of us could call from our respective phones through this app, and it used our phone data connection / Wi-Fi as applicable. Sometimes we also used the access numbers to call. But overall a very seamless experience at a lower cost. So you can manage your total phone bill in about 100-110 dollars for 2 person family.

Prepaid  MVNO with International Calling Ultra Mobile is the latest on the block targeting the immigrant population in USA. This is started by the founder of India LD. Ultra-mobile focus is to have direct calling to India or other 60 destinations around the world. The 29 dollar plan offers Unlimited voice and text (includes global text) plus 1 GB 4G LTE Speed and after which unlimited data at lower speeds. The biggest addition is unlimited calling ( fair usage policy apply) to 60 international destinations which includes India/ China and 1000 international voice minutes to additional 15 destinations. You can directly call those countries with the international code and no more access numbers. So this option is really testing waters to pull the price of international calling. Currently Ultra mobile runs only on T-Mobile, so I am just testing with my phone. So far good, but it still comes out with less 4G LTE data compared to Straight Talk. There is also an option to top up your data during the 30 day period of validity with 1 GB of data for 10 dollars. So Straight talk gives a 5GB data at high speed bu default, if I add that 5GB limit by top ups in this plan this would be adding additional 40 dollars. But since my data usage has been very less every month, my overall bill has reduced below the 100 dollar threshold including the expenditure on international calling. To pull that down, I have to either go for lower data which is sensible option given wifi at office / home. You can give a try. So ultra mobile is my current plan, and my wife still is in Straight talk.

I have given my choices and what worked best in my scenarios. You could choose any of them if that works for you. 

Disclaimer : This is not a paid product review, these are just my opinions based on my usage in the last 2 years and may have missed out some options. So if you find something better please leave it in the comment

If you are on International travel and looking to for a temporary option to stay connected with some phone / calling plans , I would recommend you can go through this review from Joy of Android : 5 Best Phone Plan for International Travel — Travel Overseas Wisely


  1. Google voice is also a cheaper option for international calling.

    1. Hi Archie, Thanks for leaving the comment. I briefly did try Google Voice, it would be good to add that detail as well. I remember it used to 1 cent per minute calling rate to India mobile. Is it cheaper than that now?

      Thanks, Hari

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