You won't pay the earth to dial the world

Telephoning friends and relatives abroad need no longer be a luxury. Thanks to technological advances and competition, the cost has fallen significantly and prices are set to fall further.

As well as price cuts by BT, the latest of which come into force on 19 February, there are now other companies offering cheaper calls from your existing BT phone.

Mercury, BT's main competitor, is advertising cheaper international calls for those who sign up to its SmartCall service. You do not change your phone but the service does cost an additional pounds 5.75 a quarter, which needs to be set against its cheaper rates. There are also less well-known companies advertising prices less than half those of BT's, and with no extra charges.

Our table compares BT's prices with those of Mercury and some of the heaviest advertisers among the other price-cutters. Prices may differ from those quoted in advertisements because we include Vat.

Anyone calling abroad on a reasonably regular basis should benefit by switching from BT. In our comparison, Swiftcall comes out cheapest for most destinations, although it can be beaten, particularly for Eire and some other European countries. But you may come across even cheaper deals as the market is changing all the time.

Before signing up for a particular service, you need to compare prices for the countries you are likely to be calling.

Be aware too that the cheapest today might not necessarily remain so.

Swiftcall is one of a number of "reseller" firms, sometimes referred to as ISRs (international simple resellers), which buy excess phone line capacity from, say, BT and then resell it to telephone users. By buying wholesale they can undercut traditional retail call prices, and they do not have the overheads of BT.

"These are low-cost operations that pile it high and sell it cheap," says Stephen Young, principal consultant at Ovum, a telecoms research firm.

However, there are some flies in the ointment. Many resellers require you to have money on account, payable by credit card, before you make a call. Obviously with any service that wants prepayment, it makes sense to satisfy yourself that the company is established and not likely to disappear overnight with your money.

To access a cheap service you will need to prefix your call with special numbers, and this is likely to mean a delay. Some services even become overloaded, giving the engaged signal and preventing you getting through.

With Swiftcall, which claims to have 150,000 customers and has been going for nearly four years, you can open an account over the telephone and then make calls within hours. You will have to pay a minimum of pounds 25 to open an account. Calls are then set against this and subsequent top-ups, which can also be made by credit card over the phone.

You make calls by dialling a special prefix and entering a pin number before keying in the normal international number you want to call. Before you make a call you are told your balance and you can only continue talking if you have money on account. If you are on a call and your money is running out, a voice warns you.

As well as making cheaper calls from your home, you can take advantage of the same rates using other phones, including mobiles and pay phones.

First Telecom's service, which claims more than 50,000 users nationwide, works in a similar way to Swiftcall.

With both ACC and Mercury you are sent bills (as with BT) but it may take a few days to get up and running. Mercury SmartCall looks a best buy for some destinations based purely on call price. But as well as a pounds 5.75 quarterly charge there are a number of other features to take into account when comparing its service. You also get cheaper national calls, as you do with ACC and First Telecom. In addition, with Mercury, you get a further 5 per cent discount on the five numbers you spend most on during any bill period, and a loyalty bonus in the form of a further rebate -amounting to a few per cent - depending on what you spend.

If, however, you do not want the bother of signing up with another phone company or do not like the idea of paying in advance, BT also has cost- saving schemes. Everyone should be signed up to BT's Family & Friends service, for example, because it is free and gives a 10 per cent discount on calls to 10 nominated numbers, one of which can be international. (Call 150 for details). Its PremierLine service, which costs pounds 24 a year, gives a further discount of 15 per cent on all calls. But even with these discounts and the February price cuts, you are still likely to be better off shopping around.

Nor is this the end of the story; new services will continue to come on-line and existing ones will be refined. Swiftcall says it will shortly introduce per second billing; and First Telecom has just introduced easier access for nominated phones. The Internet should eventually allow users to make international phone calls at local rates. As Mr Young says: "The market is exploding." Watch these pages for further updates.


Price in pence per minute at weekends/weekday evenings

US, Canada Mainland Europe Eire Australia, NZ India South Africa

Swiftcall 10/10 (US) 16/16 (France, Germany) 16/16 20/20 (Aus) 60/60 60/60

0800 769 0000 16/16 (Can) 28/28 (Italy, Spain) 30/30 (NZ)

BT 27/29 26/30 18/20 45/47 99/127 75/82

BT from 21/22 23/27 (France, Germany) 18/20 40/42 99/114 75/82

19 Feb 26/30 (Italy, Spain)

First Telecom 12/12 (US) 20/21 (France, Germany) 15/15 22/29 (Aus) 67/69 47/49

0800 376 6666 16/18 (Can) 24/24 (Spain), 26/26 (Italy) 34/38 (NZ)

ACC 0800 100 222 21/23 21/24 14/16 36/37 80/100 60/66

Mercury SmartCall* 17/19 16/18 (France, Germany) 13/14 33/35 74/94 59/64

0500 500 366 20/23 (Italy, Spain)

All prices include VAT, rounded to nearest pence. * Additional quarterly service charge of pounds 5.75.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Services - City, London

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Analyst - Financial Service...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: At SThree, we like to be differe...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is the o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrator - IFA Based

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions