NEW YORK — The cost of making phone calls has been dropping rapidly in the past few years. If you want to take full advantage of that, you'll need to try some new things, because the phone companies aren't going to thrust savings on you. Here are some tips on how to cut the cost of your phone service.
Several services let you use your home broadband line to make and receive calls.
Vonage just squeezed free calls to more than 60 countries into its standard $25-per-month plan, which includes free domestic calling. Vonage sends you an adapter that connects to your broadband line and your old phone. Vonage gives you a new phone number, or lets you use your old number.
Ooma sells a device similar to Vonage's adapter, but once you've paid $250 for it, domestic calls are free. International calls are billed at low per-minute rates. Ooma's audio quality and reliability are much better than Vonage's, but not as good as a regular phone line. Like Vonage, Ooma will let you use your old number (for a $40 transfer fee).
MagicJack sells a device that plugs into a computer to provide unlimited domestic calls for a year for $40. After that, every year of service is $20. International calls are billed at low per-minute rates. In our tests, it worked, but call quality was barely acceptable. The MagicJack device has a phone number and can receive calls, but you can't use your own number. The computer needs to be on for the MagicJack to receive calls.
Skype is best known for free computer-to-computer voice and video chatting, but you can make and receive phone calls as well. Outgoing calls are billed per minute or with monthly unlimited-calling plans. A phone number that can receive incoming calls costs $60 per year. You can't use your old phone or number, and you can't call 911.
T-Mobile USA sells a $40 "AtHome" Internet router or adapter to which you can connect a home phone. Unlimited domestic calls are then $10 per month. You can move your old number to the service. The catch? You have to be a T-Mobile wireless subscriber. Also, international rates are high.
Prepaid cell phones are marketed mainly to people with poor credit, but many households could save money with them.
Tracfone is the biggest provider. It sells bare-bones phones cheaply, and calls cost 15 to 30 cents per minute. If you use your phone for only a few short calls a day, this is a good deal — Tracfone subscribers pay an average of $10 per month.
T-Mobile's "Pay As You Go" service can cost as little as 10 cents a minute with none of the daily usage fees other major carriers put on their prepaid plans.
Metro PCS, Leap Wireless (under the Cricket brand) and Sprint Nextel (under the Boost brand) offer prepaid unlimited plans costing less than $50 per month. You also could get a MetroPCS phone for as little as $69. Caveat: MetroPCS and Cricket have limited calling areas. If you go outside major cities, you'll pay roaming fees.
These services work a bit like calling cards, but are more convenient and won't shortchange you like many calling cards do.
Google Voice lets you call internationally at rates much lower than the carriers' prices, and text for free. It's designed to be used with a Web browser, but can be used from phones, too. With a BlackBerry or Android phone, you can download an application. For non-"smart" phones, you call a Google number, then key in the number you want to call, like using a calling card.
Rebtel provides cheap international calls as well, but it's easier to use with phones that don't have Web browsers. For each international number you like to call, it gives you a local number. When you call that number, Rebtel automatically connects you to the overseas number.