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Calling “collect” and toll-free numbers when abroad

On a recent tour in Europe, I lost a credit card and needed to call my USA bank.

On back of my card were two numbers: an 800 number to call from the USA or Canada, and another number to call “collect” from any other country.

This was the first time I lost a card while traveling abroad, and I had never made a collect call before, so I was unsure how to proceed.

But some fellow travelers gave me the useful information below.

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COLLECT CALLS

A collect call is only relevant when calling from a landline phone. The purpose is to allow the caller to avoid paying landline changes. To make a collect call from a landline phone, the call must go through an operator.

Collect calls have no relevance when calling from a cell phone. Since most people now travel with cell phones, collect calls are rarely used and have become almost as obsolete as pay phones.

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CALLING TOLL-FREE NUMBERS

Travelers are often told that attempting to call a USA toll-free number while traveling abroad may not work. This is true if calling from a landline, but not if using an American cell phone.

In most cases, USA toll-free numbers can be called from anywhere in the world using an American cell phone by dialing +1 followed by the 800 number.

If you call a USA toll-free 800 number using a cellular voice network when outside the USA, the call will NOT be free. The cost will be the same as if calling a non-toll-free number.

However, there are several ways to make a call to a USA toll-free number that will be free of charge.

Some phones and carriers offer a built-in feature known as Wi-Fi Calling that allows making free calls to any USA number over Wi-Fi when outside the USA.

There are also several third-party apps that allow making free Wi-Fi calls to USA & Canada toll-free numbers when outside the USA. These apps include Google Hangouts, Skype, and Viber.

With Google Hangouts, calls to ALL numbers in USA & Canada are free.

With Skype and Viber, only calls to toll-free numbers are free.

Skype also allows free calls to toll-free numbers in several other countries as shown below. When calling from an American cell phone, add the plus sign (+) and country code, and omit any leading zeros that appear before the 8.

Calls to these toll-free numbers are free using Skype:

Australia: (+61) 1800

Austria: (+43) 800

Canada: (+1) 800, 822, 833, 844, 855, 866, 877, 888

Estonia: (+372) 800

France: (+33) 800, 801, 803, 805, 806, 808, 809

Germany: (+49) 800

Netherlands: (+31) 800

Poland: (+48) 800

Taiwan: (+886) 801, 811

United Kingdom: (+44) 500, 800, 808

USA: (+1) 800, 822, 833, 844, 855, 866, 877, 888

The Skype web site mentions free calls to France, Poland, UK, and USA but does not mention the other countries shown above. But I made test calls verifying that free calls can be made to toll-free numbers in all these countries.

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Universal International Freephone Number

On rare occasions, you may see a toll-free number in this format: +800-5555-4100.

The number begins with the + sign, followed by 800 followed by 8 digits. This is a Universal International Freephone Number with 800 used as the country code.

These numbers are intended to allow callers from multiple countries to call the number toll-free from landlines.

However, American cell phones may not recognize these numbers as valid.

Posted by
166 posts

I had my credit cards stolen in Spain several months ago, and I wasted much valuable time trying to track down the non-toll-free numbers to call to report the thefts. It turned out that the toll-free numbers worked from a Spanish landline phone, prefaced by the international calling prefix a I didn't care whether the call was free or paid.

I sure learned my lesson that some of what I "knew" was outdated, and not to make assumptions, but rather just to try and see what worked.

Posted by
4113 posts

Good info, but there's more to it, in some cases.

I was just in Mexico for a couple weeks. During the time I was going to be there, I knew I would need to call several US-based toll free numbers, probably repeatedly (800 and 866 numbers) - to book flights for Christmas/New Years 2019-2020 when those flights first became available for booking 11 months out.

I had purchased a Mexican SIM for my phone in advance (from amazon) and specifically bought a plan that provided unlimited free calls from Mexico to the US, and I got assurances from the vendor that US-based toll free numbers were included in that (unlimited calls).

Two things came up...

  1. At least from Mexico, you can't just dial 800 or 866 numbers directly - and just adding the leading "001" US access prefix doesn't fix it either. Yes, you do need to start by dialing 001 for access to the US, but the "800" or "866" (or other toll-free prefix) needs to change: to dial an 800 number, you use 880 instead. To dial an 881 number, use 888 instead. To dial an 882 number, use 877. To dial an 866 number, use 883 instead. It sounds crazy, but it's necessary and it worked for me.

  2. Still, my plan blocked me from dialing the same 800 (880) number eventually, after about a half dozen calls and a total or maybe 20 minutes to that specific number. I could still dial OTHER toll-free numbers, but the same one. This happened to me twice, with two different numbers. It seems that toll-free numbers may have other limits besides those specified in your plan - exactly what are still a mystery.

The secret equivalent toll-free prefixes really threw me initially until I googled the issue (using wifi).

Bottom line: expect the unexpected, and be ready to roll with the punches.

Posted by
1065 posts

My credit card was hacked this past summer in Poland. My husband just logged onto our account, disputed the charge, and the card was put on hold, then cancelled. A new card was waiting for us when we got home.

Posted by
166 posts

You are also right that calling toll-free numbers can involve limits that seem mysterious. This is partly because business owners have many options in how to set up their toll-free numbers.

Right. It used to be common for organizations to block toll-free calls from outside their state. They probably still have that capacity.

Posted by
10 posts

David,

You are also correct that calling toll-free numbers can involve limits that seem mysterious. This is partly because business owners have many options in how to set up their toll-free numbers. For example, a business can block toll-free calls from phone numbers that are not registered in the business’s home country. If you try to call a American 800 number using a cell phone with a Mexican SIM card, you might not be able to connect if the business has blocked calls from non-USA phone numbers.

Some businesses may also block toll-free calls if the caller does not have caller ID enabled. In your phone or app settings, check to see if your caller ID is enabled. For example, to check caller ID status on Skype:

tap: Chats

tap: button at top showing your initials

tap: Account & profile

tap: Your profile

tap: Caller ID

Posted by
4113 posts

In my recent experience, calling toll-free USA-based numbers from Mexico using a Mexican SIM and Mexican cellular plan, things were strange...

I could call every US-based toll-free number I tried (as long as I used the 001 US access code and the secret 8NN equivalent prefix). The calls went straight through. But after making multiple calls to one toll-free number, during a call, there was a strange series of beeps, then the call was cut off and I got a Spanish language message that said something along the lines of "your balance is used up". All subsequent calls to that specific toll-free number (and only that number) were blocked, resulting in the same Spanish-language message about the balance being gone. No more calls allowed to that number, but I could call any other toll-free number freely....until after making multiple calls to a second number, eventually I got the same cutoff mid-call, the same message, and the same block on all subsequent calls. Again, calls to other toll-free numbers went through fine. It seems that my "unlimited plan" had some (unspecified) limit on individual toll-free calls; when the limit on one number was reached, other numbers were still accessible. Left me scratching my head and trying to figure out what limit I exceeded - then I gave up (since I got my award flights to Bangkok and the Maldives booked - and I was on vacation).

Ah, technology and its mysteries...

Posted by
10 posts

David,

Thanks for sharing your experience calling toll-free numbers from Mexico.

In my original post, I said:

In most cases, USA toll-free numbers can be called from anywhere in the world using an American cell phone by dialing +1 followed by the 800 number.

I should have pointed out that when I said “American cell phone,” I was referring to a cell phone with an American SIM card.

If you change to a foreign SIM card, your phone no longer functions as an American phone, which means that some things in my post might not be relevant.

You are right that when calling USA toll-free numbers from Mexico, you may need to change some of the numbers.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that if you had used an American SIM card and a calling app such as Hangouts or Skype, you might have been able to call the USA toll-free numbers simply by adding +1 without having to change any numbers. Next time I’m in Mexico I will try this and see what happens.

Posted by
4197 posts

And if you DO get through and the bank's phone says "we have accepted your collect call" --- it's still burning long-distance minutes on YOUR phone while you wait for a real person to get to you.

Posted by
3805 posts

Til now I have just used Google Hangouts to call US numbers (even landlines) for free, from my smart phone, even if I have just WiFi (with a SIM I can call from anywhere I have mobile service), so no need to worry about calling collect or how to call 800 numbers for free. I have my bank/credit union/airline phone numbers saved in the phone and just call if I need to,, for free.

Google is getting rid of Hangouts this year (supposedly) at some point, when they transition to something else. I don't yet know what that means, except that I understand they are adding some of the feature of Hangouts into their Google Voice app. I assume I'll still be able to call US numbers for free from the Google Voice app. We'll see!

Posted by
10 posts

Andrew,

You are right about the eventual demise of Hangouts.

Google has announced that the consumer version of Hangouts that many travelers use will be “retired” over the next year or two.

Google is transistioning Hangouts into a set of two apps designed for business use.

Hangouts Meet is a video app intended for group business meetings

Hangouts Chat is a texting app for business.

Google's new Duo app is designed for consumers and is very similar to FaceTime on iPhones. It allows voice and video calls, but only works app to app. So it can’t be used to call landline numbers or anyone who doesn’t have the Duo app.

Consumers who have been using Hangouts for video calls are being asked to switch to Duo.

During the past year, a new version of the Google Voice app has been in beta testing. The Wi-Fi calling features of Hangouts are being added to Google Voice. The purpose is to allow Google Voice to replace Hangouts for consumers who have been using Hangouts to make voice calls.

The beta testing has ended, and the new version of Google Voice is gradually being released to the public right now.

Users who have been part of the beta test say the audio quality of Wi-Fi calls using Google Voice is better than Hangouts.

If you have the Google Voice app and would like to use it for Wi-Fi calls, first make sure you have updated to the latest version.

Then you can see if Wi-Fi calling is available by following the steps under the dotted line below.

NOTE: When following the steps below, if you don’t see the Wi-Fi option, this means the new version is not yet available to you. The Wi-Fi option is actually added using a “server-side” change which does not require downloading a new version. When the Wi-Fi option becomes available to you, it will appear in the Settings as described below without needing to download a new version.

On my Google Voice app, Wi-Fi calling became available two days ago. It will probably be available to everyone by the end of February.

Try the steps below and let us know if Wi-Fi calling works for you.

Since many travelers use Hangouts, this whole subject should probably have a separate thread on the forum. After the Wi-Fi version of Google Voice becomes available to everyone, maybe someone with more tech savvy than me will start a new thread about it. I'm sure many people will want to know about the change and have questions about it.

On the Rick Steves web site, there are several pages mentioning Hangouts that will also need updating.

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Follow these steps to see if you have Wi-Fi calling available on Google Voice:

Open the Google Voice app.

Tap on menu icon in top left corner.

Tap on: Settings

Scroll down to Calls section.

Tap on: Make and receive calls (if you don’t see this, the new version is not yet available to you)

There are two choices:

Use carrier only

Prefer Wi-Fi and mobile data

To be able to make Wi-Fi calls just like with Hangouts, select: Prefer Wi-Fi and mobile data.

Posted by
10 posts

Scott Johnson of Google has announced on Twitter that the Wi-Fi calling feature on Google Voice should now be available to everyone.

Posted by
3805 posts

I just updated Google Voice on my phone to try it. Yes, it now has WiFi Calling built into it. I was able to put my phone in Airplane Mode then turn on WiFi and then make a 15 minute call (quality was great). Still have to re-think a few things (would prefer to receive calls only from my Google Voice number and not from the carrier number, which works if I have put the phone in airplane mode, but would prefer to have mobile data on too.)

Posted by
29608 posts

I normally just use the regular (non-toll) numbers to contact credit card companies. Short long distance calls aren't usually much of a problem in the overall cost of a holiday.