Can I use Viber abroad to call and text for free?

The ultimate guide for calling abroad when you're on holiday

Ever since I wrote the original guide for using Viber and Whatsapp for free I've received plenty of feedback, criticism and questions for the readers. Many of you have raised very interesting questions: is it really free? Can I use with my data plan? How do I control my spending? Just before many of us go on holiday abroad this summer it seemed like the perfect occasion to discuss these again and debunk some typical misconceptions. 

Apps like Viber and Skype need an Internet connection to work. Regardless of the pricing these businesses choose for their users, you need to provide a data connection for them to work. This is why you need to be online to call with Skype: you're already paying an internet provider, who can use the connection to call friends and family over the internet for free or much cheaper than traditional methods.

When you take VOIP services to smartphones in the form of apps, the principle is the same. They can provide very competitive rates as long as they have access to an internet connection. Without this connection you won't be able to call: it's like trying to call a friend on Skype when you are offline.

In your day-to-day use, Viber and Whatsapp use the data connection that is normally bundled in your mobile phone contract. These can range from unlimited web browsing to separate internet plans that restrict the amount of things you download.

Normally, calling using Viber doesn't represent any significant cost for the average iPhone user. Using approximately 240 KB per minute, something like 14 MB per hour isn't going to exceed most web browsing bundles.

Who are you really paying?

Using my own case as an example, I get 500MB a month with my iPhone contract. If I had to use Viber continuously until I run out of MB, it would take me roughly 35 hours. If you have a contract with such a low internet allowance, you can see that those MB go a long way. But even as a regular Viber user I've never been in the situation of finishing my monthly package because I also use my home WiFi network.

This is where you want to pay attention to get your Viber calls for free. Once you are connected to a WiFi network, such as your home broadband, Viber will use this connection to place your calls. This has a massive advantage over using your own mobile phone 3G network: it's cheaper and faster. 

In your iPhone you can check the network you're using looking at the cryptic icons on the right of the mobile operator. A small circle and the 3G/4G symbols indicate that you're connected to a mobile network. This means you are using your mobile web allowance. If you see a beam sign — a dot with two curved arrows on top — this means you're using WiFi. Apple uses this symbol across its operating systems and I just call it 'the umbrella'. Feel free to use it yourself to remember when your calls are going to be free.

Going on holiday abroad. How does it work?

Every time you go to another country, your handset will automatically look for a familiar network to use. Mobile operators have figured this out many years ago and they have sealed partnerships to make this a seamless process for the user. In Europe for example, going to Paris with a British SIM won't be an issue, since the handset will recognise the French local networks. The local operators Orange or Vodafone can provide the service and allow you to receive calls without telling anybody you're in a different country.

Of course this magic — called roaming — comes at a price, and the end user is the one to pay. To guarantee that your phone works abroad, your provider has to arrange expensive agreements with companies overseas, meaning that you will pay extra to receive for incoming and outgoing calls, SMS and data services.

In this previous post I explain how to disable cellular data roaming. Internet browsing while you're abroad can be much more expensive than your normal rates and I encourage you to disable it if you don't need it. 

The obvious choice for calling free with Viber while you're abroad is using a WiFi connection: connect at the hotel, a cafe or at the airport for a lower fee than the typical roaming call. If you were paying attention to all the explanation, now you know that when you see the umbrella icon you can call for free. 

I encourage you contact your mobile operator and enquire about data roaming charges. While they might sound expensive, they could be very competitive compared to traditional calls when you're in a different country. You can always find your current usage on the iPhone settings, General, Usage and Cellular Usage scrolling to the bottom.