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Calling Cards Consumer Advice

Updated June, 2003

  1. Does the card have an expiration date?
    If you don't use all of the minutes before that date, you lose them.
  2. Is there a connect fee?
    Calling cards with the lowest rates often charge a per-call connect fee-- up to $2.50 a call. The basic calling cards often included with your local phone service or by your long distance provider generally have an expensive connection fee.
  3. How much is the payphone surcharge?
    This ranges from 24 cents to a dollar or more.
  4. What other fees are charged?
    Watch for monthly or weekly fees and tax surcharges up to 20%.
  5. Is the billing increment different than one minute?
    Some cards round billing to 3 minutes at a time. A one minute call at 20 cents a minute costs 60 cents due to that. There are also a few good cards that only bill 6 seconds at a time!
  6. Does it cost more to call someone overseas who answers on a cell phone?
    This applies especially to calling Europe and Latin America, as well as some Asian countries.
  7. Do rates only apply to or from certain cities?
    Some cards offer lower rates when you dial into a local access number instead of a toll-free number. Those access numbers may not be available where you are calling from.

    When comparing rates to another country, watch for rates that only apply to calling one city. For example, a calling card may offer a rate of 14¢ to Bangkok, but charge 26¢ to call anywhere else in Thailand.
  8. Always question the total minutes advertised.
    For example, one Web site shows a $10 "Phone Bank" brand card as good for a 130-minute call to Mexico (at 7.7¢ per minute) . But the $2.25 per call connect fee reduces the maximum available minutes to 100. With multiple calls, the $2.25 connect fee and other fees reduce the minutes further. Calling from a payphone costs 49 cents more. If you don't use the card up within two weeks, 49 cents is deducted twice a month. So if you make two calls, three weeks apart, using a payphone, just 52 total minutes are available.
  9. Make sure there is either a customer service phone number or email address.
    Test the phone number or email address to make sure it actually works! If you run into problems with the card, you'll want to be able to contact someone for help.

Site visitor Liz from Indianapolis offers another tip, "...you can't really use all the minutes on a calling card, because you'll be cut off. What if you have 8 minutes left but need to talk for 15? Effectively you can't use those minutes. So the cards with a higher total number of minutes on them are better if all else is equal, because this event will only happen once per card."
Two notes on this:

  • Some cards are 'rechargeable'. You can call their customer service and add more value to an existing card, charging the amount to a credit card. This makes rechargeable cards more flexible.
  • Liz's point applies especially to cards with a connect fee. If a card has a $2 connect fee, when the balance left is $2 or less the card cannot be used unless it's rechargeable.

More Calling Card Advice
archives from February, 2001

  • Never dial zero to use a calling card
  • Avoid cards from your local phone company

Up until about 17 years ago, when AT&T was the only long distance carrier in the U.S., the standard way to use a calling card was by dialing zero first. Doing that today could be a big mistake!

Even if you dial a toll-free access number instead of zero, there could still be rate problems with calling cards issued by regional Bell companies.

My first piece of advice is to avoid calling cards from regional Bell companies (Ameritech, BellSouth, Pacific Bell, Qwest, Southwestern Bell and Verizon). Those companies are not allowed to offer long distance in most of the states in which they provide local service. This means another company must handle the long distance calls placed with their cards. The rates charged for that are much higher than other options you have. Plus if their calling card local rates and connect fee are anything like the rates Pacific Bell charges, why would you pay that much?

The second piece of advice is one you should always remember: Never dial zero to use a calling card. Instead, dial the toll-free access number for your card. Unlike the old days when dialing zero connected you to one network (AT&T), there are now many long distance companies. If a phone is setup to route calls via AT&T, WorldCom or Sprint, dialing zero costs you a $4.99 initial fee for calls made with other companies calling cards. The rate-per-minute will be different as well.

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