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10 Tips to Buy an International Calling Card

Updated on October 14, 2008

Calling cards have complicated pricing and lots of sketchy companies

International calling cards are easy to use - and they can save you a lot of money if you make frequent calls overseas.

But buying the right calling card is much more confusing than it should be. That's because:

  1. Calling card pricing is ridiculously complicated
  2. Calling card companies use sketchy marketing techniques

To ensure you are buying the cheapest calling card you possibly can, it pays to be a smart shopper!

This hub provides 10 tips that will help you buy calling cards that meet your individual calling needs. The main points are to understand:

  • how calling card pricing works
  • what your personal calling patterns are
  • how to choose a reputable calling card company

If you remember only 2 things from this hub, they should be:

  • low per minute rates are often not the best deal
  • only buy cards with 1-minute or 3-minute billing increments

So let's get on with it so you can buy calling cards today!

If you have any questions, please post a comment below.

1. Low per minute rates aren't always the best deal

Many people want to buy cheap calling cards, so calling card companies advertise very low per minute rates to lure you into buying their cards.

But beware, often the calling cards with the lowest advertised per minute rates have the highest service fees.

In other words, the TOTAL COST for cards with lower per minute rates is often higher than for cards with higher rates.

For instance, in one actual example I found, a card with a 4.9¢ per minute rate ended up costing more than another card costing 7.1¢ per minute. The reason was that the lower priced card had a longer billing increment and two additional fees: a 15% carrier service fee and a 49¢ connection fee.

2. Watch for hidden fees

Hidden fees are a very big problem in the calling card industry. That's because not all card vendors fully or clearly disclose information on all applicable rates and fees.

As you shop for a card, watch carefully to see which rates and fees apply. Just because a fee isn't shown, doesn't mean you aren't going to be charged for it - it may be stated in the fine print somewhere. For instance, it is not uncommon for fees to be disclosed in the details of lengthy contracts or terms of service which many people wouldn't even think to read.

In our opinion, a very good indicator of a calling card vendor's trustworthiness is how clearly and prominently they display applicable rates and fees. Ideally, you want to buy from a vendor that provides an organized and complete listing of all possible fees - including ones they may not even charge for.

3. Watch for overstated minutes

Many phone card companies overstate the number of minutes you will get when using their cards. They do this by optimistically stating total minutes based on a best case scenario.

For instance, the stated minutes may assume you use all your minutes in one single very long phone call vs. making several calls over time. Or they may assume you do not use their toll-free access numbers. Or do not use a payphone. Etc., etc.

This problem has led to many, many consumer complaints against calling card companies. In some cases, it has led to successful false advertising suits by government authorities.

Nonetheless, the problem remains all too common, especially with cards sold via retail outlets.

4. Understand actual vs. advertised per minute rates

Normally, the actual per minute rate you pay will be higher than the per minute rate advertised by your vendor.

Your advertised per minute rate is the stated rate you will be charged per minute of billed time. The advertised rate is the most prominently cited rate promoting a particular calling card - like, for example, a card to India advertised at 5.9¢ per minute.

Your actual per minute rate will be the rate after applying billing increments calculations plus other fees and surcharges (such as connection fees, maintenance fees, etc.). Actual per minute rates will vary from person to person depending on your actual calling patterns and the specific fees that apply to your card.

Because vendors use so many pricing factors, it can be difficult to estimate what your actual per minute rate will be. If you are really meticulous, you can do so by estimating your average call length and number of calls and then applying the various charges to roughly estimate your costs. Click this link to see a detailed example of how to calculate your actual calling card per minute rate.

What is a 'billing increment'?

'Billing increments' are a mechanism that calling card companies use in calculating how much time to charge you for a call. 

Typical billing increments are: 1-second, 6-seconds, 1-minute, 3-minutes, and 5-minutes.

Billing increments are packaged together with an 'advertised per minute rate' in various ways to meet different caller needs.

Generally speaking, cards with longer billing increments have lower per minute rates. And vice versa, cards with shorter billing increments have higher per minute rates. 

5. Billed time is different than talk time

Billed time is not widely discussed, but it is the actual amount of time you are billed for a given call. Talk time is the amount of time you are actually talking to your party.

Billed time is almost almost higher than your actual talk time due to the impact of billing increments. All calling cards have billing increments. The most commonly seen billing increments are: 6-seconds, 1-minute, and 3-minutes. You may also see 1-second and 5-minute increments.

Roughly speaking, billed time is calculated by dividing your actual talk time by your billing increment and rounding up. Your call will be charged at the advertised per minute rate times the billed time of the call.

So, for instance, if you make a call that lasts for 10 minutes and have a card with a 3-minute increment, your billed time for that call is 12 minutes [ 10 ÷ 3 = 3.3, then round up to 4 ].

Or if you have a card with a 1-minute billing increment and you talk for 1 minute 22 seconds (1:22), you will be charged for 2 minutes.

6. Buy cards with 1-minute or 3-minute billing increments

In general, you want to choose a calling card with either a 1-minute billing increment or a 3-minute billing increment.

  • Pick a 1-minute card if you usually make calls shorter than 10-11 minutes.
  • Pick a 3-minute card if your calls are usually 12 minutes in length or longer.

Cards with 1-second or 6-second billing increments are almost never cost effective - for any call length. The reason for this is that the more accurate metering benefits of shorter billing increments is almost always offset by the higher per minute rates you get charged.

Typical Phone Card Fees

The most common calling card rates and fees are:

  • Carrier service fee (aka service taxes & surcharges) - usually charged as a flat percentage that's tacked onto your call
  • Toll-free access surcharge - usually an extra 1¢-3¢ per minute charge for using the company's toll-free access numbers
  • Connection fee - a fee charged each time you use your calling card
  • Maintenance fee - typically a weekly or monthly fee charged for as long as your card has a balance
  • Payphone surcharge - a payphone surcharge is mandated in the US by the FCC; the amount charged varies from card to card

7. Look for other charges and service fees

In addition to the per minute rates, calling card companies apply a lot of other charges and service fees to their pre-paid phone cards. Not all cards carry all these charges, but most cards have at least 2-3 applicable fees. Since these fees can really add up, it pays to look at them closely before you buy.

The most common fees are:

  • Carrier service fee
  • Toll-free access surcharge
  • Connection fee
  • Maintenance fee
  • Payphone surcharge

These calling card pricing elements interact in complicated ways and can really drive up the actual per minute rate you pay. But because there are so many fees and they each are applied in different ways, it can be hard to predict how many talk time minutes you are actually going to get for a given price - at least not without a sharp pencil.

8. Buy cards online - not in retail stores

Calling cards are available in an increasingly wide range of places. The main options are to buy thru an online vendor or to buy at a retail store.

As a general rule, we recommend that you buy calling cards thru online vendors, not at retail shops.

Why? Four main reasons:

  • Easier to compare calling card prices and features
  • Easier to identify and compare vendors online
  • Easier to verify vendor credentials and reputation for online vendors
  • Easier to set-up and manage features like PIN-less dialing and speed dial

While there are plenty of perfectly good cards sold at retail, it seems that most of the notable phone card scams have involved store-bought cards from no-name brands. The biggest problem is that the packaging of cards in retail stores makes it hard for companies to fully disclose fees - even if they truly wanted to (and many don't).

This is not to say that all online vendors are good or all retail cards are bad, just that online shops are a better bet overall for buying quality cards.

If you do buy cards at retail shops, we recommend you pay extra attention to the brand. Buy cards either from well known carriers or from card vendors you already know and trust.

9. Buy from reputable companies

Unfortunately, there are a lot of shady calling card vendors out there, so your first priority is finding a reputable company to buy your calling cards from.

Finding good vendors is not hard - if you know what to look for. Once you've found a good vendor or two, then you can focus on choosing the right card.

Below are several factors you should consider in choosing a reliable, reputable calling card vendor.

  • Serves the country you are calling
  • Offers competitive rates
  • Has full disclosure of rates and fees
  • Provides advanced features (like PIN-less dialing)
  • Offers online account management
  • Has 24/7 live customer support
  • No complaints found via Google search

If you have difficulty finding a reputable vendor, you might want to consider these recommended calling card vendors.

10. Buy cards with advanced dialing and billing features

Many calling cards and prepaid phone cards have advanced dialing and billing features that can make things much easier. Cards bought through online vendors will tend to have better advanced capabilities.

Dialing features are things that allow you to place calls more easily. They include:

  • PIN-less dialing
  • Speed dial
  • Toll-free vs. local access numbers
  • Worldwide access numbers.

Billing features are things that allow you to manage your account and your cards more easily. They include:

  • Call tracking
  • Rechargeable cards
  • Expiration date
  • Auto-recharge
  • Balance transfer

Keep these features in mind as you shop for a phone card.

BONUS POINT: Know your own calling needs

To be a super smart calling card buyer, you should know your own personal calling patterns. Once you can nail down what you need the card for - you can make much better choices.

Some questions to ask yourself are: 

  • how many calls am I going to make?
  • can I make calls in batches all at once or will they be one at a time? 
  • how long will my calls be? 
  • where am I calling? 
  • how long will I need the card?
  • will I be using a payphone for any calls?
  • does the calling card company have a local access number I can use or will I have to use their toll-free lines?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can begin to sort out the kinds of cards that will work best for you.

Some rules of thumb are: 

  • If you generally make long calls (>12 minutes), then you want a card with a long billing increment - at least 3-minutes
  • If you make fairly short calls, then you want a card with a 1-minute billing increment
  • If you plan to keep and use your card for a long time, then you want a card with low maintenance fees
  • If you plan to use up your card quickly, then maintenance fees probably don't matter
  • If you will be using a payphone often, choose a card with a low payphone surcharge
  • If you make calls one at a time, then you want a card with a low connection fee
  • If you can make calls in batches several at a time, then connection fees are less important and a low per minute rate is key 

Hopefully, you get the idea from these examples - pay attention to calling card fees that are going to matter to you and ignore any extraneous fees that won't impact you. 

Be a smart shopper!

I hope these tips help you buy the right calling cards for your needs.

If you remember only two things from this, let them be:

  1. low-priced cards aren't always the best deal
  2. buy card with either 1-minute or 3-minute billing increments

If you have any questions, please post them below and I will try to assist.

Other resources

Find more information at this article:



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    • John Kenney profile imageAUTHOR

      John Kenney 

      7 years ago from Amelia Island, FL

      @Kelli: who are you talking to? and what actual company are you talking about?

    • profile image

      Kelli Jae Baeli 

      7 years ago

      other sites and reviews call this a scam. reviews on the iphone app are bad. I paid and sent the info they asked for and NOTHING. can't call the access number without a busy signal; shame on YOU for recommending them

    • profile image

      Marie Field 

      8 years ago

      Don't forget to check if you will be charged to dial the access number to make international calls.

    • John Kenney profile imageAUTHOR

      John Kenney 

      9 years ago from Amelia Island, FL

      Thanks for the recent comments from Sean and dkornblit. There certainly are many new services coming available for making international calls.

      No doubt these may be worth a look, but they aren't necessarily superior to what the top calling card companies. Check here for a recently completed comparison of the top calling card companies:

      The Telfund4Life site mentioned by Sean seems to have extremely high rates. For example, for calls to Mexico from the US, the rates are 2x one calling card company I checked.

      The Callarc callback solution suggested by dkornblit has not yet launched - perhaps they will launch or maybe they won't. Who knows. Free callback is a very tough business to make work.

      As well, the more innovative calling card companies are starting to offer these same types of things, too. Mobile dialing apps and low cost VoIP are being adopted by the leaders in the calling card industry. Check out our ratings comparison (previous link) to learn more.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      There really is no reason to buy international calling cards. There are new services all the time for low to no cost international calls that can be made from the convenience of your mobile phone. Check out for instance, they're planning on offering Free INternational Calls.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Here's the solution. Don't buy calling cards. Why would you with all this new technology that allows you to make calls close to nothing. I personally use my cell phone to make all my international calls for very cheap through a call-back technology. Seems like you know a lot about the industry. I would love to hear your thoughts regarding this company.

    • John Kenney profile imageAUTHOR

      John Kenney 

      9 years ago from Amelia Island, FL

      Re: prior 2 comments by 'people' from While I appreciate the activity on my hub, please be advised that this company is a reseller of dubious credentials and that I don't endorse or recommend their site or their cards.

      They promote cards from some questionable companies - companies that have been fined or sanctioned by the Attorneys General of one or more states. E.g., TCI and STi. See this article:

      More important, they do not fully disclose fees for their cards. The types of cards they sell generally have additional fees beyond the per minute rate, but that is all that is cited by Since they don't explicitly state that there are no other applicable fees, one has to assume that there are more fees. For instance, the FCC mandates a surcharge for using a calling card at a payphone. They don't even appear to disclose this.

      If you are in the market for a card, please visit my website for in-depth info on card fees and rates - as well as recommended calling card vendors.

    • John Kenney profile imageAUTHOR

      John Kenney 

      9 years ago from Amelia Island, FL

      Right, if you are using a card only once, then it doesn't matter what the rounding is.

      My point was more that if you are using a card on an on-going basis for a series of calls to different locations, then you will tend to pay a lower overall rate on cards with longer billing increments.

    • profile image

      Laila Makar 

      9 years ago

      Why buy only 1 or 3-minutes rounding? What if the minutes to the country the person is calling has very low minutes like Cuba, and you cannot use the card except once. Why do I care if it has 3-minutes or 10-minutes rounding?

    • profile image

      Lilian Nawar 

      10 years ago

      I will repeat here again that so many people are stating their opinion about international calling cards while they never worked in this enviroment. The statement that all cards that have lower ratesare not good is a general statement and there are always exceptions. I carry a group of cards that has one of the lowest rates. You can make six calls without being charged at all. Calling cards features is a function of their price and is not a function of its minutes. There are a lot of features that can incease the minutes of international cards and reduce their charges, but the discount you get from the carrier is lower, but you will be rewarded with higher sales volume. It goes like if you have an international calling card from the carrier at 40% disount, you may sell 100,000 cards weekly, but if the card is at 36% discount, there is a possibility that your sales reach 150,000 international calling cards weekly. That means you sell more but your net profit is less. This is were the trick of the international calling card lies. ethnic groups of immigrants in the united states are familiar with the features of every international calling card compny and very quickly they spread the word between their community when they find a card they like. At& T cards are suitable to countries whose rates are very low to western europe and some asian countries. Try to call someone on his cell phone using At&T, and you minutes will not reach15 minutes on average. Categorizing international calling cards is not that simple as stated in most reviews.

    • John Kenney profile imageAUTHOR

      John Kenney 

      10 years ago from Amelia Island, FL

      Good question. Answer is maybe not so simple. If your card ONLY charges the maintenance fee and no other extra charges, then you are probably doing pretty good with it. You've got yourself a relatively 'clean' calling card ('clean' meaning few, if any, extra charges).

      Problem is that a lot of calling cards add on other fees - many of them not so obvious. These other fees - like, for instance, a 25% carrier surchage - can add up very quickly and swamp out lower advertised per minute rates.

      But assuming the maintenance fee is the only thing, then you can do a small calculation to determine if a card with a higher per minute rate, but no maintenance fee, would actually get you more minutes.

      The calc is: ( card cost - maintenance fees ) / per minute rate = # of minutes.

      Example 1: $25 card, $3.40 fees, $0.02 per minute rate. $25 - $3.40 = $21.60 / $0.02 = 1,033 minutes.

      Example 2: $25 card, $0 fees, $0.03 per minute rate. $25 - $0 = $25 / $0.03 = 833 minutes.

      So, in this example, paying the maintenance fee is a better deal than paying a higher rate. But you should probably do the calcs with the actual fees and per minute rates to see if the same it true for you.

      Hope that helps.

    • profile image

      Vicki Cobb 

      10 years ago

      If I typically use a $25.00 calling card each month, how much do maintenance fees matter? At 85 cents a week, let's say, this would eat up over $3.00 of my calling card. Am I better off looking for a higher rate per minute and avoiding a weekly maintenance fee altogether?

      Thanks much for the helpful article.

    • profile image

      Vicki Cobb 

      10 years ago

      If I typically use a $25.00 calling card each month, how much do maintenance fees matter? At 85 cents a week, let's say, this would eat up over $3.00 of my calling card. Am I better off looking for a higher rate per minute and avoiding a weekly maintenance fee altogether?

      Thanks much for the helpful article.

    • profile image


      10 years ago from Buffalo, NY

      This is an extremely well thought out and detailed article and I found it and the sites mentioned very helpful.


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