With some VoIP applications, you can make Internet calls for free. The most popular free VoIP provider is Skype (Est. Free, Skype-to-Skype), but Google Hangouts (Google Voice) is challenging Skype's supremacy and is our Best Reviewed Free VoIP service. Why? Because Google's is the only VoIP service that lets you call any landline or mobile phone in the U.S. or Canada for free.
With other "free" VoIP providers, it's only free if both caller and the person being called are using the same service. That's fine if you just want to, say, call your sister in Belgium for free -- you just both set yourselves up with Skype, for example, and away you go. Mobile VoIP apps like Viber (Free calls to Viber users worldwide) and WhatsApp work the same way. So does FaceTime (Free calls to FaceTime users worldwide), and for that one, both users have to have an Apple device.
But for truly free phone service -- without having to bug every single person you call to download some app or another, and then make sure to keep it on at all times in case you call -- Google Hangouts is the only game in town. Aside from the cost of your Internet connection, you pay nothing.
"I've always been pleased with how well Google Voice calls work -- much better than Skype, in my opinion," says Karina Martinez-Carter at Time.com. And she can call the U.S. for free, no matter where she is. That's a big benefit for a globetrotting journalist, or any other frequent traveler.
Google VoIP provides some advanced features. Calls are integrated with your Gmail contacts for easy click-to-call functionality, and you can use one Google Voice number to ring all of your phones (and your computer) and receive transcriptions of your voice mails by text or email, though reports say that the transcription often garbles or skips words.
Google also offers free video conferencing. You can make Google video calls with multiple people, something that requires a membership upgrade on Skype.
With Google, the person on the other end of your call doesn't have to have any special equipment or be especially tech savvy, and neither do you. You can use Google Hangouts with any device that will access your Google Account and has a two-way speaker or headset (just about any brand of computer, smartphone or tablet).
Free VoIP does have some drawbacks, however. First, don't count on it for 911 service. You'll have to keep at least a basic cell plan or landline for that. For example, Google warns that Google Voice "is not capable of placing or receiving emergency services calls."
Second, in terms of call quality and reliability -- well, you get what you pay for. Martinez-Carter finds Skype totally unreliable: "Too often, I've found the quality to be total crap, though I guess this depends on internet connection speeds, but I've moved on to other services," she writes. "Having a call get broken up or drop repeatedly when you haven't spoken to someone in months is really, really frustrating."
PCMag.com's Michael Muchmore agrees. Skype call quality "depends on both parties' internet connection speeds, so you may experience occasional frame drops or voice glitches, as we did during testing."
PCMag.com's Max Eddy gets better results with Google Hangouts. "In my testing, I started a video call between my Samsung Galaxy S5 and my ancient iPhone 4s over Wi-Fi," he writes. "The video was not of stellar quality, but it was more than adequate." Eddy goes on to say that audio performance was better than video, and that, regardless, network quality will play a large role in determining the quality of your call. "In my previous testing, I noted that Hangouts videos worked surprisingly well over 4G," he adds.
Finally, with any free VoIP, don't expect handholding customer service. When something goes wrong, you could find there's no way to directly contact any sort of help line. You might have to rely on user help forums to solve your problem.
By contrast, the best paid VoIP services offer reliable, clear calling, prompt customer assistance, and -- importantly -- E911 service that will not only let you call 911, but also automatically reveal your location to emergency responders. See our discussion of the best VoIP services to learn more about the best paid VoIP for your home/mobile or business.