Best Cheap VoIP Service Providers

Published on   By 

Our Picks

Ooma Review

Ooma's upfront costs may make you a little dizzy at first, but do the math over the long term. Once you buy the Telo hardware, all calls in the U.S. are free for as long as you use Ooma. And users report that the service and voice quality are very good.

The cost of the Ooma adapter, a.k.a. Telo, hardly sits in budget territory, but Ooma reviews assert the investment pays off. Users laud the overall quality of calls as well as the super-cheap cost, as in zero for calls within the U.S. with Ooma's basic plan. Of course, you'll still have to pay taxes and associated fees (remember, there is no free lunch). But never mind. Users are thrilled with the monthly savings on phone usage and their reviews at Best Buy say incoming and outgoing audio is on par with landline phones. Ooma also wins points in reviews for being easy to get up and running and for the generous feature set, even in the basic package. Some reviewers, however, including an expert at PC Mag, report a bit of choppiness in voice transmission. We also read a few comments about intermittent annoyances like service outages, misrouted numbers, and equipment failures.

Once you plunk down $150 for the Telo (we've also seen it on sale at Walmart and Best Buy for $120), the basic level of service is free and includes all calls within the U.S., voicemail, online call history, caller ID and call waiting, and voicemail access. International calls start at 1.4 cents a minute. For the $10-a-month premier service, you also get free calls to Canada, a second line, three-way conferencing, call forwarding and call blocking, and several voicemail features, such as voicemail-to-email forwarding. You can make emergency 911 calls with either package (a benefit not available with software-based VoIP, such as Skype), and you can port your landline phone number for a one-time fee of $40. Another $15 a month provides 1,000 minutes of calls to any of 61 countries.

For anyone who can swallow the upfront cost, Ooma delivers good, reliable, and cheap VoIP service. It serves either as a backup phone line or a replacement for a traditional landline. The month-to-month cost is next to nothing if you stick with the basic plan, while the premier service adds several more features for a very competitive price.

Where to buy

Skype Review

From $3 Best

The most beloved software for free PC-to-PC calls, Skype also lets users make voice calls to landline and mobile phones for very low rates. Skype may not be a full-on replacement for your phone, but it's a fantastic supplement.

Skype is the go-to program for free PC-to-PC voice and video calls, according to Skype reviews, and its low-cost plans for calling landlines earn equally effusive commendations. A review of the updated version for Windows 8 by PC Mag praises the excellent voice and image quality as well as the easy setup and touch-(or click-)friendly interface. The few disappointments with this newest Skype software, the review continues, include the inability to send files, share screens, make multi-party calls, and search or sort contacts. Older versions of Skype incorporate such functionalities and this expert expects the Windows 8 version will fall in line soon. The view from Top Ten Reviews is more muted, less due to performance weaknesses than to the shortfall of features and lack of personalized tech support with the free and cheapest plans. Indeed, this review gives the service a thumbs-up for overall value and usability and for its site-based user support (FAQs, help topics, and tutorials). Users' Skype reviews clearly show that the monumental fan base is rooted in the ability to contact friends and family anywhere in the world with free Skype-to-Skype service.

Skype is a software-based VoIP service that's designed primarily for voice and video calls, which are always free, but you can also sign up for a variety of plans that let you call landline and mobile phones. There are no startup fees and the software download comes at no charge. Unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada starts at $3 a month, and $8 a month adds Mexico to the mix; $14 a month gives users unlimited worldwide calling to landlines. You can also opt for a premium account at an additional $5 a month that includes group video calls and screen sharing, unlimited calling to any country, no display advertising, and live chat support. Skype offers a small set of features (caller ID, call forwarding, and text messaging) for a fee. One important note: Users must maintain a separate phone line for emergencies, as Skype does not support 911 calls.

If you're looking for a dead-simple and super-cheap way to make PC-to-PC calls, as well as landline calls, Skype is the best choice. All you need to get started is a PC or mobile device and a microphone. Of course, you'll also need a webcam if you want a Skype user the other end to see you. In short, Skype assures you quick and affordable access to folks around the world, whether they use Skype or not.

Where to buy

Google Hangouts Review

Google offers a potentially excellent and free alternative to Skype. Hangouts is the only option we researched that offers free, unlimited calls to numbers in the U.S. and Canada. However, the service is still in its infancy and some features require a Google Voice account, which is available only in the U.S.

Hangouts, which has supplanted PC-to-PC messaging programs including Google Talk, only just added the capability to call a landline or cell phone, so relevant Google Hangouts reviews are still scarce. Several experts have taken the new Hangouts mobile app on a test drive -- reviewers from CNET and Laptop Magazine are impressed with the program's simplicity and well-designed user interface -- but Google reportedly has yet to incorporate phone calling into the mobile version. Users who want to use Hangouts to call landline and cell-phone numbers can do so from within Gmail or Google+ or download an extension for Google's Chrome browser. In the absence of Hangouts reviews that mention the quality of those calls, we went back to write-ups about calling phones from Gmail before that capability was integrated into Hangouts. One representative example from The Wall Street Journal declared the service more reliable than an iPhone and good enough even for work-related calls, if not crystal clear. Several users who have tried out the current service suggest it's half-baked. Key features remain the province of Google Voice, a service that Google has said will be folded more seamlessly into Hangouts. For now, though, users must have a separate Google Voice account to receive calls in Hangouts and take advantage of basic features such as voicemail.

The huge upside to the evolving situation at Google is that the company has made domestic voice calling entirely free through at least the end of 2013. Google Hangouts downloads are free, calls to the U.S. and Canada are free, and a Google Voice number is free. No other VoIP provider offers the complete package at no charge. International service is more limited, however. As mentioned, incoming calls are routed through Google Voice, which is offered only in the U.S. Calls to other countries incur per-minute charges, although the rates are competitive. As with most video-chat programs, you can contact anyone anywhere you wish for free so long as they also use the same program. Simply click the name of a contact in Hangouts and click the call button to connect to a contact via voice or video. Unlike Skype, which requires a premium account, Google Hangouts offers free conference calls with video for up to 10 participants. For common calling features such as voicemail and call forwarding, users need Google Voice, which manages calls to all your phones.

Although Google Hangouts has just debuted in its latest form, we expect it will catch on quickly and continue to improve. It's certainly a solid video-conferencing program, and free calls to landlines in the U.S. and Canada is a compelling offer that Skype doesn't match.

Where to buy

Vonage Review

From $12 Good

Vonage is a bit more expensive than other cheap VoIP services, but the company has a good reputation and users say the service works well. If you make international calls frequently, Vonage's World plan is a pretty good bargain.

Vonage is a hardware-based VoIP service that's been around for quite a few years, and Vonage reviews indicate that users are particularly fond of the low international calling rates. Reviews at Best Buy also comment on the reliable service and simple setup. Good customer support with online FAQs, tutorials, customer forums, and a troubleshooting section, in addition to a variety of calling plans, earn this provider high marks in a review at Top Ten Reviews. At several review sites, users report that sound quality is quite OK. On the downside, the cheapest rates come with an annual contract, so once you're in, you're in for a while; there is a 30-day money-back guarantee, however.

The Vonage adapter comes gratis and then you can choose the calling plan to suit your needs. The unlimited U.S.-Canada-Puerto Rico package costs $25 a month or the equivalent of $10 for the first three months and $25 a month thereafter with a one-year contract. Alternatively, you can choose a month-to-month or yearly contract for $12 or $20 a month that allows 300 or 750 minutes of local and long distance calls within the U.S.-Canada-Puerto Rico coverage area. An international plan (unlimited calls to landlines in 60 countries or to mobile phones in 10) is priced the same as the unlimited month-to-month and annual domestic plans; the enhanced international plan climbs to $30 with or without a 12-month contract (monthly charges for the first three months are $10) and gives you 250 minutes a month for calls to mobile phones in more than 40 countries. The Vonage plans offer free features such as call waiting, caller ID, three-way calling, call transfer, and call blocks. Taxes and fees are always extra.

Vonage's monthly unlimited plans are a bit steeper than some competitors' offerings, but the number of options means you can choose the service level that saves you the most money. Users also enjoy a wide assortment of standard features not often available with other VoIP providers. For hard-core international callers, Vonage is it.

Where to buy

NetTalk Duo Review

From $2.50 Think Twice

The NetTalk Duo is dirt cheap, but many users complain about call quality and malfunctions when using this service.

This hardware-based VoIP service is dirt cheap, but many NetTalk Duo reviews express a variety of frustrations with it. Most of the complaints posted at Walmart concern equipment failures, dropped calls and others that don't go through, difficulty porting existing phone numbers, problems at renewal time, inadequate tech support, and unhelpful customer service; some grouse about call quality. Still, a majority of reviews at this site skew positive, saying the system is easy to set up, audio is OK, and the price is definitely right. We found a similar range of comments at Amazon, where NetTalk Duo earns a middling grade on average but the critics are loud, clear, and numerous. Note that several reviewers urge potential customers to get a router that is known to play well with the service; user forums at the company site or a Google search can point you in the right direction.

The first year is free with the purchase of the NetTalk Duo device, which costs $50. Starting in the second year the annual fee for unlimited calls within the U.S. and Canada is $30, plus local taxes and fees. For $120 a year you can make unlimited international calls to 60 countries. When it comes to features, NetTalk Duo is also a bargain; it offers call waiting, caller ID, voicemail, three-way calling, voicemail to email, 411 and emergency 911 calls, call forwarding and call blocking. You can transfer your existing phone number for a one-time fee of $20.

NetTalk Duo looks like a good deal on paper. It's very cheap, easy to install, and includes a slew of features -- more than those packaged in the basic plans of most competitors. That said, it's hard to ignore the many red flags about performance and customer support. For a few bucks more, you can buy better VoIP service.

Where to buy

Lingo Review

From $10 Think Twice

Lingo's call quality may be good, and the price of its calling plans competitive, but we read far too many complaints about billing practices and customer service.

Lingo's attractive inducements fail to offset the many negative assessments found in Lingo reviews. Unlike its VoIP competitors, Lingo includes unlimited international calls in each of its service plans; it also provides the adapter free of charge. The experts at Top Ten Reviews like these features, noting that the former provides good value for anyone who frequently calls outside the U.S. On the other hand, we found lots and lots of complaints in reviews posted at VoIPReview.org and CNET about reliability, call quality, tech support, and customer service -- billing practices in particular. Customers claim the company tacks on surprise charges and fees, imposes sudden plan changes, is slow to correct errors, and resists requests to cancel service. When things are going smoothly, Lingo reviews concede, call quality is passable.

The first month of service is free with Lingo's monthly calling plans, and in all cases but one (see below) taxes and fees are extra. The basic plan goes for $24 a month and provides unlimited calling within the U.S. and to 45 other countries. There are two international calling plans: $57 a month for unlimited calls in the U.S. and to landlines in 45 countries, plus 1,800 minutes for mobile calls to 25 countries; or $24 a month for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada and 1,000 minutes of calls to more than 65 countries. Alternatively, you can pay $23 for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada or sign up for a $250 yearly subscription that includes monthly fees but not taxes. The cheapest monthly deal goes for $10 but limits you to 500 minutes of calls within the U.S.; calls to Canada cost an additional 4 cents a minute. All Lingo plans let you transfer an existing phone number and come with more than 20 features (e.g., call waiting, caller ID, three-way calling, call forwarding, and 911 emergency calls).

We didn't read much commentary about the quality of calls with Lingo or about the features, but we were surprised by the number of complaints regarding customer service -- enough to put us off this VoIP provider.

Where to buy

Buying Guide

Cheap VoIP services transmit calls over the Internet instead of through traditional landlines (the acronym stands for Voice over Internet Protocol). All the options we researched offer tremendous savings on your phone bill, but your choice of a cheap VoIP service ultimately depends on which one delivers the call quality and customer service you deem acceptable, along with the best deal given your phone usage patterns. The price differences among these companies are relatively small, but our research uncovered large differences in customer satisfaction.

Cheap VoIP Phone Service Guide

Some cheap VoIP services use free software installed on your computer and others require an adapter that connects your phone to a modem or PC. The main player on the software side is Skype, which also is our top pick due to its high-caliber call quality and very inexpensive calling plans (free PC-to-PC calls; $3 per month for unlimited calling to the United States and Canada). The best cheap hardware-based VoIP service is Ooma, which requires a costly adapter ($150) but delivers on service and voice quality and pays off with free calling in the U.S.

Google recently integrated its messaging programs under the Hangouts moniker and stands out as the only provider that lets users make free phone calls to numbers in the U.S. and Canada. That helps earn it a runner-up spot on our list, along with Vonage, a hardware-based VoIP service that's a star on the international calls circuit for providing decent call quality at relatively low rates (including $26 per month for unlimited worldwide calls). Consumers who need only a domestic calling plan may also want to consider MagicJack Plus ($30 per year for unlimited free calls plus $70 for the hardware), although the relatively limited service and concerns about customer relations kept the company from making our cut. The two VoIP services that fail the user-satisfaction test due to poor reliability and/or customer service are NetTalk Duo ($50 plus $30 per year for unlimited calling to U.S. and Canada) and Lingo ($24 per month for unlimited calling to the U.S. and 45 other countries), both of which require adapters.

The first decision point is whether to go with a hardware-based VoIP service that requires an adapter on your landline phone or a computer-based service that runs on free software. To a certain extent, the technologies limit the functionalities. Software-based providers such as Skype and Google Hangouts, whose core functions are PC-to-PC video calling, voice calling, and chat, are meant to supplement an existing landline or cell phone service, whereas hardware-based VoIP services can replace landline service completely. The critical distinction, and one reason that militates against using software-based VoIP as your primary phone service: no emergency 911 calls.

Once you've settled on the technology, consider each service's calling plans (fees and calling areas) and the specific functions the plans include. The usual array of phone features -- e.g., caller ID, voicemail -- may or may not be part of a basic or even a premium package; details depend on the provider and the various plans on offer. Also note: Some hardware-based services assess an upfront fee for the adapter; some cheap VoIP services charge for a dedicated phone number; and some let you transfer an existing landline number but may charge for doing so.

Finally, any cheap VoIP phone service depends on having a fast, reliable broadband Internet connection, such as DSL or cable. If you don't have a broadband Internet connection, or if yours is unreliable, consider upgrading your Internet access before looking into VoIP service.

Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table

(from $3)
Type Software
Startup Cost $0
Phone Calls Within U.S. $3/month for outgoing, $2.50-$6/month for Skype Number
International Calls $14/month
Basic Features (Voicemail, etc.) Included with subscription
E911 Emergency Service No
(from $0)
Type Hardware
Startup Cost $150
Phone Calls Within U.S. Pay only taxes and fees
International Calls Starting at $15/month for 1,000 minutes
Basic Features (Voicemail, etc.) Included
E911 Emergency Service Yes
(from $12)
Type Hardware
Startup Cost $0
Phone Calls Within U.S. Starting at $12/month for 300 minutes
International Calls $26/month
Basic Features (Voicemail, etc.) Included with all plans
E911 Emergency Service Yes
(from $0)
Type Software
Startup Cost $0
Phone Calls Within U.S. Free
International Calls Starting at 2 cents/minute (no flat rate)
Basic Features (Voicemail, etc.) Included with free Google Voice account (U.S. only)
E911 Emergency Service No

VoIP Reviews: Adapter-Based Services

VoIP reviews largely commend the call quality and reliability of the best cheap services out there. Things have improved significantly over the years in no small part due to better technology. Users still run into problems, though, usually in the form of dropped calls or poor reception, and even our top picks aren't completely immune to glitches. Serious difficulties (i.e., unrelated to the Internet connection or improper installation of the VoIP adapter) must be resolved by contacting customer service. And on this score, VoIP reviews are far more critical of some companies than of others. Here's a look at what they say about the hardware-based providers on our list.

VoIP Call Quality and Reliability.

Despite incredibly low costs, the quality of the connection with cheap adapter-based VoIP service is often quite good. The underlying Internet connection can impact the quality of phone calls, however, so be sure the connection is fast, reliable broadband.

Ooma requires an adapter dubbed Telo. The device impresses hundreds of users who have posted reviews on the Walmart website. They trill about the excellent call quality and reliability, with some saying it rivals that of a landline phone and beats out hardware-based competitors. The special Ooma dial tone earns a few shout-outs from users, but we did come across a spot of grousing here and there about speech delay, lost calls, and intermittent service outages.

VoIP reviews for Vonage are good but far less numerous and slightly less enthusiastic. At Digital Landing a reviewer concludes that call quality with Vonage is better than comparable adapter-based services but not as reliable as the traditional landline. And one user who posted at Best Buy contends that sound quality on overseas calls pales compared with U.S. calls.

A few other adapter-based services eke out a "pass" for call quality but can't compete with the category leaders for other reasons, notably customer relations. The handful of VoIP reviews for NetTalk Duo posted at Target report equipment problems, with similar accounts at Amazon accompanied by tales of dropped calls and incoming calls that fail to register. And while some NetTalk Duo users say call quality is acceptable, others grieve about static, scratchiness, break ups, and distortion. Most Lingo users have lots to say about the company's billing practices and poor customer service, but call quality only occasionally surfaces in their commentary. Where it does, many say audio and reliability are at least average.

MagicJack Plus is an enticingly cheap option with call quality that's loud and clear, according to a PC World expert, and compares favorably with that of a landline. Numerous VoIP reviews at Amazon, however, beg to differ and list grievances like dropped calls, choppy audio, and hardware malfunctions. (Some disgruntled users found they could fix the problem by resetting the MagicJack Plus adapter.)

VoIP Customer Support.

Sometimes a tech product is only as good as the customer service behind it. All electronics are subject to hiccups and service issues, and sometimes customers just need a little help understanding how to set up or use the device. VoIP services are no exception. But VoIP reviews indicate that some providers' customer service is better than others.

Ooma, for the most part, receives good marks for customer service in reviews at Costco, where users praise the rapid and helpful response whether by phone or online chat. User sentiment about Vonage is mixed, judging by VoIP reviews. Some say customer support is fine, and being able to reach the company in several ways, including through Twitter, is a real plus. On the other hand, some reviewers complain that Vonage customer representatives make it excessively difficult to cancel service or try to pressure users into paying for services they don't want.

VoIP reviews reveal that MagicJack Plus users aren't particularly fond of that company's customer service. Posts at Amazon ding the lack of live phone support (chat is the only option) and others say support is slow and doesn't resolve problems. One reviewer notes that MagicJack is dogged by a long track record of poor service, affirmed by the company's low ranking for customer service at the comparison and information site VoIPReview.org.

NetTalk Duo likewise suffers from customer service woes, according to users. At various sites they complain about being put on hold for unreasonable amounts of time -- and finally hanging up -- and difficulties reaching tech support. Reviews suggest Lingo's customer service is even worse. Many users who have commented at VoIPReview.org carp about excessively long hold times, shifty charges that customer service fails to undo, unexpected charges for free conferencing services, and generally dodgy billing practices.

Free VoIP Services, Apps, and 911 Calls

Computer-based services such as Skype and Google Hangouts run on free VoIP software and require no additional hardware to make free or low-cost long-distance calls. Google users can download an extension for the company's Chrome browser or make free calls to the U.S. and Canada directly through Gmail or the Google+ social network. Users who sign up for a free Google Voice number can also receive phone calls via Hangouts, but that service is available only in the U.S.

With Skype, free VoIP service is limited to Skype-to-Skype calls. Even group video calling (free in Hangouts for up to 10 people) requires at least one participant to have a premium account. Still, users pay as little as $3 a month to make unlimited calls to landline and mobile phone numbers in the U.S. and Canada. Receiving calls from traditional phones requires a Skype Number, which costs up to $6 a month.

Among all the VoIP services we researched, Skype is the runaway winner in the call-quality department for both voice and video, according to reviews. An expert at PC Mag asserts that users of Windows 8 will find that Skype's performance with this update surpasses that of any other VoIP service, with clear audio and sharp, full-screen images of the person at the other end during video chats. Reliability is also solid, asserts the reviewer and users who have posted on a CNET forum. Of course, all these strong endorsements assume the presence of a speedy Internet connection and good-quality camera.

Skype's customer service seems to have improved over the past few years. We found quite a few complaints in older VoIP reviews but few in recent posts. Skype users who do grouse typically limit their comments to the company being owned by Microsoft. On Skype's online support forum, some also express frustration at being unable to find straightforward answers to their questions on the company website.

Google is in the process of integrating its Google Voice phone-management system into Hangouts and only recently added the option to call phones, so expert feedback has yet to come in on that score. Several user postings on Google Product Forums suggest the company still needs to work out some kinks, including a lag when answering in Hangouts that results in missed calls. When Google originally launched the capability to call phones from Gmail, pre-Hangouts, testers including this reviewer from TechCrunch had high praise for the call quality, finding it comparable to Skype. Given the ongoing unification of Google's messaging capabilities, it remains to be seen whether users and experts will be satisfied with the way things shake out under Hangouts. In the meantime, it costs users nothing to test out the service for themselves.

Most other "free" VoIP providers offer only PC-to-PC calling free of charge. If the option to call landline phones is available, it typically requires users to sign up for a prepaid calling plan or buy credits, a la Skype. Oovoo, for instance, charges per minute but advertises low rates: 1.8 cents to the U.S. and Canada, for example, compared with 2.3 cents via Skype without a subscription. Some programs promise free calls to landline phones but define the service very narrowly. With iCall, for example, free "unlimited USA and Canadian calling" comes with a five-minute limit and a short ad before every call. For longer, ad-free calls, customers must sign up for iCall's premium service, which costs $10 per month. Yahoo Messenger used to let consumers buy minutes to make landline calls, but the company axed that feature early in 2013. PC-to-PC voice or video calls are still doable with Yahoo Messenger. In general, free VoIP service is confined to calling other users of the same program.

These services are, at best, a supplement to your existing phone service rather than a replacement for it because of several critical limitations: They cannot be used to make emergency 911 calls, they do not use regular handsets, and features like call waiting often are not available.

VoIP Apps.

For consumers put off by the idea of speaking into a computer microphone instead of a handset, software-based VoIP services offer smartphone apps. Typically you can use the app to make calls using your cheap or free VOIP service rather than use up your phone plan's minutes. This can be especially beneficial for international calling, which carries high per-minute rates on many cell-phone plans.

All the VoIP services we recommend provide downloadable apps for both Android and iPhone users. Skype also has apps for Windows Phone and BlackBerry users. However, as TechCrunch laments, Google has yet to incorporate phone calling into the Hangouts mobile app. VoIP apps are usually free, but there are exceptions. Ooma, for example, offers its iOS app for free, but users must pay $10 for the Android version. Ooma also charges per minute through the VoIP app, although it's relatively cheap at 1.6 cents for U.S. calls. With Vonage you can make calls to other Vonage users without paying a cent.

VoIP 911 Service.

While free VoIP software -- Skype and Google Hangouts included -- does not support emergency 911 calls, the hardware-based services do, although some charge a small monthly fee for this feature. Emergency calls from a traditional landline phone immediately transmit your callback number and location to the 911 operator. What about VoIP phones? The FCC explains that VoIP Enhanced 911 or E911 service isn't quite the same as traditional 911 service. For example, if a location is sent to the operator, it will be the address registered with your VoIP service provider, so it's crucial to keep that address up to date.

VoIP Hardware Costs, Plans, and Features

VoIP Hardware.

If you opt for one of the adapter-based VoIP services that bypasses computers completely, you'll need VoIP hardware that connects a traditional phone to a modem. This arrangement lets you make calls the same way you do on a landline phone. Some hardware-based VoIP service providers charge a one-time fee for the adapter and some charge only for shipping and handling. Among the providers we researched, Ooma imposes the highest startup cost by far -- $150 to purchase the Telo adapter -- but then you can make free calls for as long as you keep the service. Vonage is currently waiving its shipping fees and does not charge for the adapter. The MagicJack Plus adapter carries a $70 price tag and the hit for NetTalk Duo's hardware is $50. Getting started with Lingo is free -- no charge for the VoIP hardware or an activation fee. Adapters for Ooma, MagicJack, and NetTalk are available directly from the companies and some big-box retailers.

VoIP Service Plans.

Each VoIP provider, whether hardware- or software-based, offers a variety of plans to suit a variety of calling needs.

In the software category, Skype subscriptions start at $3 a month for unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada. The company charges $14 a month for unlimited worldwide calling. A premium package for another $5 a month covers group video calls and unlimited calling anywhere. And, of course, the company lets you connect to another Skype user via video, voice, or chat for free. With Hangouts, Google allows chat, voice, and video conversations with up to 10 contacts and calls to phone numbers in the U.S. and Canada -- all for free -- and offers low per-minute rates for international calls through Google Voice.

Among the hardware-based providers we researched, Vonage offers unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada for $25 a month (local taxes and fees not included), which is steep compared with some other VoIP services. But for only a dollar more, users can make unlimited calls to 60 countries (including the U.S.), which is quite a deal; cheaper plans for calls to the U.S. and Canada are priced by the number of minutes. For consumers who shell out $150 for Ooma's Telo adapter, all U.S. calls are free (except for local taxes and fees). Ooma charges monthly fees for 1,000 minutes to 61 countries or unlimited international calls.

NetTalk Duo charges $30 for its basic VoIP plan (unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada) and for an additional $120 a year clients can call 60 countries. The first month as a Lingo client is free, but after that expect a monthly fee of $24 (plus taxes and fees) for unlimited calls to 45 countries; cheaper plans with limitations are also available.

VoIP Phone Numbers.

If you plan to be a dedicated VoIP user, you must set up a phone number to receive incoming calls -- and you may have to pay for the privilege. As mentioned, Skype charges up to $6 a month for a VoIP phone number; customers who commit to a full year and/or buy a subscription receive discounts of up to 50 percent. A Google Voice number for use with Hangouts is free but available only in the U.S. Most hardware-based VoIP services grant a phone number gratis and may let you transfer a landline number to your VoIP account. Companies often charge for porting phone numbers, however. Ooma charges $40 to port a number but forgoes the fee if you sign up for an annual subscription. NetTalk Duo simply charges a one-time fee of $20 for number porting, as does Google.

Voicemail, Caller ID, and Other Features.

Many of the same convenient features that come with a traditional phone setup, such as voicemail, caller ID, call waiting, and perhaps even a second phone line, are also available with VoIP phone service, often for free, although software-based providers are less generous. Skype offers just a small set of features, such as caller ID, call forwarding, and text messaging, for a fee. Google offers these types of services through Google Voice, which is open only to U.S. users.

Most hardware-based services offer a broad array of features with even basic VoIP plans and typically kick in more with a premium plan. Ooma's $10-a-month premier plan, for example, includes free calls to Canada, three-way conferencing, call forwarding, voicemail-to-email, two lines, and call screening and blocking (the latter a particularly big hit with users). Three-way calling is standard with Vonage, along with call waiting, call transfer, caller ID, and several other features. The basic plans at NetTalk and Lingo also include many common features, although the particulars differ.

Additional Products We Considered

MagicJack Plus Review

From $2.50

MagicJack Plus reviews are favorably disposed toward this new and improved device when stacked against the original. The older version plugged into a PC that had to stay on to receive phone service, but the Plus adapter plugs into a router instead and frees up the PC. A review at PC World equates the call quality with that of a landline -- i.e., loud and clear -- but lowers its overall appraisal due to weak customer service and support. In reviews at Amazon, users are divided. Some insist the sound is clear and strong, not quite as good as a landline but more than acceptable, and others cite delays, interference, and garbled incoming audio. About MagicJack customer service, many reviews blast the company for surprise charges and inadequate and unhelpful sales and tech support. We read comments about dropped calls and problematic reliability with the device itself (rebooting sometimes helps), but many reviewers appreciate the savings and conclude that MagicJack Plus is worth it, warts and all.

MagicJack Plus costs $70 upfront and $30 a year for unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada, making this one of the cheapest deals around. (Your bill will be topped off by taxes and fees.) This VoIP service does not offer international calling plans, but calls from outside the U.S. to a MagicJack user here are free. MagicJack charges a one-time fee of $20 to port an existing phone number, plus an additional $10 annually after the first year of service. This service is light on free features, although the basics are there: caller ID, call waiting, voicemail, and directory assistance.

This is a cheap, mostly reliable VoIP service. Call quality is decent, although it may not always be quite as good as a landline phone, and users attest to the simple setup. MagicJack Plus is not perfect by any means, and customer service leaves something to be desired, but given its price point, it deserves a look.

Where to buy