Most of us spend time in at least a few places where our phones just don’t work, whether it’s a room or two at home, a favorite basement coffee shop or some other signal-blocked location. That’s where Wi-Fi calling can save the day. Instead of relying on the cellular phone network, Wi-Fi calling and texting uses an available Wi-Fi network to place your call over the Internet.
Clearly, if you don’t have a cellular signal or it’s spotty, the ability to make Wi-Fi calls comes in handy. But that isn’t the only reason you’ll want to use Wi-Fi calling.
Wi-Fi calling is perfect for overseas travelers because there’s typically no roaming or international charge for making calls or sending texts back home. Sprint doesn’t charge for Wi-Fi calls to your family back in the United States, but Wi-Fi calling isn’t supported in some countries, including Australia and China. T-Mobile doesn’t charge roaming fees for Wi-Fi calls but will deduct your call minutes for calls made between U.S. lines if you don’t have an unlimited plan. And Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile will still charge an international rate if you call an international line using your U.S.-based smartphone.
How to make a Wi-Fi call
Wi-Fi calling isn’t automatically enabled on smartphones. To turn yours on, go to the Settings menu. On iPhones go to Settings > Phone and then toggle on Wi-Fi calling. On Android, you’ll generally find Wi-Fi settings under Settings > Networks > Call, where you can then toggle on Wi-Fi calling.
Once you activate Wi-Fi calling, you dial or text as usual. The routing of your call or text is handled automatically in the background.
Does my carrier offer Wi-Fi calling?
All major cell phone carriers now support Wi-Fi calling, with support for the most recent iPhones and Android phones. And, the feature will inevitably become more widespread. "Wi-Fi calling exists because it's a great way for the carriers to offload their network traffic and increase coverage without having to pay for it,” Michael Bremmer, CEO of TelecomQuotes.comwrote in an email.
So when will you get Wi-Fi calling? Here’s the latest on Wi-Fi for each of the major carriers:
Sprint Wi-Fi calling is available on most recent Android devices and iPhones, starting with the iPhone 5C, 5S, 6 and 6 Plus and 6s and 6s Plus with iOS software v8.3 and higher. Check your phone’s settings menu to see if it’s supported.
T-Mobile offers 38 different phones with Wi-Fi calling, including recent iPhone models, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7, the LG G5 and HTC 10.
AT&T has rolled out Wi-Fi Calling to 6, 6 Plus, 6s and 6s Plus with iOS software v9.0 and higher and is starting to roll out to Android devices, beginning with the LG G4.
Verizon Wireless has rolled out Wi-Fi calling to 14 devices including the iPhone 6, 6s and 6s Plus, Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7, HTC 10, LG G4 and G5.
Or course, if your handset doesn't support Wi-Fi calling, you may be able to find some workarounds. Apps like FaceTime, Google Voice, Line, Skype and WeChat allow you to make voice and video calls over Wi-Fi as well as send text messages.
How Wi-Fi calling compares to cellular
Thanks to the growing popularity of free public Wi-Fi hotspots, you may not need to pay another dime to make a call again. In fact, Cisco VNI predicts global hotspots will increase sevenfold from 2014 to 2018, resulting in 109 million hotspots in North America alone.
But a cheap price tag doesn’t always equate with high quality. “Trying to get the best signal for a Wi-Fi call is challenging,” said Anurag Lal, president and CEO of telecommunications company Infinite Convergence. “Many times, [the quality of service is through] individual users with a Wi-Fi network, and there is no guarantee for a particular bandwidth.” Lal adds that signal strength can diminish as more people attempt to use the same network, such as at hotels, airports or athletic stadiums.
Consumers may have another gripe with Wi-Fi calling service: there may be a 1- or 2-second delay in the conversation. Think of the delay you hear with the echo of the same news broadcast aired on different TVs in your home. If you’re accustomed to receiving an immediate response using traditional phone service, a conversation over Wi-Fi may annoy you.
While it doesn’t make sense for most people to switch to a Wi-Fi-only provider like Scratch Wireless, Wi-Fi calling can make a big difference if you have limited minutes, get poor reception or travel abroad.
Updated on 6/16/2016 with new carrier information
[Image credit: woman talking on cellphone in coffee shop via Shutterstock]