When you arrive in the UK, one of your first priorities is letting friends and family know you arrived. A phone card is an easy and affordable option if it is used correctly.But it can be confusing. There are hundreds on the market and you don’t want to find out your precious £5 bought you a mere 30 minutes instead of 400. It will pay to do your homework.

How do phone cards work?

Phone card providers purchase bulk minutes from line carriers, giving them large discounts. They can then offer you 1p per minute or similar deals. 
Apart from the cheap call rates, you can’t overspend because you know exactly how much money or how many minutes you have left.
A pre-paid phone card usually comes in £5, £10, £20 and £50 denominations, and each card has a unique PIN. You use a landline telephone (you can also use a public phone and in certain cases a mobile phone) to dial one of the access numbers, enter your PIN and then have the amount of credit available at the given rate for the destination you are calling. 
Each time you use your card, there will be a voice prompt to let you know how many minutes you have left to the destination you are calling.

The numbers game

There are usually three access numbers for a phone card – a local number, a national number and a freephone number. The best use of an access number depends on what phone you are calling from.
The freephone (0800) or (0808) access number usually adds between 3p and 5p to the rate depending on the destination you are calling and the brand of card, but there is no charge to the phone you are calling from, as long as it is a landline.
Various other access numbers and rates exist: Local (0845) and national (020 for London numbers, 01X1 for big cities such as Birmingham or Edinburgh, and 01XXX for other destinations).
You may be able to save more by using either the local rate (0845) or the (020) access numbers. This will allocate the access surcharge to the phone you’re using and the call charges to your phone card.
Making greater savings will depend on when you’re calling and where you’re calling from. For example, if you have free national calls included in your landline phone plan, it would be cheaper to use the (020) number. Some phone cards will have a connection charge rather than a pence per minute charge which is ideal for lengthy calls.
The 0845 numbers are popular access coded because charges are typically between 1p and 3p per minute.
The local and national access numbers are good if you have free local calls, or free mobile phone minutes as they are sometimes included as part of a contract. It is worth checking with your mobile provider first.

Public Phones

Public phones in the UK take coins (Sterling and Euro), phone cards, as well as credit cards. It is also possible to email from certain public phones.

Pitfalls and premium prices

Just like any other product or service, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are hidden catches with some phone cards that can prove costly. These cards are often the ones handed out by vendors outside tube stations, promising great deals and world-beating prices. They are free and will usually advise you to ring the number and talk for 15 minutes, after which you will get your pin number and ultra-cheap international calls. What they don’t clearly point out is that the number you are given is a premium rate number that can cost upwards of £1.50 per minute. If you don’t reach your 15 minutes and don’t get the pin, you have to start all over again.
Read the fine print before you dial, or ask someone who’s been in the UK long enough to know a dodgy phone card from a good value one.”

Mobile phone access with cards

When using a mobile, the most popular number to use is the (020) option — especially if you have free minutes in your calling plan as you will not pay the access charge. The 0800 or 0845 access numbers may be charged at different rates. It’s best to check the details of your mobile phone plan with your provider before settling on which phone card is going to give you the best value.
If you use the 020 access number but don’t have any free minutes in your calling plan, you will be charged at your pence per minute rate. This rate depends on the time of day you are calling, which country you are calling and your phone provider.

Using phone cards abroad

Usually you will have to buy a phone card in the country you are in, but there are some cards you can buy before you leave the UK which will allow access in a range of countries. Your pin and access details will come with the card.

Where to get them

Phone cards are ever-present at off licences, small shops and newsagents in the UK. You can also by them online. Your pin and access details will then be emailed to you.

» Information courtesy of www.planetphonecards.com (0870-145 1016).