In many foreign countries, both domestic and international phone calls are very expensive compared to US rates and phone bills are not itemized. Service can be poor; static, echoes, and disconnections are common. You may find that there is no phone at all where you are staying. Public phones, however, are more prevalent abroad than in the US. In general, expect restricted access to phones.
If you are staying with a host family, never call the US directly due to the cost and lack of itemized billing. Consider buying a calling card before you go abroad and use it to call the US. The ISIC card can also be used as a phone card. If relying on a phone card, make sure you activate it and understand how it works before you leave.
To receive calls from the US, make sure that the people who might call you have the correct country and city code for your location. All international calls from the US start with 011 and are followed by a country code (e.g. 61 for Australia, 593 for Ecuador, 34 for Spain) and then possibly a city code before the local phone number. Find instructions on calling to/from your host country.
Your parents may wish to enroll in an international long distance plan with their long distance carrier. You can schedule a reasonable time and day for parents or friends to call you on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, but make sure to consult with your host family or roommates to make sure the time you chose is suitable for them, as well. Your family can purchase phone cards to make overseas calls with a reasonable rate.
Once abroad, make sure that you know the phone number of your program's director or contact person and memorize the local equivalent off 911 (if it exists) or the police and fire departments. When calling the United States from abroad, you must dial 001 before your area code and phone number.
Cell phones are extremely popular both in the United States and abroad. In most places outside the U.S., cell phones are purchased and then phone cards with prepaid minutes can be bought in small shops and at newsstands all around. It is also often possible to purchase additional minutes online.
If you want to take your own cell phone abroad, contact your carrier about an international data plan or SIM card. Piccell Wireless also rents and sells international cell phones and SIM cards.
Don't forget about letters as a means of communication. Letters are cheaper than phone calls. They tend to be more personal, and can make great keepsakes.
Postcards are easy to write and can quickly be done while absorbing your surroundings at a park or café, on a train or in a plaza. The drawback, of course, is that mail can be slow and unreliable. If you do decide to use the mail system in your host country, never send money or valuables and avoid receiving packages. International express services can be very expensive and are not overnight.
E-mail and social networking are great ways to keep in touch with friends and family in the US while you are abroad. You can share impressions of the host culture instantly, learn the latest about goings-on at home, and minimize the re-entry shock everyone might feel when you return.
However, internet access abroad may be more limited than what you are used to here. Even if you are bound for Europe, you will need to downgrade your expectations. It's a rare campus that provides 24/7 access to the web, for example. Internet service is often much slower than at home and wi-fi spots may be hard to find.
Many programs do provide their students with computer access, albeit on a more limited basis than here. You may find yourself standing in line in a university library in order to check e-mail, for instance. Or there might be a computer lab connected to the headquarters of your program overseas, but it may only be open for a few hours each day.
Internet cafes are popular places to catch up on e-mail from the States and to surf the web. Prices vary. Ask local students where they go for access; it's likely they've already figured out the least expensive places to go.
Using Skype, or a similar app, is an extremely cost efficient way to make overseas calls. Skype allows you to make calls over the internet using your phone or laptop computer and a pair of headphones. Call from your phone/computer to a landline phone in the USA for a fraction of the price of calling card rates.
Furthermore, if the people on the receiving end also are using Skype via the internet, the call is free! You may be required to purchase Skype credit before you can use this service on your phone. Facetime, Viber, Fring, Nimbuzz, ooVoo, Tango are all apps that are similar to SKYPE.
Taking a laptop is a great idea. However, contracting with an Internet service provider abroad can be time-consuming and expensive. In some cases, the room you're staying in may not have a telephone hookup or wireless access.
Some students also enjoy being able to watch movies on laptops, blog at all hours, and keep their mp3 collections up to date. The negative side of bringing a laptop abroad is that you could lose it. Laptops are valuable things for thieves to steal and can be devastating to lose. Make sure you back up the contents of your laptop to a remote location on a regular basis to avoid losing precious files.