Skype for Dummies

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A quick tutorial on how to save money on local and international calls through the Internet-based service.

The free Internet-based telephone service Skype has a community of more than 136 million users worldwide. It's easy to join them: Begin by downloading free software (available for both PCs and Macs) from skype.com and create a user name, password, and user profile. Then you can search for friends and family who are already on Skype and call any Skype user anywhere for free.

A standard headset or a microphone and speakers are the only other equipment you'll need for making and receiving calls. Skype sells starter kits for $10 that include a headset and a voucher for 30 minutes of free worldwide calling. You can also look on skype.com for phones that can hook up to your computer starting at $24.

As a Skype member, you get free conference calling for groups of up to six people, as well as the ability to place free video calls--if you have a webcam--and to send free instant messages, which can include groups of up to 50 people.

Skype also allows users to call any landline or cell phone in the world, with rates beginning at 2 cents per minute. Unlimited calling plans for phones in the U.S. or Canada are $30 per year. Premium features, like SkypeIn, offer you the opportunity to buy your own phone number so that when friends who aren't on Skype call you, you receive the call on Skype. The phone numbers are available in many area codes and countries and are $12 for three months or $38 for a year, including free voice-mail.

The Internet-based service can be particularly handy when you're planning a trip and on the road. You can search the Skype community for locals in places where you are going to travel and call or instant-message them for recommendations. While away from home, you can use Skype to connect with friends and family for free. Wherever you are, Skype makes it much easier (and cheaper) to stay in touch.

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