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5 ways tech can help you stay in touch with family and friends

With more people self-isolating and elderly relatives increasingly affected by coronavirus, find out how you can keep in touch, or help others do the same

The UK government is likely to advise over-70s - and younger people with certain health conditions, to self-isolate in the coming weeks. At this time it's more important than ever to stay in touch.

Fortunately, our connected world makes this easier - there are a range of ways to use your mobile phone, laptop, smart tech, or even the plain old landline to keep in contact.

We outline some popular apps and services that can help, as well as things to consider to prevent unexpected charges on your bills.

Find out more about how family and friends can support loved ones.

  • You can keep up to date with our latest advice on the coronavirus outbreak over on our coronavirus advice hub.

1. WhatsApp

One of the most popular messaging apps around is also great for making audio and video calls. These use data, so if you're not on a wi-fi connection, keep an eye on your use to make sure you don't end up with unexpected charges.

Another big benefit of WhatsApp is that calls cost the same (in terms of data use) wherever in the world you are - so it's a great option for staying in touch with people based abroad.

If you don't have WhatsApp already, it's free to download from the App store for your phone. To message or call people, they need to be saved as a contact on your device, and also need to have WhatsApp installed.

You can also access WhatsApp on a PC using the WhatsApp web service. Navigate to the website and you'll see a QR code on-screen. Open WhatsApp on your mobile, scan that code using the phone's rear camera to sync and you'll be able to send messages from your desktop.

One drawback to WhatsApp is that you can't call numbers that aren't in your contacts list on your phone (and who don't have WhatsApp installed). This includes landlines, so if this proves restrictive, one of the other options below might be better suited.

2. Skype or Apple's FaceTime

There are plenty of alternatives to WhatsApp, though they work slightly differently.

Skype is a free-to-download app that lets you call other Skype accounts for free. Once you've signed up using your email address, you can begin building your Skype address book. This service also lets you send regular texts, pictures and videos.

Unlike WhatsApp, you can call landlines or numbers for people who aren't running Skype too, but you'll need to add credit to your account to do so. Calls can be fairly cheap - Skype says you'll get around 500 minutes of call time to UK numbers from £10 of Skype Credit.

Apple users may prefer FaceTime, which comes pre-installed on select iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch models and can be used over wi-fi or mobile data.

To turn on FaceTime, you'll need to open the FaceTime app and sign in with your Apple ID. On iPhone, FaceTime will automatically register your phone number. On other devices, it works through your email address. Once everything's set up, you can open the FaceTime app, type in a contact name or number and go from there.

On an iPhone X or later you can play around with Memoji. This overlays a cartoon version of your face over your actual face, which might give you a chuckle. When your FaceTime call starts, tap the effects button and then select the Memoji you want to use.

Managing your data

With more people working at home over the coming weeks and months, Britain's broadband network will be under greater strain. If you experience issues, consider using your phone as a wi-fi hotspot.

Remember though, this can use a lot of data, and prices can increase significantly if you're outside your bundle allowance. Keep an eye on your use, and if possible, consider upgrading your monthly bundle to a higher data allowance temporarily.

Our guide to the best Sim-only deals has a range of good-value bundles, and if you're considering switching provider, read our guide to the best and worst UK mobile networks.

3. Alexa Drop In

Smart speakers aren't just for checking the weather and building a shopping list. One of the more recent advancements allows Alexa smart speaker users to 'drop in' on others, which is similar to a phone call, but has the advantage of being completely hands-free, so you can chat while moving around the home.

Amazon describes Drop In as a 'two-way intercom' that works with Alexa-enabled devices inside and outside your house. When you receive a Drop In, the light indicator on your Alexa device will pulse and connect automatically.

Both you and the person you're contacting must grant each other Drop In permissions for the system to work.

To use Alexa Drop In:

  1. Open theAlexa app
  2. Select Settings>Device Settings
  3. Pick the Alexa-enabled device you want to use with Drop In
  4. Scroll down toCommunicationand enable Drop In
  5. Select Communicate (the speech bubble icon)
  6. Select Drop In, then pick a device

Read our guide on how to buy the best smart speaker if you're thinking of picking one up for yourself, or a loved one.

4. Video calling with Google Duo

If you and a friend or family member both own a Google-based smart display, you'll be able to use Google Duo to make a video call. Duo calls are currently available on the Google Nest Hub and Google Nest Hub Max.

Before you can video call, you'll need to set up Duo on your smart display. To do this:

  1. Head to the Google Home app on your smartphone
  2. Tap Settings
  3. Under “more”, tap Duo Calling
  4. Follow the on-screen instructions

With everything configured, you can now simply say 'OK Google, video call [contact name]” or “Call [contact name] on Duo'. You can also try sending a video message if you don't have time for a proper call. To record one, just say 'OK Google, send a video message to [contact name]'.

If you don't want to use Google Duo for your video calling, you can also access the Skype app through most smart displays. If you already own a Skype account with credits attached to it, this might prove easier.

Browse our reviews of smart displays to find one that suits your needs.

5. Don't forget the landline

Many still see the landline as a go-to when it comes to keeping in touch, and with most modern landline phones coming with features such as hands-free calling and an answerphone, it shouldn't be forgotten as a useful way to keep in contact, especially with those who aren't confident with a mobile phone or laptop, or who don't own one.

If you are making more calls than you usually would with a landline, costs can mount up, so you may want to consider adding a calling plan to include evening and weekend calls, or even anytime calls, so you don't get hit by unexpectedly high bills.

This is particularly important if calling abroad. Other options, like WhatsApp, are the best solutions here, but if that's not practical, consider also adding an international calls plan to help with these costs.

We have more information on calling abroad with a mobile phone or landline, and how to keep track of your mobile data or minutes. You can also read our guide to the cheapest landline deals for an overview of prices and plans.