Calling Ukraine Is Tricky, Expensive, and Even Harder for Those Who Answer

My mother and I still have a lot friends and relatives that we keep in touch with back in Ukraine, a task that's become increasingly complicated, and even dangerous for those on the other end.

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“The number you are calling is unavailable.”
“The number you have dialed is not in service.”
“The number you are dialing is unable to accept calls at this time.”

REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

I have been trying to reach my dad for two days. He lives in Kiev, though he has been in and out of the Carpathian Mountains for the last few weeks. After getting my call to ring, my dad answers but I can't hear him over the static. A few hours later, I get a call back from a Russian number. A friend let him borrow his mobile phone from Moscow. I can hear him just fine, and he assures me that he’s safe and his street hasn't been burned yet. He doesn't want to talk about it.

My mother and I came to America when I was four, but we still have a lot friends and relatives that we keep in touch with back in Ukraine, a task that's become increasingly complicated, and even dangerous for those on the other end.

It isn't cheap, either. Verizon and AT&T charge between 22 and 32 cents a minute to connect me to home. For comparison, calling the United States from an international number will run you about a penny a minute, max. If you use alternative services, such as calling cards or VoIP, you can knock it down to 15 cents a minute, if you're lucky. Public disturbances have a way of driving up the cost of things.

I talked to my dad for half an hour. I just spent $20.

“Your call has ended.”

Earlier this week, a relative called an old friend in Kiev. He has a medical condition that requires prescriptions imported to Ukraine from the U.S. They discuss their health, the foreign pills, and insurance costs for about an hour. Then he grows quiet.

“I think they’ll put me on a list if I stay on the phone with an American number for over an hour. Do you think America will put you on a list for talking to me too?” They hang up, and he doesn't answer her calls for a while.

If you do manage to connect one of your very expensive international calls, somebody else knows about it. And that somebody is paying attention. There is a way around the caller ID kiss of death. It isn't easy, or obvious, but so far, it’s been getting my family’s calls answered. has cornered the market on the "Call from Computer" feature offered by many phone services. The caller in America can register a Ukrainian number, have it verified as active by the person they are calling to, and then they can use that Ukrainian number as their caller ID, as long as they willing to call from computer. Spoofing the number takes time, you’ve still spent at least $20, and you could ace the pre-reqs for a telecommunications degree, but you got to check in on a sick friend to make sure he's getting his medicine.

“Insufficient Funds”

Protesters hold mirrors up to police to show them "what they've
become." REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

My auntie is retired. She collects a pension once a month and has to go to the bank to do so. That means she’s been walking most places to avoid the rerouted subway and bus lines.

If Kiev were New York City, and the protests were in Times Square, she would live on East 70th Street, and her bank would be in Columbus Circle. Public transportation is currently avoiding the protest area completely.

At her bank, a large chain comparable to New York’s HSBC, bank members have priority lines. Non-members have longer, slower lines. When she arrives, it's a madhouse. The lines are jumbled, and they can't help her collect her pension today. An employee attempting to control the herd of people claims it’s due to the crowds.

She calls me and asks if I can set up a bank account for her in the States that her pension can go into automatically. She likes the idea of Bank of America, or maybe just the idea of banking in America. She's worried her bank didn't have the cash on hand to give out pensions. It's hard for me to explain to her that in America, it is impossible (and actually illegal) to set up a bank account in someone else's name.

To help my aunt collect her pension (and pay her bills, buy her groceries) I would have to commit identity theft. My mom offers to send a Western Union transfer, but my aunt refuses. She's going to try another bank. 

“You are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

A family friend works for a candy company in Ukraine. She has access to Ukrainians’ favorite sweets, and the company lets her take some extras home. While she isn’t actively protesting, she wanted to show a kind gesture to her fellow citizens. Her apartment is around the corner from the protests — think 48th street and Broadway — and after work she stop by the camps to drop off her small donation. Much like the Occupy Wall Street protests we saw over here, EuroMaidan has a very organized donation system: lines for food, volunteers sorting clothes, and those with medical experience organizing medicine and supplies.

She dropped off the confections accordingly, walked around a bit and then headed home. The volunteers thanked her, saying that sugar brightened everyone’s day.

Later that day, her phone vibrated with an incoming text message: "Dear Subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance." Her donation to the cause had earned her a spot on a monitored government list of Maidan protesters. For bringing some hungry people some candy bars.

Independence Square in Kiev, February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

“I can't hear you.”

We had been on the phone for ten minutes without any trouble. A distant relative and I were catching up. He lives in the Kiev suburbs, traveling in and out of the city by car twice a day. He was telling me a story about his favorite radio show, and mentioned in passing that one host said he had decided to get some extra food to keep in his Kiev apartment, just in case things got tight.

I stopped him as he told the story, shocked that this was the only message he had heard suggesting he prepare extra supplies, and how casual it was. I asked if he could stock up on canned food himself, just to be safe. I know his paycheck just covers enough for two weeks. Most paychecks in Ukraine are like that.

“Please, I’ll transfer $20 to you. Not a noticeable amount, but it’ll be enough for a few days extra. At worst, you’ll eat it later, when this is all over.”

“Sorry, you keep breaking up, I didn’t hear you.”

“Canned food, I’m asking you to get some extra canned food.”

“I was unable to hear your last sentence.”

“Cans, or jars—“

“—can’t hear you. I am unable to hear the last few minutes of conversation.”

I finally caught on. He can't hear me, an American, offering him money to buy more food than he can normally afford.  I asked him to keep telling his radio story and suddenly our reception was crystal clear again.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.