Ways to Video Chat With Friends and Family While Social Distancing

John Fedele/Getty
As many of us are adjusting to life with limited IRL human contact, people are finding new ways to connect virtually. From celebrity-led read-alongs and cooking classes to DIY safaris (using stuffed animals, of course), there is endless potential for connection when we get creative with the technology at hand. You can use your phone, tablet, or computer for real-time conversations as well as showing off your physical space, letting furry friends say hi, or simply sharing a smile.

While nothing can replace seeing loved ones in person, these free video chat apps can help tide you over — and you may even have some downloaded on your phone already.

family sitting on a couch video chatting with an iPad
John Fedele/Getty

Best Apps for the Not-so-tech-savvy

1. FaceTime

Facetime app opened on an iPhone

Compatible with: iPhones, iPads, Mac computers

You may already be familiar with FaceTime if you have an iPhone, but did you know about its fun filters, stickers, and doodling capabilities? What about group FaceTiming? The app has come a long way since it was first introduced 10 years ago, and its newer features are already built into all of your Apple products. That means, you don’t have to fool around with downloading something new, trying to remember another password, or purchasing a separate webcam. FaceTime works smoothly across iPhones, iPads, and Mac computers for groups of up to 32 people.

2. Skype

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

The OG video-chat service is still kickin’. All you need to create an account with Skype is an email address or phone number, and the service offers video calls, regular voice calls, and instant messaging. For devices without a built-in camera, you will need to purchase a separate webcam. Find your friends and family by searching their name, phone number, or email.

3. WhatsApp

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

If you’ve lived or traveled internationally, you’re probably aware of how much this messaging app comes in handy, and just how popular it is among young people and families trying to keep in touch across the globe. It’s a godsend for those who don’t have international cell phone plans since you can call and text over Wi-Fi, and all you need is someone’s phone number to contact them. Unsurprisingly, WhatsApp is also useful for video calls. The app’s format allows you to still access the messaging feature during a call, which is helpful if you need to reference something, but don’t want to accidentally end your call.

4. Facebook Messenger

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

Facebook video chatting is done within the Facebook Messenger app on your phone, tablet, or desktop computer. An additional bonus is that you don’t have to have a Facebook account in order to use Facebook Messenger, which means this app is perfect for both your Facebook friends and more off-the-grid folks. If you have little ones to entertain, Facebook also offers Messenger Kids, which includes the communication features of the original app with extra parental controls.

5. Instagram

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets

If you’re guilty of scrolling through social media in the middle of a video call (no judgement!), Instagram is here for you. With Instagram’s video-chat feature, you can seamlessly share posts and profiles with the person you’re chatting with, scroll through your feed while talking, and even add an eye-catching Instagram post to the background of your call. Just like when you’re creating an Instagram story, face filters and special effects are also available.

6. Snapchat

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets

Video chat with your Snapchat friends using the app’s chat feature (iconic puppy dog filter optional). Snapchat gives you the option to preview what’s on display before accepting a call, so there are no surprises if you’re on the receiving end.

Want to bring Snapchat’s magical filters to your desktop? You don’t need a Snapchat account to use Snap Camera, which lets you download fun lenses for other video-chat services.

Best Apps for Groups

7. Zoom

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

You may already be familiar with Zoom from your virtual work meetings. Zoom is perfect for large groups, especially with its unique breakout feature that allows for splitting users into mini chat rooms for a set amount of time before rejoining the larger group. The Zoom host can manage who is attending the meeting, mute users, and create breakout rooms for anywhere from 100 to 1,000 people, depending on if you have a Basic (free), Pro, Business, or Enterprise plan. Zoom should be your go-to for virtual events such as coffee or cocktail hours, networking groups, or even weddings.

8. Google Hangouts

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

Video calls on Google Hangouts can include up to 25 people, and it’s a great option for groups, since many people are already familiar with using other G Suite services like Gmail and Google Drive. Like other services, Google Hangouts includes instant messaging and voice calls, too. For smartphone users, the app is particularly convenient for folks with Android phones.

9. Marco Polo

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets

A lot of folks are stuck inside, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less busy. If you’re having trouble finding a time that works with everyone’s schedule, give Marco Polo a try. Musician and actor Ice T (who we can assume stays pretty busy!) describes it best: The app essentially functions like a video walkie-talkie.

Create groups of up to 200 people within the app and react to your friends’ video messages instantly or whenever you have free time, as there’s no need for everyone to be live in order to leave a message.

Best Apps for Fun and Games

10. Houseparty

Houseparty app

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

Like the name implies, Houseparty is meant to let your video chat experience mimic a party. Set your status to “in the house,” so even if you’re not talking directly to someone, they know you’re logged on and available. When you see your friends are already in the call together, you can request to join. After you enter a chat, you can play short, video-friendly games like Quick, Draw (similar to Pictionary), Chips and Guac (like Apples to Apples), or trivia.

11. Discord

Compatible with: smartphones, tablets, computers

Discord isn’t just for gamers. The program popular for video game streaming is also perfect for chatting and sharing entertainment with friends. Play DJ and stream a custom playlist without needing speakers, watch videos together by screen sharing, get your friends to cheer you on while you play a game, or create a “server” for anyone to join and discuss special topics (book club, anyone?).

Honorable Mention

12. Netflix Party

Compatible with: computers

Movie night doesn’t have to be put on hold just because you’re social distancing. Netflix Party does not offer video chatting like the other apps on this list, but it’s still a handy tool that allows you to instant message friends while any movie from the Netflix library plays simultaneously on your screens. Might we recommend some travel-themed favorites?


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