Free Apps and Programs for Connecting Virtually
This guide unpacks some of the best free tools for connecting with friends and family, including ideas for fun virtual activities that will make happy stay-at-home campers out of kids and adults alike.
Ideal for Smartphones and Mobile
WhatsApp. Available for both Apple and Android devices, WhatsApp has steadily gained popularity over the years and offers plenty of fun features like text and voice messaging, voice and video calls, and picture sharing. Up to four people can join a video chat.
Google Duo. If anyone in your planned get-together doesn’t have an Apple device, Google Duo is basically an Android version of FaceTime. Up to eight people can join a Duo call.
Houseparty App. Houseparty Appis a video chat app that’s quickly gaining popularity thanks to its ease of use and fun features. You can chat with up to 8 friends, join different chats and even play virtual games with friends.
Best for Laptops and Desktop Computers
FaceTime. If you and your friends and family have Apple devices, you can FaceTime. Set it up as a one-to-one video call or a Group FaceTime with up to 32 people. If your hands are going to be occupied and you’re joining from a phone or iPad, make sure you’ve got a stack of books ready to lean your device up against.
Zoom. Zoom allows free video calls for as long as you want or for three or more people for up to 40 minutes with their free plan. Download the Zoom application to your computer, open it from your desktop and click “Launch meeting.” Click “Invite participants” and either email them the access link or add them from your Zoom contacts. After everyone has joined, you can share your screen by clicking the green “Share screen” button in the bottom center of the video.
Skype. Up to 10 people can join a Skype group video call. Skype is free to download and works on phones, tablets and computers with webcams. If you’re playing host, it’ll be easier to set up the call if you’re on a laptop or desktop computer, but other participants can join from a tablet or smartphone. Add your friend’s Skype contact name. Then click on his or her name from your contacts list before clicking the camera button in the upper-right corner to start the video call. To share what’s on your screen, hover your mouse in the video and click the icon that looks like two stacked squares on the bottom right of the video call screen and click the “Share screen” button.
Google Hangouts. If you have Gmail, that means you already have a Google account you can use to set up Hangouts for free. Navigate to the Hangouts screen and click “Start a new hangout.” You can invite other people by their Gmail addresses or by emailing them a link. You can set it up as a voice or video hangout. Up to 25 people can join a video Hangout and up to 150 people can join a voice-only Hangout. To share your screen once the Hangout has begun, hover your mouse in the call and click the three vertical dots on the upper-right hand side of the screen and click “Share screen.”
Fun and Easy Virtual Activity Ideas
Virtual Happy Hours and Dinner Parties. One of the simplest things we miss is gathering together for meals and happy hours. Try having a virtual meet-up using one of the apps shared above. It is an easy way to get everyone around the table again! You can share cocktail recipes, or cook a meal together (ordering pizza counts, too!). If you need topics or prompts to kick it off, check out this list of dinner party conversation starters.
Remote Karaoke Night. You don’t need a karaoke machine to belt out your favorite song together. Log into a video chat and take turns playing lead singer. For an extra challenge, assign band member “roles” to each person and synchronize your voices.
Host a Watch Party. Social distancing doesn’t mean you have to watch your shows alone. Netflix Party lets friends in different places watch movies together and share their reactions through online chat. All you need is Google Chrome browser, the Watch Party extension and a Netflix account.
Start a Virtual Book Club. Love a good read? Reach out to some of your friends and family, pick a book together, and set up video chats throughout the week or month to dish on the latest plot twist. This is also a great opportunity to support independent bookstores in your area by buying your book-club picks online; many bookstores have also pre-curated reading club lists on their websites!
Host a Virtual Game Night. Just because going out is canceled doesn’t mean game night has to be. Some games can be played easily through video chat, like charades, 20 questions or online chess. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are services that allow you to play board games online while video chatting with friends, such as Discord. If you’re a video game fan, try something on this list of relatively easy social video games.
Take a Virtual Tour Together. Like most other businesses, museums and parks all over the world have closed to support social distancing, but you can still get a healthy dose of culture and nature with online tours. Simply open the tour experience on your separate devices and start a video chat on the same screen. You can navigate the online reality together. The Smithsonian has put together a list of museums that offer robust virtual tours, and Google Earth is offering virtual tours of 31 national parks.
Learn How to Make Something Together. Great for crafty friends or curious kids, several services have made learning tutorials available for free. Decide on an activity, learn it online and then log into a video chat to work on your creation together! Learn how to sew, paint or decorate a cake with Bluprint, now offering 14 days of free online classes, or build puppets and put on a virtual show with free online workshops from The Center For Puppetry Arts. Missing your favorite local watering hole? Learn how to make craft cocktails with this nightly Cocktails After Dark livestream, and add it to your next Virtual Happy Hour.