How to Keep a Normal Phone Number Overseas
Google Voice lets me keep a United States phone number while traveling outside the US and using foreign phone carriers. It’s a little weird, but way less weird than paying for international service, asking Americans to reach me on an international number, or regularly updating online account info with new overseas burner numbers.
What’s Google Voice?
Google Voice is a free voice over IP (“VoIP”) service that lets me disassociate my phone number from my mobile carrier. I still need a mobile carrier (a company with cell phone towers and satellites and all that) to get on the internet while driving or walking around the city, but moving my phone number from T-Mobile to Google Voice basically turned my phone number into something I access like an email address. If I’ve got some kind of data access (wifi or phone carrier), I can make and receive calls with Google Voice. I personally cannot tell any difference between a VoIP call and a “normal” call in terms of audio quality.
That “phone calls wherever you have data service” thing is worth thinking about for a second: with conventional phone service, you can often make calls even if you have too weak a signal for data service, and you lose that with Google Voice. On the other hand, if you have great wifi at your home, poor voice service, and your provider won’t let you call over wifi, Google Voice might be a good option.
Why Use It?
I use it because I travel outside the US a lot.
Keeping the same phone number is great for staying in touch with people, and changing your phone number is inconvenient and weird. Especially if you’re changing it to a foreign phone number. Consider the inconvenience of updating your phone number for all your accounts that may ask for multi-factor authentication using SMS, which is common when logging in online from a new and unusual location. Banks also sometimes freeze your account for security reasons when they see suspicious transactions, like when you’re buying gas in a country you’ve never visited, and will ask for verification by SMS or phone call before they authorize the purchase.
Speaking of banks, my other reason for using Google Voice is to help save me from having to pay crazy international plan fees. AT&T charges $10 per day for international roaming. On the other hand, local prepaid plans in foreign countries are often in the $20/mo ballpark, which most US carriers can’t compete with. Even if they can, you’ll be locked into whatever foreign carrier they’ve partnered with in that region, so it’s impossible to say what the coverage will be like.
As an aside, even if you don’t use Google Voice, I recommend buying a prepaid SIM card (if possible) when you get to a foreign country just for practical reasons involving having internet access and saving money while you’re visiting. I wrote an entire article about that and other topics for travelers.
Is there a downside?
Yes, but nothing significant for me: I had to wait a few days when porting my number, sometimes website signups get weird, the Android app is kind of buggy, and you may have privacy concerns involving Google.
First, I had to wait a few days to port (“move”) my phone number from T-Mobile to Google Voice, and will probably have to wait again if I decide to switch back to a conventional phone carrier. So if you’re just leaving the country to go on vacation for a week or two, porting over to Google Voice just for the duration of the trip is probably a really dumb idea.
The website signup thing is because VoIP services are more often misused than conventional phone services. If you’re signing up for a new account on a website, that site may throw errors if it uses telephone numbers to confirm you’re a legitimate user/not a bot. I’ve had this happen exactly once (I think it was with Discord), and providing the phone number I got from my Brazilian carrier solved it.
The Android app occasionally shows strange bugs. A good example is sometimes the UI will show I’m using my speakerphone but it’s going through the “normal” speaker. It’s stuff like that. Also, integration with Android is a little klugy; don’t expect to be able to tap on a phone number on a Google Maps listing and have your phone automatically know to use Google Voice instead of the native Phone app. That’s not awful, I can copy and paste, but I expect my phone to work flawlessly all the time. It’s a little embarrassing when it doesn’t, especially if it affects a call where I’m talking with someone who’s ready to pounce on the fact that I’m calling from outside the US.
Finally, some folks have privacy concerns involving Google, which I totally get. I have no idea what Google is doing with my phone calls or SMS messages. There are alternative services like VoIP.ms, but I can’t vouch for any of them because I’ve never tried them. They might have less crappy apps and better compression algorithms, but I’m not sure if they’re free.
Google Voice isn’t a good option for everyone, but if you’re living somewhere that your “normal” domestic carriers cannot easily provide coverage (wherever it is) or find yourself traveling outside the US a ton, it’s totally worth looking into. There may be other use cases; I haven’t thought about it a whole lot. But at the very least, I can testify Google Voice doesn’t suck.