Women operating a switchboard

How To Have One Phone Number No Matter Who Your Mobile Provider Is
How Google Voice lets you have one phone number for all devices, and use it anywhere in the world

Dec. 23, 2017
Oct. 15, 2018

This post makes the following assumptions: You are a digital nomad who works online while traveling internationally, you change countries frequently (every other month or more), and you need large amounts of data (more than 10 Gbs per month). If these assumptions do not apply to you, this advice may not, either.
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I love Google Voice, but not for the same reason everyone else does. Most articles tout Google Voice's main strength as its "one number to rule them all" feature, which allows you to direct multiple phone numbers—for example your home, work, and mobile—all to the same device. Google Voice acts like a switchboard operator, receiving calls from any one of those numbers and directing them to one, or even all, of your devices. Google Voice even allows you to set a schedule for this virtual switchboard operator, so she—it's always a she in the old pictures—can direct up to 6 numbers to up to 6 devices at various parts of the day.

I admit, the multiple-numbers-on-schedule thing pretty cool, even if I don't care to figure out how it works. Here's the thing: I haven't given out a "home" telephone number since I was a teenager living at my parents' house. I haven't had a "work" telephone number since I left my cubicle in 2010. The most frequently praised "strength" of Google Voice is about as meaningless to me as telling me a smartphone is great because now I don't need to carry a phone and a camera and a calculator and a flashlight with me at all times (so what, I'm not doing that anyway).

So why do I love Google Voice?

I love Google Voice because it has allowed me to have the same phone number for the past 4 years, even though I must have had at least 15 different sim cards from 15 different providers.

I'm an international digital nomad. I travel a lot. If I'm going to be spending time in a country, I will usually get a local sim card, which is always way cheaper than any over-hyped "unlimited" international travel solution. But with Google Voice, I don't have to send annoying messages to all of my contacts telling them my new number. Nobody even knows my real phone number—which, by the way, is also preferable from a security standpoint. I gave everyone my Google Voice number four years ago, and have been using it in multiple countries, through multiple phone service providers, the entire time.

The Details

  • It's free
  • All kinds of great features, like voicemail transcription, ability to record calls, ability to send and receive SMS from your browser on a computer, and more
  • It's free
  • Calls are free within the US and Canada, and cheap to lots of other places
  • Did I mention that it's free?

The Devil (ie the troublesome details)

  • Your account needs to be tied to a US phone number (but there are workarounds)
  • It's easy to receive calls to GV number, but it can be awkward to make that the number that shows up on people's caller ID when you call them
  • You can't make emergency calls (911) with it. You still need a phone carrier.
  • No customer service, because: free
  • That's about it. Have I mentioned that I love Google Voice?

When Google Voice rolled out in 2009 it was by invitation only, and after that they opened it up, but only to people in the US. I don't know why they stopped there, but they have never officially extended up their services outside of the United States of America. However, in practice, you only actually need a US number to activate your Google Voice account, and then you can take advantage of many GV services without it. For that reason, it's pretty easy to find blogs and tutorials advising non-US residents how to use a temporary number and a VPN to activate their Google Voice account.

I have my Google Voice account linked to an ekit international sim card. I've had this sim card for several years, but I use it for emergencies only, because it is always more expensive than a local sim card. However, it has come in handy several times, most often because it gives me both a UK and US phone number. Sometimes you need a US phone number to activate or verify an account, and while GV does give you a US number, some systems can tell it's a GV virtual number and not a real carrier number you just gave them, and they will reject it. In those cases, using my international sim's American number has always worked.

More importantly, sometimes you do have unexpected emergencies. Okay, maybe this wasn't an emergency per say...but one time I took a night bus to Singapore, and the bus driver left me, and several of the other passengers, stranded at the border! Since this was not expected, I did not have a local sim card yet, nor any idea where I was supposed to go or how to get there. But I did have some credit on my emergency international number, so I was able to get online and figure it out. Crisis averted! (and kudos to Singapore for their fantastic mass transit system)

Since I try not to actually use the phone number I have connected to my Google Voice account, I'm not sure how some of their features, like free calls to US and Canada, work outside the US. I don't think their virtual switchboard would work to direct calls to a foreign sim card, since you can only officially connect a US number to your GV account. In my case, I downloaded the app on each of my devices and connect through wifi, or the mobile data provided by the sim card that is actually in my device—American or not. The app allows me to send and receive texts and phone calls using any of my devices, but always appearing to the recipient as being from my single GV number.

If you poke around the internet you will find oodles of positive reviews of Google Voice, and some negative ones, for various reasons. But I can say that Google Voice has allowed me to maintain a consistent phone number to use with my friends and family at home while I traveled to many different countries. Google Voice may not be the perfect solution for everyone, but it's hard to argue with something that offers as much convenience as it does for 0 cost.

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