Ever heard of Google Voice? If not, know that this could be one of the best ways of staying in touch with family and friends while you’re living abroad.
One of the small concerns we had was how to keep communication simple with everyone while we’re living in Panama. When we get there, we’re going to get Panamanian cell service for our phones.
The problem is that gives us a Panamanian phone number. So if we call anyone in the U.S. or they call us, it’s an international call. That means some potential extra money for each phone call… and we know I don’t like that!
Plus, we have to ensure that everyone has our new number, which can also be a pain.
Another option is to use Hangouts, Skype, WhatsApp, or some other messaging app that supports Internet phone calls (aka VoIP). But imagine trying to get everyone you know to use the same solution and teach some of the non-technical folks to use it… ugh. Not a fan of that either.
As a side note, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) is the go-to solution for almost the entire world with the U.S. being one of the few exceptions. Instead of asking someone for their phone number, it’s common in places like Panama to ask, “What’s your WhatsApp?”. Consider that your useless piece of trivia for the day.
So what’s a long-time international traveler or expat living abroad supposed to do? There are a few different answers to that one, but I figured out a nice seamless way to handle this by leveraging the power of Google Voice.
Be aware that everything we’re talking about here isn’t limited to expats. This is something you can implement regardless to take advantage of the functionality it offers.
Google Voice – what the heck is that?
Wait, you don’t know what Google Voice is? Oh, you’re in for a real treat!
Google Voice is a sort of phone service that provides some cool features like:
- Call recording
- Call screening
- Voicemail transcription
- Text messaging (including through the web)
- Spam protection
- Multiple voicemail greetings you can swap on and off (out-of-office, for example)
Most importantly, it’s 100% free!
I was using Google Voice before it was Google Voice. The service was initially GrandCentral and then Google bought the company back in 2009. I loved it, but I switched back to their “Lite” version after a couple of years because it had some limitations back then (that aren’t there any longer).
Hearing that it does call-forwarding and other stuff might not sound that impressive. But what makes this bad-@#$ is what you can do with it.
You get issued a phone number with Google Voice or you can port your current phone number over to them (more on that one shortly). That number lives “in the cloud” at Google and it’s also the one that you give out to friends and family.
You then link your actual phone number to the account. You can also link other numbers to it as well like a home phone or a business line (if you have a direct line).
So when someone calls your Google Voice number, you can have it automatically ring on your phone, other phones, and even on your computer! In other words, you’re no longer tied to a specific phone or phone number, but folks calling you don’t know the difference.
Here’s an example of how things currently work…
And that’s sad, right? I can see you welling up just seeing this.
But, here’s what happens with Google Voice in place…
That’s a happier ending to the story, right?!
Additionally, Google Voice allows you to make outbound calls from your phone or your computer and those calls come from your Google Voice number as well. In a nutshell, the “real” number on your phone isn’t really relevant.
Starting to see how this can be a unique asset?
Porting your number
The final piece to this fun is that you’re able to port your phone number over to GV. They do charge a one-time fee of $20 for this, but then you’re done.
Porting just means that you’re taking your current phone number and moving it over to your new provider. In this case, you’re moving it to Google.
So instead of needing to give friends and family your new Google phone number, you make your existing number your GV number. That eliminates having to give out a new number to friends and family.
Pulling this altogether
So here’s how we’re personally using this to make communication seamless for everyone back home.
Some of you know that we’re currently using Total Wireless while here in the States… considering that you use the same Verizon network for a fraction of the cost, if you’re a Verizon customer, it’s hard to find a reason not to!
I ported my number to GV a couple of weeks ago. This canceled my service with Total Wireless once it took place, which is what’s supposed to happen. That then left a slot in my account to activate a new phone.
I called Total Wireless and they issued me a new phone number for my phone and activated the line. I then linked that new number to my Google Voice account.
Now for the test – I called my old phone number from my wife’s phone… success. It rang on my cell and we were good to go.
I also tested texting… another success. Be aware that you use the Voice app for texting – you can’t (at least not fully) use other texting apps for this because it’s using data/Wi-Fi and not the regular voice lines of the carrier.
So for giggles, I put my phone in airplane mode and then turned on only Wi-Fi where I was connected at home. I was able to make and receive calls and text messages with zero reliance on my cell carrier.
After we tested everything successfully, I repeated the process on Mrs. R2R’s phone… we’re now in business!
Why is this so useful when living abroad?
When we get to Panama, our service with Total Wireless won’t work (it’s domestic only). We’ll let that month’s service run-out and not renew (this is a month-to-month plan).
Right off the rip, I’ll connect to the Wi-Fi at Tocumen International Airport (PTY) and call home to say that we’re there safe and sound.
I’ll then get a SIM card at the airport for my phone. It’ll be with a carrier in Panama like Movistar. That SIM card will give my phone a Panamanian cell phone number. We’ll do the same for Mrs. R2R once we get to Boquete where it’s a little cheaper.
The important thing is that I don’t care about that Panamanian number we get. I also don’t care about the limit on phone minutes or texting. All I care about is the data. And in places other than the U.S., providers usually give you unlimited data (or close to it) and skimp on the minutes – yes, the U.S. is backward in something else as usual… imperial vs. metric, anyone?
The reason we only care about the data is that all of our phone calls to and from the U.S. will travel over the Internet on our side of the call instead of being regular cell phone calls. The same goes for text messages.
So while we’re in an area where we’re connected via Wi-Fi (our home, a store, or wherever), all inbound and outbound calls/SMS will use that connection. When we’re out and about otherwise, the calls and text messages will use our data plan.
As a side note, we can still make regular calls if we need to in Panama with our new Panamanian number. However, it’s usually a little more common to use WhatsApp for phone calls/messaging there. And similar to Google Voice, this is all done over data/Internet, so no problems there either.
Overall, we’ll be able to handle all calls – both domestic and internationally – simply using the low-cost monthly cell phone plan in Panama with the help of Google Voice.
When we’re coming back to the U.S. for a visit, we’ll re-activate our service with Total Wireless for a month or for however long necessary. Then when we get actually land in the States, we’ll pop in our Total Wireless SIM cards and we’re back in action.
All of this is done seamlessly with family and friends not knowing any different. To them, they’ll be able to make calls/texts to us or receive them just like they always have been over the years.
It’s also pretty hassle-free for us as well. We just swap SIM cards based on the country we’re in and make sure we have service with a carrier in the country we’re in. Everything else is handled through Google Voice.
How’s that for bad-@#$?!!
Making this magic Google Voice implementation happen
Important: Be aware that if you’re porting your number to GV, your service plan will be canceled with your existing provider. If you are still under contract, you may be charged an early termination fee by your current carrier.
I highly recommend discussing a game plan with your carrier first so you know what’s going to take place and what you’ll need to do once the porting is complete.
The first step to this is to head on over to Google Voice and sign up. Follow the prompts to pick a GV number. As Google notes in their help page on porting your number, “You’ll be prompted to pick a new number, but your ported number will soon replace it, so it won’t matter what that number is.”
After you pick a number, you’ll need to verify your actual existing phone number that you have with your carrier:
Once that’s done, you’re in like Flynn! Now it’s time to actually port your number over. Click on the hamburger menu in the top left and then “Legacy Google Voice.”
In the top right, click the settings cog and then “Settings.”
Click on the “Phones” tab and then “Change / Port Transfer.”
Choose “I want to use my mobile number” and then follow the prompts to ensure you can port your number over and to get the ball rolling…
Time to put in your account information that you have with your current cell provider. You’ll also need the security PIN you have set up with them. Hopefully, you keep that in your password manager!
And that’s it… now you wait. In the case of both of our phones, it took exactly 24 hours before the process actually took place. At that point, after maybe 10 minutes, I got an email confirming that the porting of the number was now complete.
In that time while we waited, our phones continued to work as normal so don’t think you’re dead in the water. While you’re waiting, you might as well install the Google Voice app for Android or iPhone on your phone.
But once it’s done, be ready because you’ll have been booted from your cell phone provider. You can now make phone calls and send and receive text messages through the Voice app (I’ll show you my settings shortly), but this will only work over Wi-Fi right now because you don’t have a data provider yet.
Basically, you’ll be limited until you take the next step. It’s time to call your cell phone provider (from another phone if possible) to set up new service and get a new phone number. As a reminder, we don’t care what that new phone number is because that’s not the one you give out to everyone.
Once you get the new service plan and phone number lined up with your carrier, you’re almost done!
Setting up the Google Voice app
So, the last piece of this is configuring the Google Voice app. I’ll show you the way I have it set up, but you might want to tweak things differently once you figure out what works best for you.
Also, bear in mind that these screenshots are on my Android phone. So if you’re an iPhone user, I think the logical move would be for you to sell your phone and get an Android one so the screenshots will match up. 😛
Head into the Voice app, hit the menu, and find your way into the Settings page. Once you’re there, you’re looking for the “Devices and linked numbers.” That’s where you tell Voice what you want to connect to your GV number:
So in my case, I have my phone listed (that’s right, I’m still rocking an S8!). The blurred out number below that is the phone number I have through Total Wireless. I also have that same number listed under “Linked Numbers.”
What’s really cool is that you can add other numbers as well. If you have a direct number at work, for instance, you can add that as a linked number, too. I’ll mention that in the “Call forwarding” discussion shortly.
In the next section called “Messages”, you’re deciding how you want your text messages handled…
The “Forward messages to linked numbers” setting is in case you want a copy of your texts to go to your regular messaging app. I don’t have a reason for this because I don’t believe you can also send from your regular messaging app, which makes this useless for me. I’m doing everything through the Voice app, so I didn’t connect anything there.
The “Forward messages to email” toggle will let you send a copy of every text message to your email address. Not my thing, but feel free.
And the Message notifications is where you can configure how you want to be notified of new text messages. I made my use the same notification sound as my old text messaging app.
Next up, is the “Calls” section…
There are a couple of items in here I want to mention. The first is the “Make and receive calls” section. What you select here will probably be in relation to the plan you have with your carrier. For us, we’ll prefer our carrier while here in the U.S. where the data costs more.
However, once we get to Panama, we’ll change that to make the calls over Wi-Fi and mobile data since that’s the cheaper option. We’ll toggle that as we travel back and forth between the two countries.
The “Call forwarding” section is where you decide where you want your calls to ring. In my case, I want phone calls from GV to be forward to ring on my phone (obviously) and also on my laptop (“Web” in the screenshot below), which I toggle on and off as needed.
If you added other linked numbers earlier, you can turn these numbers on and off as well. So if you have your direct work number setup, you can have that phone ring, too.
Here’s an important one – “Calls started from this device’s phone app.” Turning this on allows you to use your regular phone dialer to make calls. Google Voice sees that your trying to make a call, intercepts it real quick, and places the call through the Voice app.
That ensures that the call comes from your GV number – the one everyone recognizes. Otherwise, the recipient will see the phone number that your carrier assigned to you, which defeats the purpose for most cases.
The Voicemail section should be pretty self-explanatory. This is where you’ll set up your voicemail greeting. You can set one up like you’re used to or you can create different ones to toggle on or off as desired (maybe vacation or out-of-office).
The “Get voicemail via […]” options allow you to get a copy of your voicemails sent to you through text message or email. I don’t have either of these turned on, but feel free if it works for you. The Voice app allows you to hear and see the transcription of your voicemail messages, which is enough for me.
Those are the most important settings in the Voice app to get things up and running. There are all kinds of other bells and whistles that you can toy with and configure to your liking.
Just a reminder, the Google Voice app is your best friend. That’s where you do all your text messaging and check your voicemails. You can also use it for dialing numbers, but you’re able to use the regular phone dialer for this as well if you configured it as I mentioned earlier.
I do recommend removing any shortcuts to your old text messaging app from your home screen and maybe even hide it in your apps list. If you send text messages from that app instead of the Voice app, it’ll come from the new number that we don’t care about and you’ll get the infamous…
What went wrong for us?
Ok, that was a lot of information but hopefully, it’s useful. So what kind of issues did we run into switching over to this cool setup?
Not much, believe it or not! I just had to do a little tweaking.
For instance, after I first ported over my phone, I had to spend around 15 minutes on the phone with Total Wireless to get my new number. My phone didn’t take the activation for some reason. I rebooted it a second time and we were golden. That’s a tolerable problem in my book!
The second time around when I did my wife’s phone, I was feeling more confident. I just handled everything online and didn’t even need Total Wireless for that one!
The other problem I had was that I didn’t have my phone forwarding missed calls for voicemail to Google Voice. Ok, that’s not completely true – I had it forwarding but just to a different number. The reason for that is because we were using Google Voice Lite just for voicemail transcription up until now. This isn’t something most folks would run into.
The fix for this was pretty easy. I just needed to dial *71 + my Google Voice phone number to tell my phone to forward things over. Boom, done.
That’s it! Everything else seems to be working great. I still sit in front of my computer a lot and I love that I can text right from the Google Voice site. I keep a tab always open just for that. I also like that I can answer calls right on my laptop – no phone necessary.
If you try this out and it doesn’t work the way you want it to, be aware that you are able to port your number out of GV as well. So you do have the ability to reverse the process.
Unlocking your Google Voice number costs $3, but it’s free if your number was originally ported in from a mobile service provider.
Google Voice is like magic – smoke and mirrors, so to speak. Once you understand how it works, it’s pretty straightforward, but it fills a great void.
For expats like we’re about to be or long-term international travelers, this can be a great solution. It allows you to seamlessly stay in touch with friends and family at home with very little effort (or cost!) on your part.
Have you ever used Google Voice before? Can you see how the power of this free service can be worthwhile while living abroad?
Thanks for reading!!