VoIP (Voice over IP) services let you make and receive phone calls and send and receive text messages over devices connected to the Internet, even without a cellular connection.
These services are of great use for people, like me, who live overseas. VoIP enables you to have a U.S. phone number, make and receive calls with that number, and send and receive texts, almost like you had a cell phone in the U.S.
Even for people living in the U.S it could be useful in various situations.
Calling over wi-fi – While most people probably have unlimited talk and text contracts, some don’t. In that case, having a way to make phone calls just over wi-fi can be useful.
Using non-phone devices for texts and calling – A VoIP app also allows your non-phone device (tablet, iPod) to make phone calls and send text independently of your phone.
Burner phone numbers – This isn’t something I see doing, but some people might want to use an extra VoIP number as a “burner” phone. For example, you might want to use a phone number when using Craigslist ads, and then not have to worry about receiving calls or texts after your transaction is done. Or with dating apps.
For non-domestic travel – When traveling overseas (if you do that again) a VoIP number also comes in handy by making use of local cellular and wi-fi connections to make calls.
If you can’t use your phone – Also, if your actual phone breaks and you need to make calls on an iPad, for example, (which happened with my sister the other day when her iPhone broke) it could give you a vital means of making and receiving phone calls.
Extra features – In addition, some of these services have extra features, such as creating transcriptions of voice messages. That might be more convenient than the standard voicemail on your actual phone.
Drawbacks – Short Number Support and ID Verification
Note that VoIP services are not registered cell phone numbers with a regular cell phone provider. Some third party services & apps have strict verification polices and will only send verification codes to registered cell phone numbers. Such verifications do not work with Skype-in numbers for example. Apparently WhatsApp & Facebook Messenger can only be set up with a phone number registered with a cellphone provider, so you can’t use a VoIP number for that.
Pinger/Textfree supports short numbers and ID verification – with a paid subscription ($4.99/month). I have subscribed to Pinger and tested with one of my U.S. credit card companies that couldn’t send to my Skype-in number and it worked. This is a big deal and makes the subscription costs for Pinger worth it. PayPal and other major sites are supported as well.
Note that some verifications might still not work depending if the service checks to see if your number is VoIP and have a policy against sending text to those accounts.
Talkatone advertises a similar feature with their subscriptions.
There are also cautions about not being able to make emergency phone calls with such services, though I’ve never tried it.
Some VoIP Services I’ve Tried
Google Voice is a popular service I have not tried. I have not described it here because I have never been able to set it up. Perhaps because I live overseas. And you must have a working U.S. cell phone for messages to get forwarded to, so it is less useful than the other apps mentioned here in that regard.
These are the ones I’ve actually used:
Skype-in Number (a feature of Skype, owned by Microsoft)
- Cost: There is no free level to make calls to phone (except see Office 365 benefits below.) A phone number in the area code of your choice costs about $30/year, and it’s another $30/year for unlimited US and Canada calling. So it’s $60/year total. I’ve used it for years now so I can have a U.S. number for family and friends to reach me at easily.
- Texting: Incoming texts are free. Sending texts cost $0.12 per 160 characters though.
- Short number / ID verification support: Not supported. Microsoft Support says they recognize this is in demand, but it’s not available yet. The type of SMS the Skype app receives through US Skype numbers are limited to personal mobile numbers located in US or Canada. Third-party apps and bank verifications are not yet recognized.
- Voicemail: Included, but you can’t customize your greeting (you could in the past, but they dropped that feature). This has actually confused several people, wondering if they got the right number or not, because the default voice is a British-sounding woman asking you to leave a message.
- Voicemail transcriptions: No.
- Ad free: There are no ads in the Skype apps.
- Burner phone: Skype does not let you change your Skype-in number during your subscription period. You must cancel your number and purchase a new one.
- Supported devices: Skype works on the most devices, including an iPhone, iPad, Mac, Android, and PC. This is the only service I’ve tried with a full-fledged app for Macs and PCs. That is often convenient when working on your computer.
- Office365 subscriber benefits: If you are an Office 365 subscriber you get 60 minutes/month of free phone calling to many countries in addition to whatever other plan you’ve subscribed to. A random number will appear if you haven’t set up a Skype Caller ID or if you don’t have a Skype number.
- Support: It exists but is often difficult to reach. When you do reach them you need to go through a verification process. But often you cannot reach them directly via chat. My suggestion is that if you need to reach Skype support via chat and get a quick response select “billing issues” as your topic. With everything else you get put off, sent to the community, etc.
- Payment caution: Skype itself, even though it is owned by Microsoft, is incorporated in Europe and billed in Europe. So if you pay for your subscription with a credit card and the card does not wave foreign transaction fees, you will be dinged for that! One way to avoid that is to use PayPal to pay for your subscription.
Note: Pinger and TextFree are functionally basically the same, and you have the same credentials and text/call records. See https://pinger.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360037475111-What-s-the-difference-between-the-Pinger-app-and-TextFree-app- for info on their history. I had been using TextFree but switched to Pinger today just because it sounds nicer. All my messages and voicemails were still there.
Note: Pinger is more difficult to use on the iPad than either Skype or Talkatone because the dialer only displays in portrait mode. If you have your iPad connected to keyboard, in landscape mode, then the dialer appears sideways. Pinger support has told me they have no plans to fix that problem. Apparently they used to have an iPad-only app, but gave that up.
- Cost: There is no charge to create a phone number in the area code of your choice. Free level: You can send and receive texts and, receive calls, and call toll-free U.S. numbers (e.g. 800 numbers). A free account’s number will disappear if not used for 30 days. Pinger Pro: For $4.99/month you get a non-expiring number, eliminate ads, and can make unlimited outgoing calls to the U.S., Canada, China, India, Mexico, and Singapore, and you can change your number once a day. This comes to about $60/year, the same as Skype, but is a better choice if you are talking a lot to one of the supported countries outside the U.S. As an alternative to subscribing, you can also buy inexpensive minutes (100 minutes for $1.99). The free account comes with 60 minutes of calling so you can test it out.
- Texting: There is free text in and out. I’ve been using it for a few years just for texting so I could have a U.S. texting number.
- Short number / ID verification support: The Pro subscription includes support for short numbers and ID verification. I subscribed and tested it with one of my U.S. credit card companies, which had failed to get through to my Skype number, and it worked. This also means I can use texts to that bank’s short number to check balances and things. That’s very convenient, and might be the feature that makes Pinger a great choice for someone living overseas, as long as you have a paid subscription.
- Voicemail: Voicemail is included, and you can set a custom greeting, which makes it superior to Skype-in.
- Voicemail transcriptions: Voicemail transcription is included as a free service. Note that transcriptions require a paid “Plus” subscription with Talkatone, and is not available with Skype. It seems to work quite well.
- Ad free: Yes, included with the Pro subscription.
- Burner phone: With the Pro subscription you can change your phone number once every 24 hours.
- Supported devices: Pinger works with apps on iPhones, iPads and Android devices. You can also use it via the web, but just for text messages and to listen to voicemail – not to make calls. Still, that can be handy. It seems to work well.
- Support: Support is really excellent. Typically they are very responsive when going through Zendesk, even on weekends. I was actually asking Pinger some questions as I wrote this review and received answers on a Sunday night, U.S. time. Via the app’s built-in support feature, though, I’ve never gotten a reply.
Note: I just discovered this one recently when trying to help my sister, whose iPhone broke. It has advantages if your main goal is simply having a free number that works over wi-fi to make and receive calls. However Pinger starts you off with 60 free minutes, so in an emergency that will work as well.
- Cost: It’s more confusing than Pinger because different features require separate subscriptions. In addition to Free (making and receiving unlimited text and also U.S. and Canada phone calls), there are 3 subscriptions available: (1) Plus – $3.99/month (voicemail transcriptions, non-expiring number, forwarding calls to another U.S. or Canada number) (2) Unlimited International – $12.99/month (extra foreign countries you can call), and (3) Premium – $1.99/month (no ads). What stands out about Talkatone’s service is that you can make and receive unlimited calls (U.S. and Canada only) without a subscription. That compares favorably to Skype-in and Pinger in that regard. It’s certainly a go-to if you need to make a free call from a device via wi-fi in an emergency. Pinger does start you off with 60 free minutes though. It’s hard to compare costs because the features all have separate subscriptions.
- Texting: Free to send and receive texts.
- Short number / ID verification support: As with Pinger, a paid Talkatone subscription includes support for short numbers and ID verification. I have not tested this, but I read some problems with getting this to work in online forums.
- Voicemail. Voicemail is included, with a customizable greeting.
- Voicemail transcriptions: Transcriptions are only available with the $3.99/month Plus subscription, unlike Pinger, where they are free.
- Ad free: Requires the separate $1.99/month Premium subscription.
- Burner phone: One time included, then it’s $0.99 per change after that, regardless of subscription level. With Pinger, it is included with the Pro subscription.
- Supported devices: Talkatone works on iPhone, iPads, iPods, and Android devices. But not on Macs or PCs.
- Support: Support responds to inquiries, but not on weekends, and it takes them a long time to get back to you. I’ve only gotten one answer to them so far in a week.
To me, Pinger/TextFree seems like a sweet spot in price, reliability, features, and good customer support. Pinger’s pricing is even better than I first thought when compared with Talkatone, because Talkatone’s subscriptions are separate, not inclusive. For example, if you subscribe to Talkatone’s “Plus” level you still see ads unless you also subscribe to their separate Premium level. With Pinger you get unlimited calling to the U.S., Canada and a few other countries, no ads, short code and ID verification support, nice quality voicemail, voicemail transcriptions, a phone burner feature, and very responsive customer support.
I will renew my Skype-in subscriptions this year again but may make a transition to just Pinger after that because of the shortcode and ID verification support, customizable voicemail, and voicemail transcriptions.
If ID verification and short numbers is not a concern, then even without a paid subscription, Talkatone does give you free outgoing calls, so there is that to keep in mind if you want a service with completely free calling, don’t mind the ads, don’t need short number or ID verification, don’t need voicemail transcriptions, don’t need quick customer support, and can put up with occasional instabilities.
And if a full computer desktop app for making calls is needed, having a Skype-in number and calling subscription might be worth it. If you also have Office 365 you might as well take advantage of the international calling minutes if you need them.