Man on phone in airport

Why Google Voice Is Great for Travelers (And How to Set It Up)

By Dave Dean Get Connected28 Comments

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If you haven’t heard of Google Voice, you’re not alone. One of many Google products that were acquired and then largely ignored, it’s something even regular users of the company’s tools will likely never stumble across.

As a traveler, though, the service can be very useful. Particularly if you’re from the US, but even if, like me, you’re not, it’s something that can save you a lot of money and a lot of hassle, and it doesn’t have to cost a cent.

I’ve been using it for several years now, and despite a few rough edges, it’s something I’d truly miss if it disappeared. Given Google’s track record of killing useful products, that’s always a possibility. For now, at least, it’s still alive and kicking. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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So What Is Google Voice, Anyway?

Simply put, Google Voice is a mobile and web app that lets you make and receive calls and texts to actual phone numbers anywhere in the world. It’s not the only service that offers this, but the combination of a few specific features and its low-to-no cost approach makes it unique for travelers.

Specifically, it lets you do the following for free:

  • have a US-based phone number assigned to you (and if you’re from the US, transfer your existing number to Google Voice)
  • receive calls and texts on that number anywhere in the world via the app or website
  • receive voicemail, including voice-to-text transcripts
  • make calls and send texts to most standard US or Canadian numbers via the app or website
  • forward calls to a different US-based number
  • forward texts and/or voicemails to email

The only thing you pay for is making calls and sending texts to a few premium North American numbers, and other numbers around the world. Typically, you’ll pay a few cents per minute/text to do so.

That’s a lot of useful features for a mostly-free product!

How to Use Google Voice While Traveling

Phone in hands with train in background

So those features all sound great, but it’s how they function in the real world that matters. Fortunately, for the most part, they work pretty well.

Because Google Voice works internationally just like it does in the US, having a number that’s available across devices anywhere in the world comes in very handy. It works on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, using any Wi-Fi network or cellular data you have access to.

Here are several examples of how Google Voice has been particularly useful to me on the road.

Using Services like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb

No matter where I am in the world, as soon as I get a data connection, I’m contactable by drivers and hosts.

Sure, in some cases they could get in touch with me via the app, but Uber/Lyft drivers in particular much prefer to call you to confirm details. I’ve answered dozens of calls and texts asking about my exact location, or when I’ll arrive at my accommodation.

Also, since Lyft is only available in the US, it wants you to have a US phone number when creating your account. The first time I tried to do so with a Google Voice number, it refused to accept it, but when I returned to the US a couple of years later, the same number worked just fine. What changed? I’ve no idea.

Getting Security Verification Texts and Calls

Probably the best aspect for me is the ability to receive verification texts and calls from any company that wants to send them. I get authentication texts or phone calls from my bank, several apps, and Google itself, all on my phone or in my browser, any time, anywhere.

Whether I’m sending money to someone, resetting my password, or just logging in from a different location, verification is quick and easy.

Getting Updates from Airlines

I always enter my Google Voice number when booking plane tickets, since many carriers will text updates on flight delays or cancelations. As long as I’ve got Wi-Fi or cell data, they’ll pop up as if they’re a standard SMS, and I’ll know what’s happening immediately.

Free Phone Calls to North America

I don’t need to call US or Canadian numbers particularly often, but it does happen a few times a year. When it does, not having to pay a cent for it is rather nice, especially if it’s a company where I’ll sit on hold for 20 minutes before talking to someone. If I had family in North America, I’d use this service all the time.

Cheap Calls to Everywhere Else

While traveling life would be a lot easier if you could do everything online, sometimes you just have to pick up the phone. With the exception of a few obscure destinations, calls to most places with Google Voice are pretty cheap per minute, and call quality is good as long as you’ve got a half-decent internet connection.

Being Contactable by Old-School Companies

While most companies will happily contact you by email or through their app, there are a few old-school ones that won’t. Hello banks, I’m looking at you.

One of my banks absolutely loves to block my debit card, and then call to tell me about it. Without Google Voice, I wouldn’t have a working phone number on record, and the process would be even more annoying than it already is.

Not Being Dependent on One Device

Phones break or get lost all the time, especially while traveling. It happened to me in Thailand just a couple of months ago, but because Google Voice works in a browser as well, my texts and calls kept arriving just fine.

It sounds wonderful and in some ways it is, but Google Voice isn’t perfect. Not every text message arrives, even after repeated tries. Sometimes a call won’t ring on my phone or in the browser, and goes straight to voicemail even if I’m sitting in front of my phone or laptop at the time.

That’s a frustration, but one I accept given (a) I’m not paying for that part of the service, and (b) there are no alternatives that offer as many features, paid or otherwise.

Another minor issue is that transcription of voicemails is obviously automated, and varies between pretty accurate and almost incomprehensible. I find myself needing to download and listen to the actual voicemail over half the time.

Setting Up Google Voice

Google Voice on multiple devices

Once you’ve decided you’d like to use Google Voice, here’s how to set it up.

If You’re in the US

Setup is pretty simple if you live in the US. Just visit the site, and you’ll be taken to a wizard that asks you to search for a city or area code, then pick one of the available numbers on the list.

You’ll then be asked to verify your existing (US) number. It can be either cell or landline (if you choose the latter, change the verification method from text to calling).

Once you’ve entered the six-digit verification code, you’re ready to install and configure the apps (see below.)

At this point you can also transfer an existing number to the service, if you’d like to do so. There’s a one-time $20 charge to port most existing numbers across, and it will replace the number you chose at the start of the setup process.

If You’re Not in the US

If you’re not currently in the US, you’ll have to jump through some hoops to do the initial setup. Google really aims the Voice service at US-based users, and actively tries to prevent others from signing up.

To start with, you’ll need to use a VPN to make it appear like you’re inside the United States. Tunnelbear is good if you don’t already have one, since it’s free for a month. If you don’t use a VPN, you’ll just get an error message when you try to visit the Google Voice site.

Once you’ve got that sorted, its time to call on the services of a friend or family member in the US. You’ll need to use their phone number to get your verification call or text, and they’ll need to pass on the verification code soon after receiving it. And no, a different Google Voice number won’t work, sadly.

Once you’re done, don’t forget to unlink the number you used for verification by going to the Voice site, clicking on the Settings icon, then going to the Account section and deleting it under Linked Numbers.

On the upside, once you’ve gone through this frustrating process, you’ll be able to use the Google Voice service from anywhere in the world without a VPN. It’s just the setup that’s painful.

Installing and Configuring Google Voice

Once your account is created, you can choose to access your Google Voice service one of two ways: either within the Voice app/site, or from Google Hangouts. I do it via Hangouts, since it’s the best way to make sure incoming calls ring across my devices.

Hangouts comes pre-installed on Android devices, but you’ll also need to install the Hangouts Dialler app to make calls. If you’ve got an iPhone or iPad, just install the Hangouts app.

If you’re using it on the web or from within Gmail, there’s no need to install anything else.

For each device you want to use Hangouts on, you’ll need to make sure calls and texts are being delivered to it. To do so, in the Hangouts app, go to Settings — <your account email>, and ensure that “Incoming phone calls” and “Messages” are both turned on.

On the Hangouts site, under Settings, make sure that “Receive SMS and voicemail in Hangouts” is selected under the Google Voice heading, and that “Ring on incoming phone calls” and “Sounds for incoming messages” are turned on under the Notifications section.

After all that, you’re ready to go. Google Voice calls and texts should now be available on your phone, tablet, and/or desktop web browser, whenever you’ve got data anywhere in the world.

Since making calls to North American numbers is free with Google Voice, you just need to dial the number from within the Hangouts or Voice app/site as you usually would.

Using Google Voice to make international calls is almost as straightforward. Simply top up your account by tapping on the + symbol beside your account balance in the app, or from Settings — Payments on the website. You can top up in $10, $20, or $50 increments, with a maximum balance of $70.

Once you’ve added money to your Google Voice account, just dial the international number you want to call from the Hangouts or Voice app/site. Don’t forget to use the international dialing code (eg. +44 for the United Kingdom), and you’re good to go!

Got any Google Voice tips and tricks from your own travels? Let us know all about them!

Images via Joergelman (main image), maneomsy (phone in hands), Google (multiple devices)

About the Author
Dave Dean

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 20 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.


  1. Avatar

    Have had this conversation with so many Apple people. They say that if you have Google Voice (which I have had and loved for over 5 years and used all around-the-world) that there is no way you can have calls coming to your GV phone # ring on your cell phone (mine is an iPhone 7+ with a Mexican SIM). I get voice messages left in my emails and texts with verification codes, but I never have, and neither has anyone I know, figured out how to have a call ring on your cell phone. Do I understand that if you have the Hangouts App installed on my iPhone and switch to Hangouts in Google voice, someone dialing my GV # will ring both on my computer and my phone?

    1. Avatar

      My favourite use for Voice is when I am on a cruise ship. Everyone knows that using a normal cell number on a cruise costs around a $1 per minute. But if you have a WiFi plan or access to Wifi, you can call to the U.S. for free, or to other countries for a few cents a minute.

  2. Avatar

    I’ve been using Google Voice since it became publicly available around 2010. As you’ve found, it’s a fantastic service, especially for folks who travel a lot. My greatest fear is that Google will make changes that ruin the service or, as they have a history of doing, cancel it outright. That would be disastrous.

    One unfortunate issue I run into more often than I’d like, though, is that, since it is a VOIP service (and one which apparently can be identified as a Google Voice number), not everyone accepts your Google Voice number. Most recently, I ran into this problem with Airbnb. I recently created an new account with Airbnb and they refused to take my Google Voice number as a valid phone number. From searching around, it looks like this might have been a recent change; I’ve seen several hosts complaining about this. Ironically, they did accept a Skype number as a valid phone number (even though Skype doesn’t handle SMS properly).

    In general, though, Google Voice is a great *free* service (in the US and Canada) and I’ve found it’s international calling rates also tend to be the cheapest relative to, say, Skype. Highly recommended.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Yeah, Google canceling it is my biggest fear as well to be honest. The company definitely has a long and proud(?) history of killing products that its users really love. The only thing that’s saving it, I think, is that it’s somewhat integrated with the Google Fi cell service, so unless Google decides to kill that as well, maybe we’re safe for a little longer!

  3. Avatar

    Was in Australia this summer and Hangouts worked partially. It worked perfectly on my laptop and on my phone–when it was using wifi. But once I was on mobile data (local sim card), I could not make some phone calls. Specifically to phone numbers that were new. So if I dialed my brother and Friend A and their numbers had been called before from Hangouts (when I was still in the US)–then the call got through. If I dialed a number that was new to Hangouts, the call would never go through.

    I suspected the call was routing through the sim card’s phone service and since I was dialing the US number as if I was in the US–the Aussie carrier didn’t recognize the call. That’s my theory anyway. Frustrating and kind of put me off Hangouts a bit. I wish Google was a bit more responsive to issues with their apps. Since most of their of stuff is “free”, it seems they don’t have to be as responsive to their users.

  4. Avatar

    Hey Dave, thanks for posting this, it’s really helpful. I live in the US and already have a Google Voice number, but I haven’t used it much yet — I made one international call to Mexico, and it was awesomely cheap.

    Now I’m preparing to travel around Europe and Asia for a few months. So I should just be able to give people in the US my Google Voice number, then as long as I have wifi, they should be able to just pick up their phone and call me on their phones as usual, at no cost to me?

    My other concern is my bank blocking charges like you mentioned. The only way to unblock is to call them. I was worried I would have trouble with this abroad, but you’re saying I can call the bank customer service for free via wifi using Google Voice?

    This is all a little complicated to learn but seems totally worth it! Thanks again!

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Hi Ellen,

      Yes, that’s correct — just give people your GV number, and you’ll be able to answer the call or read the SMS everywhere you’ve got Wi-fi (or cellular data). Likewise, you’ll be able to call your bank or almost any other North American number for free from within the GV app when you have Wi-fi/cell data.

      It’s a bit complicated when you’re first getting things set up, but quickly becomes second nature — definitely worth it! 🙂

  5. Avatar

    So, if i don’t get google voice while i am in the u.s and follow your method in the article so that means using a family member’s phone number then unlink, how do i actually use/port my u.s number to it? i don’t want to lose my u.s number from t-mobile.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      That section was written with people getting a new number in mind, rather than those with an existing US number who want to port it but aren’t currently in the US.

      If you’re able to receive calls and texts to your current number while you’re overseas, I’d expect the porting process to work the same way as it would inside the US. From Google’s support document: “Don’t cancel your phone plan until Google Voice notifies you the port is complete. To verify the port, we’ll call your phone with a code.” If you can’t receive calls and texts to that number while abroad, you’re probably out of luck until you return to the US.

      You’d still need a VPN that makes it appear like you’re inside the US while you’re setting things up, though.

      That said, I haven’t personally tried this approach (I’m not US-based), so can’t confirm it. Use at your own risk! If you decide to go ahead with it and find everything works (or doesn’t, for that matter), please feel free to let me know and I’ll update the article accordingly.

  6. Avatar

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for this great article! It’s hard to find current articles about this topic (most seem to be circa 2015-16). A quick background: I’m moving to Spain next month and plan to port my US # to Google Voice. I have an iPhone XR and plan to get a Spanish sim card once I’m there for cell service and to have a local number.

    I read in the Hangout forum about someone who said once they moved to Laos and put in a Laos sim card, their calls (via phone) to US where no longer free, it was asking for credit. Another commenter responded that this was normal because once there is a foreign identity on the phone, calls would not be free.
    Should I expect that once I put a Spanish sim card in my phone, calls to the US will no longer be free with a non-US sim card? And if so, would texts still be at no charge while using data from the local data plan?

    Also, I am reluctant to not have data in the interim of dropping my current US carrier and signing up for new service in a new country. Would you recommend starting with the Google Fi service and then cancelling it once I’ve signed with a new carrier? What other options would I have to have data in the interim?
    Thank you so much in advance!

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Once you stick a local SIM card (in your case, a Spanish one) in your phone, you’re on a local plan. That’s pretty unlikely to include free calls and texts to the US, since it’s not something the majority of Spanish people would want or need.

      However, that doesn’t affect your Google Voice account at all. As long as you’re using the Google Voice app to make your calls over Wi-fi or cell data, rather than just dialing the number and making a voice call via your SIM card, calls to the US will still be free.

      Assuming you’re starting out with a prepaid SIM in Spain, it’s a pretty simple process to get set up. Depending on where you’re flying into, you may be able to have a working SIM before you leave the airport, and certainly within an hour of getting downtown in any major town or city. There’s no real need to go through the hassle of signing up and then canceling Google Fi, but if you want to make sure you’ll have data as soon as you land, it’s a fairly cheap way of doing so.

  7. Avatar

    Thank you so much for the personalized and quick response and also for the link with additional info!! Such a great resource – I’m so glad I found your informative emagazine!

  8. Avatar

    Some banks (eg Capital One) does not accept internet/VoIP based phones, eg Google Voice. This could be a drag. I can set it to credit cards, but banks (saving/checking) requires a SIM based number.

  9. Avatar

    I have a travel iphone in which I utilize a data only sim card when traveling outside the US. Last year when I arrived in Spain I attempted to call a local number (Malaga) on both Voice and Hangouts–neither worked. I got an operator message instead. I eventually had success but through Skype. I don’t know if it was because it was because of the data sim card or that I was calling a Spanish number within Spain or maybe I needed to power down the phone and restart. I just don’t know! It was a frustrating experience especially since I had $10 credits on Voice yet had to spend money on Skype in order to finally make the call.

  10. Avatar

    This article is very helpful, since I’ve used Google voice since forever! Lol! I don’t really remember and call any number in the US using Hangouts dialer. But now my frustration is that since I got an IPhone 7+ (from my cousin) and I just found out it is Thailand based, I couldn’t download the Hangouts Dialer even when I changed the location and Region to US. I am US based, btw. How do I get the iPhone to download the dialer? I can’t make calls to people who are not on Hangouts. I am able to do that on my Android devices. iPhones are soooo restrictive! 🥴

    1. Dave Dean Author

      I’m on the road and don’t have access to an iPhone right now to test this with, but have you tried the approach(es) mentioned here to see if they help?

      Failing that, you may be looking at a factory reset (while in the US) to get it to switch.

  11. Avatar

    HI If I am US based with Google voice US number. If I am sitting in London airport, Can I use this to SMS or call someone in London?

  12. Avatar

    Thank you very much for this article. You’ve answered so many questions. I’d like to confirm my understanding about the following:

    If I use Google Voice over wi-fi to call Italy from the USA there will be a reasonable charge.
    If I use Google Voice over wi-fit to call an Italian number from within Italy there will be a charge, but again very reasonable.
    But if I call to the USA using a wi-fi in Italy it’s free (except for the rare occasions like a bank not accepting the number)?
    If I’ve understood this all correctly then this seems like the best way to go!

  13. Avatar

    Thanks for this great article, Dave. We’re moving from US to China whenever flights resume and my wife can get her work visa. Do we have to keep a US cell phone number, or can we just port our numbers to GV and cancel our US cell phone contracts when we leave the country? Don’t really want to keep paying for US cell phone service when we’re not living in the country. We’re hoping that we can use GV for things like verification SMS messages when changing passwords, etc.

    Also, do you know whether anyone has had any luck using GV via a VPN from China?

    1. Dave Dean Author

      Hi David,

      You don’t need to keep US cell service once the number porting to GV is complete. You’ll also be able to port it back to a traditional carrier when/if you move back to the US if you want to.

      My experience of using GV for SMS verification is that it works with nearly all companies, but not every single one of them. Wells Fargo has been a particular problem, so if you happen to bank with them, you’ll need to come up with a different solution. I’d suggest giving yourself a bit of time before you leave to test out SMS verifications from the companies you particularly care about, in case you discover a problem that’ll be much easier to deal with while still in the US.

      I don’t know for sure about using GV over a VPN from China, but if I had to put money one way or the other, I’d suggest that if your VPN gives you access to other Google services, it should give you access to GV as well. We’ve got an article on getting around the Great Firewall which might be worth a look.

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