When I first moved to China, I decided that I still wanted to stay connected to the US. Part of that is keeping a US phone number that can both send and receive calls and text messages. Luckily, thanks to products like Google Voice and Skype, doing so is now cheap and easy.
If you’ve used Google Voice, you are already used to the idea of having a forwarding phone number – every time someone calls your Google Voice number, the call is forwarded to your regular phone. My phone is in China, though, so it doesn’t work quite so easily; Google Voice does not support adding overseas phone numbers to an account yet.
When I first set up my Google Voice account, I was living in the US and used my US cell phone. However, I canceled my contract with AT&T, so I didn’t even have that anymore. If you’re in a similar situation and would like to continue to have a US-based phone while you’re abroad, feel free to follow along with my setup below.
1. Turn off call forwarding for your old phone
My first step was to turn off SMS forwarding and enable ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode so that while I had no physical phone, my calls and text messages would not be forwarded to some stranger who ended up with my old number.
To do that, you need to do two things in Google Voice. First, make sure your messages are sent to your email. Go to Settings->Voicemail & SMS. Within that tab, turn on Voicemail Notifications and SMS Forwarding. Don’t forget to save your changes.
Next, turn on Do Not Disturb mode to prevent calls from being forwarded to your old phone number. This is under Settings->Calls.
Now, you can send and receive text messages, and you can receive incoming calls. All the calls go to voicemail, but at least you can get messages.
2. Allow incoming calls with a Skype-In number
To start making and receiving calls again for real, you need to set up a Skype account with the ability to receive calls. A basic skype account is free, but to receive calls in the US, it will cost you $18 for 3 months.
Once you have a basic Skype account set up, to add support for incoming calls, go to Account->View Account from the menu bar.
Now that you have your Skype account page open, you want to buy an ‘Online Number’. Go to that tab and set up a number in the US.
3. Set up your new Skype number as a phone in Google Voice
Once you have your new Skype number, go back to Google Voice and add it as a telephone – Settings->Phones->Add a new phone. I call mine ‘Skype’. You don’t want to receive SMS messages on this phone, because you’re already receiving them in your email, so choose ‘Home’ as your phone type. Make sure you’re signed into Skype right now.
You’ll receive a call on Skype asking you to input a two digit number. You’ll have to open the digital keypad to input the number.
At this point, you should delete your old number in Google Voice and turn off ‘Do Not Disturb’, so that Google Voice begins forwarding your calls again. If someone calls your Google Voice number, you will receive the call on Skype, as long as you are signed in.
4. Enable international call forwarding in Skype
What if you are not signed in, though? Supposing you have a phone number in your current country, you can set up Skype to forward the call to your phone number. To do this, you need to add some Skype credit and set up a forwarding number in the View Account page.
Now, if you are not signed into Skype, and someone calls your Google Voice number, the call will be forwarded to Skype, which will then forward it to your new phone number at regular Skype rates (for me, US->China is 2.1 cents/minute). Therefore, you should be sure to buy some Skype credits as well.
5. Set up a “do not disturb” schedule in Google Voice (optional)
This is pretty good, but there’s one last optimization I made. If you are worried about people calling who don’t know you’re out of the country and waking you up in the middle of the night, you can set up Google Voice to only ring your phone during the daytime in your timezone; otherwise, calls go straight to voicemail. This has already saved me twice when my bank called to ask me some survey questions.
a. Set the time zone for your Google account
First, make sure your Google account is set up for the right time zone. Go to Settings->Account and select your time zone from the drop down menu.
b. Create a custom ring schedule
Then, to set up a custom ring schedule for your phone, go to Settings->Phones->Skype and click the ‘Edit’ button.
Finally, click ‘Show Advanced Settings’ and go down to the Ring Schedule settings. Here, you can get as fancy as you want. I have mine set up to not ring from midnight until 6am on weekdays and from 1am to 7am on weekends.
6. Enjoy your new international phone number!
That’s it! You now have a US phone number that you can use anywhere in the world for about 2-3 cents per minute for voice and includes free, unlimited text messages. To make a call, just use Google Voice as usual by calling your contact and selecting ‘Skype’ as the phone to ring. If you’re on you’re computer and are signed into Skype, you will get the call on Skype and won’t have to pay for it at all. If you’re not near your computer, your cell phone will ring and you’ll pay Skype’s international rate. Incoming calls work the same way.
Hope this helps someone!