3 great things you never knew you could do with a free Internet phone number

April 16, 2014

3 great things you never knew you could do with a free Internet phone number

If we’re being honest, phone calls haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. Sure the hardware has improved from the old hand crank models – we’ve had rotary, touch tone, cordless, cellular, smartphone. But at its most basic level, someone calls your number and you pick up, or you let a machine answer it and take a message.

That process is simple, but kind of limited. And if you have several phones, such as a home land line, cellphone, and business phone, it gets complicated checking all three and remembering who has which number.

That’s why a while back Google set out to upgrade the entire phone experience with a service called Google Voice. I’m not sure if it’s a marketing problem or what, but it hasn’t really taken off with the general public. In fact, most people don’t even know what it does.

And that’s too bad, because it really is an amazing service, especially since it’s free. Here are five things Google Voice does that could change your (phone) life.

Before I get into specifics, here’s a quick overview of what Google Voice does. Note that Google is rumored to be merging Voice’s features with the more popular Google Hangouts later this year. At that time this process could change.

When you sign up – click here for the Google Voice page – Google gives you an account with a new phone number, or you can transfer an existing number for a one-time fee. After the account is created, you can add your existing phone to the account. Once that’s done, you can give your Google Voice number to friends, family, clients and business, and Google acts like a personal assistant checking voicemail, routing calls and much more.

Google Voice has a few different feature levels. You can sign up for a Google Number account which gives you a new number and every feature; Number Porting lets you use an existing phone number and every feature; and Google Voice Lite gives you a new number but is just for voicemail and International calling. There are also two exclusive options for Sprint customers that tie more closely into your phone.

I’m going to be looking at all the features Voice has to offer. If you don’t see some of these, you might be signed up for Google Voice Lite. In that case, go to your account, click the Gear icon in the right corner and choose Settings. Then on the Phones tab next to your number, click the “Get a Google Voice number” link and follow the directions.

Note: There aren’t a lot of free phone numbers available for some areas. Phoenix and its surrounding cities didn’t have any free numbers when I checked, for example. So you might have to look in smaller cities or other parts of the country.

So let’s go in-depth with three of the coolest features you get with Google Voice, and I’ll quickly tell you a bunch of other features you might like.

1. VOICEMAIL TRANSCRIPTS AND SAVING

I know what you’re thinking; voicemail is old hat. In fact, it’s just a fancy version of the old cassette tape answering machines from decades ago.

The trouble with it is, though, is listening to the messages you get. Maybe the person left a 5 minute soliloquy and put the call-back number at the very end – and then mumbled it. You can waste a lot of time re-listening to messages to catch all the details.

And what happens when you occasionally save messages to listen to later? You might end up with a dozen saved voicemails and not know which is which. And what if you have several phones to check?

Google Voice lets you forward your voicemail to one place. No matter how many phones you have, you can check them at the same time from anywhere by calling your number or logging into your Google Voice account.

But that’s the just the tip of the iceberg. Google will make text transcriptions of your messages and email or text them to you, so you can see at a glance what the message is about.

Is the transcription perfect? No, and when it’s off the guesses it makes can be wacky. But I can almost always get the gist, and I can’t remember a time when the service didn’t get a recited phone number correct. It’s highlighted, so you can just click on it and call the person back. And if you want to listen to the audio it’s attached.

Here’s an explanation from Google:

You can also download an mp3 file of any voicemail you want to save, which is great for special voicemails you don’t want to lose. And you can add notes to voicemail, so you can remember why you saved it in the first place, or important information without listening again.

Apple users will already be familiar with voicemail transcriptions, but Google Voice brings it to every other type of phone as well – even landlines.

2. CALL SCREENING

If you’re like me, you don’t pick up every time the phone rings. You want to know who is calling first. That’s why Google includes Caller ID and Call Screening.

Caller ID is self-explanatory, but Call Screening takes it even further. If Google doesn’t recognize the number it will ask the caller for their name.

When you pick up, Google will announce who is on the phone. Then you can talk to the person (press 1), send the caller to voicemail (press 2), listen in on the voicemail (press 2 and stay on the line) or talk to the person and record the call (press 1 and then 4).

To turn call screening on and off, and choose what options are available, go to your account, click the Gear icon and choose Settings. Then go to the Calls tab.

Note: Google will notify the caller if you choose to record the call. Otherwise you can get into trouble with wiretapping laws. You’ll want to be careful using this feature in any case, as recording laws vary from state to state.

3. CALL ROUTING AND BLOCKING

By default, when someone calls your Google number, it will ring all the phones connected to the account. That way you can pick up no matter where you are.

But what if you want to ring only certain phones? That’s why Google Voice has smart call forwarding.

Go to your account, click the Gear icon and choose Settings. Then go to the Groups & Circles tab. Here you can set what happens to calls.

For example, you can set callers in your Friends group to go to your mobile and home phones with no Call Screening and a custom voicemail message if you don’t pick up. You can send anonymous callers right to voicemail with a default voicemail message.

Oh, did I forget mention you can record as many custom voicemail greetings as you want? Well, you can.

Groups and numbers are managed with Google Contacts, which is linked in the left column of Google Voice.

Have some people you just don’t want to talk to? Google lets you mark contacts as spam or you can block them completely. You can do this by selecting a contact in Google Voice and clicking the Edit Settings button. Then next to “When this contact calls you” choose an option.

Google also has a global spam filter, so numbers on Google’s big list will go right to spam. It’s like a version of the government Do Not Call list.

BONUS: OTHER COOL FEATURES

OK, there’s too many features of Google Voice to stick to just three. So, quickly, here are some more you need to know about.

Don’t want to be disturbed at night, on weekends or some other time? You can set when you want a phone to ring and when you want callers to go right to voicemail. Under Settings, select the Phones tab, click the Edit button on a phone and click the Advanced Settings link. Under Ring Schedule you can choose a set or custom schedule.

Here’s a doozy of a feature that shows you how clever the company can be: Did you take a call on your landline but wish you had picked up your cell instead? The Switch phones option lets you hit * to ring your other phones. Then you can pick up the phone you want to use and the call will switch seamlessly. You can enable this in the Settings>>Calls tab.

Want to make International calls? Google offers inexpensive International calling using a calling credit system.

You can also send and receive free text messages using your Google Voice number. You can text and receive them on your computer as well, which is a nice feature to have if your phone isn’t always by your side. You can also get them forwarded to your email – and reply to them via email as well.

However, there is a limit on the number of messages to prevent abuse. So if you’re an avid texter, you might look into other free texting options.

There’s even more, so play around with Google Voice and see what works for you. And what do you have to lose? It’s free!



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