How to use your U.S. phone number internationally

Written by Adrian Holovaty on December 8, 2015

I recently moved from Chicago to Amsterdam and wanted to keep my American phone number, for two reasons:

  1. To be easily reachable by American friends/family, and make free calls to the U.S., while I’m in The Netherlands.
  2. To retain possession of the number, so I can port it back to an American phone company when I return to the U.S.

The web has some scattered tutorials on this, but nothing to my liking. Here’s how I did it, using Google Voice. Total cost: a one-time $20.

(Note: you can do some, or all, of this from the U.S. before you leave. If you wait until you’re abroad, you’ll need to use a VPN for the Google Voice step.)

First, create a free Google Voice account. Important note: if you’re already abroad at this point, you’ll need to use a VPN such that your web browser is located on a U.S. connection; otherwise you won’t be able to create a Google Voice account! (If you’re technical, I recommend using Sidestep for the Mac, which simply forwards your web traffic through an SSH server of your choosing.) With that in mind, it’s easiest to do this step when you’re still in the States.

Make sure your American SIM card is in your phone. Then, in Google Voice, choose “I want to use my mobile number” and follow the prompts to port your existing number to Google Voice. Their system will call your American number to confirm you own it. (The call lasts only a few seconds, so the exorbitant international roaming charges won’t be too bad.) After you’ve done that, you won’t need the American SIM card anymore.

Next, pay Google the one-time $20 porting fee and provide the account information for your American phone number. It will take 24 hours to port into Google Voice, at which point you’ll get an email from Google saying it’s been ported. You’ll likely also get an email from your American phone provider saying your account has been closed. (If you’re still under contract with your American phone provider, you’ll have to pay early termination fees.)

Once the Google Voice porting is done, you can set up your phone to send and receive calls using the number.

If your phone is running iOS (sorry, I only have an iOS device, but I imagine Android instructions are similar), install the Google Hangouts app. Don’t bother with the Google Voice app — it’s deprecated, apparently.

In the Hangouts app, sign into your Google account. You’ll use this app, rather than the native phone app, to make and receive calls with your American number.

It took me much time and frustration to realize that, by default, the app allows incoming calls only from numbers you’ve whitelisted. I recommend tweaking the app’s settings so that any phone number can call you — hence mimicing a “real” phone’s behavior. Here’s how to do that:

  • Configure notifications to notify you for any incoming call or SMS.
  • In the “Phone number” settings, switch “Incoming phone calls” and “Messages” on.
  • Change the “Allow calls” setting to allow calls on wifi and cellular. Note that calls will use your cellular data plan whenever you’re not on wifi.
  • Turn on “Sync contacts” to give the Hangouts app access to your contacts’ phone numbers.

Another tip: in your phone’s native contact list (which is synced with Hangouts), make sure your American contacts’ phone numbers begin with +1. Example number: “+1 (312) 588-2300.” Otherwise the calls and texts won’t work in Hangouts while you’re out of the country.

Once you’ve done these things, you’ll be able to use your American number “normally.” Here’s how:

  • Whenever somebody calls your American number, you’ll get a notification from the Hangouts app. Just slide/tap it to answer the call.
  • Whenever somebody texts your American number, you’ll get a notification from the Hangouts app. You can respond in the app.
  • Whenever you want to call an American number, use the phone dialer (or contacts list) in the Hangouts app.
  • Whenever you want to text an American number, use the Hangouts app.
  • Whenever somebody calls your American number and you don’t pick up, they’ll have the opportunity to leave you a voice mail. Use the Hangouts app to listen to the voice mail message and see an automated text transcript.

Remarkably, all of this functionality — sending and receiving calls and texts to/from American numbers — is free! The only catches are: (1) you have to use the Hangouts app, and (2) you’ll be consuming cellular data if you’re not on wifi.

Hope this helps, and enjoy your travels.

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