May 29, 2013 at 7:40 p.m. PST
I don’t like voicemail. It’s a chore to navigate through the menus and listen to messages. I dislike jotting down message details. Sometimes I need to play the message a few times to transcribe it. Wouldn’t it be easier if voicemails were transcribed to text? That’s what visual voicemail does. It also provides a visual inbox, making it easier to browse voicemail messages.
There are numerous apps and services that provide visual voicemail. Most of these charge a monthly fee. Some of them are quite expensive, charging $20 per month for 100 messages. There’s no need to pay for this service. You can get free visual voicemail with Google Voice. These techniques will work with an iPhone or any phone. You don’t even need a smart phone to get free visual voicemail. You can even use it with your land line.
The first step is to create a Google Voice account. Google Voice will only work in the United States. You must have a valid U.S. phone number for verification purposes. First, go to http://voice.google.com. If you already have a Google account, this process is simple. Log in to your Google account and follow the setup process. If you do not have a Google account, click the “sign up” button on the top right corner of the web page to create one.
Once you have finished creating your Google account, you can create your Google Voice account.
When you sign up for Google Voice, you can use your existing mobile number or a get a new number. For the purposes of this tutorial, get a new number. If you use your existing mobile number, you will need to pay $20 to port your mobile phone number to Google Voice. Beyond the cost, your mobile plan will be terminated, which may subject you to an early termination fee. Since Google Voice is not a mobile plan, you will need to sign up with a carrier for a new plan and a new number. Basically, Google Voice takes over your mobile phone number, so you need to get a new phone number for your mobile phone.
This is actually handy if you want to use Google Voice as the hub for all of your calls. When someone calls your Google Voice number, it will dispatch your call to as many phone numbers as you like. It can also forward calls to Google chat. If this is solution is ideal for you, go for it. If you just want visual voice mail and don’t want to go through the expense and effort of obtaining a new mobile phone number, click the “I want a new number” button.
Getting a new Google Voice number also makes it easier to revert back to your traditional voicemail. Visual voicemail may not be what you expect. It is not perfectly accurate. Due to the poor quality of phone calls, speech recognition doesn’t work as well. Transcribed voicemails are full of errors, but you can usually figure out the meaning by context. Some people also like to use their Google Voice number when signing up on web forms, so as to dodge the telemarketing calls.
This how-to article assumes you will be obtaining a new Google Voice number. Either option will provide you with visual voicemail. This article informs you how to set it up for free. Selecting a new number is free, but using your existing mobile number is not.
Once you have selected your phone number option, you are asked to enter a phone number for verification. Simply enter the number of your existing mobile phone or land line. Once completed, Google Voice will call this number. Pick up the phone call and, when prompted, punch in the two-digit number to verify the phone number.
The next step is to get your new Google Voice phone number. Since many phone numbers are taken, Google Voice can generate one for you. Type your area code, zip code or city in the first box. You can optionally type in a word, phrase or number in the second box on the right. Doing so might not produce any available phone numbers. If so, try again with a new word, phrase or number, or simply leave it blank. Click the “Search Numbers” button to generate a list of available numbers. Select a number and you’re done.
You are now presented with the Google Voice main page, which displays your inbox. Your inbox will already have an introductory message. If you would like to turn off call forwarding to the phone you used for verification, perform the following steps.
Click on the gear wheel on the top right of the web page and select “settings” from the drop down menu. A tabbed page of settings will appear, with the “Phones” tab visible. Uncheck the phone number you used to verify, if you don’t want Google Voice to forward calls. If you are just using Google Voice for visual voicemail, you probably don’t want it to forward calls to another phone.
I also suggest turning on “Do Not Disturb” on the “Calls” tab. This will ensure that Google Voice rolls over to voicemail immediately after being forwarded from your mobile phone. This is ideal if you are just using Google Voice for your voicemail inbox. By default, Google Voice will ring a few times. This has the unfortunate consequence of forcing callers to endure two sets of rings before they can leave a voicemail. Putting Google Voice in “Do Not Disturb” mode is recommended if you want this to work like proper voicemail.
Feel free to browse the other settings and make any desired changes. If you don’t use gmail, you may want to click on the “Voicemail & Text” tab to change the email account. Your transcribed voicemails will be sent to this email address.
Now that you have finished configuring Google Voice, you need to have your mobile phone conditionally forward calls to your Google Voice number. This type of call forwarding will only work when you don’t pick up your phone. Instead of going to your mobile phone’s voicemail, the call will roll over to Google Voice after a few rings. Google Voice will record voicemail, transcribe it, and send it to your inbox (both email and Google Voice, by default).
Depending on your carrier, there are different ways to turn on conditional call forwarding. Here’s how to do it for AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon…
Turn on conditional call forwarding:
- AT&T: *004*1 then the 10 digit Google Voice number then # then press call, wait for tones
- Sprint/Verizon: *71 then the 10 digit Google Voice number then press call, wait
If you no longer wish to use Google Voice for voicemail, simply turn off conditional call forwarding.
Turn off conditional call forwarding:
- AT&T: ##004# then press call, wait for tones
- Sprint: *730 then press call, wait for tones
- Verizon: *73 then press call, wait for tones
Once you have turned on conditional call forwarding, your missed calls will roll over to Google Voice. These messages will be transcribed and sent to your email and Google Voice inboxes. When you browse a visual voicemail message, you also have the option to play back the audio recording. This may be necessary, as the transcriptions are not perfect.
Even with the transcription errors, I find it much easier to deal with voicemails using a visual inbox. Traditional voicemail menus are tedious!
You can also download the Google Voice app for the iPhone. In addition to the voicemail inbox, you can also make calls using your Google Voice number. Much like Skype, this is a great way to cut down on minutes used, particularly if you are on a wi-fi network. Keep in mind, if you are using your data plan for Google Voice calls, you might be charged for it. It all depends on your plan.
Google Voice is free when calling within the U.S. and Canada. You can add money to your account for overseas long distance calls.
There are other options for visual voicemail, if you require something with more direct integration. Every major carrier has their own visual voicemail system. They charge a fee for using these services, but offer easier setup and tighter integration.