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I live in China, and frequently travel to the United States and a few other Asian countries, including HK and Vietnam. Most of my friends, family, and colleagues are in China or the United States. I use an iPhone, and also have a company provided Blackberry, which I use very rarely — mostly only when I travel in a country that has expensive 3G or I don’t have a SIM card.
Primarily, my goal was to find a cheap and easy solution for both sending and receiving calls, both originating from China to the US, or from the US to China. Ideally, it would be mindless so anyone in the US could call me in China without even realizing it’s an international call, and I could call anyone in the US without going through a huge effort. It would also be great if people didn’t need to know which country I was in when making a call.
As icing on the cake, I wanted to be able to document my calls and SMS via a service like Google Voice, and I wanted to be able to send calls straight to voicemail when it was too late. As a guy who used to carry around a phone with a US number in China, I know all too well that wrong numbers and confused relatives call at any hour of the day, translating to the middle of the night in China.
Did I mention I wanted this to be cheap?
The Tools at Hand
There are several services that can do a few of these things, but none of them could do all of them.
Skype is ideal when it comes to making international calls cheap. It is a VoIP service, which means you use the internet to make calls, either to other Skype users or to mobile/landline phones:
- Skype now works over 3G cellular data networks, which means I can make calls to anywhere in the world for an unbelievably cheap rate (roughly $.02/min).
- Skype, however, cannot provide a do-not-disturb time easily
- Until recently, calls I made from Skype appeared to the recipient as a strange 5 digit number that changed with every call (in the age of caller ID, this isn’t really acceptable)
- Skype also offers something they call “SkypeIn”, more recently called “Internet Number”, which, for a fee, provides you with a local number in any country which will call your Skype account
- Finally, with Skype, you can forward calls to your Skype account to any number in the world, paying only the same rates noted earlier
Google Voice, a free, invite-only, US based service that essentially makes your cell phone usage easily managed on the internet, can do most of what I’m looking for. It is really only a gatekeeper, meant to forward your calls/SMS/voicemail to your real phones. The purpose is mostly for you to manage calls/texts the same way you manage your email:
- GV can make cheap calls originating in the US to anywhere in the world (roughly the same $.02/min, but a bit more expensive in some countries when calling a mobile phone rather than a land line)
- You can very easily set up do-not-disturb times, even going so far as to give specific contacts different rules. (For example, work contacts go straight to voicemail or to my Blackberry, but family goes straight through.)
- When I’m in the US, as well as when I move there more permanently, this free service will allow me to keep my own number forever. No more sending huge bulk text messages with a changed number!
- GV is not designed at all for international travel. It functions mostly as a dialer, so if I were to make a call from China using Google Voice, I would be charged up the wazoo for an international call from my Chinese provider.
Finally, I am using an iPhone with nearly unlimited 3G data access with China Unicom. I also have a Blackberry with Verizon, on which the Google Voice app is restricted to US calls only (thanks, Verizon).
It seems pretty obvious now, but it took several stars to align just so for me to get it working.
First, I told everyone my Google Voice number. This is my primary international number, based in the US. It has the same area code as my family in Chicago, so it still feels local. Right off the bat, people can text message me at this number, and I can respond for free (using only data).
Next, I purchased a SkypeIn number for $15 or so for 3 months. I’m nearing the end of my “trial” period, and will likely keep it until I move to the states more permanently. I don’t need to tell anyone this number except for Google Voice.
I setup my SkypeIn number as one of my forwarding phones in Google Voice.
Then, I set my Skype account to automatically forward my calls to my China Unicom number for all calls it receives.
Skype only recently provides an option to display a number you choose as caller ID from Skype. After a verification, in other words, when I use Skype to call my mom, her caller ID shows my Google Voice number.
So in the end, this is the process for when I receive a call from the US:
- Someone calls my Google Voice number
- Google Voice forwards this call to my SkypeIn number
- Skype forwards this call to my mobile phone, caller ID and all.
For that process, the person calling me pays for a local US call, and I pay about $5/mo plus $.02/min for the call, as well as the minute of call time with China Unicom.
And the process to make a call to the US from China:
- I launch my Google Voice app on my iPhone and, from the app, make the call.
- Google Voice calls my SkypeIn number, which is forwarded to me.
- As soon as I pick up the call, Google Voice calls the number I’m calling, and connects us. The recipient sees my Google Voice number as caller ID.
For that process, the recipient pays as if he were receiving a local call (sometimes free, sometimes minutes), and I pay the same $5/mo plus $.02/min for the call, as well as the minute of call time with China Unicom.
Both when receiving a call or when making one, Google Voice keeps track of my call log, call times, and can even record and transcribe calls (which I have never done). And if I’m sleeping, my Google Voice account will not forward the call, but instead send it to my GV voicemail, after which it will transcribe and email to me. I still manage all of my text messages through Google Voice (the web and/or the iPhone app), and thus opted not to forward texts to my Skype account.
The Pros and Cons
As you can see, this meets all of my requirements. It is easy for me to make calls, and cheap. All of my contacts in the US do not need to know where I am, and they only need to keep track of one number. They can call me internationally for the price of a local call, and they’re none the wiser.
As an added bonus, due to the way Google Voice initiates calls (by calling me, then calling the recipient, then connecting the two), I do not need a good data connection to make a good call. I could opt to remove the step of Skype calling my mobile, and thus save one layer of complexity and the minute of call time, but because of the unreliability and endless changes the government makes here in China, I have been happy to have calls come into my mobile number. (Note: this also means that if the Chinese government blocks or tampers with Skype, I will still be able to make calls.)
There are really only two downsides to this:
First, when Google Voice calls Skype to call me, the number still shows up on my iPhone as garbage. As far as I know, this is the same when using Google Voice in the States. This means that if I want to check my call logs, I must use the Google Voice app. This isn’t a big deal to me, but I know at least two people who don’t use Google Voice because of this.
Second, sometimes when people make a call to my Google Voice number, the number of steps the call must make results in my receiving the call at the same time as Google Voice thinking I’m not answering, and, after four rings, sending the call to voicemail. This doesn’t happen much, only once or twice since I started doing it, but it is problematic.
I’m pretty excited about this setup, as now I don’t need to explain to anyone what number to call and when. I can maintain all of that on my end, and no one ever needs to worry. I also have the comfort in knowing that a late night call won’t wake me up. And, when I finally move back to the states, the only change made will be that I eliminate one step, and everything else goes on like nothing changed!