Phone verification in the US

Many online accounts require verification via text messages. As it is often not feasible to keep a US phone plan when living abroad, we discuss a list of potential solutions to keep using a US phone number for verification purposes, while living abroad. Google Voice usually works very well, but we discuss several other solutions for cases, where a Google Voice number is not accepted. In particular, we discuss how to setup a Google Voice from oversea.

For most people, the optimal setup is likely to use a Google Voice number for most purposes, but then pay a small one-time fee using TextVerified to receive verification messages for services that do not support Google Voice (potentially after trying some other free services). Alternatively, you can also keep a US mobile number using a prepaid card (Ultra/PagePlus/Redpocket) for a yearly fee of ca. 30-36 USD.

Introduction

Many online services rely on text messages or voice to uniquely verify their customers or add security via 2-factor authentication (2FA). The idea is that most people only have one unique cellphone number, so requiring customers to verify their number by confirming code received via text message or automatic voice call can be an effective way to prevent customers to open several accounts. It can also add security because if the customer needs to enter some verification code for logging in, only the person with access to the specified phone number will be able to access the account (apart from some attacks where criminals gain access to the phone number).

The problem: As expat living in a foreign country, it may often not be economical to keep a US phone plan, so common questions are:

  • How can we keep a phone number when leaving the US?

  • How to use text verification when being oversea?

  • What are the best prepaid pay-as-you-go plans with a US number?

In this context, it is important to emphasize that not all US numbers are the same, so not all banks or financial institutions will accept all phone numbers for verification. Generally, there are the following types of phone numbers:

  • Landline numbers. They often do not accept text messages, but can be used for verification calls.

  • Mobile numbers. They are the standard numbers one gets with a US phone plan. They are universally accepted.

  • VoIP numbers. They can often receive both calls and text messages, but some institutions do not accept them.

If you have a number, you can check its type by using the PhoneValidator (third party site). This will give you an indication if a number will be accepted, but in practice it is often difficult to predict. For example, you can port numbers from your US phone plan to Google Voice, in which case a cellphone number is converted into a VoIP number (as Google Voice numbers are generally VoIP numbers). However, depending on the institution, the information may not be up-to-date, so they may still accept the number (potentially only for some time), even though they reject other VoIP numbers.

In summary, predicting reliably which institutions will accept which type of phone numbers is difficult and your best guess is to try it our or ask for other's experiences online (using reddit, facebook or other social platforms).

Let us further emphasize that even if a given service does not support your number, you might be able to use an alternative verification (such as email or Google Authenticator), so the suggested solutions of this article are only necessary if no other solution works.

Google Voice

Google Voice offers a fantastic service that is completely free and available to anybody who sets up a Google Voice number, while being in the US. Below, we will also show how to setup Google Voice from outside the US.

Functionality

It gives you a free US number and free calling / text messaging within the US and Canada. You can also call international numbers at extremely competitive international rates, but you cannot send text messages to international numbers. You can receive calls and text messages (even from international numbers) in your browser or in the Google Voice App on your smartphone, where ever you have internet. This means, you can be oversea and only have wifi or mobile internet in the respective country, but you will still be able to be reachable under your US Google Voice number. The number itself will usually show up as VoIP number (for example, using the PhoneValidator), but the number is still accepted in many circumstances.

Google Voice may also be advantageous for people living in the US who like to regularly switch their low-cost phone plan. Instead of needing to port their number, they can just forward their Google Voice calls to their cellphone number. When their regular cellphone number changes, they can then just forward to the new number without the need of porting a number or worrying about a transitional time of inactivity. It also means that one can easily keep the real cellphone number private, while the Google Voice number can be replaced (for a small fee) or the forwarding can be deactivated at certain times (during the night) if one does not want to be reachable (except for people knowing the personal cellphone number). Finally, Google also offers some advanced spam filtering to avoid spam calls and text messages.

In summary, Google Voice offers a valuable free service for US residents and expats alike. The key features include:

  • Free service including US phone number (VoIP)

  • Free receiving of calls and text messages on Google Voice number

  • Free forwarding of calls to US phone number (mostly relevant for US residents)

  • Free forwarding of text messages to email

  • Free calling and texting to phone numbers in US/Canada

  • Low rate calling to international numbers (see rates, texting outside US/Canada is not available)

  • Usable through browser and/or app from anywhere with internet (wifi, mobile internet)

  • Google Voice number can be changed for a small fee (10 USD, old number can be kept for an additional 20 USD fee)

  • Google Voice numbers can be transferred from/to phone providers and other Google accounts (see details)
    -> Google Voice can thus be used to "store" a US number until returning to the US (20 USD one-time fee).
    -> For several numbers, it may make sense to create additional Google accounts.

Google Fi

A separate, but closely related service is Google Fi. It is offered to US customers and provides essentially a US phone number with unlimited texting/calling within the US (base fee: 20 USD) plus 1 GB of almost worldwide usable data (additional fees of 10 USD). A key advantage is that the data is only charged based on usage, so it is essentially a pay-as-you-go data plan with 0.01 USD per MB. Another incredibly attractive aspect is that this data is available in 200 countries worldwide. The base rate of 20 USD per month can be reduced if a group of people signs up for Google Fi.

The key difference to Google Voice is that the respective number is not a VoIP number, but a regular US mobile number, so in most cases the number should be fully usable for any desired verification purpose.

Setting up Google Voice outside of the US

The easiest solution is to setup Google Voice, while you are based in the US and preferably even have an active phone plan; potentially, even with a number that you wish to port to Google Voice, but this is not at all necessary. If you already left the US or if you do not have a US based phone number, the following instructions will help you to setup your Google Voice number from outside the US:

How can I set up Google Voice from oversea/abroad (outside of the US)?

Google Voice numbers are only given to customers based in the US, which is requires (1) a US IP address and (2) a US phone number. Therefore, we recommend the following steps in order to activate a Google Voice number, while living outside of the US.

  1. Connect to US VPN server to get US IP address. There are many ways to accomplish this. If you have a University affiliation with a US institution, you may be able to use their VPN server. Otherwise, we recommend the free services of ProtonVPN or Windscribe*. Both services offer a free tier with US IP addresses that can be used. After you were assigned a US IP address, you can check that everything works by visiting WhatIsMyIPAddress.com, which should show a US location.

  2. Setup your Google Voice number using another US number. Once, you are connected with a US IP address, you can login to your Google account or register a new one and then go onto the Google Voice page. On the top left corner, it should now offer the option "Get new voice number". In order to register a new number, you are required to provide a valid US phone number. Google will accept many types of numbers, but often restricts how often somebody can sign up with the same number. Therefore, many free online numbers cannot be used. In practice, the following are the easiest solutions:
    (a) Friends/Family in the US. If you have friends/family with a US number, you can ask them to use their number to verify. They only need to tell you the verification code sent via text message. After your Google Voice number was assigned, you can delete their number. In most cases, it should also be no problem for them to use the number again if they want to use it to sign up for Google Voice, potentially after some cooling off period. If they are worried, you could also ask them to purchase a SIM card for you, which you only need to keep until your number is assigned.
    (b) Using an online service. There are various online services that will show text messages received at specified numbers, which could be used for verification purposes. Many of these pages are free, but consequently the respective numbers are often unavailable for registering on Google Voice. It may be worth it to try out some options (just google "free text message verification" and try your luck), but if no free option works, there are low-fee alternatives. In our experience, TextVerified (third party site) works well and typically charges 0.50-1.50 USD per successful verification message and accepts major credit cards and cryptocurrency.

Once you have setup your Google Voice number, you should make sure to use it occasionally, because there are cases where the voice number was deactivated after not using it anymore. In most cases, you should receive a warning email, but just to be sure, it is likely best if you do not need to rely on such reminders.

Special hack: Making Google Voice numbers work

There is a special hack make Google Voice numbers work, even if VoIP numbers are usually not accepted. Most provides will not check the type of number every time they send text messages, but only if when the number is added. This means one could first sign up for a number using a cheap pay-as-you-go plan, add this number to your account and only afterwards port this number to Google Voice.

Moreover, even after your Google Voice number is all set, you could port it back to a regular account, then signup for the respective service under consideration and then port back to Google Voice. The easiest way to do this is using Google Fi, but you will need to pay the respective fee for porting the number and for keeping Google Fi service for one month. Moreover, you will likely also need a compatible phone for the whole setup.

In summary, there are ways to make Google Voice numbers work and it could be worth it to spend a one-time fee of 30 USD or so to get your favorite financial service working if you cannot find any other solution. If you really care, you could even note down any services you wish to setup and wait for a year (like until Christmas), then port the number to setup all the accounts you wanted and then port it back afterwards. Let us emphasize that this strategy should work, but of course we cannot guarantee it for the future (things may change).

Low cost pay-as-you-go SIM cards

In cases where Google Voice is not accepted for the purpose of verifying a given online account, you may want to try an alternative. At least in theory, the best choice would be a prepaid pay-as-you-go plan where you keep a regular US mobile number, on which you would only occasionally receive verification text messages or calls. This should only incur minimal fees, but you need to make sure that your phone number does not expire.

The problem is that the US market for mobile plans is extremely limited with regards to pay-as-you-go SIM cards. Most major providers (Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T) will just not have a regular pay-as-you-go plan. The following list gives an overview of the best pay-as-you-go SIM cards available in the US as of writing (summer 2021):

  • T-Mobile Legacy Gold Rewards Pay-As-You-Go (10 USD per year, retired). This is like the gold standard. It gives a free SIM card without monthly charges, which needs to be renewed once per year by loading 10 USD. However, it is grandfathered, so that it's super expensive to get by on ebay (like 200 USD or more) and it may get discontinued in the future.
    Conclusion: Great if you own one, but too expensive and cumbersome to buy one.

  • PagePlus (Verizon) Pay-As-You-Go (30 USD per year). The number stays active for up to 120 days and requires recharging of at least 10 USD. If it is not recharged, the number will expire after another 30 days. Note that PagePlus does not support international roaming, i.e., text messages cannot be received outside of the US through the regular network, so one needs to use wifi calling. Purchase of the SIM costs 0.99 USD plus shipping, so the total cost for the first year is 31 USD.
    Conclusion: This is likely the cheapest regular Pay-As-You-Go plan with a US mobile number that can be normally purchased, but you need to make sure that PagePlus supports wifi calling on your phone.

  • Redpocket (30 USD per year). They offer a pay-as-you-go SIM with 2.50 USD per month in fees, which can be ordered from their ebay shop. Note that Redpocket does not support international roaming, i.e., text messages cannot be received outside of the US through the regular network, so one needs to use wifi calling.
    Conclusion: This may a viable option with similar cost compared to PagePlus, but you need to check that Redpocket supports wifi calling on your phone.

  • UltraMobile (T-mobile) PayGo (36 USD per year). This is essentially identical to the previous T-Mobile Prepaid Plan (discussed next), as it costs 3 USD per month and uses the T-mobile network. This should give a perfectly proper US based phone number and work well with all banks/institutions. Moreover, UltraMobile also supports international roaming, apart from wifi calling. Initial purchase of SIM costs 13 USD which includes the 3 USD charge for the first month, so the total cost is 46 USD for the first year. Note that your phone needs to support Voice over LTE (VoLTE).
    Conclusion: This seems to be better than getting a T-Mobile Prepaid SIM on ebay, as you can just order it online.

  • T-Mobile Prepaid Pay-As-You-Go (36 USD per year, retired). This is a decent choice, but costs 36 USD per year and one still needs to buy it on ebay (like 50 USD or more).
    Conclusion: This option is essentially already offered by UltraMobile, which is also based on T-mobile, so that it might be best not to go through the hassle of getting an old SIM card on ebay.

  • Tello Pay-As-You-Go (80 USD per year). Requires reloading of 20 USD or more every 90 days.
    Conclusion: A cost of 80 USD per year just to keep the plan active is rather expensive and thus not the best choice when compared to the other options.

  • Lycamobile PAYG (120 USD per year). The currently available Pay-As-You-Go plan charges 10 USD per month.
    Conclusion: This option is rather expensive, so that there seem to be much more affordable solutions.

  • AT&T prepaid (300 USD per year). There does not seem to be any other option than going for a regular plan with a monthly fee of 25 USD or more.
    Conclusion: With expected costs of ca. 300 USD per year, this option appears to be rather expensive and not worth it.

  • Tracfone. The shop website is currently down due to maintenance, so we could not analyze their pay-as-you-go options.

The previous list focused on regular US SIM cards that provide genuine US mobile numbers. There are a couple of other SIM cards offered for international customers, which sometimes also include a US number. Unfortunately, most of them or internally coded VoIP numbers, which means that they are often not better than using Google Voice:

  • Surfroam* (free, only VoIP). This is a great prepaid international SIM with minimal fees for a prepaid plan (like 1-2 cent per MB), so it's great when travelling to many different countries, where one only needs the data for emergencies (so that it doesn't make sense to buy a prepaid plan). However, there is no US number included, but only a British VoIP number, but t
    Conclusion: Great backup solution to sign up for, but not a real solution for the problem at hand.

  • Truphone (free, only VoIP, retired). This service gives a real SIM card with US phone number and no cost for receiving text messages, but it is a VoIP number and not available for new customers. They may have interesting products for expats in the future. The number does not expire, even after it is not used for a long time.
    Conclusion: This is a great backup SIM card, but as it only offers a VoIP number, it is as good as Google Voice for verification purposes.

  • Wraptel International (12 USD per year, only VoIP). It offers a US number for $1/Month is mostly aimed at people travelling internationally and visiting the US temporarily. It charges 1 USD per month for keeping the US number and text messages can be received for free in most countries. While their FAQs state that the US number "is A2P meaning they can accept SMS verification codes", their number is recognized as VoIP and thus cannot be used for all
    Conclusion: For 1 USD per month (12 USD per year), this really seems to be one of the most promising options, but it really depends on if the underlying phone number is a completely regular number (and not VoIP under the hood).

  • OneSimCard International SIM (60-100 USD per year). This service offers a SIM card with the option to book an additional US VoIP number for a monthly fee of 4.99 USD or a genuine US mobile number for a fee of 99.99 USD per year.
    Conclusion: While the US VoIP number is not better than Google Voice, the genuine US mobile number should work for all verification purposes. However, at a price of 100 USD per year, it might be better to go with one of the more affordable solutions from before.

All prices are up-to-date as of writing (September 2021). If you find any other service that should be listed here, let us know under ExpatFinance.us@gmail.com.

Other services

  • TextVerified (0.50-1.50 USD per verification). This service provides verifications of individual services for a one-time fee of 0.50-1.50 USD. The service cycles through individual real US phone numbers and keeps track of which numbers were used for which service. This ensures that in most situations, their numbers are fully accepted. The service accepts payments via credit card or crypto currency.
    Conclusion: This service is not a good solution if a phone verification is required for every login (as it gets expensive), but if it is just for signing up for a new service, this might be the fastest and cheapest way to accomplish this if no other free option (like Google Voice or some free text service) works.

  • OneSimCard SMS Verification Phone Number (99.99 USD per year). This is a special service that can even be booked independently of a SIM card. Text messages can be forwarded to email and they claim that they make sure that the phone number will work with the requested service, so they will likely also provide genuine US mobile numbers (rather than VoIP numbers).
    Conclusion: At a cost of 100 USD per year, there seem to be more affordable options available.

  • TextNow (free, only VoIP). This is an app that offers a free US number to receive text messages. They also offer some SIM cards, but their numbers are VoIP numbers.
    Conclusion: This provides a free VoIP number within the app with lots of advertisement. You can get the same (and better) service for free when using Google Voice.

  • NumberBarn (24 USD per year, only VoIP). This service allows you to port your US number and even get text messages forwarded. Unfortunately, the number will be subsequently recognized as VoIP, so it may not work with all verification providers. Porting
    Conclusion: While your number is ported to them it will show up as VoIP, so you can get the same service for free when using Google Voice.

  • Hushed (24 USD per year, only VoIP). They offer a SIM card with a US number for monthly fee of 2 USD. Unfortunately, it is a VoIP number.
    Conclusion: This service only provides a VoIP number, so you can get the same service for free when using Google Voice.

  • iPlum (96 USD per year, only VoIP). This service allows you to port your US number or get a US number, but it will be VoIP based and comes with a monthly fee of 8 USD (when paid yearly).
    Conclusion: While your number is ported to them, it will likely show up as VoIP, so you can get the same service for free when using Google Voice.

All prices are up-to-date as of writing (September 2021). If you find any other service that should be listed here, let us know under ExpatFinance.us@gmail.com.

Summary

Having presented an incredibly detailed overview, let us draw the following conclusion:

  1. Setting up a Google Voice number is almost always a good idea and completely free (except for a one-time fee when porting a number to them). This is a VoIP number, but works for the vast majority of verification purposes.

  2. If Google Voice does not work, you can always check if you can verify yourself via email or some other means (such as setting up Google Authenticator or some other 2-factor authentication app).

  3. For quick one-time verifications, you can always try out some free sms forwarding services. Some of these sites are bit shady and they often change. You can just google "free text message verification" and see if a given service works. This should only be used for one-time verifications, it might be a good idea to delete the associated number after the verification was completed (if possible). In most cases, these free services will only provide VoIP numbers and are quickly used up, so in most cases they are not better than Google Voice, but it does not hurt to try.

  4. For quick one-time verifications, you can also use TextVerified for 0.50-1.50 USD per verification, which is typically the most practical solution as it can be easily accessed online without the need of buying a SIM card in the US. Again, this should only used for one-time verifications and it is best to delete the associated number after the verification was completed (if possible). This option offers both VoIP and non VoIP numbers and should thus work in almost all cases.

The previous step-by-step list should resolve almost all verification needs. However, if you prefer to have a single US mobile number for minimal yearly costs (rather than using a combination of different solutions), you can have the following options:

  • If the previous options do not solve your need and you need a completely genuine US mobile number, a prepaid pay-as-you-go plan might be your best choice. The cheapest available options are PagePlus or Redpocket for 30 USD per year, but they require wifi calling. Alternatively, UltraMobile (T-mobile) PayGo offers international roaming and wifi calling for 36 USD per year.

  • You could also go with OneSimCard SMS Verification Phone Number for 100 USD per year, which gives you a dedicated and genuine US mobile number whose text messages are forwarded to you via email (so no switching SIM is needed).

  • An alternative may be to go with Google Fi, which provides a genuine US mobile number, but only makes sense if you can use all of its benefit (free calling/texting in North-America plus data in 200 countries). Instead one could of course choose another US plan with international roaming that one can keep using while being abroad.

If you find anything better or want to share your solution, let us know under ExpatFinance.us@gmail.com.

Further resources