Mobile and Virtual Phone Services – Reviews
There are so many different mobile phone services today that it's easy to see why navigating the various services can be confusing and challenging. The same is true of virtual phone numbers too; these are services with which you can sign up for a number in the location of your choice, and use it similarly to a regular number, without it being tied to a particular device. Each service always seems to have its pros and cons, and my experiences with a few of the providers are provided below.
So, all of the phone services mentioned here I have personally used and/or continue to use. This is not meant to be a comprehensive document on every service known to mankind - it's just a brief overview of my personal experiences with these particular companies, which you may find useful in determining a service for yourself.
The services include: Google Fi, 3 Network, Sonetel, Consumer Cellular, Swytch, Google Voice and Smarty.
I switched my mobile phone service to Google Fi several months ago, and at the same time landed a nice offer with a Samsung Galaxy Flip phone. In fact this was the second attempt at switching to Google Fi, the first time having put me off for a while (more later). So, right now I've been perfectly happy with everything Google Fi offers, the service, international roaming (which is cheap and easy), tethering to my Chromebook, etc., etc. It really does pretty much everything that you'd want a phone service to do, and there's a pretty good chance that it's quite a bit cheaper than your existing service.
Of course, unlike many traditional phone service providers, Google has no Google Fi shops that you can just walk into and ask for help if you need anything. That might be a problem if you're more comfortable visiting your local Verizon or Xfinity store every time you need to do something with your service, but I've really had no need to contact Google regarding my service or phone at all.
The only negative experience I had with Google Fi was the first time I attempted to switch to their service from Consumer Cellular. It was, shall we say, quite the pain. I got absolutely nowhere with the online support people, but I did eventually find a Google Fi Support telephone number to call (which at the time didn't seem widely advertised), and the guy in Support was really excellent. However, I was so ticked off by then that I'd already decided to forget about the service. Nonetheless, I would say that it was only because of the excellent telephone support I received that I tried switching again a few months later, and everything went perfectly smoothly.
So, a 10/10 for the phone service itself; it's very affordable, easy to use internationally, and it's nice that with the online Fi portal you can see precisely how much data you've used at any given time, and check to see what your current billing status is. I'll also give 10/10 for the telephone support, but I'd say the online support was a complete fail.
The 3 Network (UK)
The 3 network is a more typical service, where they have actual physical stores you can wander around and get assistance from. I've used the 3 network for a number of years, since I spend a lot of time in both the U.S. and the UK.
Well, for a long time the 3 network worked just fine for my purposes, since the 4G Motorola phone and 3 service (PAYG) would allow me to use it abroad for long periods, even if it did cost a bit more. However, as of sometime around 2021 their policy became more restrictive, and so far as I can tell (and having talked to an in-store manager) it will only work abroad for a period of up to two months, after which you won't be able to use it abroad to receive or send either calls or texts. What you then have to do (apparently) is to use the phone/service in the UK for a consecutive twelve months before it will work abroad again. This, as you can imagine, is far from ideal if one spends a good deal of time out of the country.
Nonetheless, as soon as you bring the phone back to the UK it will immediately start working again, and the service is just fine. I've never had any problems using it in the UK.
As for getting support, like Google Fi, it's a mixed bag. If you call the 3 network for support, then it's generally abysmal. You'll most often end up talking to someone in a foreign call center for whom English is a second/third language and, although I've no problem with that per se, the level of support (in my experience) is useless. And, I don't say that after having called just once and been on the receiving end of a bad experience; I've called them multiple times over a long time period and my overwhelming opinion is a very negative one.
On the flip side, if you have a 3 outlet near to you, and you can go in and ask questions, then you won't need to worry about calling them. I've used their stores on lots of occasions, and although the first person you speak with may not necessarily give you all the answers you need, there's almost always at least one staff member who seems to know absolutely everything. So, 9/10 for in-store support, but a complete fail for telephone support.
Sonetel are a provider of virtual phone services. That is, you can sign up for a landline or mobile number from them, in a location of your choice, and have calls forwarded to a number of your choosing. SMS messages can also be received and are forwarded to you by email (as are voice messages). So, for example, I could sign up for a UK mobile number and then have calls forwarded to my U.S. phone. Similarly with SMS text messages, messages sent to the new virtual number would be forwarded to the email address I provide on my Sonetel account.
One might ask why the need to go to all this hassle. However, for many people, especially ex-pats, it's really important to be able to receive SMS messages (e.g. OTPs) from one's financial institution for example. And, for this, one usually needs to have a number in the same country as the bank (or whatever the institution). For example, with most UK banks you'll need to have a UK mobile number that they can send one-time-passwords (OTPs) to. But, of course, if you're semi-permanently abroad, it's difficult or expensive to maintain a UK mobile service. Having a virtual phone number can help with this predicament.
So, I like Sonetel; the web-interface is easy to navigate and set everything up; it's very affordable (single dollars a month) and (in my experience) it works well. I've read elsewhere that sometimes the call quality is not great, but I've not experienced that, and I really only needed the service for SMS anyway.
Unlike many such services, their email support is top-notch. Their assistance is professional, speedy, and really helpful (and this is across multiple interactions I've had, not just a one-off event). Case in point; I initially paid for a land-line number, before realizing I'd obviously need to mobile number to receive SMS. So, I think some companies would say "tough, you now need to buy a mobile number from us", but Sonetel were more than happy to simply cancel the landline number and provide an alternative mobile number. No hassle at all.
After a while I found that although you can receive SMS messages from many banks, etc., certain financial institutions will identify virtual numbers and won't send SMS messages to them. So, it turned out that Sonetel have some information about this on their website, even though I wasn't aware of it. Well, unfortunately a couple of the companies I needed to interact with didn't like the virtual number, so I ended up having to cancel the service, even though every other aspect of it was great. Anyway, I'd already topped up my account with a few dollars when I'd decided to cancel, but no worries - Sonetel were perfectly happy to give me a refund for the full amount.
Seriously, other companies should take a lesson from the way that Sonetel provides support. In my personal experience, it's second to none.
Anyway, even though Sonetel didn't quite work out for me, I've no hesitation in recommending them.
I used Consumer Cellular for quite a few years, prior to switching to Google Fi. I honestly don't recall too many hassles with them, except for their telephone support person/people not being very helpful when I wanted to port my number to Google Fi. Their service was/is pretty reasonably priced, and my reason for switching was mostly down to better international offerings from Fi.
For what it's worth, in case it makes a difference for you, Consumer Cellular uses AT&T's network to provide its phone service. So, AT&T is the actual carrier, and Consumer Cellular is a separate entity which provides its own phone plans, etc., on top of the AT&T network.
Smarty Phone Service
Smarty is a company which, like Sonetel (and many others) provides virtual numbers. Unlike your traditional land-line or mobile number, virtual phone numbers don't require a SIM card or any physical address, and utilizes Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) instead.
Unfortunately, because their email support was so unprofessional and abysmal, I never ventured to using their service. Maybe if you can get past their awful "support" (I use the term loosely) then you may find the actual phone service itself works okay, but I have no knowledge of that.
However, in general, one can often get a good sense of company from how good or bad their customer service is. Companies that care about offering good customer support are likely to be the ones which also care about offering a good service, and vice-versa.
Again, this was just my personal experience with Smarty. If you ever deal with them then I wish you better luck.
Swytch Phone Service
Swytch also provides virtual numbers and phone services. However with Swytch you can also port an existing number (i.e. your real SIM-based number) to the Swytch service as well, and then use their application on your mobile device to make or receive calls or SMS messages.
As of December 2022, this is the latest service which I'm using, and their service appears to provide everything I need. They're not quite the cheapest service, but the cost is still very reasonable.
Another major reason for choosing Swytch is because of their super-helpful customer support. The few times I've contacted them, prior to signing up, they were very responsive, professional and really helpful with the information provided.
Once I've used Swytch for a while I'll update the information here. In the meantime, I've tested the service with SMS messages (send/receive) and making and receiving calls using the free number they provide you, and so far all is well. What I haven't done yet is to try porting my existing UK mobile number to their service, but that's next on the agenda!
Firstly, Google Voice has nothing to do with Google Fi, except - obviously - they are both services from Google. Google Voice has been around for years, and I've also happily used it for years. To all intents and purposes it may as well be free; domestic North American calls are largely free and international calling with Google Voice has very low rates.
So, what is Google Voice? Well, the service gives you a phone number for calls, texts, and voicemails. Just like a regular number, you can use your Voice number to make domestic and international phone calls from your web browser and mobile devices.
If you're located in the US, you're able to choose your own number (although Google Voice does not offer 1-800 numbers), and you simply need a Google Account (i.e. if you have a Gmail account you're all set). Users in [some] other countries may use the Voice service too, but this appears tied to also having a Google Workspace account (you should check the Google Voice website for details).
I've never needed to contact anyone for support with Google Voice and, in any case, there is a wealth of useful information on the Voice website which will no doubt answer most of your queries.
I can honestly say I've never had any problems using the service, domestically or internationally, and call quality is very decent. If Google Voice service does everything you need, then I'd really not bother looking any further at other providers. For a service which is essentially free, it's really good!