Google Voice: A step-by-step primer on ditching your landline while keeping your number

Google doesn't normally allow you to port a landline phone number to Google Voice. This step-by-step primer shows you how you can do it.

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Welcome to the 2014 edition of the Ultimate Google Voice How-To Guide, presented by ZDNet's DIY-IT blog.In this article, and the baker's dozen that accompany it, you'll learn just about everything you need to know to get the most out of the Google Voice service. This guide contains a complete end-to-end update of our 2011 Google Voice guide, chock full of new ideas, completely new articles, and amazing tips.

You'll learn how to port your landline to Google Voice, how to set up phone handsets, how to integrate Google Voice into your iPhone and Android experience, how to set up a multi-line office, how to get the most out of using Google Voice and SMS, and even how to use Google Voice effectively and safely in your car, and lots more.

So brew up a cup of coffee or your favorite tea, grab a few snacks, and prepare to discover how plain 'ol phone calls are about to be transformed into something virtually indistinguishable from magic.

I regularly get questions from readers about whether the techniques still work and feedback from readers about their success migrating moving to Google Voice, like reader Charles, who wrote me:

Just migrated my office landline to Google Voice via the AT&T Go Phone method you outlined. Thought you'd like to know that all phone numbers, URLs, etc. cited in your original articles are still valid as of two weeks ago. The best bet is to go to an AT&T store and get the phone, the minutes, the account number, and the porting order all at the same time. Took me all of 30 minutes. A day or so later and you're good to go. Thanks much for your original article.

I didn't write this series as an academic exercise. I wanted to use Google Voice to transform my voice communications. It's been a bit rocky and has required a number of strategy changes, but overall has been very successful. Much of what I'm discussing in this series came from the lessons I've learned.

Here's the basic story. Back in 2011, my wife and I moved from one home to another. The original home was served by landlines. Our phone numbers, both the personal one and the one for our home office, were attached to those wired phone lines.

When we moved, we wanted to "rescue" those phone numbers and have them follow us to the new digs so our friends and business associates could continue to call us at numbers they were used to dialing.

There are a number of other elements we wanted in our home/home office phone system, and and those are detailed in how we got those in the Google Voice small business section of this series.

The challenge is that Google does not allow you to "port" a landline to Google Voice. Porting is the process where you're able to move your wireless service from one cellular phone carrier to another. This service was put into place as a result of the FCC's WLNP (Wireless Local Number Portability) program, which kicked off on November 24, 2003.

Since that time, number portability has (with a few bumps in the road) been extended to landline numbers as well. That means that you can move your hardwired landline phone number from one provider to another.

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In our case, we had our POTS (plain ol' telephone system) phones through AT&T. While I'm sure you can port landlines from other phone companies, we stayed with AT&T through the entire porting process, using cheap AT&T throwaway phones to make this all happen. At the time we did this, we also also both used AT&T iPhones as our primary phones.

Overview

Let's start with an overview of the process. Since Google won't accept anything other than a cellular phone, you're going to need to first port your landline number to a cell phone, and then, port it from your cell phone to Google Voice.

All told, using the mechanism I'm going to describe on the following pages, it will cost you about $50 per phone line ported. This is not necessarily a cheap solution, but it does work.

Before we begin, I want to reiterate a warning I gave in Google Voice: Just because you can port your number, should you? In it, I said, "If you get your broadband over DSL, it may be difficult to move your number away from your landline. DSL piggybacks over the phone cabling system and many DSL carriers do not offer DSL without phone service." Read the whole article for details, but if you're reliant on DSL on your land line, it's probably good do do a little research before you pull the trigger on the port.

Next up: Steps 1 to 4...

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Step 1: Check your eligibility

Although all phones are technically available for porting, you should check your eligibility for porting before you get started. Since I was going to AT&T (at least in the early stages of this process), I used this form on the AT&T site to check if there would be a problem.

Note that even if your mobile phone isn't on AT&T, it might be easier to use AT&T for this transfer process, simply because of the availability of cheap GoPhones. Of course, there are similar choices with other carriers, but this worked for me.

My land line was eligible. I'm not sure exactly what makes a phone "eligible" or what you'd do if it isn't, but if this form says you're golden, you probably are.

If you follow this step-by-step guide, you'll also be transferring your number to AT&T (again, as a short part of the process), so you should check your eligibility.

Step 2: Get an AT&T GoPhone

Both Denise and I had iPhones at the time and back then, at least, we were both kind of partial to the numbers that belonged to those phones. If we'd ported our land line numbers to our iPhones, we would have lost the numbers originally assigned to the iPhone.

As it turns out, in the intervening few years, Google Voice has worked so well for us that we've completely forgotten those original phone numbers. But back then, we wanted to save them. If you want to save your current mobile number, follow these instructions.

Your next step is to get a new cell phone. The challenge is you're not going to want to spend much, or sign up for a plan (or the associated two-year commitment).

The trick is to use an AT&T GoPhone, which is a prepaid cell phone you can buy from AT&T. We bought ours at Wal-Mart for $10 each back in 2011. Today, the cheapest GoPhone available from either AT&T or Wal-Mart is about $15.

Step 3: Get a new Google account for your GV service

I don't use Gmail as my primary mail account. Instead, I use Microsoft Outlook and Exchange on Office 365 . Even so, I have a Gmail account and it contains personal information I'd prefer didn't fall into the hands of strangers.

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Later in this series, I'll show you how you can connect Google Voice to a very cheap, home VoIP system. Doing this requires giving your Google Voice account and password to the VoIP provider, so they can capture incoming calls and pass them along to you.

Because the provider needs your login and password (they essentially become a Google Chat client), I didn't want to give them my main Google account credentials.

Therefore, I strongly recommend you do what I did. Set up a new Google Voice account with a completely new login and password. You'll need this in a few steps.

Step 4: Buy the minimum number of minutes

We found that the AT&T porting representatives wouldn't perform a port until we had some minutes attached to our GoPhone. You can go into your GoPhone account online and purchase $15 worth of minutes.

Be aware that these minutes expire pretty quickly (like in a month). In fact, if you port your number to the GoPhone and then let the minutes expire without re-charging them, you might lose your hard-won number. So, I'd recommend that once you start this process, finish it as soon as you can.

Nex upt: Steps 5 to 10... 

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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Step 5: Port your land line to the GoPhone

This will require a small amount of patience, but it's pretty easy. All you need to do is call the AT&T porting department (make a note of the phrase "porting department") and initiate a port.

There are two ways we found to contact AT&T's porting department. One is to call AT&T customer service and ask for "porting department". The other is to call 888-898-7685. which is the "number transfer request line." That number has worked since 2011 and I just tested it. It's still there.

At this point, you're likely to run into some push-back. We did. For both phone numbers, which we ported about two weeks apart, we found that the AT&T people answering the phone claimed that our desire to rescue our phone numbers wasn't actually the responsibility of the porting department.

They will try to tell you it's not a porting process, but it actually is. You may have to remind them that it's your legal right to keep your phone number and gently persuade them to make it happen.

You will want to give them both your land line number and your GoPhone number. Be careful, here. Make sure you don't slip up and give them your personal cell phone number, because once it's gone, it's gone.

Also, while you're at it, ask the representative for the account number attached to your GoPhone. The rep will tell you the phone number is the account number, but that is not true. Each GoPhone has an associated account number and without it, you won't be able to complete the Google Voice process.

The AT&T rep will also try to upsell you on just about every AT&T service known to man. Just politely decline, decline again, decline once again, and, eventually, you'll complete the call and your porting request.

For both our phone numbers, although the AT&T reps were initially reluctant to help, they eventually worked through whatever customer service magic they needed to, and initiated the port.

Step 6: Wait, and obsessively check port status

It took about four days for the port to complete. To check the status, go to att.com/port. Type in your land line number, and it'll tell you where you stand.

One important note: during this porting process, your land line will continue to function as it always has. You'll get calls, voicemail messages, and so forth. Your service will not actually move until you make another call to the porting department to complete the process.

Once the att.com/port status changes to complete, check your voicemail messages one last time, then call the porting department. An AT&T representative will flip a switch, and your port will complete. Together, you will test the number with both an incoming and outgoing call to be sure it is working. Then, unplug your land line phone system and move on to Step 7.

Step 7: Configure voicemail on your GoPhone

Your land line is no more. Instead, your number is now resident on the GoPhone. That means all calls that used to come in through the wires in the wall will cause the GoPhone to ring.

You'll be using your GoPhone for about a day or so, and if it's important you get voicemail messages during the transition period, be sure to set up GoPhone voicemail.

Once again, I remind you not to dawdle here. I strongly recommend that as soon as your GoPhone "owns" the number, you begin the porting process to Google Voice.

Next up: Steps 8 to 10...

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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Step 8: Begin your Google Voice port

Let's recap. The number previously associated with your land line is now the phone number for your little GoPhone. You've verified this by receiving calls to your former land line's number and by making an outgoing call and confirming the right phone number shows up on caller ID.

You also made sure to get your GoPhone's account number and have that written down somewhere, where it's easy to pop into a Web form.

Congratulations! It's time to port to Google Voice. Go to google.com/voice** Make sure you're logged into your new Google Voice account, not your general Gmail Google account! **

Google Voice will ask you if you'd like to port over a phone number. Note that there's a "Google Voice Lite" that does not involve a ported phone. Ignore this.

Tell Google Voice the number of the phone you want to port (your former land line number, now residing on the GoPhone), and the account number you extracted earlier from the AT&T rep (see Step 5). Then pay Google $20 via Google Checkout. At this point, if everything's going well, you wait.

Step 9: Wait, and obsessively check port status

This process will take approximately 24 hours. We did not find it worked any faster than 24-hours and, in fact, it seemed that the number became a Google Voice number at just about the 24-hour mark. Yes, we were that obsessive.

Step 10: Link your GV number to your cell phone

Your final step, before you can have voicemail and the other elements of Google Voice working, is you'll need to link your new Google Voice number to your cell phone.

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Take note of an important limitation here: you can link only one Google Voice number to a given phone. You can also not link one Google Voice number to another Google Voice number. There is a way to consolidate these numbers, and I discuss this in another article in this series.

In the meantime, go ahead and link the phone to your Google Voice account.

One final tip: for some reason my Google Voice account did not know my time zone. If yours is incorrect, go to the Account tab in Settings and change the drop-down menu to the proper time zone.

Congrats! You've now rescued your land line number!

Next in our series: Google Voice: the ultimate iPhone how-to (and yes, there's an Android article, too)

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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