Google Voice: How to consolidate your virtual phone numbers

Google Voice doesn't normally allow more than one Google Voice number to ring through to a single mobile phone. This article shows you some ways around that limitation.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: The Ultimate Google Voice How-to Guide (2014 Edition)

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.

This article assumes you've already got a working Google Voice account and it's linked to your phone. If you don't, please read the earlier articles in this series. We are also aware of the rumors that Google may end-of-life Google Voice or migrate its functionality more fully into Hangouts and, if that happens, we'll update this series with all your best options.

This article is a continuation of our Google Voice series. Up until now, we've talked mainly about using Google Voice as an individual. In this article and those that follow, we'll begin our look at Google Voice for Small Business, and help you and your business get the most out of integrating some of Google Voice's more interesting features into your daily work environment.

In this article, we'll start with some of the surprising limitations Google Voice imposes when you want to manage multiple phone numbers, and some possible tricks for getting around the problem.

This article assumes you've already got a working Google Voice account and it's linked to your phone. If you don't, please read the earlier articles in this series.

Some background

As I described at the beginning of this series, my wife and I moved to a new home back in 2011. At that time, we decided to "rescue" our long-valued landline phone numbers, one of which was the "family" number and one of which was my office number (I work from home).

We chose Google Voice because we liked the idea of having numbers independent of the physical location, and because we spent about four months commuting between homes (and never knowing when either of us would be in either house), it made sense to have our phone numbers reach us anywhere.

Obviously, we could give out our cell phone numbers, but we had lots of people who knew and regularly contacted us on our landlines and wanted to keep all that running.

When we set up Google Voice, we decided the "family" number would ring to her cell phone (since she was the one who usually talked to family members, friends, and home-renovation contractors). We decided the "work" number would ring to my cell phone since I mostly talk to the work-related contacts.

We also wanted to be able to answer either phone when we were both at home. I'll talk more about that in a later article.

So far, Google Voice could work with us. But then a complication arose. I have a second "work" number. I'm the executive director for a nonprofit, and that organization has a separate number.

For the last few years, I've had that number running through Google Voice. I set it to ring on through to the "work" landline, so I could answer it through my normal office phone, saving me from having to have a whole separate set of wiring in the home office.

But when I moved my office landline to Google Voice, I discovered a problem. Google Voice will not forward one Google Voice number to another. I could no longer get both the nonprofit calls and my work calls on the same line.

Okay, fine, I thought. I'll forward the nonprofit phone directly to my cell phone. No joy. Google Voice will only allow you to link one cell phone number to one Google Voice number, in a strict one-for-one correspondence. No exceptions.

So there's my problem statement. How could I link two separate Google Voice numbers to one cell phone?

Although nothing I found was perfect, there are a few hacky ways to make it work. I'll show yout those, and then I'll tell you what I've been doing for the past few months and why I like it.

Just do voice mail

The easiest way to consolidate phones is to not consolidate phones. In my case, my work phone number could ring through to my mobile phone, but the nonprofit phone wouldn't. Google Voice would simply take a message and email me.

This, as it turns out, is the choice I used for quite a while.. Since I obsessively check email (I've checked it four times since I started writing this article...okay, five times), there wasn't too much of a delay when someone called the nonprofit, left me a message, and I called back. Since the nonprofit line doesn't get an inordinate number of calls, that was an easy way to go.

The only problem was I'd sometimes miss calls that were time-urgent, like when some event happened somewhere in the world and mainstream media outlets (often the BBC or CNN) wanted some instant commentary and analysis. If the call went to voicemail, it was often difficult to get back to these very, very busy producers on a breaking news day.

I wanted to make sure I got calls when a caller called me on that second line. That brings us to the second choice.

Next up: workable alternatives...

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.

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: The Ultimate Google Voice How-to Guide (2014 Edition)

Get another phone

The second approach is to get another mobile phone and link the second Google Voice account to that second mobile phone. You don't need to carry that phone around, just set it to forward calls to your main mobile, and you're golden.

There are some problems with this approach.

More great project ideas

First, if you don't buy a prepaid phone like the AT&T GoPhone I used initially, you're going to have to pay for a plan. That kind of defeats some of the cost savings.

Second, you may have to pay for minutes for each call forwarded, and that can add up quickly. All-in-all, the get another phone hack seemed more costly and more hassle than it was worth.

Fortunately, there are other ways (at least in theory).

Super-cheap VoIP forwarding

Okay, let's get seriously hokey (not hacky) for a minute. Many of you, I'm sure, have heard of MagicJack. This thing is a USB dongle that plugs into your computer, and for $50 (or $30/year), basically gives you unlimited calling.

It's advertised everywhere and, surprisingly, many of its customers like it, as do reviewers. Unfortunately, reports are that if you ever need much in the way of customer support, you're kind of screwed.

But hey, you're used to Google and its hands-off support environment, so you're probably used to nonexistent support.

MagicJack used to have a strange, little cousin called MagicTalk. It was basically the MagicJack VoIP service, but without the USB dongle. Back when it was still available, you downloaded a program on your PC. MagicTalk users actually got calls that "rang" on the PC, which seemed somewhat impractical. But what was interesting to us was that once you installed MagicTalk on your PC, you get two things of use to us: a unique phone number, and call forwarding.

That option is no longer available, but MagicJack also seems to have come out of the bargain-bin, TV shyster mode of sales and has a solid presentation and selling premise for their VoIP solution. More to the point, their dongle no longer needs to be plugged into a spare USB port. It's got an Ethernet jack on the back, so you can just hang it off a router or a switch.

So here's how it'd work for Google Voice. Buy a MagicJack gadget and get a number for $50 for six months (and $30 for another year). Set your first Google Voice number to forward to the MagicJack number. You'll also need to plug an old POTS (plain ol' telephone system) handset into it temporarily.

Google Voice will call your MagicJack number (which is hanging off your router or your PC). You "answer" the call with the old handset, type in the Google Voice confirmation code, and your MagicJack number is now linked to Google Voice.

Next, you forward your MagicJack number to your cell phone. You only need to do this once, and you don't need to keep the handset attached to the dongle. I'm not even sure you need to keep the dongle connected to your network once you enable this.

So, taking my example, I could have my work Google Voice number forward directly to my cell phone. I could have the nonprofit Google Voice number forward to MagicJack, which then automatically forwards to my cell phone.

Voila! A call that comes into either number causes my cell phone to ring.

There are some limitations. First, if you use the MagicJack approach, incoming calls will show you your MagicTalk number as Caller ID, not the number of the caller. Second, texts won't be able to reach your cell phone.

But for a cheap solution to make sure you're always reachable across a variety of Google Voice numbers, it should work.

The Skype solution

Skype gives you a similar solution, but without the dongle. I have a Skype account I use all the time, so I've added the Skype Number feature to it. For $5/month, Skype assigns me an incoming phone number I can use.

I've just forwarded my Google Voice number to this incoming number. When calls come in on that second line, every Skype instance I'm running lights up and rings. I'll talk more about how I'm using Skype later, but because Skype runs on almost everything, it's a great way to get incoming calls.

In the first year, it's slightly less expensive than the MagicJack solution, but slightly more expensive in subsequent years. But when we're talking about a twenty buck or so difference between services, and the integration of Skype into everything, it's a pretty easy decision to make.

I chose not to set Skype up to forward incoming calls to my cell, even though Skype offers that service. I can't really do quality media interviews via cell phone, so if I'm out, I want my voicemail to pick up and answer the phone, but if I'm home and have access to the studio, I want to be able to answer calls.

By the way, I turned off Skype's voicemail, and turned on Google Voice's. That way, everything cycles through Google Voice except the spare phone number itself.

Next in our series: Google Voice: configuring a complex home office

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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