Voice-over-IP (VoIP) services, more commonly known as WiFi-calling, can be an invaluable resource for getting extra phone numbers at a cheap price. They are indispensable for the privacy-minded individual, not only because different phone numbers can be used for different purposes, but also because they are not tied to your current location like SIM-based phone numbers are.
I got an email today from VoIP.ms commemorating the 1-year anniversary since I started using their service, so I figured it’s time to write a review.
In this article I’ll start by explaining exactly why I value VoIP.ms for privacy (even though it’s NOT an anonymous service!) and then cover the pros and cons of VoIP.ms and why I chose them over other VoIP providers. Also, read on to find out who I would NOT recommend VoIP.ms to, and which VoIP provider I suggest instead.
Why Are VoIP Phone Numbers Better For Privacy?
Location Tracking Protection
The fundamental reason why I recommend you use VoIP numbers instead of SIM/cellular numbers is because your cellular numbers are directly tied to your current location and, as long as you use a VPN, VoIP numbers are not.
The distinction lies in the fact that these two types of phone numbers use two different underlying networks. Your SIM card phone number connects via the cellular network. On this network, your phone broadcasts itself to nearby cellular towers which then authenticate the connection, recording your unique SIM ID, and connecting you to calling, texting, and internet services.
Your precise location can be calculated by a method called triangulation between cellular towers. Essentially, if you have at least three towers nearby, a location can be determined based upon the distance (measured as signal strength) from each individual tower. Anytime your phone has cell service turned on (even if you are not actively using it!), this data is constantly being recorded, giving cell service providers and the government the capability to track your location continuously.
This location tracking capability is why I recommend that your SIM-based cell service should be anonymous and that you should never use the phone number associated with your cell service. In practice, this means that your cellular service provider should not know who you are and you should only use the data-portion of your cell service, not the calling minutes or text messages.
The most reliable provider that I know of (and personally use in this way) that will give you cell service without identity verification is Mint Mobile. I will write a guide describing exactly how to set up Mint service using an alias name, since it’s outside the scope of this article. It’s critical (for all our sakes) that you go about setting up service in an alias name the right way so that, one, you don’t inadvertently reveal your identity, and two, so that Mint Mobile does not have to impose identity verification in the future to combat too many fraudulent and obvious alias accounts. Please, I beg you, proceed with caution.
On the other hand, a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone number connects through the WiFi network (aka the internet, wired connections apply as well). On this network, your approximate location is still available given your IP address, and the precise location of the router you’re connected to can be obtained by internet service providers and governments. However(!), this location can be obscured by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which acts as a middle man, concealing your IP address and encrypting your connection.
Thus, by using a VPN, your internet service provider knows your location but cannot see what you’re doing, and your VoIP service provider knows what you’re doing but cannot see your location.
To learn more about exactly what can be tracked using VoIP services check out my article titled “Can VoIP Calls Be Traced?“
Cheap VoIP Service Costs Enable Affordable Compartmentalization
One of the core pillars of privacy methodology that I talk about in my article on personal privacy threat modeling (a must-read for beginners) is compartmentalization. This is when you separate aspects of your life to improve privacy and security. Everyday examples include having a separate computer for work and personal use and using unique passwords for different accounts.
Another way you can compartmentalize is by using separate phone numbers for different purposes. This approach is vastly underutilized simply because having multiple SIM-based phone numbers is impractical and expensive. On the contrary, by using VoIP services you can have access to all your VoIP phone numbers from the same device (and even from multiple devices!) and they cost much less than their SIM equivalents. VoIP.ms phone numbers currently cost only $0.85 per month plus $0.009 per minute!*
*Rate quoted is for the United States at the time of writing and is subject to change.
If you only seldomly use your phone and miss those pay-as-you-go plans that seem to have been gradually phased out for more profitable “unlimited” plans, let’s rejoice together. VoIP phone numbers are the cheap alternative that the market has been missing. The caveat is that you’ll have to have either a WiFi connection or a regular (SIM-based) cellular connection in order to use your VoIP numbers.
At minimum I recommend that you have two VoIP numbers: one that you use for 2-Factor-Authentication (2FA) purposes and one that you use for everything else. This protects you from SIM-swapping attacks and prevents your online accounts from being associated with your public phone number, a good idea for both privacy and security. Nonetheless, you could go as crazy as you want with different phone numbers for every facet of your life.
Below I’ve listed some other use-case ideas for VoIP numbers and multiple phone numbers in general. VoIP numbers offer much more capability than SIM-based phone numbers (which is why calling centers use VoIP). For example, you could create a family emergency line that calls each person in the family simultaneously until someone picks up.
Top Use-Case Ideas For Having Multiple Phone Numbers
- Two-Factor Authentication
- Important Accounts (Financial, Etc.)
- Side Hustle/Selling Used Items
- Emergency Line
- Landline Replacement
Why Do I Still Recommend VoIP.ms When It’s Not Anonymous?
I must make this point extremely clearly for my privacy-minded readers. VoIP.ms is NOT anonymous and requires you to verify your identity when signing up for an account. When I signed up, in spite of my disdain for this practice, I had to send them a picture of my government ID. This is typical of most VoIP providers because FCC regulations require them to comply with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).
So why do I still recommend a service that isn’t anonymous? It’s because it does not matter for my use case. If I need to have a secure conversation, I will use one of the many secure calling/messaging alternatives on the market (I mostly use Signal currently.) These VoIP phone numbers are for those necessary interactions with folks that won’t or can’t use anything else. I use it for calling my grandfather, for calling a restaurant to place a take away order, or for calling a support line.
Trying to be completely anonymous, secure, and private while using the traditional phone network is like trying to build a castle on top of a sand dune, it’s just not going to work. That’s not to say that burner numbers can’t be anonymous, they can, but what I’m talking about here is the long-term phone number that you are going to give to your friends, family, and coworkers.
In all likelihood, your contacts are going to associate your real identity with the phone number you give them anyway. It’s a good assumption that most people are going to store your contact information insecurely, since they haven’t read my article on how to protect your contacts data.
Additionally, since VoIP calls have to be routed into the cellular network in order to interact with regular SIM-based phone numbers, the cell service providers and government are still going to be able to listen to your phone calls and track which numbers you call and when.
This is why VoIP phone numbers are not an end-all secure calling solution, they’re merely convenient, cost-effective, and provide location tracking protection. The ability to compartmentalize your phone usage is a huge advantage that should not be overlooked, but at the same time, we’ve got to understand the limitations of VoIP as well.
VoIP.ms Review: Pros and Cons
I’ve been using VoIP.ms for a full year now. I’ve purchased and set-up multiple phone numbers on multiple devices, including mobile and desktop, used these phone numbers in my everyday life, and gotten help from support on multiple occasions. Overall, I’ve been very happy with the service and gladly recommend them to anyone looking for a VoIP provider.
The biggest benefits to VoIP.ms are that they support SMS and shortcodes (important for 2FA), their customer support is helpful and prompt, they give you complete control over configuration settings, and their plans are inexpensive. The biggest drawback to the service is the learning curve when initially setting up your account. Below is a complete list of my top pros and cons.
- SMS and shortcode support
- Good customer support and extensive Wiki
- Complete configuration control and advanced VoIP features
- Inexpensive pay-as-you-go plans with no contract
- Ability to choose your phone number
- Support for number porting
- Call encryption (in transport, not end-to-end)
- Compatibility with a large range of devices and softphones
- Third-party SMS Android app available on F-Droid
- Identity verification
- Steep learning curve and complicated settings pages
The biggest disadvantage of VoIP.ms is the steep learning curve involved when you first get started. If you’ve used similar VoIP services before, it shouldn’t be so bad, however if you are new to VoIP, you’ll have to learn a list of new terminology in order to understand what you are doing. However, VoIP.ms does have an extensive Wiki to walk you through the process and address questions.
In order to give a fair representation of the set-up process for VoIP.ms, we must understand that our consumer-focused use-case is not their primary target use-case. VoIP.ms is predominantly a business-to-business (B2B) company. Their primary target customers are businesses looking to set-up a phone line for their own customers. They may need extended features such as extensions, recorded menus, and more that consumer-focused VoIP providers simply don’t offer.
These extra features which make VoIP.ms difficult for beginners could be an advantage to those who are looking for complete customizability of their phone numbers. For example, you can specify exactly what your Caller ID will say and you can set-up complex call routing such as multiple numbers being called simultaneously and call forwarding.
However, I don’t blame you if this sounds too complicated. If you’re looking for a consumer-focused VoIP solution that will allow you to have multiple phone numbers easily and will just work when you need it to, I recommend you check out MySudo. While I haven’t personally used this service, I have heard good things about it and plan to try it out in the future. Keep in mind that with consumer-focused VoIP providers, generally the service will be more expensive and you will have less flexibility and features.
Because the set-up process is so complicated, I plan to write a follow-up article explaining exactly how I recommend you set-up your VoIP.ms account with Linphone (my preferred softphone), walking you through each step and including a glossary of VoIP terminology. I will link it here when available.
Once I got my VoIP account and the Linphone application set-up and running, I have had no problems with reliability whatsoever. I haven’t missed a phone call, any calls I make are crystal clear, and all my voicemails and text messages are sent to my email immediately.
Each time my phone boots, my Linphone application starts up and runs in the background. Linphone acts as my dialer app and is able to communicate with VoIP.ms via the SIP protocol. Once Linphone starts, I am automatically logged into my VoIP.ms account and any phone calls that come in will ring on my cellphone. Likewise, if I want to make a call, I will open Linphone, dial the number, and initiate the call just like any other dialer app.
SMS And Shortcode Support
The initial reason why I decided to try VoIP.ms over other VoIP providers is their support for SMS, and specifically SMS messages sent through short codes. A short code is a type of phone number that has fewer digits than a traditional phone number. They are often used to send two-factor authentication (2FA) codes through text, among other uses. I consider this a necessary feature for any VoIP service that you intend to use for 2FA.
In order to use SMS, you’ll have to make sure that the phone number that you choose supports SMS. Then, there are a few settings to change in order to enable SMS that I will walk you through in my guide and are also documented in the Wiki.
The default way of sending and receiving messages is through the SMS/MMS message center, available through the VoIP.ms website. You can also have messages sent to your email, and you can reply to them by simply replying to the email. Another method, which I will talk about in more detail shortly, is the third-party VoIP.ms Android app which will allow you to send and receive text messages from your Android device.
I’ve had to reach out to VoIP.ms customer support a few times since I began using their service and each time they’ve been prompt and helpful. While there is no phone-line for support (the irony does not escape me), I haven’t gotten any canned messages in response to my inquiries so it does seem that you will reach a real human being.
I would like to touch on the importance of having the ability to port your number when considering any VoIP providers. VoIP.ms allows you to both port-in your existing phone number into VoIP.ms as well as port-out your VoIP.ms number to another provider. This cannot be said of all VoIP providers.
While you still must pay the minimum amount to keep your phone number active, having the ability to port-out your number means that you really do own that number, rather than simply being allowed to use it. If something ever happened to VoIP.ms and they stopped providing their services, you could switch to another provider and still maintain your existing phone number.
Third-Party SMS Android App
One major advantage of VoIP.ms compared to other providers is that there is an open source SMS messaging app for Android that will work with de-Googled devices. This app is available on Google Play as well as F-Droid, an alternative app store that I discuss in my article titled “Everything You Need To Know About The F-Droid App Store“.
An important point to note is that this app is developed by third-party developers, so VoIP.ms won’t be able to help you regarding this app. Instead, you can find support and development information for this app on their github page.
I will say that I have experienced some reliability issues with this app, where synchronization with the VoIP.ms servers does not always work. Thus, I find that I still need to have my messages sent to my email in order to ensure I don’t miss anything. The majority of the time it does work, however, you’ll want to make sure you turn off Android battery optimization and set the sync period (if using the F-Droid version) to make sure you get notifications.
VoIP phone numbers are an indispensable tool for privacy-minded individuals who would like to easily compartmentalize their phone usage with several phone numbers and protect themselves from location-based tracking. Where traditional SIM-based phone numbers can be costly, VoIP numbers can be purchased for just $0.85 per month with VoIP.ms.
The main pros of VoIP.ms are support for SMS/MMS messages, helpful customer support, extensive features and options, and inexpensive plans. The main cons are that they will verify your identity when you create an account and that the set-up process is relatively complex. A third-party SMS app allows easy access to your text messages from an Android device.
If you’re interested in trying VoIP.ms, don’t forget to use my link here to get $10 of free credit to use toward your account. Check back to read my follow-up article discussing the step-by-step instructions for how I recommend that you set-up your VoIP.ms account for the best privacy and security.