Google Voice – A Primer

Telephone Google Voice, Google’s free service to help you make and receive calls, is currently open only to former GrandCentral subscribers.  Soon, though, Google will make Voice more widely available.  Between free U.S. calls, call filtering, multiple telephone ringing, and call transcription, Voice offers many enticing features.  Google Voice is so different from traditional telephone service, though, that it can be difficult to comprehend exactly how the service works.  Today we take a look at the basics of Google Voice.

Image from Wikipedia.


The Basics

Google Voice doesn’t replace your telephone or telephone service.  Instead, it supplements it by performing several functions in conjunction with your new Google Voice telephone number.  In fact, you can’t make or receive calls if you don’t have some other form of telephone service.  Think of Google Voice as a digital telephone operator- it will forward incoming calls to telephones that you designate, place calls for you by connecting your current telephone and the person you are calling, and transcribe voicemail messages.


Making calls

googlevoiceout Outgoing calls, although free or low cost, are actually more complicated with Google Voice than with a traditional telephone service.  You no longer directly dial a number from your telephone to make a call.  Instead, there are two different ways to make a call.

The first method is to use the Google Voice website.  On the site, you enter the telephone number of the person who you wish to call, and designate which of your telephones you would like to use to connect the call.  The Google Voice servers will then call you, ringing your phone.  Once you answer, Google Voice will then dial the other party and connect you.

The second way to make a call is to call your own Google Voice number from one of your designated telephones.  Google Voice detects that the phone belongs to you, asks you to enter your PIN, and then presents you with a few menu options.  One of those options is to make a telephone call.  If you select that option, you can then enter the other party’s number on the keypad.  (There may be additional ways to call if you have a mobile Google Voice app on your cell phone, but since I have an unlocked iPhone, I wouldn’t know about that).

Personally, I still use my normal telephone service to make most calls, due to the extra steps involved in using Voice.  I do use Voice for calls that would otherwise cost me money, and for calls where I want my Voice number to show up on the recipient’s caller ID.


Receiving calls

Your Google Voice number isn’t natively tied to a specific telephone.  Instead, you tell Google Voice which of your phones should ring when a call is made to your Google Voice number.  Incoming calls to your Google Voice number will then ring on those phones.  You can also set up "Groups," with different call filters set up for each group.  For example, you could have the calls from certain friends only ring your cell phone, while the calls of your family members would ring your cell phone and your work phone at the same time.  You can also choose to forward calls from designated groups to your voicemail.

Incoming Caller ID can be preserved in Google Voice.  You can set Google Voice so that incoming calls display your Google Voice number, or so that incoming calls display the Caller ID of the caller.

Google also gives you the option of "Call Presentation."  With Call Presentation turned on, the first thing you hear when you answer your phone will be a verbal announcement that identifies the caller.  With Call Presentation turned off, you can answer your phone as your normally would.


Voicemail and Call Transcription

Google Voice Transcript If you enable voicemail in your account, your calls will go into your Google Voice voicemail so long as one of your other phones doesn’t pick up the call first.  Calls go into Google Voice voicemail after 25 seconds.  This isn’t configurable, so you need to make sure that you set your other phones so that their voicemail doesn’t pick up prior to that time.

You also have the option to enable call transcription.  Transcription isn’t perfect, but I’ve found it to be good enough to get the gist of most messages.  As you can see in the above image, words are transcribed in two colors.  Words in black are words that Voice is fairly certain are correct, while the gray words are the less certain ones.


Calls to and from your computer

gizmo5 Google Voice does not work like Skype Out.  You can’t actually make calls from your computer alone, since, as explained above, a phone is part of every call.  But there is a workaround, using the service Gizmo5.  Gizmo5 is a Skype-like service, that allows you to make and receive telephone calls from your computer.

Outgoing calls on Gizmo5 are not free, but incoming calls are free.  Since Google Voice makes outgoing calls by calling you first, all you need to do is designate your Gizmo5 number as one of your phones.  In the step where you select your "Phone to Ring" to make a call with Google Voice, simply select your Gizmo5 number.  Google Voice will then call you on your Gizmo5 number, which is a free incoming call.  Answer the call from your computer (a headset and microphone would help), and then Google Voice will call the other party.


Are any of you using Google Voice?  If so, have you figured out any tricks?  If not, do you plan to get an account when Google makes accounts available?

Evan Kline

Hello, I'm Evan. I write about tech from my perspective – that of the average 40-something tech geek. You can also find me on Twitter and at my real-life job as a lawyer.    MORE ABOUT ME.


  1. I got it not too long ago by adding my email address to the “Get an Invite” page.

    They just sent me an invitation by email and off I went! I love it, but it would have done me a lot more good if I’d had it before I already gave everyone my *real* cell phone number. :)

  2. Thanks for the heads up Christie. Good to know that invites are now going out.

    I hear you on giving out your real number. My wife is my test case right now, but if GV works well, I’ll be giving everyone a new number soon.

  3. I have requested a beta for this app. Can’t wait to try it out.

  4. I have Google Voice and am going to check out Gizmo5, that sounds great.

    Thanks for the tip..

  5. @Jim – I hope Gizmo5 works out for you. I love being able to just click a button and make and take calls right from my computer.

  6. I really want to do a review of Google Voice on my site, but I haven’t received my invite yet.

    Does Google Voice allow you to set up GV numbers that correspond to phone numbers you don’t own? For example, let’s say I have 4 family members scattered across the US. I want to be able to call them from my home phone with no fuss, and not pay for long distance.

    So I set them up with these numbers:
    (319) 555-0001 (speed dial 1 on phone)
    (319) 555-0002 (speed dial 2)
    (319) 555-0003 (speed dial 3)
    (319) 555-0004 (speed dial 4)

    Would this work? Or does Google call your target phone number in order to authorize a GV number forwarding to the target number?

  7. I signed up for Grand Central years ago and was happy to receive a number about a month ago. I loved being able to select the number of my choice and the application options are very exciting. My problem is distributing the number. I’ve had the same mobile, home & work numbers for a very long time and I find explaining why I have a new number to family, friends and business associates to be time consuming and somewhat awkward..

    So I’ve begun giving out my GV number only to new acquaintances and then adding them to my Google contacts and configuring options for that individual depending on their relationship to me.

    The voice transcription does work well enough and I’ve found the entire experience to be relatively smooth. I see a big future for this application if I can get my number distributed to more contacts.

  8. @Kosmo : I was only able to get one phone number with GV, but I don’t if you can get more. Todd says it right here

    “So I’ve begun giving out my GV number only to new acquaintances and then adding them to my Google contacts and configuring options for that individual depending on their relationship to me.”

    GV gives you so many options, if you have them in your contacts already. But, I can group my family and business then send the phone calls to the appropriate phone line that is “attached” to GV. So, my family gets my cell in Costa Rica and everyone else gets my Vonage box…

    Make sense?

  9. Beautifully explained article. I am sure Goolgle voice will rock the world.

    I have got an invite but sad, its not available in India.

  10. Agree with you arey. Nice article. Wish it available in India soon.

  11. @Kosmo- Take a look at Jim’s comment, as he explains it well (thanks, Jim). As Jim explains, you only get one number per account. it is really a “virtual number” that isn’t tied to any particular phone. Also, outgoing calls aren’t as easy as hitting a speed dial number, unfortunately, because you don’t actually initiate a call by just dialing a number. My post mentions it in more detail, but you either have to call your own number to get a menu option (after which you then dial the number), or you initiate the call by using your computer to tell GV to call you (your phone will ring, and when you answer you get a message something like “please wait while we now connect your call), and then call the other person, and connect you. So GV has a long way to go before it is an easy outgoing call solution.

    @Todd- I’m in the same boat you are. My wife and Bobby (the new writer here at 40Tech) are the only ones with my GV # right now, and I picked a number that would be easy for her to remember. I want to test it out a bit on a limited basis before rolling it to everyone. The two biggest glitches I’ve seen so far is that you can’t configure the number of rings before a call goes to VM (problem for me because my work VM is not configurable either, and picks up first unless I have Call Presentation turned on), and just today I discovered that if I mute an incoming call on my iPhone (push the volume rocker down), the call goes to my iPhone’s voicemail.

    @aery and Ruchi – I should have mentioned that- unfortunately, Google Voice is U.S. only. Let’s hope it gets rolled out on a wider basis.

  12. I don’t think I explained it very well.

    Evan, let’s say I want to call YOU on a regular basis. You’re long distance, so I go to GV and set up a “local” number that corresponds to YOU. I have this number listed in speed dial. So when I call you, I’m not using an outbound call on my phone line, but an inbound call to your line (which I tied to a GV number)

    Does that make sense? Basically, I use GV to create a local number that auto-forwards to their actual number. I realize that this isn’t how Google intended their product to be used.

    Obviously, you wouldn’t want to do this for every member of your family/friends, but it could work if you call a few of them very frequently.

  13. (I realize that “one number per account” restriction – but I would assume it’s rather simply to circumvent his restriction)

  14. When you first setup GV, you will need to be at the phone to set it up. So, your theory would work if you were setting up the GV for them. Let’s say you setup a GV account for your friend using a dummy gmail account. Then they want to get a GV account and then can’t because you have used their phone number already.

    It could work, but only if you know your friend is not going to get a GV account, and they are their to help you sign up, since they call the phone number and ask for a security code..

    Does that make sense?

  15. Jim – thanks. That’s the answer I was looking for. I wasn’t sure if these restrictions were built in, since there doesn’t seem to be a technical limitation that would dictate the restrictions.

  16. @evan I have not experienced any issues with the voice mail rollover, but that sounds like a configurable enhancement GV will need to make.

    Right now, I just like the simplicity of 1 number ringing where I want, how I want and the ability to receive the transcribed voice mail.

    Plus I got a number that ends in zero which has a “business” feel to it.

  17. @Kosmo : You’re welcome. I haven’t read anything either, but since they verify my number before activating, I feel that number cannot be activated again.


  18. Thanks for the input guys, and Jim, thanks for answering Kosmo’s question. We are all fairly tech oriented, so can you imagine a non-tech person trying to figure all this out? Although I must say, it is only the initial concept that is hard. Once you wrap your brain around it and dig in, the service itself is pretty easy.

  19. Hmm. I think I’m going to play around (once I have an invite) to see if I can set up two GV numbers that point to the same back end. There’s really no technical obstacle, and there could be a legitmate reason. For example, my wife and I might each have GV numbers that point to our home, work, and cell numbers, with just the home number as overlap (since she wouldn’t want to get a call from my dentist on her cell, for example)

  20. added my email address to the invitation page… Hope i get mine soon! =D

  21. @Kosmo – if you get your invite, let us know how you make out. That is a pretty creative use of the service.

    Gravity- I’ll cross my fingers for you!

  22. I have had my Google Voice number for a few weeks & love it! I use it with MyFaves to avoid using peak cell minutes. (Shhhh!!)

    Ask anyone about my texting skills..I suck! So I also use the computer generated SMS. It’s nice to have a way to save texts on your computer for future reference.

  23. @Kosmo : I would be interested in hearing what happens with you, because you have a valid point…

    Let us know,

  24. @Coree – the texting part is something I completely forgot to mention. It is nice – I had to send my wife a shopping list once, and just typed it in from my computer.

  25. So, how does Google make a buck on this, anyway? Ads on the web page you use to view the transcriptions? Or just on the international calls?

  26. I haven’t seen any ads in Voice yet. I think Google just wants to become so immersed in our lives, that they can rake the money in from every angle possible. I have heard rumors that they may eventually serve audio ads during “down time,” sort of like we get when we’re on hold with some businesses now.

  27. I’ve been using GV for a couple of months now and I’m very much like @Todd where I haven’t really given out my GV # except to new acquaintances.

    Where I have really enjoyed using it is calling my friends and family in England from my cell phone for just 2c a minute, as I don’t have international calling with my cell plan. It’s been really great to receive calls from my mom in London while I’m driving or just away from my regular phone – and it doesn’t cost her anything with her calling plan as she’s calling a regular #, not a cell, as far as her carrier is concerned.

    The sound quality is just like my VoIP and cell, no noticeable issues, so that’s good too. The only issue I have right now is with the transcription – with English accents they come out hilariously incorrect most of the time – but I am sure that’s because it’s configured for American accents. I have that issue with transcription software generally.

    On the whole I am loving GV. :)

  28. The transcription is pretty good, but even with U.S. callers I get the occasional funny result. My wife left a message yesterday, where it interpreted “Hi, finally . . .” to be “Hi Mommy.” So I can only imagine how it handles accents..

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