How to Get a Cheap or Free Phone Number for Calls, Texts
A ‘burner’ number can be valuable when people and businesses want a contact
En español | Chances are that you associate burner phone numbers with spy dramas and popular shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad, but these secondary phone lines are just as popular with everyday folks.
A separate phone number provides relative anonymity, can shield you from unwanted calls and is cheap — sometimes even free. Plus, the number can be replaced at will.
Think about it this way: The same burner numbers that scammers use to shield themselves from detection also can protect you. You can keep your personal phone number and prevent many unwanted calls.
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In 2021, 97 percent of U.S. adults owned a cellphone, according to a Pew Research Center study. The Federal Communications Commission says unwanted calls are its top complaint from consumers.
Customers said they paid an average of $143 a month in 2022 for cellphone service from the major wireless carriers, according to a survey from J.D. Power, a market research firm based in Troy, Michigan. Those who chose mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), generally prepaid carriers that operate on national cellular networks, said they paid an average of $85.
“Having a second phone number just to give out to services is a perfectly valid way to funnel all those possible sales calls or service calls into a phone line which isn’t something your friends and relatives know,” says Bill Budington, senior staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation. The nonprofit that defends civil liberties and privacy on the internet is based in San Francisco.
Let’s say you’re a regular Facebook Marketplace buyer or seller and prefer not to share your identity, you have a side job driving for Uber and need a separate line, or you want an alternative phone number for family and friends without getting constant spam or robocalls.
In 2022, scammers placed 50.3 billion robocalls, down slightly from 50.5 billion in 2021, according to figures from YouMail, a robocall blocking company based in Irvine, California. YouMail projected the number based on information from users of its free app. January 2023 had 4.5 billion robocalls, which the company said was an average of almost 14 calls per person.
For this reason alone, having an alternative phone number is smart. You can also take the number with you wherever you live or set up a number regardless of area code.
Why not impress your friends with a balmy Beverly Hills 310 area code while living in snowy Maine? And online dating can be a lot safer if you stay incognito using a separate phone line.
Free services with caveats
Many apps offer burner numbers that don’t require the purchase of a throwaway phone. Each uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) that converts your voice into a digital file, allowing you to make and receive calls over the internet.
Services are available for just about everyone looking to conceal their identity. All the apps below are available for both Android and Apple smartphones.
Google Voice. You can place and receive calls and texts free using a U.S.-based telephone number, chosen from available numbers in selected area codes. You’ll need a Google account, such as a Gmail address, to get started. Google Voice calls and texts are free with personal Google Voice accounts in the U.S. and Canada.
If you make an international call, you’ll be charged standard international rates. And if you use Google Voice to make a call outside the U.S., you’ll be charged roaming fees.
A key feature of Google Voice is voicemail transcription, so you can read the text of a voicemail via the app or have it sent to your email. You can forward your calls and screen them with a prerecorded reply.
All calls, texts and voicemails are stored and backed up to make it easy for you to search your history. Google Voice syncs across all your devices.
Cost. Free, but for one number only. Adding a Google Voice secondary number has a one-time fee of $20.
TextFree. Considered the original free texting app, TextFree adds a second line to your iOS or Android device at no cost. It allows you to receive texts and calls free, but to call someone who is not a TextFree user, you either must earn or purchase minutes.
You can buy 100-minute increments starting at $1. Earn minutes free by watching videos in the app or completing a task related to an advertiser.
Cost. Free with pop-up ads, $9.99 a month without ads.
TextNow. This burner number app has been offering free unlimited calls and texting since its inception in 2009. TextNow provides a free secondary number for incoming and outgoing calls and text messages within the U.S. and Canada.
It has call forwarding, spam blocking, auto-reply messaging and conference calling features, as well as supporting emojis, gifs, photos and videos. In addition to Android and Apple smartphones, it works on Mac and Windows computers and tablets.
5 other app options
Burner. As long as you live in the U.S. or Canada, Burner can provide you with a phone number for calls, texts and voicemail. The nearly 21-year-old app lets you mute, block or approve incoming calls, and it even comes with a Ghostbot feature that will send automatic replies to contacts of your choosing.
The app supports spam blocking. Keep in mind that calls through your new number on your phone will use up your regular data. Burner expanded its service to work with third-party apps such as Dropbox, Google Sheets and Slack for additional fees.
Cost. Up to $4.99 a month for one line.
CoverMe. If covert communication is what you’re looking for, CoverMe hides your phone number with what the company calls “military-grade encryption.” It boasts a secure vault for storing texts and messages and can set messages to self-destruct if needed.
CoverMe is compatible only if the party on the other line uses the same app.
Cost. $7.99 a month, $29.99 a year.
Hushed. Similar to Burner, Hushed gives you access to numbers from more than 40 countries. Those outside the U.S. and Canada come with different rates. It, too, gives you unlimited calls and texts within North America. You can choose from prepaid or pay-as-you-go plans.
Cost. Free three-day trial using U.S. or Canadian numbers, $4.99 a month.
Line2. Created with independent business owners in mind, Line2 offers a more professional approach to a burner number. With unlimited calls throughout the U.S. and Canada, Line2 lets you add a second number to your phone and set up conference calls, a toll-free number and even an automatic attendant to answer and direct calls.
It can be a temporary alternative or a full-time business line. You can connect to calls via your Mac or PC, too.
Cost. Starting at $15.99 a month.
Phoner. This service not only lets you access a second phone number but also gives you the option of getting multiple phone numbers so you can compartmentalize communication associated with a job, selling items or your social life. You can keep the number long term or just use it for a brief time. Numbers are available for more than 30 countries.
Cost. Free three-day trial, $9.99 a month.
Smart speakers work, too
Your favorite smart speaker from Amazon or Google also can help you make anonymous calls.
With Google Assistant, the recipient will see only the words “private number” or “anonymous” show up on caller ID. Amazon says Alexa’s default is to show the phone number you registered on its app as your caller ID, but you can change that in the Alexa app.
Using your voice, you can dial any 10-digit number in the U.S. and Canada. With Amazon devices, you also can call Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom and other international locales using its country code.
You have a few ways to do it:
First, say the wake word, “Alexa” for Amazon devices or “OK, Google” for Google Home speakers. Then say “call” or “dial” followed by the 10-digit number. If a person is among your smartphone’s contacts, you can say “Call John Smith,” “Call Mary Jones” or “Call Dad,” making sure that you use the name you’ve typed into contacts.
Or call a business, even if you don’t know the specific address, by saying something like “Call the Home Depot near First and Third streets,” and that will work. Be cautioned that you may be unable to respond to voicemail prompts after you’ve reached the main number.
Chris Morris contributed to this story. It was originally published June 20, 2020, and has been updated throughout with new information.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies.