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How to Use Your Voice to Control Your Smartphone

Assistants can act when your phone is locked, and spoken commands free your hands

spinner image a woman speaking into a phone with images of voice control options on phones such as wifi email navigation sharing
Photo Illustration: AARP; (Source: Getty Images (2))

If you find yourself frustrated while trying to type texts or other information into your smartphone’s tiny keyboard — perhaps you have your hands full, experience dexterity challenges or are crunched for time — consider speaking to your phone instead.

Not only is talking to your iPhone or Android device potentially easier than using your hands, it’s often faster and more accurate. Your phone’s conversational artificial intelligence (AI), a type that’s different from the generative AI in ChatGPT, Google Bard and Microsoft Copilot, is spelling out the words and phrases that you speak.

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Hands-free features are designed for more than just typing, opening apps or placing phone calls. With a simple introduction such as “Hey, Siri” or “OK, Google,” integrated voice assistants have redefined the way we live our lives.

The convenience of smartphone digital helpers

Half the fun of Siri, Apple’s integrated voice assistant for iPhone, and Google Assistant, Android’s virtual assistant, is figuring out how many questions they can answer.

Smartphone assistants

Siri, which debuted on Apple’s iPhone 4S in late 2011, is the oldest of the smartphone conversational bots.

Google came to the market with its digital assistant on Pixel phones in mid-2016 and expanded it to Android smartphones it didn’t manufacture in February 2017.

Amazon’s Alexa in 2017 and 2018 could be summoned from Android HTC’s U11 and U12+ smartphones via its “Alexa” wake word without opening the app. But Alexa now is better known for its smart home capabilities.

Beyond typical commands such as “OK, Google, call [a name in your Contacts, specifying whether it’s a home, work or mobile number]” or “Hey, Siri, FaceTime [contacts that have FaceTime],” you can ask your smartphone digital assistants the time of day, set reminders and get answers to random questions, such as “What year did The Godfather movie come out?” “What is 37 degrees Fahrenheit in Celsius?” or “How tall is the Eiffel Tower?” The answers? 1972, 2.8 degrees and 984 feet not counting its TV antenna.

Another convenient feature on both Androids and Apples is hands-free, voice-activated commands using iPhone’s Voice Control and Android’s Voice Access. Both allow you to interact with and select items on the screen, open apps and edit text.

Video: How to Use Your Voice to Control Your Phone

How to activate Siri on an iPhone

1. Open Settings ⚙️ and scroll down to select Siri & Search.

2. Make sure Listen for “Siri” or “Hey Siri” is enabled, otherwise you’ll have to press the side button to wake Siri up or press and hold the Home button on older models. You can specify Listen for “Hey Siri” if you’re worried that your phone might start paying attention if you use a phrase such as, “Are you serious?”

Once enabled, Siri can answer commands when the phone is locked. You can also change the gender, language and voice for your personal assistant. Siri can be male or female; speak French, Spanish or another language; or speak English with a British or Irish accent.

Going forward, say either “Siri” or “Hey, Siri,” and you’ll know the bot is ready for your question or command when you see a swirling, colorful sphere near the bottom of your iPhone. It may also respond with “Uh, huh?” to confirm your phone is listening. 

You also can control compatible smart home devices using your voice by instructing Siri to turn lights on, off or change their color; move the thermostat temperature up or down; set a home alarm system; or start a timer.

How to use iPhone Voice Control

Your voice can direct your iPhone or iPad, even when you’re on a call. This feature is different from Siri, and you don’t have to summon Siri to make it work.

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1. Open Settings ⚙️ | Accessibility | Set Up Voice Control under Physical and Motor. Some information will be downloaded as you wait a short period.

2. Tap Open Voice Control Guide for a short play-along tutorial on how to use Voice Control. By the end of the download, the Set Up Voice Control option will have become Voice Control. Tap the toggle switch to green beside Voice Control to enable it.

A blue circle with white audio waves will appear in the upper left corner to the right of the time to indicate that Voice Control is on. You can set language and vocabulary preferences, customize commands and incorporate overlays, such as numbers or a grid to appear over the screen, in the options below Open Voice Control Guide.

You can also give commands such as “Take screenshot” or “Turn up the volume.” To learn more Voice Control commands, say, “Show me what to say,” or “Show commands.”

How to set up Google Assistant on an Android phone

With an Android phone — such as a Google Pixel, Motorola, Samsung Galaxy or TCL device — you can use your voice to give commands and ask questions as easily as on an iPhone. Androids rely on Google Assistant for these tasks.

1. To set up or wake your personal assistant, say, “Hey, Google.”

2. If using the wake word doesn’t work, open the Google Assistant app. If you don’t see it, go to the Google Play Store and download it again.

3. If Google Assistant is off, at the bottom of the screen, tap Turn on. To recognize your voice when you summon your assistant, it may first ask permission to find your voice file associated with another Google device you may have. Tap to agree.

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Now that Google Assistant is enabled, you can say, “Hey, Google,” followed by a question or command. You’ll know Google Assistant is listening when colors appear at the bottom of your screen as well as some suggested commands.

How to control an Android smartphone with your voice

First, download Google’s free Voice Access app from the Google Play Store if it was not already installed on your device. Android version 5.0 or later is required, and because Android phones have different manufacturers, the steps below may vary slightly. These are the steps on a Pixel.

To find your Android version, go to Settings ⚙️ | About phone.

1. Open your phone’s Settings ⚙️. 

2. Tap Accessibility | Voice Access | Use Voice Access.

3. Now you can start Voice Access in one of these ways:

  • Say, “Hey, Google, Voice Access” if you have “Hey, Google” on.
  • Tap the Voice Access app on your home screen.
  • Swipe your finger from top to bottom on your screen to open what’s called the notification shade. Tap Touch to start.
  • Or set up a Voice Access activation button in Settings ⚙️|   Accessibility | Voice Access | Settings | Voice Access Shortcut Activation button. This will allow you to tap the button from now on.

Now speak a Voice Access command, such as “Open Gmail,” or “Go back.” “Go forward.” “Home.” Or “type [word or phrase].”

Just like Google Assistant, it may take a little trial and error to master Voice Access, but guides and resources from Google and accessibility websites can help.

Remember: Mind your manners when communicating with a digital voice assistant. Responses are automatically generated, not human, but losing patience or using abusive language won’t help you get what you need.

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