My friends were aghast when I told them what I was doing. “You’re supposed to never change your number,” one texted me. “It’s like your SSN!!!” He’s right: A stable phone number means people always know how to get in touch. Plus, phones play a major role in proving your identity online. Many companies will text you to verify who you are when you’re logging in (though Consumer Reports recommends setting up two-factor authentication using an app rather than SMS).
But what if you could get a new number—but keep your old one, too, for nearly free? That’s what I set out to do.
There are plenty of reasons besides mine for changing your main phone number while keeping the old one. You might be so inundated with spam calls and texts—an annoyance that’s on the upswing, as the New York Times has reported—that you decide to burn things down and start over. Or, if someone’s stalking or harassing you by phone, you might want to change your main contact number but still have access to it just in case.
To make my change, I leaned on Google Voice, a popular free service that lets you pick a virtual number, and forward texts and calls sent to that number to another phone. It’s useful if you want to give out a secondary number to businesses, or if you want a separate number for work.
My goal was to move my old number to Google Voice, and replace my main number with a new one that I’d pick out myself. The whole process cost me only $23—but it was a bit trickier than it sounds.
To start, I set out to find a new phone number I liked. I live in San Francisco, so I wanted a local number. Google Voice lets you pick a new virtual number, as long as it’s not already in use, so I selected one with a 415 area code, and even chose a meaningful four-digit series for the end of the number.
My old number still lived with my service provider, Mint Mobile, a low-cost carrier that piggybacks on T-Mobile’s network. I wanted to swap it out with the number I’d just snagged on Google Voice. Then, the new number would be the main way to contact me, via my Mint cellular plan. But my old Seattle number would live on with Google, which would forward texts and calls to my new number.
It’s a delicate swap. Thanks to a law Congress passed in 1996, phone carriers almost always have to let you take your phone number with you when you leave. But there’s a catch: If you let go of a number, even for a moment, you’re liable to lose it forever. It always has to be tied to a service.
I started by porting my fresh 415 number from Google Voice to a new Mint account, while keeping the old one active. The process was easy: I unlocked the number in Google Voice, paid a $3 fee, and used my account number and voicemail PIN to tell Mint to snag the digits from Google. I activated the new Mint plan using a virtual eSIM, so I didn’t even have to wait for a physical SIM card to arrive in the mail. The number took a few hours to port over.
Great—but now I was paying for two phone plans at once. Not ideal! Time to retire the old number.
I went through the number shuffle again, this time in the opposite direction. I asked Mint to port out my old phone number, which took about 5 minutes in an online chat. A representative gave me my account number and a PIN, which I submitted to Google Voice to start the transfer. Porting a number into Google costs $20.
By the morning, it was all done.
Dial my new phone number and you’ll go straight through; dial the old one and Google will route it to my new number—but I’ll know that it’s coming via Google Voice, so I can tell you to update my contact card. If you text that old number, it’ll just pop up in my Google Voice app, and I’ll text you back from the new digits.
This way, I don’t have to contact everyone I’ve ever called or texted to tell them to change my info, or else risk losing touch with them.
The only bump in the road came when I texted a friend from my new number and she didn’t believe it was me. “I just really don’t buy that Kaveh would change his phone number out of nowhere and then text me to say that he’s done so,” she texted back. The only way I could convince her was with a proof-of-life selfie, with her text thread up on my computer screen in the background.
In fact, her suspicion was well placed: It’s smart to be leery of a person claiming to be someone you know, contacting you out of the blue from a new number or email address. It’s a classic scam move.
If you’re considering changing your number this way, check your cell phone plan first. When you port your old number out, your carrier will probably close the account associated with it. If you’re under a contract, that might come with an early termination fee.
In my case, I had pre-paid for a year of Mint service to keep costs down, so I did the swap once that year was up and another was about to begin.
And if you’re not quite as picky as I was, you can ask your carrier to add a new line with a new phone number on your account. You may not have control over what the number will be, but you won’t have to go through the initial step of creating a number on Google and porting it to your carrier.