It happened to me again this week. I tried to login to my account at a financial institution only to get the dreaded screen, “Where would you like us to send your two-step verification code?” Why is that dreaded? Well, in that case, the number it listed for me was for a US number I no longer own.
I feel like I’ve had a million phone numbers. I’ve had several US landline numbers and mobile phone numbers that are long gone. I’ve used and deleted several European mobile phone numbers and I’ve had several virtual or VoIP numbers along the way. Also, like any good US expat, I’ve used my dad’s home number, my daughter’s mobile number, etc. to have them hurriedly send me codes before they expire.
Some existing options
In my post about How to get around 2-step verification, I discussed some options for using a US phone number via Skype, MagicJack, Republic Wireless, and Google Voice and my experiences using email, apps, and aggregators as phone-number replacements when possible. I still use Google Voice whenever possible, but some financial institutions recognize this as a “fake” number and won’t use it. Email is accepted less and less as a secure option. Aggregators are limited. Apps are great but only if your institution offers 2-step verification via their app.
Using a non-US number
In rare cases, I’ve also been able to use my “foreign number” for 2-step verification at some US financial institutions. Because US-based brokerages like Fidelity, Vanguard, etc. have been known to freeze or close expat brokerage accounts, I’ve decided not to give my foreign phone number when dealing with US brokerages and always try to use a US-targetted VPN as well. There’s no sense advertising to snoopy institutions that I’m not living in the USA.
Two US, Real-SIM options
While getting an expensive US cell phone contract with international coverage is too costly for most of us to stomach, wouldn’t it be great if we could use some US SIM with a legitimate US phone number that offered international roaming at a moderate cost? Well, here is my experiment with two of them:
> Google FI
Google Fi bills itself as “A Different Kind of Phone Plan” (this is not a referral link; we don’t get a fee if you use the link), and I found that to be true. It uses some unique tech to use multiple US carriers and works in many countries abroad. You’ll want to get into the specifics of costs and coverage in your country. You will also want to note that Google Fi may require you to purchase a new, compatible phone.
My experience was great. I ordered a SIM by mail which arrived quickly at my US address. I activated the SIM while on a brief trip to the US. It worked very smoothly both in the US and in my host country. Not really needing to use it for anything more than to receive the occasional brokerage text message or emergency call from elderly relatives, I bought the cheapest plan with no data so it cost me about $20 per month. It was a good, reliable option that I was very happy with. However, I canceled it as I found a cheaper alternative called PayGo.
This option seemed much less reliable for several reasons. First, while it is offered by UltraMobile, it is hard to find on their website. It is not listed among their “Plans.” Currently, it is listed down in their footer which points to this page (not an affiliate link). Second, they sounded pretty iffy about international service. UltraMobile’s chat seemed to downplay that possibility, only saying that their SIM “might” work abroad. Third, you can’t order it directly from UltraMobile. Their list of questions and answers says, “PayGo plans can only be purchased at select T-Mobile retail stores.” Does that sound strange to you?
You cannot order this SIM from UltraMobile, and it is not available at all T-Mobile stores. That word “select” is legit. You’ll need to call T-Mobile stores in the US to ask if they have PayGo SIMs. If they won’t tell you over the phone, you’ll have to go to one yourself. The good news is that you can sometimes find resellers on Amazon, eBay or the like that will sell one to you. It cost me a premium that way, but it saved me from driving to multiple T-Mobile stores during a brief homestay.
Just like with Google Fi, my experience with my first PayGo SIM was great. The SIM arrived and worked very well in the US. It doesn’t have the network-jumping features of Google Fi, but it was good enough for me. My concern was when I arrived back in my host country. Would it work abroad? After arriving home from the airport, I slid the SIM in the slot and waited. No network detected. This lasted for several minutes but then, poof, it found a local network and has worked as seamlessly in my host country as does Google Fi.
PayGo’s advantage over Google Fi is simply the price. Using it as sparingly as I do, I get by on about $5 per month. It is quite the bargain if it continues to work well and if it works when I travel to other countries with it.
In the world of “you-get-what-you-pay-for,” I need to note that my personal experience with Google Fi was a lot smoother than my experience with PayGo. While my first PayGo SIM worked seamlessly, the one I bought for my wife did not. I had multiple, long chats with PayGo to try to resolve the problem. They offered a replacement SIM, but it never arrived. I requested another replacement be sent. It arrived but it too stubbornly refused to work on my wife’s phone. YMMV (your mileage may vary), but my experience with Google Fi customer service, SIMs and technology was much more satisfying. That said, I’m currently sticking with PayGo for the price.
Activate in the USA
Whether you choose Google Fi or PayGo, you will often be told that their SIMs are designed for use in the US and that the international service is just a perk. For that reason, the SIMs must be activated in the USA. That information will have to be part of your plan in choosing one of these options. While you can get a Google Voice number from anywhere in the world, you can’t with Google Fi or PayGo. Since two of my banks and the Zelle payment system refuse to use any Google Voice number, it was worth waiting for a trip to the US in order to pick up these SIMs.
While the easiest, travel-in-my-pocket, international method for two-step verification for me is via the various bank or brokerages apps, that’s just not yet possible through every financial institution. Until it is, I like the convenience of having a real, US SIM that works in the US and abroad.
For me, it has been a great, cheap way to get passed the dreaded “Where should we send your code?” screen.