When you don’t want to hand out your digits, don’t buy a separate phone. Burner apps let you create disposable phone numbers you can even reuse.
Decades ago, people changed their phone numbers all the time—if you had to move to a new town, you didn’t get to keep your number. Now, you can take your first cell phone number with you for life, even keeping the area code on a new continent if you’re willing to pay for it. That has downsides. Having another number associated with you for life, much like your social security number or driver’s license number, means it’s another easy thing for bad actors to use against you. Especially since your mobile phone number is likely associated with just about every digital account you have.
The way to get around that is to never hand out your personal phone number except to friends and family. There are a lot of good reasons for this. Perhaps you buy or sell items on Facebook Marketplace, manage an Airbnb listing, are hunting for a job, have a job that requires lots of phone calls, or you’re online dating. Give all of them a burner number.
Typically, a burner is a no-contract, prepaid mobile phone, usually an ultra-cheap handset you buy in a store (with cash, for privacy), activate with a call or online, use for a while, then discard. The throwing away is the “burning” part, but tossing it is optional, as the owner can “top off” the minutes on a prepaid phone and keep using it. With a burner, you don’t have to block a person (or stalker, shady marketer, or robo-caller) from your permanent phone. Nor do you need to get a new number.
For a second number, you can always get a prepaid SIM card on a cheap carrier if you want to go that route. Might even be handy if you have an extra phone around. And some new unlocked phones support eSIM standards where the SIM card that identifies you with the carrier is fully integrated and only changeable via remote software. But eSIM isn’t much of an option for a burner-style number. And swapping physical SIM cards to change phone numbers is a pain at best. Worse, dual-SIM phones are hard to come by (the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE and the quasi-smartphone Nokia 6300 4G being recent exceptions).
You already have a nice, expansive iPhone or Android smartphone that can’t handle two numbers, but you probably don’t want another handset. Thankfully, there are still many ways to get an extra, (possibly) temporary phone number that works with your smartphone (or even on your tablet, since most use some kind of Voice-over-IP system). The numbers can even be used to send and receive texts with photos.
This isn’t like using *67 or #31# before a call, which shows you as Blocked or Unknown. The services below make a point of displaying a temporary number when you call, so return calls can happen—until you want them to stop. If you just want the numbers to take calls, all the burner services feature things like voicemail and call forwarding.
There are some drawbacks to these burner apps and services. The biggest is that you typically can’t use them to call 911 for help. Some build that limit into their terms of service—they don’t want to get sued. Second, the companies behind some of these solutions have a very limited number of phone numbers to use. Research from 2014 found that some companies recycle numbers quickly, meaning you could be on the receiving end of calls you don’t want, from those trying to reach someone who previously had your number.
If you can overlook all that and still need a secondary number, get ready to access some apps and services that will maintain your privacy by becoming the number you hand out when you aren’t sure who to trust.
Burner grabbed the best name for this kind of product. Limited to US and Canadian numbers, the service offers limited-time access to certain digits. If your account or free trial lapses without an upgrade, so does the number. A premium subscription option provides up to three permanent phone numbers with unlimited minutes and texts. (It’s best to register a Burner subscription on the web rather than the mobile apps, so Apple or Google don’t become part of the transaction. Don’t pay the Apple Tax.)
When you make a call via Burner, it’s actually your smartphone calling Burner, which in turn places a relay call to the number you want to reach (so it is indeed eating into your talk plan minutes). The steps are spelled out as you go, so you’re not confused. A PIN lock keeps the app secure; it integrates with fingerprint or face scanners on your smartphone.
Hushed (available for iOS and Android) is a lot like Burner, but available in over 40 countries, and with a simplicity that makes it worth considering. If you’re worried about the minutes left on your actual mobile phone contract, Hushed goes for VoIP, meaning it requires calls to be made over Wi-Fi rather than your cellular data network. No minutes on your phone plan get used (unless you set up something like Call Forwarding or Call Routing). Subscribers can get up to three lines bundled. Text communications between Hushed users are all free, and they auto-delete after being read.
CoverMe is best known as an app (iOS and Android) for providing secure or private communications over VoIP between users, both voice and text. It also offers extra phone numbers for US and Canadian users, which can be used to make and receive encrypted voice calls. If you have access to Wi-Fi, it won’t eat your phone data plan, but it works over cellular data connections too.
CoverMe has lots of tools for privacy beyond calling and texting. It also features a vault for holding images and documents you don’t otherwise want showing on your smartphone, which you protect with a PIN code.
It’s not cheap. The most basic mini-private call plan is $7.99 per month, and things like the vault cost extra. A truly unlimited package with texts and 3,000 voice minutes is $99.99 per year. But that’s the price of caution.
Want multiple numbers across multiple area codes? You can get up to five with different “locations” with Flyp for iOS and Android. Each number has unlimited calling, texting, picture messaging, and voicemail. It’s expensive but simple. One of the interesting extras is the ability to create a whitelist of who can contact each number.
The main purpose of Google Voice is to provide call routing using a single phone number, entirely free, that rings on all your numbers. That way, if an important call comes in, it can reach your cell, your home number, your office number, and others all at once—you pick up the one you want. (This is less and less an issue in the one-phone-per-person mobile world, but hey, at least you have a permanent second number that costs nothing.)
The Google Voice app also features a dialer so you can call or text out—the recipient will see your Google Voice number for callerID and if they return the call, you’ll receive it at the preset numbers (or get a voicemail with full-text transcription). It’s entirely VoIP, so it can use Wi-Fi or your phone data plan, and it works via apps on iOS and Android or even on the web. If you have a personal Google account, you’ve already got a Google Voice account. So go get a number.
Line2 is a second line for your phone, with an emphasis by the company (which is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag’s parent company) on being a full-on, cloud-based business phone service for small teams. Each Line2 account has unlimited SMS and MMS messaging and virtual calling. Upgrade to get up to 99 extensions with each phone number. You can use the apps for iOS or Android, or try Line2 on your desktop with a web-based app.
With TextNow, you sign up for free to get a second phone number in your area code (or another), plus free calling and texting via the iOS and Android apps, as long as your device is on Wi-Fi (it also works on the desktop for Windows and macOS).
If you need to be more mobile, TextNow is also an MVNO. It has a $.99 activation kit that gets you a SIM card to get your phone using unlimited talk and text anywhere (using T-Mobile’s network) for free, with data add-ons. It offers international use in 230 countries.
As pointed out by Mashable, adding a second number may only be a bandage on a bigger problem if you’ve associated your main phone number with a bunch of accounts, from food order to banking. The phone number could even be one of the ways you’re expected to authenticate, or update credentials. But sometimes a bandage can start the healing, so put your burner number to good use.