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UK Expats: 8 apps for calls and texts or virtual UK phone number?

Updated: Nov 26, 2023


Spoiler: Messaging apps aren't enough. Eventually you'll need a virtual UK phone number to live the expat life without interruptions.



Big Ben clock in the middle near a dialer with a British flag on top.

UK expats living abroad find it crucial to maintain their +44 UK phone number. It ensures uninterrupted contact with family and friends without the burden of international call charges or roaming fees. And in today's modern times which requires that we constantly verify ourselves and 2FA-proof all our accounts, our phone number has become as important as our tax number. Having a UK phone number allows expats to easily manage calls and texts, their banks while avoiding the need for additional mobile devices, SIM cards, or contracts (more info).


In our company, we work alongside UK expats and have noticed where the free messaging apps have fallen short.


Banking: A UK phone number is indispensable for managing your financial affairs while abroad. It's the main vein for receiving SMS alerts and banking codes, vital for two-factor authentication and banking security. HSBC, RBC and Lloyds aren't going to verify your identity via a Whatsapp message. They'll need your real phone number (more info).


Her Majesty's Government Services:

As a UK citizen, you do not necessarily need a UK phone number for the government to contact you. The UK government provides various ways to contact them, including phone, email, and social media.


However, if you need to call the government from outside the UK, you will need to use the international dialing code +44 before the phone number. It means that some government services may have specific contact numbers or requirements, and may not be able to dial internationally to country in which expats have their local SIM.



Official Matters Over Casual Chats: Apps such as WhatsApp, Messenger, or Telegram can suffice for casual chats but fall short for official notifications and calls. Businesses, banks, and essential services by-and-large rely on traditional phone communication. Thus, a UK-based number is not just a convenience—it's a necessity for staying officially connected while overseas.


+44 UK Phone Number


UK 2-way Calling and SMS Solutions for Expats in 2023


Scarce Choices, Vital Connections

Yes, even now in 2023 where there's all the craze about AI, the search for a VoIP and SMS app that can fully replace a UK SIM or landline, is a challenge. Despite the plethora of choice of messaging apps, only a few offer the two-way capability of calling and SMS with +44 phone number. Many expats are simply buying eSIMs and hope that their carriers fair usage policy doesn't block them for excess roaming. In practice, few eSIM holders make it through the cracks without being blocked.


eSIM and OTT apps aren’t enough

The evolution of eSIM and OTT (Over-The-Top) services has greatly impacted how people communicate. Here's a detailed look at the pros and cons of these services:


eSIM

Pros:

  • Space-Saving: An eSIM is built into the handset, saving physical space for other features like a larger battery or more storage.

  • Multiple Plans: eSIMs allow for multiple numbers and providers on the same device, ideal for personal, business, or travel plans without changing SIM cards. Simply toggle between eSIMs and you're connected to different carriers on the fly.

Cons:

  • Portability Issues: Unlike physical SIMs, eSIMs cannot be easily transferred between devices. If a phone breaks or an upgrade is needed, transferring an eSIM can be more complicated and not all phone models support it.

  • Provider Switching: To switch providers while keeping the same number, a PAC code is still required, which can be a hassle, especially while abroad.

  • Roaming Restrictions: While many UK eSIMs offer EU roaming, carriers might restrict service if they detect the majority of usage is outside the UK, inevitably leading to number loss and making eSIMs unreliable for long-term travel or expat living.

  • Dual SIM Requirement: eSIMs require a modern phone that supports dual SIM functionality, which may not be ideal for everyone and can be tough to replace in a bind. When writing this article, only 30% of devices support eSIM.


OTT Apps (e.g., Whatsapp, Messenger, Viber, Telegram)

Pros:

  • Global Connectivity: Apps like WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram provide easy communication across borders, allowing expats to stay in touch with family and friends. And they're free!

Cons:

  • Online Limitation: OTT services require a stable internet connection, which can be a problem in areas with poor connectivity (more info).

  • Security Risks: Some OTT platforms may pose security risks, with the potential for cybercrimes such as phishing.

  • Lack of Official Use: Banks and businesses rarely use OTT apps for official communication and alerts, such as sending OTPs (one time passwords) or conducting secure transactions.

  • App Dependency: Both parties must have the app installed; it's not possible to contact someone outside the app network, limiting official or wider communication. Whereas with a telephone number, you can contact virtual anyone without additional apps.


Phone Number for Expats

Here's an overview of the pros and cons for the OTT Apps:


Facebook Messenger

Total UK users: 32 million
  • Pros: Fast chatting connected directly to Facebook, ease of messaging similar to texting, and a direct connection with the audience for businesses (more info).

  • Cons: Display of digital ads on the interface and privacy concerns.

WhatsApp

Total UK users: 42 million
  • Pros: Provides a broad range of communication features such as instant messaging, voice and video calls, document sharing, and multimedia messaging. It's widely adopted globally, which ensures connectivity with a vast user base (more info).

  • Cons: Raises privacy concerns and has been scrutinize for its data sharing practices and policies. The platform also requires a constant internet connection and has limitations on group chat sizes and media file sharing (more info).


Vonage (UK version)

Over 10,000 (we can't find the exact number)
  • Pros: Unlimited calling but NO sms, user-friendly interface, high-grade voice quality, and a high uptime guarantee (more info).

  • Cons: Possible sign-up issues, inconsistent customer service, and potential excessive add-on fees (more info).

Telegram

Total UK users: 6 million
  • Pros: A feature-rich messaging experience with a focus on user privacy for those within the Telegram network. Messages within the platform can be end-to-end encrypted with "secret chats" (more info).

  • Cons: The standard chats are not end-to-end encrypted, and some personal data is collected by the app. This may create a privacy concern for users who expect all their communications to be fully encrypted. Telegram also has the lowest adoption amongst UK users (more info).


iMessage

Total UK users: 19 million
  • Pros: Easy and secure if the text bubble is blue, fallback to SMS if iMessage doesn’t send (which can be disabled for privacy) (more info).

  • Cons: Lack of end-to-end encryption when messaging non-Apple users, as replies to SMS are unencrypted (more info). Requires a SIM card or eSIM to send SMS to non-Apple users.

Skype

Total UK users: 9 million
  • Pros: Offers reasonable call quality for one-on-one and group calls, with a user-friendly interface and global connectivity features like chat, calls, video calls, screen sharing, and group messaging (more info). Not a full OTT-app because it is possible to buy an actual UK phone number from Skype.

  • Cons: Dependent on a stable internet connection, with possible security concerns for business communications. UK phone numbers can only sending outgoing SMS, not incoming. Prices are high. Complicated legacy technology and decreasing users base. (more info).


overview of the pros and cons for the OTT Apps

Breakdown of most popular OTT app amongst UK users



Both eSIM and OTT services offer significant advantages for UK expats in terms of convenience and connectivity. However, their limitations can be considerable, especially when it comes to maintaining a stable and secure UK-based contact point for important matters like banking and government services. These constraints highlight the necessity for UK expats to seek alternative solutions or complementary services that can provide reliable communication channels aligned with their unique needs as international residents.

The Solution. UK Expats need a virtual phone number.


UK Expats need a virtual phone number

As we earlier stated, UK expats are increasingly in search of a reliable virtual UK phone number. Phone2 and Xpatfone emerge as two key players in this niche market, providing services tailored to expats who need to maintain a connection to the UK.



Phone2 positions itself as a robust option, offering:

Can reach all 61m UK phone numbers

Pros:

  • Unlimited 2-way calls, SMS, and voicemail to any number in the UK.

  • The ability to share with up to 5 users at no additional cost.

  • A web version for calling and texting (useful for working with a remote team)

  • A unified inbox to see contacts' voicemails, texts, and calls in one view.

  • No need for additional hardware; it operates via an app.

Cons:

  • Only unlimited is for calls/texts between +44 UK number.

  • Does not offer number porting yet


Xpatfone offers a different set of benefits:


Pros:

  • Provides a +44 UK number through an app that's compatible with iPhone and Android.

  • Unlimited calls and messages to UK, US, Ireland, and Canadian numbers.

  • Offers free number porting.

  • Unlimited inbound calls and texts globally (more details) (more details).

Cons:

  • The Brexit Booster Plan, which is separate from the unlimited plan, offers 400 minutes per month to select international numbers, but this does not extend to UK usage which is not unlimited.

  • Low limits for outgoing SMS to the UK (more info).

In conclusion, for UK expats and others needing a reliable UK phone number while abroad, Phone2 and Xpatfone both offer a solution. It allows users not only to obtain a new UK phone number but also (with Xpatfone) to port their existing one, making things a bit easier. These services stand out as they provides a real UK phone number that is accessible from anywhere, aligning with the needs of expats who are likely enjoying a pint in the most remote parts of the world.

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