How to work around Straight Talk's visual voice mail limitation

As most iOS users have discovered, switching to Straight Talk means giving up visual voice mail. Or does it?

As I mentioned in my recent post comparing no-contract iPhone options , last month I ditched AT&T in favor of Straight Talk, which gives me more or less the same exact service for considerably less money.

Just one problem: Straight Talk doesn't support visual voice mail. In fact, on my iPhone 4S, I receive no notification whatsoever that new messages are waiting for me. It's not often an issue, but the last thing I want is to miss an important message from a work contact or family member.

I immediately thought of YouMail, a visual voice mail service that's actually more robust than what's built into iOS. Alas, according to a YouMail support page, the service doesn't work with Straight Talk (unless you're willing to jailbreak your iPhone and monkey around with APN files).

Consequently, I'd just about written off any kind of voice mail for my iPhone. But it turns out there are two options, both of which work quite well. Here's how to get set up with either of them:

1. Google Voice

The Google Voice app will notify you of new voice mail messages.
The Google Voice app will notify you of new voice mail messages. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

You probably knew that Google Voice could give you one phone number to rule them all, personalized caller greetings, and other nifty features. But it can also sub in for your phone's voice mail, complete with free transcription (hilariously bad though it may be). And it works quite well with Straight Talk.

To get started, head to Google Voice. If you don't already have an account, you'll need to create one. I recommend getting a new number rather than porting your existing mobile number, as the latter can be done later -- but it isn't necessary for our purposes. You will, however, need to specify at least one existing number for forwarding; this can and should be your current mobile number.

Once you're signed into your account, click the gear icon on the right side of the page, then click Settings. You should see this:

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Now, click "Activate Google voicemail on this phone." You'll be prompted to dial a special code on your phone, after which you should see a confirmation screen like the one below. (Don't worry, you can just as easily undo this process if you decide you don't want Google Voice voice mail.)

Successful voice mail rererouting.
Successful voice mail rererouting. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you're doing, basically, is enabling call forwarding so that any unanswered call gets directed to your Google Voice number, which in turn answers the call as if that number had been dialed directly.

There's one more component to this: the Google Voice app. Install it, permit push notifications, and sign in to your account. Now, when you get a new voice mail message, the app will notify you. And you'll be able to play them directly via the app's visual-voice-mail-style interface. As an added bonus, Google Voice will also show (and e-mail) you a transcript of the message, though in my experience it's amusingly inaccurate.

Though your mileage may vary, I tested this setup on my iPhone 4S with Straight Talk and it worked like a charm. If you need more details, see Google's voicemail setup page.

2. YouMail

YouMail works nicely with Straight Talk. Who knew? (Apparently not YouMail.)
YouMail works nicely with Straight Talk. Who knew? (Apparently not YouMail.) Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Guess what, YouMail support page? Your app does work with Straight Talk (and vice versa), no jailbreaking required. I know this because I tried it, and was pleased to discover that it's even easier to set up than Google Voice.

In fact, I won't rehash the setup steps here, as the app walks you through the process with relative ease. (I will note that I couldn't find the necessary "YouMail Activate" contact -- which the app creates as part of the setup -- when browsing alphabetically in my address book, but a straight-up search revealed it.)

When you're done, declined or unanswered calls will go straight to YouMail, and the app will notify you accordingly. Problem solved.

Of these two solutions, which do you prefer, and why? I'm actually a bit on the fence. Of course, if you've found another workaround for Straight Talk's voice mail shortcomings, by all means describe it in the comments.

 

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