Escaping the Tyrrany of Voicemail with PhoneTag

Today’s TechCrunch article, Think Before You Voicemail, struck a nerve with me. I’ve very often felt the same way for the exact same reasons Michael outlined:

It takes much longer to listen to a message than read it. And voicemail is usually outside of our typical workflow, making it hard to forward or reply to easily.

The big problem with voicemail is that it takes a context switch out of your normal workflow in order to dial into the system, figure out how to fast-forward/delete messages, transcribe messages, etc. This might sound minor but it really takes its toll when you’ve already got a ton of things on your plate to deal with on a daily basis.

Other minor problems with voicemail include long distance charges to dial into my voicemail when I’m traveling, and the delay caused by my tendency to not notice that I have a voicemail until the next time I make a telephone call.

So today I’ve taken a big step toward escaping voicemail. I’ve set up my cell phone such that voicemails are transcribed automatically into text messages and sent to my email (and optionally SMS’d to me). How did I do this? It was not straightforward so I am repeating the steps here for anyone who’d like to do the same.

Without further ado, here’s how I set up PhoneTag with my iPhone running on the Fido network.

Step 1


The first step is to subscribe to a voicemail transcribing service. The service I ended up subscribing to is PhoneTag. There are several other services, including YouMail and SpinVox, but nearly all suffer from one big flaw — they do not work with Canadian numbers. (Don’t even get me started on how we always get shafted on technology in Canada…)

Fortunately PhoneTag does work in Canada, so they get my dollars. (Not much actually, only 35 cents per transcribed message; other plans available too.)

Step 2

Once you’ve set up your PhoneTag account, you have to instruct your carrier to use PhoneTag’s voicemail box when you don’t answer your phone. This is accomplished via Conditional Call Forwarding. In layman’s terms, you have to ask your carrier to forward a caller to voicemail when you 1) don’t answer, 2) are unreachable, or 3) already on the phone.

When you get a phone from Fido, it’s already pre-programmed to forward calls to the Fido voicemail. In this case, we want to switch to PhoneTag’s voicemail. Here’s where things get complicated a bit; I am using an unlocked iPhone on the Fido network, and unfortunately, I could not find a way to set Conditional Call Forwarding inside the iPhone’s interface. However, we can get around this by directly programming appropriate GSM Commands into the phone!

The GSM Commands I used were the following:

  1. Call Forwarding if No Answer: *61*[dest]#
  2. Call Forwarding if Unreachable: *62*[dest]#
  3. Call Forwarding if Busy: *67*[dest]#

where [dest] is the destination of the call forwarding, i.e. the phone number of PhoneTag’s mailbox. So as an example, if your mailbox’s number is 514-123-4567, then the appropriate sequence to program Call Forwarding if No Answer would be *61*5141234567#.

So, I opened up Keypad of the iPhone, typed in and called each one of the above mentioned codes, and voila; my callers are now directed to PhoneTag’s voicemail. (You’ll know you did it right if you see some status messages.)

Now voicemails are automatically transcribed into text and sent to my email, where I will see it the next time I return to my workstation.

Step 3

For completeness’ sake, rewire the Voicemail button on the iPhone to point to your new mailbox by issuing the following command:


In PhoneTag’s case, yourvoicemailphonenumber is 18007840457.

But of course we’ll never use that button again, right?

Step 4

Finally call Fido Customer Service at 611, and cancel your voicemail option, saving you a few bucks per month.

There you have it, escape from voicemail.

Now if only I could escape from email too, then life would be heaven!

  1. Sam said:

    Jott does work in Canada, I have friends up North who love the service!

  2. Fred said:

    Cool. Actually, I removed Yap and Jott from the above list, since they don’t actually seem to offer this voicemail-to-email transcription service… (I could be wrong, I don’t have half an hour to browse their sites to see if they offer this service since it’s not clearly stated on the front page or in other obvious places.)

  3. Dave said:

    PhoneTag works in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Australia in both English and Spanish. What’s even better is you can set your land lines to also forward to your PhoneTag voicemail box, effectively giving you unified messaging. Additionally, PhoneTag provides unlimited voicemail storage, so you never have to delete messages and there is an online UI that you can use to access and manage your voicemail like a gmail account. The link below is for a 30 free trial of PhoneTag.

  4. Fred said:

    Hi James,

    Clicking through, I am sent to, and it does not have Canadian carriers listed on the signup form…


  5. So glad you blogged about this. I’m notoriously bad with checking my voicemail because it takes up time, so transcribed voicemail makes total sense!

    Do review the PhoneTag service when you have a chance. Actually, I should just ask you in person next time I see you.

  6. Jeff said:

    Wow, I had no idea this existed. Awesome!

    Question: how good is the transcription? Typos? Also, does it do other languages? I’m thinking of French.

  7. Fred said:


    The transcription is pretty good. They try their best with garbled words, but leave a (?) next to the word if the confidence is not high. They also attach the sound file in case you want to listen to it.

    PhoneTag only works with English and Spanish iirc. For French messages, they just say “We were unable to transcribe this message” and give you the sound file.

  8. Mel said:

    And what will happen now that Bell and Telus are charging their customers for incoming text messages?
    Will these transcribed voicemail be charged?

  9. Fred said:


    I actually don’t have these messages SMS’d to me, I have them sent through email, since I spend most of my day in front of a computer anyway.

    (The method of delivery, email or SMS, is customizable to your own needs.)

  10. Alex said:

    Thanks for the article Fred.

    Just set up PhoneTag on my Fido mobile phone, and it is working rather charmingly.

    Another interesting bit of information is that PhoneTag also transcribes messages in Spanish! … since I grew up in Mexico when friends call me and leave a message, it gets transcribed nicely.

    Can’t say enough about merging virtual inboxes (voice mail into mail and SMS). Great idea.

    Only thing is. You have to call fido and cancel your current Voice Mail or all the commands for the conditional forwarding WON’T work. As soon as they deactivate voice mail in your account, it will start working with phonetag.

    Thanks again!

  11. Wow,

    i need this service for english / french messages. A vendor support french ?


    • Fred said:

      Unfortunately I doubt it…

  12. Sophia said:

    Thanks for this. I’m trying to set this up for a fido account, unfortunately, Fido doesn’t have conditional forwarding any more. HOwever, with a little digging, it says on their site that if your phone supports it and you cancel their voicemail conditional forwarding will work. We’ll see…

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