Safe messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram are committed to protecting your privacy and securing your conversations. But what if you really want to chat anonymously, without revealing your personal phone number?
While this is possible, it takes some patience to set it up.
Signal and telegram require your telephone number
You need a phone number to use Signal or Telegram. This number is shared with anyone you talk to while using these platforms, and can even be used to find you. These apps may use end-to-end encryption and other practices to keep your information private, but that doesn̵
People you speak to via Signal or Telegram will see the phone number you signed up with. This can be a problem if you are a whistleblower, an anonymous source, or someone who doesn’t want your calls to be linked to your real phone number.
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If you already have a primary signal or Telegram account
You should think of these messaging services as an extension of your phone number. So if you already have a Signal or Telegram master account and want to create an anonymous secondary account, here are some things to consider:
Only one phone number can be associated with your Signal account for Signal, which means you never need to create a password. You need multiple smartphones to use more than one Signal account at the same time. Alternatively, you can deactivate your account and then switch to a secondary account.
In Signal, switching accounts is inconvenient as all your conversations will be lost if you do so. Because Signal focuses on security, your correspondence is not stored in the cloud. There is no way to recover messages or media that you have sent or received unless you are transferring data from an old device.
Telegram is not that limiting. Telegram’s desktop and tablet apps allow you to log in with a separate number on a desktop or tablet app. This does not have to be linked to your smartphone or your “real” Telegram number. You can use this to your advantage as you don’t have to leave your main account to log in to a secondary account.
If you are wondering whether to use Telegram or Signal for your confidential, anonymous messaging needs, you will find that Telegram is the easier choice between the two. Make sure to enable secret chats in Telegram before doing this.
Option 1: use a burner phone (or SIM card)
One of the easiest ways to use a service like Telegram or Signal anonymously is to sign up with a new phone number. In many cases, you can grab a prepaid ‘burner’ phone or SIM card for very little (sometimes free), with which you can log in. You don’t have to send messages with this number, so you don’t have to spend money if you don’t want to.
All you need is the secondary number to receive a message with a code in it. This code is all you need to log in with either service as your phone number is only used to identify you.
Signal needs to access this number when you log in for the first time (to receive a code). You must also use your primary device (an iPhone or Android smartphone) to add any paired devices that you want to use with your anonymous number. Paired devices may need to be re-authorized from time to time, which requires access to your “burner” SIM, so keep it handy and active.
Telegram works the same way, except you don’t need to use a smartphone to add paired devices as you can log in instantly. Just enter your new burner phone number, enter the code you receive and you’re on your way to the races.
RELATED: What is a burner phone and when should you use it?
Option 2: Use a VoIP service such as Google Voice
If you don’t feel like switching SIM cards to go incognito, consider using a VoIP number. Google Voice is the obvious choice, offering a free US phone number to people living in the United States. You can also use a service such as Skype or another internet telephony provider that gives you a number (you may have to pay for this).
There are a wide variety of other apps that can also give you secondary phone numbers.
Once you have your number, you can log in as usual. For Signal, this means using a smartphone that is not yet registered with the service or removing the app from your device. On Telegram you can download the app for your platform of choice and log in.
Option 3: use a landline (signal only)
Signal is primarily designed for use with a mobile number, but you can enter any number you want when you sign up. This also applies to landlines, such as the one sitting at your desk at work. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to activate Telegram with this method during testing (but you may have better luck).
If you log in this way, you won’t be able to receive your code via SMS the standard way. Instead, you can ask Signal to call you. If you select this option, Signal will be prompted to call you through an automatic dialer that will speak the required code aloud over the phone.
Signal tries to send you a code via SMS when you enter your number. If you wait a moment, you can tap the “I didn’t receive a code” button, which will give you the option “Call me instead”. Tap it, answer the phone and listen to the code. With this code you can then log in and send messages.
Telegram also sends you a code via SMS, in addition to a “Did you not receive the code?” button, which does not provide an option to receive a phone call instead. This could be due to using an Australian mobile number so your mileage may vary with this method.
Can’t register a second number on your smartphone?
If you have already registered your personal number with either service, you may be surprised to find that there is no option to log out of the service. The easiest solution is to delete the affected app. This will delete local data from your device (including login tokens), requiring you to log in when you download the app again.
In the case of Signal, all conversations are deleted from your device. Since Telegram allows you to log in with a number and the Telegram app for your platform of choice (including Windows, Mac and Linux), you don’t have to sanitize your smartphone. Learn how to delete apps on your iPhone or how to delete apps on Android.
If you are a Signal user, you will need to repeat the process to return to your “main” Signal or Telegram account after authorizing your secondary number.
No guarantee of anonymity
Even if you sign up for a secondary phone number, your real identity can still be traced. In some countries, you must identify yourself to get a SIM card so that your phone provider knows exactly who you are, even if this information is not available to the general public.
The same goes for VoIP services such as Google Voice. While Google and Skype will not make information such as your email address and IP address available to anyone, they will still keep it on file and may be forced to transfer it in court.
If you want to cover yourself up further, Telegram lets you send disappearing messages (and that includes Signal).