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Back story:

I use a phone plan that doesn't work outside of the US. It's perfectly fine for me while I'm inside the US, because it's a cheap plan (yet still very expensive by my standards), and I don't need anything more.

However, things get complicated when I travel - I go and spend several weeks in Europe almost every year. What I usually do is that I get a local SIM card with a limited plan, to be able to message people in the countries I visit with a different plan than my US plan which wouldn't let me do so anyways.

It usually gives me a lot of grief doing so, because not only of Two-Step Verification issues with some accounts like Facebook or Gmail, which rely heavily on a phone number I cannot access anymore the moment I land abroad, but also because WhatsApp links your account to your phone number to function properly, as opposed to other services that rely on your email address.

People have complained that when I was abroad, they were getting messages on WhatsApp from a different account than the one they're used to - even though both of them were me. And when I came back to the US and reverted my WhatsApp number to my primary US phone number, and the foreign phone number I was using got cancelled by the phone company, they've complained that their messages sent to the secondary account never got to me.

I understand that my situation is rare - but I don't think it's unique (my phone plan provider has 10 million subscribers and none of their plans allow you to call or message outside the American continent). It's extremely frustrating to have to spend countless hours on devices having to prove my identity, or not being able to, and it has made travelling with digital devices a real pain.

Bottom line:

I would like to change the primary international messaging service that I use to an app that relies on my email and a secure, encrypted password, rather than one that bases my identity on my phone number.

It needs to be secure, accessible over wifi, able to run on most of my contacts' phones and computers, and ideally has video call capabilities.

Is there such a messaging service?

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  • You mention at least two services in your question that can be used without SMS authentication. (If they do for you, check account security settings to change that.) I imagine a long list of messenging services, most anything that doesn't use your phone # as your ID (and maybe even some that do?) would be answers to your current question. Maybe you have other wants or needs from the messenging service that you could edit into your question? – Dan Getz Mar 17 at 10:50
  • @DanGetz Thanks Dan, I edited my question to provide more legibility and requirements to what I am looking for. – MicroMachine Mar 17 at 20:21
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I know the following:

  • ProtonMail

    • I know, not a messaging service, but AFAIK securely encrypted, so I wanted to mention it.
    • Free until 500MB storage
  • VIPole

    • Free
    • Claims to be encrypted
    • Simple messenger using password to authenticate.
    • Is a little buggy with Japanese/Chinese characters sometimes (2021/03).
    • Is a little buggy in regard of video calling (2021/03).
  • LINE ( http://line.me )

    • Highly used in Japan.
    • It provides a master-slave environment: Your master is your phone (you register an account with your number). From that master you can allow "slaves" (like the computer app or the app on your second phone) to use that account.
    • Slaves log into your account by a password specifically for that purpose.
    • Other people don't see you're using a slave device.
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One such service is Matrix. It is a federated messaging service that can be used from multiple devices. You create a Matrix account with a "homeserver", of which there are many to choose from, although matrix.org is the most widely used one. You then log in using your Matrix username/homeserver and password.

There are multiple clients available, but the most full-featured one is Element, which is available on Android and iOS as well as a desktop version, and can also be used via the web.

It's possible that switching your phone number might cause you to be logged out on that device (although I don't think it would), but you could just log back in again. Also, unlike services like WhatsApp, Matrix is not only not locked to a phone number but not locked to a device at all. You can be logged in to the same Matrix account from multiple devices at the same time. So you can also, for instance, use a laptop to chat on Matrix even if something goes awry with your phone.

Matrix is still in development so there can be some rough edges but overall it works pretty well for basic messaging. One thing to be aware of is that it uses end-to-end encryption by default in one-on-one chats, and the way it does this means that if you log out on all your devices, you'll miss any encrypted messages sent during the time you remain logged out. Typically this is not a problem as Element doesn't generally log you out unless you explicitly tell it to (e.g., closing the app doesn't log you out), so as long as you don't deliberately log out on all devices at once you should be good.

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