Secure messaging apps like Signal and Telegram go the extra mile to protect your privacy and secure your conversations. But what if you want to truly chat anonymously, without giving away your personal phone number?
While this is possible, it requires a bit of patience to set up.
Signal and Telegram Require Your Phone Number
In order to use Signal or Telegram, you need a phone number. 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 doesn’t mean that they are anonymous services.
People you speak with over Signal or Telegram will see the phone number you used to sign up. This could be a problem if you’re a whistleblower, an anonymous source, or someone who just doesn’t want your conversations linked to your real-world phone number.
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 main Signal or Telegram account and want to create an anonymous secondary one, here are some things to consider:
For Signal, only one phone number can be linked to your Signal account, which means that you never need to create a password. You’ll need multiple smartphones to use more than one Signal account at a time. Alternatively, you can deactivate your account, then switch to a secondary account.
In Signal, switching accounts is inconvenient, since all of your conversations will be lost when you do so. Since Signal focuses on security, none of your correspondence is stored in the cloud. There’s no way of recovering messages or media you have sent or received unless you are transferring from an old device.
Telegram isn’t quite as restrictive. The Telegram desktop and tablet apps let you log in using a separate number on a desktop or tablet app. This doesn’t have to be linked to your smartphone or your “real” Telegram number. You can use this to your advantage, since you don’t need to abandon your main account to log in on a secondary one.
If you’re wondering whether you should use Telegram or Signal for your confidential, anonymous messaging needs, you might find that Telegram is the more convenient choice between the two. Just make sure that you enable secret chats in Telegram before doing so.
Option 1: Use a Burner Phone (or SIM)
One of the easiest ways of using 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 for free), which you can use to log in. You do not need to send any messages using this number, so you don’t need to spend any money if you don’t want to.
All you need the secondary number for is to receive a message with a code in it. This code is all you need to log in using either service, since your phone number is only used as a means of identifying you.
Signal requires access to this number the first time you log in (to receive a code). You will also need to use your primary device (an iPhone or Android smartphone) to add any linked devices you want to use with your anonymous number. Linked devices may need to be reauthorized from time to time, which will require access to your “burner” SIM, so keep it handy and active.
Telegram works the same way, except you won’t need to use a smartphone to add linked devices, since you can log in directly. Simply input your new “burner” phone number, enter the code you receive, and you’re off to the races.
Option 2: Use a VoIP Service Like Google Voice
If you don’t fancy switching SIM cards to go incognito, consider using a VoIP number instead. Google Voice is the obvious choice, offering a free U.S. phone number to those residing in the United States. You can also use a service like Skype, or any internet telephony provider that will give you a number (You may need to pay for it, though.).
There are a wide variety of other apps that can give you secondary “burner” phone numbers, too.
Once you’ve got your number, you can sign up as you would normally. For Signal, this means using a smartphone that isn’t already 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 like when signing up. This includes landlines, like the one sitting on your desk at work. Unfortunately, during testing, we couldn’t activate Telegram using this method (but you may have more luck).
When signing up this way, you won’t be able to receive your code in the standard manner via SMS. Instead, you can request that Signal call you. Selecting this option should prompt Signal to call you via an auto-dialer that speaks the required code out loud over the phone.
Signal attempts to send you a code via SMS when you enter your number. If you wait a minute, you’ll be able to tap the “I didn’t get a code” button, which will present you with the “Call Me Instead” option. Tap it, answer the phone, and listen to the code. You can then use this code to log in and send messages.
Telegram will also send you a code via SMS, alongside a “Haven’t received the code?” button, which doesn’t offer an option to receive a call by phone instead. This may have been due to the use of an Australian mobile number, so your mileage may vary using this method.
Can’t Register a Second Number on Your Smartphone?
If you have already registered your personal number with either service, you might be surprised to see that there’s no option to log out of the service. The easiest workaround is to delete the app in question. This will remove local data from your device (including login tokens), forcing you to log in when you re-download the app.
In the case of Signal, this will remove all conversations from your device. Since Telegram allows you to sign in using a number and the Telegram app for your platform of choice (including Windows, Mac, and Linux), there’s no need to purge your smartphone. Learn how to delete apps on your iPhone, or how to delete apps on Android.
If you’re a Signal user, you’ll need to repeat the process to get back 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 may still be traced. In some countries, you need to provide identification to get a SIM card, so your phone provider may know exactly who you are even if this information isn’t available to the general public.
The same is true for VoIP services such as Google Voice. While Google and Skype aren’t going to make information like your email address and IP address available to anyone, they still hold it on file and could be forced to hand it over in court.