Cellphone technology allows users with limited battery power to change their voicemail greetings as long as they still have service or network access.
However, users without service or data do not have the ability to change their voicemail greetings — unless they have access to Wi-Fi, a landline, or another cell phone using a different wireless network.
In late October 2021, the below-displayed text circulated widely online, advising anyone who is stranded while hiking or dealing with another emergency situation to change their cellphone's voicemail greeting to include details that would help callers find them — even when, or if, the stranded person doesn't have service.
The copypasta text spread like wildfire on platforms, such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, no matter the legitimacy of its several claims. At least one U.S. police department even recirculated the purported advisory. It read:
If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc and you notice your cell phone is either low on juice or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life. Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc.... The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find or where to send help.
The origin of the viral text is unknown. Over the course of days leading up to the publication of this report, numerous Snopes readers searched our site or contacted us to learn whether the rumor contained facts — namely, if cellphone technology indeed allows anyone to update their voicemail greeting even if the device is "low on juice or has no signal."
We considered the former scenario first. Let's say, hypothetically, an injured hiker wanted to change their voicemail greeting to detail their location and condition, but their phone battery was dying. Service was not an issue.
That person would likely have no problem changing the greeting. Most cellphone users can change their voicemail greetings whenever, as many times as they want, if there is some juice left in the battery. So long as the hiker could follow instructions specific to their phone model or mobile service provider (see Verizon's here; AT&T's here; T-Mobile's here) to record a new greeting — all before their phone reached 0% battery life — the person could perhaps receive help due to the advice outlined in the viral post.
Once a phone dies, however, that hiker would have no ability to change their voicemail greeting — unless they had access to another cellphone or landline.
Years before this report (when a version of this rumor circulated online, alleging people in the path of hurricanes could use the supposed "voicemail" tip to stay safe), Snopes reported that some cellular service providers allow customers to access and update their voicemail greetings by calling their own numbers from another phone.
So, if a driver with a dead phone and broken vehicle had access to a landline, for example, they could follow the advice in the viral copypasta. It was also true that "voicemail still works" when phone batteries die, in the sense that callers can hear greetings even if phone owners can't turn on their devices due to a lack of battery power.
Now, let us consider the factually-compromised aspect of the claim: that stranded people without cell service can supposedly update their voicemail greetings from their device.
That is not true. In general, no one without service can change their voicemail greetings unless they have access to Wi-Fi, a landline, or another cellphone on a different wireless network, according to spokespeople for the three main carriers.
For instance, Steve Van Dinter, a spokesperson for Verizon, told us via email:
"While you can dial *86 or change your voicemail greeting with visual voicemail if your battery was dying...you would still need cell service or a data connection of some sort (like wi-fi) in order to allow that new greeting to update on our servers."
A spokesperson for AT&T shared a similar message with us via email. "A cellular or Wi-Fi calling connection is needed in order to access and change a voicemail greeting from your device. You can also change a voicemail greeting from another phone with service – including a landline phone."
(We also reached out to T-Mobile about the rumor, and we are awaiting a response. In September, a spokesperson with that carrier echoed the remarks of the AT&T and Verizon representatives in an USA Today article.)
Considering that evidence, we rate this claim this claim a "Mixture" of true, false and misleading information.
The viral text attracted criticism online, including from emergency management officials. For example, the search-and-rescue unit of a Washington state sheriff's office said in an Oct. 22 Facebook post:
"If you have any battery life, send a text message. It only takes a fraction of a second of data reception to get that message out. This has a much better chance to make it through than updating your voice mail. [...] If you don’t have a signal, you can’t change your VM. Don’t waste your battery attempting this."
As one Reddit user put it: "[If] your battery is low... DON'T WASTE TIME AND BATTERY CHANGING YOUR VOICEMAIL. CALL FOR HELP."
Calling "911" is always the best first step in emergency situations when your safety or health is threatened. Even if you have limited service, the call may go through.
“Fact Check: Cellphone Users Need Service or Wi-Fi to Change Voicemail in Weather Emergency.” USA TODAY, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/09/20/fact-check-cell-service-wi-fi-landline-needed-change-voicemail/8352048002/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2021.
“Do This If You’re Lost or Stranded, a Massachusetts Police Department Says.” Masslive, 22 Oct. 2021, https://www.masslive.com/news/2021/10/do-this-if-youre-lost-or-stranded-a-massachusetts-police-department-says.html.
“Can Mobile Phone Users Update Their Voicemail Greetings Without Cellular Service?” Snopes.Com, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/update-voicemail-no-service/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2021.
“Record Voicemail Greeting.” AT&T, https://www.att.com/support/article/wireless/KM1009187/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2021.