How to Use Amazon Alexa and Add Alexa Skills

By Paul McFedries

The Amazon Alexa equivalent of apps are called skills. Like a mobile device, Alexa can do a few things out of the box, such as playing music or audiobooks, telling you the time or the weather, and making voice or video calls. But if you want to know how to use Alexa to perform more specialized tasks, then you need to add the appropriate skills from the Amazon Alexa skills list. It’s pretty much the same as adding new apps to your smart phone.

What kinds of skills can you add? Well, more than 50,000 skills are available in categories such as Business & Finance, Education & Reference, Games, Trivia & Accessories, and Smart Home, so the sky is pretty much the limit. Want to hail an Uber or a Lyft? There are skills for that. Want to know what’s on TV tonight? There’s a skill for that. Want to play an adventure game or challenge you and your family with some trivia? There are skills for those, too.

How to Find Top Alexa Skills

The skill equivalent of an app store is Amazon’s Alexa Skills list, which you can access in one of two ways:

  • On the web: Use your favorite web browser to surf to www.amazon.com (or your local Amazon domain, such as www.amazon.ca for Canada), and then choose Departments→Echo & Alexa→Alexa Skills.
  • In the Alexa app: Choose Menu→Skills & Games.

By default, the Alexa app doesn’t show skills that were designed specifically for children. To see those skills, you need to adjust your settings. Choose Menu→Settings→Alexa Account→Kid Skills, and then tap the Allow Kid Skills switch to On. (If you don’t see the Kid Skills item, it means that feature hasn’t been rolled out in your location just yet.)

Whether you’re using the web or the app, you see a few featured skills upfront, and you also get a search box to locate specific skills. However, when you’re just starting out, it’s usually best to examine the various skill categories, which are listed on the left side of the web page. In the Alexa app, tap the Categories button to see the list.

Select a category to see what’s available. If something looks interesting, select the skill to open its info page, which gives you a description of the skill, voice commands you can use, user ratings, and any permissions that are required (such as allowing notifications or giving your address for a delivery skill). You may also see these two phrases, which require a little explanation:

  • In-Skill Purchases Available: The skill offers extra features or content that you can purchase while using the skill.
  • Account Linking Required: The skill requires access to a third-party user account. For example, if you want to use a ride-sharing service such as Lyft or Uber, both of which offer Alexa skills, you must give the skill permission to access your user account on the service, a process called account linking.

How to Use Alexa Skills

If you locate a skill that looks fun, entertaining, or useful, go ahead and give it a try (hey, it’s free, remember?). To use a skill with Alexa, you must enable it.

Enable an Alexa skill with a voice command

To enable a skill with your voice, use either of the following commands:

  • “Alexa, enable [skill].”
  • “Alexa, open [skill].”

Here, skill is the so-called invocation name of the skill: a word or phrase unique to the skill. How in the name of Jeff Bezos are you supposed to know a skill’s invocation name? That’s available on the skill’s info page, in the Skill Details section.

Alexa tells you the skill is enabled and then invokes the skill. The first time the skill runs, you usually get a brief introduction and some suggested commands or tasks.

If the skill requires permission from you to access information on your Alexa device, you can’t enable the skill with a voice command. Instead, you have to use the Alexa app.

Enable an Alexa skill using the Alexa app

You can also enable a skill using the Alexa app, as shown in the following steps:

  1. In the Alexa app, choose Menu→Skills & Games.
  2. Locate the skill you want to enable.
  3. Tap the skill to open its information page.
  4. Tap Enable. If the skill requires extra permissions from you, you see the Skill Permissions dialog.
  5. If you see the Skill Permissions dialog, set the permission switch or switches to On or Off, as desired, and then tap Save Permissions. Alexa enables the skill.

30 Cool Alexa Skills to Try

With more than 50,000 skills available, finding a useful, fun, or entertaining skill is a true needle-in-the-proverbial-haystack exercise. Who has time to comb through either a haystack or Amazon’s Alexa Skills list? If you’re just not sure where to begin, let me help. Here are 30 ready-to-enable skills that you can take for a test drive.

Top Alexa Skills for Daily Living

  • AnyPod: A podcast skill that enables you to add podcasts to your library, sync your listening history to your Alexa device, and much more. Invocation name: anypod.
  • Lyft: Enables you to use Alexa to hail a Lyft. Account linking is required. Invocation name: lyft.
  • Mastermind: An all-purpose AI-driven assistant that you can use to send text messages and emails, make phone calls, search the web, and tons more. Invocation name: mastermind.
  • Uber: Enables you to use Alexa to hail an Uber. Account linking is required. Invocation name: uber.

Top Amazon Alexa Skills for News, Weather, and Information

  • Big Sky: A weather skill that goes well beyond the default Alexa weather report. Account linking is required. Invocation name: big sky.
  • CBC: News, music, or a specific Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio One station. Invocation name: CBC.
  • Curiosity: This skill asks you to choose between two topics and then tells you interesting facts about the topic you chose. Invocation name: curiosity.
  • Feels Like: Tells you what the current temperature in your location feels like, meaning the wind-chill temperature in winter and the humidex in summer. Invocation name: feels like.
  • Learn Something Radio: Plays daily new episodes from some of the web’s most learned brands, including NPR, 99% Invisible, and Freakonomics Radio. Invocation name: learn something radio.
  • NPR News Now: News stories from National Public Radio, delivered via Alexa’s Flash Briefing. Invocation name: npr news now.
  • SAT Word of the Day: Presents a new word each day, spells the word, and uses it in a sample sentence. Invocation name: s-a-t word of the day.
  • TED Talks: Gives you audio access to all the TED Talks. Invocation name: ted talks.
  • The Daily Show: A satiric takes on the day’s news stories, delivered as part of your Flash Briefing. Invocation name: the daily show.
  • This Day in History: Tells you the top historical event that occurred on the current day of the year. Invocation name: this day in history.
  • Translated: Translates short phrases from English into more than three dozen languages, from American Spanish to Welsh. Invocation name: translated.

Top Amazon Alexa Skills for Health, Fitness, and Safety

  • 7-Minute Workout: Daily workouts that aim to improve strength and aerobic fitness in just seven minutes. Invocation name: seven-minute workout.
  • Burglar Deterrent: Protects your home when you’re out by playing realistic audio for activities such as talking, cleaning, and cooking to make it seem as though someone’s home. Invocation name: burglar deterrent.
  • Mayo Clinic First Aid: Provides first-aid instructions for common injuries and illnesses. Invocation name: mayo first aid.
  • What to Expect: Daily tips and advice during pregnancy. Invocation name: what to expect.

Top Amazon Alexa Skills for Inspiration

  • Headspace: Provides guided meditations, including a new guided meditation each day. Invocation name: headspace.
  • Inspire Me: Inspirational quotations from famous people (who do the talking instead of Alexa) that you can invoke at random, by speaker, or by topic. Invocation name: inspire me.

Top Alexa Skills for Cooking (and Drinking)

  • The Bartender: Delivers cocktail recipes. Invocation name: the bartender.
  • Meat Thermometer: Say a type of meat (such as “steak”) and how you want it cooked (such as “medium rare”), and this app tells you the internal temperature to shoot for. Invocation name: meat thermometer.
  • MySomm: A wine-pairing skill. That is, given a food, the skill suggests a wine to go with it. Invocation name: wine gal.

Top Amazon Alexa Skills for Fun and Relaxation

  • Akinator: Think of a real or fictional character and this skill guesses the name of that character after asking a few questions. Invocation name: akinator.
  • Alexa Things to Try: Gives you a daily Alexa tip and news on the latest Alexa features as part of your Flash Briefing. Invocation name: flash briefing.
  • Amazon Storytime: Plays professionally narrated short stories for kids aged 5 through 12. Invocation name: amazon storytime.
  • Ambient Sounds: A collection of sound loops to help you sleep, relax, or block out noises. There are a few dozen sounds in all, including thunderstorms, windy trees, and fireplace. Invocation name: ambient sounds.
  • The Magic Door: An interactive adventure game. Invocation name: the magic door.
  • The Wayne Investigation: An interactive mystery game where the choices you make as you investigate a mystery affect the outcome of the story. Invocation name: the wayne investigation.

Many of these skills are only available in certain countries. If you don’t see the skill either in Amazon’s Alexa Skills list or in the Alexa app, it means the skill isn’t available where you live.