Toll-free telephone number

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A toll-free telephone number or freephone number is a telephone number that is billed for all arriving calls. For the calling party, a call to a toll-free number from a landline is free of charge. A toll-free number is identified by a dialing prefix similar to an area code. The specific service access varies by country.



The features of toll-free services have evolved as telephone networks have evolved from electro-mechanical call switching to computerized stored program controlled networks. [1]

Originally,[ when? ] a call billed to the called party had to be placed through a telephone company operator as a collect call, often long-distance. The operator had to secure acceptance of the charges at the remote number, or even transfer that decision to a long-distance operator, before manually completing the call.

Some large businesses and government offices received large numbers of collect calls, which proved time-consuming for operators and the callers.

Manual toll-free systems

Prior to the development of customer-dialed toll-free service many telephone companies provided the service by operator assistance for telephone subscribers without dial telephones (manual service).

Operator-assisted toll-free calling included the Zenith number service introduced in the 1930s in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the manual 'Freephone' service introduced by the British Post Office in 1960. [2] [3]

Both systems were similar in concept. The calling party would ring the operator (now '100' in the UK, '0' in Canada/U.S.) and ask for a specific free number. In the U.S., the caller would ask for a number like "Zenith 12345" (some areas used "Enterprise" or "WX" instead of "Zenith"). In the UK, the caller would ask the operator to ring "Freephone" and a name or number (such as "Freephone Crimebusters" to pass on tips about a crime to the constabulary). [4]

In either case, the operator would look up the corresponding geographic number from a list and place the call with charges reversed.

A Zenith number was typically available from a predefined area, anything from a few nearby cities to a province or state, and was listed in local directories in each community from which the subscriber was willing to accept the charges for inbound calls.

Until the introduction of InWATS toll-free service by the Bell System on May 2, 1967 and the Linkline (later "Freefone") 0800 services by British Telecom on 12 November 1985, manually ringing the operator was the standard means to place a toll-free call. More than a few established manual "Freephone" or "Zenith" numbers remained in use for many years after competing automated systems (0800 in UK, 1800 in U.S.) were deployed in parallel for new toll-free numbers. [5]

Initial direct-dial systems

An automated toll-free service was introduced by AT&T in 1966 (US intrastate) and 1967 (US interstate) as an alternative to operator-assisted collect calling and manual "Zenith" or "Enterprise" numbers. This Inward Wide Area Telephone Service (InWATS) allowed calls to be made directly from anywhere in a predefined area by dialling the prefix 1800- and a seven-digit number.

The system initially provided no support for Automatic Number Identification and no itemised record of calls, instead requiring subscribers to obtain expensive fixed-rate lines which included some number of hours of inbound calling from a "band" of one or several U.S. states or Canadian provinces. Early InWATS 800 calling lacked the complex routing features offered with modern toll-free service. After competitive carriers were allowed to compete with AT&T in establishing toll-free service, the three digit exchange following the 800 prefix was linked to a specific destination carrier and area code; the number itself corresponded to specific telephone switching offices and trunk groups. All calls went to one central destination; there was no means to place a toll-free call to another country.

Despite its limitations (and the relatively high cost of long distance in that era), the system was adequate for the needs of large volume users such as hotel chains, airlines and hire car firms which used it to build a truly national presence.

For small regional businesses who received few long-distance calls, the original InWATS was prohibitively expensive. As a fixed-rate bulk service requiring special trunks, it was suited only to large volume users.

Modern direct-dial systems

Modern toll-free service became possible when telephone companies replaced their electro-mechanical switching systems with computerized switching systems. This allowed toll-free calls to be routed based on instructions located in central databases.

In the United States, AT&T engineer Roy P. Weber from Bridgewater, New Jersey patented a 'Data Base Communication Call Processing Method' which was deployed by AT&T in 1982. The called number was an index into a database, allowing a 'Toll-Free Call' or '800 Call' to be directed anywhere. [6] This feature and other advances that made it possible were what led to AT&T marketing analyst Dodge Cepeda from Bedminster, New Jersey to propose the introduction of providing 800 Toll-Free Service to small and medium-size business customers on a nationwide basis. Once this service was implemented, it became possible for the very smallest of business operations to have potential customers contact them free of charge at a time when long-distance calling was expensive. Until this time, 800 Service was only available to major Fortune 500 companies.

In the United Kingdom, BT introduced "Linkline" on 12 November 1985. No more need to manually ring the operator, two new prefixes 0800 (an automated toll-free service which became "Freefone") and 0345 (a shared-cost service marketed as "Lo-Call" because initially its rates resembled those of local calls) could be reached by direct dial. [7] Cable and Wireless used 0500 and 0645, in much the same way, just a few years later.

Vanity numbering

A toll-free vanity number, custom toll-free number, or mnemonic is easy to remember; it spells and means something or it contains an easily recognized numeric pattern. An easily remembered number is valued as a branding and direct response tool in business advertising.

In the United States, Federal Communications Commission regulations mandate that numbers be allocated on a first come, first served basis; this gives vanity number operators who register as RespOrgs a strong advantage in obtaining the most valuable phonewords, as they have first access to newly disconnected numbers and to newly introduced toll-free area codes. In Australia, premium numbers, such as the 13-series or the vanity phone words, are distributed by auction separately from the administrative procedure to assign random, generic numbers from the available pool.

Shared use

In toll-free telephony, a shared-use number is a vanity number (usually a valuable generic phone word), which is rented to multiple local companies in the same line of business in different cities. These appear in Australia (1300 and 1800) and North America (1800, etc.); in the U.S., the RespOrg infrastructure is used to direct calls for the same number to different vendors based on the area code of the calling number.

As one example, a taxi company could rent shared use of 1800TAXICAB in one city. The number belongs to a company in Van Nuys, California, [8] but is redirected to local cab companies on a city-by-city basis [9] and promoted by being printed on everything from individual taxi cab hub caps [10] to campaigns against drunk driving. [11] Another example is Mark Russell's 1800GREATRATE, a shared-use number rented to lenders in various cities nationwide for a monthly fee. [12]

One former Mercedes dealer obtained 1800MERCEDES, charging other dealers to receive calls to that number from their local areas. The automaker unsuccessfully sued MBZ Communications of Owatonna, Minnesota, operated by former Mercedes dealer Donald Bloom, alleging deception and trademark infringement. [12] [13] Mercedes was ultimately forced to obtain a different number, 1-800-FOR-MERCEDES. [14]

A company renting 1800REDCROSS at a premium price to individual local Red Cross chapters as "shared use" was less fortunate; the Federal Communications Commission reassigned that number to the American Red Cross as an emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. [15]

Shared use can be used as a means to circumvent FCC regulations against "warehousing, hoarding and brokering" toll-free numbers as technically the number is not being sold, only rented one city or region at a time. The practice is nonetheless potentially problematic as it leaves local businesses advertising numbers which they do not own and for which they therefore have no number portability. The cost per minute and per month is typically far higher for a shared-use number than for a standard toll-free vanity number which a local business controls outright, and there is little protection if the shared use company fails to meet its obligations or ceases operation.

There are also technical limitations; voice over IP users in particular are difficult to geolocate as their calls may be gated to the public switched telephone network at a point hundreds or thousands of miles away from their actual location. A roaming mobile or Internet telephone user is effectively (like the user of a foreign exchange line) attached to a distant rate centre far from their physical address.

If a program like Crime Stoppers is inherently regional or local, but its national 1800222TIPS number is shared between multiple exchanges, the exchange accepting the call must determine whether the call belongs to some other region.[ citation needed ]

International implementations

The implementation of toll-free calling by assigning special telephone numbers for charging a destination party is implemented in many countries by various dialing prefixes in the local number plan.

NTT Communications trade mark for free dial, often used in print advertising. Free1.gif
NTT Communications trade mark for free dial, often used in print advertising.



  • Toll-free numbers in Australia are ten-digit numbers beginning with the prefix "1800". [21]
  • 1800 numbers can also be found in Phonewords via an online auction. [22]
  • For all types, the recipient business pays for incoming toll charges, either per call or at flat rates. [23]
  • In some cases, 1800 numbers can be accessed from international lines.
  • Callers to an 1800 number are not charged a connection fee from a domestic fixed line. Calls from a mobile phone may incur charges depending on the provider.
  • The original prefix was 008. Such numbers were nine digits long. For example, the Crime Stoppers toll-free hotline was 008 333 000, sometimes (misleadingly) written as (008) 33 3000. Such numbers could be dialled from outside Australia, for example +61 08 333 0000

Local Rate numbers

A system similar to 1800 numbering exists where 6 or 10 digit numbers prefixed with 13 (one-three), 1300 or 1301 (colloquially one-three-hundred) can be called at local call rates regardless of the caller's location.

  • Callers to a 13 number are charged a "connection fee" by their telephone provider.
  • 13 and 1300 numbers are often "smart routed" to the local outlet of chain stores or fast food premises. They may also be used by different companies in different regions.
  • 13 numbers, 1300 numbers and 1800 numbers are relocatable across Australia, and can be transferred between different telecommunications suppliers.
  • 13 numbers are a premium number scheme, subject to charges from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) [24] of approximately $10,000 per annum collected by the supplying carrier.
  • Premium numbers, such as those that spell a word using keypad letters, are regularly auctioned by the ACMA. [25]

Mobile telephones

  • Mobile callers are charged to phone a 1300 number or 1800 number, usually at their normal per minute rate, but sometimes at predatory rates. These expensive numbers can be decoded to ordinary landline and organisations usually offer a landline number on their websites, though it may be hard to find.
  • Smart routed 1800 or 13(00) numbers are sometimes not available from mobile phones as owners of the numbers may bar incoming calls from mobile devices due to higher call charges associated with such calls.


In addition to NANP toll-free numbers, carriers Bell Canada and Telus offer 310- numbers that can be accessed at local-call prices as shared-cost service (free from landlines, incurs local airtime charge from mobiles and local price from payphones). There are a few special mobile-only numbers (like *CAA to call the Canadian Automobile Association) which are free from cell phones, these are actually vertical service codes.


800-toll-free numbers

800 toll-free numbers are commonly called "800 免费电话". The official name is "被叫集中付费业务" (called party collect paid service), which means the cost of the call is borne not by the caller but by the party receiving the call.

  • 800-toll-free numbers in China are ten-digit numbers beginning with "800". There is no prefix before "800".
  • 800-toll-free numbers are not accessible to mobile network subscribers and some land-line subscribers. For instance China Tietong Telecom land-line users cannot access 800 numbers.

400-toll-free numbers

  • 400-service is called "主被叫分摊付费业务" (calling party and called party split-paid service), which means the calling party pays for the local access fee and the called party pays the toll (long distance) fee.
  • 400-toll-free numbers in China are ten-digit numbers beginning with "400".
  • 400-toll-free numbers can be accessed by all fixed-line and mobile phones.
  • Callers have to bear local access charges from their service providers.
  • 400-toll-free numbers with prefix "4001" are international toll-free numbers which can be routed to destination numbers inside or outside China. 400 toll-free numbers with prefix "4000", "4006", "4007" or "4008" are national toll-free numbers which can be routed to China destination numbers only.


The introduction of 0800/0900 numbers in the Netherlands in 1986 has led to significant growth of call centres and an increase in outsourcing. [26]

Originally, free telephone numbers in the Netherlands started with either the 06-0, 06-4 or 06-3000 prefix. Most 0800-numbers cannot be called from abroad, and only few can be called from the Caribbean Netherlands (by dialing 0031800). 088-numbers are shared-cost; from landlines, the caller pays only the costs for a local call, whereas the receiver pays the rest.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, toll-free telephone numbers are generally known as "freephone" numbers (British Telecom numbers use the previously trademarked term Freefone [27] ) and begin with the prefixes 0800 or 0808. The most commonly used prefix is 0800, first used in November 1985. [28] Additionally, numbers in the range 0808 80x xxxx are reserved for not-for-profit helplines, through a scheme negotiated by the Helplines Partnership (now known as the Helplines Association).

Since 1 July 2015, all 0800 and 0808 numbers have been free to call from landlines and mobile phones alike. [29] [30] Most mobile phone operators had charged for such calls previously, with Orange being the final major network to introduce such charges during December 2005. Certain helplines, such as those in the 0808 80x xxxx series had remained free from most networks on a voluntary basis and some niche operators, such as Giffgaff always offered freephone calls at no charge. [31]

The UK mobile operators offer an alternative product to organisations who wish to provide toll-free services - 5-digit voice short codes which are sold through mobile aggregators.

0500 numbers, introduced by Mercury Communications (later known as Cable & Wireless, now Vodafone) in 1982, were also freephone numbers (known as "FreeCall"), but were officially withdrawn by Ofcom on 3 June 2017. A three-year transition period prior to that had allowed existing subscribers to migrate to matching 080 85 numbers with the same final 6 digits as before. [32] While the numbers had been portable, the 0500 range had been closed to new allocations since 1997/98. [33]

0500 numbers had six more digits after the prefix. 0800 numbers can have six or seven digits after the prefix. 0808 numbers have seven digits after the prefix.

Freephone numbers in the range 08081 570000 to 570999 are blocked out by Ofcom for use as fictitious telephone numbers. [34]

United States

Toll-free numbers in the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) are commonly called "800-numbers" after the first area code assigned for the service. Today, several prefixes are used: 800 (since January 1, 1966), 888 (since March 1, 1996), 877 (since April 4, 1998), 866 (since July 29, 2000), 855 (since October 9, 2010), [35] 844 (since December 7, 2013), [36] and 833 (since June 3, 2017 [37] ).

Area codes reserved for future expansion of the service include 822, 880 through 887, and 889. [38]

The original Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) is obsolete. North American toll-free numbers are controlled by an intelligent network database (SMS/800) in which any toll-free number may be directed to any geographic telephone number under the control of any of various RespOrgs. [39] Direct inward dialing and toll-free number portability are supported; various providers offer gateways which receive free phone calls on PRI lines and deliver them to voice over IP or pager users.

Toll free numbers usually capture the telephone number of the caller for billing purposes through automatic number identification, which is independent of caller ID data and functions even if caller ID is blocked. [40]

Universal International Freephone Service

Universal International Freephone Service is an international service, assigned the country code 800 by the International Telecommunication Union. The intention is that any customer in the world can dial the same number to reach a business subscribing to a number, and at no charge to the calling party. However, only a limited number of countries participate. In order to participate, countries must agree on the amount of revenue they will retain (to cover their costs of network transport) while still forwarding sufficient revenue to cover the recipient's costs of subscribing.

A Universal International Freephone Number (UIFN) is a worldwide toll-free "800 number" issued by the ITU. Like the 800 area code issued for the NANP in the U.S. and Canada and 0800 numbers in many other countries, the call is free for the caller while the receiver pays the charges. UIFN uses ITU country code 800 so that no matter where the caller is, only the international access code (IAC), the UIFN country code (800) and the 8-digit UIFN need to be dialed. As of March 2020, 144 carriers in 67 countries participate in the UIFN program; [41] free access to the numbers (as international calls) from mobile and coin telephones is not universal. Registration of a +800 number incurs a 300 Swiss franc ITU fee (as of 2018) in addition to any charges levied by the individual carrier. The number must be activated for inbound calls from at least two telephone country codes within 180 days. [42]

The +800 UIFN service is one of three ITU-administered non-geographic codes with a similar numbering scheme. The +808 Universal International Shared Cost Number (UISCN), billed at the price of a domestic call, shares the same eight-digit format; the +979 Universal International Premium Rate Number (UIPRN), billed at a high premium cost, carries one extra digit to indicate price range.

See also

Related Research Articles

Premium-rate telephone numbers are telephone numbers that charge callers higher price rates for select services, including information and entertainment. A portion of the call fees is paid to the service provider, allowing premium calls to be an additional source of revenue for businesses. Tech support, psychic hotlines, and adult chat lines are among the most popular kinds of premium-rate phone services. Other services include directory enquiries, weather forecasts, competitions and ratings televoting. Some businesses, e.g. low-cost airlines, and diplomatic missions, such as the US Embassy in London or the UK Embassy in Washington, have also used premium-rate phone numbers for calls from the general public.

A telephone numbering plan is a type of numbering scheme used in telecommunication to assign telephone numbers to subscriber telephones or other telephony endpoints. Telephone numbers are the addresses of participants in a telephone network, reachable by a system of destination code routing. Telephone numbering plans are defined in each of the administrative regions of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and in private telephone networks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in the United Kingdom</span>

In the United Kingdom, telephone numbers are administered by the Office of Communications (Ofcom). For this purpose, Ofcom established a telephone numbering plan, known as the National Telephone Numbering Plan, which is the system for assigning telephone numbers to subscriber stations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Australia</span>

The Australian telephone numbering plan governs the allocation of telephone numbers in Australia. It has changed many times, the most recent major reorganisation by the Australian Communications and Media Authority taking place between 1994 and 1998.

In telecommunications, a long-distance call (U.S.) or trunk call is a telephone call made to a location outside a defined local calling area. Long-distance calls are typically charged a higher billing rate than local calls. The term is not necessarily synonymous with placing calls to another telephone area code.

In Argentina, area codes are two, three, or four digits long. Local customer numbers are six to eight figures long. The total number of digits is ten, for example, phone number (11) 1234-5678 for Buenos Aires is made up of a 2-digit area code number and an 8-digit subscriber's number, while (383) 123-4567 would be an example of a Catamarca number.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in the Republic of Ireland</span>

Numbers on the Irish telephone numbering plan are regulated and assigned to operators by ComReg.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Singapore</span>

Telephone numbers in Singapore, also known as the National Numbering Plan, are regulated by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA). Due to the small geographical size of Singapore, there are no area or trunk codes; all numbers belong to one numbering area, and thus come in the same 8-digit format. Numbers are categorised based on the first digit, thus providing ten possible categories, of which six are currently in use and the remaining four reserved for future usage.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Romania</span>

The dialling plan for mobile networks and new landline operators is closed; all subscriber numbers must be dialled in full. For landline numbers starting with 02, the dialling plan used to be open; the trunk digit and area code could be omitted if the caller was in the same area code as the callee. However, starting May 3, 2008, all landline numbers must be dialled in full.

The Brazilian telephone numbering plan uses a two-digit area code plus eight-digit local phone numbers for landlines and nine digits for mobile lines. Public utility services use short phone numbers, always starting with 1.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in New Zealand</span> New Zealand numbering plan

The New Zealand telephone numbering plan describes the allocation of telephone numbers in New Zealand and the Pitcairn Islands.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Spain</span>

The Spanish telephone numbering plan is the allocation of telephone numbers in Spain. It was previously regulated by the Comisión del Mercado de las Telecomunicaciones (CMT), but is now regulated by the Comisión Nacional de los Mercados y la Competencia (CNMC).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Italy</span>

Telephone numbers in Italy are managed by the Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni (AGCOM), a national regulatory authority for the communication industry located in Rome.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Israel</span>

Telephone numbers in Israel consist of an area code and a subscriber number. The dial plan type in Israel is closed, and "0" is the internal trunk prefix in Israel. Israel's country calling code is +972.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Belgium</span>

A telephone number in Belgium is a sequence of nine or ten digits dialed on a telephone to make a call on the Belgian telephone network. Belgium is under a full number dialing plan, meaning that the full national number must be dialed for all calls, while it retains the trunk code, '0', for all national dialling.

National conventions for writing telephone numbers vary by country. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) publishes a recommendation entitled Notation for national and international telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and Web addresses. Recommendation E.123 specifies the format of telephone numbers assigned to telephones and similar communication endpoints in national telephone numbering plans.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Telephone numbers in Belarus</span>

Belarus began using its own country code +375 in 1995, replacing the +7 international country code inherited from the Soviet Union. The local numbering plan was inherited from the Soviet Union and remains with few changes.

UK Calling is the name given to the legislation introduced by Ofcom in July 2015 to make the cost of calling UK service numbers clearer for everyone.


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