Episode 32: US Telephone Numbers

Today I will tell you about telephone numbers in the USA.

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Regardless of region or state, telephone numbers in America always have the same format. This is true for landlines and mobile phones. FYI (for your information), mobile phones in the US are called cell phones. This is because each tower that provides the signal for mobile phones covers a “cell” of geographical area. Those towers are called cell towers. Furthermore, if an American says, “Give me your cell,” he just means your mobile phone number, not your phone!

The format for US phone numbers consists of ten digits. First there is a three-digit area code in parentheses, then a space, then a three-digit prefix, then a dash or hyphen, then a four-digit individual number.

For example, the number for a time-and-temperature recording near where I live is (303) 398-3964. Looking at this number, I can tell that it is in Colorado because of the 303 area code. In the past, you could tell where a person lived from his area code. It’s not true anymore, though, because people can now keep their same cell phone numbers even if they move to different places.

If a person with a US phone number calls another person with a US phone number, he must dial all ten digits, UNLESS his phone number has the same area code. In that case, he can skip the area code and dial only the last seven digits.

If you dial a different area code from your own number, there may be extra, long-distance charges for the call, especially if you use a landline. But this depends on the phone service plan. Some area codes, however, are toll-free, which means there is no extra, long-distance charges if you call those numbers. Area codes that are toll-free are 800, 844, 855, 866, 877 and 888. Generally, only businesses have toll-free numbers for their customers because they are quite expensive. Sometimes people refer to toll-free numbers as “800 numbers”.

You may have heard the prefix 555 in a movie or on TV. This is a fake prefix. It is reserved for movies and television, and no one actually has a 555 prefix. If you hear it, you know it is fake.

If you are dialing a US number from a phone number of a different country, you must use the International Direct Dialing (IDD) prefix of the other country and the US country code, which is 1. For example, if you are calling from a phone in Germany, you must first dial 00 (Germany’s IDD), then 1 (the US country code), then the 10-digit number. Note that toll-free numbers usually don’t work for international calls.

Finally, as you might guess, sending an SMS in America uses the same phone number format as calls do. However, Americans say “texting” instead of “sending an SMS”.

Language note: Until 1963, telephones had no buttons or touchscreens. Instead, you had to pull on a hole in a rotating clear plastic ring around the face of the phone to dial a number. This was called “dialing the phone” because the numbers were arranged in a circle, or dial, and the plastic ring moved in a circle around the dial. Even though there are hardly any rotary phones nowadays, we still say “dial” when talking about phone calls.


That’s the podcast for this time. Slow American English is written and produced by Karren Tolliver. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

For a free transcript and to subscribe to the podcast, visit www.SlowAmericanEnglish.net. You can also subscribe via iTunes, Google Play Music, and any other podcast feed reader.

Theme music for this podcast is written and performed by SW Campbell and used by permission. Find more music by this artist at www.Soundclick.com/swcampbell.

This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.