Toll-free telephone number

Wide Area Telephone Service RespOrg Collect call

A toll-free telephone number or freephone number is a telephone number that is billed for all arriving calls instead of incurring charges to the originating telephone subscriber. For the calling party, a call to a toll-free number from a landline is free of charge.

A toll-free, Freecall, Freephone, 0120, 800, 0800, 888, 866, 877, 855, 844, 833 or 1‑800 number is identified by a dialing prefix similar to a geographic area code, such as 909 (the area code that covers eastern Los Angeles County and southwestern San Bernardino County). The specific service access numbers vary by country.


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

Originally, a call billed to the called party had to be placed through a telephone company operator as a collect call. The operator had to secure acceptance of the charges at the remote number before manually completing the call.

A few large businesses and government offices received large numbers of collect calls, which proved time-consuming for operators.

Manual toll-free systems

Prior to the development of automated toll-free service many telephone companies provided a manual version of caller free service.

Examples of operator-assisted toll-free calling include the Zenith number introduced in the 1950s in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the original 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 1‑2345" (some areas used "Enterprise" or "WX" instead of "Zenith", but in the same pattern of a free service name and a five-digit number). 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, 1‑800 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 1‑800- 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 (1‑800- and its overlays); 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 1‑800‑TAXICAB 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 1‑800‑GREATRATE, a shared-use number rented to lenders in various cities nationwide for a monthly fee.[12]

One former Mercedes dealer obtained 1‑800‑MERCEDES, 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 1‑800‑RED‑CROSS 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 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 1‑800‑222‑TIPS number is shared between multiple exchanges, the exchange accepting the call must determine whether the call belongs to some other region.[citation needed]

Around the world

Countries around the world use various dialing prefixes to denote toll-free services in their telephone networks.

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



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 location.

Mobile phones


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

400-toll-free numbers


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 are officially Freefone) and begin with the prefixes 0800 or 0808. The most commonly used prefix is 0800, first used in November 1985.[27] 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.[28][29] 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.[30]

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.[31] While the numbers had been portable, the 0500 range had been closed to new allocations since 1997/98.[32]

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.

United States

Toll-free numbers in the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) are commonly called "800 numbers" after the original area code which was used to dial them. They include the area code 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)[33], 844 (since December 7, 2013),[34] and 833 (since June 3, 2017[35]). Area codes reserved for future expansion include 822, 880 through 887, and 889.[36]

The original Wide Area Telephone Service 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 a local or long-distance geographic telephone number, a T-carrier or primary rate interface line under the control of any of various RespOrgs.[37] 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.[38]

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;[39] 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.[40]

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


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  3. ^ Smith, David R. (2012-12-06). Digital Transmission Systems. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781441989338.
  4. ^ Blackburn Police Station, Westlothian UK, "dial 100 and ask for Freephone Crimebusters" to report tips about crime
  5. ^ Olga, Gorvachev (27 May 2016). "What is the history of 0800 Freephone numbers?". Flower Telecom. Retrieved 2017-08-10.
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  8. ^ Robinson-Jacobs, Karen (Nov 28, 2000). "Nationwide Taxi Service Calls Valley Home". Los Angeles Times. p. B1.
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