London Calling: Public Phone Boxes and Telephone Essentials

Photo of a red London phone booth with snow on top, in front of the iconic Big Ben.

London calling. Photo © Adrian Clark, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

The country code for the United Kingdom is 44, and there are three main area code prefixes for London: 020 7, 020 8, and 020 3. Area codes are called “STD codes” (in case you’re wondering, STD stands for “subscriber trunk dialing” and means that you don’t need an operator to place the call). Originally, 020 7 was meant to cover “central London” with the 020 8 number for outer London. Of course, as it is a massive metropolis, London soon needed more phone numbers, so the 020 3 prefix was introduced.

Attitudes toward receiving phone calls at night are generally a bit more conservative here than they are in the States.If you are calling London from the United States, then you do not need to dial the leading 0 in the area code—just dial 011 44 20 and then the rest of the number. If you are in London and calling a number with a different area code on a landline, then you can drop the 020 and just start dialing with 7, 8, or 3, as required. With a cell phone, however, you will also need to include the 020 part of the prefix. If you are making a local call to a phone number within the same area code, you do not need to dial the area code.

Outside of London, the area code prefixes follow the National Telephone Numbering Plan, and area codes can be anything from three to six digits long. The numbering system is not geographic, so don’t expect all Scottish numbers to begin with a certain number, for example. Unlike in the United States, where all phone numbers are usually seven digits long and the area codes are three digits, the number of digits in a British telephone number and a regional STD dialing code can vary. You can even get STD dialing codes that are longer than the actual phone number.

All British cell phones start with one of the following prefixes: 074, 075, 077, 078, or 079. The prefixes for “freephone” numbers (toll-free numbers) in the United Kingdom are 0500, 0800, and 0808. (Be aware that British mobile operators may charge for calls to freephone numbers.) Numbers beginning with 09, 118, and 0871/2/3 are premium rate and cost more than the standard rate.

Attitudes toward receiving phone calls at night are generally a bit more conservative here than they are in the States. As a guide I do not tend to phone past 9 p.m. unless I know the person really, really well or it’s an emergency—I’ll send a text message or email instead. Perhaps this is a hangover from when I had younger kids that could be easily awakened by the sound of a phone ringing, but still I try to be considerate about when I use the phone here.

Public Phone Boxes

Even though most Londoners have cell phones, you’ll still find brightly painted red call boxes dotted around town. The ones that say “telephone” are coin operated and the ones that say “phone card” only take cards. These days the minimum cost for a call from a public phone call box is 60p (20p for the call and 40p for the connection), and it will give you up to 30 minutes for either a local or national call, though some phone numbers are excluded from this tariff. With the old-style British public phones, you should dial first and only insert your change when you hear the beeping sound (your cue to put the coins in), which means that the call has been answered. With the more modern phone boxes, you put the money in first before you dial, as you do in the States. Other ways to pay for your call from a public phone box include getting a phone card from British Telecom or using your credit/debit card and PIN number. If you are going to be making several international calls you may want to get an international phone card from your local post office. Some of the call boxes in London (as elsewhere in the United Kingdom) are very sophisticated these days and will let you send a text message, email, or fax.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in London.

Leave a Reply