UK telephone code misconceptions

UK telephone code misconceptions

Widespread UK telephone code misconceptions, in particular brought on by the Big Number Change in 2000, have been reported by regulator Ofcom since publication of a report it commissioned in 2004.[1]

Owing to the marked increase in demand for more and more telephone numbers to be available for allocation since the 1990s, the United Kingdom's telephone numbering system has been restructured several times on both a national and regional level, resulting in several modifications to the way British telephone numbers are written. As a consequence of these changes, many people were left with a misunderstanding of how the system of area codes and local numbers operates.

The telephone area code for most of Greater London and some surrounding areas is 020, not "0207", "0208" or "0203".[2] All London telephone numbers have eight digits, most clearly expressed as two sets of four. The London number (020) 7222 1234 can be dialled as 7222 1234 from any other land-line whose area code is also 020.

A further study was commissioned in 2005 which found that only 13% of respondents correctly identified the 020 code for London without prompting: 59% incorrectly identified it as "0207" or "0208".[3]

Other affected area codes include Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Leeds, Leicester, Northern Ireland, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Reading, Sheffield and Southampton.



A standard United Kingdom fixed telephone number (i.e. a landline, or geographical number, as opposed to a mobile telephone number or special rate non-geographic fixed line) is divided into two parts, an STD code (area code) and a local number. The STD code indicates the geographical area of the number, and is dialled before the local number. When dialling within the same area, the area code can be omitted.[4] Some telephone service providers differentiate ordinary calling costs using the relevant area code(s).

The area code plus local number can have varying total and composite digit lengths, for historical and operational reasons, but as a rule they do not exceed 11 digits in combined length. For readability, and to distinguish geographic location, telephone numbers are often spoken, displayed and published with a gap between the area code and local number, and/or with the area code in brackets. Problems occur for the reader when this spacing or formatting is incorrectly applied by the publisher.

History of the confusion

When the UK's original STD codes were allocated, London was given the code 01, for example, (01) 222 1234 (London Transport). The local number comprised seven digits.

In May 1990 the single London area was split into two areas, because of increased demand. Inner London was given the code 071, for example, (071) 222 1234, and the rest 081. Consequently, there potentially then existed two separate numbers 222 1234, because they were in different area codes. The local numbers remained as seven digits. This doubled the numbers available for London, but it also meant that a person from outer London, when calling a central London number (and vice versa), had to dial the full number including prefix.[5]

To free up more numbers for future use, on Easter Sunday, 16 April 1995 (dubbed "PhONEday"), an extra digit "1" was inserted after the initial zero into all except five geographical area codes nationwide, so inner and outer London became 0171 and 0181 respectively — for example (0171) 222 1234. At the same time, those five other places gained a brand new 011x area code.

Re-unification of London

Further increased demand for telephone numbers in London led to the need for more number-space: rather than again split area codes, it was decided to merge the 0171 and 0181 area codes back into one but add an extra digit to the start of each London local number, thus increasing the available numbers fivefold.

From 1 June 1999, a new code for a re-united London was created, 020. All the old seven-digit numbers had a 7 or 8 prefixed to them, depending upon whether they had been part of 0171 or 0181. Thus:

(0171) xxx xxxx became (020) 7xxx xxxx
(0181) xxx xxxx became (020) 8xxx xxxx

Direct dialling of 8-digit local numbers was not implemented until 22 April 2000. After this date, London became once more fully united and all local numbers could be connected correctly from anywhere in the area. The following diagram shows the history of London's code, starting with the original unified 01 code and ending with the reunified 020 code:

History of London STD codes.svg


Although London was re-united, people still frequently quote and write London numbers as if the city and surrounding suburbs were still split up into central and suburban areas by saying and writing "0207" and "0208".[6][7] If the London number (020) 7222 1234 is incorrectly written as 0207 222 1234, and then dialled in full, the destination will be reached. However, it is incorrect to place the pause as shown, because if the local number is dialled from within London as if it is just 222 1234 - it will not be connected because it is missing the first digit (of eight digits). On the day of the changeover, one in three callers failed to correctly use eight-digit local dialling.[8][9]

Possible causes for the misunderstanding include the confusion created during the period from 1 June 1999 to 22 April 2000, where it was not possible to dial eight-digit local numbers; the fact that people had become very much accustomed to the audio rhythm of a four-digit area code (from hearing the old codes, "0171" and "0181" repeated previously); and that incorrectly formatted caller ID data was transmitted for some time after the change. Also, many users are unaware that there is any local dialling procedure, probably because of the increasing popularity of mobile phones (from which the full national number must always be dialled).

Numerous examples of incorrectly formatted telephone numbers may still be seen in and around London, including signwriting on shopfronts and commercial vehicles, and in newspaper advertisements. The incorrectly placed pauses are also heard in speech everywhere: in radio and television advertisements, and said by office workers misquoting their office numbers as "0207 xxx xxxx" - unaware that this simply perpetuates the confusion.

While some clear publicity explaining the change was produced,[10] BT's directory-assistance service quoted the codes incorrectly and, until November 2009, their online phonebook still incorrectly showed "0207" and "0208" as "London Inner" and "London Outer" codes respectively.[11]

A 2005 television advertisement for the mobile telephony provider O2 promoted a service that allows a user to select two area codes they can call for a reduced price; it also incorrectly showed 0207 and 0208 as different "area codes".

Confusion is also caused by exchange automated changed number announcements where the voice synthesiser assumes that ALL area codes have four digits and places the spoken pause incorrectly.

New London numbers

From June 2005 new local numbers in London have begun to be allocated with an initial "3" - for example, (020) 3222 1234. Owing to the lingering confusion, people unaware of the correct format are beginning to erroneously assume that there is now a new London code, "0203", and some people confuse this with the dialing code for Coventry (which used to be 0203 prior to PhONEday). Even some newspapers, both local and national, have given this misinformation.[12][13] Some people report mis-dialling of London 3xxx xxxx numbers, where callers are dialling 0207 in front of the local number part instead of just 020. This call connects to the owner of a 73xx xxxx number instead of the expected person.

The geographical significance of the "7" or "8" has been lost with regard to new number issues, so that, for example, some newly allocated numbers in central London now begin with an "8".[citation needed]

Other numbers

Although the problem is most prevalent in London, similar misconceptions also affect other area codes which were created as a result of PhONEday and the Big Number Change.

Area Old numbering Misconception Correct new numbering
Belfast[14] (01232) xxxxxx 02890 xxxxxx (incorrect) (028) xxxx xxxx
Bristol[15] (0272) xxxxxx 01179 xxxxxx (incorrect) (0117) xxx xxxx
Cardiff[16] (01222) xxxxxx 02920 xxxxxx (incorrect) (029) xxxx xxxx
Coventry[17] (01203) xxxxxx 02476 xxxxxx (incorrect) (024) xxxx xxxx
Leeds[18] (0532) xxxxxx 01132 xxxxxx (incorrect) (0113) xxx xxxx
Leicester[19] (0533) xxxxxx 01162 xxxxxx (incorrect) (0116) xxx xxxx
Nottingham[20] (0602) xxxxxx 01159 xxxxxx (incorrect) (0115) xxx xxxx
Portsmouth[21] (01705) xxxxxx 02392 xxxxxx (incorrect) (023) xxxx xxxx
Reading[22] (01734) xxxxxx 01189 xxxxxx (incorrect) (0118) xxx xxxx
Sheffield[23] (0742) xxxxxx 01142 xxxxxx (incorrect) (0114) xxx xxxx
Southampton[24] (01703) xxxxxx 02380 xxxxxx (incorrect) (023) xxxx xxxx

See also


  1. ^ Ofcom (2004-11-16). "Telephone Numbering Program - The London Project" (PDF). Office of Communications. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  2. ^ Ofcom (2009-08-20). "Telephone numbers – the facts and figures : (Boxout) Is it (020) 7 or 0207?". Office of Communications. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  3. ^ Ofcom (2005-04-14). "London telephone numbers: New sub-range for London: (020) Research report, February 2005" (PDF). Office of Communications. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Associated Press (1990-05-06). "London Will Divide Its Telephone Prefix, Fraying Composure". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  6. ^ Ofcom (2004-11-16). "Telephone Numbering : London Telephone Numbers" (PDF). Office of Communications. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  7. ^ Rhodri (2004-10-05). "Don't lose that number". Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  8. ^ BBC (2000-04-22). "One in three fails number change challenge". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  9. ^ Charles Arthur (2008-08-28). "Misdialling fuels fears of phone meltdown". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  10. ^ "Providing a big help with The Big Number". British Telecommunications PLC. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  11. ^ "The Phone Book : UK Codes : 0207". British Telecommunications PLC. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  12. ^ Sean O'Neill (14 July 2004). "Coventry confusion as capital rings changes". The Times. Retrieved 16 July 2010. 
  13. ^ Nick Goodway (2004-07-13). "0203 to be third telephone code". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  14. ^ Google search for '"02890" Belfast'
  15. ^ "City's phone code is not '01179'". Highbeam Research. The Gale Group. 8 December 2004. Retrieved 25 December 2009. 
  16. ^ Google search for '"02920" Cardiff'
  17. ^ Google search for '"02476" Coventry'
  18. ^ Google search for '"01132" Leeds'
  19. ^ Google search for '"01162" Leicester'
  20. ^ Google search for '"01159" Nottingham'
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Google search for '"02380" Southampton'

External links

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