Phone numbers

I’m in the process of migrating to using a cell phone as my only phone. I’m also cleaning up my address book. Here’s a tip to make life easier for me, and everyone else who might call you.

Whether you’re listing your phone number on Facebook, in e-mail or on your web site, it makes my life a lot easier if I can just copy/paste or tap the number to call it, no matter where I happen to be. If have to edit your number before I can call you, that’s a pain in the ass.

That’s why old fashioned phone numbers like (020) 7890 1234 or (404) 555 1234 are a nuisance on the Internet. You have to know which country the number is in, which country you are in, how to dial from one to the other, and so on. Even just within the USA, you need to know if you’re in the same area code and can dial the last 7 digits or whether you need to add a 1 and then use the entire number.

Fortunately there’s a simple solution, a trivial way of making your phone number callable from any smartphone anywhere in the world, without the user having to do anything special: put it in the international standard format.

If you’re in the USA, that means putting +1 on the front. While you’re at it, you might like to break up the digits with spaces or dashes so that they’re easier to read, just in case someone has to dial them manually.

If you’re in the UK, you remove the 0 from the front of your area code, and stick +44 on the front. For example, (020) 7890 1234 becomes +44 20 7890 1234.

When a mobile phone sees a number in international format, it does all the working out of area codes and prefixes for you. If the call can be made locally, it’s made locally, and you’re charged accordingly. If it’s long distance you get charged long distance. If it’s international–and only if it’s international–the international dialing is handled for you. You can call the number from anywhere in the world and never have to worry about how to do it.

That’s why every single phone number in my address book is in international format. When I go to the UK and stick a local SIM card in my phone, I automatically end up paying local rates for phone calls, without having to change the numbers I dial. Neat, huh? But for some reason, phone companies seem to do a terrible job of explaining this to their customers.

So when I see a phone number on the web, it’s helpful if it’s in international format, because that means I can dial it from anywhere in the world without having to edit it. If I’m browsing on my phone, I can just tap the number.

Note that UK users should not stick brackets around the 0 to make some sort of non-standard mixture of the national and international formats. That makes the entire exercise pointless for two reasons: Firstly, anyone who was going to be confused by +44 20 7890 1234 is going to be every bit as confused by +44 (0)20 7890 1234, if not more so. Secondly, mixing the formats means mobile phone users have to know that they’re supposed either include the 0 but not dial the 44, or include the 44 but remove the zero–and either way, they have to edit the number before they can dial it. So you’ve just made their life that bit more annoying. So either use your local (national) format with brackets, or use international format with a + at the front and no brackets anywhere. Mixing the two isn’t helping anyone.

OK, you say, but what should I do if I have friends or business contacts who are old, still use landline phones, and don’t know how numbers in international format work–but I still want to make life easier for cellphone users?

Simple: list both the international format and the local (national) one. You can even list them on one line. For example:

Tel: (020) 7890 1234 / +44 20 7890 1234

See? Auntie Gertie sees the familiar brackets and area code with a 0 at the front, and can work the rotary dial with her arthritic fingers. The rest of us can tap on the standard number and call. Eventually the old land line area codes die out in the UK and other countries, and we move on.

It’s the 21st Century, computers have lots of memory these days. The extra bytes taken up by listing your phone number in two different formats on a web page aren’t going to be a problem, and as phones with web access become more mainstream, it’s helpful to your friends and/or customers if they can call you straight from the web.

You can probably squeeze an extra 13 characters on a business card too. You might ask why it could matter there. The answer is that when I get your card, I’m going to snap a photo of it with my phone, and the phone will parse it into an electronic business card–assuming you’ve used standard format phone numbers. I’d really rather be able to tap the result to call, and not have to edit the number first.

So to summarize:

  • Either use local format for your phone number, or international format. Don’t mix the two.
  • Ideally, use international format on the web, so people can call you without having to mess with editing the number.