Londoners, Coventrians, Northern Irelanders, Southamptonians, Cardiffians, Portsmouthians
– Do You Know Your Own Phone Number?

In 2000, five new area codes replaced various codes in various areas of the UK.  More than fifteen years on, thousands of people are still giving out their phone numbers incorrectly.

How many times have you seen a phone number looking like this?

In these cases, the real phone numbers are

(Apologies if anyone actually owns any of these numbers.  That said, you’d have to be a fictional character to own one of the first two, and the last would necessarily have been registered since the transition, since no local number can begin with a 0 or 1.)

Just Try Using Your Phone!

Of course, there is some room for non-locals to be uncertain about the correct forms of these phone numbers.  But in a lot of cases, people are giving out their own phone numbers in these bogus forms (hence the title).

People in these areas can easily find out for themselves if they are getting it wrong.  If you’re in London (or indeed anywhere in the former 0171 and 0181 areas), pick up your phone and try dialling a seven-digit local number.  If you’re in one of the other 02x code areas, try dialling a six-digit number.  You see, it doesn’t work.  To get through, you must dial an eight-digit number.  This is the local number of whomever you are trying to call.

I’ve heard suggestions that some people have given up trying to figure out the system, and just dial the whole eleven digits for local and national calls alike.  Some seem to think maybe the system’s changed so that you have to do this.  If you’re one of these people, just think to yourself: for what possible reason might they have done this?  If you can think of one, I’d like to hear it.  By the way, there are plenty of real examples with the brackets around these nonsensical area codes as illustrated above.  People seem to know that the brackets don’t tend to be used for non-geographical numbers, such as mobiles and rate-categorised numbers, as there is no such thing as dialling locally to such numbers.  In the same way, while thinking that 0208 or 02392 or whatever is an area code is bad enough, wrapping such a sequence of digits in brackets just adds to the bogosity.  (On the other hand, it is a good idea to include the brackets around a correct geographical area code, as this makes clearer the fact that the area code can be omitted when dialling locally.)

What’s more, there are also real examples of numbers that have been twisted into these wrong forms so that the local number appears to begin with 0 or 1.  This is impossible (for ordinary landline numbers anyway), since 0 as the first digit dialled is reserved for national dialling, and 1 is reserved for operator services and the like.  Because these can only be numbers registered after the transition, there’s no way in which the mistake can have come about by taking a phone number from the 20th century and ‘updating’ the area code.  This further raises the question of what these people are thinking.

Moreover, most people, especially those living in these areas, would see these phone numbers advertised on a fairly regular basis, in both correct and incorrect forms.  Nonetheless, it seems that not enough of these people have the intuition to try dialling eight-digit local numbers after seeing the correct forms, and hence settle their minds once and for all.

These people also miss the point of the new area codes.  They were created to increase the capacity of their respective code areas, so that demands for more phone lines can be met.  Simply renaming 0171 to 0207 or 01203 to 02476 cannot possibly do this.  Increasing the length of local numbers, on the other hand, enables more numbers to be created within the area code.  Before the Big Number Change, the London codes 0171 and 0181 had between them a total capacity of 15,980,000 phone numbers.  (That is, for each code, the 10 million possible 7-digit numbers minus those beginning with 0, 1 or 999.)  By replacing the two codes with one code and having 8-digit local numbers, the capacity has increased five-fold to 79,900,000.  Those areas that have changed from 01xxx codes to 02x codes have even greater factors of capacity increase (though again, some of these have also swallowed more than one former area code).

Bad Examples

It’s not only individuals with their home phone numbers that get them wrong.  Businesses continue to do it as well.  On television, radio, newspapers, company websites and displayed in public places, it isn’t difficult to come across examples of this nonsense.  These businesses, by getting it wrong, are adding to the confusion of the public.  If only the government will make them get their act together, such that publication of these broken numbers will be history, it will create a more consistent environment in which people living or working in 02x areas will more easily deduce their own numbers.

Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time contains some London phone numbers in the incorrect forms.  The central character is clearly somebody who doesn’t know better.  I call this a missed opportunity.  If I’d written it, I’d have created a character who’s sick to death of this cluelessness.  This would actually suit the character better, and with the success that the book’s been, it could have been a welcome boost to the UK’s clueful population.

In mid-2004, the game show Memory Bank featured two questions within the space of a few weeks: “What is the dialling code for inner London?” and “What is the dialling code for outer London?”, for which the answers “0207” and “0208” respectively were expected.  For this to get into a game show is just appalling.  It is especially disgraceful that nobody pointed it out the first time round so that the error would not be repeated.  This just proves, among many other incidents, that some quiz shows have inadequate research.

What is more, within the 020 code, the initial digits 7 and 8 are not tied to the specific geographic divisions the way the old 0171 and 0181 codes were.  Since the Big Number Change there have been new numbers registered both beginning with 7 in the old 0181 area and beginning with 8 in the old 0171 area.  So even to claim that the digit sequences 0207 and 0208 relate to inner and outer London is inaccurate.

Worse still, on some telephone networks the call return (1471) service reads out numbers in these wrong forms (and sometimes other broken forms such as 02074 xxx xxx).  For any company to have let this bug slip through in the first place is bad enough, but I can’t for the life of me understand how any of them can have not fixed it by now.  You’d think that basic knowledge of how phone numbers work is essential to the ability of a phone service to function.  In any case, anybody who cannot understand such a simple aspect of a phone numbering system has absolutely no business to be working in a phone company.  But worst of all is that some websites devoted to providing information on dialling codes, such as UK Phone Info, are giving false information in this department.  (BT has finally fixed the worst of its errors in its area code lookup facility, but some errors remain.)

The Evening Standard once featured a headline “0203 to be third telephone code”.  Obviously (but only to those readers who already have a clue) what they meant is that 020 numbers beginning with 3 will start to be allocated in the near future.  But who could have originated such a nonsensical headline, let alone let it slip into publication?  And even some other newspapers have reported the exact same nonsense.  What on the face of the planet is going on here?  No matter how literally or not it was supposed to be taken, clearly there has been a conscious effort to take this ignorance to a new level.  Even worse, the conspirators seem to have succeeded.

It seems the Daily Mail usually gets London numbers right, both its own and those of companies whose products are being advertised (e.g. in regular fashion features).  However, it has been known to make a mess of giving out numbers in the various 02x codes, including occasionally London numbers.  And there was me thinking (if its articles in mid-2004 on students’ illiteracy are anything to go by) that the Daily Mail was more the kind of paper that would feature an article about this cluelessness.  As it happens I’m yet to see such an article in my life.  At least I hadn’t seen anything when I started writing this – there is an archived Guardian article from just before the old codes were withdrawn, but next to nothing on the extent to which it’s still a problem now.  (And even the Guardian has been getting it wrong in a few places, off and on, but I think they’ve finally fixed the regular occurrences now.)  Am I creating a first with this webpage?

It’s Happened, and Not Happened, Before

How many of you remember phONEday in 1995, when all geographical area codes were converted to begin with 01?  While most simply had the 1 inserted in their existing codes, a few were replaced with whole new codes.  These are the 011x codes.  As if the proliferation of non-existent 020x and 02xxx codes isn’t bad enough, there are even some people and businesses giving out numbers with ‘codes’ such as 01162.  (This is Leicester, for which the correct code is 0116.)

Here are two more changes relating to phone numbers from my time.  In the late 1980s or thereabouts, Crawley added a 5 to the beginning of all its five-digit local numbers.  Yet people didn’t start giving out their phone numbers as (02935) 67890.  A year or two before phONEday, Frensham (near Farnham, Surrey) changed from having a rare six-digit area code (025125) and moved in with Farnham itself, with the area code 0252, and prepended 79 to its local numbers.  This change is in the same form as those that are confusing people, yet in all my time at school there I never saw a phone number like (025279) 1357, or even (0125279) 1357 as it would have been in my later years at the school.  (However, I have since found one or two online instances of 0125 279, parallel to the tendency to write the old version as 025 125.  But really, this makes it look as though the STD code is 0125 and the local number begins with 279.)

Does It Really Matter?

In short, yes, it does.  However, the process of educating the public is hindered not only by the spread of this nonsense, but also by a myth that it is little or no more than an aesthetic concern.

Every phone number that is published in one of the broken forms talked about here is a potential cause of misdialled numbers and loss of business, both for those who propagate the broken numbers and for others.  In 2007, the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading acquired a range of new phone numbers beginning with 322.  This led to many people misdialling 0118 9322xxxx and consequently clogging up the lines of the Fire and Rescue Service, all because of the public confusion over Reading’s dialling code.  And a similar problem has happened in Sheffield, where again the new numbers were allocated to a hospital.  This has caused great inconvenience both to the people trying to get through to the hospitals and to those on the receiving ends of the misdialled calls.

(The writer of the Sheffield article somehow got confused while writing the second paragraph, and has probably inadvertently confused more people with it.  And the fact that phone numbers within a given area code are starting to be allocated with a different initial digit shouldn’t need substantial publicity.  Indeed, Ofcom would do well to stop making such announcements, given the mess the media makes of relaying the information to the public.  The resources would be much better spent running publicity campaigns to teach people the correct dialling codes for the affected areas in a manner similar to what I’ve done by writing this whole piece.)

In any case, if you give out your phone number wrongly, you are giving out false information.  A published phone number such as (0207) 946 0123, with or without the brackets, gives out the following misstatements:

These bogus statements, especially the first, are the very cause of the aforementioned misdialling.  Moreover, if you care about your friends, family, colleagues or customers, you will probably want to tell them the right number on which to contact you.  If you get it wrong, there will be people who try to get through to you and fail.  There are also people who do know better and are unwilling to give their business to a company that is making a fool of itself by getting it wrong.  Do you really need any more reasons to get it right?

Simple Rules

There are five basic forms of geographical area codes in the UK:

01xxxx codes are rare – there’s no easy way to remember them, but here they are:

It’s that simple.  Further, there are no 011xx or 01x1x codes.  So you can easily deduce the correct form of a phone number.

If the first two digits are 02, then there is only one other digit in the area code, and there is an eight-digit local number.  If the first three digits are 011, there is only one other digit in the area code, and there is a seven-digit local number.  If the first two digits are 01 and the fourth digit is also a 1, then 01x1 is the code and there is a seven-digit local number.  If the first six digits are among those codes listed above, then that’s the area code.  If and only if none of these conditions apply is there a five-digit* area code, and (with few exceptions) a six-digit local number.

* Technically 01xxx is considered a four-digit code, since the 0 is a trunk prefix rather than part of the code, but I said five-digit so that non-technical people don’t get confused.

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