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Placing international phone calls

based on experiences during our travels abroad

We are not telecommunications experts, but we travel a lot. Based on our experiences over the years, this is what we have learned. If you find errors (or parts that are not clear) please let us know so we can improve this document.

For years, we said "just give me the number... I know how to use a phone." Perhaps 1/3 of our calls went through - the rest were obviously the fault of the phone system. Finally I learned how different the phone system was outside of North America, how the numbers were structured, and now practically all my calls go through. So I believe you also need to understand how the phone numbers are structured.

For reference, start at home: Think about how you would explain the American system to a visitor from abroad. North American telephone numbers have an area code (always 3 digits) and a local number (always 7 digits). Sometimes it is preceded by a control code - like "dial 1 for long distance", or "dial 011 for international calls". (The control codes in other countries are different.) As you are explaining this to a visitor, you would probably say, "if you are in the same area code, just dial the 7 digits, but if it is long distance dial 1 and the 7 digits; if it is a different area code, dial 1, the area code, and the 7 digit number" How do you know it is long distance? The area code covers many cities (often a whole state), so some calls may be local and others long distance. And about the time your visitor thinks they have it figured out, remember there may be multiple overlapping area codes in a metropolitan area (like Dallas, New York, etc.) If so, in those areas you must always dial 10 digits, even for local calls.

The big change between US and abroad is from 3 digit area codes (which may cover a wide area) to city codes for a single city, which can be a variable number of digits. In the US, if you are calling from a cell phone, store the entire number in the phone, and the phone will use the part it needs. Also, in the USA, we always break the local 7 digit number into 3 digits, dash, 4 digits; abroad the only break consistently used is a space between the city code and the local number.

In Europe and much of the rest of the world, the telephone numbers consist of a country code (identified by a + sign), a city code (1 to 6 digits), and the number - often, but not always, 6-8 digits. To identify the city code, the control digit (zero) for long distance is often shown in the number, just before the city code, and is often in parenthesis to say it "may or may not" be needed. If you are dialing a long distance number, within the country, dial the zero.

So consider this telephone number: +49 (0) 6202 409 4561,
more often written +49 (0)6202 4094561 where the space indicates the end of the city code and beginning of the local number, and there is rarely a space shown within the local number.

The + says the next digits are the country code (+49 is Germany, +44 is England, +299 is Greenland, +852 is Hong Kong, +1 is the USA and Canada, etc.). The + must be replaced by the code for international calling based on the origin of the call - 00 for international calls starting in most of Europe, 011 from the United States. Sometimes this is called the exit code since you are telling the call to leave this country.

The (0) says that the following digits are the city code. Dial the zero if you are going to make a long-distance (but not international) call. Skip the zero if you are dialing internationally (with a country code).

The 6202 in this example is the city code. Big cities often have 2 digit codes, but small towns may have a city code of 6 digits or more. The city code is only dialed for long distance calls.

The 4094561 is the local telephone number. It could be 4 to 8 or more digits (and they don't normally split the number into parts, like the 3 plus 4 digits we use in the United States).

If you are calling from a cell phone, you can store the entire number in the cell phone memory, and the phone will figure out what it needs. Enter the + sign, the country code, the city code, and the number in the phone - it will translate the + to the whatever international access code is required from where you are placing the call, use the city code if required, etc. On my UK cell phone, for domestic UK calls, I can put in the city code and number, without the 0 and the country code, or I can put in the +44 as the UK country code, ahead of the city code and local number, and the phone will decide if it needs that part of the number (so I can use the same entry for both domestic and international calls). How do you "dial" a "+"? On most phones, hold down (long press) the 0 key. On others, enter double asterisk.

Italy is an exception. The "0" that is a code to say "long distance" in most countries, which is dropped when dialing internationally, is actually part of the city code... all Italian city codes actually start with 0, which is dialed internationally. All Italian cell phones have a "city code" that starts with 3 rather than 0. The city code in Italy is 2 to 4 digits (counting the leading zero), and the local number is 5 to 8 digits.

Funny Numbers

The main number at the University of Münster is +49(0)251 83-0. Okay, +49 = Germany. (0)251 = Münster. 83-0 (or 830) is the main University number, specifically the University telephone switchboard number. All the numbers starting with 83 in Münster are University numbers, so the remaining numbers are the extension - including 0 for operator. For example, University of Münster International studies are at +49 (0)251 83-22215, 8322215 locally, or simply extension 22215 at the University. Calling the University from the city of Münster the local number for the University is 83 followed by the extension. If you want the operator, 830 - only 3 digits. Expect a similar system for other large organizations or companies.

Cell Phones

In the USA, the user of a cell phone pays for all the calls on that cell phone, both sent and received. In other countries, the person who places the call pays for the call, the recipient pays nothing. So if you call a cell phone abroad, expect to pay for their cell time as well as regular call charges. If you have a "pay as you go" cell phone, the call you place will end when you run out of money, but you can still receive calls - since the caller is paying your cell bill as well as any regular call charges.

Cell phones appear to have their own city codes. For example our UK cell phone has a "city code" of 771, which is for the O2 cell network throughout the UK. Orange, Vodafone, T-Mobile, and others have "city codes" that start with 7xx. There is no "home location" phone number with a real city code for a cell phone, as there is in the USA.

Will your US cell phone work abroad? Most US cell phones are now GSM technology rather than the older CDMA or other technology. The GSM (Global System for Mobile) phones in the western hemisphere run on two frequency bands - the 850 MHz band and the 1900 MHz band. The GSM phones in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East run on two different bands - the 900 MHz band and the 1800 MHz band. Some additional bands have been added for enhanced services. If you want a phone that works in both the USA and Europe, you need a quad band phone - most simple phones are dual band, many premium phones are quad band or more. But Japan and South Korea do not use the GSM system at all - our iPhones have a special feature to work in Japan.

Pay Phones

Most pay phones have been converted to use phone cards, purchased at news stands, rather than coins - the cost of the call is deducted from the value stored on the phone card. But the older coin-operated pay phones are fun. Put in however much money you want to use. Place your call - if no answer, all your money is returned. When the call is connected, the money is taken and a meter starts running, like a count-down timer, showing you how much money you have left. When the meter says zero left, you are disconnected, but you can add any amount of additional money any time during the call, increasing the balance on the meter so you don't get disconnected. The longer distance the call, the faster the meter drops. And if you have money left when you are done with the call, don't hang up - flash the hook switch like you would for call waiting, and you can make another call with the balance of your money. When you hang up, the phone keeps your money - it does not give change.

Emergency numbers

In the United Sates, dial 911 for any type of emergency. But this is not an international code. In fact many GSM cell phones translate 911 to the local emergency number, since the GSM phone knows where it is. And some countries have different emergency codes for different types of services.

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