An ordinary geographic British telephone number consists of two parts:
An area code, beginning with 0, and containing 2 to 5 further digits. The second digit is currently either 1 or 2.
A subscriber number, which can be between 4 and 8 digits, usually bringing the total to 11, but it can in some cases be 10. The first digit of the number cannot normally be 0 or 1.
It is not usually necessary to dial the area code if you are calling from a number on the same one. However, the requirement to allow for this is being removed – though this will probably not happen “at once”.
However, a great many people and companies, especially in areas where telephone numbers have been changed significantly since 1994, seem to be unaware of where the code ends and the number begins. This leads to numbers being incorrectly presented, which is a self-compounding problem. The rules on how to present your telephone number are actually fairly simple, but many seem not to understand them. Note that I do not consider the majority change of 1994-5, where a 1 was inserted into area codes, to be a significant change.
The area code should always be placed in brackets unless it is compulsory for the number being shown. The brackets mean you don't need to dial those digits if they are the same for the number you are calling from.
Where the digit after the 0 is 2, the area code consists of three digits only – e.g. London (020), Cardiff (029), Northern Ireland (028). I recognise that there are many old exchange names in Northern Ireland, but they now form a single dialling area under a single 3-digit code. All 3-digit code areas use an 8 digit subscriber number – these are normally written as two groups of four digits.
Where the digit after the 0 is 1, and either the third or fourth digit is also 1, the area code consists of exactly four digits – e.g. Birmingham (0121), Sheffield (0114), Bristol (0117). All 4-digit code areas use a 7 digit subscriber number – these are normally written as a group of three digits and a group of four digits.
Where neither of the above two rules applies, if the first six digits are any of the following, they are the area code. The relevant area codes are 013873, 015242, 015394, 015395, 015396, 016973, 016974, 016977, 017683, 017684, 017687, 019467. The subscriber number may be four, or more usually five digits, normally written as a single group.
Where none of the above three rules applies, the first five digits are the area code – e.g. Cannock (01543), Chichester (01243), Potters Bar (01707). The subscriber number may be five, or more usually six digits, normally written as a single group.
The area code is only compulsory, outside Aberdeen, Bournemouth, Bradford, Brighton, Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes, if the first digit of the subscriber's number is 0 or 1. These numbers are not ordinarily issued and would not normally be called directly by ordinary callers. More areas are likely to be added to this rule, and it is also likely to be compulsory to use the area code on IP based services, which will probably replace the traditional telephone network in the next few years.
Occasionally you will see odd spacings within the local number – these are not wrong, as long as the area code is kept on its own. The 3-4 and 4-4 splits, at least in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and London have a lot to do with the fact that these were “Director” cities where the telephone number used to have an exchange name of which you dialled the first three letters (using a layout nearly the same as the one on modern mobile phones) and the four digits – e.g. VINcent 1212, where VIN translates to 846. (This was the old equivalent of a “Drama” number – 846 was TIM, the speaking clock!)
The areas affected most are the ones where numbers changed during 1994-5 and more recently – Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, Reading, London, Southampton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Cardiff and the whole of Northern Ireland. Some examples – these are going to appear to be “naming and shaming” - are given below. However, here is the problem with incorrectly presenting a telephone number:
It is fairly common, though incorrect, to present a London telephone number like this: (0207) 946 0726. This implies all of the following points, incorrectly:
that there is an area code 0207
that 946 0726 is a possible local number within that area code
that from the same area you do not need to dial the 0207
In fact, if you were to try calling that number from another beginning 0207, there would be silence, then a message telling you that the number is incomplete, or something very similar.
The correct way is to present it like this: (020) 7946 0726. If you were to try dialling 7946 0726 from another London number, you would actually be told fairly quickly that the number is not in service – this is because it is what is called a “Drama” number – you may have seen these in depictions of London on TV and in films. However, it is the closest thing we have to a real number that is not actually one.
One good effect of longer numbers is that numbers can be brought in starting with a new digit. However, this gets misreported in the press - “0203 to be third telephone code” in London's Evening Standard for example. Also, if people still think of Sheffield incorrectly as 01142, and numbers beginning with a new digit appear, this will cause dialling errors. In fact, it did happen when Sheffield numbers beginning 3 were allocated to a hospital and wrong number calls to 23x xxxx became more common when people dialled 01142 instead of the correct 0114, or even omitting it locally.
An inconsistent example where they've got it right once in the web page, failed to space it at all another time and include a photo of their sign which has it wrong: Wortley Cottage Guest House. The actual page topbar is now correct, bar brackets, but not the unspaced version below or the sign in the photo. Confirmed current 9 May 2021.
Oddly spaced: Fortis Properties – you now have to go to the Contact page. Attempted “one size fits all” spacing – right kind for Newport but wrong for Cardiff. Confirmed current 9 May 2021.
Wrongly spaced: Wingspan Productions – a previous page had more than one number incorrectly spaced, so a slight improvement. Also improved: Ballicom International - an incorrectly spaced Coventry number. One of their product pages had one beginning 77, so not ever a 6-digit number, but that has now gone. Still the same 9 May 2021.
Highly inconsistent: One Community. Connect with us, at the bottom, spaces the main number correctly, as does the Administration section, but the rest of the main list has all incorrect spacing. At least there are no missing digits now. Situation as of 9 May 2021.
Inconsistent: East London Waste Authority. Councils' numbers are all correctly spaced, but the number for the Authority itself is incorrectly spaced. Situation as of 9 May 2021.
These are by no means the only examples – plenty more can easily be found. In general, the local councils get it right, though there may be the odd mistake among them. Suffice it to say that, with such examples, the public get confused as to what the area code actually is.
(The webmasters of the above sites are welcome to tell me they've fixed the problem and will find themselves being replaced by another example if they do.)
The inexcusable are the major directories – the Yellow Pages, Thomson and even BT's Phone Book. All seem, or seemed, quite happy to take adverts where the number is incorrectly spaced, or even incorrectly bracketed. If they rejected them, it would go some way towards educating people as to the correct presentation.
From mobiles they would need to, but from ordinary lines it is not necessary, and I would think that most people realise this. For those that don't, they could save time by dropping the area code, if they actually knew what it was. The incorrect presentation of numbers confuses people, so that they don't know this time-saving step. Besides, full dialling is not necessarily that helpful, as the Sheffield example showed.
The latest idea is to release numbers beginning 0 and 1 in about 70 areas, meaning that local dialling will have to be abolished in those areas. This started in Bournemouth, with Aberdeen, Bradford, Brighton, Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes also now affected. It is a way to eventually get rid of local dialling nationally, and a step onto a slippery slope that would remove geographic significance in the numbers themselves. I maintain that losing geographic significance would be a bad thing, though the rationale for potentially withdrawing local dialling is not so crazy now. It would be far better to expand the existing 8-digit areas, or perhaps the 7-digit ones, to take in some of the areas facing number shortage. There is plenty of spare capacity in most of them. Where this would not make sense, four more 02x codes remain available. Perhaps freeing up some 01xxx codes in a strategic fashion would allow for more 7 or 8 digit areas – this would mean the rules above would change, but it would be far better than destroying the link between telephone numbers and areas.
On the other hand, if we did break the link, then many more currently unused numbers would be available - we should retain the 01, 02 and 03 ranges for ordinary numbers of course (and 04 perhaps, if needed). It would take some getting used to, and also make it harder to tell when a spoof caller ID is presented (01783, for example, is not a real area code - 0783 used to be Sunderland, but that was incorporated into 091, later 0191) but maybe, if effective action was taken against junk callers, this would be less of an issue. My next personal rant will probably be about this.
These numbers do not have area codes in the proper sense and you have to dial in full. For 03, 08 and 09 numbers, a 4-3-4 presentation is normal. For 05 numbers, a 3-4-4 presentation is normal. For 07 numbers, a 5-6 presentation is normal. (Note that on the Isle of Man, mobile numbers also work as though the first five digits were an area code.)