What is a payphone?

All phones are payphones. If you do not pay for the call then someone else does. Even so-called “Toll Free” calls are not really toll free, for the call is paid for by the owner of the number.

Nevertheless, in an increasingly cashless society the “public telephone” (or “payphone”) is burdened by the peculiar stigma of being a pay-as-you-go instrument into which cash (coin currency) is fed.

Other means of paying for calls at public telephones include credit cards, calling cards, collect calls, and third party billing. This pay-as-you-go mechanism is the fundamental distinction between public telephones and other forms of telephony which generally require a subscription or contract.

Most payphone calls are completed by picking up the handset, dialing a phone number, and depositing a required amount of money.

The cost for calls made from payphones varies across the United States, so a succinct summary of how much a call will cost is not possible.

In New York City the cost of a local call from most outdoor street payphones is 25¢, payable in cash with a single quarter or through any combination of nickels and dimes. In other areas the same call would cost 35¢, 50¢, or even 75¢. There are no regulations on what a payphone service provider can charge for local or long-distance calls.

Most of New York’s outdoor payphones allow for 3 minutes calling time to local numbers after the first coin deposit(s), with additional minutes available at varying rates.

In most cases overages are not applied. Thus, if the cost of a call is 25¢ and you deposit three dimes (30¢) then you just wasted 5¢, although some payphones are programmed to add on additional time to your call if you deposit more money than requested.

No coins are required for toll free calls, which includes all numbers starting with 1-800, 1-888, 1-877, 1-866, 1-855, 1-844, and 1-833 (yes, you have to dial the 1 before the toll-free exchange). While payphones are expected and even required to allow coinless access to toll-free numbers it is not unusual to find payphones not programmed to recognize certain of these area codes as toll-free. This is particularly true of the more recently-established toll-free exchanges, including 855, 844 and 833.

Many toll-free numbers are programmed to block incoming calls from payphones. Read about why this is here.

Calls to 211, 311, 611, 711, 811, and 911 are always free, though these numbers are not always reachable from payphones.

411 (directory assistance) costs any where from 25¢ to 75¢ when dialed from some payphones, and is free from others.

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