Why are collect calls and credit card calls from payphones so expensive?

This particular piece needs some work. I am not intending to sound like an apologist for companies that charge exorbitant rates for collect and third-party calls. But I think it’s important to understand that they rationalize the practice as their only option to stay in business.

People who accept collect calls or who pay for calls using a credit card from public telephones often experience sticker shock when the bill arrives. Local calls lasting just a few minutes can cost hundreds of dollars, as if one was making a direct call from the United States to Australia when in fact they were calling within the same city or town.

There are two schools of thought about this.

One suggests that collect call companies and payphone owners design their phones to fool unsuspecting callers into paying outrageous rates for local or long distance calls.

The other school of thought is that long distance and collect calls from a public pay telephone are a premium service, thus offered at a premium price. If companies that provide this service charged standard market rate for calls then their business would be unsustainable, and would cease to exist. If you find yourself in such straits that a public telephone is your last and only option for communication then you should not expect that option to be cheap or even free.

By analogy, on a sweltering hot day in the park one might spend $4 for a bottle of Evian when water would be free elsewhere.

Public phones get so little usage any more that their continued existence cannot be assumed without government or corporate subsidies which recognize their status as a public utility.

Until such subsidies are in place you can expect to pay extraordinary amounts of money for brief calls made from payphones and paid for via collect, third party, or credit card.


  1. my son had a flat tire while passing through Kansas where there is limited or no cell service most of the time. I foolishly told him to call me collect from the rest stop so I knew he was Okay. I shocked when I got the bill for over $300!! A complaint to the PUC only taught us to carry a calling card when traveling!!

    • $300?!?! How long did you talk? I made calls from airplane payphones that didn’t cost that much.

      • Crazy! I know! I about had a heart attack when I saw the bill. I immediately got in touch with the PUC thinking it was something shady. I was informed that unfortunately private companies have now installed their payphones at rest stops all over the U.S. and the PUC has no authority over them anymore.
        I asked what a person is to do when there is an emergency along the desolate non cell signal Interstates where these crooks are literally committing Highway robbery at state run rest areas…she said they get complaints constantly but the only thing she can suggest is to carry a calling card.
        Oh, sorry…my son called me three times and the calls were about seven minutes each. Damn! I wish I would have saved those bills. Expensive lesson.

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