Until recently, most people didn’t think twice about their phone numbers. But now that mobility is higher than ever, these digits have become more than just an inconsequential part of our connectivity.
Those three digits before your phone number indicate from what region you’re calling. They also convey a particular image.
What Are They?
From a distance, it isn’t easy to see any rhyme or reason to how Americans got their phone numbers. New area codes are being added all the time, but why? The answer lies in a combination of factors. First, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the use of home and business phones and the proliferation of wireless communication devices. It has created a considerable demand for telephone numbers, far outstripping the numbering capacity of the old system.
To help ease the burden, the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) was established to simplify local telephone call routing by assigning a specific geographic area to each telephone carrier. It is accomplished by adding a three-digit area code at the beginning of each 10-digit telephone number. The area code identifies the region, while the telephone prefix — or central office code — identifies a much smaller subregion within that area.
The digits between the area code and the telephone prefix further narrow the geographic location. Then, the last four digits direct calls to specific phone lines. These are called the line number. Generally, these are used to identify businesses and organizations. The exceptions are toll-free numbers, which are assigned to companies and organizations and can be used free of charge by the people calling them.
But for some people, the three digits that make up their phone number are more than just a functional number or an identifier of their geographic location. Just like how some fashionistas eschew the label on their designer clothes for one that’s a bit more subtle, many individuals have become selective about their area codes.
What Do They Mean?
When you dial a phone number, the first three digits identify the geographic region your call is going to. The next three digits, like the 512 number, called the telephone prefix, narrow the part even further. The final digits are the line number, and they direct your call to a specific phone in that area. Together, these digits create the unique identity of your phone connection.
In most North American countries and territories, the area code begins with a “1” or another single digit designated for telecommunications services. The middle digit, which may be any number from two to nine, determines the region of the country served by that area code. Some telecommunications carriers use the first digit of the area code to distinguish between local and long-distance calls.
A limited amount of area codes are assigned at a time, and when an area code runs out, it is split to create an overlay area code. Overlays are given to new numbers, but some of the existing population still keep their old numbers. This practice is known as number pooling.
Some area codes have more prestige than others, and people are willing to pay for a phone number in a desirable area code.
What Do They Mean for Your Business?
Intricately coded phone numbers keep global phone systems organized and accurate. They reference the country, region, town, and line intended by the caller. They even tell a bit of history, with each area code representing a specific time in the phone system’s development and growth.
Choosing the correct area code can positively affect your business, helping potential customers feel connected to your brand. Many businesses use a local number that gives customers the feeling that your company serves their community, which can inspire trust and loyalty.
However, a local number also comes with a downside: You’ll need to get used to dialing ten digits when calling your business or a client. Only emergency calls and those made to 411 for directory assistance are exempt from the 10-digit requirement.
Some area codes carry a certain prestige or desirability, such as 212 in New York City, which was the first to go into service in 1947 and is considered old school. Other highly desirable areas include 804 in Richmond, Virginia, and 917 for cell phones and faxes (the North American Numbering Plan does not set aside special non-geographic area codes specifically for mobile devices). When an area code lacks available prefixes, the phone industry sometimes implements a geographic split or overlay.
What Do They Mean for Your Personal Life?
It’s no secret that area codes can be a status symbol. Some are coveted because they’re rare or in short supply. For instance, a Los Angeles “310” number is worth a pretty penny as it represents the most popular and sought-after code in town.
Other area codes are a mark of prestige because they’re associated with specific industries or professions. For example, a Washington DC 202 number signifies government service and may make you seem more professional to potential employers. Similarly, a Silicon Valley “650” number will indicate your tech savvy and may increase your credibility in the eyes of potential clients or partners.
When the North American Numbering Plan was established, the decision-making process needed to be more rigorous and well thought-out. State area codes were based on population need, with areas that had dense populations or prominent cities getting more popular codes than others. It is why New York City has 212 and Los Angeles 310—even though those areas are much more crowded than Florida’s 305.
Today, people move more than ever before, and with that mobility comes the increased importance of phone numbers. Many people are unwilling to change their area codes when they move and often take them with them wherever they go. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to get an area code that conveys the right message, and even better, it can be done all from your smartphone using a virtual phone app.