A payphone (alternative spelling: pay phone) is typically a coin-operated public telephone, often located in a telephone booth or a privacy hood, with pre-payment by inserting money (usually coins) or by billing a credit or debit card, or a telephone card. Prepaid calling cards also facilitate establishing a call by first calling the provided Toll-free telephone number, entering the card account number and pin, then the desired connection telephone number — also offering the benefit of establishing many telephone number connections during a single payphone session. An equipment usage fee may be charged as additional units, minutes or tariff fee to the collect/third-party, debit, credit, telephone or prepaid calling card when used at payphones.
Payphones are often found in public places, transportation hubs such as airports or train stations, convenience stores, malls, casinos, and on street corners. By agreement with the landlord, either the phone company pays rent for the location and keeps the revenue, or the landlord pays rent for the phone and shares the revenue. Some payphones, particularly at gas stations, are mounted in drive-up kiosk structures that can be used without leaving the vehicle.
Payphone revenues have sharply declined in many places, largely due to the increased usage of mobile phones. Payphone providers have sometimes tried to reverse the decline in usage by offering additional services such as SMS and Internet access, thus making their phone booths into Internet kiosks. The abandonment of payphones by telephone companies has angered some people who consider them a communication staple for low-income consumers.
Payphones were preceded by pay stations, manned by telephone company attendants who would collect rapid payment for calls placed. The Connecticut Telephone Co. reportedly had a payphone in their New Haven office beginning June 1, 1880; the fee was handed to an attendant. In 1889, a public telephone with a coin-pay mechanism was installed at the Hartford Bank in Hartford, Connecticut by the Southern New England Telephone Co. It was a "post-pay" machine; coins were inserted at the end of a conversation. The coin mechanism was invented by William Gray; he was issued a series of patents for his devices, beginning with US#454470 issued Jun 23, 1891 for a 'Signal Device for Telephone Pay-Stations' which rang a bell for each coin inserted. He subsequently founded the Telephone Pay Station Co. in 1891. The "pre-pay" phone debuted in Chicago in 1898.
By 1902 there were 81,000 payphones in the United States. By 1905, the first outdoor payphones with booths were installed. By the end of 1925, 25,000 of these booths existed in New York City alone. In 1960, the Bell System installed its one millionth telephone booth. After the divestiture of Pacific Bell (California) and AT&T in 1984, it was not long before independent stores selling telephones opened up. After that privately owned payphones hit the market.
Sources differ as to whether the peak number of payphones in the United States was 2.6 million in 1995 or 2.2 million in 2000. As of 2013, the number is reportedly less than 500,000. The major carriers, AT&T and Verizon, have both exited the business, leaving the market to be served by independent payphone companies.
Payphones in countries with unstable currencies have used token coins, available for sale at a local retailer, to activate pay phones instead of legal tender coins. In some cases these have been upgraded to use magnetic cards or credit card readers.
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In recent years, deregulation in the United States has allowed payphone service provided by a variety of companies. Such telephones are called customer-owned coin-operated telephones (COCOT), and are mostly kept in as good condition as compared with a payphone owned and operated by the local telephone company. COCOT contracts are usually more generous to the landlord than telco ones, hence telco payphones on private premises have been more often replaced than street phones. One common implementation is operated by vending machine companies and contains a hard-wired list of non-toll telephone exchanges to which it will complete calls.
In the United States, the coin rate for a local direct-dialed station-to-station call from a payphone has been 50¢ in most areas since mid-2001, for an unlimited number of minutes. During the 1960s and 1970s, the same call in the United States and Canada typically cost 10¢. In inflation adjusted terms, in 2006 USD, this was 68¢ in 1960, and 28¢ in 1979. While some areas only cost 5¢, smaller companies occasionally charged as high as 15¢ to 20¢. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this price gradually changed to 20¢, and again rose to 25¢ in some areas between 1985 and 1990 (47¢-39¢, inflation adjusted terms as above). In the late 1990s, the price rose to 35¢ in many areas. However, in most of California, for instance, the price is very often 50 cents a call. New York City is a notable exception, where Verizon's and other companies' phones still cost 25 cents for 4 minutes, except in hotels and airports. Verizon tried raising the price to 50 cents, but lowered it to 25 cents after customers started using their competitors' phones.
In the United States, a payphone operator collects an FCC-mandated fee of 49.4¢ from the owner of a toll-free number for each call successfully placed to that number from the payphone. This results in many toll-free numbers rejecting calls from payphones in an attempt to avoid this surcharge; calling cards which require the caller to dial through a toll-free number will often pass this surcharge back to the caller, either as a separate itemized charge, a 50¢ to 90¢ increase in the price of the call, or (in the case of many pre-paid calling cards) the deduction of an extra number of minutes from the balance of the pre-paid card.
Since 2007, the number of payphones in the United States in operation has declined by 48 percent. In July 2009, AT&T officially stopped supporting the Public Payphone service. All remaining payphone contracts were cancelled, equipment at the locations were disconnected and sold, and Call Center located in Evansville, IN was closed. Over 139,000 locations were sold in 2009.
Most payphones in Canada are owned and operated by large telecom providers such as Bell, Telus and SaskTel. In the last 20 years customer-owned coin-operated telephones (COCOT) have also appeared in the market, but their numbers are smaller due to emergence of cellular phones.
Pricing on most local payphone calls is now 50 cents CAD, having increased from 25 cents in the past few years. Pay phones in Alberta were 35 cents for a time, but in most jurisdictions the price simply doubled. Newer phones allow users to use calling cards and credit cards. For coin-paid long distance, COCOTs are less expensive for short calls (typically $1 for three minutes) than incumbent providers (whose rates start near $5 for the first minute).
The Toronto Transit Commission deploys payphones on all subway platforms as a safety precaution; a blue "Crisis Link" button on 141 payphones connects directly with Distress Centres of Canada as a free suicide prevention measure.
As of 2013, there were about 70,000 payphones across the country.
In the U.K., as in the U.S., payphones have been deregulated. The great majority of them are still operated by British Telecom but there are other providers, mostly in urban areas. Manchester, London, Cardiff and Glasgow at the turn of the 21st century have a greater concentration of non-BT payphones. BT has steadily been removing payphones throughout the UK since 2000 where BT deem the kiosks not to be profitable, and have few or no calls made in any given financial year.
- Kiosk adoption
BT however is offering local communities the option of adopting  the iconic Red K6 Kiosks due to strong opposition from the communities that the kiosks reside in. This will mean the removal of the phone, leaving the empty kiosk in-situ. A bizarre feature of the adoption contract is section 5.5.4 which prohibits the re-installation of a telephone in the kiosk.
- Sponsored kiosk
Another option BT has provided is the sponsored kiosk, that will retain the phone service, and retain the kiosk for an annual fee of around £300 +VAT, whether it is the Red K6 or the newer Aluminium and Glass Kiosks that cannot be adopted.
From June 1, 2010, BT payphones have £0.60 minimum charge which buys the first 30 minutes of any direct dialled national geographic call. Previously the minimum charge was £0.40 for the first 20 minutes of any direct dialled national geographic call. Then before November 2006 the minimum charge was £0.30, before 2004 it was £0.20 and before 2000 it was £0.10. However, making a call using a credit/debit card incurs a minimum charge of £1.20, and includes 1 minute of call time, £0.20 per minute thereafter, as of September 2011.
A BT Chargecard is a considerably cheaper way to call from any UK landline, including Payphones. Other cards which can be used are the Post Office phonecard, Tesco international calling card and many other telephone cards which can be bought from newsagents.
The high cost of calls is a deterrent to use and has led to allegations of closure by stealth.
- Pricing examples
The following examples are taken from the BT price list. There is a 40p connection charge, in addition to the "per minute" charges shown below, and a minimum charge of 60p.
|Call prefix||Type of call||Seconds per 10p block||Cost per minute|
|01||To BT landline||900||0.67p|
- 1891: William Gray patents his coin-operated telephone
- 1920: General Post Office (United Kingdom) introduces K1 public telephone kiosk
- Intellicall AstraTel 2 Smart Payphone (2011–present)
- Intellicall UltraTel Smart Payphone (1980s–present)
- Intellicall Tidel 3 (1990s–present)
- GTE Automatic Electric 120-type
Gallery of payphones
Bicycle payphone in Uganda
AT&T payphone signage
Toronto payphones covered with graffiti and bills.
Payphone in Ashgabat
A payphone in India.
In popular culture
The Superman routine is mimicked by a wartime Bugs Bunny cartoon, Super-Rabbit (1943). Bugs exclaims "This looks like a job for a REAL Superman!", ducks into a phone booth, and marches out in a Marine uniform, singing "The Marines Hymn." Claiming he has "important woik to do!", he marches off to "Berlin, Tokyo and points East."
A pay phone booth was used as a time machine in the 1989 film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
The 2002 film Phone Booth takes place in a phone booth. The main character is held hostage in it for a whole day. He has been using the payphone to call his mistress so that his wife will not see the telephone number on their cellular telephone bill.
A Mojave phone booth in an isolated area of the Mojave National Preserve miles from the paved road was the subject of an Internet meme and a 2006 independent film, Mojave Phone Booth. The original Pacific Bell booth was removed in 2000; for nostalgia, Lucky225 assigned its number (1-760-733-9969) to an open conference bridge in 2013.
- Robertson, Patrick (2011). Robertson's Book of Firsts. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. ISBN 1608197387.
- Newton, Harry (2006). Newton's Telecom Dictionary. Backbeat Books. p. 687. ISBN 1578203198.
- CHRISTIAN BERG (2001-03-18). "Pay phones reached their peak in "95 - Morning Call". Morning Call. Articles.mcall.com. Retrieved 2014-04-10.
- Howard Yune (2012-09-01). "Pay phones: forgotten but not gone". Napavalleyregister.com. Retrieved 2014-04-10.
- "FAQs about the Payphone Industry". American Public Communications Council, Inc. Retrieved 2013-01-23.
- Bensinger, Greg (October 12, 2011). "Era ends as Verizon drops most of its pay phones". The Wall Street Journal Market Watch (MarketWatch, Inc). Retrieved 2013-01-23.
- Blair, Jayson (2002-06-07). "Verizon Reverses Increase at Some Pay Phones". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
- "Phone booths are down in Edmonton but not completely out". Edmonton Sun. 2014-03-08. Retrieved 2014-12-23.
- "Adopt a Kiosk | BT.com". Payphones.bt.com. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- "Adopt a Kiosk | BT.com". Payphones.bt.com. 2011-04-12. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- "Adopt a Kiosk | BT.com". Payphones.bt.com. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- "Payphones and Calling Cards from BT - Public payphones - payment prices". Payphones.bt.com. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- "payphones.bt.com". payphones.bt.com. 2011-10-21. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
- "phone-shop.tesco.com". phone-shop.tesco.com. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
- "BT Price List". Bt.com. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
- "Complete Smart Payphones". Intellicall. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- "Telephone World - GTE / Automatic Electric Pay Telephones". Phworld.org. 2008-12-20. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
- Shull, Wilt (2004), p. 157
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Payphone.|
- PayPhoneBox Index of payphone numbers and photographs of payphones in unusual or famous places around the world.
- World Payphone Images
- 2600: Payphones of the World
- For North America:
- McPayphone Directory: Project to collect America's 1.3 million payphone numbers and numbers abroad.
- Payphone Project
- Payphone Directory
- Movies and television (TV) shows that portray the use of a payphone