Grouping of phone numbers

Many will be aware of my fastidious nature when it comes to phone numbers, but I’ve never shared with a wider audience. Maybe this doesn’t provide a forum for a wider audience: be that as it may.

The 020 London prefix is now six years old, having been introduced on 22 April 2000. It superseded the 0171 and 0181 introduced in 1995, which in turn replaced 071 and 081 (1990), before which, it was simply 01. (I’ll always remember Going Live being 01 811 8055.) BT’s extensive publicity surrounding the 2000 change concentrated heavily on the 7 (inner London) and 8 (outer London) that succeeded the 020 prefix, which means that to this day, the vast majority of people believe there to be two London prefixes: 0207 and 0208. (My brother has recently been given a three, instead of the usual 7 and 8, but that’s another aside.)

As you can imagine, this frustrates the hell out of me. People quote their number as 0207 XXX YYYY. The correct grouping is 020 7XXX YYYY. When I used to contact our local curry house in Clapham, I used to have to give my phone number. Here’s the associated conversation (always with the same chap) that happened for every single order, verbatim:

Order taker: your phone number?
Me: 020
Order taker: 0207
Me: 7XXX
Order taker: XXX
Order taker: YYYY
Order taker: Your order please?

The behaviour has more recently sprung up in mobile phone numbers. It seems that the first five digits are too long to string together (even though they always start with 07), so people split it after three, or sometimes four. It seems somewhat random, more guided by the presence of double-digits as opposed to following a pre-defined breakdown.

So, please from now on could you quote your London numbers as 020, XXXX, YYYY. And your mobiles should be as follows: 07XXX, YYYYYY.

Many thanks.


18 Responses to “Grouping of phone numbers”

  1. Old Dog on June 4th, 2006 03:14

    It more a question of how old you are Dan.

    London numbers used to be prefixed with 01, becoming 0207 later.

    So over the years my number has always been xxx yyyy, with prefix changes coming and going.

    It is therefore a natural reflex that I say my number as prefix then xxx yyyy.

    Sorry, can’t learn new tricks, even when they change the 0207 prefix again.

  2. Dan on June 4th, 2006 09:33

    Sorry, old dog, but your number without STD code starts with a 7. Your STD code is 020, not 0207.

    If you want to dial someone in outer London from your phone, you only need dial 8xxx yyyy – no need for the STD code because you’re in the same one.

    I’m 32, btw.

  3. Homer on June 7th, 2006 09:23

    Ok, let me spell it out, because your brain cells are dying faster than mine, yet I am clearly older.

    1958 – STD – London = 01

    1990 – My number changes 01 to 071

    1995 – My 071 becomes 0171

    2000 – My 0171 becomes 0207

    So 01-xxx-yyyy => 0207-xxx-yyyy

    My point is simple. Whilst BT mess around with 01/071/0171/0207/etc… what does not change is xxx-yyyy.

    That is my number, and that is what I quote as a natural cluster my grand-dad, dad and I all know.

    Dan, 0207 is no more than an ephemeral sophistry on BTs part.

    Neither they or you will unwire and re-wire my memory of xxx-yyyy.

  4. Dan on June 7th, 2006 18:51

    Homer/Old Dog,

    I don’t deny that one’s memory still retains the xxx-yyyy. For example, when I used to live in Halifax, our post-STD phone number inherited a leading ‘3’ overnight. It took some time for the brain to acknowledge that this was part of the phone number.

    All I’m saying is that while the brain remembers things the way it remembers them, when you get a sign printed for your shop, you should be correct, rather than sentimental.

    Saying that your phone number is xxx-yyyy is neither use nor ornament, because this in itself is not sufficient to get hold of you, whether you’re inside or outside London.

  5. Oliver on June 9th, 2006 10:48

    what’s wrong with these people?

    they always have to have the last word and be right.

    ok, I worship at the altar of your superior insights.

    I am sure you have a bigger dick too.


  6. James Asher on December 26th, 2007 17:11

    Listen to the rhythm of the numbers, and assess it from
    that perspective. 0207 for example invariably scans better
    than just 020.
    Not just nemonics to memory, but part of the flow in which
    the groove of putting these things into action flows
    most easily.
    Perhaps most amazing about all the changes made to the codes, was the lack of foresight that they would need to
    change again so many times.

  7. W. Addle on May 18th, 2008 10:54

    Good rant. try dialling a phone number written down by someone who’s left off what they believe to be their area code (0207 / 0208) instead of just 020 (hence the number they have written down being 1 digit too short) doesn’t matter if you are next door you won’t get through 😛

    020 xxxx yyyy, yes most of the numbers do start with 7 or 8 but thats the prefix of the phone number, not the suffix of the area code.

  8. Roger on June 5th, 2008 01:57


    Having had a debate with you about this for the past 2 days and noting your comments on this blog I have come to the conclusion that we should just addopt the French way of vocalising phone numbers; whereby your example would become:


  9. cattj on July 16th, 2009 12:23

    OK, let me spell it out, because you clearly haven’t read this article:

    When your London Code changed from (0171) to (020) your Local Number changed to 7xxx xxxx. Your local number has eight digits.

    People previously having an (0181) xxx xxxx Number, now have an 8xxx xxxx Local Number. The local number has eight digits.

    Both of those have the (020) area code.

    So, anywhere in London can dial any London number using just eight digits. That is, if you are calling any (020) number from any other (020) number, simply omit the (020) part from what you dial.

    If you see one of the new numbers like (020) 3xxx xxxx you can also call that by just dialling 3xxx xxxx too.

    The whole point is that local numbers changed by adding a digit on the front so that more numbers could be made available.

    The number ranges 2xxx xxxx and 4xxx xxxx and 5xxx xxxx and 6xxx xxxx are entirely unused and are therefore available for future use once the 7xxx xxxx and 8xxx xxxx and 3xxx xxxx numbers have all been allocated.

    That is, now that all of London uses the (020) area code there will be no need to ever change that code. Now that everyone in London has an eight-digit local number there is enough number capacity for several centuries.

    The move from 01 to 071/081 doubled the amount of available numbers because 123 4567 could be allocated as (071) 123 4567 to someone in Inner London and as (081) 123 4567 to someone in Outer London.

    The move to 0171 and 0181 gave no extra numbers in London, but freed up all of the 02 to 09 area codes for future use elsewhere.

    The move to (020) for London saw only the 7xxx xxxx and 8xxx xxxx number ranges immediately allocated. It enabled millions of numbers in the 2xxx xxxx and 3xxx xxxx and 4xxx xxxx and 5xxx xxxx and 6xxx xxxx ranges to be available for use some time in the future. In recent times, the 3xxx xxxx range has already started to be used London-wide.

  10. Dan on July 16th, 2009 12:34

    Thanks for that, cattj. I’m hoping your frustration is at some of the commenters, and not at myself (the author), as I wholeheartedly agree with your point.

  11. cattj on July 16th, 2009 15:06

    That was aimed at “Homer” who said:

    [quote]My point is simple. Whilst BT mess around with 01/071/0171/0207/etc… what does not change is xxx-yyyy.
    That is my number, and that is what I quote as a natural cluster my grand-dad, dad and I all know.
    Dan, 0207 is no more than an ephemeral sophistry on BTs part.
    Neither they or you will unwire and re-wire my memory of xxx-yyyy.[/quote]

    That’s obviously completely *wrong*. 🙂

  12. Ian on September 23rd, 2009 00:47

    To clarify – since 2000 the area code has been 020 – it has never been 0207 and 0208 and the numbers can now be issued anywhere in London – there is no inner/outer split. The ‘phone book printers got it wrong first time out.

    number formats are not set by BT, but by ofcom

  13. Simon on March 29th, 2010 13:46

    As Dan bumped this on Twitter recently, I’m going to ask if there’s anyone, anywhere in London, who uses the short version of a London phone number. Ever.

    Ie if you’re in 020 7xxx land, and you want to phone someone in 020 8xxx land, do you ever leave the ‘020’ bit off?

    It doesn’t even work on our office phone system, as far as I can tell.

    I guess my point is that although I agree completely with Dan’s anality when it comes to phone numbers, the practical reality is that users see no difference between an area code elsewhere in London and an area code elsewhere in the UK.

    In an 020 8xxx area? Might as well be in the Outer Hebrides…


  14. Dan on March 29th, 2010 14:14


    It does work from our office system. 020 is considered to be a single STD code, so dialing 8XXX YYYY or 7XXX YYYY (with a preceding 9 for an outside line, of course) works just fine and dandy. You need not even worry whether you’re traversing the 7/8 divide.

  15. steve on April 23rd, 2010 17:48

    What divide?

    London numbers beginning 3xxx xxxx or 7xxx xxxx or 8xxx xxxx can be anywhere in London.

    The inner/outer London split was abolished in 2000 when London adopted the single 020 area code.

    In a decade or so, there will also be London local numbers beginning 4xxx xxxx or 6xxx xxxx.


  16. Simon on September 18th, 2010 09:41

    Just had a bill from BT for setting up my new phone number. They grouped the number on the bill as follows:

    02087 xxxxxx

    Which is just bizarre.


  17. Seán on February 21st, 2013 11:33

    You’re probably aware that in many civilised countries, phone numbers are read out as a sequence of two-digit numbers, so would be “forty-five, forty-three, oh-nine, thirty-four”. I always thought that was a lot easier to remember, and avoids this sort of confusion.

  18. Scott on February 21st, 2013 11:46

    Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been banging this same (slightly OCD) drum for 10 years now. The local code is 020. Stop reading it out, or typing it, as 0207 ffs. Good to know I’m not alone!!

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