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A telephone card, calling card or phone card for short, is a small plastic card sized and shaped like a credit card, used to pay for telephone services. In most or all cases the card itself is not used, knowledge of the access telephone number to dial and the PIN being sufficient. Standard cards which can be purchased and used without any sort of account facility give a fixed amount of credit and are discarded when used up; others can be topped up, or collect payment in arrears. The system for payment and the way in which the card is used to place a telephone call vary from card to card.

Cards known as remote memory cards have a PIN associated with a specific land-line telephone account; calls using the card are billed to the associated account.

Stored-value phone cards

In stored value, called so because the card itself contains the balance available, the balance is read by the public pay-phone machine when it is inserted into the machine's card reader. This is similar to an automated teller machine at a bank. There are several ways in which the value can be encoded on the card.

The earliest system used a magnetic stripe as information carrier, similar to the technology of ATMs and key cards. The first magnetic strip phone card, manufactured by SIDA, was issued in 1976 in Italymarker.

The next technology used optical storage. Optical phone cards get their name from optical structure embossed inside the cards. This optical structure is heated and destroyed after use of the units. Visible marks are left on the top of the cards, so that the user can see the balance of remaining units. Optical cards were produced by Landis+Gyr and Sodeco from Switzerland and were popular early phonecards in many countries with first optical phonecards successfully introduced in 1977 in Belgiummarker. Such technology was very secure and not easily hackable but chip cards phased out the optical phone cards around the world and the last Landis+Gyr factory closed in mai 2006 when Optical phonecards were still in use in few countries like Austriamarker, Israëlmarker and Egyptmarker.

The third sub-system of stored value phone cards is chip cards, first launched on a large scale in 1986 in Germanymarker by Deutsche Bundespost after three years of testing, and in Francemarker by France Telecom. Many other countries followed suit, including Ireland in 1990 and the UKmarker circa 1994-1995, which phased out the old green Landis & Gyr cards in favor of the more colorful chip (smart) cards. The initial microchips were easy to hack, typically by scratching off the programming-voltage contact on the card, which rendered the phone unable to reduce the card's value after a call. But by the mid-to-late 1990s, highly secure technology aided the spread of chip phone cards worldwide.

Making a prepaid or calling card call requires the user to make two calls. Regardless of the type of card you must gain access to the calling card platform of the card company. There are several methods in which you can access the calling card platforms. One is via a toll free number, with larger companies offering an international toll free service as well. Access through a local number has become increasingly popular in recent years. The difference is that the toll free method costs more to the calling card company and it bears the cost of the first call and with a local number the caller bears the cost. The local calling method has become quite popular because it offers lower rates to callers. This is because the card company doesn't have to pay for all your attempts or your calls when you check your balance. The cost of access is paid by the caller and generally works out to be cheaper. If you travel, though, a toll free service is more of a convenience and has its price; generally 5-10 cents more expensive per minute in the USA.

Once you have been connected you are authenticated by a PIN (the most popular method) or by the chip embedded on the card. Once you have been validated you are usually given the balance value left on the card before being offered to make your second call. Once you have dialing for the second call you are generally given the amount of minutes left on the card based on the destination that you just dialed as a reference as to how long you can speak. Many cards offer a warning when you have one minute left or, if you have an account, a recording to add more value to the card if you have a credit card on file.

Prepaid or calling cards can save money for consumers or provide convenience to frequent travelers who don’t have cell phones or want to avoid heavy cellular roaming charges.

Remote memory systems

Telephone accounts symbolized by a card

The second main technology of phonecards is remote memory, which uses a toll or toll-free access number to reach the database and check for balance on product. As the United States never had a single nationalized telephone service (or even the same firm for every part of a state), and with the deregulation of its major telecommunications providers, there was no incentive to be consistent with the rest of the world. The ease of use of sliding a card into a machine just as in a teller machine was countered by fears of vandalism of the machines.

The first public pre-paid remote memory phonecard was issued in the United Statesmarker in December 1980 by Phone Line. As telecom industries around the world became deregulated, remote memory cards were issued in various countries. Remote memory phonecards can be used from any tone-mode phone and do not require special card readers. Since remote memory cards are more accessible and have lower costs, remote memory phone cards have proliferated. However, the utility of these cards is reduced due to the large number of digits that need to be entered during usage. To call a long distance number, the user first dials the local access number, then keys in the secret code, followed by the actual long distance number. Based on the long distance number entered, the time remaining on the card is announced, and the call is finally processed through.

Remote memory phonecards are in essence text; requiring an access number, a unique PIN and instructions. Therefore the instructions can be printed on virtually anything, or can be delivered via e-mail or the Internet. Currently many websites post phone card details through e-mail.

Phone cards are available in most countries in retail stores, retail chains and commonly post offices or corner stores. In general, remote memory phonecards can be issued by any company and come in countless varieties. They can focus on calling to certain countries or regions and have specific features such as rechargeability, pinless dial, speed dial and more. Phone cards may have connection fees, taxes and maintenance fees, all influencing the rates.

Accounts not requiring a card (Virtual Phone Cards)

Since the early 2000s calling card service providers have introduced calling accounts which do not require a physical card. Calling accounts can be purchased over the Internet using credit cards and are instantly delivered to the customer via e-mail. This e-mail contains the PIN and instructions for using the service. The service may be prepaid, or may take payment from a credit card or by direct debit. Some prepaid card companies allow accounts to be recharged online manually or automatically via a method called auto-top-up.

Some virtual cards offer PINless Dialing, either by dialling a number unique to the customer, or by recognising the telephone number which originated the call by Caller Line Identification (CLI) and relating it to the appropriate account. Some virtual phone cards allow customers to view their call detail reports (CDRs) online by logging in to their account.

The virtual phone card has become a multi-billion US dollar industry as of 2009 , with a number of large corporations and smaller Dot Com pioneers. While long-distance inland calls have been offered by calling cards, by the mid-2000s conventional carriers offered competitive rates; however in many countries calling-card type indirect services can be much cheaper than normal calls. The reduction in prices due to competition benefits users, but reduces the profitability of service providers.

Phone card as an artifact or collectible

Telecom companies have placed advertising on phone cards, or featured celebrity portraits, artwork, or attractive photography. As the supply of any one design is limited, this has led some people to collect disposable phone cards.

The hobby is sometimes called "fusilately" in the UK and a collector is known as a "fusilatelist"
in the USA it is called "telegery". Phonecards have been collected worldwide since the mid-1970's and peaked in the mid-1990s, when over 2 million people collected phonecards.

There are many web sites dedicated to this hobby, some of which offer catalogs and show the stories behind the cards. Colnect is a site providing the world's most extensive online phonecards catalog.

At the website of the Museum for Optical-cards systems there is information on Landis+Gyr optical phonecards.

Many telecom companies no longer supply phonecards, and the hobby has been in decline.

Support in telephones

Some telephones have facilities to make calls through a calling card service whose access details and PIN are stored in the telephone's memory. Software applications which add calling card support are available for a small charge or free for some mobile telephones which allow software to be installed.

Cultural appearances

In the European Union, one of the metaphors that was used (in the days before cell phones) to win public agreement for the euro was to refer to public experience in using phone cards (of the first type) in the pay phones of many countries when travelling across Europe. America's phone cards do not do this.

Notes and references

See also

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