North American Telephone System:

Whenever I travel outside of North America, I am usually confused by the telephone systems in Foreign Countries, so I am assuming the same thing probably applies to visitors to North America. I will therefore try and explain how things work here.

The telephone systems in Canada, The US, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are all part of what we call the North American Numbering Plan. For purposes of the phone system, we are all one country.

Unlike many parts of the world, calls are NOT metered. Local calls are free and you can talk as long as you like. This is especially nice if you spend a lot of time on the internet.

First of all, the emergency number anywhere in BC is 911. You do not need a coin in a payphone to dial it.

Local telephone numbers in North America consist of 10 digits. The standard format is XXX-XXX-XXXX. Cellular phones follow the same pattern .The first 3 digits are the area code. In most locations, including Vancouver, you have to dial these digits, in the interior of BC & on Vancouver Island  you just dial the last 7.  Most calls within the  same city are free. If they are not, you must dial 1 plus the area code plus the 7 digits. (IE 1-xxx-xxx-xxxx). There is no necessity to dial a country code on calls between countries within the North American Numbering Plan.

Certain numbers are free, even though they are long distance. These numbers start with 1-800, 1-855, 1-866, 1-877 or 1-888. (IE 1-800-xxx-xxxx). These numbers may be free within only Canada and/or the US, or may work across all borders, depending on the customer. Generally speaking, you may dial these numbers from any payphone without depositing any money. On the subject of Payphones, they cost 25 cents for a local call with no time restrictions. Avoid dialling any number starting with a 1-900. They are pay by the minute calls usually to such things as on line sex, psychics, etc.

The area codes for Vancouver are 604 & 778. For the rest of BC, it is 250. Whistler & the eastern Fraser Valley are also within area code 604, but are long distance from Vancouver.

Deregulation of the Telephone Industry in Canada and the US has made things quite a bit more confusing. There are several different long distance carriers, and competition in the local service and payphone areas is also becoming apparent. Generally speaking, it depends on which phone you call from as to which long distance carrier you will use. I work in the industry, and I'm confused. This is only going to get worse with something called "local number portability" which enables people to take their phone numbers with them, wherever they move in North America. This will really confuse things, since area codes will no longer have much meaning. Despite the confusion, Canada and the US both have the lowest long distance rates in the world. Some countries offer a service whereby you can call home by placing the call through an operator in your home country. In Canada we call it Canada Direct, and I use this service when travelling abroad. If your home service provider offers this service, it is still probably not advisable to use it from North America. The long distance rate you will charged from here is almost surely less than the rate in your country of origin.

Busy and Ringback tones sound quite different from those in Europe and can be confusing. A busy tone is a series of one second beeps and Ringback is a 2 second ringing sound, not 2 beep series like in Europe. A rapid busy tone signifies all circuits busy or an invalid number. Calls within the Vancouver area are free.

If you stay in a hotel, be aware that many hotels surcharge long distance calls made from your room. You are generally better off to make the call from a payphone.


If you have a Cell phone, chances are you will be able to log onto one of the main carriers in Vancouver, Telus Mobility, Rogers, Bell, or possibly one of the new small PCS services such as Fido or Virgin. I would check with your Cellular company first, as sometimes even local calls become long distance when you do this. You can find out about renting a Cell Phone at Cita - Advanced Wireless Cellular Phone Rentals.