How to call a foreign country

The cheapest and easiest ways to make a telephone call to another country, and how to place calls within a foreign country

skypeTelephone numbers on this site are presented in international dialing format: +[country code]-[city code]-[number]. So +33-(0)1-55-12-12-12 os the number for whomever answers the phone at 55-12-12-12 in Paris (city code 01) France (country code 33). Why is that "zero" in parentheses? Ah, we'll get to that in a moment.

Here's one huge piece of advice that will save you a ton of money and avoid the hassle of understanding anything of what I'm about to describe a few paragraphs down: do yourself a favor and get a Skype account. Drop $10 into it.

That should cover all the international calls you'll need to make for the next year—and since all you have to do when using Skype is select the country to which you are calling then type (or paste) in the number you are trying to reach (just leave off the country code), you don't have to understand how it all works. You just have to know it's only costing you 2.3¢ per minute.

OK, if you're not using Skype, here's the skinny.

Telephoning gets a bit complicated depending on where you are in relation to where you're trying to call. Every country has slightly different rules, but in general:

How to make a phone call to, or within, another country

First of all, to call one country from another, you have to know the international dialing prefix for the country from which you care calling—basically, the number you need to get an "outside line" from your country.

For most countries, this is "00" (zero-zero). For the U.S. (because we love to be different), it is 011.

OK, once you have entered the international dialing prefix, dial the full number: [country code]-[city code]-[number]—in most cases leaving off the initial "zero" of the city code. (This is why I put the "zero" in parentheses in that fictitious Paris sample number above. Doing so indicates that the initial zero is to be dropped when calling from outside the country.)

So, to call that Paris number from a U.S. phone, you'd dial 011-33-1-55-12-12-12.

So far, so good.

Now it gets complicated.

There is the confusing—and changing—role of the so-called "initial zero" in city codes.

City codes and initial "zeros"

How it works in the U.S.
For my non-North American readers: in the United States and Canada, we call the city code an "area code"—and a single city may have as many as four of them. This consists of a three digit number, which is variously presented in parentheses, or followed by a slash, or simply followed by a dash. In most places, you must now dial the entire number, area code included. If you are dialing from one area code to another, preface the number with a "1."
To call most countries from another country, you do just what I described above: you leave off the initial "zero" in the city code (the "0" in the "01" for Paris).

If, however you are calling from one city to another within a country—again, in most countries—you do have to dial the initial "zero." So to call that Paris number from, say, Marseilles, you would dial 01-55-12-12-12.

(If calling within the same city, you would just drop the city code entirely: 55-12-12-12).

[Even more confusingly, in rare instances it is not an initial "zero," but an initial "nine"—what was up with Spain on that, I have no idea.]

OK, now that you've got a handle on all that, let's make it more confusing: For some countries, the rules have changed.

City codes—The new style

Countries where you now dial everything, including the initial "0" (or "9")

Czech Republic
Everything I just wrote about city codes does not matter anymore in a growing number of countries.

In some countries (list to the right) you must now dial the entire number at all times—city code and all, "initial zero" and all—no matter where you are when placing the call.

So to call a fictitious number in Rome (city code: 06), Italy (city code: 39) from the States, you would dial 011-39-06-555-1212. Within Italy, it'd be 06-555-1212. Even within Rome, it would still be 06-555-1212.

Think of it like the plus-ten dialing revolution in the United States, where in most cities you must dial the area code even if you're calling next-door.

Consult your guidebook to find out how it works where you are traveling, but as a rule of thumb, if you see phone numbers in which the initial zero appears in parentheses—as in +xx-(0)23-xxx-xxxx—its often an indication that this country uses the old system: the zero is to be dropped when calling from abroad, but included when calling from inside the country. (Or it means that the guidebook is out of date).

If you have no such parenthetical clues, well, start dialing and hope.

You can always just try dialing the number every which way until you get it right. If you get an error or busy signal, try tacking on or leaving off the zero until it rings and someone answers.

Confusing? Yes. That's why I said to get Skype.


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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in April 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.