Telephone country codes: A shorthand history of the world

Calling SwedenDiary date: 31st July, 1985

A watershed moment 28 years ago this week: I’ve arrived in Sweden for a three-month stay working as a cleaner on the dockyards in Gothenburg. After a week, I managed to get enough Kronor in a public phone box to call my family and let them know I’d arrived safely. I spoke to them for about 20 seconds before my change ran out.

As a child of International Direct Dialling – the ability to make country-to-country phone calls without the help of a human operator – it was around this point that I started to make a mental note of the ‘country codes’ of places I’d visited. From Sweden, I knew I needed to dial 44 to get back to the UK. Doing the reverse – calling Sweden from the UK – I needed a 46 instead. At the time, I remember thinking that the allocation of these numbers was probably based on the alphabet. 44 was close to 46, and the ‘U’ of United Kingdom was close to the ‘S’ of Sweden. Who needed Wikipedia back then?

In fact, the development of the country code system is not nearly that simple, telling as it does by proxy the story of global geo-political change since the early 1960’s.

An initial list of largely European country codes was mooted in 1960 by the organisation which was to become the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) – the UN agency which helps coordinate global telecoms. The list was published as the Red Book and proposed around 50 two-digit codes (presumably used at the time by operators rather than subscribers), including the now-defunct Yugoslavia (63), Arabia (26) and Czechoslovakia (57).

The Red Book became Blue in 1964 and brought with it a proposal for a new system. The world was divided into nine zones, and countries were given one, two or three-digit country codes, with the initial digit representing their zone. World Zone 1 was North America, Zone 2 was Africa, Europe bagged both 3 and 4 because of the sheer number of larger countries, and so on.

In 1968 the Book was White and built on the new model, with a wide range of changes and additions, including East Germany (37), the Trucial States (971) and Zanzibar (252). Turkey, which in 1964 had the European code 36, moved to Zone 9 (Western Asia and the Middle East) and adopted its current code – 90.

1972 was Green and did a lot of tidying up.  Several Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras left the North American Zone 1, and became part of Zone 5 – South America. The Trucial States merged to become the United Arab Emirates and acquired code 971, and Rhodesia (263) became Zimbabwe. Ceylon (92) kept the same country code but became Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Morocco strangely found itself with with three codes all to itself (210, 211 and 212).

The books in the next few years started with Orange and Yellow, but their four-year cycles were eventually abandoned so that the ITU could keep pace with the demands of the new world of personal computing.

The changes since then read like a shorthand history of the world:

  • In 1984, the Republic of Upper Volta (226) became Burkina Faso, and the Falkland Islands, previously assigned to Guatemala, acquired their own code – 500.
  • The same year, a new code – 850 – was created for North Korea, with South Korea retaining code 82.
  • After German reunification in 1990, East Germany’s code 37 was deleted in favour of West Germany’s 49.
  • Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia (251) in 1993 and acquired a new code – 291.
  • Lithuania (370), Latvia (371), Estonia (372) and several other states split from Zone 7 (originally named ‘USSR’ in 1964) in 1993. The only former Soviet republic that retained its ‘7’ designation was (and remains) Kazakhstan.
  • Yugoslavia (38) was deleted in 1993 and became Serbia and Montenegro (381), Croatia (385), Slovenia (386), Bosnia (387) and Macedonia (389).
  • Vatican City gained its own code (379) in 1995 – instead of just being reachable through Italy.
  • In 1997, Czechoslovakia (57) became the Czech Republic (420) and Slovakia (421).
  • Following its independence from Indonesia, East Timor was assigned code 670 in 1999.
  • Palestine was given code 970 in 1999, replacing its previous access via Israel on code 972.

In fact, of the original 1960 Red Book list, only six countries* today retain the codes they were initially given.

Coincidentally – and rather fittingly for my followthehumming story – two of these are the ever-lovely Sweden (46) and my own United Kingdom (44).

*Just out of interest – since you’ve got this far – the other four are Greece, France, Italy and ‘Germany.’
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