What is a Toll Free Phone Number?

Toll-free numbers are telephone numbers with special area codes that can be dialed from landlines with no charge to the person placing the call. When calling from VoIP-based or mobile phone, minutes-based charges still apply. Toll-free numbers can lead to a dedicated line or be routed through a forwarding service that directs the call to one line, several lines, an answering service or a call center.

The History of Toll-Free Numbers

AT&T released the first toll-free number — beginning with the prefix 800 — in 1967 as an easy way for customers to call businesses without incurring charges. Prior to that, customers had to make collect calls and couldn't be connected until the business receiving the call agreed to pay the charges. The concept took off immediately, with more than 7 million toll-free calls being placed in the first year alone. 25 years later in 1992, 40 percent of calls made on AT&T's long-distance network were made to toll-free numbers.

Competition Breeds Expansion

AT&T held a monopoly on all toll-free numbers, and often charged exorbitant rates for their purchase. This meant that only big companies with big telecom resources could afford toll-free numbers — until 1984. That year, a federal judge broke the "Ma Bell" monopoly with a ruling that splintered AT&T into many smaller, regional networks. This brought new competition, and dramatically reduced rates for toll-free numbers. Suddenly, tiny businesses with a sole proprietor could have the same kind of phone numbers as Fortune 500 companies.

New Prefixes

As demand grew with the size of the country's population, the FCC created 8 million new toll-free numbers in 1996 with the addition of the 888 prefix. Two years later in 1998, the 877 area code was introduced. The 866 prefix came out in 2000. It took another decade for the release of the 855 area code in 2010, and in December of 2013, 844 numbers were released. Anticipating further demand, the FCC has reserved for future expansion the area codes 833, 822, 880-887, and 889.