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Jacci Howard Bear

Phone Numbers: Dots or Dashes?

By July 1, 2010

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How do you set apart number groups in a phone number? In content on this site I've usually said it's up to the designer (or client).

Photo credit: alvimann from morguefile.com
Photo credit: alvimann from morguefile.com

"Using parentheses, hyphens, periods, spaces, or other characters to separate numbers in a phone number are generally a matter of preference and custom but be consistent in whatever method is chosen." (From my article on Parts of a Business Card)

In a recent blog comment Inked54 inquired about this:

"Question regarding use of dots in phone numbers - I know that this originated in Europe where there's lots of international calls. And it is becoming big in the US because most areas are a 10-digit dialing area. WE are not a 10 digit area - meaning we do not need to use the area code to make a call. When I see the 999.999.9999 to me that means I have to use all digits - when I see (999) 999-9999 means I don't - what is correct or is there a correct?"

I honestly had never heard that the formatting of the phone number was an indication that you needed to use the area code for dialing. For me, an area code was just an indication of where the number originated. If I wasn't in the same area code I knew I had to use it to dial the number. If I was in the same area code, well it may or may not be needed. If dialing didn't work without it, I'd add it in. My eldest daughter is working on her resumé and just the other day she asked if it was OK to use dots in the phone number. She just liked the way it looked. I said sure.

Is there an etiquette or preferred use that I wasn't aware of? Let me know what you know or think about this.

July 8, 2010 at 8:15 am
(1) Michael Preston says:

I actually asked British Telecom, (the major UK based telecoms company) about this fairly recently because I was looking to do some design for a client involving several different telephone numbers.

I was told by them that there is in fact, (at least in the UK) no official standard as such. To be honest I found this a bit strange but having dug around a bit for a definiteve answer on this it does seem to be the case.

In effect this means that a London telephone number could be displayed in any of the folowing ways:

020 7272 4488
0207 272 4488
020 72 72 44 88

Th first one is the one that I would see as the norm but the abscence of a standard means that this is more to do with preferred formats rather than an accepted form.

July 8, 2010 at 8:22 am
(2) Nancy Fauser says:

This is only the second time I’ve ever seen a telephone number displayed without any characters separating the number. I find the UK method confusing and hard to read; the form in the US has always been to delineate the groups in a phone number with characters.

Perhaps the rule of thumb should be to use the method familiar to the country you are in!

July 8, 2010 at 11:35 am
(3) Sheryl Lucas says:

I don’t know about *rules,* but my hero, Robin Williams, writes in her *Non-Designers Design Book,* “Try using periods, small bullets, or blank spaces instead of parentheses around area codes. It gives your [business] card a cleaner look.” Her examples show the periods / bullets used within the phone number as well (e.g., 123.456.789). I’ve been using periods on my pieces; I think it’s a cleaner, more updated look than hyphens. Hyphens are so . . . *typewriter.* I often increase the kerning around the periods, or decrease it if the numeral shape results in a large gap (like after the 7).

July 8, 2010 at 11:37 am
(4) Sheryl Lucas says:

Oh, and parentheses . . . *Yuck!*

July 8, 2010 at 11:55 am
(5) Ann says:

I definitely agree with the “yuck” comment on parenthesis. However I also do not like the periods, I personally find them almost as difficult to read as the one with only spaces. And I always feel like it looks like the lazy way to do things, kind of like doing things in all caps or no caps. I know that I’m old school on this one, but that’s how I feel.

July 8, 2010 at 12:51 pm
(6) Hans says:

@Sheryl… you say “yuck” to parenthesis. However that depends. You think only “national” and not “international”. The international rule is to drop the leading zero of the area code if dialing from outside the country. That often is shown in parenthesis on business cards that are use national – and – international.
For example: +49 (0)211.929.6714 or +44 (0)20.7272.4488 !
Having the phone or fax number displayed that way, people are aware that from calling inside Germany (country code 49) or UK (country code 44), they have to use the leading zero, and otherwise drop it. It’s a common international way of showing phone numbers.
- hm

July 8, 2010 at 1:10 pm
(7) Barbara Fifer says:

I like clean hyphens all the way across, beginning after area code. Country code in parens is good where needed. But the dots originated with designers wanting a new look, and are style- rather than rule-governed. It’s a nice book, but I work on history books rather than advertising, so stick with tradition.

July 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm
(8) Karen says:

I work at a printing company and typeset hundreds of business cards for various companies. The choices of parenthesis, hyphen or period is purely a design decision. It has absolutely nothing to do with having to dial the area code. How would that even be possible when one wouldn’t even know if someone would be calling from within the area code or outside of it.

As for the British phone numbers, Ofcom and ITU-T recommends:
Number Location
+44 20 xxxx xxxx London
+44 29 xxxx xxxx Cardiff
+44 113 xxx xxxx Leeds
+44 116 xxx xxxx Leicester
+44 131 xxx xxxx Edinburgh
+44 151 xxx xxxx Liverpool

July 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm
(9) djelliott says:

Whether or not you dial the area relates to the originating phone. Here in Chicagoland, all calls require an area code. So, to phone across the street, I have to dial 1-847 etc etc etc. Now that I am writing this, this may be a function the 847 (northern suburbs of Chicago).

July 13, 2010 at 4:38 pm
(10) Steve says:

Hyphens or periods should NOT be used as separators in the written representation of a telephone number; use only spaces. There should always be a space between the area code part and the local number part. Additional spacing, for readability, is permitted within the local number part. Writing the number as 020 7222 1234 makes it a bit more readable than 020 72221234 does. Certainly, 02072221234 is unreadable.

In ‘national format’, parentheses are used to indicate that the area code may be optional for some callers. This is defined in the ITU-T E.123 standard. In many countries, the area code can be omitted when calling from within that area, and in some countries it must be omitted.

Writing a London number as (020) 7222 1234 makes the optional area code clear to see.

For US numbers, writing the number as (876) 555 3377 is equally clear.

In the ‘international format’, begin with the + symbol to indicate that the outgoing International Access Code needs to be dialled. Follow this with the country code, area code, and local number. Put a space between each of those elements. Include only the digits that MUST be dialled from abroad. In particular, do NOT include a (0) in parentheses, as this is meaningless.

So, +44 20 7222 1234 is clear, and is interpreted as follows.

When outside the UK, dial your outgoing international access code (00 from Europe, 011 from the US, etc) followed by all twelve of the digits shown.

When in the UK, replace the +44 country code with the 0 trunk code, and dial all of the remaining ten digits.

When calling from a landline within the 020 area itself, omit the +44 20 and dial all of the remaining eight digits.

Likewise, the US number +1 876 555 3377 is clear, and is interpreted as follows.

When outside the US/Canada, dial your outgoing international access code (00 from Europe, 0011 from Australia, etc) followed by all of the eleven digits shown.

When in the US/Canada, replace the +1 country code with the 1 ‘toll’ code, and dial all of the remaining ten digits.

When calling from a landline in the 876 area itself, you may be able to omit the +1 876 and simply dial all of the remaining seven digits, that is, unless that area now requires ten digit dialling.

A common error is to present an international format number without the leading + sign.

Is 34967453366 a Spanish number? +34 967 453 344 would clarify.

Another error is to present the number and include a specific access code that will not work when used in another country.

011442072221234 should be +44 20 7222 1234.

0018765553434 should be +1 876 555 3434.

01161(0)244557878 should be +61 2 4455 7878. The (0) is not dialled from abroad. Do not include it in the international format.

0039073452345 should be +39 07 345 2345 – yes, you must dial the 0 in the area code part when calling Italy from abroad. Not all countries drop the leading 0 when dialled from abroad.

In the US, all numbers are 3+7 format for the area code and local number; but the number is usually written in blocks of 3, 3, 4. The ’1′ toll code is not included in the digit count.

In the UK, number formats include 2+8, 3+7, 4+6, 4+5, 5+5 and 5+4 for the area code and local number. The ’0′ trunk code is not included in the digit count. Ofcom list every allocation in a set of XLS files you can download. Alternatively, you can type a 0 and at least three more digits into the ‘Partial Telephone Number’ search box to see detailed information. Both of those are updated several times per month. The UK area code list at Wikipedia is accurate, as is the one at area-codes.org.uk too.

There is a serious lack of knowledge regarding UK area codes. London is 020, not 0207 or 0208, for example. Many mistakes are made with all of the new 02x and 011x codes. There’s a vast amount of incorrectly formatted numbers published on the web.

Do NOT ever include (0) within an international telephone number. It is meaningless. In an international telephone number include ONLY the digits that MUST be dialled when calling from abroad. Parentheses are used to show digits that are OMITTED when you are calling from WITHIN that area, and are used only in National Format numbers like (020) 7222 1234 and (876) 555 7878.

The unwanted (0) problem is so common, that Google now returns more than five million results for US numbers incorrectly written as +1 (0) xxx xxx xxxx when you search for [tel "+1 (0)" usa] with the quotes and spaces typed exactly as shown. The US does not use a 0 trunk code, at all, ever.

About.com also has another interesting article about London and UK telephone numbers too.

July 16, 2010 at 9:10 am
(11) Steve says:

So far, only UK geographic 01 and 02 numbers have been mentioned. What of mobile and other numbers?

Mobile numbers in the UK should be formatted in national format as 07xxx xxxxxx, or in international format as +44 7xxx xxxxxx. Some people prefer to break the final six digits into two groups of three, and that can sometimes aid readability.

For ‘UK wide’, ‘special rate’ and ‘premium rate’ (’03′, ’08′ and ’09′) numbers, there is just one format: 0xxx xxx xxxx. Don’t try to hide what type of number it is, by altering the format, as that makes the number less memorable. That is, 08438 446 244 attempts to hide the fact it is an “0843″ number, whereas writing 0843 844 6244 does not.

There’s not much point in using the international format for 03, 08 and 09 numbers, because many of these numbers cannot be dialled from abroad. If you have an international audience, be sure to include an alternative 01 or 02 UK geographic number. If you get a lot of callers from any particular country, consider providing a local access number within their own country.

Likewise, if your organisation pays for a “freefone” 0800 or 0808 number for people to call you on, be aware that these numbers are NOT free to call when calling from a mobile telephone. In that case, customers usually avoid calling the number. If they do call, the call is costing your business money! Provide an alternative geographic “01″ or “02″, or a UK-wide “03″, number for those people to call you on. By doing this, your customers save money, and you save money too.

August 24, 2010 at 2:45 pm
(12) Skippy says:

I have always found it best to stick with hyphens when typing out telephone numbers. I have received complaints that phone numbers delinneated with periods are difficult to read, and others think they look stupid and trendy. So I also stick with tradition and use hyphens.

April 13, 2011 at 11:20 pm
(13) Printing Guy says:

Dashes and parenthesis should be used exactly how you view them in the Phonebook if you are in the US. The decision to use periods is actually indicative of a failing business. Take a look and there has been research done where business cards with periods have a 98% failure ratio, whereas business cards with US Phonebook formatted numbers with parenthesis and dashes are generally successful and indicative of large and professional companies. NEVER use periods unless you want to advertise that you are a very small, risky and “radical” company, and proud of it.

April 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm
(14) Chris says:

My opinion about dots in phone numbers: trendy nonsense.

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm
(15) S.J. Thompson says:

I also work at a small print company and have laid out thousands of business cards over the last decade. It’s been my experience that customers who have a definite preference for periods in their phone numbers were the more pretentious customers and felt the periods were more sophisticated. Most customers didn’t really care either way. Personally I think the periods are trendy and don’t really add anything artisitc.

April 21, 2011 at 7:56 am
(16) Henry Barth says:

Telephone numbers should always be distinguished from IP addresses, called dotted IP addresses. Never use periods in phone numbers. You might look in your nation’s phone directory to determine the best way to display phone numbers. Follow the local practice. Always use the + sign for international.

April 21, 2011 at 10:30 am
(17) another "Printing Guy" says:

I agree with most of these comments except for the “Printing Guy” comment, and furthermore, Id like to see these “so-called” statistics of businesses that fail, or are failing due to their business cards using periods, from an official, credible, source, other than these comments. I’ve been printing, designing and running print facilities for over 30 years, and am currently working for a very large health facility, and all of our business correspondence is printed with phone numbers using periods. We are not only successful, but actually growing at a rapid rate, and as stated, all of our business cards use periods.
I have used many methods and designs including “periods, as dividers for phone numbers over the years, and the only businesses I know of that I have been affiliated with, and/or printed cards with periods , that have “gone under” have been the printing companies. Universities, hospitals, doctor’s, ad agencies, and many manufacturers, large and small, all still in business as far as I can recall, most if not all currently using “periods” to divide their phone numbers…

April 21, 2011 at 10:42 am
(18) Inked54 says:

Thank you everyone for your comments, I am the one who started this. I’ve worked in print shops and also in offices and I know that there is a want to be ‘trendy’ and that is why I was asking. Steve, thank you for the clarification on the tech way to do things. Just like scientific notation there re reasons to follow the equation so that everyone can be on the same page or in this case the same call. Again – we do not live in a 10 digit dialing area (there are still some of us out here who only have to dial 7 numbers) so it is more than just being trendy and the looks thing it is a necessity to, yes, add the ‘yuck’ parentheses. This is actually a real reason for the question. So thanks for everyone’s time and I’ll stay the old fashioned way.

April 21, 2011 at 11:11 am
(19) jgarcia says:

As a wordsmith I switched to periods in phone numbers a few years back when I realized that if I used periods the number would not split at the end of a line. Whereas, with hyphens and spaces, I would have to remember to insert a hard hyphen or hard space. And, as a graphic designer, I like the cleaner look.

Language changes all the time and so does the way we write it.

April 24, 2011 at 5:50 am
(20) Mohamed Al-Dabbagh says:

Thank u 4 bringing this subject to life. Actually I prefer the following format:

(+967) 7117 0 4224

or maybe

(+967) 7117-0-4224

The reason is obvious. Format for easier reading (you may group the digits according to symmetry or repetition or a sequential certain theme). If you have a print like a telephone directory then things should be more uniform. You should follow a solid rule for all numbers. And yes, the parentheses are used to indicate area code number.

April 27, 2011 at 5:08 pm
(21) Mary says:

I just think that dots are for IP adresses.

June 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm
(22) Daisy says:

Periods are just plain trendy. I agree with the first “Printing Guy”. And the “Another Printing Guy” just proved the “Printing Guy’s” point.

September 15, 2011 at 11:06 am
(23) web_dev_guy says:

The company I work for has always used periods to divide phone numbers and it has always driven me crazy. Until reading these posts, I have never ever ever seen this done anywhere else. I don’t think it looks trendy. I think it looks stupid. As a web guy, every time I see a number like this “123.345.5678″ I instantly think IP address. Hyphens work just fine for phone numbers and they are no less clean than using periods. I do lean toward not using parens so my preferred (U.S.) number format is

Nice and clean

As for using only spaces, well thats just a mad jumble of numbers that I have to look at four or five times to get right!

December 27, 2011 at 1:26 pm
(24) Glen says:

Trendy, indeed.
Periods in phone numbers, periods in dates, and periods in times, just make them less clear.

When you see:
you know what it means (if you know the date order of the country).

January 13, 2012 at 9:16 am
(25) jc says:

I prefer dots but have seen dots AND dashes 555.555-5555 is this incorrect? Seems wrong.

February 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm
(26) Chazz Brown says:

Also I did not read all the comments however I have just discovered using this format is a bad idea (###.###.####) Many spam filters may catch this as an IP Address email server. I just got done breaking down an email message that would not go throught and found out for some reason our Comcast email server is catching it as spam.

June 26, 2012 at 11:39 am
(27) Sally says:

I am really irritated by the new move to dots in place of hyphens for phone numbers. Spaces are even worse. The choice in writing should be to communicate best. Dots make the numbers more similar to money amounts, and reduces the spacing, making the number a bit harder to read and definitely harder to remember. I don’t use international calling, so there may be a need for some changes for that purpose, but certainly hyphens and parentheses are the clearest.

December 22, 2012 at 10:51 am
(28) Rob says:

** 10/12/11

That’s very ambiguous.

October, December? 1911, 2011, 2111?

ISO 8601 and RFC 3339 show 2012-11-10.

This uses YYYY-MM-DD for 2012 November 10th.

(No-one uses YYYY-DD-MM so it is unambiguous worldwide).

Additionally, both alpha sort and numerical sort for lists of dates, ends up with the same result.

February 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm
(29) Jim says:

I’m late to this discussion, but found it when googling rules about formatting phone numbers. I’m a graphics guy and I don’t like the periods between numbers since it makes the number harder to read with the smaller amount of space.

I find that when I’m trying to read, quickly retain and dial a phone number, having the parentheses visually helps. It divides the 10 digit number into 3 distinct groups: (Area code) Exchange – number, which I find to be an easier mnemonic. At one time it was a standard for North American phone numbers but maybe not so much now with 10-digit dialing in most places.

At any rate I think the traditional look of it (in North America) doesn’t hurt for a business card or an ad to convey a little old-school stability in a lot of cases. When I see the dots between numbers I get the feeling that the company using it is trying to convey a more style-conscious look, which I guess can be advantageous in some cases. In most cases I’ll default to (XXX) XXX-XXXX unless the client specifically wants otherwise.

May 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm
(30) Mark says:

For web page content (which we must remember is global) I highly endorse Steve’s remarks which is to always format the number as though it is being dialed abroad beginning with a + sign, then the country code using a space only as a valid separator for the remaining digits using the digit sequence spacing that is local custom for the country or region if it varies by region within country.

The spacing rules make the telephone number easier to dial as well as making the telephone number immediately recognizable.

Humans have always had a limited capacity to accurately transcribe strings of numbers that are more than 4 digits in length. Hence the North American custom of representing telephone numbers in 3+3+4 structure. My company happens to use a 10 digit conference calling pass code which I find very annoying and awkward to dial unless it is published in meeting invitations using some variation of a 3+3+4 structure.

There are unified messaging tools such as Microsoft Lync combined with office telecommunications technology that will enable “click to dial” functionality using your computer as a telephone if and only if these rules are followed.

For more information about telephone number formatting, consult publications such as the International Telephone Union (ITU) public communication numbering plan recommendation E.164

June 6, 2013 at 8:27 am
(31) Sandy says:

Hi there,

I like to keep it very simple.

if it is a local advert I use the area code 012 556 9636
if international +27 12 556 9636

I keep the same formatting, 3 3 4 dig
this is my standard when designing. it looks neater when designing a business card and you right align.


June 22, 2013 at 10:25 am
(32) Mark says:

It is 2013 when I went scouring the internet for answers to this question while reviewing a friend’s resume. While reading a series of 2010-vintage comments what became evident to me as possibly even more important on this topic is:

What does current software-based phone dialing will require/prefer?

With so many add-on programs allowing phone numbers to be dialed directly from electronic documents one should do some research as to what the most common add-on programs require/prefer. Having this format “ready-to-be-dialed,” may encourage a resume reader to dial you directly while your resume is in front of them. And that’s half the battle – getting the call.

March 18, 2014 at 2:15 pm
(33) pin says:

A thought on data entry and parens vs. dashes vs. periods.

A lot on this thread talk about periods being “trendy.”

One reason they are favored is for data entry the period is often used and easy to hit. Most people have to look at their keyboard to type a dash as that is not a frequently used character.

Parens are the hardest to use requiring use of the shift key and two different keys used to wrap the numbers.

Therefore for ease of entry periods are the fastest. For this reason alone the “trend” is likely here to stay.

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