Calling Austria from USA in 1984
July 7, 2018 7:49 PM   Subscribe

I am writing a story (which takes place in 1984) in which someone calls from the USA to Austria. I would like to show, in detail, how that call would have taken place. Would you call the local operator first? Then get transferred to an Austrian operator? What about the German/English language barrier? I actually made a few such calls in 1984 but I cannot recall the details at all. I'm hoping someone who has a much better memory than I do can help me out.

Thank you! P.S. I would imagine that calling any other country in Europe would be the same. Therefore, info for calling anywhere in Europe in 1984 (or close to that year) would be helpful.
posted by Ira Weston to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
6 years later I dialed 00, country, city and home # of a family friend in Germany...IIRC these instructions were in US phone books in the 80s.
posted by brujita at 8:02 PM on July 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m pretty sure in 1984 I was making direct international calls. For a collect call from England to home I would call the international operator supplied by Bell Canada and be connected to home. I think where any language barrier might have come up would have been calling directory assistance - if memory serves I would call locally and ask to be connected to directory assistance in a city and then have to go through that local operator.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:04 PM on July 7, 2018

We made direct international calls every week from the USA in the 80s. 001, country, city, home #. Never talked to an operator.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:40 PM on July 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

1988 was my first year in the US. To call home to Sweden, you dialed 001, 46 (the country code), and the number without the leading zero in the local area code - no operators. The only thing you had to pay attention to was trying to stay on the line for as short a time as was as possible, because it was incredibly expensive. We would always mark the start time of the call, in order to try to keep it from getting too costly.
posted by gemmy at 9:06 PM on July 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

In all of the 80s, unless you were in a very rural area in the US that didn't have updated switching, long distance would have been direct dial.

Per wikipedia: By mid-1968, transatlantic cable capacity had increased to the point where scheduling calls between Western Europe, the UK, and USA was no longer necessary and calls were completed on demand. Transatlantic International Direct Dialing between New York City (212 area code) and London (01 STD code) was introduced in 1970,[9] with service extended to the whole of the USA and the 6 largest UK cities in 1971.[10]

1984 was a special year, though: During the 1984 breakup of the Bell System, the local access and transport area or LATA concept was created to distinguish between in-region calls (which were handled by local telephone companies such as the Baby Bells) and out-of-region calls (handled by interexchange carriers such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint).

The breakup of the Bell system in 1984 came with federally imposed rules to allow the Baby Bells and other long-distance providers to compete via "equal access." Equal access allows telephone subscribers to choose an authorized telephone company or companies to handle their local toll and long-distance toll (including international) calls from their traditional, wireline telephones.
So, basically, long distance dialing was well-established by 84 and in that year we actually started to see competition in long distance rates.

But up to the introduction of that competition, long distance rates were exorbitant and international multiply so, so it was extravagant to talk for more than a couple of minutes and everyone was intensely mindful of the cost when calling internationally, rushing to say what needed to be said and get off the phone as fast as possible. (This persisted into the 2010s really.) When I was an exchange student in Sweden in 1988-89, it was safer (time zone wise) for me to call home rather than my parents try to catch me at home, and we spoke on the phone about once a month for maybe 20 minutes, but that would cost my host parents about 90 US cents a minute; it was probably half that if my parents initiated the call from the US.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:30 PM on July 7, 2018

As everyone's saying, it was just a direct dial call using international dialling prefix and country code. The only unheimlich thing about it was the different ringtone on the other end.
posted by Morpeth at 11:59 PM on July 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

Following on from Morpeth, there are (today) ringing tones in one country that sound like busy tones in another, for me from France to England the first time (not in 1984 however) I hung up repeatedly thinking the line was busy!
posted by ellieBOA at 12:10 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Chances are, the recipient in Austria would have had to share his party line with others. In Vienna, this was a „Vierteltelefon“ (Quarterphone, shared with 3 other parties). In Linz up to 8 parties, in the countryside 2).
So the phone might be very busy, depending on the neighbours, and the person may be hard to reach.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:38 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you were making expensive phonecalls to someone you're familiar with, and it was cheaper for them to ring you, you'd ring them, say "call me back" and they'd return the call.


Unless it was my mum who'd wonder off, make a cup of tea, get distracted by the cat, finish watering the garden and then maybe remember to ring back....
posted by Helga-woo at 1:16 AM on July 8, 2018

It was expensive enough and rare enough when we were getting international calls from my aunt in Asia to Europe that she would have written in advance to tell us when she would call so the family could be gathered and everyone could say hi briefly. There was a noticeable delay in turnaround on responses and afterwards we would all be very impressed with “how clear the line was”. She would have made the call reverse charges which my grandmother would have to verbally agree to accept with the operator. Fwiw.
posted by Iteki at 2:06 AM on July 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Like brujita says, among the first few pages of the phone book would find tables listing country codes. People are selling old phone books on eBay, if you think that would help.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:45 AM on July 8, 2018

The international direct dial prefix in the US is 011. (Wikipedia suggests it hasn't ever changed. The NANP uses 01 for operator-assisted international calls.

A little later (c. 1990) we had a phone whose speed dial supported enough digits to call the UK. (My brother and I were not the sort of kids who were going to decide to phone our grandparents without asking.) We didn't start phoning regularly until phone cards became a thing in the late(?) 90s (and then the endless 10-10-xxx codes).
posted by hoyland at 3:48 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

We'd dial directly to Europe, but at times when the rate was lowest--as others mentioned, the time often would have been agreed upon in advance via letter, or a time we knew everyone would be home (eg, midnight their time).

By the late 80s we used a phone card when dialling to offset the long-distance fees...
posted by TwoStride at 6:44 AM on July 8, 2018

My family lived in Paris in the 1980's. I lived in the US. When I wanted to talk, I'd call collect for our dog, they'd say he wasn't available and would call me back.

Many times, my mom or sister would come across a long line at a broken pay phone. The phone worked, but didn't accept payment. Lots of people made calls from the phone until it was repaired.

I also made calls from the phones at the local post office. I'd make the call and pay afterwards. Many people didn't have phone service in their homes.
posted by jennstra at 10:37 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

It would have taken forever to dial on a rotary phone :) and you would probably screw it up at least once and have to start over.
posted by dripdripdrop at 11:55 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you so very much everyone for all of your replies. Apparently my weak memory wanted to take something that was very simple and make it far more complicated. This information will make this part of the story simple and straight forward, plus accurate and of course, boring. I'll save the more complicated and exciting! aspects for other places in the story. Thank you again, everyone!!!!!
posted by Ira Weston at 7:19 AM on July 10, 2018

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