The remarkable inconsistency of Israeli telephone numbers

Maybe I've just been thinking about phone numbers lately after, er, my own cell phone spent a night in the toilet (I have a new one now) but this is also one of those little things that struck me a lot after I moved to Israel.

In the US, telephone numbers have a very, very set format: (XXX) XXX-XXXX. This format is so rigid that US phone number forms can't handle an Israeli number. (In general, Americans seem confused by the concept of life outside the US.) When you tell someone your number in the US, you always pause after the first three digits and then say the final four. If my number were 123-4567, for example, I'd never dream of telling someone it was "twelve thirty-four five sixty seven."

In Israel, on the other hand, the number of digits in a phone number is in a state of basic flux. Most area codes are only one digit long, because, let's face it, we're pretty unlikely to ever need more than 9 major area codes in a country that could fit comfortably inside New Jersey. On the other hand, cell phones (somewhat inexplicably) come with their own two-digit area codes. In addition, certain phone providers come with two-digit area codes-- we originally got our phone number through HOT cable, so our home phone area code is "77" even though most landlines in our area start with "4." (When you dial area codes from within Israel, you always add a "0" at the start of the number.)

In theory, though, most phone numbers after the area code are seven digits long. (I say "in theory" because I'm pretty sure I've seen numbers of other lengths... eh, yiyeh beseder.) Israelis, though, never got the memo about three digits followed by four. I've seen numbers written like this: XXXXXXX, like this: XX-XX-XX-X, like this: XX-XXXXX, and in basically every other combination of clumps of letters. This really confused me at first, because Israelis WILL say their number as "twelve thirty-four five sixty seven," a possibility that boggled my American mind.

So anyway, if you need to ask your friend's telefone nayad (cell phone) number, be prepared. Oh, and if I had your telephone number, um... give me a call. Most of the numbers in my phone sank into the depths of our asla.

Btw, some useful Israeli phone etiquette:

To answer the phone, say "allo." If you don't pronounce the "h," "allo" is transformed into Hebrish. Nobody (that I know, at least) outside of a formal office says "shalom" when they pick up or hang up their phones. If the person on the other end of the line asks you who is speaking, do not answer the question. This would be Giving Away Information. Instead, play a game of Israeli phone etiquette chicken in both you and the person on the other end of the line ask who is speaking, eventually negotiating release of first names (never last names!) and reasons for calling. The proper way to say goodbye is "yallah bye," followed by more conversation, followed by insistence that you really have to go, followed by a little gossip, and finally closed with a resounding "yallah bye."

Oh, and all of the paragraph above is basically useless, because Israelis communicate primarily through text messaging-- "ess-em-ess-im"-- anyway.

Was anyone else surprised by Israeli phone etiquette? What did I miss? 


  1. I suppose it might be different in person, but when I meet Israelis, I'm usually given just a last name, if I want a first name I have to press, as opposed to Americans will just give their first name.

  2. Don't you think it's rude for the caller to ask who he's talking to without identifying first? I mean, they called first! I'm not an information center, I'm a private person. I don't think it has anything to do with "giving out information", which I hate, too, but in this case it's beside the point.

  3. eliezer, I haven't experienced that... although then again, the shady person I almost bought a used phone from last night may have had her reasons for refusing to reveal her last name. (I ended up buying a new phone instead.)

    sfabrications, it seems rude to me too, but it has happened more than once in Israel-- someone calls ME and demands to know who I am before they'll tell me who they are. I've learned not to tell them. :)

  4. Maya, you are on a roll, I've been laughing uproariously (is that a word?) at all of your latest posts! Yeah, my (American) husband once turned to me after a particularly egregious bout of yallah-byes and said,"I have never seen anyone say goodbye like your family does."

  5. Hilarious!
    I would add that it is particularly confusing when you give out your own phone number and they repeat it back to you to check they got it right but USE THE WRONG FORMAT! I have to write the number down as they read it back to me to check they got it right.

    In defense of Israeli cellphone confusion as to how to parse the number, a lot of the inconsistencies came in when an extra digit was added to all numbers, to make room for more lines (and purportedly to make a single dialing code for each provider, an excuse neatly made obsolete by the subsequent ruling that you could move to another provider and keep your number). So 052 became 0522, 053 - 0523, 054-0544, 055-0545, etc. I am guilty of reading numbers as though they have a 4-digit dialing code, so 0523-456789, rather than 052-345-6789, just because I'm used to the original setup.

    As for phone etiquette, if asked my name when I answer, I respond with "who did you want to speak to?"

  6. Ooh, anonymous, nice finesse of the "who are you" question! Also, interesting explanation.

  7. I answer the phone with the most Anglo sounding "Hello" in the hopes that the person will not begin rattling off a lot of information in Hebrew. I'm in your "area code"! We're 077-534XXXX. But most of Petach Tikvah is 03-9XXXXXX. I was very confused when I first arrived because most people don't say "03" but I have to dial it. When I was asked my number a couple days ago (this in Hebrew I could barely follow anyway) she was saying, "3 9 ...?" And it took us a couple tries to get past the misunderstanding. I like that you can tell from looking at a number if it's a cell phone. It seems like someones cell phone number is considered the primary, or default number. I prefer being called at home. I thought it was so funny when I saw SMS spelled out in the newspaper אס-אם-אסים. Is that right?

  8. LOL, this is how I judge how long Anglos have been here. I think I will have to be here for a LOT of years to make up for 35 of xxx-xxx-xxxx in the US.

    Yesterday I was taking the number of a native English speaker; he gave it to me as 054x-xxx-xxx. (It seriously took me twice as long to put it into my phone that way!) So I figured he'd been here for a long time. Bingo--he made aliyah as a teenager (now he's in his 30s).

  9. There is method to the madness. Firstly, for YEARS telephone numbers here were 6 digits. So they were written xxx-xxx. Then Bezeq discovered they were running out of numbers so they added a digit -- AT THE BEGINNING! So it became xxxx-xxx. In Russia the 7 digit numbers are written as xx-xx-xxx, which is probably why you're seeing it in Israel too. Then the cell phone companies got in on the act. Originally each carrier was assigned a prefix: 050, 052, 054, 056. Then, as they ran out of (6 digit) numbers they were assigned more prefixes: 051, 053, 058, 064, 065, 055, 066, 067, 057 (yes, there's a method behind the order in which I wrote them). Then, as they CONTINUED to run out of (6 digit) numbers they said Aha! Bezeq went to 7 digits, so should we! And so they went back to the original 4 company-specific prefixes and took the 3rd digit of the other prefixes as the "new" digit at the beginning of the sequence. So if your OLD number was 058-xxx-xx your new one became 0528-xxx-xxx. (Are you confused yet?) HOT's prefix is 077 across the country, as it was originally the only service provider who allowed you to keep your number no matter where you moved. (Bezeq required you to get a new number even if you moved across the street. Wanna ask me how I know this?) After the deregulation of landline services the cellular companies and long distance companies also got in on the action, so now, in addition to 077, you also have 073 (Barak/013/Netvision), 072 (012 Smile), 074 (Bezeq Beinleumi) and I don't even KNOW what the cell phone landline numbers are prefixed by. However, rest assured, if the number is only preceded by 2 digits (02, 03, 04, 08, 09) you know they're calling from a Bezeq phone!

  10. You don't want to know how long it took me to figure out what someone meant when they said "tesames li" to me once!

  11. If I'm not mistaken, when we first came to Israel, 40 years ago, phone numbers were still four digits, and few people had their own numbers. There were still shared/party lines, and sometimes you'd wait well over a year for the honor. My cousin made aliyah in 1974 and waited seven years for a phone number. We called her by calling a neighbor.

    As numbers were added people made their own "divisions" and ways of reciting the phone number. My husband and I who have been married since two months before our aliyah and have the same numbers (our cellphones are consecutive) say them differently.

  12. When people chose their cellphone numbers in the late 90s/early 00s (before the additional number), they selected ones which were symmetrical or otherwise memorable (121-232, or 145-145). Phrasing the number so that additional number was part of the prefix kept the memorable part intact (otherwise you got 512-1232 or 814-5145.

  13. Wow, thanks everyone for sharing the history of all this! I can't believe there's method to this madness...

  14. Great post!
    Over two years ago, I blogged about what Benji Lovitt calls the "phone number rhythm" issue. In that same post, I noted that before giving out phone numbers, Israelis always ask:
    "יש לך עט? תרשמי"
    Shavua tov and chodesh tov!

  15. I think this is also connected to the issue of numbers in a new language. Numbers are always hard to "get" even when you're fluent in a second language. This just adds to the phone number issues.

    I also hate it when they turn phone number chunks into whole numbers (two hundred thirty four thousand six hundred and fifty seven??!!) takes much longer to process in my head.

  16. I have found the phrasing of telephone numbers to be mostly cultural - IIRC France uses double-digits for the entire number, Italy (often) spells out the single digits in the zone code and then goes double-digit...and by what little I know of Austria goes double-digit, single digits and then a triple-digit.

    I already knew that some israeli don't present themselves on the phone but had no idea it was so widespread as to be "how to be israeli".
    I suppose it makes for a difficult times for both israelis abroad and people interacting with them.

  17. I never thought that in the US, telephone numbers have a very, very set format: (XXX) XXX-XXXX. This format is so rigid that US phone number forms can't handle an Israeli number. It's great to know about this kind of information.

  18. The standard format for speaking, (and writing) cell phone numbers in Israel is
    (for example)


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