There was a time period where, in civilized countries everywhere, it was both possible and occasionally necessary to use a "public" telephone that required the insertion of change to make a call. Very few people had (or could afford) a mobile phone of any kind. note These days, which spawned countless tropes, are essentially gone. Cell phones are now so cheap almost anyone can afford them, so the only reason to use a pay phone is when you run out of battery or minutes (or you don't want the call to show up on your phone), or your phone has been lost, broken, or stolen. Thus, the only places that have pay phones are ones with extremely high traffic, usually transient, where people either don't have a cell phone or don't want to use it, such as a bus depot, train station, truck stop, or airport, or places where cellphones are forbidden, such as hospitals or prisons. And even if you do find a pay phone out in the wild somewhere, there's no guarantee that it works; increasing numbers of them are being decomissioned altogether, because of the prevalence of cell phones. A Pay Phone was often found in a Phone Booth. These are a lot less common these days. Specific Pay Phone tropes include:
- Crucial calls that cannot be placed or are cut off too early for lack of sufficient change.
- Attempting to borrow change from nearby strangers.
- Attempting to steal change from the pay phone.
- Notice that the previous two don't apply in countries where phones are paid with a chip card.
- Attempting to use a pay phone without paying.
- Using a pay phone to preserve anonymity.
- Routing a call through a taped-together pair of pay phones to make it "untraceable".
- Refusal by the anonymous stranger currently using the payphone to give it up in an "emergency", leading to a number of (almost always comical) common scenarios. (For example a Valley Girl playing "No, You Hang Up First" with her boyfriend, just as she might on her phone at home.)
- Someone calling a pay phone, usually as the confused protagonist walks by and hears it ring. (Note that in Real Life, even pay phones that are functional are not always equipped to take phone calls; some are (or were) just there for making calls.)
- Looking up someone's address on the phone books attached to the payphones and ripping out the page involved to have it. Almost inevitably, every phone book searched is missing the particular page because it was ripped out.note
- Making a collect call.note
- "Drunk-dialing" someone on a pay phone.
- Being concerned about germs and/or wiping down the receiver and/or buttons before using the phone.
- Or getting fingers stuck in chewed gum, boogers, or God-knows-what else that's all over the phone.
- Talking to an operator to place the call.
- Using a phone for The Grovel.
- Getting an automated "This Number is No Longer In Service" message, preceded by a SIT tone.
- Calling a pay phone by mistake.
- Using one to make that One Phone Call from jail or the police station.
- Someone doesn't hang up the phone properly (or at all), leading to a "phone off the hook" noise, a dial tone, or a very confused person on the other end.
- Listening to hold music or Muzak that somehow always matches your situation.
- The person being called hangs up on the caller.
- A character gets Disconnected by Death while using a pay phone.
- Using a prepaid calling card to place the call. This is now something that would rarely need to be done outside of, for example, placing an international phone call, making a long-distance call from a vacation rental or bed-and-breakfast, or in some Prison settings. (And sometimes even then.)
- Using the phone to make a Phoney Call.
- Using one to make a Prank Call or other Harassing Phone Call.
- Using one to participate in a drug deal. (This is another reason why many pay phones are being either decommissioned or removed all together. Although these days, most dealers use a throwaway disposable prepaid cell phone or VoIP number to do their "business," rather than loitering around a public phone (which does look suspicious.))
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- In the mid-80s new long-distance phone companies were springing like crazy in the wake of the AT&T anti-trust breakup, and in response AT&T ran several commercials about their superior quality, expertise, and service, with the tags voiced by homey-sounding actor Cliff Robertson. One from 1988 had a guy at a pay phone using a calling card from "this other long distance company" to call Phoenix, but he got Fiji instead. The point was that other, Brand X telecom companies wouldn't give you great customer service they way AT&T would (like giving you instant credit for misdialed numbers at pay phones). But the ad garnered the wrong kind of attention because (a) calling Phoenix and getting Fiji instead was one of those things that sounds great at the pitch but makes no sense in reality, (b) the guy at the pay phone was kind of a dick, and (c) everyone was trying to figure out what the hell the guy answering the phone in Fiji was saying.
Obnoxious Yuppie: (voice over) I had to call Phoenix ... I got this guy in Fiji!Fiji Guy: (answering phone at a beachside bar, with drums in the background) Bula vinaka, Beachside! ["Bula vinaka" means "warm hello" in Fijian]Obnoxious Yuppie: Is this Phoenix?Fiji Guy: No, you reached Fiji!
- AT&T or their ad people evidently got chased up about problem (a), at least, because the commercial was changed at least twice in succession. The first change had the caller's voice-over say "I had to call Phoenix ... I dial the wrong number. I got this guy in Fiji!", as if the problem was that the original version implied pay phones just connect you to random international numbers whenever they felt like it, so the caller had to emphasize how he screwed up the number. (Watch it here.) Another version had him say "I had to call Phoenix... I misdial Fiji". But it still didn't make sense he would try to call Phoenix and somehow get Fiji instead just because of a fat-finger misdial, so the final version changed the v/o again to "I was trying to call overseas. I think I remember the number but...", so the who "Phoenix/Fiji" thing was abandoned. Unfortunately, no one still had any idea what the beach guy in Fiji was saying, and the guy at the pay phone was still kind of a dick.
Anime And Manga
- The Slice of Life BL manga Dear Green: Hitomi no Onowa is a little iffy about what decade the books set in for two out of three(/four) volumes, despite having been published in the mid-2000's. This is largely because its protagonists, whose main method of communication is by phone, are frequently shown using either pay phones when outside (and they're outside pretty often) or old-fashioned phones at their apartments, with cell phones very rarely, if at all, in sight anywhere in those first two volumes. However, by the third volume, the two of them finally realize that, considering the events of the previous volumes, they should probably just go ahead and buy cell phones, which is when it's shown that the books are set in the mid-2000's after all.
- Psyren features pay phones pretty heavily in its plot. Those who answer a public phone and answer the questions posed are taken to the ruined world of Psyren, and the only way home is to find another phone at the opposite end of the playing field.
- In Fullmetal Alchemist Hughes is murdered by the homunculus Lust in a telephone booth. In this case it makes sense since the alternate setting has roughly early 20th century technology (give or take the alchemical magic and incredibly advanced prothetics) which does not include cell phones. So when Hughes needed to make a very important call he used the outside line. Unfortunately by the time he got through to Colonel Mustang he had been Disconnected by Death.
- In the Batman story of the "Penny Plunderer" (the one the giant penny in the Batcave comes from), the eponymous villain is caught at the end when he needs a nickel to call for help on a pay phone...and only has five pennies.
- In a Secret Six comic, Junior is talking on a pay phone when a prostitute appears and demands to be allowed to use the phone, repeatedly yelling at the cloaked and menacing figure who is discussing torturing the person on the other end of the line that she, too, has rights and needs to use the phone this instant. Things... do not end well for her
- In one issue of Transmetropolitan Spider uses a public Video Phone to contact Royce because he doesn't have a cell phone or one of the "phone traits" that his assistants use. In a later issue he changes his mind and gets the trait.
- One issue of The Batman Adventures sees Two-Face, in a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming, use his decision-making coin on a pay phone so he can warn his ex-wife about the mobsters hunting her. Then he proceeds to break the entire console to get the coin back.
- U.S. Acres: Orson is inside a phone booth when the phone rings. It's for Bo, who just takes the phone away, dragging the booth and Orson with him.
- Soldier of Orange: The Dutch resistance have just gone out of their way to smuggle a radio from Britain over the channel into the occupied Netherlands, only to find that it was been waterlogged and unusable. To give the freedom fighters a vital transmission, the protagonist, who is still in London, has to wade onshore in Leiden, don a British Royal Navy officers' uniform, use it to infiltrate a German officers' party taking place on the beach promenade, carrying nothing more than some spare change, just to call them from a local public phone which is there. But the phone doesn't accept zinc coins anymore, so he has to bluff his way through a German roadblock, steal a bike, and find an older payphone. He still makes the call too late, and the resistance runs into an ambush.
- Give My Regards to Broad Street: policeman is making report of progress, or rather lack thereof, from cafeteria. He has to insert more money to keep the call going.
- Group Captain Mandrake is forced to use a pay phone to attempt to contact the President of the United States in the War Room towards the end of Dr. Strangelove because of a communications blackout at Burpleson Air Force Base. He doesn't quite have enough change, so he has Col. 'Bat' Guano shoot open a Coke machine in a scene with many memorable lines.
- In Fight Club, after the Narrator's apartment is blown sky-high, he calls Marla on a payphone, then chickens out and hangs up without speaking to her. He then calls Tyler, a mysterious stranger he met on an airplane. Nobody answers, so the Narrator hangs up—and Tyler then calls the payphone back as he's walking away. This is one of the many hints that Tyler is the Narrator's other personality, as a barely visible notice on the pay phone indicates that it can't receive incoming calls.
- In Amélie, the main character, in a nearby cafe, calls a payphone next to a passer-by to make him walk into the phone booth and find a present she's left there for him.
- The central conceit of Phone Booth is that the main character is walking past the last phone booth in New York when it rings. Upon answering it, he finds himself trapped by a murderous sniper playing a sinister game.
- In Brick, Brendan doesn't carry a cell phone and makes a habit of making and receiving calls via payphone. What makes this unusual is that the film was made in 2005 and is set in the present. Whether this is a function of the film's noir theme or just an idiosyncrasy of Brendan's is anyone's guess.
- Brain is explicitly mentioned to have a cell phone at one point, so it appears to be (in universe) an idiosyncrasy of Brendan's and (out of universe) a function of the Noir milieu.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: While in 1986 San Francisco, looking for the nearest naval base (so the crew could use energy captured from a nuclear-powered ship's reactor to restore their warp drive), Chekov finds that it's in Alameda. The only problem is that neither he nor Uhura know how to get to Alameda.
- In The Terminator, the eponymous character wants to find Sarah Connor, and goes to a pay phone to look up her address. Finding it, the machine rips the page listing three women named Sarah Connor out of the phone book. Fridge Logic would ask why The Terminator wasn't able to just memorize three addresses.
- Could be justified as just being very careful to the point of Fridge Brilliance—the terminator could predict that Reese is looking for Sarah too, so why should it leave any clues if it can effortlessly rip them from a phone book that Reese might try to use?
- In WarGames, David Lightman is stranded in Colorado without money and can't make a phone call from a pay phone, so he uses an old soda can pull tab to jerry-rig the pay phone to make a free phone call.
- Neuromancer has one sequence where the protagonist walks past a bank of pay phones, and each one rings as he passes by. Science Marches On as the novel was written in 1984.
- Possibly justified, as it happens in an airport, which is one of the places where pay phones are still somewhat common.
- In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, an alien race known as the Golgafrinchans attempted to ditch their society's useless middlemen—including, among others, "telephone sanitizers" who cleaned pay phones—by making up a nonexistent oncoming doomsday and "evacuating" them all on a massive spaceship. (They were apparently gullible enough to believe the rest of the population would leave after them, on separate ships.) Ironically, the remaining movers and shakers are soon killed off by a disease spread through unsanitary pay phones. In the modern world of personal cellphones, this outcome makes little sense, although it was pretty absurd to begin with.
Live Action TV
- Our Miss Brooks: Pay phones appear in several television episodes. Notably, in "Monsieur Leblanc", Walter Denton calls Mrs. Davis' house, pretending to be a Spaniard interested in buying Mr. Conklin's car.
- Are You Afraid of the Dark??, "The Tale of the Phone Police": A boy calls a number supposedly belonging to a man arrested by the Phone Police years ago for making prank calls, but quickly hangs up when he actually gets an answer. Said prisoner somehow calls the pay phone he and his friend are walking past the next day.
- In Person of Interest, the Machine contacts Finch (And sometimes Reese) with numbers by dialing a pay phone near their position and giving them a coded message when they pick up. This requires pay phones to be considerably more common on the streets of modern-day NYC than they are in real life.
- The latter becomes a plot point when the Machine (acting via a front company) attempts to buy up all the remaining payphones in New York just to keep them operating. Decima Technologies on the other hand is trying to shut the payphones down or keep them under surveillance in order to intercept Team Machine at the point of contact.
- Given that the Machine is an Artificial Intelligence like the one in Neuromancer, there's also the requisite Shout-Out to the payphone scene in that novel.
- The Brady Bunch had Mike get a pay phone at hime to stop the kids running up the phone bill. But it almost costs him a big business deal.
- On My Name Is Earl, which takes place in a kind of Retro Universe, Earl is asked to get donuts to the county jail for someone on his list. The donuts have to come from the guy's favorite donut shop, Yummy's Donuts. It turns out that working behind the counter is Didi, who hates Earl's guts because he Told her he loved her when they hooked up, then stole her prosthetic leg and her car when he found out she only had one leg. Earl then sees that in order to take phone orders, Didi has to hop to the phone, so it takes a bit longer. He calls the donut shop from a nearby payphone, drops the phone, grabs a bunch of donuts for his friend, and leaves money on the counter...and a very confused Didi.
- On Orange Is the New Black, the inmates at Litchfield Prison are allowed a limited amount of time each day/week to make phone calls using these (paid for with minutes on a calling card). A Running Gag is a woman who's always crying on the phone. When Morello finds out that her "fiance" is marrying someone else, the woman hands her a tissue.
- In Quantum Leap Sam will sometimes use pay phone when talking to Al in public, so he doesn't look like an insane person talking to himself.
- On Good Eats, Alton is ironing his pants one morning when he receives a call from his sister, Marsha. note Marsha is all in a panic, because she made chocolate-chip cookies to take to a ladies' luncheon, and the cookies were stolen. She wheedles Alton into making them for her, and spends all her time waiting by the payphone she called him from. Well, except for a few moments where she bought some cookies from a nearby store.
- The time-traveling protagonist of 7Days regularly has to use pay phones, since he tends to show up in unexpected locations. One episode has Parker needing to use a pay phone to stop a virus spreading, but the teen using it (in the middle of nowhere in rural Pennsylvania) won't get off the phone—so Parker pulls a gun on him.
- The song "Sylvia's Mother" by Dr Hook and the Medicine Show is about man attempting to call his girlfriend from a pay phone and being unable to get past her mother. The chorus involves the operator's requests for him to insert more money.
- Ray Stevens deserves a mention with "It's Me Again, Margaret," about a prank caller who repeatedly called a woman from a pay phone. Also shows how the phone company had to be contacted to trace the origin of that call - Science Marches On, the song was released in 1985.
- "Payphone" by Maroon 5, has a man running out of change after spending it calling someone he was breaking up with, and being unable to call home because of that.
- Jim Croce's "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" is a conversation the singer has with a telephone operator about trying to get in touch with someone he knows. Namely, his ex-girlfriend, and his ex-best-friend whom she left him for and is now living with in LA. It's later revealed that he's using a pay phone to do it as afterward, when he decides not to go through with making the call, he tells the operator that "you can keep the dime".
- "Here's A Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares" by Travis Tritt has in the video a quarter constantly flying in the air until at the end it goes into the slot of a pay phone that the singer's ex-girlfriend is left standing next to, with the title of the song suggesting that's what she should do at that point.
- Our Miss Brooks: In the episode Key to the School, Miss Brooks and Mr. Conklin use the pay phone at Marty's Malt Shop to call Mr. Stone, head of the board of education, after they're locked out of Madison High.
- The Broken Trope nature of this was Lampshaded in Modern Warfare 2 in the load up for the level "The Hornet's Nest" with this dialogue:
Ghost: "I can't get anyone on the horn.(Various news lines)Soap: "I know a guy. Let's find a payphone, if they still exist..."
- This was from where you got your mission briefings in the early Grand Theft Auto games, and slowly evaporated after GTA 3. It makes for an odd bit of an Anachronism Stew since GTA 2 is set 20 Minutes into the Future yet there are no cell phones in sight, and in Vice City Tommy carries a cell phone regularly and only one mission giver uses the pay phones, despite the fact that it is canonically 1986.
- Justified in IV, where Niko gets a number of secret missions from a mysterious paranoid who is only reachable via a specific payphone in Alderney (as he doesn't trust mobiles).
- They show up again in Grand Theft Auto V, where they're oddly common throughout the city. They're only used by Lester to contact Franklin for assassination missions.
- Deus Ex, despite the game being set in the 2050s, features pay phones in some public areas, such as the Underworld Bar, where one will usually be out of order. Somewhat justifiable, as the game was released in 2000, where cell phones, while cheaper than in 90s, were still not as commonplace as today.
- Batman: Arkham City: In a sidequest involving Mr. Zsasz, any prisoners answering the pay phones will be attacked by Zsasz. Batman must find the ringing phones and work on tracing the calls back to Zsasz's lair.
- In The Simpsons episode "Bart vs. Australia," Bart calls random numbers in the Southern Hemisphere, trying to find out about the Coriolis Effect. One of the numbers he calls is a payphone, which is half-submerged in lava during an eruption on some unnamed Pacific island. A man in a Hawaiian shirt floats by on the roof of a house, reaches out to answer the phone, and falls into the lava.
Smithers: Well, I've got to go. There's a line forming behind me.
- In the episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer", Homer is convinced that he needs to search for a new soulmate when he fears that that person isn't Marge like he thought. He picks up a personals ad, and responds in a phone booth to someone listed as "BGM," not understanding what that means. (Black Gay Man, in case you're wondering.) He says he likes a few things that "BGM" likes, but then he says, "No, I'm not into that...or that...or that...you know, I think I gotta go," and hangs up the phone.
- In another episode, Mr. Smithers has been ordered by Mr. Burns to take a vacation...and uses one of these at the resort to call and check up on him. It ends with a conga line forming behind Mr. Smithers, who finally decides to loosen up and enjoy his vacation.
- Samurai Jack Season 5; Scaramouche finds one on a ship he's on and uses it to try and get in contact with Aku (his cell phone and body save his head having been destroyed by Jack several episodes prior). He almost gets through before a few talking dogs he pissed off earlier grab him and toss him overboard.