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The New Collection

From ATCS Newsletter, November 1991.

Editor's Note: This article was written in 1991 when phonecards were relatively new and the hobby of collecting phonecards was very much new and on the rise. Since 1991, phonecards have risen in importance and then declined as, by 2008, almost everyone has a mobile phone and the use of payphones has decreased dramatically. Nonetheless there are still phonecards to be had and, for many, it is still a fascinating hobby. Since 1991 most countries have adopted the far superior electronic or "smartcard" systems.

There is a new collecting interest around - collecting PHONECARDS. Here is a "state-of-the-art" subject that is most colourful, takes up little space, can be most profitable and rewarding and is very much a part of the communications scene in the 1980's and 1990's.

The first use of phonecards is thought to have been in Italy in 1976. There are now over 110 countries around the world using these cards and new users are coming on line regularly.

Phonecards are usually made of plastic and are always credit card size (approximately 95mm by 55mm). They contain a number of credits or a monetary value that can be used at payphones to make telephone calls. The card is inserted into the payphone and, as calls are made, so the value of the card reduces. At the end of the call or calls the card is removed from the payphone and can be used again until the value expires. There is one type of card that is swallowed by the phone when the card's value is all used up but most types are rejected to be thrown away or to go into collections.

There are quite a number of different types of phonecards in use around the world which fall into three main groups - magnetic, optical and electronic.


The most common systems use magnetic cards - that is they store the value and record changes in information on a ferrite layer on the card in a similar manner to a tape recorder or a computer disc drive. Countries that use the magnetic system include Italy (Urmet System), Hong Kong and Korea (Autelca "Watermark" System), Australia and Japan (Anritsu or Tamura Systems) and Turkey and China (Bell Alcatel System).

With most magnetic cards, there is a magnetic strip across the card on which the credit value is stored. The Australian Anritsu cards have a small hole punched in the card by the phone to indicate the remaining credit. Many card types do not indicate, in any way, how much credit value remains.

Another magnetic card system is produced by GPT (GEC Plessey Communications, Great Britain), and uses seven small ferrite areas on the reverse side of the card and, when the card is in the phone, all information is removed into the phone's memory to be replaced with a revised credit value when the call is completed.

With this type of card it is not possible to see how much credit remains however, in Singapore, Malaysia and Jersey, who all use GPT cards, a punch mark is made in the reverse side of the card to indicate the approximate credit remaining.

The Italian Urmet cards have a perforated section which must be broken off before the card can be used for the first time. However, remaining value is not indicated.


The optical system from Swiss manufacturer Landis and Gyr is used in several countries including Belgium, Taiwan, Netherlands and Great Britain (British Telecom).

These cards have an "optical strip", a 1.5mm wide ribbon of metal foil, across the surface of the card. The patterns embossed on the strip are read by the phone using infa-red light. A hot "finger" in the phone destroys part of this pattern for every unit that is used.

Most cards have a white "thermagraphic" paint over the optical strip which goes black when heated so it is easy to see how many units have been used. Even on British Telecom cards, which do not use this paint, it is possible to see small indentations which indicates used units.

Optical cards are often referred to as "holographic" however this is incorrect as the cards have nothing to do with holography.


Electronic or "smart" cards were introduced in France around 1984 and are now used in several other countries including Germany, Spain, Sweden and Norway.

Information is stored in a silicon memory chip embedded in the card and is accessed through a pattern of silver or gold contacts on the surface of the card. Up to 150 call units are stored and are deleted one by one as calls are made. This type of card is a "clever" system and can store often called telephone numbers, transfer charges and can limit calls to certain numbers.

The disadvantage of this type of card is that it is expensive to produce, costing about AUD$10 for a rechargeable type while a non-rechargeable type costs around AUD$4. There is no way to tell what amount remains on these cards without inserting them in a payphone, so they are often sold in sealed packs.

Research continues to find new and cheaper systems with improved security while avoiding other manufacturer's patents.


Australia. Telecom Australia has been issueing phonecards since 1989, using the magnetic system manufactured by Anritsu of Japan. These cards are of the thin magnetic type and have a small hole punched in the card by the phone to indicate the amount of credit remaining. The first cards issued were for a cardphone trial in Geelong (Victoria) and featured surf lifesaving. Individual state cards have been issued as cardphones were introduced into each state, however now that all states are covered, national issues will become the standard. The regular denominations issued are $2, $5, $10, and $20 with occasional $50 issues.

New Zealand. The system used in New Zealand is the GPT "thick" magnetic card and are issued in denominations of $2, $5, $10, $20 and $50. There have been a number of issues including a trial issue, first satellites, standard satellites, Commonwealth Games, the 1990 Christmas issue and the 1991 landscape issue.

United Kingdom - Paytelco. This company uses GPT and issues cards featuring such a wide diversity of subjects from universities to pop stars and football teams.

United Kingdom - British Telecom. BT uses Landis and Gyr optical cards featuring Wimbleton (tennis), Sheffield World Student Games, Celtica '91 festival in Wales and the Belfast Festival '91 as well as some advertising cards including Castrol.

France. The "smart" card is standard in France where collecting phonecards is a very popular hobby. A collector's fair was held in Paris in April-May 1991 where 33 out of a total of 68 booths featured the sale of phonecards as the main line. There is quite a number of private cards in France as sponsors can order as few as 1000 copies although it appears that France Telecom prints 10,000 more for sale six months after the sponsor's cards go on sale.

Singapore. The GPT card is now standard on the island of Singapore although from 1985 to 1989 a thin Japanese magnetic card was used. These GPT cards are punched on the reverse side to indicate remaining credit. Up until 1990 there were a small number of issues however 1991 has seen a flood of private cards in lots as low as 10,000 featuring such diverse subjects as tyres, plumbing fittings, eye glasses, shopping centres and parcel express companies.

Malaysia. GPT cards are used in Malaysia and feature punch marks on the reverse side to indicate remaining credit. There are two card issueing companies in Malaysia - Uniphone and Telekom Malaysia. Subjects include city scenes, telephone sales, fish, wildlife and a series of humorous cartoon cards.

Japan. Phonecards are big business in Japan and are mainly locally made magnetic types. This is where collecting cards first seems to have caught on. There have been literally thousands of different issues produced featuring every imaginable subject.

U.S.A. The one big hole in the phonecard collecting scene is in the U.S.A. There have, of course, been trials and closed group applications such as hotels and universities but, to date, the phonecard has failed to take off as it has in most other countries throughout the world.


Just as in stamp collecting, phonecards can be collected mint or used.

Mint cards can be obtained directly from the telephone company that issues them or from a phonecard dealer. Some telephone companies, realising the money making potential of selling cards to collectors, issue newsletters announcing new issues and provide ordering forms along with special collector's packs. Other companies will allow lodgement of a sum of money which will ensure that all new releases are sent to you as soon as they are issued. The cost of a full set of mint cards can be quite high as 5 cards could cost as much as $87 plus postage. Used cards can be obtained from dealers as well as from flea markets. You will need to check used cards carefully to ensure that they are not too scratched or bent and that the punch marks, indicating credit left, do not marr the appearance of the card. Swapping with other collectors is a most rewarding way of gaining mint and used cards particularly from overseas countries.

As well as all the different subjects and denominations that there are to collect from all the 100+ countries that issue cards, there are also variations in "control numbers" which appear on the rear of most types of cards. These control numbers can have printing errors and can be in various type faces as well as different number ranges for each print run. There can also be different shades of ink used in printing different batches of cards. Variations can also occur in the width of the strip on the optical cards.


There is probably many ways to store and show your cards but a cheap and effective way is to buy a "name card holder", available quite cheaply from stationers. These holders are available in a number of sizes and the plastic pouches are the exact size to protect and display your cards.

Text from ITSC (Australian Telephone Card Society) News No. 1 (March 1991) and No. 2 (July 1991) and especially articles by Dr. Steve Hiscocks in both issues.

Note: Some cards shown above were produced after 1991.

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