A phone card is a plastic card which can be used to pay for calls from public telephones instead of cash.
The cards feature an information-carrying device, usually in the form of a magnetic strip, optical structure or microchip, which can store the amount of credit held on the card.
This amount is debited with each phone call made until the card is ‘empty’. Some cards can only be used once and are disposable, whereas others can be recharged with additional credit.
The majority of phone cards produced feature an image or design on one side.
Often this is an advertisement for a telecom company, or a photograph featuring a celebrity or famous place.
These designs are constantly changed and the runs on certain designs are produced in deliberately limited numbers. Different value cards are also given different designs.
The variations in design have led to phone cards being considered highly collectible items, and there are various organisations and websites devoted to the hobby which is known as fusilately in the UK and telergy in the US.
There are several factors on which the value of a collectible phone card is based.
The main three are age, condition and subject matter.
Early cards dating back to the 1970s and 80s are the most sought after, as they were produced in smaller numbers and the majority were thrown away at the time.
The condition is also important, as unused cards have a higher value than used ones.
As many collectors look for cards with a certain theme (such as Disney or sports-related cards), the subject matter can have a large effect on the price of a card.
If it has been issued as part of a series, or is a limited-edition commemorative card, the card will be more collectible and worth more than a standard issue card.
The first phone cards
The first phone cards were created by the company SIDA and issued in Italy in 1976 as a measure to prevent vandalism and theft from pay phones containing coins, as well as helping to deal with the country’s coin shortage at the time.
These featured a magnetic strip and could only be used in specific public payphones.
The technology proved popular around Europe, and in 1981 British Telecom introduced the cards to combat the vandalism problem.
A year later the first cards appeared in Japan, which was facing a similar shortage of coins.
They were introduced by the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph company, for use primarily on the public phones throughout the subway system.
The first chip-based cards were developed in France in 1985, and in 1987 the World Telecom Group introduced the first cards in the US. They were distributed by Siemens and General Electric and used a new form of magnetic strip technology.
During the 1980s and early 1990s there was a sudden boom in the hobby of phone card collecting and in 1988 the first catalogue for card collectors was produced in England by former philatelist Dr Steve Hiscocks.
By the mid 1990s the two main markets were in Germany (with one million collectors) and Japan (with 1.3m).
Collecting clubs sprung up around the world and companies capitalised by producing limited-edition cards in a large number of different designs. By the mid 1990s half of all cards produced in Japan were sold directly to collectors.
Throughout the 1990s the worldwide sales of phone cards grew from $12 million in 1992 to $3 billion in 2000.
However, in 2002 BT scrapped the use of phone cards due to a dramatic fall in their popularity as mobile phones became commonplace.
This trend was seen around the world, and today far fewer cards are produced.
Although prices have fallen from their peak in the mid-1990s, the hobby is still pursued worldwide with a large number of active fusilatelists trading and selling cards through websites and collectors shows.
The world’s most expensive phone card
The most expensive phone card ever sold at auction is a used Taiwanese definitive (standard-issue) telephone card from 1983, which sold at a Japanese auction in 1990 for £28,000.
Phone card dealers
Main article: List of phone card dealers
Clubs and societies
Main article: List of phone card collectors' clubs and societies