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Toll-free SMS vs. Short Codes vs. Local Numbers

Today’s business messaging needs have evolved, and the available market options have changed to meet those needs. No longer are businesses tied to five digit short codes for sending high volume, programmatic SMS. Toll-free SMS is paving the way for better experiences via text at the largest scale. And what about the local numbers that businesses already have? Why can’t we text-enable those?

Here’s a quick comparison to help you choose which option might be best for your business.

Type of NumberVolume LimitsA2P vs. P2PVoice Enabled?Time to MarketPricing
Local (555-555-5555)Limited to one message per second, per phone numberP2P or A2PyesInstant$
Toll-free (1-800-555-5555)Virtually unlimited messages per second, with approvalA2P onlyyesInstant$$
Short codes (55555)Virtually unlimited messages per second, with approvalA2P onlynoWeeks or months$$$

What’s up with those volume limits? Why can’t I send more messages at a time on my local number?

It comes down to the way that carriers treat each type of traffic. Local numbers used to be only for human-to-human interaction, but demand for business messaging on local numbers has changed that. The infrastructure built around those numbers is set up to handle those types of use cases only—when unexpected behavior occurs, messages may get blocked by carriers and never delivered. There are now dedicated Local A2P channels to bypass that infrastructure so business messaging doesn’t get blocked.

Toll-free SMS, Local A2P, and short codes all rely on separate sets of infrastructure and spam filters—think of them as different highways. Local P2P message routes are more like inner city streets where speed limits are lower and there are more stop lights to control traffic. Toll-free numbers, Local A2P, and short codes are more like interstates and highways—higher speed limits and fewer stoplights allow traffic to move freely and quickly to their end destinations.

A2P? P2P? What do these acronyms mean?

A2P stands for application-to-person; meaning, these numbers are commonly used to deliver automatic outbound alerts or notifications from an application to a person on the other end. A2P messaging is associated with higher volume outbound use cases like alerts, appointment reminders, or automatic notifications.

A common A2P messaging use case is something like a customer support inquiry—where a customer would send an inbound SMS to a business, and a representative from the business would respond on the other side.

P2P stands for person-to-person; meaning, these numbers are commonly used to deliver messages from a person to another person.

Image of people using their mobile phones

Why do short codes take so long to enable?

Getting access to a short code takes a while due to the hefty approval process associated with each short code. Short codes are a limited commodity (there are only about 6,000 short codes), and each carrier must approve a business’s campaign before handing over the short code to ensure that each campaign is not a spam or fraud threat.

Toll-free numbers are approved for similar high-volume use cases as short codes, but without all the red tape. This isn’t to say toll-free SMS is an appropriate avenue for spam and fraud—quite the opposite. A responsible toll-free number provider (such as Bandwidth)  should have a series of checks and balances built into their contract process to ensure that the toll-free SMS channel remains spam-free.

What if I don’t want to buy a new number just for texting?

One of the biggest reasons why A2P channels like toll-free SMS are such a great alternative to short codes—you can text-enable your existing toll-free phone number. One number to promote for both voice AND messaging translates to a better overall user experience for your customers. No searching around for a phone number after receiving a time-sensitive alert – just text or call back the same toll-free number.

Are short codes part of your business messaging strategy, or are you locked into a contract with your current voice provider? There are options available for you. Bandwidth provides APIs for whatever number type you wish to send on. You can also request a letter of authorization (LoA) allowing you to take just your messaging business to a different provider, letting you get started quicker without having to ride out an outdated contract.

Toll-free SMS vs. Short Codes vs. Local Numbers

Ready to get started?

Check out Bandwidth’s Enterprise A2P Messaging for a scalable, enterprise-trusted platform for all your messaging needs. Contact a Bandwidth expert to learn more about toll-free messaging, and visit to start a free trial of our Messaging API.