They were once (like so many things) The Future.
No longer would you have to search through your pockets for an inexhaustible supply of coins if you wanted to make a call at a public telephone box. No more the indignity of being cut off mid-Really Important Message. Phonecards were The Answer.
Phonecards arrived in the UK in 1981.
They looked similar to credit cards and were no less revolutionary. The phonecard contained a balance of credit available to you. You put your card into the payphone’s card reader which checked the balance, let you make a call, then reduced your available balance accordingly.
The cards came in different designs, and some in limited editions, so it’s not surprising that collectable-inclined people began to collect them.
You could spend merry hours — or, in the days before eBay, merry months and years — tracking down the rare gem you needed to complete your phonecard collection. (I admit, I got quite excited when I thought my “Aladdin” phonecard might be rare and therefore worth something. It’s not. It’s yours for 99p.)
The white-hot technology of cards was overtaken by whiter-hot technology: the mobile phone. We gradually stopped using payphones, so we stopped needing phonecards.
BT stopped issuing phone cards in 2002.
You can’t even use them in payphones any more, even if you wanted to, as the technology has evolved. Also, maybe because your local payphone isn’t a payphone any more, either, It’s likely to be a defibrillation station or a sunglass kiosk.
Phonecards are now but a footnote in the technological revolution but they came in pretty handy at the time.