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What are SMS short codes?

Curious about how to use SMS short codes for text marketing campaigns? Here’s what you need to know about short codes.

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Local and toll-free and short codes, oh my…

You have a lot of options when it comes to texting your customers. 

Which is great news ー and also pretty confusing. To start with, which type of number should you pick? 

For some businesses, SMS short codes are the answer. They’re a common texting tool, so much so that we bet you’ve gotten a text from a short code in the last six months. 

They’re convenient, versatile, and best of all, short. 

We’ll give you all the most important details on the world of short codes, including how they’re used, whether they’re right for you, and how you can get set up with one of your own.

Interested in using SMS short codes already? SimpleTexting’s dedicated short codes services allow you to easily set up SMS and MMS mobile marketing campaigns with zero hassle and expert help from our experienced team.

Table of contents

What is an SMS short code?

A short code, or an SMS short code, is an abbreviated phone number that is 5 or 6 digits in length. 

Businesses and organizations use short codes to send SMS and MMS messages with product discounts, passwords, text-to-win sweepstakes, and more. These numbers are “short” by definition, so they’re easier than local and toll-free numbers (which are known as long codes) to remember when sending a text message.

SMS short codes allow easy communication with customers ー most of whom prefer getting texts from businesses rather than emails or calls. 

They are also one of the optimal ways of reaching larger audiences, thanks to their capability of sending extremely high volumes of text messages within a short time period.

What are short codes used for?

Short codes are a great SMS marketing tool for sending text blasts or mass text messaging campaigns, but they can also do so much more. 

Companies and organizations use short codes for:

  • Sending discounts or deals to contacts
  • Sharing one-time passwords or reset links
  • Allowing viewers to vote on TV show results with their phones
  • Hosting text-to-win sweepstakes or giveaways
  • Collecting feedback via a text-to-vote survey
  • Requesting charitable donations through text-to-donate campaigns
  • Providing customer support via text

Scrolling through your texts, have you received promotional SMS messages from 5- or 6-digit numbers? There’s a good chance that those texts are from short codes.

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Short code pros

  • They’re easier to remember and enter into a text message than a 10-digit number, so you can gather more contacts from your campaigns.
  • You’ll experience little to no carrier filtering with short codes, as long as you stick with the use cases you outlined in your application.
  • Messages sent via short codes are delivered extremely quickly, meaning you can reach more people in less time.

Short code cons

  • They’re more expensive to use than local and toll-free numbers.
  • You can only send mass text messages with short codes (which means you should choose a different number type if you want to have two-way conversations).
  • The approval time is higher for short codes (6–8 weeks) than 10-digit codes (one to ten days, on average).

Who can use dedicated short codes?

Text codes are great for all types of businesses looking to quickly connect with their customers. 

Dedicated short codes are best suited for businesses or organizations that prioritize using a trusted, recognizable number, wish to incorporate multimedia content in their messages, and need to send time-sensitive communications to large audiences. 

Check out some of the industries that use short codes:

Accountants & Tax FirmsDoctors & Dental OfficesE-commerce CompaniesEntertainment Venues
NonprofitsPolitical CampaignsReal EstateReligious Organizations
RestaurantsRetailSchoolsSpas & Salons

How do SMS short codes work?

To know how businesses can lease and use SMS short codes, you need to know the key players:

  • CTIA — An organization that governs the U.S. wireless industry
  • Short Code Registry — A database of registered short codes
  • iconectiv — official provider of the Short Code Registry

The CTIA partners with iconectiv to maintain the Short Code Registry, which keeps a record of which short codes are available for leasing. 

How to sign up for short code texts

Signing up for messages from a short code is easy ー all your customers need to do is text you the SMS keyword you give them or complete a web form.

Let’s take a look at an example with a keyword:

SMS short code with text to join keyword

In this case, the keyword is “Burger” and the short code is “711711.” 

When you set up a keyword for your business, contacts who text in the word will automatically receive your confirmation message.

Thank you for signing up for weekly discounts from Burger Bistro! Show this text to your server for a free side of fries. 🍟

How to unsubscribe from short code messages

If your contacts no longer want to get texts from an SMS short code, they can stop receiving messages by replying with the word STOP. 

The sender will then have to stop texting them, just like when you unsubscribe from emails.

You have been unsubscribed from keyword BURGER.

How to get a short code

Dedicated short codes are leased, not sold. You’re paying for the exclusive right to use the number. 

When you partner with SimpleTexting to lease a short code, we’ll help you fill out the right forms to provision your number. 

Just click the blue chat button in the bottom right corner of your screen to start chatting with our customer support team. They’ll help you figure out which short code options are right for your business.

As far as the timeline to get started goes, dedicated short codes take 6–8 weeks to be approved by the CTIA and various telecom carriers. 

Types of short codes

If you decide to lease a short code, you can choose between two types of short codes: vanity short codes that you can customize and random short codes that you can’t. Which one you choose depends on your business’ needs.

Vanity short codes

This is a number that you choose for its specific look (as long as it’s available). For example, a dance studio may choose the code 32623, which spells out DANCE.

These short codes start at $1,500/month.

Random short codes

Random short codes are the same as vanity codes, except that the number is randomly generated and costs less to lease. These start at $1,000/month.

Random or vanity, we have years of experience provisioning short codes and can help make the process as smooth as possible. 

From completing your service approval form to testing your short code, we’re here for you every step of the way. Try our SMS shortcode services free today.

Short code compliance rules

We talk a lot about keeping your texts TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act) compliant. Since short codes are governed by a different set of rules, there are a few specific things you need to know about short code compliance in addition to the usual TCPA regulations.

Like I mentioned earlier, the CTIA governs the usage of short codes, and they help manage the Short Code Registry (the database of all registered and available short codes).

That all might sound pretty intimidating, but there’s good news: The CTIA has a handy dandy guide to help you navigate the do’s and dont’s of short codes. That’s the CTIA Short Code Monitoring Handbook.

In this handbook, you’ll find everything you need to know about how to responsibly and legally text on a short code. Highlights include:

  • Make sure the opt-in method you use (like a keyword or web form) clearly states how many messages your customers can expect to receive, how to opt out of messages, your brand name, how to get help, and that they may incur data or messaging charges.
  • You have to honor contact opt-outs.
  • You have to send a confirmation message to contacts who opt in.

What does a short code cost?

As mentioned earlier, leasing a dedicated SMS short code starts at $1,000 per month (billed annually). Beyond that initial cost, you’ll have a one-time setup fee of $2,500 with both vanity and random short codes.

Basically, you’re paying for the exclusive right to use your specific short code to send and receive texts.

Example of a car wash SMS short code

Are there SMS short code alternatives?

Short answer: yes.

Local numbers and toll-free numbers provide many of the same benefits as short codes. You can use them to send mass messages and have two-way conversations (just remember to have your local number registered or your toll-free number verified).

With one of those number types, you can start sending mass texts even if you don’t choose a short code. Whatever you decide, we’ll help you get set up with a number that has all the capabilities you need.

Customers might prefer text long codes due to their familiar phone number format — especially when you use local area codes for your business number. This may make texts feel more personal. 

However, short codes are sleeker, and customers are less likely to be wary of a potential scam.

SMS short code examples

Businesses of all sizes and industries use short codes to reach their customers. Here are a few real-world examples you may have come across:

  • Airbnb sends reservation reminders with the short code 247262.
  • If you get suspicious activity text alerts from your bank, they often send them with a short code ー Wells Fargo uses 93733.
  • Domino’s invites customers to text PIZZA to the short code 366466 to order.
Domino's Pizza social media graphic with short code to order pizza via text
Image source: Facebook

Short codes and geography

Short codes are not universal to every country. For example, text short codes acquired in the U.S. have a separate acquisition process from short codes in Canada

The CSCA (Common Short Code Administration) governs short codes in the United States. Canadian short codes are governed by the CWTA (Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association). 

If you’re located outside either of these countries, you’ll work with another organization.

The wrap on SMS short codes

Short codes have a lot of attractive potential for businesses. 

They’re easy to remember and can be customized for your brand. You can use them for large campaigns or individual conversations, and they are ideal for keyword setup.

Getting started with a short code might initially seem more complicated than the other number types you could choose from. 

Don’t worry, though. The SimpleTexting platform, along with our support team, makes the whole process smooth and easy. 

Step one: give SimpleTexting a free 14-day test drive.

This article was published on January 1, 2022, by Alfredo Salkheld, and was updated on September 27, 2023, by Dani Henion. Nathan Ellering contributed to this piece.

Alfredo Salkeld
Alfredo Salkeld

Alfredo is SimpleTexting's brand manager. He's passionate about using his 10+ years of marketing experience to help small businesses grow.

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