SMS Short Codes – What Every Business Needs to Know

Is your business interested in reaching customers on their mobile phones with SMS marketing? If so, you’re going to want to learn about SMS short codes, as these are the backbone of any SMS marketing campaign. To help you out here, Tatango has put together a list of everything a business needs to know about SMS short codes below.

What is a Short Code?

An SMS short code is a 5-6 digit phone number that is used by businesses to opt-in consumers to their SMS programs, and then used to send text message coupons, offers, promotions, etc. to those customers that had previously opted-in. A consumer interacts with an SMS short code by composing a new text message on their mobile device, and addressing it to the businesses 5-6 digit SMS short code. In the example below, the SMS short code used by this business is 83733.

SMS Short Code Example

SMS Short Code Directory

Want to lookup who owns a short code? Check out the U.S. Short Code Directory, where not only can you lookup short codes, you can find out how each short code is being used, and even the most appropriate contact information for short code support. Not only does the directory provide great information on who and how a short code is being used, it also is a great resource to figure out which short codes are available for sale, when it comes time to purchase a short code, they can help with that too. You can visit the directory here:

SMS Short Code Directory - List of Short Codes

Advertising SMS Short Codes

Usually an SMS short code is advertised to consumers in-store, online, or through traditional advertising channels such as television, radio or even print. Want to know how best to advertise your SMS short code to customers? Download our free SMS advertising template.

SMS Short Code Advertising Example

SMS Keywords

When a customer wants to opt-in to an SMS campaign, they’ll not only need to know the SMS short code, but they’ll also need to know the SMS keyword for that specific business. The SMS keyword helps an SMS provider like Tatango determine which SMS campaign the consumer is trying to opt-in to. Once received, the SMS provider routes the message through the SMS marketing software, which then would send back a confirmation text message to the wireless subscriber who originated the message. In the example below, the SMS short code used by this business is 68398, and the SMS keyword is “RICKS”.

SMS Keyword Example

Dedicated SMS Short Codes

There are two different types of SMS short codes. The first type of SMS short code is called a “Dedicated Short Code”, which means that it will only be used by one business. For example, Pizza Hut has the dedicated SMS short code number 69488. This means that no other business can operate on Pizza Hut’s SMS short code number, because it’s dedicated to that specific business. When it comes to SMS marketing, most large brands such as Pizza Hut, Abercrombie & Fitch, AMC Theatres, Applebee’s, Baltimore Orioles, Bed Bath & Beyond, Bravo, Burger King, etc. have a dedicated SMS short code. Here’s a great video on the differences between dedicated and shared SMS short codes.

For a list of 100 of the top dedicated SMS short codes, click here.

Dedicated Short Code

Shared SMS Short Codes

The second type of SMS short code is called a “Shared Short Code”, which means that it’s used by many different businesses. In the case of a shared short code, each business sharing a short code would be assigned a unique SMS keyword, which helps an SMS provider like Tatango determine which SMS campaign a consumer is trying to opt-in to.

For example, lets say there’s a sushi restaurant, and a kids clothing store both using the same shared SMS short code. If people wanted to opt-in to receive SMS messages from the sushi restaurant, they’d text the sushi restaurant’s SMS keyword “SUSHI” to the shared SMS short code, while people that wanted to opt-in to receive SMS messages from the kids clothing store would text the retailer’s SMS keyword “KIDS” to the shared short code.

Here’s a great video on the differences between dedicated and shared SMS short codes.

Shared Short Code

Buy VS Lease

Business don’t actually own their SMS short codes, even if they’re using a dedicated short code. SMS short codes are leased to either businesses, or SMS providers like Tatango, on a 3, 6 or 12 month period. The company that leases them is called iconectiv, which you can learn more about below.

Lease SMS Short Code

Vanity Short Codes

Not only are there dedicated and shared short codes, there are also vanity, and non-vanity short codes. Vanity short codes are 5-6 digits, and are specifically selected. Usually vanity short codes are selected over non-vanity short codes, because they’re easier for consumers to remember the numbers. For example, vanity short codes would be numbers like 12345, 313131, 711711, etc. Here’s a great video about the difference between vanity and non-vanity short codes.

Vanity SMS Short Code Example

Non-Vanity Short Codes

Non-vanity short codes are 5-6 digits, and are selected at random by iconectiv. For example, non-vanity short codes would be numbers like 39732, 958372, 34930, etc. It’s interesting to note that the majority of SMS short codes are non-vanity short codes. You can watch a great video about the difference between vanity and non-vanity short codes here.

Random SMS Short Code

Moving SMS Short Codes

While some SMS providers will tell you it’s impossible, or against the rules to transfer SMS short codes from one SMS provider to another, or to transfer SMS subscribers from one short code to another, it’s actually pretty simple to do, and is well within the best practices of SMS marketing.

When transferring SMS short codes between SMS providers, your SMS subscribers won’t even notice the move, as they’ll still opt-in with the same phone number as before, and receive messages from your business on the same number as before. If you’re moving SMS subscribers to a new SMS short code, we recommend checking out this recorded webinar on this very topic.

Moving SMS Short Codes

CTIA Short Code Rules

To protect consumers against bad apples, the wireless carriers set up a group called the CTIA to enforce SMS marketing practices that are in the best interests of the consumer. To do this, the CTIA carries out audits on SMS programs based on the rules found in their CTIA Short Code Compliance Handbook. If a text messaging campaign is found to be in violation of any of the guidelines in the CTIA Short Code Compliance Handbook, the text messaging campaign can be deactivated by the wireless carriers.

You can download the handbook here:

If you’re not into reading 22-pages of SMS marketing rules and regulations, feel free to download our free CTIA compliance templates, or our easy to understand guide, or even watch this recorded webinar on CTIA compliance.

CTIA SMS Short Code Marketing Rules

TCPA Short Code Rules

Before starting an SMS marketing campaign, it’s important to understand what the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is, and what you as a business needs to do to remain compliant with the TCPA while running a text message marketing campaign on a short code. To learn more about the TCPA, we recommend downloading our free guide here, on TCPA compliance for businesses.

TCPA SMS Short Code Rules

Short Code Messaging

An SMS short code can send both text messages (plain text – 160 characters), commonly referred to as SMS, and multimedia messages (images, videos, long plain text), commonly referred to as MMS. An SMS short code must be provisioned specially with the wireless carriers to send and receive MMS messages.

MMS Messaging on Short Codes

Common Short Code Administration (CSCA)

An SMS short code is commonly referred to as a CSC, which stands for “Common Short Code”. The organization within iconectiv that oversees the technical and operational aspects of CSC functions, in addition to maintaining a single database of available, reserved, and registered CSCs is called the Common Short Code Administration (CSCA). You can find their website here:

Common Short Code Administration - CSCA

SMS Short Code Costs

When a dedicated SMS short code is approved, a business must then pay for the dedicated short code lease, before they can start the wireless carrier approval process. A monthly lease on a dedicated vanity SMS short code will cost a business $1,000, where a monthly lease on a dedicated random SMS short code will cost a business $500. Businesses can pay for their dedicated sms short code leases by credit card, electronic funds transfer, and check.

It’s important to note that in addition to the lease of the dedicated SMS short code, a business will also have to pay to setup the short code, in addition to hosting the short code.

Payment Methods

Wireless Carrier Approval Process

When the Common Short Code Administration approves your short code application, then it’s time to get each and every wireless carrier to approve your SMS campaign. This process usually requires much more information about your SMS campaign than is required for the Common Short Code Administration application.

SMS Short Code Messaging

Short Code Approval Process Timeline

In our experience at Tatango, to get all of the wireless carriers to approve the use of a new dedicated SMS short code on their networks, it can take between 12-15 weeks. Unfortunately there’s no way to speed up the process. This is the reason why many brands prefer using a shared short, as a shared SMS short code can be provisioned almost immediately for a brand to use.

SMS Short Code Provisioning

SMPP Messaging

SMS short code messaging is sometimes referred to as SMPP messaging. SMPP stands for Short Message Peer to Peer Protocol. Messages sent over SMPP are routed directly to and from the wireless service provider over a secure private network. SMS short code messaging, or SMPP messaging, is the only wireless carrier approved method to engage and interact with customers on their mobile devices through text messaging.

SMS Servers

Canadian SMS Short Codes

Want customers in Canada to be able to opt-in and receive messages from your SMS short code? You’re actually going to need to lease a Canadian short code to make that a reality. The good news, you usually can find the same SMS short code number available in Canada, that your business is using in the United States. This means you can tell customers in both the United States and Canada to text message to the same phone number. Learn more about how to launch a US and Canadian short code for the same SMS campaign here.

Canadian Short Codes

SMS Short Codes for Donations

Looking to raise money for your 501(c)(3) non-profit by having people text their donation to an SMS short code? If so, you’re going to have to get a specially approved short code that can accept donations. We recommend checking out mgive for this sort of short code usage.

SMS Short Code Donations

Premium SMS Short Codes

Recently three of the major U.S. carriers — AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile entered into an agreement with 45 states to stop billing customers for premium short code SMS messaging. This is fantastic news for brands running standard rate messaging campaigns, as consumer will no longer be concerned that they may see additional charges on their next wireless bill simply because they engaged an SMS campaign. Just how big of a problem did premium SMS messaging become in the United States before the carriers agreed to ban it? It’s estimated that every year, premium SMS billing costs consumers nearly $2 billion in additional charges on their wireless bills.

Premium SMS Short Codes


That’s it, that’s all we can think about in regards to what every business needs to know about SMS short codes. Still have questions about SMS short codes, or SMS marketing? Send us your questions here.

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