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Send SMS in the US 1: Introduction
Send SMS in the US 1: Introduction

Navigate the regional rules of using SMS as a business in North America.

Laura Russell avatar
Written by Laura Russell
Updated this week

In the US, 5.5 billion text messages are sent daily, which amounts to 63,000 every second (CTIA Wireless Report).

97% of adults in the US own a cell phone, all of which are SMS-enabled. If you’re starting to think you should be making more of SMS as a business, you’re not alone. The US SMS marketing market size is on track to be worth $12.6 billion by 2025.

Regarding responsiveness, SMS boasts a 19% click-through rate, compared to email's 4% and Facebook's 1%. 95% of text messages are read and responded to within 3 minutes of being received and 90% of customers prefer SMS to direct phone calls.

It’s clear to see why businesses are turning more and more to texting. SMS is a valuable channel for both reach and ROI. However, the complexities of sending SMS as a business in the USA can often put brands off sending at all. This article covers some of the historical reasons this region is distinct from the rest of the world, as well as explaining the differences between your options for sending.


Gathering opt-ins

Unlike other parts of the world, mobile numbers in the US Region have area codes instead of a mobile-only prefix, so it’s not possible to know by looking at a number if it’s a mobile or not. This means that, traditionally, mobile users paid to receive calls and SMS, since it was not fair to burden the sender with any extra costs when they didn’t know they were contacting a mobile. For this reason, it has been more important to prove someone has opted in than in the rest of the world.

Today, call and SMS bundling and the introduction of toll-free numbers have made this less of a concern, but it has left a lasting, regulatory effect on how businesses must use SMS. In the US, text messages fall under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which is the main anti-abuse telemarketing law. This means that gathering compliant opt-ins is a crucial first step for any SMS marketing in the region.

There are many ways to gather phone numbers which have been opted in to receive marketing from your business. Asking for phone numbers at the point of customer signup is a great way to build a database. You may also want to leverage our Surveys, pages, and forms functionality to create on-brand data capture. Just remember to check with your legal team or key regulatory bodies that you are being compliant, and to specify you are asking for a cell or mobile number.

Since there's no way to tell if the number is cellular by its formatting, you must rely on your form capture to clearly specify what you’re asking for. Telling customers that you’re asking for this data in order to send SMS is both required and can also increase the likelihood of capturing a mobile number instead of a landline.


Numbers that businesses in the US can send from

Unlike some other regions, options for sending in the US are limited, which can make choosing much easier.

You can’t send from:

  • Alphanumeric names
    It’s never been possible to send from an alphanumeric name such as your brand name.

  • Long codes (unregulated)
    Until a few years ago it was tolerated to send messages from long numbers like P2P but this is now completely impossible in the US. It is still possible in Canada, but with very low throughput of 1msg/second.

  • Shared short codes
    It was common for smaller businesses to cheaply lease keywords on shared short codes. This reduced accountability and increased risk, but is no longer possible.

You can send in three different ways:

Dedicated short codes, 10DLC and toll-free

Dedicated short codes have always been the best way to send SMS, but are expensive. Toll-free codes (beginning 8) have in the past been accepted by networks as better than long codes since the message recipient does not pay to receive messages.

Now that 10DLC is fully sanctioned, and since most people no longer pay to receive any messages, toll-free is relatively less attractive. All three messaging types now need to be approved in their own way before any messages can be sent through them. This guide dives into each option and includes comparisons between each so you can decide which type is best for you.

Dedicated short code

Dedicated short codes incur significant costs and require a set-up period of four to six weeks after finalising the application. They are the best option for professionalism and high volume. The application is more detailed than the others, and, once ready, is submitted separately to each of the main US networks for approval.

10DLC

10 digit long codes (10DLCs) are the default way to send marketing or other SMS in the USA. You can send from them as the sender ID and your customers can reply directly back to them. They work on all networks in the USA. They are not recommended for Canadian customers, but if a US customer has a small number of Canadian mobile numbers they should work with no separate regulation, but with throughput of only 1 msg/second.

10DLC is the quickest option to set up using a very structured approach of brands and campaigns, with typically about 120 msgs/second allowed. Since a 10DLC number looks like an ordinary phone number, it’s linked to a location; this can help your customers recognise you more easily. In Canada, 10DLC is not recognised so there is no registration process, but messages can still be delivered from the same US numbers, just more slowly.

Dotdigital is registered with The Campaign Registry and can help you set up your campaign.

Toll-free number

Toll-free numbers are another way to send messages in the USA and Canada.

Before use, the number must be verified by the networks. This involves the same sort of information as is needed to apply for a 10DLC. Once received, the application usually takes about a week, but can be longer, and the number can’t be used until verified.


Number comparisons

All 3 number types share this in common

10DLC vs. dedicated short code

10DLC and dedicated short codes have the following in common:

  • The same guidelines, regulations, and sanctions apply to both, from the CTIA and main network codes of conduct.

  • Both US dedicated short codes and 10DLC reach Canada from the same code.

So what are the differences?

  • Set-up time can be two to four days with 10DLC, but four to six weeks for short codes.

  • 10DLC do not provide delivery receipts. Short codes do.

  • 10DLC numbers are more cost-effective than short codes, allowing for a dedicated 10DLC for each use case, as opposed to previously sharing a code.

  • Throughput — messages per second — is higher on short codes than 10DLC.

  • 10DLC has daily quantity limits, though these rarely affect customers.

  • 10DLC has only very limited use in Canada.

  • 10DLC numbers appear as regular US mobile numbers (geographic) and can be voice-enabled.

Toll-free vs dedicated short code

Toll-free numbers and dedicated short codes have the following in common:

  • No daily send limit applies.

  • Delivery receipts are available.

  • Both permit the inclusion of URLs in the message, however, toll-free does not support anonymous URLs like bit.ly. On short codes, while not recommended, there are cases where this may be accepted. Shortened Dotdigital URLs like https://dd2.io/ are always supported.

Unsupported URLs

bc.vc

is.gd

t.co

bit.do

lc.chat

t.ly

bit.ly

lc.cx

tiny.cc

bitly.com

ow.ly

tiny.url

bitly.ws

rb.gy

tinyurl.com

budurl.com

s2r.co

v.gd

clicky.me

shrtco.de

vurl.com

cutt.ly

slkt.io

goo.gl

soo.gd

So what are the differences?

  • Set-up time can be one to two weeks with toll-free, but four to six weeks for short codes.

  • A dedicated short code is much more costly than toll-free.

  • Since the registration process for short codes is more rigorous than toll-free, once messages are being sent that are in alignment with the declared campaign, they should be easily delivered. At present (in 2024) there is an increasing chance that toll-free messages may fail due to over cautious aggregators suspecting they may be spam.

  • Dedicated short codes have a six month minimum term but toll-free is just three months.

  • Throughput — messages per second — is higher on dedicated short codes than toll-free.

  • Significantly more information is needed, including a full message flow, to apply for a short code than toll-free.

  • The rules and regulations they follow are technically not the same. Dedicated short codes are governed by CTIA and TCPA regulations. Toll-free numbers work along guidelines of good practice, not regulations.
    We recommended you still follow dedicated short code guidelines to improve delivery, keep your recipients happy and opt-in and engagement rates high.

10DLC vs. toll-free

Toll-free and 10DLC have the following in common:

  • Setup time is short: one to two weeks at most, and typically less.

  • Both support URLs. However, anonymous bit.ly type URLs are not recommended, while shortened Dotdigital URLs are always supported.

  • You can expect a similar throughput across toll-free and 10DLC numbers, however 10DLC throughput can vary slightly based on the use case.

  • Both can be voice-enabled if required.

So what are the differences?

  • 10DLC is preferred by the networks, and it’s likely price and regulation will tend to favour it more in the future.

  • 10DLC does not provide delivery receipts, toll-free does.

  • Since the registration process for 10DLC is more formal than toll-free, once messages are being sent that are in alignment with the declared campaign they should be easily delivered. At present (in 2024) there is an increasing chance that toll-free messages may fail due to over cautious aggregators suspecting they may be spam.

  • For 10DLC campaigns, a monthly pass-through fee applies, whereas Dotdigital charges a setup fee. Messages rates can be cheaper however, so at more than minimal volumes, 10DLC is the most cost-effective option.

  • 10DLC is governed by CTIA and TCPA regulations. Toll-free SMS works to guidelines of good practice, however we recommend a similar level of care is taken for recipients.

  • 10DLC appears as a regular geographic US number whereas toll-free is an 8xxx number.

  • With 10DLC, a typical reasonable use case allows about 100,000 SMS a day, whilst even a poor use case still allows a daily send limit of 30,000 or less. With toll-free, there are no daily limits but the 10DLC limits are far more than almost all users need.


See also

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