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There was a time period where, in civilized countries everywhere, it was both possible and occasionally necessary to use a "public" telephone that required the insertion of change to make a call. These days, which spawned countless tropes, are essentially gone. Cell phones are now so cheap almost anyone can afford them, so the only reason to use a pay phone is when you run out of battery or minutes (or you don't want the call to show up on your phone). Thus, the only places that have pay phones are ones with extremely high traffic, usually transient, where people either don't have a cell phone or don't want to use it, such as a bus depot, train station or airport, or places where cellphones are forbidden, such as hospitals.
A Pay Phone was often found in a Phone Booth. These are a lot less common these days.
Specific Pay Phone tropes include:
- Crucial calls that cannot be placed or are cut off too early for lack of sufficient change.
- Attempting to borrow change from nearby strangers.
- Attempting to steal change from the pay phone.
- Notice that the previous two don't apply in countries where phones are paid with a chip card.
- Attempting to use a pay phone without paying.
- Using a pay phone to preserve anonymity.
- Routing a call through a taped-together pair of pay phones to make it "untraceable".
- Refusal by the anonymous stranger currently using the payphone to give it up in an "emergency", leading to a number of (almost always comical) common scenarios.
- Someone calling a pay phone, usually as the confused protagonist walks by and hears it ring.
- Looking up someone's address on the phonebooks attached to the payphones and ripping out the page involved to have it. Almost inevitably, every phone book searched is missing the particular page because it was ripped out.
- The Slice of Life BL manga Dear Green: Hitomi no Onowa is a little iffy about what decade the books set in for two out of three(/four) volumes, despite having been published in the mid-2000's. This is largely because its protagonists, whose main method of communication is by phone, are frequently shown using either pay phones when outside (and they're outside pretty often) or old-fashioned phones at their apartments, with cell phones very rarely, if at all, in sight anywhere in those first two volumes. However, by the third volume, the two of them finally realize that, considering the events of the previous volumes, they should probably just go ahead and buy cell phones, which is when it's shown that the books are set in the mid-2000's after all.
- Psyren features pay phones pretty heavily in its plot. Those who answer a public phone and answer the questions posed are taken to the ruined world of Psyren, and the only way home is to find another phone at the opposite end of the playing field.
- In the Batman story of the "Penny Plunderer" (the one the giant penny in the Batcave comes from), the eponymous villain is caught at the end when he needs a nickel to call for help on a pay phone...and only has five pennies.
- In a Secret Six comic, Junior is talking on a pay phone when a prostitute appears and demands to be allowed to use the phone, repeatedly yelling at the cloaked and menacing figure who is discussing torturing the person on the other end of the line that she, too, has rights and needs to use the phone this instant. Things... do not end well for her
- In one issue of Transmetropolitan Spider uses a public Video Phone to contact Royce because he doesn't have a cell phone or one of the "phone traits" that his assistants use. In a later issue he changes his mind and gets the trait.
- Give My Regards to Broad Street: policeman is making report of progress, or rather lack thereof, from cafeteria. He has to insert more money to keep the call going.
- Group Captain Mandrake is forced to use a pay phone to attempt to contact the President of the United States in the War Room towards the end of Dr. Strangelove because of a communications blackout at Burpleson Air Force Base. He doesn't quite have enough change, so he has Col. 'Bat' Guano shoot open a Coke machine in a scene with many memorable lines.
- In Fight Club, after the Narrator's apartment is blown sky-high, he calls Marla on a payphone, then chickens out and hangs up without speaking to her. He then calls Tyler, a mysterious stranger he met on an airplane. Nobody answers, so the Narrator hangs up--and Tyler then calls the payphone back as he's walking away. This is one of the many hints that Tyler is the Narrator's other personality, as a barely visible notice on the pay phone indicates that it can't receive incoming calls.
- In Amelie, the main character, in a nearby cafe, calls a payphone next to a passer-by to make him walk into the phone booth and find a present she's left there for him.
- The central conceit of Phone Booth is that the main character is walking past the last phone booth in New York when it rings. Upon answering it, he finds himself trapped by a murderous sniper playing a sinister game.
- In Brick, Brendan doesn't carry a cell phone and makes a habit of making and receiving calls via payphone. What makes this unusual is that the film was made in 2005 and is set in the present. Whether this is a function of the film's noir theme or just an idiosyncrasy of Brendan's is anyone's guess.
- In The Terminator, the eponymous character wants to find Sarah Connor, and goes to a pay phone to look up her address. Finding it, the machine rips the page listing three women named Sarah Connor out of the phone book. Fridge Logic would ask why The Terminator wasn't able to just memorize three addresses.
- Neuromancer has one sequence where the protagonist walks past a bank of pay phones, and each one rings as he passes by. Science Marches On as the novel was written in 1984.
- Possibly justified, as it happens in an airport, which is one of the places where pay phones are still somewhat common.
- Are You Afraid of the Dark??, "The Tale of the Phone Police": A boy calls a number supposedly belonging to a man arrested by the Phone Police years ago for making prank calls, but quickly hangs up when he actually gets an answer. Said prisoner somehow calls the pay phone he and his friend are walking past the next day.
- The song "Sylvia's Mother" by Dr Hook and the Medicine Show is about man attempting to call his girlfriend from a pay phone and being unable to get past her mother. The chorus involves the operator's requests for him to insert more money.
- Ray Stevens deserves a mention with "It's Me Again, Margaret," about a prank caller who repeatedly called a woman from a pay phone. Also shows how the phone company had to be contacted to trace the origin of that call - Science Marches On, the song was released in 1985.
- The Broken Trope nature of this was Lampshaded in Modern Warfare 2 in the load up for the level "The Hornet's Nest" with this dialogue:
Ghost: "I can't get anyone on the horn.
(Various news lines)
Soap: "I know a guy" (Flashes picture of Nikolai) "Let's find a payphone, they still exist?"
- This was from where you got your mission briefings in the early Grand Theft Auto games, and slowly evaporated after GTA 3. It makes for an odd bit of an Anachronism Stew since GTA 2 is set Twenty Minutes Into the Future yet there are no cell phones in sight, and in Vice City Tommy carries a cell phone regularly and only one mission giver uses the pay phones, despite the fact that it is canonically 1986.
- Deus Ex, despite the game being set in the 2050s, features pay phones in some public areas, such as the Underworld Bar, where one will usually be out of order. Somewhat justifiable, as the game was released in 2000, where cell phones, while cheaper than in 90s, were still not as commonplace as today.