This discussion began a few days back when one of my kids asked what it was like "back in the day" when cellphones weren't a thing yet.

Kid: What did you do if you wanted to call someone when you weren't home?

Me: We'd write them a quick letter with our quill pens, then hand it off to a Pony Express rider to deliver it. Most of the time, it took a couple of months.

Kid: Sure, dad. But really, what did you do?

Me: We would look for the nearest payphone and call with that.

Kid: So you'd use a phone that everyone uses and leaves all germy and disgusting?!

Me: Yep. If you were lucky, the phone would still work, and whatever diseases you picked up from using it were mild, or at least survivable.

Kid: Gross. I'd rather do the quill pen, Pony Express thing.

Me: (Showing the photos below) You always hoped you wouldn't get one of these:

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We've all been here. (Getty Images)
A telephone that has been used by someone that was very stressed out.
And, here. (Getty Images)

Can You Guess How Many Payphones There Were In The U.S. Back In 1999, When Payphone Usage Was At Its Peak?

According to a piece at, in 1999 there were 2,100,000 payphones scattered across the 50 states, and most of them actually worked.

However, cell phones really started to take off with the public right around that same time, which was the beginning of the end for public payphones--at least the amount of them you'd be able to find without too much effort.

Now, with about 97% of Americans having cell phones, the need for a public phone alternative has pretty much disappeared, and so have almost all payphones.

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"Some dude is wanting to change into his costume, but he can just wait!" (Getty Images)
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Payphones In America Have Declined So Much That The FCC No Longer Requires Audits Of Them

Which basically means that we have so few that the FCC just doesn't really care about them anymore. They stopped tracking payphone technology completely back in 2016, because with the mass-use of cell phones starting in 2000, the number of payphones in most states dropped 90% or more between 2000-2016.

Except for Hawaii. The number of payphones available in the Hawaiian Islands only dropped 60% during that time period.

Overall, the 2.1 million payphones we had back in 1999 had dropped to less than 100,000 by 2016; and since it's been eight years since then, you've got to assume there are even less in 2024.

Mother and daughter travelers at bank of pay phones in airport
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Let's Get To Illinois--How Many Payphones Are Left In Our State?

According to the numbers in the piece, Illinois is ranked 24th among all states in the decline of payphone availability, with Hawaii being last and the state of Mississippi coming in at number-one with the biggest decline.

Illinois' numbers:

  • 96.8% decline in number of pay phones
  • Number of pay phones remaining in 2016: 3,423 (26.7 phones per 100K people)
  • Down from 106,368 in 2000 (855.4 phones per 100K people)

If you're curious, here are Wisconsin's numbers (they're ranked #22 in the nation):

    • 96.9% decline in number of pay phones
    • Number of pay phones remaining in 2016: 1,104 (19.1 phones per 100K people)
    • Down from 35,383 in 2000 (658.4 phones per 100K people)

LOOK: Things from the year you were born that don't exist anymore

The iconic (and at times silly) toys, technologies, and electronics have been usurped since their grand entrance, either by advances in technology or breakthroughs in common sense. See how many things on this list trigger childhood memories—and which ones were here and gone so fast you missed them entirely.

Gallery Credit: Stacey Marcus

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