Rotary Dial Phones: Do They Still Work?

Here’s everything about rotary dial phones still working:

In general, rotary dial phones definitely still work, and you can even have one functioning in your home or office. 

The phone system that they used is still intact, so as long as you can connect to it, the phone will work just fine.

There are also ways to connect rotary phones to digital networks and your smartphone.

If you want to learn all about how rotary dial phones work exactly, then you’re in the right place.

Keep reading!

Rotary Dial Phones: Do They Still Work? (+ Conntect to Cell)

Do Rotary Dial Phones Work At All?

If you have a rotary phone that is not damaged, it should still be capable of working.

This is an older technology that used no microchips or digital systems at all. Instead, old rotary phones used simple circuits, microphones, and speakerphones for all of their functions.

That means that a lot of old rotary phones are still in functioning condition.

So, that’s a good start on this journey.

On top of that, the old phone system that rotary phones needed in order to connect calls are still in place.

It’s still an international system that allows for calling across long and short distances around the world. 

If you can connect an undamaged rotary phone to the old phone system, then you can place and receive calls with that rotary phone.

How Can You Use Rotary Dial Phones? (4 Things)

How do you go about this whole thing?

It’s almost as simple as plugging the phone into a phone jack.

If the phone jack is active and you have a phone service provider, it actually is that simple.

But, the majority of households no longer have a landline phone provider, and that’s why this gets a little complicated.

For starters, you can plug the phone into the jack, and some things will work.

You should still be able to reach emergency services and the operator.

You can also call collect from a jack, even if you don’t have a phone provider. All you need is for the jack’s connection to be undamaged.

But, if you want a little more functionality out of your rotary phone, it helps to have phone service.

There are still plenty of service providers, and your rotary phone will work with any of them. 

It can even work with digital phone providers, as long as you have the right adapter to plug the phone into the digital network (which is usually included with those services).

#1 How Landlines Work

The primary way to use a rotary phone is with a landline.

There are alternatives that will be discussed later, but let’s start with the basics.

In order to use a rotary phone with a landline, simply plug the phone into a functioning phone socket in a building, as mentioned above.

The rotary phone will work, and that’s all you need.

But, if we want to dig a little deeper, we have to talk about how landlines work in general.

Landlines make up what is known as the plain old telephone service (POTS).

This is the simplest way to make calls from a technological perspective.

Landlines are made of pairs of copper wires.

Those wires run from the phone jack in a wall all the way to a junction.

That junction is connected to another junction and so on until you eventually have the entire physical phone network.

Phones transmit sound through the copper wires by creating waves in the current in the copper.

To keep this from turning into an advanced physics lecture, we can put it in somewhat simplified terms. 

Sound goes through the air by compressing the air in waves.

Those waves can actually be mimicked by electrical currents in a wire.

When those currents hit a speaker, the speaker then pulses the same way, and it can reproduce the sound that traveled through the wire.

To be honest, this is basically the same way a string phone works.

If you ever connected two cans with a string when you were a kid, you were doing the same thing. 

The difference with a phone line is that it uses powered electrical lines.

That power prevents the signal from fading over distances.

It also provides power directly to the phones, so you don’t need an external power source for POTS phones.

The other advantage of using wires instead of strings is that the signal travels through the wires at nearly the speed of light.

This is why you can talk to someone thousands of miles away and have a real-time conversation.

This is known as an analog sound system.

The actual sound that you speak into the phone transmits through the wire and then replicates itself on the other phone.

How does the sound find the right person on the other end? 

Ultimately, physical switchboards route phone calls according to phone numbers.

So, when you dial a number, you are telling the switchboards where the call should ultimately connect. 

The automated system forms the connection, and then the communication travels directly from one phone to the other over that system.

#2 Challenges in a Digital World

So, if you can plug a rotary phone into a landline (that is working), the rotary phone can place and receive calls.

You don’t have to do anything special to make it work.

The POTS system is still in place around the world and still works just fine.

All of that said, telephone communication has changed a lot since the heyday of rotary phones.

Even if you have a good connection, you might run into some challenges when you try to use your retro phone.

One major challenge is digital menus.

If you call a major company (for pretty much any reason), you are probably going to be met with an automated answering service.

You will have to navigate this service in order to complete your task or eventually be connected to another person.

In case you haven’t noticed, those answer systems use digital communications.

When they tell you to “press 1” to move to the next part of the menu, that is creating a digital interaction. 

You hit the right button, and it sends a specific tone through the phone.

That tone is registered by a digital device that then processes the signal and moves the menu accordingly.

Here’s the problem with a rotary phone. It doesn’t create that tone if you slide it to “1.”

The rotary phone cannot navigate the digital menu.

There are workarounds to this problem.

You could use a playback device to send the right tone for each number through the rotary phone’s handset.

That would ultimately work, but by the time you do that, it was probably easier to just make the call with your smartphone.

In lieu of this issue, some of the older phone companies still have a setting that works for pulse and tone phones.

In other words, if your phone company is old enough, they have a built-in workaround that enables your rotary phone to still function in most modern settings.

That said, you’ll need to talk to your phone company about how to make use of those features.

#3 Using a Rotary Phone With Your Cell Phone

If you don’t have a landline at all (which is now true for the majority of Americans), you can actually still use your rotary phone. It gets a little weird, but there are digital interfaces that allow you to use the rotary phone in conjunction with your smartphone.

This does, however, require more than just a downloaded app.

Rotary phone adapters allow the rotary phone to communicate directly with your smartphone. When the communication link is established, anything you say into the rotary phone is transmitted to the smartphone. 

From there, the smartphone does the real work in terms of sending and receiving signals. The call will be placed via your carrier network (or through your internet connection if you use IP voice calling). 

When someone speaks on the call, your smartphone will ultimately send a signal to the rotary phone, and you will be able to hear it in the receiver.

This requires a bit of a clunky set up to make it work, but some people have an attachment to rotary phones. Whether for nostalgia, cool points or because your old phone is actually worth money as an antique, the setup does work.

#4 The XLink Bluetooth Gateway

To better explain this idea, we can look at a specific attachment that connects a rotary phone to a smartphone.

In this case, we’re looking at the XLink Bluetooth Gateway.

XLink makes a few products in this category with mostly similar functions.

Here’s how it works.

The gateway is a Bluetooth device with a phone jack port in it. 

You can plug any POTS phone into that phone jack (including a rotary phone). This connects the phone directly to the gateway.

Inside the gateway is the technology that enables POTS to communicate with Bluetooth.

The gateway can then connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone.

When this connection is established, your POTS phone is now able to directly communicate with your smartphone with the gateway working as a translator. 

You can then place calls and perform functions with the smartphone, and the gateway will keep the POTS phone connected.

It’s a lot like using Bluetooth headphones with your smartphone, but there’s a little more hardware involved.

Because it all works via Bluetooth, you don’t need to download a special app to make the system work. Simply plug everything in and establish the Bluetooth link.

You’ll be good to go.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

    View all posts