/ Technology

Does the UK’s Speaking Clock cost too much?

Mobile phone next to coins and credit card

Calling the 123 Speaking Clock now costs at least 39p. It’s probably not something you’re too concerned about, until you spot the phone number mysteriously appearing on your landline phone bill.

The cost of calling BT’s 79-year-old Speaking Clock has climbed steadily in recent years and costs at least five times more than other countries that offer a similar service.

Speaking clock chargesIn 2003, the 10p charge for the Speaking Clock was close to the national rate, but it doubled to 20p in 2004 and now costs 39-50p depending on your phone provider.

Calling the clock in the Netherlands costs just 7p, Iceland’s ‘Klukken’ is around 12p, Ireland and Germany cost 14p, and it’s free in Chile. Only France’s 82-year old ‘L’horloge parlante’ is more expensive, at 56p.

Mystery 123 phone calls

Last year, we reported on landline owners who had been charged for mystery calls and said that engineers testing lines could be the cause. And we’ve had 150 comments about this here on Which? Convo, including from Lindsey:

‘Yep, just looked at my bill and there’s a call to 123 charging me 36p. Funny that I don’t even have my house phone plugged in. To top it off there was an engineer in my street the day of the call! Annoyed.’

Openreach said it was unaware of any issues but later apologised to customers and told engineers not to make calls on customer lines or boxes.

Despite this, you’ve told us it’s still an issue – but phone providers don’t always refund the charges and won’t block the 123 number. Yet we had no joy when we asked BT to consider making calls free, or cheaper, to help.

Top 123 tips

1. Save money, check the time online.
2. Check your bill for 123 calls – report any to your provider.
3. Blocking calls – phones featuring call barring can block specific numbers for outgoing and incoming calls.

Have you noticed any mystery 123 speaking clock calls on your phone bill?


I think I’ll ring the Netherlands next time I want to know the time [unless there’s a handy policeman passing].

I’d be interested to know how many calls are made to the UK speaking clock these days given that we all have access to an accurate time check on so many devices.

Actually the time doesn’t bother me – it’s the date and day of the week I lose track of.

James Slevin says:
19 October 2017

I had 123 appear on my BT bill randomly. Called BT and they removed. It’s only a small amount but it’s the principle. 45p this time, what next? They soon add up these little charges.


“Yet we had no joy when we asked BT to consider making calls free, or cheaper, to help.”

Cheaper is no help when someone is making unauthorised calls to that number. Indeed, it might make it harder to get a refund. Additionally, engineers who make these calls are less likely to stop if they know the impact is only a few pence each time.

“Blocking calls – phones featuring call barring can block specific numbers for outgoing and incoming calls.”

Blocking numbers being dialled from your own handset is of no use in stopping engineers using their own handset to call these numbers when testing the line.


You are conflating two separate issues: the cost of the speaking clock and engineers using it to test phone lines. It’s difficult to imagine a circumstance where you’d want to call the speaking clock these days, it must be a very niche thing to do, the cost is scarcely relevant to all but a very few. If you or anyone else wants to test the line they can simply call 1471.

Phil says:
29 August 2015

Network Rail requires signal boxes and stations to check their clocks once a day. Unless the clocks are radio controlled (does anyone still call them Rugby Clocks?) the Speaking Clock is the preferred method.


The Speaking Clock is a wasteful method for National Rail to prefer. They could use an NTP (Network Time Protocol) server via a mobile device, which costs nothing except for a negligible amount of mobile data traffic.

Phil says:
29 August 2015

Except the use of mobile devices is prohibited in signal boxes.


As I said, it’s a very niche thing to do. I doubt the impact on Network Rail’s budget is cause for concern.


Radio-controlled clocks are not expensive and are now quite old technology, so might fit in well with our railways.


I’ve yet to see a railway ticket office or signal box that hasn’t got a computer in it. The signaller could tune into the Greenwich time signal on the radio – or is that also banned in a signal box? Where I live they’re getting rid of all the signal boxes so the demand for the speaking clock will fall even further.

Despite all the marvels of digital technology there are two electronic clocks on adjacent platforms at Norwich station that are one second apart but it doesn’t matter – the trains pay no attention to the times displayed.


Bong ! Intrigued by this, I did a bit of digging and found that the National Physical Laboratory provides accurate time-keeping from a site in Cumbria so “Rugby Clocks” is no longer the correct description for railway clocks. It derived from the time when the Post Office broadcast the Greenwich Time Signal worldwide from its radio station at Rugby.

Bong ! The current time signal is transmitted from Anthorn Radio Station in Cumbria and is available 24 hours a day across the whole of the UK and beyond. The signal’s carrier frequency is maintained at a set level controlled by caesium atomic clocks at the radio station. The broadcast signal is monitored against the national time standard at the NPL site in Teddington and corrected when necessary.

Bong ! Even the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster has been having time-keeping difficulties recently and had to be adjusted using a set of old pennies placed on part of the mechanism.


The Speaking Clock is one of several telephone-based services that have become redundant as a result of the availability of free alternatives. Other examples include directory enquiries.


If you are blind then the speaking clock and directory enquiries may still have their uses.

These services are redundant when no-one is still using them.


You can buy speaking clocks that automatically adjust to the right time so the blind do not need to rely on the Speaking Clock.

According to a 4 year old BBC report, peak times for the Speaking Clock are New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Day and just before 5 pm when call centre staff don’t want a long call to deal with.

123 is probably the number young children are likely to dial most when playing with a telephone so a lucrative source of income.