SMS Short Code: A Thorough Explanation

July 6, 2023 (Updated) | By Sam Pelton
SMS Short Code: A Thorough Explanation

SMS? Short code?

These are common terms you hear in the business texting sphere. But they’re not necessarily common phrases in the average person’s everyday language.

So what do they mean?

What’s an SMS short code, and how can you use it for your business?

We’ll walk through all of it for you, starting with some simple definitions.

SMS Short Code: Definitions

The phrase “SMS short code” pulls together 2 related concepts: SMS, and short codes.

Although related, there is a distinction between these 2 ideas.

So let’s break these terms down.

What’s SMS?

SMS (“short messaging service”) refers to simple text messages.

It’s what you do when you send a quick text over to your mom or to your spouse or to your grandma.

It’s when you send texts like the following:

What time should we come over for dinner?

I can pick up cheese on my way home from work today.

The birthday party is on Saturday.

Whether you realize it or not, you’re sending an SMS.

These messages can’t contain media content such as images - otherwise, it needs to be sent as an MMS, which we’ll discuss below.

And note that these messages are short and sweet - One reason it’s called “short messaging” is because technically these text messages can only contain up to 160 characters. Once they hit that limit, they split up into multiple messages.

(Don’t worry, most phones will still deliver these multi-segmented messages as a single thread. Kind of like magic!)

What’s a Short Code?

A short code is essentially a short phone number.

In contrast to “normal” phone numbers which, in the United States, are 10 digits, short codes are much shorter. Typically, short codes are 5 or 6 digits long.

Odds are that you’ve received messages from these types of phone numbers before. You may have even subscribed to one by texting in a particular “keyword.”

You've seen advertisements that say things like, “Text [word] to 74121.” In this example, that 74121 number is a short code.

SMS short code example

Short codes are not used by individuals for personal texts, but rather by businesses or other organizations that send text messages on a larger scale.

(That’s why you can’t use one when you’re texting your grandma.)

So, putting it all together, an “SMS short code” is a short phone number that businesses use to send SMS (or text messages).

(And typically, short codes can also send MMS - multimedia messages - with images as well. But more on that later.)

SMS Short Code vs. Other Sending Options

So now you know what SMS and short codes are.

But are there other sending options? Why send SMS? And why use a short code?

One alternative to SMS is MMS. And some alternatives to short codes are long numbers, including “10-digit long codes” (“10DLCs”) or “text-enabled toll-free numbers.”

A lot of terms, I know - hang in there.

We’ll explain what all of these mean.


We can all agree that texting is one of the best ways to get in touch with people in our current climate, can’t we?

It’s got a read rate as high as 98%. And we all know that most people check their text messages frequently.

So since it’s such a widely used communication method, you should consider using it for your business.

But one decision you need to make is whether to use SMS (“regular” texts), MMS (“picture/media” texts), or a combination of both.

You’d naturally think MMS (picture messages) would be the way to go across the board. After all, it can include images. And we all know, especially when it comes to marketing, that having graphics is better than no graphics, no?

That may generally be true. But there’s one major reason why you’d want to avoid MMS, despite the benefits of being able to send graphics.

Cost. (The C word.)

When sending texts on a large scale for your business, sending MMS through texting platforms can cost quite a bit more than sending “plain” SMS.

So for most businesses, a combination is the best way to go: send SMS when an image or long message isn’t called for, but use MMS when it would be more effective.

MMS example

Short Code vs. Long Numbers

Businesses sometimes favor sending messages through short codes over “normal-looking” longer numbers for several reasons:

  • The short, succinct number is easier for people to remember, and to enter into their phones.
    • (“Send a text to 74121” just has a nicer ring to it than “Send a text to 833-996-5877.”)
  • Short code numbers have higher “throughput,” which refers to the rate or speed at which the messages can go out.
    • For many businesses this won’t be an issue - in general, text messages are delivered almost immediately after they are sent.
    • But if you have large numbers of recipients (hundreds of thousands or more), it’s something you should consider, since sending messages to that many recipients may cause some delays.
  • Short code numbers can have higher delivery rates, which means more messages will successfully make it through to recipients.
    • Short codes aren’t subject to as much “carrier filtering,” because they have to go through a pre-approval process before being set up. (“Carrier filtering” refers to mobile carriers preventing messages from being delivered due to suspected spam.)

So if short code numbers are more convenient, have higher messaging speeds, and better delivery success to recipients, why doesn’t every business use them?

2 reasons: cost (there’s that C word again), and setup process.

Short codes cost significantly more than longer numbers. And they take several weeks to set up, whereas longer numbers can be set up instantaneously.

Businessman looking at his phone

SMS Short Code: Who Needs One?

While any business should consider using an SMS short code, due to the higher costs, typically only larger businesses tend to use them.

Costs vary but may run about $2,500 for an initial application and then $500-$1,000 per month for leasing the number.

Longer numbers (as opposed to short codes) are significantly less expensive - they could be $0-$15 per month, for example.

So this difference in cost means that businesses must find the benefits of short codes important enough to justify the cost.

Higher throughput (messaging speed) and higher delivery rates make the differences between longer numbers and short codes especially pertinent for big businesses that have hundreds of thousands of recipients.

If you’re a small- to medium-sized business, you could still benefit from an SMS short code, so it’s something you could still consider. But you can probably get by with a longer number.

SMS Short Code Options

In the current climate, there are 2 short code options available for businesses: “random” short codes and “vanity” short codes.

Note that there used to be an option called a “shared short code.” These short codes were shared across multiple brands, so mass texting platforms were typically able to provide access to these short codes for free.

Due to new mobile carrier regulations, shared short codes are being transitioned out and are therefore no longer an option for businesses just getting into sending texts.

But you may still see some shared short codes floating around for the time being among businesses that were already using them.

So with “shared” short codes not being an option, what’s the difference between “random” short codes and “vanity” short codes?

Vanity SMS Short Codes

With “vanity” short codes, your business will be able to select a custom series of digits.

This means you can pick a code that is easy for your customers to remember (i.e. 87654 or 12345), or that perhaps is connected to your brand. For example:

  • 1000 for the brand name “1,000 Nights”
  • 43679, which corresponds to Henry on your phone keypad, for the brand name “Henry’s Cafe”
  • Note: These specific examples may not actually be available

Since they’re customizable, vanity SMS short codes are convenient and memorable. This makes for a better experience for your customers as they interact with your number.

The downside? Vanity short codes are a costlier option ($1,000 per month) than the “random SMS short code” option we’ll discuss here in a bit.

(Yep, there’s that C word again.)

So if you’re more budget-conscious, you’ll want to go with the other short code option…

Random SMS Short Codes

With “random” short codes, your business will get assigned a random set of digits as the phone number.

Thus, with random SMS short codes, you can’t select a number that’s more convenient or more memorable.

With a random code, the number that’s assigned to you is totally outside of your control. The U.S. Common Short Code Administration (CSCA) assigns this code to you without any input on your end.

And you aren’t able to request a change or a review if you prefer certain digits or don’t care for the code that you end up getting.

This lack of flexibility and customization limits your branding options and diminishes the user experience for your customers when compared to vanity short codes.

But the tradeoff is that you’ll save $500 per month by going with a random code. (A random code would be $500 total per month.)

So the benefit of a random short code is that you get all the perks of a short code at half the cost of a vanity code.

Random short code vs Vanity short code

SMS Short Code: How to Set One Up

Now that you’ve learned a bit about what an SMS short code is, you may be wondering, “So, what’s the setup process? How could I get an SMS short code set up, and start sending text campaigns?”

The process isn’t complicated, but it does involve a few steps.

Let’s walk through each of them, shall we?

Step 1: Application

First, you’ll need to fill out an application to submit to the mobile carriers.

A texting platform provider such as Mobile Text Alerts can provide you with the application and submit it to the carriers on your behalf.

This application will ask you questions about what you would use the short code for, and how you’re obtaining permission from your subscribers to send them texts.

Your texting platform provider will be your resource to help you fill out this application, to make sure you can get approved for a short code. So don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions.

You can get your application by submitting a contact form.

Once you’ve filled out your application and have sent it in to your texting platform provider, they’ll make sure it all looks good and then they’ll submit it to the mobile carriers for review.

The review period then takes 6-8 weeks (sometimes less).

Step 2: SMS Platform

While you’re waiting for a response on your short code application, you can set up an account with an SMS platform like Mobile Text Alerts.

An SMS platform allows you to manage your contacts and send text messages to large numbers of people. You can do all of this from the website, so you can access your platform from anywhere that has an internet connection.

Most SMS platforms also allow you to download a mobile app, so you can access and manage your account in a mobile-friendly environment as well.

Dashboard screenshot
Screenshot of login page

You can get a free trial if you just want to test all of this out (before parting with your cash).

Then you’ll be able to get a feel for how the platform works, and send messages from a free 10-digit number while you wait for your short code to be approved.

Step 3: Opt-In

Once you hear back regarding your short code application, you can start building your subscriber list for your texting campaigns.

There are several ways you can do this:

If you’d like, you can also organize your subscriber list into segmented groups, so that you can be more specific about who will receive your texting campaigns.

The main thing that you want to make sure is that you’re actually getting people’s permission to send them texts, and that you aren’t sending spam.

Step 4: Sending Your Campaigns

Once you have contacts loaded in and organized, you’ll be ready to start planning and sending out your campaigns.

You’ll first need to decide what kinds of messages you’d like to send (you can see some examples in the “Ways You Can Use It” section below).

Once you’ve determined 1 or more messages that you’d like to send, you’ll access the “Send a Message” section of your texting platform.

Send a message page

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From this page, you’ll just select who you’d like to receive your messages. Then you’ll type out the content of your message.

You can either send out the campaign immediately, or you can schedule it out for a later date and time.

Your message will be sent at your designated time, and people will receive the message from your short code.

Mobile app send a message

Step 5: Monitoring Your Campaigns

Once your campaign is sent, you can monitor the delivery status from your texting platform’s delivery report.

This report will remind you what the content of your campaign was, as well as who the recipients were.

Screenshot of sent messages report

You’ll also be able to see the delivery status for individual recipients of the campaign, to see if there were any issues with the message delivery.

If you included links in your campaign’s message, you can also view the clicks for your links.

Screenshot of delivery report
Screenshot of link tracking

From your opt-out report you’ll be able to see if anyone unsubscribed as a result of your message.

(Note: Your subscribers can unsubscribe by replying with the word STOP. This will automatically remove them from your texting list and place their phone number on your opt-out report.)

Screenshot of opt-out report

All of this monitoring will give you more information to help make decisions about how to go about future texting campaigns.

SMS Short Code: Ways You Can Use It

So now you have all this information about SMS short codes.

But… what can you do with it? What kinds of messages do people send?

There are 3 general categories of text messages you can send for your business or organization.

We’ll go through some examples for each use case.

Marketing Messages

Since texting has such a high read rate (as high as 98%), many businesses find success using it to boost their marketing efforts.

SMS short codes can thus become one of the best ways to send notices such as:

  • Promotional texts
  • Event updates
  • New product announcements
  • Any other kind of announcement to your prospects and customers

Running a sale this weekend? Send a text.

Hosting a customer appreciation event, or some other kind of event? Send a text.

Putting on a webinar as a part of a sales funnel? Send a text.

Getting a new shipment of product XYZ? Send a text.

There’s no better way to make sure your messaging is actually seen than through text messages.


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Reminder! The [webinar name] starts in 5 minutes. See you there! Here’s the link: [link]

New [product name] available now! You’re gonna love it. Check it out here: [link]

Transactional Messages

Another use for an SMS short code is for transactional text messages.

By “transactional,” we mean notices that aren’t pointing to a promotion or trying to sell something, but rather are communicating important information - whether to your customers, or to your team.

This would included notices such as:

  • Employee updates
  • Meeting reminders
  • Appointment confirmations
  • 2-factor authentication texts
  • Failed payment notices
  • Customer service interactions
  • And so on…


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Your appointment with Dr. Nicholson has been scheduled for [date and time]. Please reply at least 24 hours in advance if you need to cancel or reschedule.

Your two-factor authentication code for [business name] is [number].

Payment was declined for your [company name] subscription. Please login and update the card on file to avoid service disruption: [link]

Thanks for reaching out to [company name] support! What questions can I help clear up for you?

Member Notices

The idea of “member notices” may fall under the category of “transactional messages,” but specifically refers to messages sent by a church or other nonprofit to its members.

These types of messages are usually for the purpose of keeping members informed and connected.

Some examples of this would include:

  • Event reminders
  • Announcements
  • Weather cancellation notices
  • Prayer requests
  • Scripture verses
  • Guest follow-ups
  • And so on…


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