What Is USSD?

The old messaging technology that's making a comeback

Person holding cell phone


USSD stands for Unstructured Supplementary Service Data. Essentially, it’s another messaging protocol, similar to SMS (Short Message Service), which most people use daily to send text messages. Like SMS, USSD is a product of a time before smartphones, when phones needed a way to communicate without full-blown applications

What Is USSD?

USSD is a communication protocol that utilizes codes made up of the characters available on a mobile phone. USSD messages can be up to 182 characters long, and they create a real-time communication session between the phone and another device, usually a network or server.

The real-time aspect of USSD is made possible because communication is continually left open between devices. This makes it easier for data to be exchanged.

What Can USSD Do?

USSD is all about opening a line of communication and sending data while the line is open. USSD can only send messages while the connection is established, so it’s not a messaging service like you’d find with text messages.

All USSD connections start more-or-less the same way. You send a message to code; the code is a combination of numbers and special characters.

Your phone carrier will use that code to route you through to the correct service. When you establish contact with the service, you’ll have access to the information, data, updates, or simple applications provided by the service.

How Is USSD Used?

One of the most common uses of USSD comes from prepaid phones. When you purchase a prepaid device, you can send a message to a code number to check on your balance. The phone provider can use the same connection to provide real-time balance updates.

It’s also possible to deliver updates from social platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, over USSD to receive updates as soon as possible.

Then, there are applications built over USSD. You can dial a USSD code, and you’ll get back a menu. You can use that menu to do just about anything, from adding more time to your prepaid phone to requesting information and even paying for services. USSD applications are actually very popular in some places, like Africa.

USSD also has applications in the banking world. The quick and lightweight nature of USSD makes it ideal for balance inquiries and even transfers. Sending a message over USSD is faster than a mobile banking app, and it can be done from virtually any cellular device.