Photo of Paul Rydell
Fax Machine

What Is a Fax Machine and How Does It Work?

Fax Machine

Many of you reading this article might never have heard the term fax machine before. Actually, most people under the age of 30 barely know what a fax machine is, and the majority of people over that age assume that faxing is a thing of the past – a once commonly used invention that is no longer available.

While fax machines are not used as often these days, they still serve a purpose on some level, and probably way more than you might have thought. Most larger offices still use them on an occasional, ad-hoc basis, and the majority of large companies still have a fax machine in the main office for occasional use.

If you are reading this while sitting in a larger-sized office with more than, let’s say, 50 people, there is a reasonable chance you have a fax machine not too far from you, without even realizing it.

Interested in this curious machine? We have put together an article deep-diving into all things fax, briefly covering its history, why it was invented, what it was used for – and who still uses it.

But first, let’s explain in slightly more detail what it actually is.

What is a Fax Machine?

If you were to look up ‘fax machine’ in the dictionary, it would read something like this: a technology that broadcasts and receives copies of text or imagery through phone lines from the sender to the receiver. This is known as a fax transmission.

For a traditional fax machine, in terms of look and feel, imagine a small cash register containing pieces of A4 paper and an ink printer, with a telephone fixed to it. Instead of spitting out cash, the machine spits out printed paper containing text and imagery. That is, pretty much the scope of a fax machine. It basically looks like a large landline telephone.

All traditional fax machines must be connected to a telephone line in order to broadcast the fax message as a call. More on that later, though.

On a very basic level, the printed text or imagery (in other words, the document) is loaded into the fax machine (usually A4 paper). After entering the receiving fax machine’s number, the image is broadcast through phone lines to the receiving fax machine.

The receiving end then ‘answers’ the broadcast and prints out the same precise images to the receiving machine. To that end, anyone who has this machine can also receive faxes, in addition to sending.

A fax machine is essentially a very useful way to send documents to a third party anywhere in the world in real-time (providing, of course, they have a fax machine connected to a phone line).

Before email existed, if you wanted to send documents, the only option was to post them, use a courier, or transport them yourself.

Fax machines came along and offered the ability to send exact, precise copies of those documents instantly, without having to leave the comfort of your office or home.

It is actually a wonderful invention and was extremely common for a good four or five decades. The fax machine hit its popularity peak through the eighties and nineties. In those days, everyone knew what a fax machine was, and most people had used one at some point in their lives to either send or receive documents.

How Do Fax Machines Work?

In simple terms, a traditional fax machine is basically a scanner connected to an internal modem. Once a document is inserted into the machine, the scanner reads the document and converts it into a TIFF file. That file is then compressed, converted into signals, and broadcast to the intended recipient through the internal modem.

The recipient’s machine receives the broadcast as a telephone call, but on connection, the software detects the ‘packets’ of code, descrambles them, and converts them into the original image.

Obviously, there are more complicated fax machines incorporating more complicated features than this – but you are probably not reading this for a full tech breakdown of the finer intricacies of fax machines. In layman’s terms, the tech is quite simple. Think of a regular scanner with the ability to broadcast through phone lines.

Early fax machines from the mid-sixties to the late nineties (approximately) used the same principles but with analog fax technology. An audio tone was scrambled through sequences to differentiate dark vs. light, equating to light or dark areas on the receiving paper, and then printed off.

Before 1964, when fax machines as we know them were invented, the technology was entirely different. The end result was the same – a document broadcast over to a third-party recipient – but the machine was a different animal altogether, employing large circuitry, cogs, copper lines and spools, and even nasty chemicals.

Without digital technology, those very early faxes would be sent through something akin to Morse code, through telegram lines or radio waves.

Do All Fax Machines Work That Way?

Well, yes and no. Yes, the traditional fax machine works exactly as described above. In recent years, however, a new type of online fax service has emerged, known as internet faxing, which does not require fax machines of any description.

Modern fax technology has evolved away from the traditional landline-connected machine and now uses the internet to send and receive faxes. The principal is exactly the same as a landline fax machine, but instead of using a machine to load the documents, you would scan or upload them to an app, browser, or ‘eFax’ service.

Instead of being transmitted through landlines, the fax is sent through internet protocols like VoIP.

What Did People Use a Fax Machine For?

As mentioned earlier, fax has changed quite a bit over the last decade and isn’t used as frequently as it once was. Not since the invention of email, at least. But there is still a vital use for fax, and people do need it.

At one point, it was a staple part of any office, large or small. Its main purpose by most people would have been for sending documents such as contracts, medical information, reports, financials, that kind of thing.

Further to that, it had many other uses. If you needed to send directions to someone, using a fax machine was a useful way of writing down a hand-drawn map and faxing over. Let’s say you worked in advertising and had a genius idea for a new advertising campaign; you can sketch out the details and fax them over to a colleague or customer in a different location for a second opinion.

Police stations used them for sending mugshots to other stations in real-time. Doctors used fax machines to receive urgent medical information from other hospitals. Lawyers would fax important legal documents to other lawyers involved in a case (and still do).

Really when you think about it, there is an endless list of possibilities for using fax from a commercial point of view if email or messaging is not an option. At one point, many homes had a fax machine for personal use – reaching out to family and friends, sending quick messages just saying hello, or even cracking the occasional joke here and there.

Do People Still Use Fax Machines Now?

Yes, and far more common than you might imagine. Admittedly, the usage has gone way down in comparison to, say, 25 years ago, but certain industries use them just as frequently as they did many years ago.

A great example is the medical industry, which frequently uses fax machines. Quite often, certain important medical documents are required urgently, from a different location. HIPAA has designated fax documents as an official, secure process for sending and receiving personal medical records because fax is more secure than email.

Because of that, fax is the default method for sending important documents discretely. Doctors and medical admin staff have a responsibility for securing and protecting personal information, and as such, the use of fax machines is a far safer way to distribute documents to third-party locations.

The statistics show that over 60% of all medical documents are sent through fax machines to different locations. That’s millions of documents sent every month, just for the medical industry alone.

The same HIPAA compliance applies to lawyers and legal teams, which is also an industry that relies on fax machines quite heavily and is the preferred method for sending documents.

Third-party signatures are deemed legal and binding when delivered through fax machines, but not so for email (or any other form of digital broadcast). Lawyers will quite often use fax machines to broadcast information and documents to thousands of class action participants at the same time.

Medical and law industries trust fax over digital broadcasting for its level of security, and for that reason, so do many other people outside of these industries. There is a far greater chance of documents being ‘hacked’ through digital broadcasts and a far lesser chance through traditional landlines.

Because of that, anyone wishing to send extremely sensitive information might use a fax as an alternative to email. Again, instances such as that might be far more common than you imagine.

Finally, obtaining signatures through fax is a far more trusted source than email or any other digital broadcast. Sending a document that requires a signature to a third party by fax is a good way of proving legitimacy.

How Exactly Do You Use a Fax Machine?

This is a two-part answer, as there are two considerations to apply; traditional fax machines and modern online fax services. Let’s start with a traditional fax machine.

Fax Machine

Traditional Faxing

Not to state the obvious, but you need a fax machine at your disposal first. As with most other devices, fax machines are available for a wide range of budgets. We have reviewed a few machines in our blog post, looking into the best printers, scanners, and fax machines in 2022.

You need to make sure the fax machine is set up correctly. That isn’t too complicated; you just ensure it is powered by a socket and connected to a phone line. As soon as you have done that, you are ready to both send and receive.

To send a fax (with a traditional fax machine)

1) Place your document in the feeder. This is, essentially, no different from inserting a document into a printer. Most fax machines are ‘face up only,’ which is usually embossed into the machine, with a small arrow pointing upwards

2) Dial the fax number into the keypad. If you have extension numbers, include those also.

3) There should be a little button (usually green or red) that says ‘Send’ or ‘Go.’ Hit it.

4) The machine will scan through the document and eject once scanned. It is not uncommon at this stage to hear a few whirly beep sounds. That’s the signal receiver and modem doing its thing.

5) Confirmation will be printed out or displayed on the machine. If there are errors, this will also be displayed on the confirmation and will include Successful, user busy, or no number detected.

6) Don’t forget your original document!

Some machines are slightly different from others, but essentially, they all adhere to those five steps. Enter the document, hit the receiver’s number, and wait for confirmation. It’s as simple as that.

Send Through Online Fax Services

eFax is an entirely different process altogether. For starters, there is no actual fax machine to deal with because digital faxes are sent through smartphone apps or computers.

Most fax online is sent by scanning a document on your smartphone or uploading a document by attaching it to a computer browser. There are different services available, and each one is different; some are complicated and slightly cumbersome, others less so.

Fax Burner’s online fax service is reliable, fast, easy to use, and incredibly affordable. If you only plan to send a few faxes per month, we can provide a completely free service with no hidden costs.

For those of you requiring more frequent faxing, we have very low-cost monthly plans, which include an online fax number, and up to 2000 incoming and outgoing faxes every month.

Let’s take a look at how to send an online fax, using Fax Burner’s own straightforward, easy-to-use service as an example:

1)  Download the Fax Burner Faxing App onto your smartphone

2)  Open the app and select ‘compose’

3)  Send your document by entering your recipient’s fax number into the subject line of our email, and send

4)  To send the document, you can scan it from your handset or select it from your gallery or folder

5)  Hit send

What Does it Cost to Send a Fax?

Being connected to landlines, traditional fax machines will incur the cost of a dialed call – no different from an actual landline phone call. Obviously, it is impossible to state an actual cost per fax as we all have different providers with different rates. An approximate estimation would be somewhere in the region of a few cents per delivered fax.

That is assuming one single-page fax has been broadcast, with a regular amount of text or imagery sent out. If you are sending faxes with highly detailed images, they will take longer to broadcast. A highly detailed fax containing lots of heavy images might take as long as five minutes, in which case the cost could be approaching a Dollar or more per single-page fax broadcast.

Online faxing offers a far cheaper solution. Most online eFax providers will offer package-based pricing, enabling you to send a fixed number of faxes per month for a fixed fee. Usually, this equates to a few pennies per fax – again, that is a rough approximation for the sake of this article.

Some online providers offer free faxing solutions at a limited number per month, providing the fax is delivered with an advertorial of some description. That’s probably not a great look for sending commercial faxes.

Fax Burners pricing is highly budget-friendly, starting at just $12.95 per month for 500 delivered faxes, and that includes a toll-free number and unlimited support, should you need it. In addition, Fax Burner also offers free faxing – limited to 25 pages per month – without any catches, hidden fees, or adverts bolted onto your document—25 pages per month, totally free of charge, without any catches.

Online vs Traditional Faxing

What’s the difference between the two, and why use one over the other? The most striking, noticeable difference between the two is that sending and receiving traditional style fax requires an actual working fax machine connected to a phone line, with ink cartridges and paper loaded inside.

A fax machine requires the essential components mentioned above. On top of that, if you purchase the equipment, you are also required to use ink cartridges, which is part of the maintenance costs.

Which Service Should I Use?

If you plan to broadcast faxes in volume and on a daily basis, it would make sense to use a traditional fax machine if you are working in one of the industries mentioned previously – medical or law – and need to send regular, sensitive information.

We are not able to speak for other online services, but we can tell you that our online fax service is incredibly safe. If, however, you have highly sensitive information that needs broadcasting frequently, you might wish to use a traditional fax machine in order to be HIPPA compliant.

In all honesty, it does not make a whole bunch of sense to own and maintain a fax machine if you are outside of those needs. For occasional use, online faxing is a far easier solution at a fraction of the price compared to traditional faxing.


In summary, a traditional fax machine connected to a landline might be the best option for volume faxing sensitive information that requires meeting HIPPO standards and regulations. For everyone else who might send and receive faxes occasionally, an online fax service would be perfect.To start using our incredible service, sign up with Fax Burner today, download our app and get faxing in seconds!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *