Cell Phones in France: Staying In Touch On Your Trip To Paris

Paris Sunset

(Note: Some of this information was updated in January 2011. Plans and policies are all subject to change and revision by the various providers. Some updates are at the end of the post.)

If you’re traveling to, and within France, many folks like to stay in touch with home, or want to be able to make and receive phone calls and get messages. So why not pick up a pay-as-you-go phone?

You purchase the phone (most start at 20€) then buy minutes in increments from 5€ to 100€ at any phone store, which are good anywhere from a few weeks to several months, although they do expire at a certain point.

The three principle phone companies in France that offer pay-as-you-go mobile service are:

-SFR

-Bouyges

-Orange

You’ll need to show your passport when buying your phone and signing up for service. When you buy your phone, there are certain phones that are compatible with pay-as-you-go services, while others aren’t, so you’ll need to let them know what kind of service you want.

If you’re French isn’t very good, many of the young people that work in the various mobile phone boutiques in Paris are often interested in practicing their English (yes, really…) and if you get a good one, they can be really helpful. My success rate is about 50/50. And unless you like lines, avoid going first thing in the morning or during lunch hour(s). The other companies mentioned offer similar pay-as-you-go as well at the same price but Orange and SFR have the most locations around France.

Once you buy the phone, you’ll need to buy and load in minutes. You can do this at any phone store and most Tabacs, as well as at some guichet automatiques, or ATM machines. With Orange, for example, you’ll get a receipt with a 16-digit number which you enter into the phone (dial 224 first).

You get three tries, so don’t mess up!
If you do, quelle dommage…you lose the minutes.


    Advantages

  • You get your own phone number (all mobile numbers in France begin with 06) that you can hang on to as long as you want. If your minutes expire and you don’t recharge after a certain period of time, you lose your number and will get reassigned another the next time you visit.

  • You can receive incoming calls from anywhere in the world, free. (In France, you only pay for outgoing mobile phone calls.) You can make calls internationally at the same rate that Mobicarte calls cost.

  • All calls within France are included at the same price.

  • You can buy as much, or as little time, as you wish. If you’re here for 2 weeks, you can just buy 45 minutes worth of calling time. If you need more, just stop in any Tabac of phone store and buy more in a few minutes.

  • Since none of the public phone booths take coins anymore, you don’t need to make a special trip to the Tabac to buy a phone card to use one.

  • You can use the phone over and over, on every trip during your lifetime. In other countries, you can buy a SIM card to transfer the phone service to their system.

  • You can have the phone set in English, so the on-screen instructions are in easier to understand.

    Disadvantages

  • French cell phones can be notoriously quirky. I’ve had several different phones, and many times my phone doesn’t ring if someone calls. More often, there’s no notification that I have a new message, so I have to call and check my voicemail every so often.

  • For Americans who are used to very low-priced cell phone calling, the price here is 6 times more expensive, so you may not want have a long, leisurely phone conversation. But remember, you only pay if you initiated the call.

  • France uses 220V, so you’ll need to recharge your phone in France, not in the United States. I recommend fully-charging it before you leave, so you can use it when you step off the plane on your next visit, if you need to.

  • The mobile phones are overly complicated. You have to scroll through a gazillion menus to get to what you want and press a lot more buttons too. And your phone number isn’t displayed, so you need to write it down elsewhere. (When I asked why, I was told it was “For security.” When I asked what kind of security that provided, they simply shrugged.)

  • The functions are not always explained with on-screen commands, so it can be frustrating to figure out how to do simple tasks like how to change your outgoing message or delete messages, which took me 2 years of asking at the different Orange boutiques to figure out…which no one seemed to know, oddly enough.

Updates

Competition has come to the French mobile phone industry and Virgin Mobile, as well as others, are entering the fray. The prices are similar but worth checking out.

A company called Call In Europe offers SIM cards and inexpensive calling plans, which you can arrange in the United States prior to your trip. Another service is Cellular Abroad, which rents phone for international use and sells various phones with international coverage and SIM cards.

If you have a laptop, Skype works very well and is inexpensive. All you need is an internet connection and a microphone or a laptop with a microphone embedded in it. Skype is also available for iPhones and you can use it wherever there is a WiFi or internet access.

BIC and Orange France have introduced a simple cell phone that’s sold pre-loaded with 60 minutes worth of talk time, for about €30. You’ll get your own number immediately and the phone can be recharged. The phones can be purchased at most Orange boutiques, in train stations and certain tabacs. These are quite easy to use and a good solution, especially since the phone can be reloaded with minutes, as you wish.

For those interested in knowing about their iPhones, check out the article: Using an American iPhone in Europe Without Going Broke, which has options and suggestions for saving money and which phone settings work best to avoid charges.

A company called My Travel Mate offers smartphones to rent on a daily basis with data packs and internet access. Rates start at 5€/day. Other companies that offer phone rentals, some with internet access. (Check fees, which can vary.)

La Poste, the French post office, now sells in addition to calling cards, mobile phones and pay-as-you-go cards and plans from various operators.

How to find and use Wi-Fi in Paris will help those looking to get connected to the internet in Paris.

22 comments

  • Just an added FYI: If you have an unlocked phone, you can usually buy just a sim card instead of the mobile phone, just check with the mobile store representative. I also find it easier and more reliable to buy the phone cards at FNAC as my local Tabac was always out of phone cards and no reason why.

  • Hi Cathy: They’ve done away with the plastic phone cards, and now you just get a receipt-like piece of paper with the recharging numbers on it. FNAC scares me, especially that one in Les Halles, which is so far underground, it’s hard not to panic.
    Where’s the exit?…help!!

  • Yeah, how exactly do you pronounce “Bouyges”??
    We never bothered getting a mobile phone when we moved to France 3 years ago. We can’t use one in our house because the walls are too thick and if we want to make a call from home, we have to walk to the edge of the village!
    Your chocolate tours look amazing. If I ever have the chance, I’m signing up!

  • Don’t most cellphones come with a 110V – 240/250v , 50-60 Hz power adapter? I bought a Samsung phone in London that came with the big UK plug but it was compatible with all outlets when I went to North America, Asia and Europe (you just need the plug adapter). I wanted to walk into the Orange store but was just a little intimidated and with my halting French, I might be conned into buying mounds of minutes I’d end up wasting so I just used my roaming minutes from my US carrier.

  • Bouygues (buig) Harrap’sphonetic symbols

    or – boo as in “boot”
    – ee as in “bee”
    – g as in “bug” …voilà!

    this reminds me of the extraordinary time we had -my British friends and I- when I tried to pronounce” Worcester sauce”!

  • sorry… WorcesterSHIRE (sauce) !

  • When I was in France last month, all I needed was my Cingular phone. For an additional fee, you can have international calls/ roaming enabled. While I was in Paris, the phone service was provided through Orange’s mobile network.

  • I was in your adopted city (as I’ve written before) in April. (4th time). I didn’t get a phone, but I sure felt lost without one. I was able to cheaply, very cheaply, call my husband at home from my girlfriend’s Skype account with whom I was staying. But, I felt kinda lost without a cell phone while I wandered around the city on my own. I got used to it – and it was fine – but I probably would get a temp phone for the next trip.

  • Another commenter mentioned earlier that you can just buy minutes if you already have an unlocked phone. All of Europe runs on a GSM network, usually on the 900 and 1800 megahertz frequencies. Cingular and T-Mobile are the only US carriers who use a GSM network. If you have a phone from Verizon or Sprint/Nextel it will not work anywhere in Europe. Usually, 90 days or so after phone activation, Cingular and T-Mobile will give you a code to unlock your phone if you request it. This is usually called an “unlock code” or a “subsidy code.” To be sure that your phone will work in Europe, make sure that it is GSM (Cingular or T-Mobile) and uses either the 900 or 1800 megahertz frequencies. To see if your phone does this, look up the model on the internet and see if it is either a “Triband” or “Quadband” phone. Triband will almost always have one or both of the European frequencies and Quadband will always have both.

  • If you bring your wifi-enabled laptop, you can use Skype, free. There are many places in Paris with free wifi or you may pay a nominal fee for access. If you have Vonage in the states, they now sell a USB adapter that you plug your headphones and microphone into which you can use at an internet cafe or on a laptop.

    With SkypeIn, you can receive a local number and voicemail in your choice of countries for around $50 per year (30 Euros).

  • Skype is great (which I use all the time) but you need to schlep your laptop and USB headset, plus your computer needs to be on. Since I have a Mac, if I get a call, I have to scramble to plug in the headset, re-set the preferences, etc… Skype works well about 87% of the time, but I’ve had times when there’s system problems. For the price, it’s great. But if you’re expecting a phone call while travelling, it’s not so convenient.

    If you’re making reservations in Paris, or in France, they like a French number. Plus you can give the cell phone number to friends back home if you want to be always reach-able.
    Don’t know much about those triband phones, but some have hefty roaming charges, so yes, it’s worth checking before you leave.

    (And Janet, don’t worry; most of us Americans can’t pronounce, or spell, Worcestershire either…let alone explain what it is!)

  • David, is that FNAC store location you describe “Where’s the exit — help!” the underground shopping right near St. Eustache and Rue Montorgueil at the Metro for Les Halles? Lovely shopping underground…enjoyable. NOT. Get me to the metro and get me outta there. Je comprends!

  • Really interesting this..I was stuck in Paris with a couple of phone cards and they often didn’t work. I used a cyber cafe everyday but it was dreadful to be at the mercy of the defunct phone booths and spend precious hours at cyber cube. Lots of useful info here to plan ahead for next trip. Thanks

  • Skypes lastest news release says they are about to introduce the world’s first wifi phones! Now thats something to ring home about! But at what cost?

    go to: http://about.skype.com/2006/07/introducing_the_worlds_first_w.html

    So this means you would have your ‘normal’ cell phone…and also your special ‘wifi’ cell phone. Word is..as long as you can pick up a signal you can dial out…no matter where you are!.. either paying low low rates (thanks Skype) …or connect to the receivers computer…

    Ohhh – its just so high tech these days!

  • When last in the U.S. I bought a T-Mobile phone (because I wanted to have one there) that, I was assured would work with my SIM card here in France. I needed a new phone here, as well. My old one died. I had it unlocked and was all set. My SFR card would not work – they said the phone was blocked. I took it to Orange and it worked with their employee’s card – once, and with my newly purchased card – once. But no one could get it to work a second time. Another technology mystery! (The employee pointed out that with my ‘newly purchsed’ card I could get a fancy new Orange phone for 1 euro…duh! Sometimes the obvious alludes us)

  • Carol: Those cyber cafés are rather dreadful here, aren’t they? All that smoke too. Ick. Get thee to Orange!

    Narelle: I’ve seen those Skype phones advertised. I think they’re around $150-ish, but you need to be in a Wi-Fi area, and although there are a few hotspots here, they’re not as prevalent as in the US.

    Katie: Sorry you had so much trouble with your phone. But all those different systems perplex the heck outta me too. Glad you found someone helpful to assist you.

  • after all these years, i still wonder if my annual pilgrimage to france warrants a sim card purchase to use with my mobile (unlocked, so any sim card will work, woohoo!) or not… dilemma, dilemma…

    maybe next trip, i should just get one without second thought!

  • Another tip when traveling for recharging phones and batteries is to bring a recharger that plugs into the car lighter socket, which are the same on both sides of the pond.

  • Another phone you can try is Mobal (mobal.com). There you can purchase a phone that will work in Europe for about $50, with pay as you go minutes. Or you can get one that will work in Europe and North America as well, for about $90 I think. It gets great reviews.

    And I totally concur about Les Halles’ FNAC. It’s a deathtrap.

    Lesley

  • JUST FYI .. people traveling from USA & other Countries, can get a local French SIM card even before they leave for France from: http://www.rebelfone.com/

    Its always an advantage to know your local number even before you leave.

  • I am thrilled to see a current 2010 update for cell phone/SIM card “on the go” usage.
    THANK YOU FOR THIS TOO ALONG WITH EVERYTHING ELSE YOU EDUCATE US ALL ABOUT.

    UPDATE on your update. I tried to scrupulously follow your tips from here in NYC but didn’t get to yes – no doubt my errors. I called “Call to Europe” and “Cellular Abroad” – not so keen – person who answered didn’t know if other SIM cards could be used or only their own but thought any card would be OK. I asked him to check and when he came back on the phone he said “No maybe only ours has to be used.” Also, seemed kind of expensive at about $75.00 including postage to the U.S. and this comes with an “empty” sim card for which they send you an invoice of charges they make against your charge card at about $.40 cents a minute.

    Your idea of BIC and ORANGE.FR sounded the best as you mentioned yourself on your UPDATE. BUT…BIC has no U.S. contact number nor even one in Paris (It must be me) and I couldn’t find a tel number for any local ORANGE boutique (just the numerous addresses). They have a France Telecom Tel Number here in NYC on AVenue of the Americas but that number is out of service.

    So….I guess the bottom line is – can you please provide some specific telephone contact information for ORANGE France (I speak French) at one or two of their main locations? I’ll be staying the 7th for a few weeks in October/November — would love to run over and get set up with local cell phone usage – without too much hassle and expense.

    Thank you again for everything you do…and how much fun you make it all. Look forward to y our signing in NYC at Borders….
    Denise

  • Hi Denise: Unfortunately many French companies are difficult to reach by telephone. And many have ‘customer service’ numbers that cost even within France (they are ’08’ numbers) so perhaps they can’t be accessed from outside the US. I don’t have the phone number for Orange.

    Your best bet is to wait until you come to France and stop in a boutique; there’s lots of them in Paris, and you can locate them via the Orange website.