(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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.