TAPIF Tip/Lectrice Lesson: How to Set Up Your Cellphone in France

Setting up a phone number in  France should be the first thing you do once you get to the airport, because without a French phone number it is very difficult to find a place to live. There are many different options for cellphones in France, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. I am going to explain your need-to-know facts, my own personal cellphone situation here in France, and cheap ways to communicate with friends and family back home.

What You Should Know:

-There are several main phone companies in France, the most popular being Free, Orange, SFR, and Bouygues Telecom, and Virgin Mobile. All of these companies offer cellphone plans sans engagement, (without a contract). All of these companies also offer packaged deals for home phones, cable, and Internet (usually for around 19,99€ a month). This is something you should look into doing if you need to set up your own internet at your accommodation, because it saves you money in the long run.

-If you plan to bring your own smart phone from home, make sure it is unlocked for international use (You will have to call your phone company to do this, unless you have an iPhone 5 or above that is NOT with AT&T). Secondly, if you can, make sure you freeze or cancel your US contract.

-To set up a phone contract, you will need an address, so either use a temporary address (ie- a colleague’s) or buy a temporary SIM card for a few weeks and then set up a permanent card once you have your apartment sorted (that’s what I did).

-If you choose the latter, you should either go to one of the listed phone company stores (there are small boutiques EVERYWHERE) or go to a Tabac (basically a chain boutique that sells cigarettes) and ask for a SIM card, in addition to putting a net sum (ie: 20€ worth of calls or texts and 3G) onto the SIM in order to last you for a few days upon your arrival in France. Then simply insert the new SIM and use your American phone, and voilà, you’ll have a new French number. You MAY need to reset the network settings in order to have access to 3G, 4G, and the French cell phone towers. Once you have your apartment, bank account, and address in place, you can register for a monthly cell phone plan.

-If you don’t want to deal with a SIM Card, just go to one of the shops I mentioned above and buy yourself a cheap pay-as-you-go sans engagement track phone (mobile-carte from Orange works great). Simply put some money on your phone and then refill when you’re out of minutes (a great option if you don’t really use your cellphone very much!) .

Here’s What I did:

Initially, I had an unlocked iPhone and had a two-year contract with Verizon. Before leaving the United States, I froze my 2-year contract with Verizon, because Verizon gives the option of temporarily suspending a contract for 3 months at a time, with a maximum of two times (or 6 months) per year. So, my contract was frozen from September-November 2013, and then January-March 2014. During those six months I was not billed for my line on the family plan, but I was billed for December 2013, and April-May 2014, even though I was in France and not using my line (thankfully I was included on a family plan so it wasn’t astronomical.)

When I arrived in France in 2013, I headed straight to a boutique right around the corner, and was able to buy a temporary nano SIM Card (note- for iPhones you need a Nano SIM) for 20€ as well as unlimited SMS and MMS (calls and texts) for one month for another 20€, equalling 40€ in total. Then, for the next two weeks while I was staying in Normandy, frolicking around Paris, and spending long weekends in Lille and Nice, I was able to at least call and text.

Once I had my apartment and set up my bank account towards the end of September, I was able to order a new and permanent SIM card with Free, a popular cellphone company, and the one I recommend above all others.

With Free, for 19,99€ per month sans engagement, I can:

  • Make and receive unlimited phone calls (MMS) and texts (SMS) in France AND North America (US and Canada).
  • I also get 50GO of 4G data per month as well as 20GO of 3G data per month (yes, you read that right!)
  • Free also has no roaming charges– within the EU, you are allotted 35 days PER year PER country to call and text numbers in France as well as the country you are visiting, as well as use 3 gigabytes of 3G. (That means 35 days per year in the UK, 35 days per year in Belgium, 35 days per year in Italy, etc.)
  • You also have 35 allotted free-roaming in the US per year (so that also means free calls, texts, and 3 gigabytes of 3G at no extra charge!)

Another reason I chose Free is that it allowed me to keep my same phone number that I had on my temporary SIM card, which was a huge, since I had already given out my number to colleagues, landlords, other contacts, etc. and did not want to change it.

In order to purchase this SIM card, I needed a French address to which they could send the SIM, and a French bank account in order to make automatic payments every month. So, I simply created an account online, and my SIM card arrived within a few days. Then, I popped out my old SIM card, and popped in my new Free SIM card and voila! (Though I believe it is possible to keep the same SIM card– I had just by accident bought an original SIM with a different company.)

When I found out I would be returning as a lectrice, I decided to change my phone plan to the 2-euro per month plan for June, July, and August while I was home in the US. I simply popped out my Free SIM card, safely stored it for the summer, and popped my Verizon SIM card back in (remember, I was still under contract!). So for three months, I paid 6 euros to keep my phone number and plan in France. Then, upon arriving back in France at the end of August, I simply switched the SIM cards over again, and re-instated the 19,99 euros per month plan online. This time, I let my Verizon contract run out in November 2014, and then my number was officially eliminated from the family plan.

Free Apps To Use When Texting or calling Home:
There are plenty of free app to use when communicating with friends and family back home. Here are some of the ones I use:

iMessage & Facetime– These are Apple features- it’s basically like texting and video chatting between Apple users, but it’s free and is not seen as a text or phone call if it is used under wifi. For example, I can send and receive text messages or FaceTime a calls from someone using iMessage from my iPad, iPhone, iPod touch or MacBook, or and it can be sent to their iPhone, iPad, MacBook, or iPod touch. It all syncs and is just a really cool and useful feature!

Google Voice– Before leaving the US, I created a Google Voice number, which is basically a normal US number but is based on google instead of a Phone company. Then, you link your cellphone number to your Google Voice number (which is my local US area code), and then if people text my Google Voice number it goes straight to my cell phone. I basically just downloaded the Google Voice app onto my iPhone, and voila, I can call, send and receive texts for free! Even better, my friends who text my Google Voice number do not worry about international charges! I also listed my Google Voice number on resumes, so potential employers could call that number and contact me in France!

WhatsApp and Viber– Whatsapp is for texting and calling and Viber is for calling. You download the apps for .99¢ (though I believe Viber is now free) and then you find all of your friends who are also on WhatsApp and Viber (you can link your Facebook and Twitter contacts) and then you can text each other for free within the apps, no matter where you are in the world. FYI, everyone in Europe uses Whatsapp. I’m not sure why it never took off in the USA.

Skype & Google Hangout– Both of these are free video chat apps and work on any mobile device, tablet, laptop, or desktop. Both are free to use and work under 3G or wifi. All you need to do is create an account and then add your friends! Again, with Skype you can sync your Facebook friends to find more people to connect with! Note: In order to have Google Hangout you need to have a gmail account, or a Google+ account. But, you can chat with up to 8 people at the same time, which is pretty cool!)

Social Media– Do I even need to mention blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Vine, etc.? It is easier now more than ever to stay connected!



22 thoughts on “TAPIF Tip/Lectrice Lesson: How to Set Up Your Cellphone in France

  1. Hey Dana! Thanks for the post; it’s very helpful! Question: I am living in the housing provided by my school, which does not have internet. I’m thinking about getting this same Free plan and just using the mobile hotspot on my iPhone 5 to get internet onto my laptop. Since I am applying to law schools while living in France, having internet I can access via laptop is absolutely necessary. Do you think the 50 g a month is sufficient, given that I will be using this as my sole internet source? I’m guessing that it will be, but I’m wondering what you think. I noticed that SFR offers a plan with 100 g of data, but no free calling to the US. Thanks!

    1. Hello! Thanks for reading!

      I guess I will be frank and say that if my school provided housing did not provide Internet, I would not put up with that and I would find my own place. My first apartment didn’t have internet and I tried to deal with it like you did (but this was before Frances large data plans) and I lasted about 2 months. With that being said I understand that assistant salaries are low… and that 50g should be more than enough if you aren’t streaming movies. I find 4G in France is great but is still slower than US LTE and 3G… and France 3G is terribly slow.

      Anyways, hope that was helpful! Good luck!

  2. Hi Dana,

    Do you know if you could set up the plan with an American credit card/bank account, and then switch the payment method once your bank account is set up? I already have my address set in France so I was thinking it might be nice to just order it before I get there and have the SIM card waiting for me when I arrive, and then change my payment information when I get my bank information. But I haven’t seen anything online on whether that’s possible, so I thought I’d ask! Thank you!

    1. Hmm… I’m not sure if that is possible. For some reason I think that it wasn’t possible when I did it, but by all means go ahead and try. France is slowly globalizinG 🙂

      Otherwise,e buy a temporary sim at the Airport for a few days and then top up until you’re settled. Hope that helps ! X

  3. Hello Dana,

    You’ve totally reassured me and you’ve given quite exceptional information! Mille fois merci! I have a quick question. Do I need to have a bank account to get a permanent SIM card and phone plan? I was lucky to get housing at a lycée–so I have an address–but, I don’t have a bank yet.



  4. Dana, thank you so much for this post! I am getting ready to leave for le Nord to do TAPIF in 2 months and figuring out phone stuff was on my to-do list for today. By far this was the most helpful post I have read on the whole phone business! Merci!

      1. I will be in Arras! And you? (I’m sure I can peruse your blog a bit more and find out, but I just thought I’d ask. 🙂 )

  5. Hi! This is super helpful! I’m just wondering if your Free SIM card worked when you visited other countries? Were you still able call, text and use data for the same price? Was there any change in quality of service when you were somewhere else? Thanks!!

    1. it works in other countries but it does cost a bit more money (though I could upgrade my plan though i choose not to…) it really depends on the company but I’ve heard Sosh (which is the budget brand of Orange) has cheap international plans. I’ve only used Free so that’s all I can tell you… although most home phone lines (which are free with an internet box in france) can call North America for free. With my plan i can also call the US for free on my cell phone.

      Free also has a deal which gives me 35 free days a year of data in Belgium, since I live right by the border. Hope that helps!

    2. Hi, just an update- Free company now has international roaming. Free calls and texts to France and to numbers within that country and 3G for up to 35 days within a calendar year. Hopefully others will soon follow!

      I can always call US and French numbers for free, but US texting is about 19 cents if it’s not an iPhone. I just use whatsapp and Facebook 🙂

  6. when you say “reset my network settings to activate the 3G on French cellphone towers”, is it as simple as Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings? did you also have to do this when you installed the initial SFR card or only when you got the permanent Free one?

    I’m okay with technology but I’m so anxious about getting over there and discovering that for some reason I can’t use my iPhone 5 because I forgot to anticipate some
    aspect of it.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly what I did. Just with free because my temporary SFR card didn’t have any data . Until I was established with free I just called and texted and used internet Under wifi

  7. Is it necessary to do the temporary SIM card? I would think so, seeing as you stated that the permanent SIM card had to be sent to your address and you won’t have a permanent address for a few weeks. It just seems easier to do one step: a permanent SIM card. Also, you mentioned a package deal of phone plus internet. Do the apartments not usually come with wifi in the included utilities?

    1. It’s honestly luck of the draw when it comes to internet and apartments- the packaged deals is usually for home phones.

      If you have somewhere you can stay for a few days or weeks you can send a sim there. I was traveling for two weeks, for me it was better to do what I did!

  8. Hi, thank you this is so helpful! I’m going to be doing TAPIF next year. I was wondering, have you found that the 3go of data is enough per month? Or do you know around what that’ll give you? I’ve always had unlimited so I don’t know if this gives you plenty of access per month or just enough for once in a while. Thanks in advance!

    1. If you have wifi at home, I found that 3go per month is plenty, given you’re not streaming 3 hr Movies via Data on your phone. Actually, Free doesn’t charge for going over data- it just gets slower 🙂 but now that they have a 4G option you may want to do that once you’re here!

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