Mobile phone and SIM card experience in France

[UPDATED 2007-08-17, and read the comments for more info] I expressly bought a triple-band Nokia mobile phone so I could travel to France and use it. The idea was that in the US, I have a regular subscriber account, and the SIM card I have in my phone essentially identifies me and my account. No need to change it, renew it, whatever.

When I landed in France, my phone immediately picked up Orange as the local provider (since it has an agreement with T-Mobile, my US provider). So in an emergency, I could already make a phone call (I forget the rates now, but it’s something above $1/ minute). Instead, what I had planned was to swap out my T-Mobile user account with a basic pre-paid SIM card – the type that you can buy for a certain amount, and you get up to that many minutes. Since I had never done this before, I had a few stutter steps in the process, and I’m listing my “learnings” below:

  • The three main mobile services in France are Orange, Bouygues and SFR (there are others).
  • You can go into any mobile sales center (of any of these services, or an independent shop that sells all of them), and buy a pre-paid SIM card. You get a phone number when you buy the card, and it works immediately. I got an Orange card that cost about 14 Euros for the card, and included about 5 Euros of time – which is only about 15 minutes (turns out my 19 Euro fee was based on a promotional deal – usually the combo can be 30 Euros or more – see below). You can add minutes to this card – but I’m not positive you can add minutes later easily (see below).
  • You can go into almost any bar-tabac or magazine store and buy minutes – for any service (e.g. Orange, Bouygues, SFR). What you get is a receipt with a code and phone number to set up your minutes. However, that’s only usable if you have a SIM card for that service already – even if you’ve run out of minutes on that card. However, these new minutes will change your phone number. Also – I learned the hard way – if you get it wrong (i.e. you don’t tell them the correct service) it is absolutely non-refundable (since you get a secret code number printed directly on the receipt).
  • I was looking for an Orange card, because … well, because that’s what I knew. So I was rather put out that 1) I was standing in front of Gare de Lyon – one of the busiest train stations in the world – and saw no signal (although my phone did work), 2) over 60% of the time I was on the train, going from Paris east to Geneva, I had no visible signal – even though everyone around me had a signal. Apparently, Orange’s network is not the greatest (is my personal experience) my phone sucks. It wasn’t a matter of poor network – my phone picked up other networks on various occasions. I think it has more to do with the fact that I did not have a fancy enough phone (i.e. I only had one of the working bands for France, and not both. Maybe I shoulda splurged for the 4-band phone…)
  • I was not able to send a text message right away. However, after a off-on cycle, it worked fine. (International SMSs never worked…)
  • For what it’s worth, when you are calling inside the country, most numbers in France start with a 0. (I.e. drop the country code (33) and add the zero.)

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2 Responses to “Mobile phone and SIM card experience in France”


  1. 1 smokinggoat August 17, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    A friend traveling in France had the following experience:
    The Orange card she bought for her phone was 30 Euros, and and extra 10 Euros for the minutes. Mine was 30 Euros including minutes, and I discovered on my receipt that I benefited from a promotional deal, so it only cost me 19 Euros (corrected above).
    In the instructions, she kept seeing references to her phone’s PIN – that she did not know. (Same happened to me, and I ignored it). Turns out, she didn’t need a PIN to add minutes, or do anything else for that matter. My guess is it’s because she had brought the phone from the U.S. – PINs are more ubiquitous in Europe, where cell phone theft is much more common.
    She could have continued to use her phone while she was in the UK – had she been able to read enough French to top-up her minutes via the online system (the local Orange UK codes for more minutes did not work on a French-based Orange SIM card).
    Purchasing the original card and minutes in the UK might have been considerably cheaper (free card when you purchase as little as 5 pounds of minutes) – and the phone would work in France. However, I don’t know if you get the same per-minute rate. I.e. you buy 10 pounds worth of minutes, which gives you (I dunno, let’s say) 40 minutes in the UK – but if you’re calling from France, you may only get 20 minutes because of higher cross-network charges.


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