August 8, 2007

Getting French cell phone numbers

Even though we’d figured out how to get “regular” telephone service in France before we left (see Taking our phone service with us (or not)), we knew we’d both also want cell phone service. We could have waited until we got here to figure it out, but we weren’t confident enough in our French to be able to deal with all the jargon we’d inevitably encounter at the local cell phone store. Plus, we felt it would be useful to have functioning cell phones as soon as we hit the ground—without paying huge roaming fees to continue using our U.S. numbers. So we did some research into how we could make that happen. If you’re planning to travel to France and want to have a French cell phone number, the following information may be useful.

GSM: The first important thing to know about cell phones in France is that they all use the GSM standard—unlike in the U.S. where there are several competing technologies. So you need to have a GSM-capable phone. In the United States, AT&T/Cingular and T-Mobile have GSM networks. We had both been Cingular customers since way back, so we had GSM phones already.

GSM uses different frequency bands in different areas: 850 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 1900 MHz. Some GSM phones work on just one or two of these bands; others (usually called “world phones”) work on three or all four. France uses 900 MHz and 1800 MHz, whereas the U.S. uses 850 MHz and 1900 MHz. So it’s possible to buy a GSM cell phone in the U.S. that won’t work anywhere else. I had a tri-band phone (a SonyEricsson T68i, which uses the 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz bands) and Morgen had a quad-band phone (a Motorola RAZR V3), so we were both also set from that angle.

Unlocked Phones: GSM-based phones have a little removable chip called a SIM card that tells the phone things like what its phone number is and who that number belongs to. You can, in principle, get service from a new carrier, along with a new number, simply by purchasing a SIM card and popping it into your phone in place of the old one. That was exactly our plan: keep our phones, but get new SIM cards from a French provider. But most phones you buy in the U.S. have what’s known as a carrier lock, a special setting that prevents the phone from working with SIM cards from any carrier other than the one that sold it to you. The rationale is that the carriers usually sell phones very cheaply (or even give them away), assuming they’ll more than make up the difference over time with your monthly phone bills. But if you could use another provider’s SIM card, your original carrier would lose the ability to charge you for all those minutes. So they lock the phones to prevent this from happening. There are various methods to remove carrier locks—some totally legal and aboveboard, others more dubious. But we’d paid extra, when we initially bought our phones, for fully unlocked models straight from the factory rather than getting them from Cingular for exactly this reason: we wanted to have the freedom to switch networks whenever we wanted.

So we knew we were all set on the hardware side (apart from needing electrical adapters for the chargers—easily obtained for a few bucks at our local Radio Shack). Next came the SIM cards themselves.

French SIM Cards: We were happy to discover that multi-year contracts are not the norm in France (though certainly you can find them if that’s what you really want). Instead, most people use prepaid SIM cards. Buy a card with, say, a few hundred minutes of talk time, and then recharge it as needed, purchasing only as many minutes as you want (with prices typically decreasing as you buy more minutes). We both spend very few minutes per month on our cell phones anyway, so that seemed to be the best strategy.

A bunch of companies sell prepaid French SIM cards (and, of course, cards for other countries too) directly to U.S. customers. (Do a Google search for “France SIM card” and you’ll find more than you can imagine.) We understood, of course, that we’d be paying a premium over what the same cards would cost in France, but we felt the convenience would be worth it. After considering a number of options from providers such as Telestial and InTouch (both of which use the Orange network), we settled on cards from CellularAbroad (which uses the SFR network). The cost was $69 per SIM card, including an $8 airtime credit.

One of the things that attracted us to CellularAbroad was that they offer pre-activated SIM cards, which means that you can get your French phone number before leaving the U.S. Ordinarily, you can’t activate a SIM card (during which process you learn your new number) until you land in France. The other thing we liked was the SFR network, which according to what we’d heard anecdotally seemed to have better coverage within Paris than Orange. (I’m still not sure if that’s true, but I can say that coverage has been outstanding everywhere we’ve gone so far.)

Although the specifics vary from carrier to carrier and plan to plan, the way our cards work (which is not unusual) is that all incoming calls are free, regardless of how long you talk. You pay for outgoing minutes (deducted from whatever you paid to recharge the card) at the rate of €0.55 per minute for calls within France and €0.75 per minute for calls to other countries (including the U.S. and Canada). Incoming SMS messages are also free; outgoing SMS costs €0.15 per message within France and €0.30 per message internationally. Voicemail is included, and you can roam (for an additional fee) to most other European countries and Australia. Unfortunately, with this plan we can’t use our French SIM cards when traveling back to North America.

Recharging our phones with additional airtime credit is a simple matter of picking up a little card called SFR La Carte, which is available in denominations ranging from €10 to €95, and which you can purchase at just about any local market, cell phone store, or tabac (tobacconist—but really, more of an all-purpose convenience store). What we did was pick up cards in the checkout line of our local Monoprix supermarket. They were scanned along with the rest of our groceries, and then we got a printout, with our receipt, containing the number we have to enter to add the new credits to our phones.

There is a catch, though, which is that any unused credit expires after a period of time ranging from 15 days to 4 months, depending on the value of the card you buy. So, if we don’t use up our €25 in 2 months, we lose that credit—and our phones stop working. The SIM cards themselves, though, remain valid for 6 months even after you run out of credit, and as long as we recharge it during that time, we can return our phones to service, using the same number.

So far, we’ve had relatively few occasions to use our cell phones, but they’ve been very handy to have in certain situations. I’ll be eagerly awaiting news on iPhone availability here in Europe, because my poor old T68i is really showing its age and I’d love to replace it with something modern and full-featured. Whether or not I actually buy an iPhone will depend somewhat on the cost of service here, about which I haven’t even heard any rumors yet.

12 Responses to “Getting French cell phone numbers”

  1. Florian SEROUSSI said:

    If you want to get an international SIM card with a French number you can simply buy a CelTrek SIM card online. You will be able to pick a FRENCH incoming number on your new international SIM card. Check us out

    Florian SEROUSSI

  2. Arne said:

    Apple says it will be launching the iPhone in Europe in the fourth quarter. “No one mobile operator covers all the most populous markets in Europe. T-Mobile is present in Germany, the U.K. and eight other countries, but not the large markets of France, Italy or Spain. In France, Vodafone only has a minority holding in French operator SFR, while Orange, a subsidiary of France Télécom SA, is not present at all in Germany or Italy.”

    It will be interesting to see what they come up with for pricing for France.

    Hacking the iPhone to Work in Europe

    French Phrase Book

  3. Joe Kissell said:

    This is posted on behalf of Trevor Dayneswood, who experienced some trouble with our anti-spam software (sorry about that!):

    I think that much of what you’ve described applies, not just to France, but to much / most of Europe.

    I didn’t know that the US uses non-GSM bands; I did know that the US GSM bands are different from the European ones. I think it strange that N.Americans (inc. Canadians) pay to receive calls on a mobile phone (we don’t call them ‘cell phones’), but then the caller can’t tell from the number that he is calling a cell phone. In the UK (and I think in most of Europe), it’s always “the caller pays”, i.e. it costs more to call a mobile phone than to call a landline – but the caller does not pay to receive any calls / texts (except ‘premium texts’ sold as a commercial service) provided they are in their home country. If the caller is roaming – i.e. outside their home country – then the user pays to receive calls, which is fair enough as the caller does not know you are abroad. (This isn’t as clear-cut as it sounds when you are near a country border, as the strongest signal may be from the neighbouring country. Even in Jersey – the original one, not the ‘New’ one – one of the British Channel Islands off the north coast of France, at certain points on the coast the strongest mobile phone signal is from France 14 miles away, rather than from within the island (which is only 9 miles x 5 miles in size.)

    This system of ‘the caller pays’ works because (at least in the UK – don’t know about France) the caller knows he is calling a mobile number because the numbers are distinctive: all mobile numbers begin “07xx” whereas regular UK landline numbers all begin “01xx” or “02xx”. So the whole system works on a different basis from that in the US. Again, personally, I find it strange that US cell phones have a regular Area Code, becuase, by definition, cell / mobile phones are not tied to a specific area.

    I’m surprised you can’t use your French SIM cards in N.America. Is that becuase you bought them there and/or just a restriction by your ‘phone company. In the UK, we can generally use them world-wide, the only restrictions being compatibility between the GSM bands and which foreign companies your provider has arrangements with. We don’t get charged a fee to be able to roam (altho’ you may need to have the account activated to permit roaming, especially if it’s a credit account) – we just pay A LOT (!) more to use the ‘phone – send and receive – when roaming.

    In the UK we have both monthly credit contracts (usually min 12 – 18 months) with a set monthly fee including a fixed number of ‘free’ minutes / texts, and pre-pay SIMs as you have. For occassional use, pre-pay is cheaper, but for greater usage monthly is cheaper. Pre-pay amounts can be bought in the manner you describe for France, or by pre-registering a debit/credit card with your ‘phone company and then dialling a special number, or by debit/credit card through the company’s web-site. Yes, pre-pay numbers do tend to expire after significant non-use as they may have been replaced by someone getting a new number with another company, or just being used as a ‘throw-away’ number. I guess this is analogous to a contract or land-line number being re-circulated if the contract expires.

    Hope these comments put a slightly ‘European’ perspective on the issue, as distict from a purely French one.


  4. Arne said:

    You wrote, “Whether or not I actually buy an iPhone will depend somewhat on the cost of service here, about which I haven’t even heard any rumors yet.”

    Here is a short article about potential problems for announcing service plans in Europe because of trademark issues according to “anonymous sources”.

  5. Henri Dominique Rapin said:

    You’ll find a script to change all phone numbers in the Address Book.

    you can removed the first caractere of the phone number ( a zero) and replace it with the country code ‘+33’ for France and ‘+44’ for UK. That can help and avoid to add the country’s code every time you call another country.


  6. Arne said:

    There is an article entitled “European iPhone carrier deals signed?”

    Orange is not confirming the rumored deal with France so no rates are known yet.

  7. gipsy said:

    How does one know if the cell phone is ‘locked’.. Mine comes up with Cingular logo..(even though its now ATT!!) Does that mean its locked?

  8. Joe Kissell said:

    gipsy: If you bought your phone from Cingular, it’s virtually certain to be locked. The procedure to check varies from phone to phone, but Cingular could certainly tell you if the phone has a carrier lock. They might be willing to remove it, too, if you’ve completed your contract – but they might not. Alternatively, lots of companies offer unlocking services for a modest fee; a Google search should show you numerous options.

  9. gipsy said:

    I am totally confused by all of this cell phone sim card business, so I think I will just buy a cell phone in France and be done with it…at least then it will have the right stuff on it!!

    I actually have a little pay as you go phone in the UK that I keep there for when I ‘m there as perhaps thats the way to go..

  10. Joe Kissell said:

    gipsy: Just because you buy a phone in France, doesn’t mean it won’t have a carrier lock – it still might. The lock is simply a way that a carrier can guarantee you keep paying them every month, rather than one of their competitors, and the rationale is often given that if it weren’t for the lock, they wouldn’t be able to give away phones, or sell them at heavily discounted prices, because they factor in those ongoing monthly bills when computing the price. So, you’ll usually pay extra for an unlocked phone, because you’re not getting the carrier’s subsidy, but then you can use it with any carrier.

  11. gipsy said:

    Well I paid a couple hundred dollars for mine…so maybe its unlocked..who knows..I will call them tomorrow to find out…. I did have a look in the back and it has a cingular chip under the battery that is removable, so perhaps its ok…. How are you getting on anyway..Are you more organised now??

  12. Joe Kissell said:

    gipsy: The Cingular chip under the battery is the SIM card! But, my point is, if the phone is locked to work only on Cingular, then you can’t just replace that with someone else’s SIM card – the phone won’t recognize it. See what Cingular says, but I wouldn’t count on the phone being unlocked just because you paid a lot of money for it.