SIM card for travellers to Paris with iPhones

6 October 2013TechnologyTravel

I previously wrote about my experience getting a temporary mobile phone plan in London. That experience was relatively straightforward once I figured out how to obtain top-up credit vouchers. After spending a week in London, my trip took me to France for ten days. Based on my pre-trip research, I anticipated a more complicated process in France, which turned out to be true, but not for the reasons I initially expected. Here are the steps I took to get service for my iPhone 4 while in Paris:

  1. You will need an unlocked phone.

  2. Unlike the United Kingdom, where I was able to purchase a SIM card from a vending machine, France seems to have much stricter regulations about who can obtain SIM cards and where you can obtain them. I read stories of travellers having to wait in long lines at mobile carrier stores only to be told their newly-purchased SIM card would not start working for several days as documentation needed to be mailed to the Government. Luckily this wasn’t the case for me, as my SIM started working as soon as it was installed in my phone. What was difficult however, was finding a mobile carrier store of one of the four main French carriers: Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, and Free Mobile

  3. For whatever reason, relying on Google Maps or Apple Maps to locate one of these retail stores was very unreliable. On our first evening in Paris, we tried locating four or five stores from the various carriers. In some cases, the map directions sent us to places where no buildings even existed, in other cases they sent us to stores which had been recently shuttered. We eventually located a Free Mobile store just as they were closing for the night. The security guard wouldn’t let us in to the store, but I was able to ask an employee about getting a SIM card. He was very helpful, but explained that Free Mobile SIM cards can only be obtained by applying for them via their web site and shipping the card to a French address. This obviously doesn’t work well for international travellers, so we gave up on Free Mobile.

  4. After some further research, I found an underground shopping mall called Le Forum des Halles located about 15 minutes away from the Louvre on foot. The nice thing about this shopping mall is that it houses several carrier stores in close proximity, so if one doesn’t work out you can easily try another. I ended up at Bouygues Telecom first, as they clearly advertised pre-paid mobile plans on their website.

  5. Having located a store, it was then a matter of waiting in line for about 30 minutes while customers in front of me were served. There were only two employees in the store, and they take a very hands-on approach to customer service. You essentially have to wait your turn, then have a dedicated employee to ask questions of. Definitely a different experience from walking into retail stores in North America.

  6. When it was my turn, I used my somewhat broken french to ask if it was possible for a visitor to purchase a SIM card and a pre-paid phone plan. I believe my exact words were: “Est-ce que c’est possible pour un visiteur d’acheté un carte-prépayé?” To my relief, the woman that was helping me replied “Oui, bien sure!” (“Yes, most definitely”) and it was then simply a matter of providing a French address (I used the address of the apartment I was staying at) and my passport (a driver’s license might work as well, but I didn’t try) for them to copy. It took the employee about 15-20 minutes to set up the new account on her computer, but once she put the new SIM card in my phone everything worked well.

  7. I went with the “Formule 24/24” 10-day pre-paid plan for €15 (plus €9.99 for a SIM card). They offer different pre-paid plans that range from 2 days to 3 months, so pick one that works best for your visit. Included in the plan was 300 MB of data, unlimited calls within France, and unlimited text messages within France.

Another Option for those with a UK SIM Card

For those who are stopping in London prior to arriving in France, there is an alternative to getting a SIM card from a French mobile carrier. T-Mobile UK sells broadband travel boosters, which can be funded using the same top-up credit vouchers that I mentioned in my previous post. For France, a broadband travel booster costs £10 for 50 MB, so it is definitely more expensive than getting a local mobile plan, but it might still be cheaper than roaming on your North American carrier’s plan. When you first arrive in France and try to access a website, you will be redirected to a T-Mobile UK page from which you can purchase the travel booster. I can confirm that this method works, as I used a travel booster during my first day and a half in France prior to getting a local mobile plan set up.

For those that try to get a mobile phone plan while in Paris, good luck and happy (connected) travels!