Getting a cell phone in France: SIM cards, unlocking, carriers/plans, texting internationally, and more!

I think this post gets the award for longest title!!

Shortly after I got accepted to the program, I started thinking about what I was going to do for a cell phone once I got to France.  I knew I wanted to be able to stay in contact easily with my friends and family, and not be dependent on video chatting on my computer while I was at home.  My then-future roommate and I talked a lot and looked into a lot of options and decided on Free Mobile.

Free is a cell phone company that has a great plan that is perfect for Americans living in France!  With my cell phone plan, I get: unlimited calls to both cell phones and landlines in France, the US, and Canada; unlimited calls to landlines in 41 other countries; unlimited regular texts and picture messages in France; 3G Internet up to 3GB; and unlimited access to Free WiFi in various places around the country (although I’ve never bothered to figure out how to access it).  And all of that costs…are you ready… 20 euros a month!!

It might sound too good to be true, but I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s not.  I think Free Mobile is kinda like their version of Virgin Mobile, although that exists here too.  However, the service is not perfect.  Sometimes calls to the US randomly get dropped, and the 3G isn’t amazing; sometimes it’s pretty slow and it doesn’t cover everywhere, especially in buildings.  But it works great for texting using apps or browsing Facebook and Twitter (although pictures are slow to load), which is mostly what I use it for, and it also works well with Google Maps and finding your way places when you inevitably get lost.  My mindset is that I am able to text the US for free (more on how I do that later in the post) and call the US as much as I want without paying extra, so if a call gets dropped and I have to call back every so often, I’m okay with that!  It still amazes me that I can be walking around France and talking to my mom with perfect call quality.

Free is an online-only company, with no brick-and-mortar stores, and this cell phone plan goes month-t0-month instead of using a two-year contract.  Didn’t I tell you… perfect for assistants!  Almost all of my assistant friends here have Free; only a couple use a company called Orange, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  I think you can buy a cell phone from Free, but what I and nearly all of my friends here did was use our phones from our home countries.  However, to do that you have to use a phone with a SIM card, and get your phone unlocked for global use, which can be kind of tricky.

It’s mostly smartphones that have SIM cards, and if you’re going to get the same Free plan I got, it includes 3G so you’ll probably want to have a smartphone to take advantage of it.  Also for texting the US using apps!  But again, more on that later.  So before embarking on this journey, make sure your phone has a SIM card slot, or get a phone that has one!  You also need to make sure your phone can be used on networks in Europe.  Most carriers in the US (Verizon, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular) use CDMA networks, while AT&T and T-Mobile GSM, which is also what Europe uses.  So I believe if you have an international phone through one of the CDMA carriers (for example, I have a Droid Incredible 2, which can use both CDMA and GSM, even though it’s Verizon) you’ll be fine, or if you have any phone from AT&T or T-Mobile you’ll be fine.  I think.  I’m no expert.  To learn more about the different networks, you can read this article or just, you know, Google it.

I have Verizon in the States, so I can only speak from experience about them, but my roommate has Sprint (and an iPhone 5, so that must be capable of using GSM) and he unlocked his phone as well.  Every company has different policies and it can be kind of difficult to figure them out and get your phone unlocked, but if you manage it, it’s TOTALLY worth it!  What I did was call Verizon’s global services number (1-800-711-8300) and ask them to unlock your phone for global use.  In order to do so, you have to have your account’s password and be a customer in good standing: been with Verizon for a certain period of time, be up-to-date on your payments, etc.  I can’t find a list of the requirements on Verizon’s website anywhere, because they DON’T want you to unlock your phone and use it with a different carrier, but I just called the general Verizon customer service number (1-800-922-0204) and they told me the requirements and gave me the global phone number to call.  They CANNOT unlock your phone for global use in the stores.  Don’t even try.

So a few weeks before I left, I called the global number and asked them to unlock my phone for global use.  I did NOT tell them I intended on cancelling my contract, because I feel like that would make them less willing to unlock it for me; I just told them that I was going to be traveling in Europe for a few weeks and wanted to get a SIM card while I was over there.  They gave me a a long unlock code number to use once I got over there, and that was it.  Oh and if you don’t want to cancel your contract, I believe you can “suspend” it and not pay while you’re gone, then reactivate it and keep the same number once you get back.  But my mom took care of that so I’m not knowledgeable about it. 🙂
Once I arrived at the airport in Paris, I bought a pay-as-you-go SIM from a tabac (tobacco shop) in the airport.  Pretty much every tobacco shop sells SIM cards and also can sell you more minutes for your card.  Make sure you buy the right size: there is a regular SIM size, then also micro and nano SIM.  Most phones take a regular SIM, including mine, but my roommate’s iPhone 5 takes a nano SIM.  It took me a while to figure out how to make it work, but I finally got it.  I had to enter the unlock code that Verizon gave me and also change a few other settings, but I can’t remember what they all were…sorry!!  I think I went into “Wireless & networks” and changed my preferred network to GSM, and then went into “Security” and “Disable SIM card lock.”  Maybe then is when I had to enter the code from Verizon?  I’m not sure.  I used that temporary SIM card until I got my Free account set up.  I waited until I had my French debit card (more on getting that in another post) because I thought you had to have a French account, but one of my friends said he used his Canadian debit card, so I guess that’s possible.

Once you set up your account and order your correct size of SIM, it will be sent to you in the mail.  You just put it in your phone and it basically works!  You can even transfer an existing number that you have to your Free card; for example, I wanted to keep the number I had gotten with my temporary SIM since I had already given the number to people.  I just waited until my phone stopped working with the temporary card (because the number had been transferred) and then put in the Free card.  They give you a PIN (I think it’s always 1234 but you can change it) that you have to enter the first time you put in the card, and whenever you turn it on/off or take it off Airplane Mode.  You also have to set up the 3G thing so that you can have Internet on your phone.  There are directions in the letter that comes in the mail with your Free SIM; you have to set up an APN, which I’d never done before (mine was through “Wireless & Networks”, then “Mobile Networks”), but I figured it out with the directions and haven’t had a problem since.

So that’s how to get cell phone service with an American Verizon phone through Free Mobile!  However, there are other options.  You can get a Mobicarte through Orange, which is basically a pay-as-you-g0 card that you put in your existing unlocked phone, or you can buy a phone from them.  Or one of my friends got a legit cell phone plan through them and bought a phone for cheap with her plan, so that’s an option.  Some other cell phone companies here are Virgin Mobile, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, or B & You, which I think is very similar to Free.

I mentioned texting the US for free; I use two different methods.  For people with smartphones, I use Whatsapp.  It’s a free app that you can set up with either an American or international number and then you can text other people who have the app for FREE.  It works just like texting as far as beeping or whatever when you have a new message, and you can even send pictures through it!  However, my parents and boyfriend don’t have smartphones, so with them and other people that I don’t want to ask to download an app to talk to me, I use Google Voice.  Google has a wonderful option where they give you a free US phone number, as long as you request it!  If you’re in the States, you can forward it to an existing US number so when people call you, your usual cell phone will ring.  This is a good option like if you’re selling something on Craigslist and don’t want to give the world your real phone number.

For Google Voice, you have to set it up while you’re in the US, so make sure you do it before you leave.  I thought I had already signed up (I hadn’t…) so my friend Jennie set it up for me after I arrived in France.  You do have to enter an existing US number when you get it, so she put in her number, then we just changed the option to “do not forward any calls” so that isn’t a problem.  For texting, there are several apps you can use.  At first I used Talkatone, but then I started having issues with it so I switched to the actual Google Voice app, which I still use today.  Sometimes I run into problems, like it not notifying me when I have a text, but that only happens when somehow the “Background data” setting gets switched from enabled to disabled, but once I figured that out I haven’t had any more problems.  Jennie uses an app called “Imo” I think with her Google Voice number.

So Google Voice gives you an American number.  You can choose your area code and even your number, I think, if it’s available of course.  I just chose the area code from my American cell phone and a random number, but Jennie has hers spell her last name.  Then you give people in the US that number and they text it just like any other number.  Then the text goes to your app, and you can respond basically instantly!  It’s amazing.  You can’t send group messages or picture messages but WHO CARES I’M TEXTING 4000 MILES AWAY IN A MATTER OF SECONDS WOO HOO!!!!!!!!!!!!  You can also go to and text from your computer, which is surprisingly convenient when you’re working on your computer or your phone is having trouble charging, like mine does.

I think there are other ways to do a similar thing, but I haven’t looked into them because Google Voice works well for me.  I think two that some of my friends use are Pinger and Heywire.  Oh and if you have an iPhone you can use iMessage but I’m not that fancy.

Whew, long post!  Hopefully this helps at least a few people figure out how to get a cell phone in France and stay in contact with people back home.  Feel free to comment with any questions!

Categories: Assistant Helpful Information | Tags: , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “Getting a cell phone in France: SIM cards, unlocking, carriers/plans, texting internationally, and more!

  1. Annick Tobojka

    Hi Kelsey,
    Thank you so much for a most informative post on Cellphone use etc… in France.
    I am truly impressed, not only by the information but also by your generosity and willingness to share and caring.
    I am definitely saving this for future reference as my husband and I will soon be expats in France.
    Most cordially,

  2. Erin

    This post was extremely helpful! Thanks!

  3. Reblogged this on Soul Searching In Paris and commented:
    This is the most useful post I have come across! Study abroad students read! 🙂

  4. Amy

    Hi Kelsey!
    I’m going to be an assistant in just a few short weeks, and I wanted to let you know how helpful this particular post was for me today. I called Verizon after reading your post to figure out and confirm what I was planning to do, and they were impressed with how much I already knew, which was all thanks to this post. With the overwhelming nature of so much of this program, this made me feel a lot better.
    ~a very grateful future TAPIF-er

    • Haha 2 comments on this post in 2 days… clearly it’s almost TAPIF-time!! I’m so glad it was helpful to you and I hope the process works as swimmingly for you as it did for me. I know it’s overwhelming, but it all works out. Where are you placed/going to be living?

      • Amy

        Haha it’s really becoming crunch time now! Starting a blog is on my mile-long to-do list! I’m getting slightly nervous because it’s starting to feel very real haha. I’ve been placed at the Lycée Joliot Curie in Sète, right on the Med! Have you been there?

        • FINISHING my posts on this blog has been on my mile-long to-do list… maybe these recent comments will be my kick in the butt to get it done… you know, now that I’ve been back for over a year! Surreal. Man I’m failing. Haha.

          I just looked at where Sete is on the map and no, I never made it down that far, but I LOVED living on the Mediterranean! Such an awesome experience for this Midwestern girl!

          • Question for real life living down there haha: what was the weather actually like? How cold did it get in the winter? I know that it’s not summer all year round, but I’m trying to pack and finding it a little difficult haha (especially since I’m not exactly a light packer…) Any advice?

            • Ugh, packing was the worst! It was pretty nice when I got there until maybe November or so. You’ll definitely need a winter coat, especially if you want to go skiing or travel to less-temperate places, but I would just buy one there so you can fit in and save room in your suitcase. It snowed a little bit in February or so, once, but it didn’t stick. I left at the beginning of May and it hadn’t warmed up that much yet–I was wearing a fleece jacket most days, I think. It never got frigid or anything though–boots, jeans, and a winter coat were plenty for even the coldest days.

    • Cara

      Hey Amy!

      I have a question for you actually… haha the current TAPIF-ers. How did Verizon handle this process with you? I have Verizon as well, and I was going to call to get the unlocking code but I don’t want my phone shut down until I get there safely. Then my parents were going to call since they’re head of the account and shut down my account that point. Do you think this will work? I’m curious if Verizon gave you stipulations like you had to do it in advance and stateside, etc.

      Any advice from your conversation with them will help me for mine! Thanks 🙂

      And thanks again Kelsey for all this information to start with!


      • Amy

        Hi Cara!

        Haha I’m honored to be answering a question, considering I feel like I’ve been asking all of them. 🙂

        I’m hoping this will help…here’s what I did regarding suspension of service: My dad and I called Verizon (he needed to be on the phone, too, because the account is under his name) and basically explained the situation that I was going abroad for about a year. We then asked what our options were, knowing that we wanted to suspend service, but wondering if they had any other suggestions. The woman started talking about global plans, which we said no to, and then we got to talking about suspending service. The woman informed me that you can initially suspend service for a 90-day (3 month) time period. Then, if you still need to suspend it for more time, you can re-suspend it for another 90-day period. I’ll be there for 8 months if I come back on the return date I booked, so this only will cover 6 months, but it’s still a pretty great thing, I think. Side note: These 6 months don’t count towards your 2-year contract though, so regarding upgrades and stuff, I’m pretty sure that time period doesn’t count.

        So all my dad had to do was give the woman the date on which he wanted to suspend service (the day after I arrive), and she put it in the system to shut my phone service down on that date at midnight. My dad will have to call again three months from then to re-suspend service for another 90 days.

        Okay, regarding the unlock code: my situation was a little tricky for this reason, only because of the type of phone I had. I had a straight up iPhone 4 (not a 4s), which does NOT have a place for a SIM card. Aka if I did what Kelsey was suggesting with Free, which I really wanted to do, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to use my iPhone. However, I had been looking into upgrading anyway, and the 5c was on sale, so I got it. When I asked the woman about how I would unlock the 5c when I got to France, she told me it is already unlocked because of the fact that it’s “globally equipped”. It is both CDMA and GSM capable. (Kelsey mentioned these in her post). So she told me I wouldn’t need an unlock code. She said if I had a problem, I could call international customer service when I got over there. So with the 5c, I can pop out the SIM card and replace it with both a temp SIM card and a more permanent SIM card from Free Mobile. So this is my understanding haha, as long as she knew what she was talking about – sounds like she did.

        Heres the number for verizon global tech support: 1-800-711-8300. I started off by calling the regular verizon wireless customer service number, then I called global. The woman at the regular number actually helped me a little more than the other woman, but global tends to know more about that stuff.

        Good luck and have an awesome year! I’m starting to freak out a bit haha!


  5. Cara

    Wow this is so helpful!! I am leaving in 11 days for the assistant program up in Caen. Either way I was planning on just purchasing a plan once I got over there, and someone had mentioned the SIM transfer to me. But this is great that I have all the details now! Thank you so much for your help and insight!

    a slightly nervous but very excited TAPIF asst.

    • Ahh, best of luck in Caen! I was there for just one night so I could see the museum/D-Day beaches, but it was so historical and old and cool. I hope you love it! I’m glad my post was helpful (I don’t even remember all the details anymore, so I’m glad I wrote it down, haha) and if you have any questions or anything, feel free to ask! Best of luck to you!!

  6. Hi,
    Did you use you USA phone number over there or get a french number? Im looking through some of the sim only plans and they say “new number” or “existing number” dont know if i can use my verizon USA number over there

    • Sorry for the late reply! if you get a French SIM card, it will give you a French phone number; your American number won’t work in France. When they’re talking about “new number” or “existing number” they mean do you have a French number already (like for someone switching providers). Hope that helps!

  7. Caitlin

    This article seriously helped me SO much.. I just moved to Paris and am depending on very sketchy wifi to keep in touch with back home. It is quite frustrating!! Free has gotten great reviews from many people, but your article just convinced me to look into it. 🙂 Thank you!!!

  8. Hey Kelsey

    I’m preparing to move to France in the fall and I stumbled across your blog yesterday. You have no idea how happy I was to read this post about cell phones! Also, I noticed in your post about things you missed in the U.S., you mentioned butterscotch chips and a couple other things. Well, I found this website today for this company out of Toulouse that imports American goods and ships them to customers in France. You should check it out. Looks a little expensive, but it probably beats the price of getting someone to ship you a care package from the U.S.

    God bless!

    • Yay I’m so glad my posts have been helpful! Feel free to ask me anything you want to know too.

      I actually heard about that website awhile ago but have never looked at it; I might have to check it out to get my butterscotch chip and Stovetop stuffing fix! Thanks for the info 🙂

  9. Dad

    Simply stated; well done Kelse.

  10. Hey, yours is not a random number! I put 47s in there for good reason 😀 I vote not going with Orange because it blows major chunks and they steal your money. I’m not going to elaborate, but DON’T GET ORANGE. And their agents in store are mean. They made me cry.

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