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 Google.com/voice 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!