How to Set Up Your Cellphone in France


It’s been a long while since I’ve made a “TAPIF/living abroad” kind of post. I was actually a bit hesitant to do so, considering that for many of us, we’ve already been settled in France for several months now, some of us even leaving within the next month or so to return home!

Nevertheless, I would still like to continue with this “TAPIF tip” post, since I think that it would benefit a lot of soon-to-be-accepted assistant(e)s de langue for the following year. Having done this program for almost two years now, I’ll do my best to tell you what I know about having to deal with bureaucratic and just-technical aspects of moving and living (legally) abroad. Especially when it comes to France, the level of paperwork and whatnot can get so ridiculous that having a guide written by someone who’d been there and done that would’ve be so helpful back in the day, when I was first starting out!

…anyway, I digress. This post will be about how to set up your cellphone while abroad, because aside from doing things like banking or housing, getting a French SIM card and number is a very important step in securing your life in France, at least in the short-term.

Considering that you’ll be abroad for several months, having a French SIM card is essential when it comes to calling, texting, and using data without worrying about getting charged an exorbitant amount from your respective country’s cellphone carrier. Not only that, but also you’ll need it to communicate with your colleagues, your friends, other assistant(e)s if you’re ever in a pickle (which will be sure to happen at some point during your stay).

That said, where to get started? By having a physical cellphone, of course. You can take your own mobile phone abroad and use it there, as long as it’s unlocked and everything. My smartphone is currently under Verizon, which had already been unlocked when I moved to France, so I had no trouble using French SIM cards to call and text people when needed. However, it’s best to make sure before you leave that it’s unlocked: just go into your local provider’s store and inquire about it, or just quickly Google search the answer (ah, the power of Internet in this day and age!).

Once you arrive in France, it’s best to secure a French SIM card as soon as possible, going into any one of the several leading French phone providers within the first few days of landing to get at least a prepaid one to last you a month or so as you’re figuring out other things, again, like banking and housing. I would strongly advise you to go for a temporary, prepaid SIM card, instead of rushing things and getting a monthly plan, because 1) you might not be sure that the provider you chose will be good or not, and 2) you’re still figuring things out and things will changed, which might affect your cellphone plan. Once more, a month’s worth of prepaid SIM card service should do the trick.

There are a few common French phone providers which people–the French and foreigners alike–tend to use: these include Bouyges Telecom, Free, Orange, and SFR. All of them come with their different deals, packages, and service, so it’s a matter of doing your research, going door-to-door in their stores to browse through and inquire about the pros and cons of each. Some will be more expensive than others, but at least compared with cellphone plans in the United States, I’d say that they’re significantly less expensive.

Aside from choosing your cellphone provider, you’ll also need to decide whether you want a phone plan (“forfait”) or not (“sans engagement). It’s a matter of knowing if you’ll be using your phone a lot for calling and texting, or relying more on Wifi to communicate via social media, e.g. Messenger, Line, Whatsapp, etc. If you choose to go for a forfait, then you’ll need to have a French address to refer to when applying for the SIM card: you can put down the address you’re living at (if you’ve already found a place, that is) or a temporary one (you can always change it later).

Final thing to note is that the SIM card should be able to fit inside of your phone: especially if you have an iPhone (I believe), it has a smaller holder for the card to go into. From what I’ve seen, French SIM cards come in different sizes which can be adjusted according to your phone, so it shouldn’t be a problem. This is just a warning to those who might think that all SIM cards are the same!

Personally, what did I do in France? During my first year as an assistante, I went to the closest phone provider store located the town over from where I was living and teaching (seriously, my town had no phone providers AT ALL). I opted for a one-month, prepaid SIM card, which was quite pricey at 49,99 euros (my dad paid for it- thanks!), but any case, it worked like a charm: I was able to call and text my colleagues and assistant(e)s friends to go out for outings, hang out and whatnot.

Once my one-month limit ran out, I had the choice of either 1) staying with and getting a forfait with the provider (SFR) or 2) changing to a different provider. I chose the latter, getting Free which was very popular among the assistant(e)s for being the cheapest option, but also offering Wifi hotspots all over France, along with a mind-blowing 50 GB of data…per month. All for 19,99 euros per month.

HOWEVER, I had problems: I got a forfait with Free, but for some reason, I was unable to access the 50G of data I was entitled to. Not only that, but also I had compatibility issues with the texting service: I could receive texts, but I couldn’t text back- in other words, my messages were always never received, by colleagues and friends alike. I even went into the store several times during the month of November to inquire about it; I even had the store worker reset EVERYTHING on my phone, thus wiping out all I had on there…to no success. In the end, I begrudgingly accepted the fact that I was paying 19,99 euros per month on a provider that wasn’t compatible with my phone. Kind of shitty, but I managed; I just ended up bumming off Wifi wherever I went to keep in contact with people while traveling- at least I could still make phone calls on there!

At the end of my contract in France, I cancelled my cellphone plan with Free, considering that I wasn’t sure that I would be returning to France the following year and didn’t want to pay 19,99 euros per month just to keep the line open. With Free, you’ll need to write an actual letter (hard-copy, not electronic) and mail it to them to tell them to cancel your forfaitI did that right before I left, and it worked out perfectly.

Now, second-time around in France, I’ve changed my phone provider and also my forfait. After a unsatisfactory experience with Free last year, I decided to go back to SFR. Luckily, my town this year is a bit larger than that of the last, so there are actually phone provider stores here, including SFR. I went into the store about a week of getting into France and just like with last year bought a one-month, pre-paid SIM card to use while I figured out what I wanted to do with my cellphone for the rest of the year (and also set up a bank account). It was about 39,99 euros for one month; after that one month ended, I just recharged it for another month, then afterwards decided that I would just use it as a “pay-as-you-go” SIM card. In other words, I would choose to recharge it whenever I needed to, and the rest of the time rely on Wifi. Granted, the disadvantage is that I can’t call or text people (although funny enough, I still can receive texts and phone calls even when I’m not on the plan). Besides, when I recharge, it’s only for a few days (if I’m traveling) and ranges anywhere from 5 to 10 euros each time, so it’s really saved me money in that respect. Minimalist, much?

Essentially, everyone will have their different preferences on how to go about setting up their cellphone, so don’t feel oblige to take my experience as yours. Don’t feel pressured to rush into getting a forfait or anything within the first month of moving to France: you have the liberty of picking and choosing what you want, switching out if necessary, as long as you don’t choose a forfait in which you’re locked to begin with.

That’s about it for me! For other assistant(e)s and individuals living in France, let me know if you have anything else to add to this post, experience-wise or logistic-wise. I’d be curious to find out!

À bientôt.


— Rebecca

4 thoughts on “How to Set Up Your Cellphone in France

  1. Completely agree with you that it’s worth shopping around and not signing up to a plan straightaway! I ended up buying a cheap phone when I first moved out to France to work as an ELA in Alsace, as I completely forgot to unlock my UK phone. I still have two phones now in France – the French one for calls and texts and the UK one for wifi. Not the most practical solution, but it works for me. I have a pay-as-you-go account with Bouygues, and interestingly they require a French address even for pay-as-you-go accounts. When I arrived in Lyon I hadn’t yet found a place to live, so I just gave them my old address in Colmar which they said was fine (since they don’t send anything to it, it’s just for reference). I top up my phone with 10 euros every two months, which gives me unlimited texts but only 30 minutes of calls; since I don’t make many calls it works for me, but I guess it might not be enough minutes for some. I didn’t want the hassle of a monthly plan (or the added faff of cancelling it), so this was the best option for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having two phones can be advantageous, in the case that something happens to one phone that you have another as backup. Interesting that Bouygues requires an address for reference: I have SFR for pay-as-you-go, and I don’t recall having to fill in anything to obtain the SIM card. I’m currently off without a forfait, so perhaps I’ll top off later. Nice to see someone else who’s doing the same thing in France!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good point! Yes it was – and only a home address would work, their system couldn’t accept a hostel/ hotel address. They didn’t really seem bothered by the fact I gave them an address I lived at two years ago though!

        Liked by 1 person

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