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French Mission #1 – Getting a French SIM Card, Prepaid Plan and Phone Number (Completed)

Self-portrait, Château des Ducs, Nantes
Self-portrait, Château des Ducs, Nantes

I have a certain number of “missions” to accomplish when I go to France. Some are related to my “French citizen abroad” status, like renewing my passport, while others are just for my own convenience such as bringing my favourite French products back to Canada or getting my annual dental checkup in France (healthcare professionals are less pushy here!).

This year, the first mission was to buy two French SIM cards and prepaid plans to use our smartphones during the trip.

I rarely travel with my phone because I consider it an optional device and roaming features are very expensive in Canada. Last year, I purchased a CA$100 30-day Travel Pass with Virgin Mobile, my former Canadian provider, with 100 minutes and 1 GB of data included. It was convenient to be able to check my email from my phone, like I do at home—I’m still working when I’m on “holiday”…—but Virgin screwed it up and cut me off much earlier than agreed upon.

I switched to Videotron last fall and their roaming plan is prohibitively expensive so I decided to buy a French SIM card for the summer. I did some research and asked plenty of stupid questions on forums before the trip. “Can I just bring my Canadian phone and get a local SIM card? Is it technically doable?”

Apparently, yes and yes.

Oh, stop laughing. I’m really not into phones.

Feng and I packed our respective smartphones and decided to give it a shot in Paris. “Europe is light-years ahead of what North American can offer!” I promised. “Shouldn’t be too hard to find a cheap prepaid plan.”

The first thing we saw at Charles de Gaulle Airport was a Relay (newsstands) advertising cheap SIM cards and prepaid plans. “Wait a second,” I told Feng. “Gonna see if I can buy one…”

“Sold out,” I reported two seconds later.

Damn. Maybe it wouldn’t be that easy after all.

On my first afternoon in Paris, I compared offers, trying to figure out how it worked and what was included, but retailers couldn’t answer my basic questions—they sell SIM and prepaid cards like they sell magazines and cigarettes, period.

In the end, we visited a Bouygues store a block from the hotel and we found we seemed to be a good deal—a two-month prepaid card with 5 GB of data, unlimited text messages and calls in France for €40. The SIM card was an extra €15.

Deal.

A Bouygues employee helped us switch the SIM cards and twenty minutes later, we had two prepaid plans and French cellphone numbers.

Lesson learned:

  • You do need to physically remove your Canadian (or foreign) SIM card and replace it with a French SIM card. Tip: bring an envelope or a small box to store the unused SIM card!
  • You will get a French cellphone number, i.e. a ten-digit number starting with 06.
  • Your phone is still the same, with all your apps, contacts, etc.
  • The main providers are SFR, Orange and Bouygues. Other options include Lycamobile, Sosh, NRJ Mobile, etc.
  • Prepaid cards can be bought in newsstands, online (if you have a French address) or in any cellphone provider stores (only the main ones have a brick-and-mortar store).

This turned out to be a very straightforward French mission. European telco providers are cheaper, more competitive and more reliable than in Canada and I’m using my smartphone more than in Ottawa.

However, there are two issues unsolved. First, getting a local SIM card is only manageable if you travel to one specific country. I can’t imagine buying a new SIM for each country if you spend two weeks in Europe, two weeks in Northern Africa, etc. Second, the two-factor authentication method many email or service providers seem to favour won’t work—if I’m locked out of my Gmail account, for instance, a PIN code will be sent to my Canadian phone number, not the temporary French one.

Newsstand in Nantes
Newsstand in Nantes

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