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Prepaid Phones in France: How to talk for cheap in France

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If you are staying in France for at least a week, it is well worth getting a prepaid French SIM card to use in the country. Find out everything you need to know about pay-as-you-go phones in France in this guide.

Why Get a Phone While Visiting France?

From making hotel or dinner reservations to checking opening hours for museums, there are plenty of reasons why it helps to have a French phone number while in France.

First of all, long-distance and roaming charges can get expensive. Having a French telephone number will allow you to make phone calls in France for relatively cheaply, and several prepaid plans offer special rates for calling abroad.

What's more, if you are spending a bit of time in France, you may find yourself using your phone more often than you think you would have; while France is an advanced, Western country where Internet use is widespread, you may have already noticed that French websites are often not updated frequently, and may post incorrect hours or visiting information. Having a phone is useful for checking business hours or opening hours for museums, along with confirming reservations and appointments.

If you are moving to France, you may have noticed that a French telephone number is required in many of the bureaucratic processes that you will have to endure. Buying a cheap, pay-as-you-go phone for your first month in France can be a helpful short cut when tackling the legendary bureaucracy.

How the Mobile Phone Market Works in France

Mobile phone providers in France

There are four main mobile phone providers in France, along with several smaller providers and low-cost offshoots. Each major provider has its own network, and smaller providers rely on one or a combination of the major provider networks.

The main cell phone providers are:

  • Orange (pronunciation: "Or-rawnj"): Formerly France Telecom, Orange is the biggest mobile phone provider in France. The company offers both postpaid and pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan options.
  • SFR (pronunciation: "Ess-eff-air"): The second-largest mobile phone provider in France, SFR offers both prepaid and postpaid mobile phone plans
  • Bouygues Telecom (pronunciation: "Boo-eeg tel-eh-com"): Bouygues Telecom is the third largest mobile phone provider in France, and offers both pay-as-you-go as well as postpaid mobile phones
  • Free Mobile (pronunciation: "Free moh-beel"): The most recent mobile provider, Free mobile offers low-cost postpaid mobile phone plans, sans engagement (no contract)

Of the smaller mobile phone operators in France, the following offer pay-as-you-go mobile phone plans:

  • La Poste Mobile (pronunciation: "La poh-st moh-beel"): La Poste Mobile relies on SFR for its coverage. You can purchase credit for La Poste Mobile in any post office in France.
  • NRJ Mobile (pronunciation: "Energy moh-beel"): NRJ relies on Orange, SFR, and Bouygues Telecom's networks for coverage.
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There are some providers specialize in prepaid SIM cards and credit. Lebara Mobile is one such provider, and specializes in providing low-cost international calling and data, making them an interesting option to check out. While online-based (there are no physical Lebara stores in France), Lebara has an English-language website for France. You can also purchase Lebara SIM cards in many newsagents and supermarkets across France.  

Choosing a Pay-as-you-go Phone in France

While pay as you go phones are a useful way of getting a phone number quickly, rates are often somewhat confusing to read and difficult to compare. Finding the answers to the following questions will help you get a better idea of which prepaid phone offer is best for you:

  • Cost of the SIM card: How much does the SIM card cost? Are any minutes included already (crédit d'appels inclus)?
  • Connection fees: Does the provider charge a fixed amount just to connect the call, or is billing per second (décompte à la seconde dès la 1ère seconde)?
  • Recharge fees: How much does it cost to recharge credit on the phone?
  • Credit validity: For how long can credit be inactive before it expires?
  • Voice messaging (messagerie vocale): Is it possible for people to leave a message on your phone when you are unable to take a call?
  • Cost of data: How much does it cost to use data?

Need Data?Postpaid plans offer much more generous data allowances than prepaid phones, but are only an option if you are staying in France for an extended period of time.

Purchasing a Mobile Phone in France

Purchasing a mobile phone in France is easy. You have several options for purchasing a new phone to use in France:

  • Mobile phone shops: The Phone Shop sells mobile phones and pay-as-you-go phone credit from multiple French mobile phone providers
  • Electronics shops: FNAC and Darty sell mobile phones
  • Mobile phone boutiques: Orange, SFR, and Bouygues Telecom have physical boutiques where you can buy a phone and credit
  • Post offices: La Poste Mobile sells phones and recharge credit in post offices throughout France
  • Tabacs: BIC (yes, the pen company!) has a low-cost phone that comes completely ready to use (pre-charged and with some credit)

While prices can often be very reasonable, we don't recommend buying a phone from an online marketplaces like LeBonCoin, as you often don't know the origin of the phone and have no guarantee that it will work correctly.

You may be required to show a piece of ID (passport, identity card) when you buy a phone and credit. If you are staying in France for an extended period of time, you can also purchase a phone through a mobile phone plan (see below). As some phones are only compatible with one type of service (pay-as-you-go or postpaid), make sure to specify which type you would like.

How to Use a Prepaid SIM Card in France

All you need to get started using a prepaid SIM card in France is your phone (which should be unlocked or otherwise able to be used in France), and some ID (your passport, for example). You can get a prepaid SIM card and credit from a mobile phone provider's boutique (Orange, SFR, or Bouygues Telecom), from an electronics store (Darty or FNAC), tabacs (tobacconist), a post office, or from larger supermarkets. Regardless of whether you need to by a phone or if you have one already, we recommend buying your prepaid SIM card from a larger electronics store or from a provider boutique - you'll be more likely to find someone who speaks a bit of English than in a supermarket or a tabac.

Once you've found someone who can help you, explain to them that you are looking for a prepaid phone (portable prépayé). If you are lucky, the salesperson might help you set up your new phone (if you've bought one) and French SIM card. If not, fear not! Setting up your phone with a French SIM card is fairly straightforward: simply note down the phone number associated with the SIM card (your "zero-six", or "zero-sept"), insert the SIM card into you're phone, and you're good to go!

Purchasing Prepaid Phone Credit in France

Tabac in France

Look for a tabac sign to find phone credit

The easiest place to find recharge credit is in a tabac (tabacconist). Credit comes in specific amounts: €5, €10, €20, etc. Make sure to ask for credit from the provider associated with your SIM card. Your credit may come in the form of a card, or a receipt. Recharge credit cards usually have a scratch-off strip that has the code number for your credit. Receipts will have a lot of text on them, but look for the phone number to call (usually a three or four digit number) and the long code number to enter for your credit (usually 10 digits).

To top up your credit, simply call the phone number (calling your provider to top up credit is free), and follow the instructions before entering your credit code. The instructions will be in French, so you may want to ask a French-speaker to help you if you have trouble following the instructions.

You can also purchase phone credit online on the website of your provider. This can be helpful if you are looking for a specific type of recharge credit (e.g. data, international calls)

To check your credit, simply call the free number provided to you by your mobile phone operator. Some providers will send you a text message to alert you when your credit runs low. The validity period for credit will vary depending on the provider and the amount of credit purchased, so make sure to check. Most providers will close the account after six months of inactivity, which is something to keep in mind if you are planning to reuse your SIM card at a later point and wish to keep the same phone number.

Travelling to Other Parts of Europe?Your French prepaid mobile phone will still work in most European countries, and you should be able to purchase credit with a partner provider to use on your French phone.

Is a Prepaid Phone Worth it?

Staying in France for Three Months or More?It's worth signing up for a postpaid mobile phone plan if you are staying in France for an extended period of time. Over the long run, postpaid plans are cheaper than pay-as-you-go and offer better calling time/data allowances. Call our English-speaking customer service line at 09 77 55 72 27 (Monday - Friday, 9:30 am - 7:30 pm) to help you find a plan that meets your needs

Pay-as-you-go or a Postpaid Phone Plan?

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If you are just visiting France, your best bet is to go with a prepaid phone plan. A pay-as-you-go SIM card is easy to set up, and you can find prepaid credit in tabacs and supermarkets throughout the country. Many providers offer prepaid credit with cheap calls abroad and/or data allowances, making a pay-as-you-go SIM card a practical and cost-effective means of communicating in Europe.

That being said, purchasing prepaid credit can be costly and time-consuming over the long run, and if you are staying in France for three months or more, you're probably better off getting a postpaid phone plan with a French mobile phone provider. Most operators offer at least one plan that is sans engagement (without a contract), meaning that you can end the plan at any time without penalty and with relatively little hassle. Rates are generally quite low, calling time and data allowances higher, and many providers offer free calls to international destinations. However, this option is only available to you if you have a French bank account, which is why it is only an option for people with medium to long stays in France.

Alternatives to a Phone

You have a few options if you're not sure if you want to get a burner phone or a phone plan in France. Note that most of them require Internet access (find out where to find free Wifi in France), and are most practical if your stay in France is short term:

  • Smartphones/iPhones: you may be able to get by using Wifi hotspots and making calls via apps like Whatsapp and Facetime. Keep in mind that you will not be able to make free calls to landlines in France with this option. Make sure to turn off the roaming settings on your phone to avoid expensive roaming charges when you get back home. 
  • Skype: if you have reliable and frequent Internet connection, Skype is cheap and can work well as a replacement for a French telephone number. 
  • International calling cards: you may be able to purchase an international calling card/plan from your home provider that will allow you a certain amount of calling time and/or data while in France. Make sure to check how to do this before you arrive in France
  • Rent a phone in France: some travel concierge services may allow you to rent a phone for the duration of your stay in France. Rates can vary. Search "rent phone France" to find some of the companies that provide this service
Glossary of Telephone Phone-Related Terms
French Phrase English Definition French Phrase English Definition
Débloquer Unlock (when referring to a phone) Sans engagement Phone plan without a contract, meaning you can end it at any time without penalty
Carte SIM SIM card Prépayé Prepaid (pay-as-you-go)
Forfait Phone plan Sans engagement Contract-free