The cell phone you use every day at home just might work while you're visiting France. It has to fit various standards first, however, and the roaming fees might be insanely high. Or it's possible you can get onto a French network for far less money. Find out how and if you can use your cell phone in France.
First of all, for the phone to even work at all in Europe, it must meet all of the following standards:
- GSM - OK, it may sound like Greek to you, but this is a major term to know. GSM, short for Global System for Mobile Technology, is standard in Europe. While some English-language countries commonly use this (the U.K., for instance), many phones in the U.S. are not GSM. The carriers that either use GSM or are switching in the U.S. are AT&T and T-Mobile. If you have a newer phone from these carriers, you probably have a GSM phone. If you have Sprint or Nextel (now owned by Sprint), you likely do not have a GSM phone. They do sometimes offer GSM phones for rent for travel, however.
- Tri-band - Your phone must be a tri-band phone, meaning that it can work on the band in France. U.S. cellphones, for instance, are on the 850-1900 band frequencies, but Europe uses 900-1800 band frequencies.
- Unlocked - Check to see if your wireless company has arrangements for using your phone overseas (which AT&T and T-Mobile do, but it MUST be activated by contacting them before you leave the U.S.). If it doesn't, you can find several companies online that will unlock your phone. What unlocking means is that it allows your phone to work with other wireless carriers. Most phones come locked to your carrier, the company you pay your monthly bills to, and will work with no other company.
To determine whether your phone meets these standards, contact your wireless provider. If you aren't confident the person knows what they're talking about, ask for a supervisor. You also may be able to determine it by looking at the box or user manual for your phone.
Even if you can use your phone in France, if you will be using your existing provider to roam overseas you need to do some homework.
Be sure to check with your provider to see if you need to activate overseas roaming. Ask what the rates are for roaming and placing local calls (as in, you're in France and you're calling France) and rates for calling home (probably the roaming rate plus long-distance).
If you don't have a phone that works in France, you still have a couple options:
- Upgrade your phone or switch carriers. If you are no longer trapped in a contract with your wireless provider, or even if you are and they are converting from an older technology to GSM (such as AT&T), you can usually get a new GSM phone for free or very little. You will have to sign a new contract, however, to get the good price.
Be sure it meets the three standards I listed above. If it's locked, you can probably still unlock it. If you are with a wireless provider that is not on the GSM network and your contract is expiring, consider switching to a GSM provider. Thanks to new FCC standards, you can now keep your old wireless phone numbers, easing the transition.
- Rent a phone for travel. T-Mobile especially has offers for renting a mobile phone. You can also rent phones in France once you arrive. Many airports now have stands where you can rent phones near or at the car rental desks.
- If your phone is unlocked, tri-band and GSM, you can spend about 30 euros when you arrive in France to get a pre-paid SIM card. You would insert this card under your battery (DO save the existing SIM card; you must keep it safe). Pre-paid SIM cards can be bought in mobile phone shops in France (the primary companies are Orange, Bouygues Telecom and SFR). You can also buy them before you go from various Internet companies. If your phone isn't ready for global travel, you can buy phones that will work anywhere in the world at these shops as well. Check out the About.com guide to local SIM cards.
Each major operator has its own retail outlets. Alternatively try large chains like E. Leclerc, Carrefour or Auchan for their deals.
Specialist retailers include:
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