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I am moving to France soon and one of the first things I'll need to do is get a phone number. I am looking for a short overview of the state of mobile phone service providers in France so I can make a quick decision and not look back.

To be more specific, here are the criteria that are important:

  • I already have a GSM phone (not a smartphone)

  • I can't commit for longer than 1 yr and I'm not willing to pay a deposit. That probably leaves only pre-pay choices, which is okay.

  • I don't care about data. I only need voice and text, with voice being a priority.

  • I'll mostly be calling a small group of people. If there's anything like a family plan, or cheaper calls within the same provider, I would like to make use of it.

  • Good coverage is important (inside of buildings too). I don't know if this is an issue at all in France.

  • Will you be getting an ADSL contract too? There are now many offers for cheap mobile contracts tied to an ADSL ‘box’. – Gala Mar 15 '15 at 7:24
  • @Gala I'm not sure ... I will of course need an internet connection, which I guess means yes. Unless it's already included in the rent which I guess is unlikely. – Kuruma Mar 16 '15 at 4:03
  • It seems nobody has a ‘simple’ ADSL contract anymore. You get ‘triple play’ offers (ADSL + TV + VOIP phone with free calls to many countries) for the price of an ADSL contract in the other European countries I know, i.e. €30-40 per month. You can add a mobile on top of that for a few euros extra per month (more if you want data on your mobile but that's not your case). So it would seem an obvious choice for you. – Gala Mar 16 '15 at 19:07
  • @Gala Thanks for all the helpful answers with my questions! :-) I should have mentioned that we also need to get a phone number for my wife, but I don't think this changes the situation. – Kuruma Mar 17 '15 at 1:51
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Actually, prepaid offers in France kind of suck compared to what I have seen in other countries. Your number remains active but your credit is only valid for a very short time (even with an international brand like Simyo, which offers completely different conditions elsewhere!) and calls can be expensive. For example, a €5 credit typically has to be used within 7 to 15 days. By contrast, in the Netherlands credit remains valid forever as long as you send a SMS or place a call every six months!

What most people get instead are cheaper “no commitment” contracts. You pay €5-10 a month and you can stop the contract at any time. One difference with a prepaid offer is that it can be a tad more expensive if you never call and only want to keep your number alive. The difference with a premium 1 or 2-year contract is that you don't get a (smart)phone and only limited or expensive data service.

But the main thing is that if you get a plan (“forfait” or “abonnement” in French), you need to give the operator a credit card or bank account number (which means a potential for extra charges if you are not careful). The only way to avoid this is by getting a “forfait bloqué”. In that case, once you exhaust your credit, you won't be able to call instead of being charged extra. You will notice that these “forfait bloqué” can be 50-100% more expensive than other plans, providers obviously count on your running some extra charges at some point to turn a profit.

On the other hand, the conditions for calls are extremely generous compared to other European countries. The most basic plans typically include 2-3 hours of voice call to landlines all over Europe and beyond and mobiles in France (and sometimes North America). For €10-12, you get unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles in France and to landlines in many other countries (particularly useful for expats!). Orange used to have a family pack type of offer but I think they dropped it because unlimited calls are so cheap. SMS are now unlimited for just about any plan or operator.

You will have to read the fine print to see what's best for you but I think all this is true for all entry-level low-data offers including Sosh (discount brand from Orange) and La Poste Mobile on the Orange network, “forfait RED” or Virgin Mobile on the SFR network, B&You from Bouygues Telecom, etc.

Finally, if you get a residential landline/Internet offer (a ‘box’ as they call it in France), you can often get a cheaper deal on a mobile contract and/or unlimited calls to most countries in Europe from your landline for a small surcharge. So if you are planning on getting ADSL anyway, this could also be interesting for you.

As far as network quality is concerned Free (a relative newcomer) and SFR have been criticized, but mostly for data coverage. Voice coverage in buildings is not perfect (is it ever?) but I don't think there are big differences between the three main networks (that's Orange, SFR and Bouygues) in this respect (not sure about Free).

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    in addition to @Gala answer, be aware that the law in France mandates cellphone operators to get a proof of id from every subscriber. – audionuma Mar 15 '15 at 13:19
  • @audionuma Thanks for mentioning, I think this is common in European countries, so it's no surprise, nor a problem :) – Kuruma Mar 17 '15 at 1:53
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    I think these cheap "no commitment" contracts start for as little as 2 euros (Free mobile, Joe mobile, and some MVNOs have offers under 5 euros a month). – Vince Mar 30 '15 at 22:51
  • @Vince Yeah, I somehow forgot about Free cheapest plan (added it to the answer). OTOH, I can't see a €2 offer on Joe mobile and already mentioned a few other virtual network operators. – Gala Mar 30 '15 at 23:12
  • Can you elaborate on your latest edit? "(which means a potential for extra charges if you are not careful)". At the moment the language barrier is a real difficulty for me and I am worried ... – Kuruma Apr 14 '15 at 15:28
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There are some MVNO operators (which rent the antennas from one of the four networks, i.e. Orange, SFR, Bouygues and Free) which have interesting offers, usually much cheaper than the big-name brands, with the inconvenience of having no access to wireless hotspots and sometimes lack of phone support (usually you have to use their forums to get support).

I am currently with Joe Mobile, mainly because their offer allows me to have cheap pre-paid Internet, using only a debit card (they ask you for a document number, but as far as I know you do not need to send a scan). 1€ for the SIM card (sent by mail) + 5€/month for 2 hours of voice calls (no special numbers) + unlimited SMS (+ 100 MB of data, which you won't use).

One of their main advantages (besides no contract) is that you can quit very easily: just go to the website and click "Off". It will put your line in "pause" mode, so once you finish the current 30 day-period (already paid for), you do not pay anything more and your line becomes inactive in a few months. You can reactivate it later if you want, or just let it "die".

Also, you might consider benefiting from parrainage offers (invitations), where each additional phone line means a discount for the inviter, for the invited, or both. These offers may work even if you have never met the other person, e.g. via the forum. Just go to one of the MVNO provider's forums, you can often see people spamming invitations (which will benefit both of you).

One liability of Joe Mobile is the SFR network, which is quite bad where I live, but it used to be fine where I lived before.

Edit: I have just been informed by Joe that they will stop operating on June 15th, 2015 (acquired by Virgin Mobile).

There are several such low-cost providers nowadays, but their names are harder to Google if you don't know them. Some French websites offer comparisons between them, but pay attention to some details such as cancellation conditions and roaming mode (some of them require it to be activated before leaving France).

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