As a regular traveller to France and a fluent French speaker, I'm often asked for my advice on which French SIM or microSIM card is the best for an iPhone, iPad, Android device, Internet USB stick or pocket 3G-wifi router: Orange? SFR? Bouyges Telecom?
My first piece of advice is this: don't even try.
Getting hold of a SIM that does anything other than simply make calls in France is a giant pain, it's irritatingly expensive, the process needs a passport, you're sometimes required to wait 48 hours for activation, and decent deals aren't available unless you have a French bank account.
It's not for the faint-hearted, or even the strong-hearted, and you should be wary of advice from anyone who hasn't managed to get precisely what you want to get -- "oh, just pick it up at the airport on your way in" is very much not an option. Be prepared to spend three days getting it sorted out.
Consider roaming with a UK SIM instead under the new EU "Euroaming" system, which I ended up doing on several occasions while trying to get French SIMs sorted out.
Which network in France?
The two real players in this game are SFR and Orange. SFR is smaller, while Orange is part of the France Telecom behemoth. Bouyges Telecom is also a smaller player, but their customer service and information has always been so atrocious that I wouldn't bother checking out their prices.
Don't think that Orange is better for being larger, though -- Orange's size and corporate family isn't an asset, since you end up having to wait in line behind people complaining about their landline and exchanging their home Internet routers.
Entirely unscientific impression time: over a half-dozen trips to various stores in Paris, Lyon, Roanne and Reims this year, I've found SFR less busy, more helpful -- and more English-speaking -- than Orange.
In terms of network coverage and deals, I've found them pretty similar.
However, SFR's top-up system has been irritatingly offline for much of this summer, and the local shop in Reims gave me a run-around of "oh, the system's broken" when my data wasn't working, rather than figuring out that the pre-set APN settings were for contract, not prepaid SIMs.
In other words, they're both as bad as each other, though I have a slight preference for SFR for ease of use.
What kind of SIM?
Depending on your device, you'll need either a regular SIM or a microSIM. They're mostly manufactured as snap-apart versions, where you can snap the microSIM out of the SIM. Don't expect nanoSIMs for iPhone 5 to be available any time soon -- iPhone 5 users should bring a pocket wifi device with them instead.
Then your choice is data or voice + data. The data-only plans are cheaper, and you can use Skype or other VOIP apps to make phone calls, but if you need to be able to make phone calls then you'll want a voice + data SIM.
If you can get by with using only an iPad, things are much, much easier: both networks have fairly generous iPad prepaid data plans. Unfortunately, both networks say that you're not allowed to use iPad SIMs in other devices, and I've yet to find a reliable source that explains how to do it.
Voice + Data SIMs
SFR is roughly a third cheaper than Orange overall, but I ended up picking up one of each to test things out and to get around the fact that SFR's topup system was broken for a week.
If you're setting up an iPhone, we've got roadtested global advice to walk you through the process of setting up a local SIM card.
You're looking for the plans ("forfaits") called "Origami". You're restricted to the "Origami star" set unless you have a French bank account. The SIM itself cost me 8€.
- 1GB data and unlimited calling for 49.90€
- 500MB data and unlimited calling for 39.90€
- 500MB data and 2h of calling for 29.90€
(Note that you're looking at the "sans engagement" prices.)
You're looking for the "forfait" called "SFR La Carte".
To recharge, you're likely best off looking for "un recharge iPhone", even if you're not using an iPhone device. You have the choice of:
- 20MB of data for 24 hours for 3€
- 150MB of data for a week for 10€
- 500MB of data for 20 days for 20€
- 500MB of data for 20 days and 10€ of call costs for 24€
Data SIMs are cheaper if you can live without phone calls. You'll need some form of Internet connection device -- a 3G USB stick, or a 3G-wifi router (often called a "mifi").
Don't expect that anyone will know how to set up your device, nor even that they'll know what an APN is. (Seriously. Happened to me twice.)
Note that officially these SIMs can't be used in phones, only in non-phone devices, and I haven't yet found a source that shows how to make them work in phones.
With Orange, you're looking at the "forfaits Let's go pour clé 3G+" -- but as a non-French bank account holder, you're limited to the lower tariffs, the ones marked "forfaits Let's go pour clé 3G+ en detail" on that page.
Note that many Orange tariffs are only available at the largest Orange stores. The one opposite your hotel may not be able to sell you a SIM. (No, really.)
You'll pay 8€ on top for the SIM, which is full-sized -- you'll need to cut it down with a sim cutter or scissors if you want a microSIM.
Tariffs are 5€ for one day (300MB limit), 15€ for one week (1GB limit) or 20€ for 15 days (2GB limit).
Once you hit the limit, you can recharge via phone, online or in an Orange shop. But I've heard several accounts of international (and especially non-EU) bank cards not going through over the phone or online, and experienced that myself with an Amex card.
You want an offer for the "clé prête à surfer". The "clé" refers to a USB stick or dongle, but you can bring your own USB dongle or mifi.
I paid 9.90€ on top for the SIM, which is again full-sized.
- 24 hours unlimited: 6€
- 48 hours unlimited: 9€
- 50MB over 7 days: 3€
- 100MB over 10 days: 9€
- 200MB over 30 days: 15€
- 500MB over 60 days: 25€
- 1GB over 60 days: 35€
Notes and hard-won advice
Do as much as you can in person at a branch of your mobile network of choice, and don't try to pre-order anything online. It's more hassle than it's worth.
Do bring your passport. They need to identify you, but it's infuriatingly asinine: all they write down is your name, date of birth and where you were born.
Do be prepared for the 48-hour identity and activation period for your data plan. Yes, that super-identifying name/DOB combination you gave them often takes 48 hours. You may or may not receive an SMS to confirm that your data is active.
Do turn off the Internet before your data plan activates: it's insanely expensive and will drain your call credit to nothing very quickly indeed. (Yes, this leaves you with no non-expensive way to check whether your data plan is activated. Welcome to France.)
Do note the French "mégaoctet" for MB and "gigaoctet" for GB. That's pronounced "may-gah-ock-tet" and "zhee-gah-ock-tet", or just "may-gah" or "zhee-gah". The abbreviations are Mo and Go.
Don't expect anyone to speak English. Seriously. Even in Paris. (Especially in Paris.)
Don't count on being able to use an Amex card. Or a non-French card. Or especially a non-EU card.
Do keep a spare recharge voucher (that you've previously bought from a shop) handy if data is mission-critical to you. Once you've reached your data cap, it'll be cut off and there's no guarantee you'll be able to recharge over the phone, and you obviously can't do it online.
Don't think that it's you being an idiot if it takes forever, is insanely frustrating and you keep finding that nobody knows what they're doing. Even in tourist centres, you're an unusual case for even trying. Bonne chance!
Do please let us know how you go in a comment below. We're keen to keep this info as current as possible.
Other roadtested options for getting online in Europe
- UK network 3: Euro Internet Pass is available if you're one of their pay monthly customers: £5 (A$8) per day for unlimited data use, but no iPhone tethering.
- Droam: rent a 3G-wifi router (which you might know as a "mifi"), which will also work in countries across the world.
- Maxroam: a true global roaming SIM for voice and data. Roughly 60c per MB in most European countries, but also works in other regions.
- Tep: rent a smartphone or a 3G-wifi router for a convenient (though not cheap) daily rate.
- For more tips on how to avoid the overseas data roaming rip off, we've got you covered.
Questions? Ask away so the team (and your knowledgeable fellow readers!) can get back to you.
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About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.