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The best SIM cards for voice and mobile Internet data in France

By John Walton     Filed under: iPhone, iPad, SIM cards, Micro-SIMs, MiFis, Global roaming, Android, roaming calls, data roaming, prepaid SIMs, Best SIMs for France

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.

Orange

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€.

Choices are:

  • 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.)

SFR

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€
Note that the SIM's APN settings may be incorrect. My iPhone required me to use the "websfr" APN rather than the "sl2sfr" APN. (No username or password.) 
 
Amazingly, SFR has an English language helpdesk -- for the La Carte plan only -- reachable by dialling 1026 between the hours of 0800 and 2200 French time. It costs nothing from an SFR phone if you're on hold, and then it's the price of a regular call in France.

Data SIMs

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. 

Orange

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.

SFR

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.

Tariffs are:

  • 24 hours unlimited: 6€
  • 48 hours unlimited: 9€
or
  • 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

Questions? Ask away so the team (and your knowledgeable fellow readers!) can get back to you.

Don't forget, for the very latest discussions on this and many other topics, we have a helpful and friendly Twitter community that keeps abreast of roaming, travel and much more. Join us: we're @AusBT!

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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.

 

Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 27/9/12 by here2go

Thoughts on the best German and Austrian carriers for Smartphone data trickle (FourSquare, Twitter, Email Headers) and texting?

1 on 27/9/12 by John

I'd use a UK SIM like the one I rated above, unless you're German-fluent. The overhead of getting a local SIM isn't likely to make sense unless you're staying for more than a couple of weeks, using more than 50MB/day and speak enough German to navigate phone trees.

If you're still keen, I've always had decent luck with blau.de from O2, but note that you'll need to bring cash with you to the shop. There's one in arrivals FRA.

1 on 27/9/12 by here2go

Alas, flying straight into MUC.  Voda looks pretty good, and I know enough German to be dangerous.

1 on 22/12/12 by mo

Its very easy to get a pre-paid sim card in Germany and data prices are reasonable. Sim's from MVNO's are usually free although you have to buy~ 10 euro credit. If you're not activating the sim on the spot you generally don't need to show ID to purchase it (although you do need ID to activate it).

Germany has four independant network carriers (T-Mobile, Vodafone, O2, E-Plus) and they each have lots of MVNO's. Practically every supermarket chain sells its own sim card. T-Mobile has the best network but I'd advise you to stay away as they block skype/voip/facetime/any internet telephony. O2 and E-Plus have fairly poor UMTS networks. Vodafone is 'ok'. The carriers have their own stores all over the place but I'd recommend you stay away and look for the MVNO sim card pakets tucked away in petrol stations, supermarkets and corner stores. There are also a few Blau.de shops who sell sim cards using the E-Plus network. In these places you'll find calls for 9c/min and data for around 10-15 euro/gb.

2 on 27/9/12 by gw

  • As [...] a fluent French speaker, I'm often asked for my advice
"Do note the French "mégaondes" for MB and "gigaondes" for GB."   I smile. It's mégaoctet and gigaoctet.

1 on 27/9/12 by John

Oh, putain, please excuse my colossal braindead moment there -- in my enthusiasm to avoid our readers saying they would like "mégabites" (for all the obvious French reasons!) my brain pulled the wrong French word out.

3 on 27/9/12 by Nepomucene

There is a local mifi rental solution as well called FrenchConnection.fr

100MB per day, averaged on the whole length of your stay, a system to keep an eye on your consumption, and Skype/VOIP friendly!

1 on 29/9/12 by Teun

most of these alternatives are incredibly complicated (local sim) or stupidly expensive when compared to Droam. I understand they are delivering locally in Australia now, so much simpler then shipping to their Australian customers. Plus, most Australians going to Europe do not go to a single country only,  making local sims or even local alternatives very messy indeed.

1 on 1/10/12 by John

Yes, I like Droam as an interim solution, but not everyone is a fan of their pricing structure: many people require more than a GB of data, and if you're returning to a country having a local SIM is a good plan. If you use Droam and exceed the 1GB allowed per MONTH cap, it get expensive fast, at 0.07€ a MB.

4 on 14/11/12 by evaoo

Guess I was lucky of having found a better solution to keep connected while in France! (and WAY much simpler)I used LeFrenchMobile prepaid sim card during my recent trip to France. I got the sim card shipped to my home in Australia (paid with my Australian credit card) and started using it in my iPhone as soon as I landed in France.I found the tariffs to be reasonable for calls and texts, they have special tariffs for english speaking countries. And for the internet, I converted part of my credit into one of their data bundles, which was also convenient as they dont have a time validity limit (neither for credit for calls and texts).To top up it was also very simple, I did it on their website with my Austalian credit card again.

You might want to give it a look. All their services are in english (website, customer service, etc).

1 on 14/11/12 by John

After a brief look, it sounds like a reasonable option, certainly from a plug and play perspective — but heavy data users will find the data bundles a little weak, and you can have it cheaper in France. (Non-French speakers will likely find it much more attractive, mind!)

2 on 11/12/12 by Rob

Agree with all evaoo has said about Le FrenchMobile.

Have poor French and limited technical skills. (English ain't perfect either). Yet found LFM easy to set up for phone and data (Galaxy S2). Good coverage too.  Insufficient time for SIM to be sent to Australia before departure, so LFM sent it to my hotel in Paris.

5 on 18/3/13 by koala5700

Thanks for this article. I'll be in Paris for about 3 months and am trying to decide which SIM card to get for iPhone 5. I will be mostly making local calls (as well as texts) and will need to use the data plan (for mail, maps, etc.) Which is the most affordable (with decent quality) for a pretty long stay -- SFR, Le FrenchMobile, or Orange?? 

I'm not so savvy with tech language. I've been doing some research and can't seem to make up my mind...

1 on 16/4/13 by Ernie Ball

It would appear that the SFR "Série Red" 3Go is the best deal at the moment. €20 for unlimited calls in France and throughout Europe and North America plus 3GB of data. They also will sell you a nano SIM for the iPhone 5. The catch is that, according to the website, the offers are only available online and they will only ship the SIM card to an address in France.

6 on 23/4/13 by daveoflynn

Looks like SFR are now offering a data-only SIM with 6Go/mo for €25/mo, without contract. BYOD.

Link, though it'll likely go dead next time they tweak their offers: http://www.sfr.fr/mobile/tablette-cle-internet/forfait-tablette-ipad-cle-3g?vue=000mg0#?explorationModeDirection=offerToDevice&currentTab=sim&currentUsage=intense&currentOffer=012huf012gp5012gh9012gpb&currentDevice=kit-microsim-abo&vue=000mg0

7 on 15/5/13 by tschwarz97

Thanks for all the helpful information - I'm planning a two-month trip to France and just ordered an LFM Sim. I'll report back here how it all worked out once I'm back. (Micro Sim for usage with HTC 8X)

8 on 6/7/13 by Lynn Chisholm

I am intrigued by the complexity of the above article in spite of the author's apparent dislike of French telecom services.  I am in France every year.  Usually I buy a Brightroam package, very reasonable and they take their time billing.  I have never had an issue with their rates. 

It's not just the French who are relatively unilingual, English speakers are generally just as bad.  Why is it that English speakers think that "other language" speakers should always accommodate them in English?

Anyway, Brightroam was sold out of France microsims, so I stopped at an Orange Boutique and the staff member who helped me was very knowledgeable and pleasant.  The microsim popped out of the larger sim and can be snapped back into the surrounded plastic piece for use in a phone that takes the regular sims. 

No hassle, I expect that when buying a data plan anywhere I will have to give some personal information.  I do have a French bank account, but was not asked for particulars about it.   They accepted an invoice with my address on it for their records.

9 on 6/7/13 by Lynn Chisholm

I am intrigued by the complexity of the above article in spite of the author's apparent dislike of French telecom services.  I am in France every year.  Usually I buy a Brightroam package, very reasonable and they take their time billing.  I have never had an issue with their rates. 

It's not just the French who are relatively unilingual, English speakers are generally just as bad.  Why is it that English speakers think that "other language" speakers should always accommodate them in English?

Anyway, Brightroam was sold out of France microsims, so I stopped at an Orange Boutique and the staff member who helped me was very knowledgeable and pleasant.  The microsim popped out of the larger sim and can be snapped back into the surrounded plastic piece for use in a phone that takes the regular sims. 

No hassle, I expect that when buying a data plan anywhere I will have to give some personal information.  I do have a French bank account, but was not asked for particulars about it.   They accepted an invoice with my address on it for their records.

10 on 13/8/13 by RH

Yea... I had an orange sim. 

I added a "booster" for 9 euros a month to add 200mb of internet. It refreshes each month ONLY if you have enough credit (and they don't tell you when they take it out?). 

If you have 8.99, then they cancel it (without telling you). So then the next time you go online, they obligingly zero your balance charging you 30cents PER MINUTE on the internet

Yes, that means that in places where the service is worse, you pay more.

I cancelled my Orange SIM and now use Free (you'll probably need a French bank account, passport, character references from the pope, and a French address, however).On the otherhand, Free is awesome. Unlimited everything for 19.99/month, cancel it whenever you want.

So long, Orange!

(by the way, if you send them an agry email about this issue of using all your credit, they will actually top your credit back up to where it was, thankfull). 

11 on 21/8/13 by Jarje

I had a good experience from LeFrench Mobile. It was quite cheap (I spent less than 40 euros over a couple weeks) and had no dramas setting it up. It was marketed for non-french speakers visiting France. You do need to email a copy of your passport within two weeks of activating it. Happy travels!

12 on 25/9/13 by georgiap

I have just spent 8 weeks in France, bought and Orange data sim for my ipad and 20Euro Lets Go credit vouchers which gave 2Gb and lasted a month.  Found this very economic and good reception in most places. I found my Australian Mastercard would not work with the online top up system, but easy to buy top up vouchers at tabacs. Had a bit of hasstle getting the sim in the first place, (due to my poor French) but I had looked at the website first and worked out what I wanted, so was able to show them. Hotel reception staff were happy to do the phoning when applying the credit voucher already purchased. I was also able to create a wifi hotspot my ipad and connect my mobile and laptop.

13 on 3/10/13 by ClareMcG

Thank you so much for this article! My husband had been struggling to activate a SFR La Carte SIM for a few days and getting increasingly frustrated.  Calls were working but not the internet, which was the only part we planned to use. We tried the APN  setting you listed but it didn't work so he called the English helpdesk you mentioned (we had no idea this existed, what a life-saver!). The guy on the otyher end gave him another  APN to type in: "wapsfr". It worked! Just wanted to pass this on in case it helps someone else. This was for an iPhone 4; not sure if that's the reason for the different APN.

14 on 10/10/13 by Sarah

I'm using simcard purchased on www.travelsim.com.  It is cheap and easy to use, worked fine in many countries, I've been to.

15 on 21/10/13 by JeanGoulet

If you're not going to use a lot of data, the nicest card is XXSIM, from Estonia. Free incoming calls, SMS from anywhere in the world for 8 cents. Data in Europe at 15 cents/Meg. Minimum payment is 20 euros, One year validity.

In France, the best deal is FreeMobile, postpaid at 2 euros per month. Data at 5 cents/Meg. Payable with any credit card, must be delivered to a French address. Google it!

16 on 20/11/13 by m2j

Maybe my experience was different because it was about a year removed from this article's publication, but I found this process to be extremely easy. I walked into an Orange mobile shop, told the clerk that I was just visting Paris and had an unlocked phone, what could we do? He had SIM cards for 10 euros and then data plans at various different tiers/prices - the most desirable of those (for me) was the 500 MB for 10 euros. He asked for my passport, a Paris address (my hotel address sufficed), and within about 2 minutes, my phone booted up with the SIM card installed and I was on L'orange's network; no waiting for activation or any technical snags whatsoever. Maybe I just got lucky, but I was happy with how easy this process was. Now, I had little to no reason to make any phone calls and used Google Voice for texting (since anyone I wanted to text would have my non-Parisian number anyway). 

17 on 28/11/13 by helping

This is a very well written article. I live in France for their summer and nothing gets any easier there. I'll drop in here again in say half a decade for maybe an update.

18 on 28/11/13 by helping

This is a very well written article. I live in France for their summer and nothing gets any easier there. I'll drop in here again in say half a decade for maybe an update.

19 on 2/12/13 by Alex

I can advice tarif Simyo, it exists in Germany as well. I use Internet flat because I do not need calls in fact. Not expensive, depends from your habits how much do you use Internet

20 on 31/1/14 by Pascal Bronstein

 Hi Everybody, I have been selling LeFrenchMobile SIM cards for 2 years now. Originally, It was a complimentary service offered with my short term rental agency activities (Paris-Hospitality.com). So far, the feedback is on the positive side. Now, I am even selling LeFrenchMobile SIMs to non-renters.

 Based on my experience, I believe the main reasons why they go for LeFrenchMobile are 

  • Flexibility. Passport scan/ copy can be sent by mail, post.
  • Full English support. Which is not the case with the French prepaid SIMs
  • Same calling rate in the European Union whether you call from Paris, Berlin, London…or Helsinki. A lot of my guests go for a European tour
  • Almost unlimited validity of credits. If you don't use them there is a 1.40Euros monthly fee for line maintenance. In any case, you don't loose them. You can keep the same phone number ad vitam
  • Specific French and EU data bundle programs. Very useful when using Google Maps or sharing on social media.

 As a conclusion, I'd be able to say that if this SIM card service had been problem ridden, I would have stopped proposing it to my customers. On the contrary, they talk about their satisfaction with LeFrenchMobile and recommend the service to their friends and relatives coming to France and the EU.

Pascal

21 on 3/2/14 by cortical

Paris yesterday;

needed a pre paid sim for iPad mini retina; iPad is host to maps and tomtom. Decided to use telstra for iphone if needed. 

 SFR was the target as reading suggested the credit activation was simple. FNAC at Forum Les Halles - these pre-paid no longer available. This may or may not be accurate.

Nearby Orange at  43 Rue de Rivoli ; Orange managed the language barrier (just), supplied the card, offered the top up options, and activated it. I call that helpful. They also sorted out travelling companion who wanted a phone card, thinking the phone was unlocked. Orange took her and it to 'testing facility' upstairs , and established it wasn't. I also call that helpful. Particuarly given the cost/benifit ratio.

Card (lets go pre paid v2) 8eur, 2GB 20eur

Same time last year in Paris, Armagnac, London and Surrey, as well as Spain, meant several different cards and service providers. Orange were good then too, purchased in Saint Girons; although the concept of getting the sim ( for iPhone) and topup from the local tabac took a while to sink in. The Orange staff again were helpful in activating the topup bought at the tabac.

Lebara also in France, 3 in England (groan), and another in Spain... were less satisfactory experiences.

 

22 on 21/3/14 by justmanovic

Hi everybody, if you haven't already your own mifi, you can rent one at Travel Wifi (travel-wifi.com), with unlimited data, 4G speed (Bouygues Telecome's network) !

23 on 16/4/14 by richard

thanks for the article., Very informative and reflects my experience with SFR a couple of years ago (2012) - the 48 hr wait period which we didn't know until we went to query why we didn't have data. Otherwise we were happy enough wiht the service - except they also didn't tell us that with a pre-paid account we couldn't run a WiFi "hotspot" from our iPhone, which was one of the main things we wanted to do. Is that still teh case?

I'm in france for 10 days and wondered whether it is feasible to put a tablet "data only" SIM in my iPhone. Is there a reason this won't work - then I'll just send & receive calls by Skype.

cheers

24 on 16/4/14 by Pascal Bronstein

@Richard : yes you can use your iPhone this way, with LeFrenchMobile prepaid SIM cards. Suffice to choose a data bundle option and your SIM will be only used for sending or receiving data.  

25 on 29/4/14 by Simondg

@Pascal I hear with Lefrenchmobile you have to make a call from within France to activate the sim, is that so? Im starting my holiday in Italy and was hoping to be able to use the sim while travelling in Italy on my way to France. cheers S

1 on 29/4/14 by Pascal Bronstein

@S, thanks for the question. I am happy to confirm that now, you can start using your SIM card when in Italy. And the other good news is that calling rate is the same as it would be in France. Cheers. Pascal

1 on 30/4/14 by Simondg

Thanks Pascal, that pretty much makes my mind up. Will report back with my experiences. Cheers - Simon

 

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