How Can I Use My American Cell Phone in Paris?
A few weeks ago, my mom came to visit Paris for the first time. Pre-departure, she asked me the usual questions about currency exchanges and layovers in far-flung airports, but predictably, her most pressing question was, will my American phone work in Paris?
Most American cell phones will work in Paris, but roaming fees vary greatly. Many carriers allow you to purchase an international roaming package, giving you discounted access to phone service while traveling abroad. You may also want to consider buying a local SIM card or using an eSIM during your trip.
Confirm Your Phone Will Work in France
First, you’ll want to work out whether or not your phone is compatible with French cell phone networks. If you have a smartphone manufactured within the last five years or so, you’re virtually guaranteed to have no problems using it in Paris. This includes both iPhones and Androids. Whereas it used to be more common for phone manufacturers to build different phones for various regions across the world, today almost all smartphones are built with cross-functionality in mind.
Is Your Phone Unlocked?
Many carrier lock their cell phones, meaning your phone cannot be used with another network. If you purchased your phone directly from your carrier, this is quite possibly the case. With a lock in place, you won’t be able to use other networks while traveling.
Fortunately, it’s typically pretty easy to get a lock removed. Simply call your phone company, let them know you’ll be traveling soon, and ask whether your phone has a lock on it currently. Most carriers have a simple process you can follow to remove any locks. In some cases, you may need to pay a fee or pay off a balance on your phone, however, so verify this well before you embark on your trip.
If you bought your phone directly from the manufacturer, you’re likely in luck; for example, Apple sells iPhones to consumers with no network locks. You can verify that your phone is unlocked by navigating to Settings > General > About and checking that nothing is noted under Carrier Lock.
The Easiest Option: Using WiFi in Paris
Isn’t it funny to think that just ten years ago, nobody would have thought twice about being inaccessible during a trip abroad? Now, the mere thought of being without our phones for a week or two is enough to send shivers down our collective spines.
In all seriousness, while it’s certainly more convenient to have phone access while visiting Paris, it’s not a requirement. Sure, you’ll need to wait to get back to your hotel before uploading all of the cute photos to Instagram, but disconnecting for a few days might be a welcome break.
WiFi in Paris is available for free in many public spaces, and most hotels also offer Internet connectivity, too. As always, when you’re using a public network, consider using a VPN to protect your personal information. That should help ensure your memories of Paris are all happy ones. Identify theft isn’t sexy, no matter which language you speak.
Adding International Service to Your Phone
Okay, okay, you need phone access. No problem, you’ve got options.
You may have heard horror stories about travelers coming home to find several hundred dollars worth of unexpected fees on their cell phone bills.
Fortunately, you can avoid this by sorting out your phone coverage before you leave home. There are three main options for using your phone on your vacation:
1. Buying a Local SIM Card in Paris
Buying a SIM card in Paris will likely get you cheaper rates, but it does require a little bit of footwork.
If you’ve never changed SIM cards before, you may be surprised to learn there is a little chip in your phone that connects it to your cell phone network. Changing SIMs is much more common practice in Europe, but it’s easier than it sounds to pop a new card into phone. Most SIMs will come with a little tool you can use to open your phone, as well as pictorial showing you how to remove and replace the SIM card. Just be certain to hang onto your American card, as you will need to put that back to restore your normal phone number on your return.
You’ll find SIM packs for travelers in a lot of airport shops and train stations. If I were in your shoes, however, I’d recommend you purchase a vacation SIM card on Amazon and have it delivered to your house before your trip. It will be one less thing for your jet lagged brain to try to figure out after on your first day in the French capital.
Orange is the largest phone carrier in France and offers one of the best SIM options for travelers. Their primary plan gives you two hours of talk time, 20GB of 4G/LTE data, and 1000 text messages for your trip. This is also a great option if you’re traveling to other destinations in Europe, as the Orange pack extends this same coverage to over 30 different countries. The SIM package is valid for 14 days.
You’ll pay around 40 euros for this package or $50 USD if you buy it before leaving home.
Feeling a little more adventurous? Another great option is to use a Free SIM card; fortunately, if your French is still a long ways from parfait, you’re in luck. Free is a mobile phone company with kiosks all over Paris. With a few clicks and a swipe of your credit card, you’ll get a SIM card you can use for the next 30 days. This unlimited card costs just 20 euros for the month. You can find a kiosk near your hotel using the Free boutique and kiosk finder here!
Quick aside: Free SIMs are also particularly good as a phone plan for study abroad students. The Free SIM packages are without any longterm commitment, making them a viable way to obtain service for a few months. Free also provides roaming across Europe (and even in the United States) for no additional charge, making it perfect for backpacking or weekend trips to other destinations across the continent.
2. Using an eSIM While Traveling in France
eSIMs are a relatively new development that make it easier than ever to add French phone service to your American phone.
Most recent iPhones support eSIMs, as do a variety of Android devices. An eSIM works exactly the same as a traditional SIM card, but you don’t need to mess around with inserting a card into your phone. Instead, most eSIM providers have you download a virtual SIM card and activate it to automatically add service to your cell phone. Voilà, tu es connecté.
Not only are eSIMs a quick way to get instant phone service, but many of them provide very inexpensive rates. A lot of eSIM providers only offer data service, but if budget is a concern, it doesn’t get cheaper; consider Airalo, for example, which offers 1 GB of data in France for only five bucks.
Want the ability to place calls and send texts, too? The Orange Holiday package I mentioned above is actually available as an eSIM now as well!
Disable Your American Service with an eSIM
If you’re planning to use an eSIM make sure to turn roaming on your American network OFF.
Carefully follow the instructions provided by the carrier and fully disable your normal service or you might find that you’ve been using pricey roaming. eSIMs are designed to allow users to have two active lines on their phone simultaneously, so take every possible precaution to ensure you’re in fact using your French SIM.
3. Purchasing an International Roaming Package
Purchasing an international roaming package from your American call phone carrier is probably the easiest option for using your phone in France. This convenience comes with a cost, however, as you’ll spend a good deal more by sticking with an American provider.
Remember those sky high roaming bills I was talking about earlier? If you simply turn on your phone after landing at Charles de Gaulle and hope for the best, you’re probably going to hit with one of those.
You can use the chart below to determine how much your carrier will charge you for your phone activity while in Paris.
It’s almost never worth using your phone without a roaming package, as you can see. The data charges in particular are ludicrous. Over two dollars per MEGABYTE? You’re looking at $5 or so just to send a cute photo to Grandma over Whatsapp. At that price, I hope elle adore ton photo!
T-Mobile is the one exception to the rule, as most of it’s post-paid cell phone plans include free roaming for text and data in France. This is pretty spectacular, especially in comparison to the other guys. I actually had T-Mobile service for many years and have used this perk myself. The only caveat I’ll point out is that T-Mobile limits you to 128kb/second. That makes it almost impossible to stream music, watch a YouTube clip, or FaceTime your friends back home. I like to think of it as iMessage/Whatsapp service.
One final note, US Cellular’s data pass gives you a paltry 100 MB, again making it implausible to make video calls or even mindlessly scroll through Instagram at the end of the day in your hotel room.
Using WhatsApp and iMessage in France
The phone plan you’re using during your stay in Paris may impact how your iMessage and WhatsApp services work on your phone. Both iMessage and WhatsApp send messages over the internet, but these messaging tools use your cell phone number as your unique identifier. When you change SIM cards, your phone recognizes a new number. This means your friends and family members won’t receive messages from your contact.
Whatsapp makes it possible to continue using your American number while traveling; if you have a different SIM card in your phone or are using an eSIM, you’ll be prompted to keep or change your contact number the first time you open Whatsapp.
Assuming you’re only going to be in Europe for a little while, keep your regular American number active. This will allow you to seamlessly communicate over the same account as normal and when you switch back to your American phone service at the end of the trip, everything will stay the same.
iMessage is a little more complicated. When you set iMessage up on your phone, you choose where you want people to be able to reach you. If you send and receive iMessages from your cell phone number, changing the SIM card will mean you’ll be forced to send messages from the new phone number during your stay abroad.
If you typically use your email address for iMessage purposes, you can continue using the same address with the new card. Finally, you may need to toggle iMessage off and back on again under your iPhone settings to make iMessage fully functional following a SIM switch.
Still on the fence about what makes the most sense for your trip to Paris? First, think about how you want to use your phone and how long you’ll be in Paris.
Planning on spamming your followers with Insta stories, FaceTiming your mom while walking under the Eiffel Tower, and streaming Netflix at the end of the day? If you’re going to be in Europe for at least five days, buy a SIM card (or an eSIM if your phone can use it).
Making a quick two-day stop in the City of Light and want to use your phone as usual? Travel Passes are probably your best bet.
Worst case scenario, should you find yourself in Paris with no phone service? Look for big brands you know like Starbucks or McDonalds. You won’t get any bonus points for trying out an authentic French bistro, but sample a frappacino à la française, mooch off the WiFi, and give your tired tourist toes a break—it can be your petit secret.
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