Phones in France
When we left for France we really didn’t know how we were going to keep in contact with people in the US or how we would communicate by phone with each other and others in France after we got here. This article describes our rambling, imperfect process. We use Apple’s iPhone, but if you have a different phone, the process with your US and European carrier should be similar. We wanted our friends and business clients in the US to still be able to contact us on our US phones while at the same time be able to use the French mobile phone system to call around France and to provide a more reliable way to reach us should someone really need to do so.
With those goals in mind, and also that to start with we had two US iphones, we decided to keep one and unlock the other to use in Europe. My phone had been in our AT&T plan for long enough to allow unlocking. The linked article from AT&T provides the unlock request form and instructions from Apple regarding unlocking. Basically you need to back up your iPhone just prior to unlocking because you’re going to erase the entire contents of the phone. I unlocked my iphone when we were still in the US.
We had heard about an Iphone application called LIne 2 that could run on Brenda’s still working iphone and have a 2nd phone number set up as a 2nd line. The application is marketed as a way to have both your home phone and business phone on the same line, but it also works in our situation to have both our old cell phone numbers on a single US phone in Europe, with the ability in Line 2 to make IP only calls from that phone to the US and to receive calls and voicemail on both phones still. So to be clear, Brenda’s US cell phone doesn’t work at all over the European cell network, but with Line 2 either of us can use it to call the US for free, and people in the US can call us if we are in a wireless network such as we have at home in Paris.
Our idea with line 2 was to keep both of our US cell phone numbers so that anyone trying to reach us would still be able to at least leave a message that we would receive. To make this work, we decided to port my old cell phone number to line 2 installed on Brenda’s cell phone. Part of the Line 2 set up lets you port a cell phone number from another phone to your phone with Line 2 (rather than just picking a new number that you like). You’ll need your carrier’s permission to transfer the old number, but it was not a problem in our case. If I recall the process took about a week. The other major consideration for using line 2 in Europe is that we needed to forward Brenda’s working US cell phone to the line 2 number (my old cell phone number) prior to leaving the US. You need to tell the US network to forward all calls to the number that can receive calls over ip since the US cell phone can’t connect once you arrive in Europe. We forgot and had to call the US for technical assistance to get this done after arriving here.
So we arrived in Europe with my cell phone unlocked and not working at all, Brenda’s cell phone with line 2 installed and able to call the US over the internet. Both old cell phone numbers could receive messages and sometimes ring Brenda’s phone with calls from the US. When we moved into the Adagio Vincennes apartment hotel, our home for the first month here, we found that the free Internet service was also very slow. It also dropped the Internet connection whenever it was idle for a few minutes. That pretty much messed up our ability to receive phone calls on Line 2. Still people could leave voicemails which would also be emailed to us (as an audio file attachment), so we had a good way to know when people were trying to reach us.We had 2 iphones, 2 ipads, and a laptop computer. Each device could be upgraded to a higher speed internet, but still very slow compared to what we had in our home in the US, for a cost. We didn’t want to upgrade speed on all our devices, and at that point we were still trying to figure out how best to use Line 2 and how to get Brenda’s US number forwarded. So at that point we also got a Skype account.
Skype is free as long as you are talking to a friend computer to computer. Skype also provides very low cost calling to multiple countries from your computer to landlines or mobile phone numbers. To use the free part of Skype, all you do is enter your friend’s Skype name in the application and send a request to them. Once they acknowledge your request the 2 accounts are paired and you can use your computer to contact them. If they see your call and acknowledge on their computer, you can talk with or without video. I opened a Skype pay account for unlimited calling to US landlines and cell phones, but in fact we haven’t needed to use that very much. We use the free part of Skpe to make scheduled calls with family and friends and use line 2 to call voice only for most other needs.
Once we had a French bank account, we were able to convert my old cell phone to a French cell phone. We use the French mobile carrier Orange. For €29/month we have unlimited calling, texting, 2GB of data downloads, music downloads and a bunch of other stuff I don’t use. Most people staying shorter times in France don’t opt for a plan like we did, but instead just get a cheap phone that can purchase blocks of minutes and other options like texting. Orange offers these types of plans too. The Orange store activated my old iPhone by installing a new sim card compatible with their system. Then all I had to do was synchronize my phone with the saved download in my computer and everything from before was restored. Voilà!
As an aside, every time I turn off or reboot my cell phone, the Sim card locks and when the phone next starts up it asks me to enter the unlock code. Below the message to enter the code, it says I have 3 tries remaining. Knowing that my phone would no doubt be turned off again more than 3 times, I was worried how I would make the phone useable after 3 more times. We went to the Orange store, where the sales person explained to me that the message means I have 3 tries to get the code right, not 3 more tries to use the phone before it goes dead. If you fail after 3 tries, there is another code to revive your ability to try entering the code again.
When we moved into our apartment, the landlord provided a landline from Free.com, a French company. Free.com provides Internet, TV, and phone service for one low price, and part of the plan selected by the landlord was unlimited free calling to the US – again that’s an IP phone call. The Internet service is reliable and of comparable speed to what we had in the US – much better than at the hotel. The TV is not so good – it’s hard to connect without rebooting all the devices. We don’t use the land line much because we have so many other ways to call.
IP phone calls are generally great – the audio is as if the person you are speaking with was in the room with you – better than the regular phone. IP phone calls also drop the line unexpectedly so you can plan on occasionally having to reconnect with the other person during phone calls. The last thing is that the French phone carriers are on to all this money they are losing with international IP phone calls, so recently the French Government filed charges against Skype for not being a telephone operator in France. This could throw a monkey wrench into all the IP calling so you need to remain aware of it.