You have arrived in France, fully expecting your cell phone to function, but, for reasons beyond plausible explanation, it doesn’t. What are your options for using telephones in France? There are many. You can use the public phone cabins, which are sprinkled liberally throughout the airports, railway stations and the streets of Paris. Almost all but the tiniest hamlets in France have one, usually somewhere near the municipality or the post office.

Use Your Credit Card

You can use either your credit or debit card, provided that it has a puce, a magnetic chip. If it does, you can use it instead of the prepaid telephone cards that public telephone cabins otherwise require. Slide it into the slot provided in the telephone apparatus, chip-side up and chip-end first. Follow the step-by-step instructions in the box below.

Prepaid France Telecom Card

If you do not have a chip in your credit card, then to use the public telephone cabins in France you need to buy a prepaid France Telecom card, a carte telephonique, pronounced ‘kahrt te-le-fo-nik’, sometimes also called ‘smart’ cards. They come in two denominations: petit, small, and grande, large, containing 50 and 120 units respectively, with the grande slightly more economic. They cost 7.50 and 15 € at the time of this writing. Remove the wrapper and slide the chip-side up, chip-end first, into the slot in the phone apparatus. Wait an instant and you should see the number of units that remains in your card appear in the window at the top of the telephone apparatus, and you will hear the dial tone. Dial as described below in the box.

Local calls currently cost one unit to connect and one unit per minute. Calls to cell phones, 08 numbers and abroad cost more, and you can monitor the amount of credit remaining in your card in the window of the phone apparatus. Smart cards can be bought at France Telecom agencies, post offices, most official tourism offices, tobacconists, Tabac, pronounced “tah-bah,” and they are identifiable from a distance by the red, diamond shaped sign with the word Tabac on it that hangs outside each establishment, even in-doors, and at many newspaper stands.

Prepaid Code Cards

You can also purchase prepaid code cards, for different destinations, such as North America, Africa, the Middle East, et cetera, which offer reduced rates that can be very economic. Using these cards to make telephone calls in France does not require you to slide the card into the telephone apparatus slot. Simply follow the instructions on the back of the code card. They can be bought mostly at tobacconists or newspaper stands. You can usually also use the code cards from any functioning telephone, including one in your hotel room or apartment.

One downside to the prepaid code cards is that sometimes they stop functioning before all of the credit has been used. If you want to get a refund, you will have to return to the vendor to see what can be done. Getting a refund can entail time and leg-work.

Disposable Phones

Another option is to buy a disposable phone, produced by BIC, the company that originated disposable ball points and lighters. All models come with a SIM card that is ready to use, but some do not have a prepaid card included, while others do. One model without a prepaid card currently costs 29 euros, and you need to buy a prepaid card in addition to use it. Choices run from 5, 10, 15, 25, 35, etc. euros. One model of disposable phone, with a 60 minute prepaid card included, currently costs 49 euros. When you have used up the 60 minutes, presumably for local calls (less, if dialing abroad), you can purchase another prepaid card from the selection just cited.

You can receive any number of phone calls on your disposable phone without charge; but if you initiate calls, you may rapidly run through the credit in your prepaid card. Disposable phones and prepaid cards are available at tobacconists, France Telephone agencies and many news stands. Depending on your call destinations, this can become a costly option. Disposable phones are great to be reachable, but can be expensive if you make a lot of calls from them. Disposable phones are guaranteed to work for a year.

Rent a working Cell Phone

Finally, another option for using telephones in France, if you are at one of the Paris airports, or in Paris and other major cities and towns in France, is to rent a functioning cell phone by the day, week or month from shops that offer such services. The risk is that if you rent from an unscrupulous operator, you may find your credit card charged more than is justified. If you trust your concierge, ask him to refer you to a rental company that has a proven record of reliability. In principle the advantage in renting a functioning cell phone is that you can both receive and initiate calls at reasonable cost. Be sure to verify the terms with the company/shop that rents it to you, and have them specify the terms in writing. If in doubt, revert to buying a disposable phone.

Step-by-Step Dialing with a France Telecom Prepaid Card

Find a public phone and look in the window at the top of the apparatus. If it is in working order, you will see the French word Decrochez, meaning lift the receiver. Out of order phones will display Hors Service in the window. If you run into one, find another phone showing Decrochez, remove the receiver and the words Patientez SVP will appear, asking you to please wait. You will then see the words Introduire carte or faire numéro libre, meaning introduce your card or compose the toll free number. Certain four digit numbers, such as the police, fire department, or SAMU (emergency first aid) in France are toll free.

Assuming you have got the dial tone and you are calling abroad, first dial zero twice, then the country code, and finally the number. If there is a zero at the start of your number (after the country code numbers) and your call is not successfully completed, try re-dialing without that zero. It should go through. Keep track of the credit remaining in your card, which shows in the window, to avoid being cut off without warning when the credit runs out.

If you are dialing a number in France, do not enter the country code (33), as it is not needed. All French telephone numbers are ten digits in length and begin with zero. Dial the zero and then the first positive integer of the number. If that is ‘1’ you will be dialing a number in Paris or the Ile de France (the near-by region that surrounds Paris). Numbers 2-5 designate different regions of the country. ‘6’ is reserved for cell phones and ‘8’ indicates a number that provides a service, some of which are toll free, but most of them, when called, will charge your card a rate per minute. Rates vary with the nature of the service. The rate will appear in the window.

Step-by-Step Dialing with a Credit Card with a Chip

Slide your card into the slot provided in the telephone apparatus, and you will see the words words Patientez SVP reappear in the window, after an interval followed by the words Composez votre code – essai 1 meaning enter your PIN, 1st try. Punch in your PIN on the key board and hit the pound key. If you forget the pound key, the window will prompt you for it with Validez par # . If all is well, you will hear the dial tone, and you can proceed to dial your number. Warning: if the cost of your call, which appears in the window of the apparatus, reaches 15 euros, the call will automatically disconnect.

Two things can go wrong in the above procedure: if you take too long to act on one of the prompts, you will see the word Raccrochez appear in the window, which means hang up. Start the procedure anew, and be quicker in your response to the prompts. If you enter the wrong PIN, you will see the words Composez votre code – essai 2 which means that you entered the wrong PIN, re-enter it, second try. CAUTION: if you enter your PIN incorrectly three times, the phone will no longer accept your card.