Keep your iPhone alive in France

I’ve traded my tropical Brazilian summer for what turned out to be a harsh French winter. My brain is delighted to exchange ideas with my colleague (and former advisor) Prof. Matthieu Cord at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, and my colleague (and old friend) Prof. Frédéric Precioso at the Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis. My nose, however, is complaining a lot.

* * *

I’ve heard that traveling with a smartphone makes for a much enhanced experience. Living it first-hand, I realize the huge difference some simple things make when you are abroad, like having Google Maps ready at your hands. Apps for specific destinations are la cérise du gâteau (the Parisian metro/bus company RATP has a terrific one, also available for Android).

However, keeping the gourmand smartphone alive without breaking the bank might be a challenge. The solution I adopted was buying a pre-paid local SIM card. Making it happen, however, is harder than it should.

As far as I know, none of the main French carriers offer interesting pre-paid Internet offers in micro-SIM format. Among the prepaid mini-SIM offers, Orange’s Internet Max is interesting : it gives you “unlimited” (actually something around 500 Gb) data access for a month.

  1. Having chosen to go with Orange Fr, and their pre-paid offer, the Mobicarte, I’ve tried to buy it online — so it would be waiting for me, when I arrived. Their damn online shop, however, would not take my credit card. Maybe you’ll be luckier ?
  2. So, one day after I landed, I went to a physical shop and asked for a Mobicarte (priced around 10€). They’ve asked in which phone I’d use it and I answered “oh, it’s an old Nokia — I was using a friend’s Mobicarte in it but now I have to return it”. (No, my pants weren’t on fire.)
  3. They’ve asked me for an identity document. I didn’t have my passport on me, but they accepted my Brazilian identity card. In doubt, I think it’s safer to bring the passport.
  4. I also bought some credit, around 25€, to complement the 5€ of credit that comes with the Mobicarte.

All that was incredibly easy —I kept reading stories round the net on how buying the chip is a nightmare —  maybe the secret is to feign ignorance : don’t mention the words “iPhone”, “Android” or “Internet Max”, and you should be safe.

Now, the difficult parts are : (I) to make the card fit in the iPhone ; (II) to be patient enough to go through all the hoops in order to activate the Internet Max options.

Part I is a matter of having guts. I’ve heard of people who use their own (or a friend’s) micro-SIM as a template, and a very sharp kitchen knife, with good results. I’m not so brave, so, just before my trip, I’ve ordered this gadget on Amazon.fr : a mini-SIM trimmer, which performs the operation without requiring much adroitness. It arrived two days after I landed. You can check both the clipper and the results below :

SIM clipper used to convert a mini-SIM (a Mobicarte from Orange Fr) to a micro-SIM

One obvious recommendation is to clip and test the chip on the iPhone before loading the credits, so if something goes wrong you’re losing 10€ instead of 34€. I’m only emphasizing this because, as a good absent-minded professor, I went and loaded the credits immediately after buying them.

Activating the Internet Max is a matter of patience. First, chances are you’ll have to wait at least 24h after buying the chip, until the system identifies you. Otherwise you’ll receive a frightening message saying that you are not identified, and that your account you be cancelled, and that you’ll be guillotined at the place de la Concorde. Nothing like that will happen — ignore the message and wait another day :

Vous ne pouvez pas souscrire à l’option Internet Max car nous ne pouvons pas vous identifier. Vous devez vous rendre dans votre point de vente accompagné de votre pièce d’identité. Votre ligne sera rétablie quelques jours après l’enregistrement de vos cordonnées. Sans action de votre part, votre ligne sera suspendue un mois après l’activation de la ligne. Vous ne pourrez plus passer des appels et votre ligne sera résiliée deux mois après son activation.

Services menu of Orange Fr, invoked calling #123# Then, to activate the Internet Max option, invoke the services menu calling the number #123#, then choose the options :

4 – Mon space (My space)
3 – Ajouter une option (Add an option)
5 – Suite (Next)
1 – Internet + Mail
2 – Internet Max
1 – Suite
1 – Souscrire (Subscribe)
1 – Valider (Validate)

Or something like that, to be honest. The menu changes a lot, according to the current design and promotions, but you should be able to find your way.

Internet Max will cost you 9€ for a month, at current prices, but one word of warning : it doesn’t cover POP / SMTP / IMAP traffic, used for example, by most e-mail apps and e-mail push notifications. If you’re on a budget, avoid using those apps, and disable push notifications for e-mail. Otherwise, you can buy an “Option mail” (following instructions very close to the ones above, but changing the 5th step), that covers unlimited traffic for those protocols, for 6€. So, the real cost for “unlimited” net is 15€ per month.

Finally, the most difficult step : waiting. Beware, because the options max will not be activated immediately : that will take 48h ! With the identification delay after buying the card, that makes for a minimum of three days of waiting, so this solution is only practical for longer trips.

Big thumbs-up for the guys at VeloNomad — I’ve first learned about that possibility there. They seem to have a service that sends you a French SIM home, before the trip, so you can have your phone ready to communicate from day one. I’ve discovered that service too close to my trip for it to be useful — if you use it, I’m curious to find about your experience. They add those very good remarks  :

  • Disable the 3G/data roaming before you put the SIM on the phone, or the credits might disappear surprisingly fast (if you are serious about avoiding roaming charges, it’s actually a good idea to do it home, before turning off the phone in the plane) ;
  • Before diving in the net or mail, use it a bit and check if the credits are draining — if they are, the option is not yet activated ;
  • Obvious, but sometimes overlooked : ensure that your phone is unlocked before you leave home !

(Finally, my lawyer is telling me to reinforce that those instructions are provided in good faith, but that you should be careful, find information and make your own decisions : if you follow the instructions and your phone turns into a brick, or you are attacked by a flock of angry birds, I’m not liable.)

(Postscriptum : the intention here is having access to the web at reasonable cost, so to have a more enjoyable trip in France, not to cheat Orange Fr. Be reasonable : don’t go and tether all your party of 20 travelers on a single chip, don’t download an entire Hollywood worth of pirate movies, etc. In other words : be a conscious hacker and don’t spoil this for everyone else.)

Edit jan/14 — The Internet Max offer has changed, and not completely for the better. I’ve blogged about it in a recent visit to France.

3 thoughts on “Keep your iPhone alive in France

  1. I have just been to Ireland, Switzerland and Italy. I bought prepaid sim cards in each of these countries. What I can is “your mileage may vary”. Even tough in all countries the SIM cards were easy to buy, just present the passport and buy with a few euros load and look up first what is the best plan/tariff, I have been trough a few glitches.

    In Ireland everything went smooth, the SIM card was promptly active, data connection working fine and no trouble at all.

    In Switzerland, everything seemed fine with voice and sms, but the data part would not work. So I took to the store and the rep changed the APN it had acquired automatically from the SIM card. It is tricky too, because apparently the phone changes it back when it reboots. He managed to put it as default.

    In Italy things got worst. I bought the WIND offer and it seemed to never work, so I spent another 20 euro and got a TIM which promptly worked. Well, on the second day the WIND card worked, apparently it takes a day to activate the new SIM at WIND, whereas at TIM it is immediate.

    There are many sites devoted to this discussion of prepaid SIM cards abroad. Two I like best are http://prepaidwithdata.wikia.com/wiki/Prepaid_SIM_with_data and http://www.prepaidgsm.net The second is best with the forums. Many of the Brazil plans pages I have given an updated info, but it changes sooooo quickly it is hard even for me to inform someone which carrier offers the best plan for one’s need.

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