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Pay-As-You-Go or Disconnect Entirely

 Edward Snowden - photo courtesy Snowden – photo courtesy phone BoutiqueSFR phone boutiqueSIM Free MobileBouygues phone boutiqueBouygues phone boutiqueViber smartphone app for AndroidViber smartphone app for AndroidWhatsApp appWhatsApp appWe Chat appWeChat app

An old friend visiting Paris from Los Angeles wrote me yesterday, “If Snowden [Edward] has a cell phone I can use I will give him asylum in my house…sheesh.”

This was after a harrowing experience trying to get a cell phone that she can use in Paris while she’s here. It’s a never-ending battle for travelers to stay connected without having to hock their first born to pay the price of calling from outside the U.S.

There are lots of different solutions, but regardless, it’s not all that intuitive or obvious, particularly to the American traveler who isn’t used to changing borders and therefore network providers, calling different country codes and in addition, managing a multitude of different languages. Some try to plan ahead like my friend did with an “international” phone plan (Cellular Abroad, a National Geographic Licensee) she purchased in the States which ended up useless, to say the least. It simply didn’t work and she was unable to receive calls or call out.

Frustrated and looking for an answer, I advised her to stop in a phone store like Orange (44 boutiques in Paris) or SFR (45 boutiques in Paris) to buy a ‘pay-as-you-go’ (“carte prépayée”) phone that usually cost about 50 euro for a cheap phone with some paid minutes on it that can be charged on an as-need basis. When I travel to the U.S., I have a phone just like that — it’s a T-Mobile sim card that I can use in any phone, but was able to purchase a cheap one in a T-Mobile store that cost about $20 (or used in an unlocked smart-phone) that is charged with minutes upon need using a credit card…’piece of cake’ and very inexpensive for local calling.

She took the advice and then cursed me! Her first stop was Orange, thinking they would be the most logical, but her experience was so distasteful that she wrote, “Orange was so abusive, non-helpful, that it serves this country right that they will be eaten alive by the nice people from the Maghreb! The rude Orange ‘vendeur’ [salesperson] of course, offered to sell me something, but would not take the time to check my phone for capability.” Her description of the boutique was that it “looked like a warehouse, was disorderly and there were many aggravated people everywhere.”

I was not surprised. I’ve heard more seriously shocking Orange stories than I have hairs on my head, including a few I’ve experienced myself. I don’t know what France Télécom management does to make their employees so unhappy, but you never want to butt heads with a salesperson in an Orange boutique as you are sure to be the loser.

It must come from the days from France Telecom was a government-run division of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (until 1988). In 2004, the French government sold a part of its shareholding and France Télécom became a private company. In June of 2006, it began to brand all of its products under the name “Orange,” but for one reason or another, they have still not quite learned how to compete effectively on the open market, including teaching their personnel how to treat customers.

Still on the quest for satisfaction, my friend trekked over to the nearest SFR boutique for another go at getting a phone. Once a customer of SFR, I gave them up in lieu of a much better deal with, but also because of three battles I had with them over a variety of issues, one of which was excessive roaming charges when traveling. I was able to partially win this battle by sending registered letters to 13 of their vice-presidents — no amount of conversation with customer service did any good at all!

Fortunately, at SFR, she had a very different experience. “The nice receptionist at SFR, Miriam, listened to my story of lack of service at Orange with cultural understanding. She said, ‘We’re supposed to offer service. Many French people are mean, unless they are on vacation!’ She then very quickly checked my phone, confirmed that it was unlocked, meaning I did not need to buy another phone.” Miriam sold her a SIM card, minutes for usage and then loaded it for her while she took a 15-minute walk before returning to the boutique to retrieve the ready phone.

“I ran to Monoprix and bought her a little token MERCI gift. With that in hand, I went back and she was SO SURPRISED about the gift she hugged me.”

Bouygues, with 29 boutiques in Paris, is another phone-seller from which one can buy a pay-as-you-go phone. (Pronounced “bweegg” or listen to to be sure.) I have no reports on their customer service, however, so you take your chances!

One thing to watch for once you have your pay-as-you-go phone is that the minutes may expire at some point. So next time you’re in Paris, if too much time has lapsed, that same SIM card may not be valid. Minutes can be purchased at “Tabacs” (cafés that sell cigarettes), in the phone boutiques, of course, and other locations, such as the Post Office, online from their Web sites, and by dialing a number the provider provides and then using your credit or debit card. Good news: in France, you don’t pay for incoming calls, only outgoing calls.

If you have a smart phone with WiFi, then you’re way ahead of the game when traveling abroad. Apps like Viber, WhatsApp and WeChat make it possible to make calls as long as you have Internet access…which is now almost certain in most hotels and rental apartments.

And of course, you may choose to disconnect entirely and have no phone at all!

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - The Adrian Leeds Group, INCAdrian Leeds

Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC


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