A woman at a park bench texts on her phone with the Eiffel Tower visible in the distance.

If you’re from America or Canada, don’t make the mistake of underestimating your carrier’s roaming fees. Photo © Ekaterina Pokrovsky/123rf.

Getting set up with a cellular phone, or “mobile” (as it’s called here), poses challenges for Luddites and techno-wizards alike. The best solution is to carefully consider how often you’ll use your phone and what you’re willing to spend per month for those privileges. Quad-band smartphones, including BlackBerry and iPhone, can be great for the newbie in France, especially if you use the apps designed to help you find food, maps, train times, and more. But don’t make the mistake of underestimating your American or Canadian carrier’s roaming fees, which may be exorbitant—they have left many bewildered traveler or expat with a bill heavy on zeros. If you don’t know what your call-abroad options are, check in with your service provider before leaving. There might be a simple solution that takes all the hassle out of communicating as soon as you land.

Keep in mind that if you purchase the dual-band European phone, it won’t work when you travel back to North America, but your tri- or quad-band phone will.

If you know you’re going to be here for at least 12 to 18 months—the average length of time for most cell-phone contracts—you might choose to start from scratch and purchase a phone and calling plan here. At FNAC, you can get an iPhone or Android for free which if you sign up for an 18-month contract at €100 per month. Not sure you’ll use your phone enough to warrant that kind of expenditure? Then a €20 pay-as-you-go phone might be the best possibility. These cheap phones are a good way to try out a service and see how much you use it. Phone House and FNAC both have big selections, and you can also find phones at hypermarchés like Auchan and Carrefour. Keep in mind that if you purchase the dual-band European phone, it won’t work when you travel back to North America, but your tri- or quad-band phone will.

Another way to go is to invest in a second phone: Keep your U.S. cell phone for when you return stateside, and purchase another cheap one to use exclusively in France. This option makes the most economic sense if you’re not a phone addict or you don’t rely heavily on phones for work. At special phone shops and other electronics stores throughout France, you can buy a bundled phone-and-SIM-card combo for €15–30. When the time you’ve purchased runs out, you can buy additional minutes in increments of €5–10, starting at €5. The time is purchased in the form of a carte prépayée (prepaid card), or, if you purchase it from a tabac, you’ll be handed a small printed receipt with an access code for you to punch into your phone.

This pay-as-you-go method is a little pricey when it comes to outgoing calls, but incoming calls and SMSs (texts or “textos”) are free and unlimited. You can also purchase minutes exclusively reserved for texts, which are a lot more economical and just as far-reaching. Half-and-half time allotments are also available to those who want to keep their options open. The minutes you buy, whether for texting or calling or both, have an expiration date that’s usually two weeks from the date of purchase. Keep in mind that if you don’t purchase new minutes at least once every six months, you’ll get a text from the SIM service provider alerting you that your account will be shut down if there’s not some outgoing-call activity within a certain time frame. (You generally get a two-week warning.)

Another affordable option is to use your “unlocked” phone from home with a new France-compatible SIM card that you buy either before you depart or when you arrive in France (there are shops at the airport and in many cities and towns). In the United States and elsewhere, phones are sold “locked” by the telephone service provider to keep you roped into its service. (“Unlocking” shouldn’t be be confused with “unblocking” phones that have been reported stolen, which isn’t kosher on any continent.) You can use online unlocking companies like Remote Unlocks and Unlock it Now wherever you happen to be, and while the service isn’t free, it’s cheapish enough—usually less than US$50.

If you make most or all of your phone calls to the U.S., some of the latest technology allows you to use your smartphone with programs like Line 2 and Toktumi, which will assign you a local U.S. or Canada phone number that you can use throughout France to call home for free. These also allow you to use a texting option worldwide for a universal US$0.10 rate.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Living Abroad in France.