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Sitting in your sparse (or box-cluttered) new abode in France, there is something profoundly irritating, or even depressing, about not having a telephone line at your disposal. It often takes up to 72 hours to set up an account with France Télécom, and if you are unfortunate enough to move into a flat or house that has been unoccupied for some time before, chances are the phone line has been deactivated entirely and you'll probably have to wait a week or so for a France Télécom technician to pencil you into his busy schedule. Worse yet, as a Chilean friend of mine experienced, some branches ask for proof of a carte de séjour and a bank account before they so much as allow you a dial tone. (This phenomenon, as far as I can tell, is totally arbitrary.) There's really no way to get around these irritations and delays, because France Télécom holds a monopoly on basic telecommunications services. So stock up on those cute little thematic telephone-booth cards (available in most tabacs and train stations), and see your phone woes as part of the Gallic adventure.

On the upside, what can be avoided are outrageously high telephone bills. What some expats don't realise (I certainly didn't), is that while you are obliged to open an account with France Télécom, (see our guide to phoning)you are by no means forced to pay their generally high rates on national and international calls. In the past few years, private telecom companies offering reasonable per-minute tariffs have sprung from out of the woodwork in an obvious effort to crush the FT monopoly. While a few years ago such offers were muddled and dubious, these private companies have reworked themselves so that they truly can offer bill-shrinking alternatives. Companies like Tele2 and Cegetel provide no-obligations access to their lower tariffs via the use of a special prefix. Your call is then entirely billed by the private company and France Telecom will not charge you for the cost of a local call in addition (this was the case some time ago.) Most private companies with such offers do not demand a fixed monthly charge, so you won't have to worry about paying double or multiple abonnements. In addition, for those with businesses, there are numerous companies that cater specially to corporate clients, offering advantageous rates on multiple lines.

The key is to conduct thorough research, reading the fine print where you may find those annoying strings attached. You can request brochures on company websites or customer service lines, but if your French is poor or just a distant dream, the task could be tough. Take your time, ask a savvy French friend or co-worker, and decide on which companies might suit you the best by consulting our at-a-glance rates chart below. It's a practical and frequently updated, though not exhaustive, look at rates from France's top telecom services. Further research is recommended.

Part 2: How to Choose a Mobile Phone
Without even considering the arduous task of choosing among the hundreds of colours and models of mobile phones available, selecting a server and package that best fits your needs and budget can seem even more daunting. France is a country in which mobile phones have become nearly as staple as baguettes, and Parisians especially have a tendency to have a hard time hiding their feeling that you're just a bit gauche if you get by without one. "How am I supposed to contact you if you're not home, Mademoiselle?", someone once asked me, exasperated, towards the end of a job interview.

This mobile-crazed culture probably explains why France's three main servers, Orange, SFR, and Bouygues, have taken pains to design plans for every conceivable personality, from incessant gabbers and text-message addicts to reluctant folk who secretly resent the idea of being joignable while scanning the aisles of Franprix for salmon steaks. I happen to belong to the latter group. However, after a year of resistance, the assimilation process is starting to take hold of me. Here's why:

-> The outrageously high cost of calling mobile phones from a fixe. You will certainly come across friends, clients, or prospective employers who cannot be reached on a ground line, and if you call them from your home phone, your bill will quickly skyrocket. It is more expensive per minute to call a mobile phone within Paris than it is to call Canada!

-> In France, a mobile phone is not really a luxury item, so it is possible to find a plan that corresponds to a small budget. Since many, if not a majority, of people in France have mobiles, you can cut costs by choosing to skip over installing a land-line.

-> Notions of time tend to be more fluid in France than they are in Anglophone countries, and last-minute cancellations, delays, or late friends can make you tear your hair out if you don't have a mobile on hand to keep you informed.

Which Forfait for Me?
When choosing a forfait, start with one that allows a little more time than you expect to use, because servers charge heavily by the minute for calls made beyond the allotted time for the month (hors forfait). If you then find yourself with far more time than you need at the end of the month, you can opt for a less expensive package.

There will be numerous extras to consider. Do I want to check my e-mail or surf the web via my mobile? Do I want to play video games, customize the rings based on who is calling, or have automatic free weekend minutes? Your personality and budget will determine which extras are necessary. Be sure to carefully scour the details of each plan to make sure that you don't choose features that don't interest you. In the end, there are few real "freebies."

Are there any qualitative differences between France's three leading mobile-phone servers? I have friends that would swear by SFR over Orange or the reverse, but as far as I can tell, other than slight discrepancies in price and features, they are all pretty much dependable. Which one you end up choosing will depend largely on which features snag you the most.

On a final note, the chart above is meant only to be abroad outline of some of the more popular packages on offer in France. For lack of space, I've not included the lengthy descriptions that go along with them, so I advise you to solicit extra info from the mobile company that interests you.

Contact Guide
France Telecom: 10 14 (free call)
3U Telecom: 0805 10 1645 (free call)
9 Telecom: 0800 959 959
Akeo Telecom:
Cegetel: 0805 805 803 (free call)
One Tel: 0825 92 55 55 ( €0.149/minute)
Tele2 : 0805 04 44 44 (free call)
Orange: 0800 830 800 (free call)
SFR: 01 40 54 04 04
Bouygues: 0810 63 03 30 ( €0.04/minute)

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