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Can you use a U.S. cell phone in France?

If you are planning on relocating to France, this guide tells you what to do to ensure that you can use your U.S. cell phone in France.

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Can you use a U.S. cell phone in France?

Not all cell phones purchased in the United States can function in France but luckily there’s a way to find out beforehand.

Can any U.S. cell phone work in France?

France, like most countries in the world, uses GSM (Global System for Mobile) for cell phone communications. This is why your phone has to be GSM compatible to function in France. In the United States, Sprint (now T-Mobile) and Verizon use a different system called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).

If your phone carrier is Sprint or Verizon, make sure your phone is GSM compatible. I show you how to check if your phone is GSM compatible in the next paragraph.

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Is your U.S. cell phone GSM compatible?

You can easily know if your phone is GSM compatible by checking your phone’s settings.

  • iPhone – Go to Settings, click on General and About.
  • android – Go to Settings, click on System, About Phone and then Status.

Look for a 15-digit IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number near the bottom. If you spot an IMEI number then it means that your phone is GSM compatible. IMEI is a phone’s unique identifier on the GSM network.

Another way to know your IMEI number is to dial *#06# on your cell phone.

Write down your phone’s IMEI number so you can block your phone device in the event that it gets stolen.

If your phone is not GSM compatible, you need to purchase a new phone to use in France. I recommend that you buy your GSM compatible phone in the United States to save money.

Unlock your U.S. cell phone

Mobile carriers sometimes lock your phone. When a cell phone is locked, you can only use it with the carrier who locked it. One easy way to check if your phone is unlocked is by swapping the SIM card to a different SIM card from another carrier. If the other carrier shows up on your screen, your phone is unlocked.

Ask your American phone carrier to unlock your phone. Once unlocked, your phone will work with a SIM card from a different phone provider.

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If you did not unlock your phone before leaving, you can still unlock it as some French phone stores offer unlocking services for a fee.

Keep your U.S. cell phone number

You may be wondering whether or not you should keep a U.S. phone number while living abroad.

Why would you need an American phone number in France?

Nowadays, many banks and companies use 2-factor authentication (2FA). They verify your identity by sending a text message to your cell phone. An American company will not send text messages to an international phone number. This is the main reason why you should keep a U.S. phone number if you can.

When the time comes to transfer money to purchase your dream house in France, you need to be able to receive 2FA text messages from your bank.

Another advantage of keeping the same U.S. phone number is that you do not need to notify your friends and family that your number has changed. They can still reach you by using the same number without paying extra (I explain further down). As a matter of fact, you do not even have to tell people you are abroad if you do not want to.

How can you still use your U.S. phone number in France?

Staying with your current carrier would work but it would be way too expensive in roaming costs. The best and inexpensive solution instead is to transfer your current American phone number to Google Voice before moving abroad. Read How to use a Google Voice number abroad to get all the details.

Would you like to save your U.S. phone number for later?

If you did not port your U.S. phone number to Google Voice but you still want to save it for later, you can park it. Parking your phone number makes it easy to use it again when you are back in the United States.

Many companies such as Park my phone or Numberbarn, offer number parking services. It usually costs around $3 monthly.

To use your number again after parking, port out your number to your new American carrier.

Install WhatsApp

Use WhatsApp to send texts and place phone calls for free

Everybody uses WhatsApp in France. Most French people use WhatsApp to share information within a group, like for instance:

  • birthday party guests
  • invitations to apéros
  • sport groups
  • restricted groups of friends
  • neighbors
  • and much more…

I recommend that you install WhatsApp so you are not kept out of the loop when the next social event comes up.

WhatsApp is a VoIP (Voice over IP) application that allows you to communicate with other WhatsApp users, free of charge. Once you install WhatsApp on your phone, any existing contact who has already installed WhatsApp shows up in your WhatsApp list of contacts.

WhatsApp accounts are linked to a cell phone number but you can easily change the cell phone number associated with an account. As a matter of fact, you can start using WhatsApp with your current U.S. phone number and link it to your French phone number whenever you have one, without loosing any previous conversation or contact.

Unlike Google Voice, you cannot use WhatsApp for two-factor authentication because WhatsApp does not accept number porting.

How to reach family and friends in the United States?

Use VoIP apps to text family and friend back home  from your U.S. cell phone in France.

Use Google Voice or/and WhatsApp to call family and friends in the United States rather than your French plan. All you need is an internet connection and your calls are free.

This article covered how to setup your U.S. cell phone to use it in France. Your next step is to get a French cell phone number. Read Best prepaid SIM card when moving to France to know all about French SIM cards.

Nathalie Nahmani

About Nathalie Nahmani

Nathalie is the creator of ma French Life. She moved back to France after living in Los Angeles for 20 years. She writes practical articles to help expats in France. Nathalie lives with her family in the French Alps near Grenoble.

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