Getting a prepaid SIM card is one of the more ridiculously cumbersome processes in France. It means going into a shop (usually with a long line), wading through French paperwork, presenting your passport to be photocopied, and finally getting your service activated. Going in for surgery in France is only slightly more difficult (and I would know).
It probably doesn’t help my outlook on things that a friend told me recently that when he was in the UK, he got a SIM card from a vending machine and was good to go. Well, this is France, not the island of the Queen.
Last week I stopped into a Tabac to purchase another month of service for the girls’ phones. You get a big long receipt printed out, but all that really matters is the fourteen digit code. Call the special number, wait for the automated French voice to stop talking (“wait for the end of… of… the speech,” the French salesman at the Tabac told me), press “2” and then enter the code.
The first time I did this I left the shop before trying to enter the code and went home, only to realize I couldn’t understand the French “speech” and didn’t know what selection to choose. Thankfully, the concierge’s daughter was able to help me (the concierge is kind of like a building manager who lives on the ground floor). The next time, I had the man at the Tabac do it for me and show me how to do it the next time.
So it’s the next time and I’m feeling confident. I’ve got two fourteen digit codes and I know what buttons to press. I get home and Carolyn’s phone accepts the code without any trouble. Time for Evelyn’s phone. I call the special number, but the announcement I get is definitely not the same. I can’t understand much of what’s being said, but it’s clear it’s not giving me any options. The Orange phone company jingle plays and then it hangs up on me. I check her text messages; sure enough, there’s one from Orange that says something to the effect that we need to go back to the shop (le magasin) and present identification to get the service reestablished.
Okay. So I make sure I have a book to read (Dracula, no less!) and go to the shop. Mercifully, the line is short and I’m able to get help in under fifteen minutes.
The Orange shop near our apartment.
Aside–This is how it goes at Orange: someone greets you, finds out what you need, takes your name, and then tells you to wait. This person then spends the rest of their time tidying the shop (or just gazing around with a slight, Mona Lisa smile) but never actually helps any of the customers.
The representative who assists me calls up the account for Evelyn’s phone on his computer terminal. Turns out there’s no personal identification or passport information associated with it. The only thing I can think of is that when I first got the SIM cards for the girls’ phones, all the information was entered into Carolyn’s account but not Evelyn’s. No problem. He enters all the info, takes a picture of my passport with his phone and emails it off to whomever has the power to make Evelyn’s service active. He tells me it might take an hour or two for it to be ready to accept the recharge code I’ve purchased. Fine. I head off to meet a friend and later that night I try calling the recharge number with my code in hand. But no such luck; I get the same announcement as before with the bouncy Orange jingle. Could it be that things are just taking longer than the man at the shop expected? Let’s hope for that. But in the morning it’s the same thing. There’s nothing for it; I have to go back to le magasin.
As I’m waiting, the man who helped me the day before comes into work. And when my name is called he’s the one available to see me. And he remembers me. This is all quite fortuitous! I show him the phone and my receipt with the recharge number. He tries it and gets the same recording. He checks the account—sure enough, it’s locked pending my personal information getting validated. He gets on the phone and spends time navigating automated menus in order to get to the powers-that-be who can unlock the account. The call is dropped. He starts over. After some time he looks at me and asks if I just want a brand new SIM card. It means Evelyn will get a different phone number, but it will be no charge and it will work immediately.
Oui, let’s do that!
He hangs up and disappears to the backroom to get the new SIM card. When he returns, he pops it in the phone, but the phone refuses to recognize it. Is the phone unlocked? Oui, I say, it worked fine when I got the original SIM card. Hmm. He goes to the back room and reappears with another new SIM card. He pops it in. Same result—the phone won’t recognize it. He gives me a look. Surely there must be something wrong with the phone. Wonderful. Evelyn’s phone is my old iPhone; the battery doesn’t last as long as it used to and the physical on/off button is sticky. I’m starting to think that we’re going to have to get her a new phone when the man pops the second unrecognized SIM card into his own cell phone. His phone won’t recognize it either. He tries the first unrecognized SIM card in his phone; same result. Two brand new, non-working SIM cards! “Très bizarre!” he says.
Finally, the third time is a charm. He gets a third SIM card and it works, accepting the recharge code. He shakes his head and actually looks apologetic (a rare sight in this country where it’s a privilege for the customer to even enter the shop). “Désolé” (Sorry), he says. “Très bizarre.”
I pack up all the new paperwork (along with Dracula) and head out of the store, hoping I won’t have to be back anytime soon. Evelyn’s phone is working again–at least for one more month…