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I've heard announcements on trains in France saying (I paraphrase):

if you haven't been able to buy a ticket, you should buy one from the nearest conductor as soon as possible

When traveling on a train from Lyon to Givors I tried to buy a ticket as the train was leaving the station and was fined as I hadn't purchased a ticket "2 minutes prior to departure".

On which trains in France can I buy a ticket on the train, and how can I know when this is acceptable?

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    Was that train announcement in times of strikes? – Willeke Dec 26 '20 at 21:28
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    It is nearly never acceptable, contrary to what is possible (or used to be) in Switzerland for instance. The message is usually more along the lines of “if you weren’t able to validate (timestamp) your ticket”, then you need to see the train manager before they start their inspection. The only exception could be when you departed from a station where sales kiosks were out of order, I guess, not just because your arrived too late to buy a ticket. – jcaron Dec 26 '20 at 21:47
  • @willeke it's possible that it was in the time of the strikes, but I don't think so. The conductor that fines me mentioned that it was based on department, but as the majority of trains traverse departments I didn't fully understand that – Preston Dec 26 '20 at 22:05
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On some local trains (TER), it's effectively possible to buy a ticket on-board for a higher fare (which is still 30-40% over the regular fare!). It's typically presented as a last resort rather than a service or regular sales channel (which is also why the SNCF is not especially forthcoming with this information) but there is a distinction between this situation and being fined because you don't have a ticket.

It's possible in the following provinces (they advertise it):

It's definitely not possible in the following provinces (the full fine is due even if you approach the train guard yourself):

As far as I can tell, the website is unclear regarding Brittany, Grand-Est, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Pays-de-la-Loire, and Sud-Provence-Alpes-Côtes-d'Azur.

Before 2019, I think it was also possible to buy a ticket everywhere if you boarded a train at a stop with no staff (or maybe with no vending machine?) but now it depends on the province. If the province is not forcing it to offer this possibility, the national train company is pushing hard against it.

The rule on long-distance trains is that you have to buy a ticket before boarding the train but there is still an announcement inviting anybody with ticket issues to make themselves known as soon as possible (or something to that effect, don't remember the exact wording). I am not sure how much leeway train guards have nowadays but it was sometimes enough to secure a reduced fine (that's the distinction between a “tarif bord” and “tarif contrôle” that is still found in some documents) or avoid the fine entirely. Don't get fooled into thinking that this announcement means that buying a ticket on board is expected, though.

Overall, this is clearly not encouraged so I would assume it's not possible and always try to buy a ticket before boarding the train, if at all possible (and not merely inconvenient). If I could not buy a ticket, I would still approach the train guard as soon as possible.

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  • Great answer, thanks. Just for clarification, is it the department in which you bord the train that counts then? Or the dept in which the train originates? – Preston Dec 26 '20 at 23:20
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    @User632716 I believe it's the région (not département) that organised the link. It will typically be identified through markings on the train and other signs. I don't think it matters whether a train goes over a regional border (e.g. if you catch a TER Normandie in Paris-Saint-Lazare, the Normandie rules still apply, if you get on a TER Centre-Val-de-Loire in Brittany, the Centre-Val-de-Loire rules do, etc.). – Relaxed Dec 26 '20 at 23:25
  • What happens if you tried to buy a ticket in advance, but couldn’t. For example, if the ticket vending machine was not working? – Krist van Besien Dec 27 '20 at 6:35
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    @KristvanBesien The controller will fine you or make you pay for the onboard ticket. When you get out of the train you'll have to go to the counter where you usually buy a ticket and ask for a refund (which they might do if they know the station where you board the train has a broken vending machine). But this does not work every time. – f222 Dec 27 '20 at 10:00
  • @f22. I am not surprised. SNCF has long had a policy of discouraging people to travel by train... – Krist van Besien Dec 27 '20 at 13:26

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