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I'm planning to buy a new mobile phone in Canada, where I'll use it for a while before returning to France.

I never traveled outside of Europe before, so I don't know a lot about the technical aspect of this question, but I do know that the frequencies used for mobile phone communications are different.

Are there some mobile phone models that won't work outside of Canada (and that I should avoid). What technical features should I look for ?

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The quick answer to your question is, if you buy a recent model you have a very good chance it'll work in France. Now for more detail.

Network

France uses predominantly the GSM network while in Canada usage is still mixed, so if you're buying a phone from an operator, make sure you choose a GSM compatible operator such as Rogers or Fido. Bell or Telus both operate GSM networks but still have older, different networks, so if you're buying from them make sure the phone is not CDMA only.

Frequency

Even if you buy a GSM phone, European frequencies are slightly different so make sure you buy what is called a multiband phone (supporting 850/1900 and 900/1800MHz for 2G and 900/2100 for 3G frequencies). You can find these in the phone manual or you can just ask the seller. As for LTE, major Canadian operators operate on band 7 used in France so you should be ok in dense urban areas, but might be less helpful in rural areas.

Unlock

Only applies if you're buying from an operator, make sure you unlock the phone before returning to France. I've done it many times and is very simple, you pay for a code the operator sends you, install a package and restart your phone.

Note

Most recent smartphones, including Apple and Samsung ones, sold in North America support multiple frequencies and you can buy them unlocked if you wish. Unless you're buying an older or limited model phone, it's unlikely you'll have to worry much about it.

  • You seem to have covered 2G and 4G but what about 3G? (I don't know about france but here in the UK 4G is pretty limited and 2G seems pretty much unusable) – Peter Green Aug 15 '16 at 20:32
  • @PeterGreen updated – blackbird Aug 15 '16 at 20:58
  • There's a lot of bits of this that aren't quite right. Bell, Telus and Rogers all operate 3G UMTS and 4G LTE networks, and all are equally usable by a European phone with the right band support. Rogers is the only one with a legacy 2G GSM network, but who wants to use that? The 1700 MHz band (AWS, 3G/4G Band 4) is not a European band, 2600 (Band 7) is (barely) used only in big cities. The Wikipedia pages for the 3 big carriers have charts of the bands each uses, a European phone supporting as many of those as possible should work fine on any of them. Fido is a Rogers brand. – Dennis Aug 16 '16 at 2:40
  • P.S. I know the previous comment was written for phones moving in the FR->CA direction when what he needs are the bands to look for on a North American phone to make sure it also works well in France, so it isn't answering his question. – Dennis Aug 16 '16 at 3:15
  • @blackbird I must agree with Dennis here, that your answer is exceptionally inprecise. What it boils down to is that most modern smart phones have a very wide range of supported frequency bands and that they are likely to work without restrictions both in North America, as well as in Europe. Most European countries uses the LTE bands 3, 7 and 20, of which e.g. only band 7 is used in Canada. If a device bought in Canada would only support the LTE bands used there, it would seem to 'just work' if you happened to be somewhere in France with LTE coverage in band 7, but not work elsewhere. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Aug 16 '16 at 9:20
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Any phone you buy in Canada for use on any carrier there will have basic technology compatibility with carriers in France but, as you point out, there are differences in the frequency bands that are used. To choose a North American phone the makes full use of the services that French carriers offer requires picking one that supports as many of the bands used in France as you can. Note that phones without full band support will still be useful but you are likely to be less happy with the service you get than your friends with French phones are.

You'll need to read the specifications of the phone you are looking at to determine the bands it supports. Bands were traditionally named for their approximate frequency in MHz (a number between about 700 and 2600), but 3G and 4G bands are usually now referred to by band number, a small integer, since this is less ambiguous. These are the bands I believe you want the phone to support for use in France:

2G (GSM): 900, 1800

3G (UMTS, WCDMA, HSPA): Bands 1 & 8 (2100 & 900)

4G (LTE): Bands 3, 7 & 20 (1800, 2600 & 800)

Of these only LTE Band 7 is also used in Canada. There is also a 700 MHz LTE band starting to be deployed in France whose band number I know not but which I hope is the same as one of the North American 700 MHz bands your phone will likely support.

About frequencies, it is probably worth noting that lower frequencies have longer range. While this doesn't mean that low frequency bands are used more (in fact the opposite is true) it does mean that when only one band is available it is often the lowest frequency band the carrier uses, so support for the low frequency bands may make a significant difference in how well you perceive the phone to work. Unfortunately North American phones supporting LTE band 20 are a bit rare, so you may want to carefully consider this when choosing the phone.

If you buy a phone directly from a Canadian carrier you'll want to make very sure it isn't SIM-locked or can be easily unlocked.

  • How can I know if a phone is SIM-locked or not? Is it written in the technical specification of the phone? – user43870 Aug 16 '16 at 19:19
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    @OlivierGrech, No, that usually isn't in the tech specs, it is done by the carrier. The way to tell after you have the phone is to put a SIM from a carrier other than the one you bought it from into the phone to see if the phone complains about it. To know before you get the phone you generally need to ask whoever is selling the phone. – Dennis Aug 17 '16 at 0:20
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All but a small handful of countries use GSM signaling

Checklist

  1. Phone is GSM
  2. Phone is unlocked if you want to use foreign SIM card
  3. Phone is quad band

I use T-mobile: in FR and Canada texting between myself and herself are included at no charge. $0.20 per minute for roaming phone calls. UMA IMA VOIP calls at no charge. 3G Data also included while roaming

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