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Note on July 29, 2013: A lot has improved in the process since my first Navigo purchase in 2009. Check the comments below for updated information, and feel free to ask questions!
September 15, 2010, update: Although it can be a perfect transportation solution for Paris visitors, the anonymous Navigo Découverte card wasn't designed for tourists. Rather, it was created for Parisians who were unhappy with the thought of using a personal computerized card that could track their movements through the RATP system. That's one reason you won't find information about it on the English-language RATP pages.
If you'll be in Paris for a week or longer, or plan to make return visits, a 5 Euro investment in a Passe Navigo Découverte will pay off in savings as well as convenience. In any case, don't bother with the Paris Visite pass that's designed for tourists unless you work the numbers carefully and need to move through zones 1-3. There is no need to be a Paris resident to purchase and use the Navigo Découverte.
Here's what I can share about Navigo card buying strategy from my January 2009 experience just as the old Carte Orange was being phased out.
None of the automated machines for recharging the Navigo card (or for buying individual Metro tickets or carnets) will accept your credit or debit card if it has only a magnetic ID strip. Only cards with a computer chip will work. [As of 2013, this has changed! Your magnetic card should work fine unless your credit card company is being finicky about foreign charges.]
You can put coins into one of the machines to recharge a Navigo, at least theoretically, but I was never able to get this to work. Ever tried fiddling with nearly 19 Euros worth of change? Always got an error before completing the transaction.
Technically, the Carte Orange was supposed to be available until the end of January 2009, but no one I asked seemed to have a weekly pass to sell when I looked around for one. So how did I manage to get my very own Navigo card and use it successfully?
- First off, I went to the tabac near my local station and bought a startup Navigo card package. The initial cost is 5 Euros plus the weekly or monthly fare you'll add to the card. In the tabac, you can pay with plastic... or even with cash.
It seems all the Metro stations have photo kiosks now. Get a sheet with 20 little headshots of yourself and put one on the ID card part of the Navigo. Then put that card somewhere else besides where you carry your sensored Navigo. You'll need that card with photo if you are asked for it to prove you've paid for your ride or if you lose the other part.
You'll have lots of leftover pics that you can use on other cards. I put one on my membership card when I became an Adherent of the Societe des Amis du Louvre.
When it's time to add another week or month to your Navigo, don't bother with the machine. If you are in the Metro, go to a guichet and ask the friendly clerk to recharge your card. Again, you can pay with plastic or cash. Alternately, go back to your local tabac and have them recharge the card. Note that not all tabacs in cafes and brasseries are equipped with terminals for recharging the Navigo. It's best to find a little specialist tabac. [Again, this is much easier in 2013, now that the automated machines accept credit cards without chips.]