Living in France
How to Get Your Residency Card ("Carte de Sejour”)
Just because you have bought a house in France does not necessarily mean that you can live in it whenever you want for as long as you want. Having survived the bureaucracy of buying a house in France, I thought I really understood the system. When my neighbors complained about the difficulty of getting anything done in France, I thought they were exaggerating.
Then I discovered that if I wanted to stay in the lovely house I had bought in France for 91 days or longer during one stay that I needed a residency card – the infamous “carte de sejour.” As an American I could only be in a European Union country for a maximum of 90 days and then I would have to leave the European Union for another 90 days before I could come back.
All right how hard could this be. I owned a house in France, I paid taxes on the house and other assorted taxes for water and television (yes there is a usage tax the first time you hook up a TV).
The Visa Application Process
The process starts with getting a Visa in your home country. So I went down to the French consulate in San Francisco and asked for a visa. “Not so simple, Madam,” I was told by the Chinese guard at the door. “First of all you need an appointment. Next you must fill out an application and provide supporting documentation. And lastly, this whole process takes several months.”
The application asked for a plenty of financial information both about my finances in the United States and in France, as well as proof of my birth and marriage. All of this had to be in French, including translations of the bank and brokerage statements. In addition, I needed to provide evidence that I had health insurance that would cover me during my year in France. A comprehensive travel medical insurance policy meets the requirements. I gathered everything and scheduled an appointment and went back.
The young woman I saw was pleasant, but pointed out that my application was incomplete. I had not stated why I wanted to go to France. I said “I have a house in France that I want to spend time at.” “Madam” she said “that is not a reason.” So I went back to the drawing board. I wrote a detailed explanation of my love of French culture and my desire to improve my very imperfect French. Then I translated my love letter into that imperfect French. Fortunately my application was not being assessed based upon my understanding of French grammar.
This time the young woman approved of my application package. She assured me that this did not necessarily mean I would get a Visa. Let alone receive it in a timely manner since the package now went to Paris for review.
I was lucky; six weeks later I got a call to come pick up my Visa. The visa is only valid for three months because they assume you will have a carte de sejour before the visa expires. At the time, I found this assumption rather reassuring.
Back to France
As soon as I arrived in France the end of February, I went to my local Marie and got the application. It was basically a repeat of the Visa application and required all the same documentation. One exception was that it required an officially translated copy of my birth and marriage certificates. This needed to be done by a state licensed individual. put together the package, put tabs in to show the different sections, had a French friend review it and correct the most egregious language errors and submitted it.
A Repeat in France with Much More Waiting
When I asked for a receipt for all these pieces of paper, the receptionist told me that she could not give me one. She said that a receipt would arrive from Bezier soon.
The notion of “soon” turned out to be a massive understatement. The official receipt arrived at the end of May. Technically I had been an illegal alien since the end of April when my visa expired. This receipt was valid until the end of July.
In late June I got a letter inviting me to come to Montpellier (the regional capital) for an Immigrant Physical Exam. I needed a recent chest x-ray and vaccination records.
I showed up as scheduled, taking a friend who was fluent in French for moral support. The waiting room was filled with other immigrants, mostly from Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
My exam went fine although a lot of the questions were geared to other immigrants more than me. For example I was asked if I had ever been in a polygamous relationship as well as whether I had ever had malaria. Of course, both experiences were highly unlikely when you come from northern California.
I was on the last leg. I was nervous because I was going back to the U.S. the middle of July and was afraid I would not be able to get back in without a carte de sejour or a valid receipt.
A friend called the prefecture’s office in Beziers. They would neither confirm nor deny that they had my paperwork. They did say, however, that if I left without the carte de sejour and they had any more questions or wanted to see me and I was not here, then the whole process would have to start from the beginning again. The man on the phone also told my friend that maybe I needed to decide if I wanted to live in France or go back to the U.S.
So my friend and I went down to the office in Bezier. We got there at 7:30 a.m. When the doors opened at 9 a.m, we discovered that when they got to us that no more tickets were available. They only see a specified number of people per day. The next day they were closed unexpectedly. The reason was ostensibly to catch up on paperwork. We went back two days later, arriving at 5:30 a.m. I was number 28. Some people had slept there overnight.
When the doors opened again I had a problem. I was now the 52nd person in the line and they were out of tickets again. All these people had cut in line in front of me. When I said something to one of them, she smiled and said “Yes, you were here before me, but my friend was here before you.” The woman at the door remembered me from the other day and created a special number. As we were escorted right in to see someone, my former line mates were staring and mumbling about our special treatment.
The official updated my receipt, but would not give it to me. It had to be sent to the Marie’s office in Abeilhan. A week later I was able to pick it up. My carte de sejour finallyarrived the end of September. It was valid until the following June. It needs to be renewed every year for ten years before you can get a multiple year carte.
I have renewed my carte de sejour three times now. I can say from experience that the process is no faster with the renewals. They ask for the same information every year. Each year it takes longer and longer. Once the official at the prefecture in Beziers asked my friend why I was so concerned about the receipt or carte expiring. He pointed out that it was unlikely that the local gendarmes would stop at my house to arrest me since they had other priorities.
You need to allow almost a full year to complete this process. And the rules and what they are looking for seem to change from year to year.