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Living Abroad in France

Making the Move

© Terry Link, from Living Abroad in France, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.

"You've finally made the big decision: You're moving to France. Now it's time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. There are many details to take care of before you leave, such as applying for your long-stay visa and deciding what to take with you. Once you arrive in France, you will need to register with the local authorities and set about the process of settling into your new home."

Vacationing Americans need no formal visa to enter France. It is assumed—and legally required—that your stay will last no more than three months. But if you plan to remain in France longer, you are required to obtain a long-stay visa. Once in France, you'll take this visa to your local prefecture to obtain a carte de séjour (residency permit). The permit is good for one year and must then be renewed.

After arriving in France, you may register with the consular section of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. There is no requirement for this, but forms are provided, and information about your whereabouts will not be released unless you give permission. Passport details will be noted, making it easier for you to apply for a replacement if your passport is lost or stolen.

Some visas require you to appear at the local prefecture within a specified period of time, as noted above. These include students staying more than six months, who are required to get a student residency card, and those who entered France with an employment contract. People with a long-stay visa must renew it annually at their prefecture.

Long-Stay Visas

Applying for a long-stay visa will be your introduction to French bureaucracy. Fortunately, the regulations are clear and the application process has been streamlined in recent years. If your situation fits comfortably within the rules, chances are everything will go quickly and smoothly. Difficulties generally only arise when applicants seek exemptions or exceptions.

At the time of your initial application, you must be in the United States, and you are not permitted to go to France until the visa is granted. The process, which can take up to two months, may be done by mail, a convenience for those living far from a French consulate. The application form itself may be downloaded from the consulate website. Children's applications should be filed with their parents'.

The first requirement for a long-stay visa is a passport valid for at least three months beyond the expiration date of the visa. (U.S. passports may be renewed in France via mail to the American Embassy.) Your application packet must include your passport and three photocopies of it, four copies of the application form, and four passport photos. Your passport will be returned to you with your visa in it.

In the application packet, you must also submit proof of financial independence during your stay amounting to at least $1,800 per month. This can include pensions, verified independent income, rent from a house, etc. An alternative to proof of financial independence would be a notarized declaration from someone in France, such as a family member, that he or she will provide for your support and can prove sufficient income to accomplish that.

The application also requires an address where you will stay in France. If you plan to stay with family or friends, submit a letter from them verifying this arrangement, along with a certified copy of their identification. Otherwise, include a copy of the deed or lease, or the promise of one, on your residence in France.

You'll need to include three additional documents. If you are married and both you and your spouse are applying for long-stay visas, you must submit a copy of your marriage license. Proof of health insurance is also required. Finally, France won't grant you a long-stay visa if you are a criminal; obtain a certification from your local police department that you're not a convicted felon and there are no warrants out for your arrest.

Lastly, include a stamped return envelope for your documents, plus a money order or certified check for about $100 (the exact amount varies with the exchange rate; French authorities will tell you the current fee). Again, once you have started the application process for the long-stay visa, do not plan to go to France until it has been issued. It will not be sent to you in France.

If you have been hired to work in France, there are additional steps to take. First, submit a draft of your work contract to the appropriate French consulate. At the same time, your employer in France—even if it is simply a branch of a U.S. firm—will need to apply to the local employment office for recruitment of a foreign worker. The application is processed and sent to the Office des Migrations Internationales(OMI), which then instructs the consulate in the United States to order you to have a physical examination. Then the visa is granted. For senior corporate managers, approval by the employment office is only a formality; for other employees, justification is necessary, and approval may depend on the particular skills of the individual and the rate of unemployment in France.

After arriving in France, take your visa and medical exam results to the prefecture of the department in which you live to obtain your carte de séjour.

Student Visas and Special Cases

There are other long-stay visas that apply in particular cases. These include the student visa, the au pair visa, and one for researchers.

Students staying between three and six months should get a temporary long-stay visa. This is valid for multiple entries into France and does not require the holder to obtain a residency permit. Students staying over six months, however, get a visa that allows them to enter France one time and is valid for three months. During that three-month period, the student must register at the prefecture to obtain a student residency card.

The first type of student visa is much less complicated than a long-stay visa, and it is possible to have it issued in one day if you apply in person. To apply, submit the original plus one copy of the following documents:

  • A passport valid for at least for three months beyond the last day of stay in France.
  • The application form, filled out completely and signed.
  • The pré-inscription (letter of admission) to the school or university you'll be attending in France; note that this institution must be accredited by the Ministry of Education.
  • Proof of sufficient funds while you reside in France, such as a notarized letter from your parents stating that they will provide you with at least $600 per month in France, a letter from your bank stating that you have a sufficient balance to withdraw at least $600 per month, or a letter from the institution you will be attending granting you a fellowship or a student loan. (This $600 amount could be reduced if you can present a letter from a host verifying that your lodging will be free of charge.)
  • Two recent passport-size photographs.

If a student plans to stay less than six months, proof of health insurance is also required with the application. Students under 28 years old who stay longer than six months will be required to join the French student health-care system. Students older than 28 must provide their own insurance.

Students under 18 years old will also need notarized authorization from both parents indicating who will be guardian of the minor and a statement from the host family in France accepting responsibility. Processing this application will take at least six weeks.

Graduate students granted teaching assistantships at a French university follow a similar procedure, but will need the original and one copy of their letter of appointment and their acceptance by the Cultural Department of the French Embassy. Professors and researchers should submit all the necessary documents from the institute where they will work, along with three copies.

Applicants for an au pair visa must be between 17 and 30 years old. They should submit two long-stay visa application forms, two photographs, the original and one copy of their au pair contract (obtained from the family in France for which the au pair will be working), and a letter of admission from a language school.

Moving with Children

If you're relocating the whole family, consider how each member feels about the move. If you have school-age children, especially teenagers, how will they adapt? Just because you like the idea of living in a foreign country or a small village doesn't mean your children will. Then again, they might view it as the adventure of a lifetime.

Children will have to be registered for school, of course. Placement is up to school authorities, but parents will take an interest in their children's education. While teachers consider themselves the masters of their classrooms, they also need to know something about their pupils. They may have suggestions about ways parents can help their children become acclimated to a different language, culture, and educational system.

Being involved in your child's schooling is also a good way to meet people. Just before noon and again at 5 p.m., parents gather outside the school to wait for their children and chat with each other. In small villages, there may only be a primary school. Pupils will be bussed to college (middle school) and lycée (high school) in larger towns.

Enrolling your child in sports is a good way to help them make friends, but it's important to know that sports are separate from education in France. (The Sorbonne doesn't have a tennis or a soccer team.) Athletics are organized through the community, rather than the schools.

Soccer, volleyball, judo, tennis, and basketball are all popular for both girls and boys. Players are organized by age into leagues. Another popular game is handball. It is played on a court the size of a basketball or tennis court with a hockey-like goal and a ball the size of a big grapefruit. Teams of players dribble and pass the ball, as in basketball, and score when they throw the ball into the goal. Once the player with the ball faces the opposing goalie, defense is almost impossible—but it's great exercise running up and down the court.

Rugby, the closest the French come to American football, is popular in the south and usually an exciting game to watch, as well as to play. While golf courses remain few and far between, tennis courts and community swimming pools are quite common, even in small villages.

Moving with Pets

Pets are often just as hard to leave behind as friends and family. Fortunately, you won't need to say goodbye to your pet if you move to France. France recognizes that a properly vaccinated animal is no threat to public health. You may bring up to five dogs and/or cats into France, but all must be at least three months old or traveling with their mother.

To enter France, every animal must be identified by a microchip (standard ISO 11784/11785) or a tattoo. If the microchip's standard is different, you must bring your own scanner in order to read the microchip. You'll need to present a valid rabies vaccination certificate dated at least 30 days before the move (30 days is the incubation period for rabies), but not longer than one year before. The second requirement is a letter stating the good health of the animal from a veterinarian certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture within the past four months. However, it is recommended that the examination take place only a few days before departure. Only small amounts of pet food, one or two kilos, may be imported—don't worry, France sells plenty of chow. Birds, snakes, and rodents may also be brought into France with a veterinarian's certificate.

The logistics of transporting your animals should be carefully planned. Check with the airline you're using about its fees and requirements for cages. The cost generally runs $150–125, although some airlines charge extra for large dogs. Contrary to popular belief, tranquilizing is generally not necessary, and may even be harmful to dogs, especially if they wind up sitting somewhere hot for hours. Tranquilized dogs cannot pant—that's how canines “sweat”—and therefore cannot cool themselves. Be sure to consult your vet at home before traveling with your pet to get specific recommendations based on the animal's temperament and medical history.

What to Take

Household Goods

Depending on the circumstances of your move, you may want to leave many of your belongings behind. Intercontinental moves of household goods can be very expensive. For instance, Infinity Moving of Bronx, N.Y., estimates a cost of $1,600 to send 150 cubic feet of your prepacked goods from San Francisco to a dock in Paris; that's $10 per cubic foot, with a 150-cubic foot minimum plus $100 for customs documentation.

Larger shipments are less expensive by the cubic foot; a shipment of 420 cubic feet would go for $6 per cubic foot, or $2,520 plus $100 for documentation. If you want the shipment delivered to your residence, the price increases to $9 per cubic foot. These prices are not prohibitive for large quantities of furnishings, but unless you have an employer who is paying for the move, it is better to sell much of what you have before leaving the United States.

Be warned, however, this will not be easy. One of the most miserable days of my life was the day we held a garage sale before moving to France. I watched books and pictures and pieces of furniture that were like old friends go out the door, knowing I'd never see them again. But, unless the objects are quite valuable or irreplaceable, it just does not make economic sense to cart them to France.

Besides, compensation for your sacrifice awaits you when you arrive at your new home. For many people, one of the great delights of their initial years in France is traveling about looking for antiques and brocante, the French term for used household goods. You can find great deals on grand old armoires, buffets, beds, and tables, and searching for them is a wonderful way to explore the countryside, as well as get a glimpse into French life and customs.

Linens are one category of furnishings that should be considered for the move, however. Although U.S. mattresses are measured in inches and French ones in centimeters, American sheets will fit either. A standard double bed in France is 140 centimeters wide and 190 centimeters long—that's 56 inches by 76 inches—very close to the 54-inch by 76-inch U.S. double mattress. The same goes for other standard bed sizes: single, queen, and king.

The bed itself, along with box spring and mattress, is a debatable item because of the expense of transporting its bulk and weight. These items are certainly available in France, as is a spring system not seen in the U.S. called lattes. Lattes are pieces of wood about, 25-inch thick and two or three inches wide that span the width of a single bed or half of a double bed. In their simplest form, they bow slightly upward and are set in a steel frame. A foam or latex mattress sits on top, and the bow in the lattes provides the spring beneath the mattress. In more complex and expensive forms, each end of the latte is set on a rubber mount to give it exceptional flexibility. Even the simple ones are quite comfortable. The density of the foam mattress also determines the comfort. At least 15 centimeters of thick foam of a minimum density of 28 kilograms per cubic meter should be used in such mattresses, and 18 centimeters of 35-kg density foam is certainly preferable. Pillows in France are sometimes square, rather than rectangular, but the familiar rectangular ones are widely available to fit American pillowcases.

Finally, if you were considering bringing your gun, think twice. France's gun laws are much stricter than those in the United States. For starters, you will need to obtain a permit from la douane (customs) to import arms and ammunition. Automatic weapons are banned entirely.

Appliances and Computers

What about those appliances you paid so much for over the years? Sorry—forget them. Your washing machine, refrigerator, stereo, mixer, and power tools won't work in France, which uses a 220-volt electrical system. Your computer, may operate on 220 volts, but your printer may not.

If you do bring your computer and other technological gadgets with you, be aware that you are likely to encounter one of the largely unspoken rules of the multinational corporation: Just because the manufacturer sells an item in 169 different countries does not mean it's guaranteed in all of them. Have a problem with that modem you bought at CompUSA for your Mac? The help line is a 1-800 number—not a free call from France, and you won't get a replacement sent to you outside the United States, either. Buy a Japanese camera in the United States, and just try to get it repaired under warranty in France. The list goes on. You're a U.S. citizen who purchased a product guaranteed for one or two years, then up and moved to another country nine months later. Tough luck. Sales are worldwide; guarantees are not.

Fortunately, computer prices have come down considerably in France in recent years; the main difference now between French and American prices is the 19.6 percent sales tax you must pay in France. In February 2005, you could buy a basic Dell desktop for less than €400 ($540). What's more, purchasing a computer in France assures you the guarantee is valid, and you establish a relationship with someone who can later help you when those inevitable computer problems crop up.

Another alternative to purchasing an entirely new system is to go laptop. One word of caution, however: Get a name brand, or you'll have difficulty finding parts. Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell are all familiar names in France. You will be able to buy hard drives, batteries and power supplies, modems, and even CPUs for them.

Software is a different story. By all means, bring it along. It's expensive to replace, and besides, the “Help” files in French software are in French, remember? If you leave your computer behind, consider bringing at least the hard drive loaded with your software to be installed in a new machine.

One other computer consideration is the keyboard. The French keyboard is different—annoyingly different, for those of us trained on the QWERTY version. The advantage is that French keyboards include all the accented characters; the disadvantage is that many of the characters, particularly A, W, and M, are not in their familiar places. (Note that the previous sentence has 21 As in it—that's 21 times you might have typed Q and had to erase it.) Fortunately, keyboards are light. Bring yours along.

More from Living Abroad in France
 Overview
 Prime Living Locations
 True Expatriate Stories
Living Abroad in France
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