How to Live Abroad in Paris as a Student
Reading a book in her cozy Paris studio on the apartment ledge.
My first night in Paris was December 31. New Year's Eve promised many things: fireworks, wine, dancing in a crowded Parisian disco, and a kiss from a beautiful Frenchman, if I were lucky. The icy cold wind whipped through my hair when I stepped out into the night. I should have known my night would not go as I had imagined. I squeezed into the already crowded carriage of the Paris metro direction Eiffel Tower. Wedged between a tall, dark man smelling strongly of alcohol and cigarettes and another in a Russian fur hat, I began to feel a little clammy beneath my layers of winter clothing. The train came to a halt at the platform with just under three minutes to spare, and the crowds surged. Not needing to move my feet, the sea of people transported me into the night, the Tower rising above, sparkling spectacularly through the mist. As the clock struck midnight the crowds cheered, Bon année! ("Happy New Year"!). We waited for the explosion of fireworks, but they never came.
Arrival in Paris
No fireworks, no metro, no taxis, and waiting in the cold amid people yelling words I could not understand led me to question my ability to survive the next five months in this ever-engaging city.
Arriving in Paris, most foreigners dream of living the Parisian life and blending into the local crowd: sipping bad coffee, smoking strong cigarettes, complaining about anything and everything in perfect, slang French. Paris is the city of dreams, lights, and love—a city of clichés for a reason. But it's not all quaint passageways and luring Frenchmen. If you are thinking of heading to Paris for a study period, perhaps a little reality check is in order. But what the hell, my experience was—despite a few low points involving grades, red wine, and dirty kitchens—a romantic one.
I paved my path to Paris through an exchange program with the Australian National University. In Canberra, I study linguistics, majoring in French and Spanish, which led to my language exchange for one semester at Sciences-po University on Paris' left bank. The application process was a lengthy one. First, I was required to complete an application for the Australian National University and another for Sciences-po. Once accepted and having survived the intense online course registration at 3 a.m. my local time, I was on my way across the globe.
On arrival in Paris, I was constantly reminded of the ever-present bureaucratic processes that required completion. The list seemed endless, with forms to fill out, meetings to attend, and bank accounts to open. Perhaps it was due to my slightly obsessive organizational habits or because I was expecting the worst, but somehow I finalized the list of to-do's in little more than a week. There was one glitch in the smooth sailing, however. I was required to attend the medical check-up to obtain my Carte de sejour (residency permit). The medical appointment took place a good two months into my stay. I was still one of the lucky ones. Some other students got an appointment a mere month before they returned home!
Then the real work began.
Once classes were underway, I volunteered to do oral presentations and assignments first rather than last. This tactic turned out to be very helpful because:
I was fresh and keen at the start of the semester when I was pumping out most of my work.
When mid-semester exams came around, I had plenty of time to study.
While everyone else was panicking at the end of the semester, I could frolic around the city in the warm spring sunshine.
Wandering Through Paris, the City of Dreams
Students are hanging out along the Seine.
Once I had finished class for the week, I had an ever-increasing list of museums to visit, neighborhoods to explore, cafes to sit in, parks to run around, and bars to frequent. Read as many books about Paris as you can. Talk to as many locals and other foreigners living there as you can. You will soon realize that everyone has different experiences and different favorite places in the city, providing you with many new places to discover.
The one thing that reading a book or talking to someone cannot do, is provide you with the experience of wandering Paris on foot. I cannot explain the serene moments I had walking to school each day along the river or aimlessly winding through narrow streets lined with bookshops and galleries. I discovered some of my favorite places in Paris by wandering. The people watching, the sounds of the city, and the colors as the seasons change all add to the ecstasy that is experiencing Paris as a local—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most students.
After spending five months frolicking through the enchanting neighborhoods, I fell in love with the atmosphere that oozed from every open door and with every spoken word. There is something comforting about walking to the market each Sunday to be faced with the most vibrant array of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products imaginable. There is warmth in saying bonjour to the man across the hall. There is calm in returning home from a day out in the city and looking out the window at the timeless cityscape. There is something special about living in Paris and getting to know places you would never have discovered as a tourist. Yet there is also excitement in knowing that you will never honestly know Paris. There will be something new to see, something you never knew existed.
On my last day in Paris, I confidently said, "Bonjour Monsieur," as I passed the little store down the street, constantly overflowing with dusty vegetables and overripe fruit. “Bonjour mademoiselle! C'est notre petite touriste," he bellowed back from behind a crate of cereal boxes. No matter how hard I tried, I realized I would always be an outsider, a tourist. Only now, I could understand what was being said to me.
The best part about going on a student exchange in Paris is falling in love with the city in your unique fashion. Everyone's experience of Paris is different. I know mine is unique and special to me, my little pieces of Paris.
Practical Tips for Student Living in Paris
The French are famous for being difficult when it comes to bureaucracy. Such, however, was different when it came to my visa. As with many other countries, the process is straightforward in that you must provide evidence of financial support and your place at the host institution. Once you have submitted your visa application, the waiting period is generally 20 days. However, mine was ready much sooner, in under a week.
The Language Barrier
A few students at Sciences-po arrived in Paris not speaking a word of French. Not speaking the language means it is possible, but I would not advise it. The French often understand English but are only sometimes pleased to use it. Saying Bonjour and making initial contact in French will work wonders for you, whereas expecting that they speak English will do the opposite as it suggests a lack of respect for their rich culture. Learn some basics before you arrive, and your experience will be all the more exciting and pleasant.
Living in Paris is a dream for many. Renting can be a nightmare. Sciences-po, like many universities in Paris, does not provide student accommodations. Most, however, have an accommodations office and can assist students—the options in Paris range from homestays to studio apartments.
The homestay programs, many of which American universities organize for their students, can be a hit or miss. I have some friends whose host families were solely partaking in the program for the added income and others who had a very positive experience, gaining much more than expected from their guests.
Renting, which is a more predictable option, is anything but. You might be lucky with an agent who helps you from start to finish, but a few are challenging. I have been home for two months and am still waiting to get my deposit back for my apartment. My first tip for dealing with agents is to be firm and persistent.
Once you have found a place to live, expect to pay between 900 to 2,200 Euros per month (and increasing yearly), depending on the location and setup. However, studio apartments tend to lean towards the more expensive end of the scale. Suppose you are in one of Paris's 20 arrondissements (neighborhoods). In that case, prices don't vary too much, so aside from perhaps looking for somewhere close to your host institution, there is a slightly more progressively suburban character as you leave the city's center.
Getting around Paris is very easy—the metro is open from 5:30 a.m. until 1:15 a.m. Saturday and Sunday it runs until 2:15 a.m., and is the fastest way to get from one end of the city to the other. If you feel a little claustrophobic underground every day, the bus network crisscrosses the city very orderly and punctually. And, of course, if you prefer to feel the wind in your hair, the Vélib' Métropole system of public bike stations around the city is an easy and cheap way of getting places, not to mention fun. You can purchase 24-hour, 1-week, or 1-year passes at the machines. The metro and buses work on the same ticketing system, for which you can buy 10-ticket books, weekly, monthly, or yearly passes.
There is a free Paris magazine in English advertising jobs, primarily part-time or casual, that can be found in newsstands and cafes, especially if English speakers run them.
There is also a great demand in Paris for English tutors. You can advertise on websites or through your host university.
Finally, if you enquire at your host institution, many have internship programs with companies both during term and over the summer.
Cell Phones and Smartphones
Mobile phones all have their pros and cons. If you don't want to call much and will only be texting friends in France, then going prepaid is a good option, with most providers offering unlimited free texts to French phones. If you are more of a smartphone addict or need to be phoning, then a plan is a good option. Most are 2-year contracts; however, if you provide evidence of a flight out of the country and a reason for urgently needing to leave, you can exit the contract without paying another cent!
French banks generally technically provide Internet banking, and like most Western countries, electronic access is rapidly becoming the norm. If you need money urgently, you might have some trouble. Also, you must make an appointment to close your French bank account. Despite that annoyance, depending upon the university you are attending as a student, many banks will want your money in their hands and thus offer you some in return simply for opening an account with them. The major banks are HSBC, Credit Lyonnais, and BNP Paribas.
Every foreigner should learn a few simple rules before arriving in France. One, always say Bonjour when entering a shop or restaurant. It will not set you apart but make you immediately accepted as necessarily polite. Two, refrain from talking at the top of your voice in English in public spaces, notably the metro. It does not do anything for the Anglo reputation, and it will undoubtedly attract pickpockets. Finally, keep hold of your belongings, and don't wave them around in public. The pickpockets in Paris are very good at what they do.
Reverse Culture Shock
When most people return home after a trip abroad, they're excited—to sleep in their own bed, see their friends, and share their experiences. Returning home from a study abroad program can be a little different. Sometimes you can experience reverse culture shock. Don't be alarmed when your fellow natives are not quite as enthusiastic about the French way of life as you are. The reaction is perfectly normal. Remember that it may take you a few months to get back into the routine at home following such a drastic change to your daily routine. The best way to cure this is to either plan another trip or start appreciating your hometown and discovering what it has to offer that you haven't seen before—treat your hometown as you would a foreign city and get exploring.
For More Info on Student Living in Paris
Cité internationale universitaire de Paris s an organization that provides some student accommodations. Note: The editor used their accommodations and had a fantastic experience living with other international students in a considerable space.
Apartager allows you to share accommodations or homestays.
Apartager allows you to share accommodations or homestays.
RATP Group provides up-to-date information about subways (including a map), trains, buses, and trams in Paris.
SNCF offers regional and exceptional national rail service, including the TGV high-speed trains.
Eurostar allows for train and hotel reservations across Europe.
Jobs in Paris has job listings for English-speaking part-time workers and professionals. Note: Work visas are often required.
Superprof allows you to choose from 7 million professors, both in person and remotely in locations worldwide. You can also apply to offer your teaching services on the site.