The trials and tribulations of moving to France as an American

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The trials and tribulations of moving to France as an American
Orly Airport. Photo: AFP

With all eyes on President Macron in the US, there may just be an American or two thinking, "I'd love to move to France". But beware, there are a few hurdles ahead of you, writes Katie Warren.


For Europeans (or at least those in the EU), who don’t need any special documents to work or live in France, it's a far easier process than for their friends across the pond.

For us Yankees, there are some unique and frustrating hoops to jump through, from the process of securing a visa to retaking driver’s tests to providing a "dental history of your ex-lovers". OK, maybe not that much, but it's not far off it.

Straight from the mouths of those who’ve managed to do it, we’ve taken a look at some of the hardest things about moving to France as an American. 

Gathering mountains of paperwork

Photo: Peter Alfred Hess/Flickr

Before they even set foot in France, Americans are often flabbergasted by the number of documents that must be printed, photocopied, scanned, translated, certified, copied again, attested… and so on. The French love their paperwork. 

Allison Lounes, an American writer and consultant living in France, says that “the hardest things for people arriving in France are knowing what to do and in what order.”

It sound like a simple task, but it’s rarely that straightforward.

Jennifer Greco, a blogger living in Paris told The Local: “We moved over a decade ago and back then there wasn't the wealth of online information that there is now. Before moving we had a very difficult time trying to get the list of required documents for our visas from the French consulate in the US.”

American Johanna Steves lamented the fact that administrative processes in France require providing proof of everything

“With my friends we've joked about how just opening a bank account requires that you provide the dental history of all of your ex-lovers,” she said. 

Getting the visa

Paris food blogger Julie Nies said trying to get her visa was a painful process.

“There was so much back and forth,” she said. “They must have lost my paperwork three times. I notified my job in the US that I was leaving, and then found out I had to stay another month. 

"I probably had five going away events because I kept thinking I would get to leave, and then something else with my visa came up that prevented me from going.

"Furthermore the US is a big country, so for some people, traveling to the nearest French consulate requires an 18-hour drive."

One American who is now in France told us they had to travel over 1,600 kilometres from Montana to California to go to her visa appointment.

Endless administrative catch-22s

Photo: jazbeck/Flickr

Nearly all the Americans interviewed for this story agreed that the most frustrating part of moving to France as an American is having to navigate a minefield of seemingly impossible administrative paradoxes. 

“There’s the trifecta,” Jenna Binion, an American student in France, told The Local. “You have to have a bank account to get a cell phone, you have to have a cell phone to get an apartment, and you need an apartment to get a bank account and a cell phone.”

Allison Lounes echoed the sentiment of exasperation at France’s contradictory expectations. 

“To get an apartment, you often have to have a bank account, but to get a bank account, the bank requires a permanent address and a visa, and to get the visa, you now often need the apartment/lease,” she said. 

In other words it's a cercle vicieux. 

Finding an apartment

Nies also found it incredibly difficult to rent an apartment once she got to France. 

“People are so reluctant to rent to expats,” she said. “Even if I can prove I have plenty of money in the bank to pay rent and that my salary is high enough, it doesn't matter. They want a French bank guarantee. What French bank is going to give an expat a guarantee? 

"My first apartment rental in Paris required me to pay all six months rent in advance, which I of course had to borrow from my parents.” 

She said that it’s because the landlord “feels the pressure to find someone who is a 100 percent financial guarantee with official back-ups because it's nearly impossible for them to evict someone.”

Getting a French driver’s license

Photo: AFP

Jeff Steiner, webmaster of Americans in France, found that getting a French driver’s license as an American was much more complicated than he expected.

“As I wasn't from one of the states that lets you exchange an American driver's license for a French one, I had to go to French driving school,” he told The Local. “I think along with visa issues this is a big problem for Americans. I know a few that have been here for decades and still drive on their American license.”

"Going to French driving school was more annoying than anything else and of course expensive. I was able to get my French license on the first try in about four months but I know of some Americans that have trouble passing the written test and even the driving test.”

Holding French bureaucracy to American standards

Lounes said that Americans run into problems when they expect things to be done as they would be in their home country. 

 “Americans expect things to be set up relatively quickly and easily like it would be in the US or other Anglophone countries - and that's just not the case,” she said. 

“Dealing with any administration - health insurance, visas, the prefecture, school enrollments, utilities set up, bank accounts - all of that stuff requires a huge amount of patience and is even more frustrating if you don't speak French.”

Bank troubles

Paris-based food writer John Talbott said that even the seemingly simple task of opening a bank account was a struggle and required the intervention of a native French friend.

“I earn my money in the US except for a speaking or teaching gig once in a while and even with a nice income and lots for retirement, I was turned down by three banks until a French friend vouched for me at her ‘family" bank’,” he said.

Language woes

It might seem like a no-brainer, but learning the language of the country you’re moving to makes things go a lot more smoothly.

When she moved from NYC to Paris, Heather Robinson didn’t speak a word of French.

“That is the root of what was the biggest challenge for me - not understanding the language,” she said. “I went from being a very loquacious person… to being the silent girlfriend who hoped and prayed that she was making the right facial expressions appropriate for the conversations that were zooming by. 

"My self-esteem took a massive hit, one that I hadn't prepared for mentally.”

So for your own self-esteem and mental health, find yourself a French lover (or at least a few friends) and just learn the language. 

Learning to lose the smile

Photo: Dionysius Burton/Flickr

On the same note, Robinson said that before she could really speak French, she would just smile instead. Not the best idea, she soon learned. 

”I would often make up for my feeling foolish by falling back on a good old American standby of giving a warm smile instead,” she said. “Big mistake! Oh, I learned quickly that men took that as an open sign of romantic interest and "les Parisiennes" took me for a fool.”

To play it safe, you can always just imitate the stereotypical stone-faced Parisians.


Shaking American habits

American blogger Heather Robinson told The Local that trying to let go of her ingrained American habits was one of the hardest things about moving to France.

“There were plenty of cultural bumps to cross,” she said. “Such as teaching myself how to eat with the fork in the other hand, to never go to the bathroom while at a dinner party (so imbibe with precaution) and to never, ever ask another American conversational opener, "So what do you do for a living?”

You never know what cultural faux-pas will earn you a funny look from a French person.

This list might be enough to put off some Americans thinking of moving to France, but as Julie Nies put it: “For all the things I can list that make it difficult to live in France, I could list twice as many things that make it incredible and beautiful and worthwhile. So as hard as these things were, they were well worth it."

READ ALSO: The 10 different Americans you'll meet in France

Another version of this story was published in May 2016. 



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