For members


Should you move to France without a word of French?

Some people move to France knowing little more than "bonjour" and "croissant" but should you really do it? And what are the main problems you'll run into? Members are encouraged to log in and share their experience in the comments section below.

Should you move to France without a word of French?
Photo: Alain Alele/Flickr

Whether it’s retiring to the sunny Dordogne, studying in Paris or taking the plunge to teach English in picturesque Bordeaux or Lyon, many people dream of living in France.

But how easy is it if your level of French is basically non-existent? And aren't you just asking for problems?

For a start, talk to anyone who’s moved to France and they’re guaranteed to mention the word ‘bureaucracy’.

Finding a place to live, opening a bank account and dealing with the endless amount of paperwork you’ll encounter can be cumbersome for any foreigner, even those who are fluent French speakers.

For some things a good knowledge of French is simply essential. For example if you’re planning to apply for French citizenship you will need to take a French test if you’re under 60.

And whether you're trying to register a car, get a French driving license or a resident's permit (carte de sejour) then speaking French is pretty much a necessity.

“Even if you are just applying for a residence permit, it helps to be able to explain your position in French,” explained Christopher Chantrey, vice-chairman of the British Community Committee of France.

“Many prefectures have forgotten how to issue residence permits to EU citizens because they haven't been compulsory since 2004. So it helps if you can explain to prefecture employees in French what French law actually says they have to do,” he added.

But it's not just the bureaucracy. Going to the doctors and trying to explain your symptoms to a doctor who doesn't speak English will be tricky and potentially a risk to your health.

And if you are dealing with banks, post offices and police you will likely struggle without the language.

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READ ALSO: The ten places in France where you really should speak French

The ten places where you really need to speak French

But there are ways you can overcome the bureaucratic hurdles.

For a start if you’re lucky enough to know a native speaker who’s willing to help, this can be a godsend. Even better if your partner is one because they will feel duty bound to help you through the process.

“Having a French spouse obviously helps, but you still have to do a lot on your own,” said Charli James, who moved from the US to France with little knowledge of French. She shared her tips in the link below.

How you can live happily in Paris without speaking French

But what if you haven’t met any French people yet?

Certain areas of France like the Dordogne or the Charente will have such an established network of expat English speakers that you'll probably be able to find all the help you need to settle down without uttering a word of French.

Many expats have set up their own services whether it's house renovations (be careful and watch out for the cowboy builders) or help with paying taxes so you might be able to get all the help you need from English speakers.

If you’re willing to pay, dedicated relocation agencies like Savoir Faire Paris can help you with things like finding insurance or registering your children in a French school.

A quick internet search will put you in contact with one in your area although if you live in an area with few English speakers you may struggle to find help.
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It goes without saying that moving to a major city like Paris or Lyon will likely be easier for non-French speakers than setting up camp in rural France.

Nadia Jordan runs the Foothills of France property hunting agency in southwest France.

“The area where we live in does not have a huge expat population compared to most of France and certainly no expat services,” she told The Local.

“One of the reasons I set up my property business was that there were very few good agents and hardly any spoke English. Most weren’t interested in dealing with potential buyers from abroad unless they actually walked into the agency.”

Even though you can get by with the help of friends and services (depending on your region and budget), most people we interviewed agreed that learning French before you move really does make your life easier.

“We were living in a small village in Occitanie,” says blogger Jennifer Greco. “You can probably survive in Paris without speaking French, but not out in the country. Shortly after arriving, we joined an association called the AVF (Accueil des Villes Françaises) and started weekly conversation classes.”

Naomi Duncan, who recently moved to Paris for her husband’s job, agrees that where you live can make a big difference. “I’m learning that it is possible to live in Paris without knowing French but personally it makes me feel ignorant and uncomfortable,” she told The Local.

How your local Town Hall could be the key to mastering French

How to make friends with your French neighbours in rural France

So even if you can generally get by without speaking French, especially in big cities like Paris, mastering the language of Moliere, Depardieu and Hallyday will really enrich your life in France.

Many who have moved to France suggest making French friends is the key to settling down. And without French language it really is almost impossible to really make friends unless you are lucky enough to live next door to English speakers. 

But any language learner in France will rightly tell you that it's hard to really learn French unless you live here.

The French you pick up in textbooks or in online courses at home can be very different from the French you learn once you are in France.

So it's understandable perhaps, that many arrive with no French language ability. The key however is make the effort to pick it up once you are here.

Jeff Steiner, who runs the Americans in France website said: “I didn't speak much French when I got here. My suggestion for anyone in a situation like that is really try and make an effort to speak French. Don't always fall back on speaking English to get by. Also try to make French friends, not always easy I know.

“But just try and put yourself in a situation where you have to speak French. You can only learn by doing and practicing. Also make sure to give yourself the time it takes for you to learn. However long that is, try and don't get yourself down if you don't feel you're making progress. Learning a language as an adult is one of the hardest things someone can undertake. But once you make it, you'll have accomplished something to be proud of.”

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If you would like to propose an idea for the Members' Forum or even write a piece for members to read, please email [email protected]

by Charlotte Mason/The Local






















Member comments

  1. I have not learnt French since I was at School, 55+ years ago. However, after 15 months permanently living in Burgundy, I have obtained our Carte Vitales, Carte Gris for our UK car and sent in a Tax Declaration. The latter hasn’t been confirmed as acceptable yet, however. All with the help of Google and Microsoft Translator. I, generally, understand the gist of what the French say to me and always try to answer in French, which either raises a laugh at my pronunciation or a reply in English. The French seem willing to meet half way if you try. My wife is picking it up more quickly as she is younger and more outgoing.

  2. People should at least try to learn the basics, the French will appreciate you have made an effort and avoid the stereotypical label of English person abroad ” Talk louder and slower and they will understand ” !!!
    As stated in the article who wants to feel uncomfortable or frowned upon as ignorant ? At the very least a smile or grin about a dodgy accent or pronunciation could act as an ice breaker ?

  3. The tip about at least trying is key. My wife and I are in the middle of a three month sabbatical in Montpellier, and while most people can muster at least a bit of English, we insist on doing things as much in French as possible. Our language skill is limited, but without exception, everyone is more open to working with you if you show them the respect of using their language. Plus, if you actually manage to get through it, you’ll feel like you accomplished something, even it was just not making a fool of yourself at your local market.

  4. How on earth can one possibly contemplate moving to another country without getting one’s head round the basics of the language spoken there?? I came to France over 50 years ago and already spoke french (and german) but am constantly amazed at the ignorance – or is it arrogance? – of those who hope to wing it by “talking loudly and slowly”! The very idea! A word to the wise – be very wary indeed about internet/google translations.

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For members


Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

If you're looking to rent an apartment in a larger city in France, you're likely to see announcements that require a 'garant'. Here is what you need to know about finding a guarantor in France.

Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

Renting in large cities in France – particularly in Paris – is a known challenge for foreigners, especially new arrivals. In the countryside, it’s a bit easier, with less competition properties, but in the big cities compiling your dossier and landing the right place can be a challenge.

One of the biggest surprises for many people is that most landlords ask for a guarantor (garant) in order to sign a lease for an apartment. It is not a legal requirement, but in competitive real estate markets, it certainly feels like one.

Though asking for a garant might feel a bit juvenile, it is quite common, and applies to a lot more people than you might realise. Here is what you need to know:

Who typically needs a guarantor?

The most common group to need guarantors are students. However, if you are a foreigner who is not employed with a CDI (indefinite contract) and if you do not make over three times your monthly rent, you will likely need a guarantor as well.

If you don’t collect your income in France (or if you don’t have an income) you will need a guarantor.

You will also likely need one if you are still in the probationary period of your CDI, or if you cannot show three months worth of pay stubs from your job yet (even if you pay meets the three times a month requirement). If you do have a CDI, you could ask your employer to sign you an attestation d’employeur which verifies your monthly income. 

If your income is not steady or consistent (perhaps you are a freelancer). Typically, if you use an agency during the leasing process, they will require a guarantor, especially if any of these conditions apply to you. 

It is worth noting that showing bank statements typically do not suffice – landlords are looking for proof of ongoing income, not savings.

Who can count as a guarantor?

The guarantor should be a third party, such as a parent or close relative who agrees to pay your rent if you fail to pay.

This person must fulfil all the requirements outlined above (ie earning more than three times your rent with an indefinite contract).

The other tricky part is that this person must work and live in France, and usually it’s best that they are French themselves.

However, this can pose a problem for foreigners who might not know anyone that fits that description, so thankfully there are some other options fill this requirement, like taking out a caution bancaire or using an online agency. We explained the ins-and-outs of these bellow.

What does my guarantor need to show?

The guarantor needs to put together a dossier of documents including;

  • Proof of identification (a passport or French ID card)
  • Proof of residence that is less than three months old (eg utility bills).
  • Most recent tax returns
  • Employment contract and typically three months worth of payslips
  • If they earn money via real estate, they must also provide documentation for this
  • If the person in question is retired, they must provide proof of pension (again, this must exceed your monthly rent threefold). 

So, what if I don’t have a French person who can be my guarantor? There are a few options for you:

Use an online service

There are two main online services that can act as guarantors for foreigners in France.

The first is Visale, which is accessible primarily to foreign students.

This is a programme offered via the French state through “Action Logement” and it covers up to three years of unpaid rent. You must be between 18 and 30 years old to apply, and you must hold a long-stay visa (VLS-TS) – either a student visa or a ‘talent’ one.

For students who are already citizens of a European Union country, then simply presenting a student card and a valid passport will be sufficient. It can be applied to private housing and student residences, but it is ultimately up to the landlord as to whether they will accept a tenant who uses Visale as their guarantor. The main benefit to Visale is that it is free for the user.

Visale does come with some restrictions, however. Your rent (including charges) cannot exceed €1,500 in Paris, and €1,300 in the rest of the country. In addition, the lease must be for a primary residence, and your rent should not exceed 50 percent of your total income.

Another option is GarantMe, a paid online website that can also serve as an official guarantor.

Landlords might actually prefer this service over a physical guarantor who might refuse to pay or for whatever reason not have the funds to do so. The benefit to GarantMe is that they accept a wider range of tenants for their service, but the downside is that there is a fee. The minimum payment (per year) is €150, but the fee is normally 3.5 percent of the annual rent (including charges) and it renews automatically.

The nice thing about GarantMe, is that in order to apply for the service, you basically need to create a full dossier that will be identical to what you’ll need for your apartment search anyways.

Take out a Caution Bancaire

Basically, a caution bancaire is a bank guarantee, and typically its a bit more of a last resort option because it is quite restrictive for the tenant. It involves blocking off a large sum of money to be used to pay rent if you fail to do so.

Depending on the landlord (and the bank), they might ask you to block between six months worth of rent to sometimes up to two years. This would be used as guarantee during the duration of your lease, but it takes a bit of administrative coordination and obviously requires a large sum of liquid funds.

Sometimes activating a bank guarantee can take a few weeks, and for foreigners, of course, this would require already having a French bank account. There can also be fees, depending on the bank, for using a caution bancaire, and simply closing of caution bancaire account in itself can involve fees.

The other downside to this is that not all landlords will accept it, which is why this option might be best served as a last resort.

Attempt to find an apartment that does not require a garant

This is quite difficult in Paris (and other large cities around France). It is possible sometimes if you stick to foreigner-oriented sites like NY Habitat or Paris Attitude. Another possible loophole could be to see if your insurance plan offers coverage of unpaid rent. This is quite uncommon, but could be a possible option. If you rent specifically particulier-à-particulier (meaning you do not use an agency at all) you might be able to negotiate with the landlord, or if you have a sub-lease you might not need to show proof of a guarantor.

Ultimately, however, in most cases when renting in France’s large cities, you’ll likely need a guarantor.

What should I be aware of when it comes to guarantor websites?

As mentioned previously, Visale is only for people in the 18-30 age group, so unfortunately it does not apply to everyone. It is also intended for lower income people or students, so if you are a high earner you might be rejected.

Regarding using a website like GarantMe, beware that they will charge you every year – it is not a one time fee. This will be deducted from the card you put on the site and the only way to cancel the charge will be to show proof that you have moved out (i.e. an état des lieux or letter releasing you from the obligation signed from your landlord)