Those who are willing to pay fees of up to €200 are able to jump the queues, leaving others to wait even longer for their coveted appointment slot.
Investigations by French newspapers Le Monde and Le Parisien have shone a spotlight on the booming business of préfecture appointment-scheduling services.
And after spending just 10 minutes online, The Local found dozens of sites willing to take our money in exchange for arranging speedy appointments.
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Meanwhile many people – especially Britons seeking a residency permit for the first time – have reported waits of several months just for the initial appointment.
This problem has been particularly notable in the petite couronne (the three départements surrounding Paris: Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne, and Hauts-de-Seine) and in the south near Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) and Montpellier (l'Hérault), where demand for residency permits is heavily concentrated.
Traditionally, people who needed a permit would have to queue at the préfecture, and in areas where demand was heavy this often meant waiting on the pavement overnight in order to be near the front of the queue when the appointment slots were handed out.
More recently, many préfectures have moved the process online. And although the waiting room has changed, the process is largely the same.
People who need a permit are told to schedule an appoint on the préfecture website to turn in their documentation, then often find that it is impossible to do so.
Attempts to sign up for an appointment are met with the laconic message: “There are no more time slots available for your appointment request. Please try again later.”
One reader of The Local reported having to access their local préfecture website at midnight on a Sunday – when the week's new appointments are posted – in order to secure a slot.
Applicants must register with their local authority, so travelling to a less busy area is not an option.
The préfecture makes appointments available on their websites every week, but as these disappear so quickly some frustrated applicants have resorted to paying for services that promise to obtain appointments using software that enables them to book slots as soon as they become available.
A simple online search returns numerous pages advertising help in acquiring the appointment necessary to file for a residency permit, with prices varying widely.
One page advertises “Submission of residency permit dossier at the Montpellier préfecture! Appointment for just €35!”
While another page promises discounts to customers who bring in more clients: “For every friend that you invite to get their appointment, you’ll both get a discount! A discount of 16 percent for you! And a discount of 10 per cent for your friend!”
Potential clients are instructed to send a private message to page administrators, leaving the rest of the process shadowed in obscurity. But many of the sites also offer effusive testimonials claiming to be from satisfied customers.
One user who claims to be a customer writes: “It’s been several months that I’ve been waiting for an appointment but I haven’t gotten anything, so by browsing forums I heard about you. I decided to try it and there, incredible, I had my appointment in three days with the complete package for €24.”
Prices, however, vary according to the type of appointment desired, the vendor, and the location, and Le Parisien tells of students paying €120 for an appointment in Bobigny.
Public prosecutors in Bobigny and Nanterre have opened investigations into the issue.
Meanwhile people who have gone through the official channels have reported long waits for the initial appointments.
Anyone looking to get a residency permit in France must go in person to their local préfecture and present all the necessary documentation – including proof of ID and address plus information relating to work, pensions or benefits.
All non EU nationals who wish to live in France must get the permit, and this will include British people once Britain leaves the EU.
For the moment, however, the situation is complicated for Britons – many have been advised to get the permit in order to regularise their status in France, but the process has confused many local officials, who have never before encountered a carte de séjour request from an EU national – although in fact everyone is entitled to one if they ask.
To compound the problem, many local authorities in areas which have a high concentration of British people have found themselves swamped by applications.
Because of the uncertain status of the Brexit negotiations, some préfectures have stopped scheduling appointments altogether for British people, although they are working through the backlog of applications submitted earlier.