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What the French government doesn’t tell you about filing taxes

When American Stephen Heiner arrived in France, he fondly imagined that the French government would tell him all he needed to know about his tax responsibilities. Swiftly disabused of this notion, he shares what he has learned about the country's tax rules.

What the French government doesn't tell you about filing taxes
Don't assume anyone will tell you when you need to file a tax return. Photo: AFP

When you first arrive, French immigration authorities not only don’t tell you what you need to know, they don’t seem bothered that there’s not even basic information available online.  

I was therefore left to do my own research via newsletters and websites, which didn't always lift the confusion.

READ MORE The essential information about this year's French tax declarations

It was in one of those newsletters that I learned that as long as you are a fiscal resident of France, you have to file a tax return.  A number of questions may come to your mind when you read that statement:

What’s a fiscal resident of France? 

Anyone who is here more than 183 days a year.  In my case, I arrived in December 2013, so I didn’t have to file anything for 2013, as I wasn’t yet a fiscal resident, but in 2015 I had to file taxes for 2014, as I had been in France over 183 days that year.

Unlike the US, France – and almost every other country in the world with a functioning tax system – makes a distinction between citizenship and tax residency. 

It’s perfectly possible to be a French citizen but to be a tax resident of another country.

Not so for American citizens. Wherever you live, whatever you do, you are always expected to file a US tax return. The irony that such a policy emanates from a country ostensibly founded on a tax revolt should not be lost on most.

But I’m here on a visa type that doesn’t allow me to earn income in France.  How can I file a tax return (and why would I need to)?  

It may seem that these ideas of earning and filing are connected, but they aren’t. 

In fact, in the US there’s an entire industry built around tax refunds and getting them into your hands as soon as possible.  Millions of people in the United States file tax returns who don’t owe anything.

So too here in France you may not owe taxes but you’re still required to file them, whether you’re a French citizen or not, whether you are making money or not, as long as you’re here 183 days a year or more.  

READ MORE How to renounce your American citizenship – and why you might want to

READ MORE The French tax breaks you don't want to miss out on

Why didn’t anyone tell me to do this?  

The short answer is that the authorities don’t always tell you what you need to know. That’s just part of life in France.

The longer answer makes more sense when you think of not just how France, but how many countries are organised.  

The French Ministry of Finance does not share information with the immigration authorities.  

As far as the French government is concerned, this is a ponderous and unnecessary integration. 

One department is concerned with whether you are paying your fair share for living in the paradise that is this country, the other is concerned with whether you are legally staying here. 

READ MORE Red tape revolution: Citizens in France get the right to make mistakes on official forms

If you consider that many visas are issued for people staying under 183 days (some students or au pairs, for example) who wouldn’t be responsible for filing taxes, you can start to see why it doesn’t follow that just because you got a visa to be here, that you are obliged to pay taxes, or that the French government would think of explaining things to you.

Things can change if you obtain a ten-year carte de séjour permanent. That card allows for you to leave France for up to three years – even consecutively if you would like – during that 10 year period. 

If you do leave France for that time period you’ll be a tax resident somewhere else, ostensibly. But Americans, don’t worry – no matter where you go, you’ll still get to file!

I remember being infuriated when I first learned about this requirement years ago, especially because my command of French was just developing, and I certainly didn’t possess the technical French accounting vocabulary, much less knowledge of the tax code, to make sure I was crossing all my Ts and dotting all my Is. 

It became even more complex when I obtained the Profession Liberale visa and was not only paying taxes for my French business, but also for other French income I had to account for.  

You may be a do-it-yourself type, and if you’re a native speaker of the language you are filing taxes in, I say go for it. 

But if you’re not a native speaker of French, or do not possess, by coincidence, great knowledge of accounting or tax policy in the Fifth Republic, you might consider hiring someone to help you do those taxes. 

Yes, it’s a bit irksome that you have to pay to file taxes that indicated that you don’t owe any taxes, but it’s just one more (small) way that we pay for living in what is, for many of us, a dream country. So, set aside your irritation and do what needs to be done.

Stephen Heiner writes about his life in Paris (and his immigration adventures) at The American in Paris and is contactable for advice at [email protected]

Member comments

  1. This guy is worth checking out. I’ve perused his website and bookmarked it.

    But he seems like just another self-promoter on the Internet/YouTube.

    His job is promoting himself and giving mostly ersatz advice–for a fee.

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TAX

Reader question: Where can I find professional help with the French tax declaration?

There are lots of people advertising their services to help with the annual French tax declaration but you need to make sure that anyone you hire has the right qualifications - here is how to check.

Reader question: Where can I find professional help with the French tax declaration?
Photo: Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Question: I need some help with the annual French tax declaration and I’ve seen all sorts of different self-proclaimed experts offering their services, but what should I be looking for when I instruct someone in this area?

Unlike in the UK where swathes of the population including salaried employees and pensioners are generally exempt from filing a tax return, in France almost everyone has to complete the annual tax declaration – even if they don’t owe any tax.

READ ALSO Who has to fill in a tax declaration in France?

And the combination of complicated tax jargon and French bureaucracy is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many. So where can you get help?

Online

There are lots of English-language guides to French tax forms and the French tax website even has a section in English to help out foreigners.

You can head to The Local’s Tax Declaration section where we’ve put together series of guides and Q&As with experts including on the 2021 deadlines, who has to declare, what you need to tell the French taxman about and some handy vocab for the form.

The tax declarations have now moved online and once you have registered and filed for the first year, the process is relatively straightforward.

Professional help

But if you feel that your French is not up to the task, or your financial affairs are very complicated or you’d just rather hack off your own foot than spend an afternoon filling in French tax forms, you might prefer to pay someone to help you.

There are lots of people who advertise their services in this area, particularly in forums or online groups for foreigners, but be careful that you hire someone with the correct qualifications.

We asked chartered accountant Faten Amamou for her tips.

She said: “French tax returns can seem complicated, but if your financial affairs are straightforward, you can probably file your own. The calculations will be worked out for you, so you don’t need to do any complicated mathematics.”

But if you’re looking for professional help you have two main options – an expert comptable or a fiscaliste.

Faten said: “Tax authorities recommend that you fill your individual and household tax returns with an expert comptable.

“This assures them your tax return will be accurate, and they have a knowledgeable point of contact for any questions.

“You can also use a fiscaliste – or a tax-specialist lawyer (avocat). But note that for business tax returns (liasse fiscale) based on bookkeeping, only expert comptables can advise you, not tax lawyers.

“If your French is very good, you can call the tax helpline on 0809 401 401.

“Or if you have a fluent friend who can go with you, you can also make an appointment at your local tax office (centre des impôts) with an adviser who can explain how to fill in the form and answer any questions about it.

“But in both cases, they cannot give financial advice and can only answer questions about the form.

“There are some translators and other non-registered professionals who will offer to help you fill in your tax return, and I have seen people landed with some hefty tax bills, fines and even jail because of poor advice. If anyone offers to help you with your tax return, check that they are either a lawyer or an accountant registered HERE

“You can also use that form to find a qualified local accountant, or Google ‘Expert-comptables English-speaking’ to find bilingual accountants. But do double-check they are registered at the website above before using them.

“If someone is offering you accounting services and they aren’t registered on that site, then there’s also a link to report them to the authorities.”

Faten Amamou is a Chartered Accountant in France at ESCEC International and member of the Institute of chartered accountants in France (ordre des experts-comptables). Fluent in English, French and Arabic she provides accounting services to both individuals and businesses, and specialises in helping foreign entrepreneurs set up their business and careers in France. Find out more here.

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