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Ask the experts: The pitfalls to avoid when moving to France

Moving countries is always challenging and France has its own very specific systems in place, so we asked the experts for their top tips for people planning a move.

Ask the experts: The pitfalls to avoid when moving to France
The property hunt in France is likely to be different to what you are used to. Photo: AFP

From dossiers to cartes de séjour, garants to elevators there are always a few surprises in store when people begin the process of moving to France. While moving here is always a popular choice, or many British readers there is the added time pressure of Brexit, meaning that many are rushing to get here before the end of the year.

So we asked two relocation experts for their tips on navigating the French systems in order to ensure a smooth move with a nice place to live and the correct immigration papers in place.

1. Do your research

Sounds like an obvious one, but it's important that you figure out where you want to live and what you can afford.

You can go and visit the Eiffel Tower but don't expect a view of it from your apartment widow unless you have a seriously big budget. Photo: AFP

In French cities – especially Paris – property prices can be high so you need to be realistic about what you can afford. Those huge apartments with a view of the Eiffel Tower that appear in virtually all movies about Paris? In real life they're generally owned by French aristos, film stars or foreign royalty so unless you have the purchasing power to outbid them then you might be looking at something a little smaller.

Carmel O'Connel and Joe Wilson run the south-west France based LBV Property Management, which offers property and relocation services.

Carmel said: “Getting a good idea of the cost of living in France is the thing to focus on to determine your budget.

“We recommend that people do as much research as they can on the cost of housing, utilities, groceries, transport, schooling, health cover, insurance, social security, and taxes. There’s plenty of information on the internet and it would be time well spent.

“Although you may have holidayed in France many times, your spending habits are likely to be very different when living here.

Sara Hillhouse-Sallembien is the founder of the Smart Relocation agency which helps people find property, set up utility and bank accounts and other life essentials and deal with immigration and other paperwork.

She said: “You need to do some research in advance to get a good idea of what your budget will buy. Prices to rent and buy are expensive in Paris, but property can also be both expensive and hard to find in Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux as well.”

If you're moving for a job then you will probably be tied to a specific area, but if you're freelancing, working from home or retiring then you will need to decide where to be.

Carmel added: “If you’re able to be flexible on location, think about what’s important about where you want to live and where will deliver the experience you are looking.

“Some things to think about are; the climate – although France’s climate is temperate, it has four distinct climatic areas, so consider what suits you best whether it is the modest annual temperature variations of the north, the hot dry summers of the south, or somewhere in between.

“Think urban or rural – within a town or village, within a community, rolling hills, sea views, or the peace and quiet of the deep countryside. 

“And always consider services – transport links, schools, internet and mobile coverage are just as important to check out.”

Check out services and transport links in the area you want to move to. Photo: AFP

2. Be prepared for differences in property

The properties that you're looking at may not be the same as those you're used to, so don't limit your options by setting your heart on a particular feature that is hard to find in France.

For example air conditioning is not a feature of most French homes so if you insist that your new place has air con you will be dramatically limiting the number of options available to you.

Sara said: “As well as air con, elevators are not installed in every apartment block and often are very small. If you have young children you need to think about whether your stroller will fit into the elevator and – if not – whether the building has a place on the ground floor where you can store it. Don't assume that it will.

“The size of apartments comes as a surprise to many as a lot of them are very small – especially the bathrooms. The water closet really is closet sized and you don't get the large bathrooms and en suite that you find in many other countries.”

Carmel added: “Remember, renting before buying is an option that allows you more time to get what you really want.

“It’s really important to come and visit that fantastic house that you found on the internet, despite having a 360 virtual tour video, nothing compares with experiencing it with all of your senses, along with the surrounding area, for yourself in person.”

READ ALSO Nine things to expect when renting an apartment in France

3. Get your dossier in order

If you're renting you will need a dossier. This is something that potential tenants will likely not have encountered in other countries, but is crucial for house-hunting in France.

You need a complete set of relevant papers such as ID, work contracts, payslips and financial information before you start looking at houses or apartments. Many agents will not even show you round the property until they have seen your dossier, so looking at places before your papers are in order is a waste of time.

Sara said: “If you have even one paper missing from your dossier and there is another person interested in the property then you will lose out. This is particularly the case in cities like Paris, Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux where property moves fast – the agent won't chase up your paperwork, they will just go with someone else.”

Find out more about putting together your dossier here

Make sure you have your paperwork lined up before you start househunting. Photo: AFP

4. Line up a guarantor

In some circumstances you may be asked for a garant (a financial guarantor) especially if you're looking at less expensive housing.

Self-employed people who cannot demonstrate solid accounts going back a couple of years or those not working may also need to provide a guarantor. In general the garant must be someone already living and working in France and they too need to provide a dossier of documents so if you think you might need one it's worth asking them ahead of time so they can start assembling documents.

If you don't have anyone who fits the criteria, there are companies who offer to act as guarantors for foreigners, in exchange for a fee.

Sara said: “It tends to be studios and one-bed apartments that are more likely to ask for a garant, it's not such a big issue once you get to the three-bedroom apartments. The landlords are very careful because French law is weighted heavily in favour of the tenant once you get a contract.”

READ ALSO Renting property in France: Know your rights as a tenant

 

5. Learn French

Some people are already fluent when they move, but for those who aren't many assume they will 'pick it up' once they're here. And while it's true that you will learn a lot through being in the country, the period of house-hunting and moving is when you will need to have some pretty complicated conversations.

Carmel said: “We advise that prior to moving, it is important to start learning the language, don’t assume you’ll have more time and will pick it up when you get here.

“Having a grasp of the language beforehand will allow for a much quicker assimilation. Whilst language apps are great, if possible, book a series of lessons with a native French speaker as you’ll learn so much more about the language and culture, plus it can be more fun, interactive and help with overcoming any inhibitions about speaking the language with the locals.”

Sara added: “If you're only searching for property online in English you will be directed to sites that often have pretty hefty mark-ups on prices. Plus you will miss out on a lot of properties by not searching through the French sites.”

6. Visas and residency cards 

This is not an issue that EU citizens need to face, but for people coming from outside Europe you need to arrange a visa before you travel, then a carte de séjour residency card after a certain period in France.

If you're daunted by the paperwork, many relocation agencies offer this as a service as well as finding you somewhere to live and setting up accounts.

Sara said: “Your visa application starts before you leave and you will need to provide a lot of paperwork and in some cases proof of your financial means. If for example you are applying for the talent visa you need to provide proof of the job you are coming to and also your educational attainments and qualifications to show that you have the experience necessary for the job.

READ ALSO How to apply for a visa for France – step by step

“As well as helping people with visas when they first arrive we also help people with renewals when they fall due.

“And of course residency cards is something that British people will need to face soon as well, we will be offering that as a service for British people already here once their application process for a carte de séjour goes live in October.”

READ ALSO Carte de séjour: The online process for post-Brexit residency cards in France

 

 

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FRENCH BUREAUCRACY

Everything you need to know about your vital French ‘dossier’

It's a crucial part of life and an incomplete one can bring about a whole world of pain - here's what you need to know about your French dossier.

Everything you need to know about your vital French 'dossier'

The French word un dossier simply means a file – either in the physical sense of a plastic or cardboard item that holds documents together or the sense of a collection of documents. You might also hear civil servants use dossier to refer to the responsibilities they hold, as in English we might say their ‘brief’. 

But by far the most important use of dossier, particularly to foreigners in France, is its use to indicate the collection of documents that you must put together in order to complete vital administrative tasks, from registering in the health system to finding somewhere to live.

When you begin a new administrative process, you will need to put together a collection of documents in order to make your application. Exactly what you need varies depending on the process, but almost all dossiers will include;

  • Proof of ID – passport, birth certificate or residency card. If a birth certificate is required check carefully exactly what type of certificate is being asked for (and don’t freak out if they’re asking for a birth certificate no more than three months old, it doesn’t mean you have to be born again).

Birth certificate: Why you need it in France and how to request one

  • Proof of address – utility bills are usually the best, if you’re on paperless billing you can log into your online account with your power supplier and download an Attetstation de contrat which has your name and address on it and also acts as proof of address
  • Proof of financial means – depending on the process you might have to show proof of your income/financial means. This can include things like your last three months payslips or your most recent tax return. If you’re house-hunting you might be asked for your last three quittances de loyer – these are rent receipts and prove that you have been paying your rent on time. Landlords are legally obliged to provide these if you ask, but if you can’t find them or it’s a problem you can also ask your landlord to provide an attestatation de bon paiment – a certificate stating that you pay what you owe on time.

Paper v online

The traditional dossier is a bulging file full of papers, but increasingly administrative processes are moving online, so you may be able to simply upload the required documents instead of printing them all out. 

If you have to send physical copies of documents by mail, make sure you send them by lettre recommandée (registered mail), not only does it keep your precious documents safe, but some offices will only accept documents that arrive this way. 

If you’re able to send your dossier online, pay careful attention to the format specified for documents – usually documents like rental contracts or work contracts will be in Pdf format while for documents like a passport or residency card a jpeg (such as a photo taken on your phone) will suffice. If you’re sending photos of ID cards, residency cards or similar make sure you upload photos of both sides of the card.

If you need scanned documents there is no need to buy an expensive scanner – there are now numerous free phone apps that will do the job and allow you to photograph the documents with your phone’s camera and convert them to Pdf files.

Some French government sites are a little clunky and won’t accept large files – if you get an error message telling you that the file you are uploading is too big, you can resize it using a free online photo resizing tool. 

Payment

If the process requires payment (eg changing address on certain types of residency card or applying for citizenship) you may be asked for a timbre fiscale – find out how they work here

House-hunting

If you are looking for a property to rent you will need to compile a dossier and if you’re in one of the big cities – especially Paris – landlords or agencies usually won’t even grant you a viewing without seeing your dossier first, so it’s always best to compile this before you start scanning property adverts.

The government has put together a tool called Dossier Facile which allows you to upload all your house-hunting documents to a single site, have them checked and verified and then gives you a link to give to landlords and agencies, which makes the process a little simpler.

Find a full explanation of how it works here.

Attestations

For foreigners, especially new arrivals, it’s often a problem getting together all the documents required. It’s worth knowing that if you don’t have everything you need, you can sometimes substitute documents for an attestation sur l’honneur, which is a sworn statement. 

How to write a French attestation sur l’honneur

This is a legally valid document, with penalties for submitting a false one, and needs to be in French and written in a certain format – the French government website provides a template for the attestation.

Vocab

Déposer un dossier – submit your file

Pièce d’identitie – proof of ID eg passport, residency card

Acte de naissance – birth certificate. 

Copie intégral – a copy of the document such as a photocopy or scan

Extrait – a new version of the document, reissued by the issuing authority

Sans/ avec filiation – for birth certificates it might be specified that you need one avec filiation, which means it includes your parents’ details. Some countries issue as standard short-form birth certificates that don’t include this, so you will need to request a longer version of the certificate

Justificatif de domicile – proof of address eg recent utility bills. If you don’t have any bills in your name you can ask the person who either owns the property or pays the rent to write an attestation de domicile stating that you live there

Justificatif de situation professionnelle – proof of your work status eg a work contract – either a CDI (permenant contract) or CDD (short-term contract)

Justificatif de ressources – proof of financial means, such as your last three months payslips (employers are legally obliged to provide these), other proof of income or proof of pension payments or evidence of savings.

Avis d’imposition – tax return. Some processes ask for this separately, for others it can be used as proof of resources – this is not a copy of the declaration that you make, but the receipt you get back from the tax office laying out your income and any payments that are required. If you declare your taxes online in France, you can download a copy of this document from the tax website. 

Quittance de loyer – rent receipts

Attestation de bon paiment – a document from your landlord stating that you pay your rent on time

Un garant – for some processes, particularly house-hunting, you might need a financial guarantor. This can be tricky for foreigners since it has to be someone you know reasonably well, but that person must also be living (and sometimes working) in France, and they will also need to provide all the above documents. If you’re struggling to find an acceptable guarantor, there are online services that will provide a guarantor (for a fee).

En cours de traitement – this means that your dossier has been received and is in the process of being evaluated. Depending on the process this stage can take anywhere between hours, months or even years (in the case of citizenship applications).

RDV – the shortened version of rendez-vous, this is an appointment. Certain processes require you to first submit your dossier and then attend an in-person appointment.

Votre dossier est incomplet – bad news, you are missing one or more crucial documents and your application will not proceed any further until you have remedied this.

Votre dossier est validé – your dossier has been approved. Time to pop the Champagne!

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