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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”