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MOVING TO FRANCE

‘Organise your documents and dress smartly’: Readers tips for getting a French visa

Applying for a visa for the first time can be a daunting, so we asked readers of The Local who had been through the process to share their tips for making the process as smooth as possible.

'Organise your documents and dress smartly': Readers tips for getting a French visa
Charles de Gaulle airport. Photo: Alain JOCARD / AFP.

Whether you’re a Brit who has never had to worry about visas before, or from another part of the world and are planning to move to France for the first time, official instructions can leave you with lots of questions.

So we asked the real experts – the people who have been through it and are now the proud owner of a French visa.

Naturally, the process varies depending on what type of visa you are applying for – a work visa, study visa, spouse visa, visitor visa, talent visa etc – you can find full details on them all here – EXPLAINED: How to apply for a visa to France

Of the respondents to our survey, the majority were applying for a visitor which is for those who do not intend to work – usually retirees.

READ ALSO How to get a visitor visa for France

Others had applied for work or study visas, or through the talent visa programme.

Respondents came from the USA, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UK.

From organising your documents to dealing with French officials, here is what they suggest for visa newbies. 

Prepare in advance

In many countries, French authorities use service providers such as TLS or VFS Global to process applications.

“We found out that they open appointments up on Fridays, one month out,” American Amy Cooke told The Local, adding that getting a VFS appointment was the main difficulty during the process.

However, this isn’t the only option.

“Sometimes they don’t make it clear that you can apply at the French embassy or consulate. Skip the visa centre and the extra fees! Apply at the French embassy or consulate directly,” said Ammar Mogharbel, from Saudi Arabia.

Readers also stressed the importance of factoring in Covid-related delays. Pamela Ellis had an appointment for a long-stay visa in Miami in July, but was told it would take a month for her visa to arrive from the time she had a meeting and submitted the necessary documents.

“I had already made plans to stay in Europe, so I continued with my plans, now I have to return in September to get my visa so that I do not break the 90-day Schengen rule,” she said.

“In the past, and I have gotten visas every single year, it only took 2 weeks from the time I submitted my papers.”

Don’t go it alone

Navigating the visa process, particularly as a first-timer, can be incredibly confusing, so it’s always a good idea to reach out to people who have been in the same situation.

Karen Golikov suggests: “Join Facebook groups like Applying for a French Visa or Retired Americans in France or Americans in France – Kind & Open Group. They were a huge help” (or head to The Local’s visa guide).

Depending on the type of visa you are applying for, you may also want help building your case.

“I used the services of a French woman based in the state of Washington, USA, to help me craft a convincing proposal, which she then translated into excellent French and I submitted to the French Consulate in San Francisco,” said Sharona Tsubota, who applied for a French passeport talent (talent passport).

The talent passport is a relatively little-known visa option, which applies to a range of jobs if you are coming to France to work – either as an employee or self-employed.

READ ALSO Talent passport – the little-known visa that could make moving to France a lot easier

If you run into problems or you are in an unusual situation, you may even want to seek legal advice.

Reader DF from the US was hoping to move from a working visa to a student visa. “After combing through the government website, forums, etc., there was essentially no information how to do it. Moreover the préfecture did not have a process for it.

“I learned that if you hire an attorney, they can petition a jury to force the préfecture to take a meeting as it is not expressly forbidden in the law to do a changement de statut de salarié à étudiant. After that, I was given an appointment at the préfecture and the lawyer had to accompany me and explain to them that they can indeed process this request, despite no one in that office having knowledge of such a thing.”

Peter Craic, from Australia, found French officials to be rude when applying for a long-stay non-working visa, partly due to his lack of French.

“Hire a solicitor and the rudeness evaporated,” he advised.

Organise your documents

Ah, the dossier, perhaps the element of the process most likely to give applicants night sweats, and our readers had plenty of advice on the subject.

Several readers stressed the fact that the order in which the documents are listed on the application is not arbitrary – so you should bring them in the same order as they are listed on the form, with copies.

“Check all the information on the French Embassy site and the Visa Centre site to make sure you have all the paperwork you need. And then check again,” said Lynn Buist from the UK.

Once the visa is ready, she recommends picking it up from the visa centre in person. “The most stressful bit of the whole process was when one of the passports was temporarily lost by the delivery company.”

“Prepare all of the original documents and copies in quadruplicate. Have a French euro bank account with the visa minimum yearly amount deposited for each person,” said John Howard from the US.

READ ALSO Permits and visas: What are the post-Brexit rules for Brits wanting to work in France?

Egyptian Omar Mansour, who has previously applied for both working and student visas, said: “When in doubt bring extra documents for proving anything like housing or income (eg scholarships, bills to prove your address).”

“Originals mean originals and copies mean copies. Don’t try to persuade or finesse your way through this process. You will not succeed,” warned Byron Tully from the United States.

“Present your documents with a cover page stating your name and a table of contents on the first page, written in French. Place tabs with labels (written in French) for the various documents. This will make it easy for you to present each document requested, and it will make it easy for the person processing your application to find the documents they’re looking for later.”

No, really, organise your documents

Those are the general tips for preparing your application, but different people will face specific challenges.

Depending on where you are from, you may need to show proof of health insurance cover with no deductibles.

“This was a surprise, and also to our insurance agent who had never heard this before,” American Eloise Clark, who applied for a long-stay non-working visa, told The Local. “Because of this and because of a pre-existing condition, our insurance is very expensive and doesn’t cover much except in-hospital and repatriation costs.”

You will also be asked for proof of accommodation. “1 week of AirBnB wasn’t enough, but we explained that we wanted to look for long-term accommodation after we arrived; they accepted 3 weeks’ of AirBnBs,” Clark said.

READ ALSO Talent passport: The little-known French visa that could make moving to France a lot easier

“If you have a name change be extra prepared. The French do not change last names and do not understand it,” John Howard added. Indeed, we recently explained why maiden names are so complicated in France.

First impressions matter

As with any bureaucratic interaction, when applying for a visa you’re at the mercy of the person in front of you. Our readers stressed the importance of making a good first impression during your visa appointment.

“Dress like you’re meeting the in-laws for the first time,” Tully suggested. “Not formal, but respectable. Say Bonjour to the person handling your application. Apologise for your French language skills unless your French is excellent. Present the documents as each are requested. Don’t make jokes. Don’t get upset if more documents are requested. This is your first step in a different world. Best to get with the programme and and go with the flow.”

“Speak in French and never in English,” Mansour added.

Although arriving with the correct documents is perhaps the best way to endear yourself to the staff.

Ian Burgess, whose wife Jenelyn is from the Philippines and had to apply for annual visas every year at the local French préfecture before eventually being granted permanent residency, said immigration staff have to put up with a lot of people who come unprepared.

“You being organised and prompt will help your situation no end,” he said.

Don’t get complacent

A good rule of thumb in general when moving to France is never to believe that the paperwork is finished.

Caroline Haines had no trouble applying for a long-stay visa from Canada, but problems arose later on.

“We had no idea that we had to attend another interview with the Immigration Department in France within the first three months of our trip there,” she said.

“No one told us this at the visa interview and we must have missed it on the website. If you do not do this your visa is invalid.”

Many thanks to everyone who took the time to share their advice. You can find out more about visas and other necessary paperwork in our Moving to France section.

Member comments

  1. We applied for our visas from the French Consulate in San Francisco, first by telephone and then following up by mail, and picking up our visas in person.

    Every aspect of this process went smoothly with no delays or difficulties.

    We have now lived in France as retired American permanent residents for almost twenty years. The French government has been gracious and welcoming throughout this entire process.

    Nancy and Michael Kittle
    Vaison la Romaine
    France

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For members

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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