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What you should know when buying a car in France

From making sure you're getting a good deal, to registering the vehicle, here's what you need to know about buying a car in France.

Cars in a Renault-Dacia dealership in Vitry-Sur-Seine, near Paris.
Cars in a Renault-Dacia dealership in Vitry-Sur-Seine, near Paris. Photo: ERIC PIERMONT / AFP.

Purchasing a car can be a stressful experience, one in which everyone’s speaking a different language, and that’s even before you move abroad. Going through the whole process in a foreign country is even more daunting.

These are some of the things you need to keep in mind when on the hunt for a car in France.

Getting a good deal

The first decision to make is whether you opt for a new or used car.

Second-hand cars in France are notoriously expensive, to the point where many readers of The Local have previously said they preferred to buy in the UK and bring the vehicle over. But now registering British cars in France has become a lot more complicated because of Brexit, it is much simpler to buy a car in France.

On the plus side, the small size of the second-hand market means your French car shouldn’t lose its value in a hurry.

If you are looking for a used car, you can buy through a dealer or browse the options online on sites like Leboncoin, AutoScout24, LaCentrale, and ParVendu.

Since the prices in France will be different to what you’re used to, before making an offer you should consult the cote Argus to have an idea of whether you’re getting a good deal. Motoring magazine L’Argus assigns a guide price to every used car based on its age and model, and industry professionals as well as individuals looking to buy or sell a car can consult the guide online.

This is really the minimum a car is worth, so expect to pay more than the Argus price, but it’s a good point of comparison. The Argus price may also be used by insurance providers when calculating the size of your payout should the car be written off, so knowing this before signing the papers can help you avoid any nasty surprises in the future.

Green bonus

Whether you’re buying a new or used car, France offers two main grants to encourage people to opt for a cleaner vehicle.

The first is the bonus écologique (ecological bonus), a grant of up to €7,000 when you buy a new electric or plug-in hybrid car or van, or a second-hand electric vehicle. In order to qualify, new cars must emit fewer than 50g of CO2 per kilometre, while the limit is 20g for used electric cars. Find out more about how much you could receive here.

READ ALSO Power points: What I learned driving 1,777km through France in an electric car

The second aid is the prime à la conversion (exchange grant), which offers help towards a new or used car in exchange for sending a polluting car to the scrapheap. You could receive up to €3,000 for a combustion engine car, or €5,000 for an electric or plug-in hybrid car, although this also depends on your income. Find out whether you could qualify here.

Several local authorities also propose their own schemes which will help you cover the costs of a more environmentally friendly vehicle. Find out what grants are available here.

Renault's Zoe electric car. The French government offers big subsidies to people who buy electric cars.

Renault’s Zoe electric car. The French government offers big subsidies to people who buy electric cars. Photo: Money SHARMA / AFP.

Insurance

Congratulations! You’re now the proud new owner of a car in France. But if you actually want to drive it, first you’ll need to get some insurance.

If you are from the UK and have been insured there within the last few years, it may be possible to transfer over your no-claims bonus.

In France, the system is called Bonus Malus. Someone who has never been insured starts with a bonus of 1.00, and every year you go without a claim this is multiplied by 0.95, shaving 5 percent off your bill. So you could save money by providing proof of your British insurance history.

If on the other hand you are involved in an accident, this figure will be multiplied by 1.25 if you are to blame, or by 1.125 if you are only partially at fault.

Usually, a French insurance policy will cover the vehicle, rather than the driver as is the case in the UK. You will still need to provide one or several named drivers, but others will also be able to take the wheel and be covered by the insurance.

Registering the car

When completing the paperwork, it’s important not to miss any steps to ensure you’ll be driving legally. If you buy from a garage or dealership, they may be able to help you out with some of this, but if you buy a second-hand car from an individual, it’s especially important to check off all the steps.

First of all, when you buy a car, you must sign a certificat de cession (transfer certificate) along with the previous owner, who has to declare the sale on the ANTS website within 15 days. The seller should then receive a code de cession (transfer code) which they must send you because you will need this to register the vehicle in your name.

The previous certificat d’immatriculation (registration certificate) – also referred to as a carte grise – needs to be struck through, and completed with the date of the sale and the seller’s signature.

READ ALSO The cost of registering a car in France

You will then need to register the car in your name, which can be done online. You have one month to do this, otherwise you risk a fine of up to €750. Even if you didn’t buy the car from them, you can ask a certified garage to apply for the carte grise on your behalf, which could save on time and hassle.

When applying for a carte grise you will need to submit proof that the vehicle has undergone a contrôle technique (vehicle safety check) within the previous six months if the car is at least four years old.

Essentials for the car

There are also a few essential things every motorist needs to carry. Legally, a car must always have a warning triangle and a fluorescent safety vest in case you break down or are involved in an accident.

In the windshield, you need to display proof of insurance, which comes in the form of a carte verte – a small green square of paper – as well as a vignette de contrôle technique – a sticker showing details of the vehicle’s most recent MOT. Cars at least four years old require a contrôle technique every two years.

All cars require the above in order to circulate legally, but there is another requirement which can be easy to forget. If you live in a large city such as Paris, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Grenoble or Marseille, or just want to visit, you will need a sticker showing your vehicle’s environmental credentials.

The Crit’Air system was introduced in 2017 and assigns a number to each vehicle based on how much they pollute, so you will need to apply for a number to stick on your windshield. In the above cities, as well as in other towns and some entire departments, the sticker is a requirement year round, even if they are only used to ban the most polluting vehicles during spikes in air pollution.

You will find a full explanation of how the Crit’Air system works here.

From November 2021, another requirement will be added to the list, too, when it becomes compulsory for vehicles to be equipped with snow tires or chains in half of France’s départements during winter, even if you are just passing through.

Make sure you’re also aware of specific rules around driving in France, from strict alcohol limits, to laws around smoking or using earphones at the wheel, to the rather confusing rule about giving priority to the right.

Member comments

  1. I have been looking to rent (LLD) a new electric car and have been tempted by the low monthly rates offered.
    They are a scam, intended to get you into the dealers showroom!
    When you get to the dealers, they know nothing about the low prices and only want to sell you a new car.
    Very disappointed.

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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting France

Ever wondered how to avoid paying exorbitant roaming fees when travelling in France? There are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by a big bill.

How to avoid huge 'roaming' phone bills while visiting France

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country than you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but non-Europeans need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with “Three” for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in France. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in France.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

Orange Holiday

This is one of France’s largest and most reputable telephone companies. The “Orange Holiday” SIM card exists specifically for tourists. At €39.99, you will get a SIM card that will enable you to make and receive calls and texts from a French phone number. You will have unlimited calls and texts within Europe, as well as two hours of calls and 1000 texts outside of Europe (for messaging people at home, for example). You will also have access to 30GB of data in Europe. 

The initial plan is valid for 14 days, and begins as soon as you begin calling, texting, or surfing the web. In order to get this SIM card, you can go into any Orange store and request it. Some supermarkets and airport kiosks might also carry this SIM card.

SFR

SFR is another well-known French phone company. Their pre-paid SIM card is called “La Carte,” and they offer several different options based on how much internet, calling, and texting you want access to. The basic plan is for 30 days and starts at €9.99 a month, which includes a €10 credit. Once the card is in your cellphone, you can add on a top-up option as needed.

You can buy this SIM card either online or in an SFR store. 

La Poste Mobile

This is the French phone company that operates in conjunction to the post office. What is especially convenient about this SIM card is that you should be able to get it at any post office in France. Plans range from €5 to €30 based on the number of days and the amount of calling, texting, and internet you are looking for. 

Bouygues Telecom

Finally, Bouygues Telecom also has some offers for prepaid SIM cards. Their plan, the “My European SIM” is especially made for tourists. It costs €39.90 and allows you unlimited calling and texting in France and Europe. The plan offers 20Gb of data. You can plan ahead for your trip by ordering this card online, but you can only activate it once you arrive in France.

The card actually comes along with a tourist guide (offered in 10 languages) and a map of Paris Metro.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in France, it is important to be sure you are buying a pre-paid SIM, rather than accidentally signing up for a monthly plan.

Some mobile phone carriers offer very affordable monthly plans, which might look appealing to tourists. However, these plans will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, and many involve complex processes, including sending a registered cancellation letter (in French), in order to cancel the plan.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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