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FRANCE EXPLAINED

16 ways to make your life easier in France without really trying

Life in France is not always easy with language struggles, mountains of administration and unhelpful bureaucrats to deal with. So here are some tips to make your life better without much effort involved.

A lady waves a French flag during a political rally.
A lady waves a French flag during a political rally. Read our guide on easy ways to make your life simpler in France. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP)

For many foreign residents, France is a great place to live. It is rich in culture, cuisine and economic opportunities. The health system is fantastic as is the social welfare system. 

But there are downsides. It can be be a difficult place to live too, with plenty of complicated rules – official and unofficial – to get your head round.

We have put together a list of “life-hacks” to make your life here better – with very little effort required. 

Get a French partner 

This is perhaps the silver bullet of French life hacks.

Meeting a special someone of French nationality won’t only fulfil your emotional needs, but will also be of enormous use when it comes to navigating French culture and administration. If you are in a relationship with someone who knows the system, your life will become a whole lot easier and if you’ve managed to find someone who is willing to fill in your French administration forms for you, then please give us their number. 

It is also worth making French friends. They might be less willing to help you through the tortuously long French tax declaration but they will provide you a valuable insight into French culture and society. Foreign residents who have lived in France for a long time can also be a valuable resource for advice on navigating French law and administration. 

READ ALSO How to tackle online dating in France

Drink supermarket wine 

The French do love a good glass of wine. In 2019, France produced 4.3 billion litres of wine, accounting for 17 percent of global production. That same year, the country still managed to knock back some 26,500 hectolitres of the stuff.  

In France you can buy a decent bottle of wine from the supermarket for less than €10 – the same bottle in the UK would typically cost you three times as much. Likewise markets often having a stall selling cheap, but very drinkable, local wine.

The wine will relax you after dealing with that French tax declaration.

READ ALSO 8 tips on buying wine in French supermarkets

Get an English-speaking notaire

The French legal system can seem alien and confusing to people who are not from here. 

For many procedures, such as setting up a Will, getting married, getting divorced, adopting children, receiving financial advice or creating a business it’s a good idea to consult a legal expert, known as a notaire. While you will have to pay for their services it could end up saving you money in the long run, not to mention stress.

READ MORE How France’s inheritance tax system works

When it comes to notarial services, you may be best off finding someone who speaks English if you are not comfortable with technical or legal language in French. 

You can find a list of English-speaking notaries here

Be polite 

The French have a reputation for being particularly rude – especially the Parisians. 

But showing good manners can go a long way.

READ MORE Who are really the rudest – the French, tourists or Parisians?

You should begin every sentence with bonjour or bonsoir. Make sure you understand the vous vs tu rule (the latter is informal and used for people you have met before). And remember to say merci

These are all pretty basic linguistic touches that can drastically improve the reception that you receive.

Download the TousAntiCovid app 

Let’s face it, the Covid pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. 

If you are living in France, it is well worth downloading the TousAntiCovid app to host your proof of vaccination (or proof of recovery from Covid) necessary to enter a range of health pass venues like bars, restaurants, gyms, cinemas, museums etc. The app is available in English and also provides updates on the latest health information.

The alternative to using the app is to carry around paper copies of your vaccination certificates wherever you go. But in our opinion – France already has more than enough paperwork to go around. 

Skip the small talk 

Small talk doesn’t translate so easily into French, at least in bigger cities, where French people often feel uncomfortable engaging in light conversation with strangers and acquaintances. 
 
While the French are famously good conversationalists and love a debate, idle chit chat with people you don’t know is a whole different matter and many French people can feel at a loss engaging in talk about the weather etc. Normally just stick to bonjour and then bonne journée once your conversation is over.
 
You might find the elevator ride conversation a little lacking, but don’t worry about filling the silence, it’s natural. 

Master la bise

La bise, the French cheek kissing greeting is always a potential minefield for foreigners, and plain awkward for the French person on the other end of the fumbled attempts.

You can end up going the wrong way first, bashing heads, straying too close to the the mouth, or forget it’s supposed to be more of an air kiss while pressing cheeks – rather than a big sloppy one right on the chops.

READ MORE La bise is back: Foreigners in France divided over return of cheek kissing

It’s officially advised against at present due to Covid, but it is worth reading this guide on how to bise properly for once the pandemic is a thing of the past (we can always dream).

Stay informed (perhaps with The Local)

Being au courant with what is happening in France and keeping up with the latest events and developments will make you feel less of an outsider.

If your French is up to it, start reading French newspapers or watching the evening news.

Without meaning to blow our own trumpet, subscribing to The Local is a great way to stay informed. 

We provide detailed coverage of elections, the Covid crisis and other important stories from across the country. Not only that but we have reams of practical guidance for foreign residents on things like: property, taxes, travel rules, Brexit, holidays and so much more. We also respond directly to readers’ questions and publish a daily newsletter of everything you need to know. 

Embrace the culinary culture

French gastronomy is listed as an intangible part of humanity’s cultural heritage by UNESCO

Whether it is a freshly baked croissant or baguette in the morning, a decadently melting raclette, a perfectly prepared oeufs mayonnaise or a plate of garlic-laden snails, you will find something for you. 

If you live in France and haven’t tried a good proportion of the hundreds of different cheeses, you are missing out. 

Slow down 

French culture is far less frenetic than many anglophone cultures – particularly outside of Paris. 

You may have noticed French colleagues enjoying a proper summer holiday, taking long lunch breaks, or stepping outside repeatedly to have a cigarette. These patterns are woven into the DNA of French society. 

So take you time. Ne sois pas pressé

Apply for a carte vitale 

The carte vitale is the national French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered by the state.

The French health system is very generous compared to countries such as the United States. 

The cards work mainly as a reimbursement system – when you have a doctor’s appointment or are prescribed medication, you pay upfront to the doctor or pharmacist. They then swipe your carte vitale and the government reimburses some or all of the cost directly back into your bank account.

You can read our guide on obtaining a carte vitale HERE

Drink free water in restaurants 

French bars, cafés and restaurants are legally required to offer free tap water to customers. 

If you’re sitting down to eat, most French restaurants will automatically bring you a carafe of tap water and a basket of bread as a free addition to the meal.

Unless you specifically want expensive mineral water ask for une carafe d’eau or un pichet d’eau which will ensure that you get free tap water. 

In case you were in any doubt, tap water is most definitely safe to drink in France

Wear a bike helmet 

French drivers are terrible. And while Paris in particular is becoming more bike-friendly, some of our readers (and staff) have reported near-misses while cycling.

To stay safe, make sure you wear a helmet. It is easy to do and could save your life. 

Book medical appointments via Doctolib 

The easiest way to book a medical appointment in France is via the Doctolib app or website

You can book everything from Covid vaccinations, to dental work, to GP visits, to psychiatric consultations. 

It is possible to filter search options by availability, location,  languages spoken by the practitioner and whether the treatment is covered by social security. 

If you haven’t set up a Doctolib account already, it is easy to do – and free. The one downside is that there is not an English version of the website.

READ ALSO The smartphone apps that make life in France a bit easier

Watch French TV

Watching French TV and films is not only a great way to improve your language skills, it also gives you something to chat about with your French neighbours, especially if there has been a high-stakes cake battle in Le Meilleur Pâtissier (the French version of Bake Off). 

If you’re still learning, try watching with the French subtitles on to help you keep up, and if you’re in Paris the cinema club Lost in Frenchlation runs regular screenings of French films with English subtitles.

READ ALSO 5 Netflix series that will teach you French as the locals speak it

Don’t take it personally

At some point you are likely to run into an administration-related battle or problem that you cannot solve.

This has happened to everyone – even the French complain that their bureaucracy is too confusing and bureaucrats are unhelpful – but when it happens to you it’s easy to feel that you’re being picked on.

Instead take a deep breath, maybe eat a baguette with some cheese, and remember that it’s not personal, it’s just what happens in France. C’est la vie, hein?

Member comments

  1. I have no idea why the French cuisine is prised so highly. Even croissant and baguettes I have eaten the same or better in other countries. Supermarkets have a poor choice when it comes to anything not French. All the hype around eating mollusks, amphibians and don’t get me going about the discusting practises around raising geese and ducks for livers and feathers. Another point is most food is spoiled with cheese of some sort. The best bread I found (if you want to eat bread with some sort of nutricial value, croisants and baguettes are only carbs) is lidl’s walnut bread. Very poor selection of brown breads compaired to other countries. Mixed herbs is another one, difficult to find. That free water is fine as long as the water is a good quality without chloor taste. Go to Egletons and try the free water there, it taste like a swimming pool!
    I have so many bad experiences when it comes to communicating with the french unfortunately! (level middle B) I do speak french but have an accent, the monolingual french deserve a firm telling off. How they dare when they only speak one language to be so arrogant (while it’s my fourth) not even to make an effort. I had one of those ladies on the telephone trying to book an appointment. She asked a question and one key word I missed. I asked to repeat, I asked to use different words, than she started to repeat the same word another three times. After that she had the guts to tell me to find another person who does speak proper french! I got annoyed and told her that it is not my problem but hers, she need to use different words because I told her I did not understand that key word. Than she did, I understood and everything was fine. I lived in 5 countries, France is absolute number one when it comes to arrogance and plain unfriendlyness, not even wanting to try to understand. They are willing to try to understand when they need you for something, but when you need them, especially anything ‘official’ it’s often a bad experience.
    I have been thinking maybe it is me, but I have never experienced this in any other country. And it is not the covid causing this because it was exactly the same before covid.

    1. It certainly seems that France is not your ideal destination Johanna. A relocation may be the choice to be made if you are to live stress free, happy and well fed. For me, I’ll happily take France.

      1. You all jump to conclusions what is silly. I am happy you have never experiened my experiences. Ofcourse there are friendly people anywhere but when a doctor says ‘What are you doing here if you don’t speak fluent french and you don’t understand our health service?’ for me that is snobbish! Than refuses to help. Yeah very professional and friendly. I agree you need to speak the language of the country where you live, that’s normal, what is not normal is that people put the telephone down when they hear an accent, that they hum and puff when they hear a non French name etc etc. I am sure it also depends where you live, and your personal situation.

        1. Hi Johanna, one thing you’ll find on here (The Local) is that most of these people don’t accept a different point of view or opinion. They don’t like or accept freedom of speech. They become personal and start calling you names, like @Kathy calling you a jerk, or @Richard Freer telling you to go and move somewhere else.

          I normally don’t waste my time commenting on here anymore, just now and then, and just read the odd article or two.

          BTW, I don’t particularly agree with your comments either (but don’t worry I won’t slag you off like the others, LOL). France is a particularly strange place, you need to give it time.
          Good luck, I hope it goes well for you here.

    2. Once you start your day with the belief that the locals ‘deserve a firm telling off’ because they dare speak only French….in France…. well, I think you’ve chosen your path. We have been treated with nothing but kindness here, are only intermediate French speakers at best. That is so far from my experience, I wonder if your second to last sentence isn’t the reason you are suffering so terribly here. Maybe go somewhere that speaks another of your languages.

    3. I think you need to find an English speaking country and live there. French people I’ve dealt with have been unfailingly helpful and friendly. I always use the polite words (bonjour, s’il vous plait, merci, au revoir) and I never insist that they change their language on my behalf. My French is level B1 by about a fingernail’s worth, as I still struggle with comprehension, but my problems are all linguistic, never with French people per se.

    4. With an attitude like that its no surprise that people respond that way. I’ve only been here a few months and my French is barely beginning level B. I’ve hit some of the infamous bureaucratic hurdles but knock wood, so far have gotten through with a bit of persistence. I apologize when necessary, express gratitude for their time and patience and always use a respectful and conciliatory tone, which goes a long way to softening an unhelpful functionary. If your ego and cultural arrogance won’t allow you to do that, then the person you’re dealing with probably won’t budge and may well take pleasure in making things hard for you, as they do the world over!

  2. I suspect Johanna needs to move somewhere else – the Mid-West USA, perhaps? If you don’t like molluscs, amphibians, ducks, geese or French water (usually totally drinkable outside of the cities), don’t eat them – but don’t just disparage one of the greatest cuisines in the world just because you don’t like individual elements. And lastly, just DO NOT criticise the French for speaking French. That’s just rude. Don’t forget you have the very good fortune to speak the language that is used as the ‘lingua franca’ around the world. If you struggle with French, try harder to learn some more. Or move to the Mid-West…

  3. Why is everyone responding to the one jerk in the room? I think the article’s advice «  ne soit pas pressé «  is spot on and should probably be at the top of the list. If we do this, everything else will work out and we’ll be able to enjoy what France has to offer.

  4. Johanna will undoubted find the people and experiences she is seeking. Please pass me another serving of the foie gras, s’il vous plait.

  5. I’d add a 17th tip to this list – learn to play Pétanque and use the meet-up site ‘OVS’ to find local social events in which you can participate. My experience after 4 yrs of living here has been entirely positive, notwithstanding the difficulties of a complex and at times seemingly unhelpful bureaucracy. I have a carte vitale, mutuelle and 10yr titre de sejour.
    At the moment I’m trying to understand if I need to make a tax declaration, as I pay tax directly from source in the UK. Even my local tax office doesn’t know!! Any advice would be welcome

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Filing taxes and finding cheap fuel: 6 essential articles for life in France

From the best websites to know for working in France and the places you should avoid for filling up your car, to the best regional cuisine in the North and South of France and planning your tax dates, here are the six essential articles you need to know for life in France.

Filing taxes and finding cheap fuel: 6 essential articles for life in France

The French government has loads of different websites for different purposes, and it can be hard to know which are worth keeping track of…and which are actually possible to navigate as an English-speaker.

If you are planning to work in France (or hire someone in France), then you’ll want to keep track of the most useful websites for the various administrative hurdles that will come up. 

We made a list of the best, and easiest to navigate, French government websites that will answer all of your questions from visas to employment contracts. On that list, you’ll find a new website that the French government just updated that consolidates a lot of the different things you used to have to go to several separate websites to find. 

Six official websites to know if you’re planning to work in France

Spring has sprung, and therefore so has tax season!

Taxes can also be an area that is confusing for foreigners living in France. Filling out the forms in French is a bit daunting, and you might be wondering what applies to you, specifically as a foreigner in France. Knowing the deadlines for filing your taxes is an important part of living in France.

As for what is coming up for May and June, you’ll want to mark your calendars for the dates for declaring your revenue. We made an updated list for you.

Income tax declaration in France: The key dates you need to know

After moving to France, many foreigners find it difficult to get French people to just speak to them in French without reverting to English. It is easy to feel stuck, wondering how and where you can practice your French skills.

If you are looking to gain confidence in your listening skills – to avoid those blank-face moments – we asked other readers for their recommendations.

Here is what they recommended for filling your free time with French TV shows, podcasts, and radio channels.

The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

Not a French resident yet, but still looking into buying a car in France? In reality, depending on where you are going, you might not need to have a vehicle.

Still, having a car is an essential for many people living in France, particularly those living out in the countryside. You might be thinking it would be easier to just buy a car in l’Hexagon rather than bringing one here – and you might be right. Doing the process in France will save you the headache of having to get the French equivalents for all the necessary paperwork.

Here are the essential things to know about buying a car in France:

Reader question: Can I buy a car in France if I’m not a resident?

And if you do end up buying that car, you’ll probably be wondering where to find the most affordable fuel in France.

With inflation on the rise, fuel is becoming more expensive throughout France, in some places more than others (you might want to avoid filling up in the Paris region).

There are still some places in the country with relatively affordable fuel, however, and we have made a guide for where to go to avoid breaking the bank at the fuel pump.

Which parts of France have the cheapest fuel prices?

Ah, French cuisine. People might think you can never go wrong with French food, but there are definitely some choices worth prioritising higher than others.

You are probably starting to think about your summer travel plans. If you are looking to eat well while jetting across France, without having to put too much thought into food-planning, then check out our regional guides!

We have come up with a few food and drink guides for you, complete with specific regional recommendations. Here is what to eat and drink in the North and South of France:

French regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in northern France

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