SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

AMERICANS IN FRANCE

What are the biggest challenges for Americans in France?

Moving countries is always difficult, but from bank accounts to driving licences, tipping to customer service, there are some particular challenges that Americans in France face.

What are the biggest challenges for Americans in France?
Photo: Loic Venance/AFP

When you encounter problems in your new country it’s easy to feel as if you are all alone and it’s all your fault – but in fact it could be your nationality that’s the issue.

We’re not trying to put you off – France is a lovely country – but sometimes it helps to know that it’s not just you.

And  on the plus side, if you make your move to France a big success, you can end up being given the honour of being Panthéoniser, like your compatriot Josephine Baker.

Bank accounts 

The issue that American readers of The Local raise most often is that of bank accounts and the increasing difficulty of opening one in France.

A French bank account is vital if you are working, want to sign up to the healthcare system and in many cases to rent an apartment. But a piece of legislation called FATCA means that French banks are increasingly reluctant to take on any new clientele who hold a US passport.

So don’t be surprised if you are turned down flat when you try to open an account, even if you have plenty of money and an excellent credit rating.

You can find a full explanation of the problem, and what to do about it, HERE.

Tax

You’ve left the USA but that doesn’t mean that it’s keen to let you go. As a US passport holder you will almost certainly still be required to file a tax declaration to the IRS, even if you no longer have any income in the USA.

Most residents in France are also required to file a tax declaration (even if all your income comes from the US eg a pension), so you will find yourself filing two declarations a year. In good news though, France and the US have a dual taxation agreement, so at least you won’t be paying tax twice on the same income, it’s just extra paperwork.

READ ALSO How to fill in a French tax declaration

Virtually the only way to wriggle free of the IRS’s clutches is to renounce your American citizenship, but that’s a complicated and expensive process, which many US consulates are currently refusing to even allow you to begin.

Driving

This one is a question of luck – if your licence was issued in a US state that has an agreement with France then you can simply swap your licence for a French one.

If, however, your licence was issued by a state that has no agreement with France then we have some very bad news for you – you will have to take a French driving test. This is expensive because there are a minimum amount of lessons you must take, as well as being challenging for people who do not have fluent French. 

READ ALSO Four years and €1,800 – taking the French driving test as an American

This the reason why many Americans, especially those living in French cities, simply don’t drive at all. Find the full list of States HERE.

Visas and cartes de séjour

This isn’t specifically limited to Americans, all non-EU citizens need a visa or residency card to live in France, but the process can be a complicated one.

Getting the visa and arriving in France is far from the end of the process – full details HERE.

In some good news, the days of going to the préfecture with an enormous file of papers are coming to an end as an increasing number of processes including carte de séjour renewal move online.

Culture shock

It’s not just the practical issues, moving countries brings a culture shock with it that almost all new arrivals experience. 

Tipping

The tipping culture in France is very different to the US and it’s perfectly OK not to leave anything at all for your server.

Hospitality staff receive a decent wage in France so they’re not relying on tips to make up their wages.

READ ALSO How much to tip in France

If you’ve had a nice meal and your server was helpful it’s always appreciated to leave a little extra, but this can just amount to some coins or ’rounding up’ your bill.

A tip in France is known as a pourboire – literally ‘for a drink’ – and this is how it’s seen, a pleasant little extra but not required.

Customer service

Some unkind people say that there’s no word in French for customer service. We wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s certainly different.

The concept of ‘the customer is king’ doesn’t really exist (maybe just as well when you remember what the French did to their kings) and while many French bureaucrats, servers and sales staff are very helpful and friendly others are not, and there’s not really much you can do about it.

It’s best to always be polite – and start with a bonjour – even if you have a very justified complaint. 

There’s an upside to this though – sales staff, especially in independent businesses, see their role as to advise you rather than to serve you which means you get their specialist knowledge as well as the cheese/wine/clothes that you’re buying.

Fonduegate: Why the customer is not always right in France

Complaining 

But if you want to complain about a rude sales assistant then you will fit right in with the French, who also love a good complain.

The French habit of complaining can be hard for some newcomers to adjust to, especially if you come from a culture where people generally express themselves more positively.

It can come over as very negative, but really it’s more of a habit and you may eventually grow to love it.

READ ALSO Why I love the French habits of scolding and complaining

Likewise if you ask a French friend their opinion on your new haircut don’t expect them to sugarcoat it – if they think it makes you look like Gérard Depardieu in a wig then they’ll tell you, and count it as a friendly and honest gesture.

Ice and air-con

Air-conditioning does of course exist in France, but while it’s common in shopping malls, hotels and offices it’s rare to find it in private accommodation.

Most apartments in Paris don’t have air-con (or an elevator come to that, check carefully with the real estate agent), nor do homes in the south of France.

You can spend a small fortune buying your own place and installing air-conditioning, but it might be easier (and better for the planet) to just buy a fan and accept that you will be hot during the summer months. 

Likewise if you want ice in your drink you will need to ask for it (avec glaçon) as beverages are not routinely served with ice.

What were your biggest culture shocks when you moved to France? Share your experiences at [email protected]

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

FRANCE EXPLAINED

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France’s strangest festivals

From pig-squealing competitions to men in bear suits, these are some of France's most bizarre traditional festivals.

Bears, lemons and pig-squealing: 9 of France's strangest festivals

France is home to hundreds of festivals every year, from small local celebrations to internationally renowned events such as the Strasbourg Christmas market, Nice Carnival and the Lyon Fête des lumières. But there are other festivals that are, frankly, a bit strange.

Here are France’s 9 strangest festivals;

Fête du Citron

When life gives you lemons…create a festival involving over 140 tonnes of citrus fruit and invite about 230,000 visitors annually? That is pretty much what Menton, a town on the French Riviera did in 1928 when a hotelier in the region wished to increase tourism. Known for its delicious lemons, Menton has grown the fruit since the 1500s and shipped them all over the world.

The hotelier’s idea, which came into fruition in 1934 ended up becoming a world recognised three-week festival, where the city and its garden show off giant sculptures – some over 10 metres in height – made of lemons and oranges, amid parades, shows, concerts and art exhibits. 

Fête de l’Ours

Recently added to the UNESCO ‘intangible heritage’ list, the Bear Festival takes place in the Pyrenees, along the border with Spain. Stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages, the festival has some surprising components: it involves a man dressing up as a bear and chasing humans.

At the end of the festival, the humans catch the man in the bear costume, and ‘skin’ him (take off his bear costume) so he can become a person again.

READ MORE: What you need to know about the French bear festival recognised by Unesco

It is intended to be a celebration of the end of winter, and while it was practised in all villages in the region up to the 19th century, it still occurs in three villages in the Haut Vallespir, located in the Pyrenees-Orientales département.

La Pourcailhade (Festival of the Pig)

Every year the small village of Trie-sur-Baise in the Pyrenees hosts a unique festival dedicated to pigs. Throughout the celebration, you’ll see pigs in various forms – from piglets to pork and people in pig costumes. The Pourcailhade is known for one moment in particular: the pig squealing competition, where participants get on stage and attempt to give their best pig imitation. 

The festival first started in 1975, at the former home to Europe’s largest pig market, and it usually takes place in August, though the festival had a six-year pause and made its comeback in 2018.

There are also piglet races and competitions to see who has the best pig-costume, but the cri de cochon (pig squeal) contest is something to behold, as shown below.

The Underwear festival

Captain Underpants would fit right in to this village in the south of France, located the Lot département.

Started in 2016, this festival is meant to pay homage to a reporter who made the little town of Montcuq famous across France during a nationally televised segment in 1976. During the celebration, participants can compete with one another in games from sumo-wrestling to a race (in underwear).

The sausage and pickle festival

Andouillette might be one of the French foods that foreigners find least appealing, but its cousin, andouille, is perhaps a bit more appealing…though possibly not enough to join a contest for the fastest andouille and pickle eater.

READ MORE: Readers reveal: The worst food in France

Every August 15th, the village of Bèze, located in eastern France, hosts a festival celebrating the sausage. One key moment is the competition to see who can swallow one kilo and 200 grams of tripe as quickly as possible, all with their hands tied behind their backs. The festival also crowns a queen of andouille and a king of the pickles, and the proceeds go toward helping children with disabilities.

This is not the only andouille centred festival in France. Another one, the “Fête de l’Andouille” which takes place in northern France involves a very important step where the crowd tries to catch pieces of andouille thrown at them from a balcony.

Fêtes de Bayonne

Known as France’s wildest festival, the Fêtes de Bayonne are a five-day party celebrating Basque cultural identity, and they take place in Bayonne every summer. 

Starting in 1932, the Fêtes can be controversial because they have traditionally involved bull fighting, or corrida, which some French lawmakers have been working to outlaw.

READ MORE: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Aside from the bulls, the festival consists of lots of singing, dancing, sports competitions, traditional dress, and crowd-surfing. 

Festival-goers wear red and white outfits to symbolise the northern Spanish province of Pamplona, though some purists wear the colours of Bayonne: white and blue.

One of the most notable parts of the festival is the paquito chocolatero – a type of crowd-surfing where a person is passed over a chain of people sitting on the ground. The Fêtes de Bayonne have beaten the world record for the longest chain of people several times, most recently in 2022, a chain of 8,000 people passed one person over the crowd.

The Historic Ladle Festival

In practice since 1884, the Fête Historique des Louches, this tradition takes place in northern France in Comines. The legend goes that the Lord of the town was imprisoned in a high tower, and to show his people where he was being held, he apparently threw a wooden spoon with his coat of arms from the tower.

The festival, which takes place each October, has plenty of other activities, including a pageant, but the most noteworthy part is the parade where wooden spoons are hurled at the crowd. The goal is to walk away with the most ladles, proving to everyone that you truly deserve to live in the town of Comines.

The Gayant Festival

Close to the border with Belgium, the city of Douai in France’s north engages in a festival to celebrate three large statues, representing a giant family. Called the “Gayants” – they symbolise the city and according to folklore, they helped the villagers survive battles, invasions and wars over the centuries. The procession involves a parade where the giant statues are taken around the city.

This is another French festival that was registered in the “intangible cultural heritage” list with UNESCO, specifically under the category of “Giants and processional dragons of Belgium and France.”

Festival of the Unusual Taking place in Finistère, on France’s western coast, this festival has been going on for almost three decades.

Every July 14th, villagers come to demonstrate one of their “unusual talents,” whether that be throwing an egg or demonstrating how long they can peel an apple. One highlight of the festival is the race – where contestants try to go faster than one another on bed frames with rollers. Some contestants use the festival as a way to show their prowess in the Guinness Book of World Records – one village member broke the record in bending beer caps at the festival.

While France’s many festivals might seem a bit odd to foreigners, they still pale in comparison to some festivals taking place in the anglophone world, such as the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling event in the UK, where participants race down a 180 metre hill to try to catch the Gloucester cheese rolling down it. 

SHOW COMMENTS