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Moving to France – how to zap the culture shock

Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.

Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Heather, now, and in 2011 after her family's move to France

Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.

A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.

“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you’re either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it’s much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”

Take the pain out of your move to France. Plan your relocation with AGS Movers

It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family – you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”

Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It’s a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.

“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It’s totally different to the system in the UK.”

“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I’d been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”  

France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.

“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It’s hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it’s very efficient.”

Heather and her family just after their move to France.

But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.

“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental,” Heather says. “I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”

And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can’t speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you’d probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”

Zap that culture shock by planning your move to France with AGS Movers. Get a quote here

But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”

There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.

“At first you’re nervous before you go,” says Heather, “and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. This is awful. Everything’s so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don’t know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don’t want to go home because you can’t remember how it works in the country you came from.

“At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”

Make your relocation much less stressful by contacting AGS Movers

Member comments

  1. “The prescription will be fulfilled by a pharmacy and must be paid for; the little price stickers (vignettes) from each medicine should then be stuck on the Feuille de Soins, which is a reimbursement form for medical expenses. It’s all so gloriously complicated.” Not once you are in the system (Ameli). I haven’t had to do the sticker thing you describe for more than 20 years.
    And if you haven’t lived in the UK for 10 years you’ll be shocked by the petty-fogging bureaucracy that now exists. It’s (much) worse than France, because no matter the pleadings in your individual case, or the insanity of the demand, you will get zero flexibility. So change the record, change the stereotype, UK is now much more painfully bureaucratic.
    Vive la France!

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Reader Question: Is it possible to fast-track French paperwork?

Whether it's waiting for an appointment or anxiously tracking the progress of your application, most foreigners in France have wondered at some point whether it is possible to fast-track their French paperwork.

Reader Question: Is it possible to fast-track French paperwork?

You might have heard of France’s ‘fast-track citizenship’ for over 1,000 foreign-born frontline workers during the height of the pandemic or perhaps stories of other EU countries that offer faster and simpler residency in exchange for investment.

You might even have seen companies offering to ‘speed up’ paperwork for you.

Unfortunately we’re here to tell you that there is no secret ‘fast lane’ where everything is dealt with speedily, even if you were willing to pay for it.

There are, however, some things that you can do to make sure your paperwork is dealt with as fast as possible.

Be sure you are applying in the correct category 

One sure way to encounter delays is to apply for the wrong thing, so it’s really worth taking the time to do your research in advance into the different types of residency cards and visas.

If you apply for a visa or residency card type that you’re not eligible for, it’s likely that your application will simply be rejected and you will have to start all over again.

We have a guide to the different visa types HERE.

Another way to save yourself an annual admin task is to go straight onto a multi-year visa, such as the ‘passeport talent‘ which lasts for four years.

You might think that this is only available to high earners, but there are several other situations in which you might qualify. For instance, researchers, artists and those with ‘international reputation’ can qualify too.

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

Have a complete dossier

This might seem obvious, but a common hang-up with French administrative processes is simply not having all of the correct documents – all residency and visa applications have a list of the required documents and you should make sure that you have everything that is needed ahead of either submitting your application or heading in for your appointment. 

The documents should be up-to-date (as recent as possible – usually best to aim for within the last month or two, though your specific procedure might specify a timeline). Each document should have the same full name and the same address listed.

Consistency is key – for example, if you are applying for a new titre de séjour and you bring in a copy of your proof of health insurance (Attestation de droits – assurance maladie), but the address listed is out of date, you could risk being turned away or told to come back.

Pay attention to the details too – if you need new identity card photos, the ones you took a year ago will likely be out of date (even if your appearance has not changed).

Always bring copies of your passport, current visa or residency permit, as well as any required paperwork. Most of the time, you’ll be asked to show proof of your current address – it does not hurt to have multiple ways of demonstrating this (eg a phone bill and an electricity bill).

Bringing the wrong documents, those with mismatched information, or missing key forms will prolong the process, as you will need to make a new appointment and start the process over again. Having your documents ready to go in an organised fashion can save you lots of time!

Go in person, if possible.

In France, it is often faster to do administrative processes in person. If you are worried about your French, consider asking a friend to come along.

If an in-person option is not available, then a phone call is your next best bet.

France is gradually putting more procedures online, but the old-fashioned way of speaking to a real person is almost always most efficient, especially if you have situation-specific questions. Surprisingly, your local tax office might be one of the most welcoming places to pop in and ask a question.

READ MORE: Reader question: How can I challenge my French tax bill?

Seek expert help if your situation is complex or irregular.

If your situation is out of the ordinary, you might want to consider legal or professional assistance to be sure you are following the correct path.

However, keep in mind that even with expert assistance, you will still need to file the documents yourself at the end of the day. A lawyer can help you be sure that your dossier is correctly filled out and prepared, but they cannot make French bureaucracy work faster, unfortunately.

Citizenship

We said there is no fast-track, but French citizenship is the exception (sort of).

If you’re applying through residency, French citizenship can normally be requested after five years, but the ‘period of residency’ requirement can be reduced to two years for those who successfully completed two years of study in a French institution of higher learning or if you have rendered “important services to France” (as was the case for the essential workers listed above).

If you marry a French citizen, you can apply for citizenship through marriage after four years of marriage.

And if you join the French Foreign Legion and are wounded on active service you can apply for citizenship before the minimum five year period – although this seems a slightly extreme way to avoid waiting times.

READ MORE: Am I eligible for French citizenship?

Once you have applied, there is unfortunately no way to fast-track the process, and the average time between submitting your application and being naturalised is 18 months to two years. 

Zen

But ultimately, it might be better to accept that French admin tasks usually take a long time – and processing times can vary quite dramatically between different areas. 

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