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Volunteering in France: What are the rules and do I need a special visa?

Looking to give back to the community in France? Here is what you need to know about volunteering in France and the rules for doing so.

Volunteering in France: What are the rules and do I need a special visa?
A volunteer of the "Banques alimentaires" distribute a food collection bag (Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP)

In France, there is a distinction between the terms benevolat and volontariat.

Bénévoles

Those looking to do occasional volunteering – perhaps helping out at a soup kitchen a few times a month – are considered to be bénévoles.

These are non-contractual volunteers who assist an organisation based on their spare time and availability. The French government does not give this type of volunteering any legal status or protection – the work is unpaid and it is not full-time. These activities are seen as part of one’s vie privée (private life).

That means that if you are already in France and want to do this type of work you would not need to change your status, even if you are on a visitor visa that stipulates you are not allowed to work.

If you’re coming to France and you want to do this type of work, you don’t need a special visa, you would just enter on the visa type that suits your status – perhaps a study visa or visitor visa.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What type of French visa do you need?

Voluntaire

In contrast, being a volontaire is a contractual commitment. While being a volontaire is different from being an employee, it is still seen by the French government as contractual and exclusive. Volunteers typically receive some form of stipend or living allowance – though not a salary.

The volunteer agrees formally to join a mission for a specified amount of time and will usually be expected to turn up at agreed times. The volunteer can break the contract, though they may need to give some form of notice before doing so.

If you are coming to France in an explicitly religious capacity (ie as a missionary or priest), you may qualify for a visitor’s visa if you can provide official documentation that you would be exercising your religious duties in France. This visitor’s visa would not give you the right to work, however. 

If you are looking to do volunteer tourism – or voluntourism – while visiting France, keep in mind that there may be language barriers and while there are English-language NGOs operating throughout the country, charitable organisations may not be able to offer you the hours that best fit the timeline of your vacation. Try reaching out ahead of your trip to see if it would be feasible.

Volunteer residency permit

The Titre de Voluntariat is a temporary residency permit specifically for non-EU nationals who want to volunteer in an official, contractual status with a French NGO (ie be a voluntariat).

The volunteer’s day-to-day job should involve some social or humanitarian purpose. 

The NGO must, according to the French government, be recognised for serving the public interest. This is defined as being “aimed either at promoting the autonomy and protection of individuals; strengthening social cohesion; preventing or correcting the effects of social exclusion or carrying out solidarity actions in favour of disadvantaged persons residing on French territory.”

What are the rules of this permit and how can I apply?

The key thing about this permit is that you must already have a long-stay visa (meaning one that allows you to enter and stay in France for more than three months).

The permit is basically for people who are already in France, perhaps doing some informal voluntary work, and then get a contract as a voluntariat with a charity organisation.

Keep in mind that sometimes people are rejected because the French state judges the capacity of the host organisation to host volunteers and it sets quotas for the number of foreigners who can hold this permit.

The organisation must certify that they have agreed to host you, and they must be authorised by the French government to accept volunteers. 

In order to apply, you must also already have a volunteer contract in place, which you will need to provide as part of your application. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to get a visitor visa for France

Your application must also include an agreement to leave the country once your contract has ended.

As for the permit itself, it is only issued for the timeline of the volunteer’s contract. Thus, if your mission is only nine months, then that is how long your residency permit will be good for too.

The residency permit is issued by the préfecture for the département where the host organisation is located. 

You can find more information on the French government website (in French) here.

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VISAS

‘Be ready to wait’: Your tips for getting a French visa post-Brexit

Now that Britain is out of the EU, just how much harder is the process of moving to France from the UK after Brexit? British readers share their experiences of applying for visas as 'third country nationals’.

'Be ready to wait': Your tips for getting a French visa post-Brexit

Whether you’re moving to France to live, or you’re a second-home owner wanting to spend more than 90 days out of every 180 in France, if you’re British you will now need a visa.

You can find more on how to apply for a visa, and how to understand what type of visa you need, in our visa section HERE.

But how these systems work in practice is not always the same as the theory.

To learn more about the process of getting a visa as a UK national, The Local asked British readers for their experiences of going through the system.

The consensus among respondents was that the whole thing was bureaucratic, though there were notable differences in experiences that ranged from the “easy” to the “complicated” and “time-consuming”, while the advice for future applicants was, routinely, have all your paperwork ready – and be prepared for a lengthy wait at one of the UK’s TLS centres

Appointments

Like most visas, French visas for UK nationals must be applied for before you leave home. You can find a full explanation of the process here, but the basic outline is that you apply for the visa online, and then have an in-person appointment in the UK in order to present your paperwork. 

Sue Clarke told us: “As long as you get all your paperwork together correctly and in the right order, the time it takes to receive your passport back with the visa in it once TLS has sent it off is only a few days.

“TLS – the centre which works on behalf of the French Embassy to collate your application – is so very busy,” she added. “That part of the process took hours even when you have an appointment.”

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What type of French visa do you need?

“The visa process itself was fairly well run, and a decision for the initial visa was quick,” wrote Ian Sheppard, who successfully applied for a visa in July 2022. 

“Although getting the follow up residence permit was a pain, [and] took longer than expected, and there was little to no communication with severely limited ways to get in touch about the application.”

Sheppard thought that, biometrics apart, the process could have taken place online, and wondered whether the follow-up residence permit application could be more closely linked to the initial visa application, “rather than effectively submitting the same application twice”.

Georgina Ann Jolliffe described the process as “stressful”. 

“A lot of the initial stage was unclear and I needed a lot of reassurance about the visa trumping the Schengen 90 days. (The Local helped on that one),” she wrote. 

“[The] lack of ready communication was very stressful. It could be slicker, however staff at Manchester TLS were excellent.”

Jacqueline Maudslay, meanwhile, described the process as “complicated”, saying: “The waiting times for the appointment with the handling agent (TLS in the UK) are long and difficult to book online. We applied for a long-stay visa and were given a short-stay visa, with no reasoning and no option of talking to anyone.  

“We had met every criteria for the long-stay visa. There needs to be a contact link with the French Consular website directly for discussing visa applications.”

Handling agent TLS’s website – the first port of call for applicants from the UK – was a target for criticism.

“The TLS system is probably the most user unfriendly system I have ever used,” wrote Susan Kirby. “It throws up errors for no legitimate reason and even changes data you have keyed in. Dates are in American format so you have to be very careful and it can be very difficult to edit.”

Bea Addison, who applied for a visa in September 2021 with a view to retiring in France, agreed that it was complicated and believes the French system is chaotic and badly organised compared to other countries. “Even staff in the French Embassy in London were not knowledgeable of the process and documentation,” she wrote.

“The renewal in France was applied for in July 2022 … we have received an attestation that we will be granted renewal visas, which expired in October 2022, but we have not yet received a date to attend the préfecture due to a backlog.

Second-home owners

Many of our survey respondents were not moving to France, but were instead second-home owners who did not want to be constrained by the 90-day rule.

They have the option of remaining residents of the UK and applying for a short-stay French visitor visa – which must be renewed every year.

Second-home owner Peter Green told us: “Our appointment with TLS was delayed by two and a half hours and the whole experience was chaotic.

“We now have to go through exactly the same process again to get a visa for 2023. With second-home owners there should be a fast track that just involves proving financial viability, nothing else has changed. The system needs to be fully computerised.”

Second-home owner Alan Cranston told us his application met with no problems, but came with “unwanted cost and effort”. 

“Our six-month visa was for our first stint at our house in France in the spring, and that then overlapped our second visit in the autumn which was under Schengen. How that is handled seems to be a muddle (we did not leave the country for a day at the end of the six months, as some advise),” he said. 

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