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