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What is the difference between a French 'carte de séjour' and a visa?

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
What is the difference between a French 'carte de séjour' and a visa?
A Senegalese woman fills the required papers for a French visa in Dakar (Photo by SEYLLOU DIALLO / AFP)

When discussing residency in France, many use the term 'carte de séjour' interchangeably with 'visa' - but the two are actually very different, particularly when it comes to where and applications must be made.


If you are a foreigner living in France - and you do not hold European or French citizenship - then you either have a visa or a carte de séjour (residency card). 

Both give the right to spend more than 90 days in France and both are marked by specific categories, such as 'student', 'visitor' or 'worker'. 

READ MORE: Reader question: How seriously does France enforce the 90-day rule?

However, these documents are distinct and differ in several key ways, namely when and where they are issued.

Part of the reason for the confusion between visas and cartes de séjour is the fact that legally speaking, both could be considered a 'titre de séjour'. Technically, a titre de séjour refers to a foreigner's right to reside in France, while the carte de séjour (or visa) is just a document that proves this right.

Despite the legal distinction between the terms, French administration frequently use titre and carte de séjour interchangeably to refer to residency permits.

As for visas and cartes de séjour, the differences are more pronounced.

Where to get one

On a general level, the carte de séjour is given to those who hold residency in France, whereas a visa is a travel document issued to foreigners who do not yet hold residency in France.

The visa must be applied for outside of France - in most cases via the French consulate or embassy in your country of origin or residence - before you travel.


In some countries, like the United States and United Kingdom, visas are issued by companies that contract with the French embassy or consulate (VFS Global and TLS Contact, respectively).  

Conversely, a carte de séjour is applied for in France at one's local préfecture (or sous-préfecture), and the first time you do so, you will likely be asked to include your previous VLS-TS (long-stay visa) in the application.

This would mean that if you are an American travelling in France on holiday and you want to stay for six months, then you cannot simply apply for a carte de séjour from France. You will have to first return to the United States and request a visa to enter France for more than 90 days.

Some groups are exempt from the requirement of needing a visa for their first stay in France above 90 days, such as family reunification with immediate dependent family members and Brits who benefited from the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

In most cases however, you will arrive in France with a visa, and then if you choose to take up residency in France you will convert that visa into a residency card.

Physical presentation

A visa is typically stamped or glued into one's passport. When applying, you will need to be sure that you have enough space in your passport and that it will not expire during the duration of your time in France. 


You can find an example below.

An example of a French visa (temporary worker), issued in a US passport (Credit: The Local)

In contrast, a residency card is in most cases a separate document altogether. It is usually in the form of a small plastic ID card. 

Example of a French carte de séjour, or residency permit (Credit: The Local)

You may instead be given a paper récipissé while the French government is processing the plastic carte de séjour. This document, which is a temporary stand-in for your carte de séjour, gives you the same rights as the card itself would.

READ MORE: Récépissé: Your questions answered on France's temporary residency permit

Length of validity 

Keep in mind that there are different types of visas, but on the whole, visas do not exceed one year's duration, according to the Welcome to France government website.

A short-stay visitor visa, or VLS-T, typically allows the recipient to spend a maximum of six months in France. If you want to benefit from this visa again, then you will need to return to your country of origin or residence and apply for it the following year.

Most other groups will get a one-year visa, which means that the recipient would take on French residency. Holders of this visa must validate it with the French office of immigration (OFII) within three months of arrival. 

READ MORE: OFII: Your questions answered on France's immigration office

The expectation is that a visa functions more or less like a stepping stone - foreigners wishing to take up residence in France switch over to a carte de séjour at the end of their VLS-TS.

Once you have a carte de séjour, you should be aware that there are several different 'mentions' (categories), which come with different lengths of time. For instance, if you are a salaried worker in France, then your first carte de séjour will have the salarié written on it and it will give residency rights for one year. Upon renewal, the new carte de séjour will be multi-year and valid for up to four years.

In contrast, those who hold the passeport talent visa may immediately qualify for a carte de séjour offering up to four years worth of residency rights.

Once you have been resident in France for five years consecutively, you can apply for a carte de résident which gives 10 years of residency rights.


Lost or stolen visas and cartes de séjour

There is also a different procedure for dealing with lost or stolen visas and cartes de séjour.

As visas are typically stamped inside a passport, the procedure is to inform your country's embassy or consulate in France that the passport has been lost and to request an emergency one to be issued. You will also need to report the loss to local French police - you may need this report when informing your country's embassy about the loss. 

Next, you should then inform the embassy or consulate that issued the visa. 

In contrast, when a carte de séjour is lost or stolen, you can request a duplicata or replacement online, via this page

There is, however, a €225 fee, or €75 fee if you are a student or applied for your card as part of a family.   

READ MORE: What to do if you lose your French carte de séjour


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