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11 French immigration terms that often confuse foreigners

The Local France
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11 French immigration terms that often confuse foreigners
French ID cards (Photo by JEAN-PIERRE MULLER / AFP)

You might already speak French, but when you start dealing with the country's immigration services you'll find a whole new language. Here's 10 of the most commonly-used terms.


Étranger - this is an easy one, right? It means 'foreigner' (and not 'stranger' which is inconnu). However, with this one - context is everything. In an EU context, this specifically means any non-EU national - ie a person who does not benefit from EU freedom of movement when it comes to travel or residency within the Bloc.

In a non-EU context, this means anyone who does not hold French nationality. You can find the EU glossary here, and you can find the French glossary here.

READ MORE: French vocabulary you need to know when applying for citizenship

Européen - In general conversation this is used exactly as you would expect and means European - either a European national or a European custom or tradition.


However in immigration and other official settings it is often used interchangeably with ressortissant d’un pays de l’UE (EU national) - meaning people with citizenship of an EU country.

So for example the French government website tells you that: "Si vous êtes un citoyen européen et que vous résidez en France, vous pouvez voter en France lors des élections municipales".

However, in actual fact only citizens of EU countries can vote in municipal elections. Citizens of countries that are geographically in Europe but not members of the EU (such as the UK or Switzerland) are not 'European' in this context. 

Ressortissant - This refers to a national of a certain country. For example, un ressortissant suisse would be a Swiss national.

Citoyen/Citoyenne - citizen. Ressortissant and citoyen have more or less the same meaning, but ressortissant is more usually used to talk about someone who is outside the country that they are a citizen of - either because they have emigrated or because they are travelling. Citoyen is usually used for people living or staying in the country that they are a citizen of.

Perhaps its most famous use - Aux armes, citoyens ! Formez vos bataillons ! - from the French national anthem is calling upon French citizens who are in France to take up arms and defend their country against foreign invaders.

Carte d'identité - Technically this translates as 'identity card', in France would normally refer to the national ID card that all French citizens are issued with.

Non-French citizens don't have these, but if you're asked, a passport or carte de séjour residency permit will also be accepted. In some cases, you may also be able to use a photo driving licence. You can learn more about carrying identification in France in The Local's guide.

You're also likely to hear pièce d'identité, which simply means a form of official photo ID.

Pays Tiers - Third-country. This refers to any country that is not a member of the European Union and is usually used in the context of visas and travel. Ressortissant d'un pays tiers means 'third country national' or a citizen of a country that is not in the EU eg the USA, Canada or the UK.

In most immigration and travel contexts, Switzerland and states in the European Economic Area (ie Norway) are not considered pays-tiers.

Pays d’Accueil - Host country. In an EU context, this is where a non-EU national legally resides.

Visiteur - Technically, this would translate simply to 'visitor', but in French immigration law, it refers to a foreign national who has come to France on a specific type of residency permit.

There are two types of of 'visitor' visa - the short-stay (less than six months) visa used by people wishing to spent several months out of the year in France, and the long-stay visa which is for people who want to live in France without working or studying.

They must attest that they will live on their own resources and that they will not engage in any professional activity while in France - it's most commonly used by retirees.


Réunification familiale - A specific procedure for those with protected or refugee/stateless status to bring their spouses or minor children to France.

Regroupement familial - This is the more commonly-used process for non-EU nationals living in France on a residency permit to bring over family (spouses and minor children) to join them.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Can I bring my family to join me in France on my visa?

Naturalisation - This category, also referred to as 'naturalisation par décret' or just 'par décret', is one avenue for gaining French citizenship. Specifically, it refers to the process taken by people who do not have family connections to France, and must fulfil other conditions such as a minimum length of residency in France.

For those applying for French citizenship by marriage or family connections, the category would be par déclaration.

Do you know of any other French immigration terms that tend to be confusing for foreigners? Let us know in the comments below


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