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'It's so stressful, life is on hold' - foreigners in France share frustration at préfecture delays

Emma Pearson
Emma Pearson - [email protected]
'It's so stressful, life is on hold' - foreigners in France share frustration at préfecture delays
The préfecture - scene of much frustration for many foreigners in France due to long waits to process residency cards. Photo: AFP

Sleepless nights, panic attacks and cancelled travel plans - these are just some of the problems caused for the dozens of readers who have shared their stories of long delays at French préfectures in renewing their residency permits.

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If you're a non-EU citizen living in France then you will need either a visa or a carte de séjour (residency permit) - and in the early years most people will need to regularly renew their cards.

The card itself is perhaps your most precious document as a foreigner living in France - proof of your right to live, to work (depending on the card type) and to re-enter France after travelling. So any problem with the card creates a highly stressful situation.

Unfortunately, problems are all too common with many foreigners reporting endless delays at their local préfecture when they come to renew the card, or if they need to change their permit or replace a lost or stolen card.

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One préfecture in the greater Paris region was the scene of a demonstration last week, with foreigners fed up with the delays, which they said were "creating undocumented immigrants".

So we reached out to readers of The Local to ask for their experiences - and received many tales of woe with people waiting months for a new card, having their old cards expire while they wait and in some cases being forced to cancel travel plans due to not having sufficient proof of their right to re-enter France.

L Buchanan who lives in Clermont-Ferrand told us: "It's an unbelievably stressful situation. Life is on hold until you get that little card. And then if you’re unfortunate enough to get it issued very late, you have to almost immediately start the process all over again."

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Meanwhile another reader told us that they had suffered panic attacks and severe anxiety due to problems renewing their residency permit.

Renewal delays 

Of the people who shared their experiences - the most common problem was long delays in the renewal process, with waits of six months not uncommon.

Alan Schraft in Paris said: "My wife and I successfully renewed our Carte de Sejour Pluriannuelle Passport Talent online in March 2023. But we have not yet received the new cartes - we only have an attestation saying our renewal was approved, meaning that we have been waiting over a year for the actual card."

Anne, who lives in Nice, said: "It took us five months to get approved and five more to decide to brave the préfecture (Nice) to see if our cards were ready. They were."

Kayla lives in Val-de-Marne - the Paris area préfecture that was the site of last week's demo. She said: "My titre de séjour expired September last year, I applied for renewal in the required time frame. They asked for more documents early this year, which I sent, and then my renewal was closed sans suite.

"I had to restart the process and was given an extension until February. I was asked for more documents in May and then more documents again before it was finally approved."

But the longest recorded wait goes to Peter Dinwiddie, who was applying to change the address on his card (a legal requirement) after moving house.

He told us: "We applied for a new carte de séjour in August 2021, having just moved house from Brittany, where we had lived since 2002, to the Pyrénées-Atlantiques.

"We applied online to the préfecture in Pau and received an email confirmation of registration, where they said we would hear from them in due course. We are still waiting."

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Card expiry

An extremely common problem was the fact that the old card expires while people are still waiting for the new one to arrive - leaving many people very stressed about not having official proof of their right to remain in France.

In this instance, the advice is to request a récépissé - a kind of official receipt - showing that you have made the request. This acts of proof of your right to remain in France, and can also be used for travel purposes (alongside your expired carte de séjour and a valid passport).

Some préfectures issue a downloadable Attestation de décision favorable, which can also be used as proof of your right to remain in France. However, when the time comes to renew again, many people report that the online system does not accept a reference for an Attestation, rather than the actual card.

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Margriet Roussouw, in Montpellier, said: "We wait about six months each time we renew our cartes de séjour, which means that we often have to cancel our plans to visit our children who live in Australia and in South Africa."

Brent, who lives in Lille (département of Nord), said: "We are a family of four all of our applications have been significantly delayed. It has been extremely frustrating and stressful.

"I'm extremely concerned for the new electronic boarder controls and any enforcement that follows. I imagine there are a lot of undocumented people in the country right now, only because of these delays. If, once the electronic system comes online, the border agents enforce the 90/180 rule, a lot of families will be impacted."

Appointment notification 

Once the application is processed and your renewal is approved you might think your problems are over - but no such luck.

Although systems vary slightly between individual préfectures, most send you a message when the application is approved, and then another message when the card itself has been created and is ready to pick up.

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Well, that's the theory anyway - dozens of readers told us that they never received the message telling them to pick up the card. 

Paula Matos in Nîmes (Gard département) said: "My husband and I applied for renewal of our yearly cartes de séjour and we both received an attestation of approval and instructions to wait for an SMS inviting us to retrieve our cards at the préfecture when they were ready for pick-up.

"Neither of us ever received that SMS. We assumed after the passage of a few months that our cartes were available, but if we made an appointment to pickup, we would not be admitted because we didn't have a copy of the invitational SMS."

Jeffrey Weihl, also in Nimes, said: "The notification system for you to pick up your card simply doesn’t work. You have to lie and assure the website you’ve been summoned and hope it’s ready. If it’s not they say that you aren’t following procedure. If it is, they will wonder why you didn’t pick it up sooner as it’s been ready forever.

"I’ve personally never gotten the notification."

Gordon Moore, Paris: "My renewal was approved in December 2023 and I have a récépissé. My old carte expired in February 2024. It is June 2024 and I still have not received a notification that my ‘new’ carte is ready to be picked up."

Getting an appointment

Some préfectures have an online system to make an appointment once you have received the notification to go and collect your card - and here too numerous people reported problems, with the most common difficulty being simply finding a vacant appointment slot.

This is a particular problem in Paris - where it has been reported scammers use bots to block-book all the vacant appointments and then offer the appointment slots for sale. Although the card itself comes with a fee, you should never be charged for an appointment with a public administration body in France.

READ ALSO What to do if you can't get an appointment at the préfecture

Russ Braby in Hérault said: "Here in Montpellier (Hérault) - our local Facebook group of expats has long discussion threads of how ridiculous it is to get an appointment - giving tips to wait until midnight on a Sunday and try with multiple devices all refreshing the page as quickly as possible to try to get a creneau".

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Patrick said: "There are hardly ever appointments available on the préfecture's website to submit an application or even go pick up a card when it is ready (don't even get me started on the absurdity of hovering online on the préfecture's website at midnight to secure a precious rendez-vous).

"I waited nearly two years for the renewal of a carte de séjour during the pandemic, during which time my récépissés expired repeatedly without me being able to secure another appointment with the préfecture to renew them, so I was effectively sans papiers and could not leave the country."

He added that: "I've dealt with the préfectures in Rouen and Montpellier, and with the sous-préfecture in Aix-en-Provence (which is like a whole new circle of Hell in terms of the arcane nature of their processes)."

Contact

Another widespread frustration was difficulty in contacting the préfecture - all préfectures have their own systems but in many it is extremely difficult to make direct contact in order to chase up or query delays.

Many préfectures now only allow people in if they have an appointment, while appointments can often only be made if you have a link or code that is sent once your card is ready to be picked up.

Good news

In the interests of fairness, we should point out that there were several positives that emerged from the survey.

The first is the few people reported having their applications rejected - although some were asked for more documents, most of the survey respondents told us that their residency permits were renewed on request, albeit with delays along the day.

The second is that the system set up to ensure that Brits who were already living in France before Brexit received their special post-Brexit cards (known as WARP or Article 50 TUE) appears to have functioned smoothly for most people.

Christopher lives in Bouches-du-Rhône and told us: "I arrived just before the end of the Brexit Transition Period in 2020 with Covid restrictions everywhere. Everything was done online until I had to present at the sous-préfecture for fingerprinting, which also went smoothly. I am in awe of French bureaucracy. It can take ages to get moving, but once in action it works well."

Those who received the five-year Brexit card will need to renew it in 2026 or 2027 - although we do not yet know the full details, it seems that a similar web portal will be set up for renewals of the post-Brexit card. We will give more details as soon as we know them.

And finally some people did have nice things to say about their préfecture with Jon in south-west France simply saying: "The were terrific in Dordogne."

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