student visa

Obtaining a Student Visa for France

Over the summer I gave a series of webinars on moving to France (recordings available on Nomadic Matt’s Patreon).  One of the strategies I suggested for coming to France in the short term (given that some visa windows were indefinitely closed) was the student visa.  A “student” visa doesn’t necessarily mean getting enrolled in a degree-seeking program.  It just means any course of study.  France continued to rubber stamp these all throughout 2020, despite the fact that many of the programs were online, meaning that even though you didn’t have to physically come to France to “take” the course, France still approved you for transit.  I concluded that France wanted to continue to signal that they were making a conscious choice to at least appear to allow education to continue even as they forbade commerce and leisure travel.

One of my friends and colleagues in my years here in France, Molli McConnell, has gone through the student visa process twice and I asked her to write a guest post on the process.  She also does consulting on the process, so her information is at the bottom of the post should you wish to learn more. – SH.

The first time I ever stepped foot in France was as a student in 2012. I was there to do the elusive “study abroad semester,” which has a reputation of being more about soaking in the culture of wherever you go rather than taking classes. Spoiler alert, the rumors are true. Although I will say I attended most of my classes, they were nothing compared to the workload I was used to at my university. I had an architecture course in which the professor actually took us around Paris to explain treasures like Notre-Dame and Les Invalides. Interesting? Extremely. Do I remember everything about the architecture I learned about? Seeing as we didn’t have any exams, no. 

In addition to 2012 being the first time that I stepped foot in France, it was the first time that I had ever left the United States. I never really considered myself a homebody or uninterested in travel, but an international trip was just not on my radar at the time. I didn’t even have a passport. 

Fast-forward to 2020, and in total, I have about seven years of French living under my belt, three student visas, one au pair visa (when that still existed), and one visa I have courtesy of my French fiancé. I’ll soon find out what the newest chapter in my immigration journey, marriage, will be like. 

Whether you’re in the same situation as I was in 2012, or you have a bit more international travel experience, navigating the world of French bureaucracy can be intimidating. This is the country that is known around the world for its “red tape.” And, to be honest with you, it is a lot to figure out especially if you don’t speak French or have never applied for a visa before. 

In these unpredictable Covid times, the easiest (and most plausible unless you are in a relationship with a French person) way to move to France as an American for more than 90 days is through a student visa. Don’t let the word “student” scare you, especially if you’re not a teenager or in your twenties anymore. You could take a French language course, a culinary program, or simply shoot for another degree…for 1/10th of the price of American schools.

In an effort to help those interested navigate these sometimes murky waters, I’ve come up with this basic guide to obtaining a French student visa. 

Step 1: Determine your program

The most important thing you’ll need to do before you get started on the path to obtaining a French student visa is to find a program. It’s important to note that not all programs will make you eligible for a visa. You will need to be enrolled in classes that are between 18-20 hours per week or more. Here are a few examples of the types of programs you should be looking for:

  • A study abroad or exchange program (if you are currently enrolled in a college or university this is your best option)
  • A degree-granting program 
  • French language program (please note that the program must be FLE accredited)
  • A specialized school in France

You must be accepted into the program of your choice before you move onto Step 2. And, remember, don’t get discouraged if you don’t want to take French classes or go back to college. As mentioned, if you love to cook or are interested in wine, there are several options. Does the famous Le Cordon Bleu, ring any bells? Channel your inner Julia Child and check out their options. 

You won’t be able to apply for your student visa until at most 3 months before your program starts, so keep that in mind as you continue on through the process. 

Step 2: Apply through Études en France and Campus France

Once you’ve been accepted into your program, you’re ready to start the process of applying for your student visa. First, you’ll need to make an account on Études en France, a platform that was created by the French government to make applying for a visa easier. 

Once you create your account you’ll have to follow the instructions on the site. It involves knowing the name of your program and finding it on a list, entering your personal information including your name and passport number, and other administrative information. There is an option for “students not yet accepted,” but I do recommend that you wait until you have been accepted to begin the process as it’s much easier. 

Études en France and Campus France are connected so after you’ve filled in all of your information, you’ll be able to directly submit it to Campus France via the Études en France platform. You will also have to pay a fee of $190 (subject to change) to Campus France. It can take up to 3 weeks for Campus France to review your application. You will receive a confirmation email if and when you are approved.

Step 3: Apply for a student visa via the France-Visas platform

Once your application has been approved by Études en France and Campus France, you will move to the next platform, France-Visas. You already know that you need a student visa, so feel free to skip the “Do I need a visa?” step. Create your account and fill out the application form. Here you’ll note that “Visa applications cannot be submitted more than 3 months prior to the start of your trip for a long stay visa, and 6 months for a short stay visa” as I mentioned! Please also note that you will need to pay another fee of $37.15 (subject to change) when you’ve finished filling out your application.

Step 4: Make an appointment at the VFS Global Center closest to your home

After you’ve submitted your application on France-Visas, you’ll be able to directly book an appointment at the VFS Global Center closest to your home. It’s recommended on the site that you make your appointment at least 15 days before the date of your departure. In my experience, the longest I’ve had to wait to receive my visa was 7 days, but, I was also in Boston.  Your consulate’s waiting time may vary.

Step 5: Go to the appointment and then wait to receive your visa

You’ve made it this far and for that, I congratulate you! But, you’re not out of the woods yet, as you still need to attend your in-person appointment where you’ll need to present a fair amount of paperwork in order to obtain your visa. You will need:

  • France-Visas Visa application form
  • France-Visas receipt of payment
  • ID Photograph (please note that this needs to be a “European-size passport-style headshot” which is 1.4 inches by 1.8 inches)
  • If you are a non-U.S. citizen, proof of your legal status in the U.S.
  • Passport
  • Campus France USA confirmation email
  • Études en France electronic acceptance letter
  • Proof of accommodation in France (this can be an Airbnb or hotel while you look for something more permanent)
  • Proof of sufficient funds for your time in France

Pro tip? Bring at least 3 copies of everything. It’s a lot, I know. But you’ll have to get used it this amount of paperwork if you’re going to be living in France! At your appointment, they’ll ask you pretty standard questions such as why you want to move to France, why you chose your program, etc. Try not to be too nervous and just be honest.

Step 6: Begin preparing for your trip to France!

Now for the fun part: preparing for your long-awaited new life in France. Consider where you want to live, what you want to bring along, and your new daily routine. The road to the French student visa may be long, but it isn’t as complicated as it looks! 

If you are interested in a private consultation on how to obtain a French student visa, or what happens after your visa expires and you want to stay in France, please feel free to email me at mollimcconnell@gmail.com to get started.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

flying during lockdown

Flying During Lockdown

While many of my planned trips this year evaporated in the Spring, there were still some trips I chose to take for business and personal reasons.  During a brief window in the summer when PCR tests weren’t required, I went to visit family and friends in the States.  Inside Europe I managed short trips to Croatia, Mallorca, and Andorra.  I did all this on my US passport, despite the alleged “American ban” in Europe, and even without my French Carte de Sejour.  But I still had a final business trip in the calendar for 2020: Salzburg in November.

As you do when traveling in Europe these days, I was checking the ReOpen EU site regularly, to see what new regulations were in place.  I don’t remember exactly when I found out I was going to need to take the dreaded PCR test, but when I did, I immediately made an appointment at a lab in the 11th.  In early October the appointments were at least 2 weeks out and I needed a test that was done fewer than 72 hours before my arrival in Austria, in early November.  I managed to get an appointment for the right day and time and I showed up to a virtually empty clinic.

Covid-19 Testing

This was to be my third Covid-19 test.  The first had been at my doctor’s request during lockdown, when I described the flu-like symptoms I had earlier in the year.  The second had been before a summer trip to Croatia, when I thought they might ask for a test even though I was coming from France, not the US.  But those had been blood tests.  The PCR test was “invasive,” I had heard, but I hadn’t really read much more about it.

When I came to the clinic I was ushered right to a receptionist who verified my appointment and asked for my Carte Vitale.  Since the summer the French government had started fully covering the cost of Covid testing so I wasn’t asked for any money out of pocket.  After a few minutes I was handed a printout and some stickers which would ostensibly go to the lab with my swab.

Personne suivante,” came a calm voice from behind a mostly closed door.  I came in and sat down in the chair that she beckoned me towards.  She told me I would need to remove my mask, which I did.  She then asked if I had done this before.  I shook my head and she told me to sit back and relax and that it would not take long.

I assumed the pose that I normally do at my dentist’s.  Relaxed, head back, remembering that the person who is doing this does this all the time, professionally, and is not interested in hurting me.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the PCR test, it involves sending a swab about three inches into your nose to grab some samples of upper respiratory mucus.  As you might guess, this is not a pleasant feeling.

This is not so much a question of pain as unpleasantness.  Your nerves in this area sound an alarm: what is this thing doing here?  When she had inserted the probe the entire way in she actually moved it around a bit, ostensibly to make sure she collected enough of a sample.  She saw me tighten up and after withdrawing it she waited a beat before asking if I was ready for the “next one.”

Then I realized she meant the other nostril.  Okay, I know what to expect this time.  I braced myself and a few moments later it was over.  I thanked her, got my stuff, and headed home.  I got the results by email the next day, which I then printed out so I could present it in Austria when I landed.

Arriving in Austria

As I said, the trip was originally planned for Salzburg, and had the trip occurred one week before that would have been fine.  But in the days leading up to the trip Austria announced a lockdown and this led to many hotels and airbnbs closing their doors (as the government promised to make them mostly whole if they complied).  Not wanting to take a risk of being in Salzburg without a place to stay, I decided to improvise and go to another location where I knew I could stay, outside Vienna, close to where my colleague on this trip actually lives.  But there was an additional wrinkle.  Austria had asked for a 10-day quarantine on visitors, even those with a negative test.  I decided to chance it.  My trip was scheduled for 7 days and if they made me stay an additional 3 days in Austria, I wouldn’t fight them.  Though, my business involved me working in the same room as my colleague, so if they actually planned to enforce this quarantine, my trip would be pointless.

The flight was about 80% full and during the flight we filled out contact tracing paperwork (which they collected) as well as an “Entry and Transit Declaration” (which they did not collect).  This document asked for:

  • Name, Nationality, Date and Country of Birth
  • Flight Details
  • Stays in the previous 10 days
  • Address in Austria for the next 10 days
  • Contact details

I was asked to sign and date this form, next to a declaration that said, “I hereby confirm that I will self-quarantine at home or in suitable accommodation for a period of ten days, that I will cover the costs of any such accommodation and that I will not leave home or this accommodation for the duration of the quarantine.”  The flight attendants said to keep this form on us and that we might be asked for it at anytime.  I considered that curious, as if the form were true, the only place I could be asked for it would be inside an isolated accommodation.

At the very bottom of the document it said, “The details provided here will be sent to the health authorities of the province where you will be staying for the next ten days and, at the end of this time, destroyed.”  So, this form was supposed to be turned into someone, not carried with me inside an isolated accommodation in case a police officer stopped by, who couldn’t possibly know I was staying there unless I had turned it in in the first place.

No matter, the main concern for the Austrians for those of us arriving was a valid PCR test.  They had military personnel, not customs agents, looking at our passport and PCR test.  Because of the perfunctory manner in which the soldier dealing with me looked at my paperwork, I realized he was looking for two things: a name match, and a valid 72-hour window.  That meant that anyone who wanted to forge up an official-looking test could easily do so.  There was no electronic scanner to verify that this was an actual lab which had administered an actual test.  It was a simple check of paperwork using the technology of 1920, not 2020.  He handed back my paperwork and my passport.

I then proceeded to the passport window.  Surely, I’ll be checked, I thought.  Vienna had just had a terrorist attack the previous week.  But no, the lady at the window was busy on her phone and just waved me through.  The Austrians didn’t care what my purpose was in their country or if I even had a valid purpose to be there.  They only worried if I had a valid PCR test, which I could easily have forged, it seems.  As has been the case for most of this year, I was watching biosecurity theater, and not even good theater at that.

“Lockdown” in Austria

A friend picked me up at the airport and we headed back to his place to have lunch.  As we walked into his apartment building I marveled at the people not wearing masks.  “Is there no mask mandate?” I queried.   “Not outdoors, that’s weird!” he said.  Indeed it is, I thought to myself, but felt like a kid on Christmas day just because I wouldn’t have to wear a mask outdoors all week.  We had had an outdoor mask mandate in France for some months now.

Later in the week I was walking around Vienna with another friend when I realized that pretty much all the shops were open and a lot of restaurants were offering takeaway service.  I tried to explain that in France “lockdown” meant I couldn’t leave my house without a permissible reason, that I could be stopped and asked to justify myself at any time, and all this was to take place within 1km of my house, outside of particular extenuating circumstances (although, just as in late Spring, the French were not taking this seriously at all).  He wrinkled his nose.  “We had something like this back in the Spring, but not now.”  While it seems that since my visit Austria has been put into a much stricter lockdown, I was happy to take the opportunity to, among other things, get my hair cut while I was there, as I didn’t know when I would have the opportunity again in France.

Coming Home

When I came back home to France I presented my passport at the border.  The agent scanned it and after some time my linked Carte de Sejour showed up digitally on his screen and he waved me through.  No tests, no quarantine, and not even any paperwork pretending to enforce either.

So, traveling during lockdown?  If you’re worried about how to do it, don’t (the authorities clearly have no idea what they’re doing).  Just have your paperwork in order and be ready to be patient and smile.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

address change

Change Your Address, Change Your SIRET

I’ve written in the past about changing addresses here in France.  In the United States whether you are dealing with the bank or the government, you simply assert that you have moved and give the new address.  In France, you must prove you have moved.  Some years ago I moved from my favorite address in Paris, in the 2nd, to my current quiet neighborhood in the 19th, and didn’t realize that my address change for my business would trigger a change for my SIRET.

What’s a SIRET?

A SIRET is a 14 digit number that identifies your particular French business.  It is made up of your SIREN and NIC.  The SIREN (Système d’Identification du Répertoire des ENtreprises) is nine digits and is permanent and cannot be changed.  The SIRET (Système d’Identification du Répertoire des ETablissements), however, depends on the number of establishments you have.  Each one will have a different SIRET.  Solopreneurs like myself just have one.

In 2016, when I first established my French business at my address in the 2nd, the NIC (Numéro Interne de Classement) which accompanied my SIREN was the identifier for the only “establishment” (location) of my company.  But when I moved to the 19th in 2018, the system “closed” the SIRET tied to the address in the 2nd and assigned a new one for my “new establishment” in the 19th.  The old number still appears in submenus in my URSSAF dashboard, for example, but for all intents and purposes I use my new SIRET and my new SIRET only when dealing with French bureaucracy.

When do you use a SIRET?

Your SIRET and APE (Activite Principale de l’enterprise) should be listed at the bottom of every invoice you send. If companies in France want to make sure you’re legitimate and in good standing, they can look up your SIREN for free on Societe (if you can’t get enough of these acronyms, I’ve got an article from when I first started my French business where you can score a few more).

Interestingly, the US equivalent to the SIREN, the EIN (Employer ID Number) is also 9 digits.  But it doesn’t change if you move.  Further, unless you are a publicly traded company, you won’t be listed in the free national directory.  However, you can easily search by name (and for free) on the Secretary of State website of the state that the company is incorporated in.  This search will give you the same type of information available on the Societe search here in France.

Learn as you go

The longer I live here in France, the more I see that I’ve learned about business practices the same way that I did in the US: by trial and error.  Native speakers don’t instinctively know how to start or maintain a business just because they speak the language.  So, be patient with yourself and continue upgrading your French so these aspects of your life in France become easier (at least in one way) or you’ll at least possess the ability to read the answers you find in Google.

Photo by form PxHere

french taxes

Normalizing Your Tax Contributions in France

I’ve written about taxes numerous times over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about what happens after you file them here in France.  As 2020 winds to an end, it’s as good a time as any to explain.

Annee Blanche

One of the numerous campaign promises that President Macron made years ago was a simplification of the tax and pension systems, and one of those reforms meant moving to a “present year” form of taxation instead of the trailing year system we have in the US (we pay taxes on income we earned the previous year).  On January 1st, 2019, many people who were in salaried positions began being taxed for their income each time they received a paycheck.  The idea was that since you were paying each month, you wouldn’t need to “save up” to pay taxes the following year.  This meant that for many, 2018 would be considered as a “no tax” year, an “annee blanche,” since the government would theoretically only be looking at your 2019 earnings for your 2019 taxes.  In practice, it’s pretty much the same as before, but with monthly deductions instead of a lump sum annual payment.

But that still means that your tax charges for any given year are based on what you earned in the previous year.  If nothing changes for you financially, your taxation will always remain the same, unless legislation changes the tax code.

Avis d’Impot

Taxes in France are due at the end of May usually.  This gives the Ministry of Finance all summer to process your returns and by September you will receive an important document for those who are on a citizenship journey: your “Avis d’impot sur les revenus et prelevements sociaux.”  You’ll need at least five of these in which you are paying taxes (and making a sustainable income) as part of your citizenship dossier.  These used to be mailed but now they are available as downloadable PDFs, which makes the normally scary “document a conserver” label pointless.  No worry about having to keep a document on file that you can print on command.

This report verifies the return that you have made, though the Ministry of Finance is not bound to it.  They can come back for you up to 3 years after a tax year for any errors or omissions that they find.  So, if they have problems with your current return they will tell you.  Otherwise they’ll accept it and tell you what remains to be paid for the current year.

So, let’s say that based on your 2019 return, the government estimated that if nothing changed in 2020, you would need to pay 100€ per month, or 1200€ for the year.  However, 2020 was good to you (maybe you had stock in Zoom) and you made more money. As a result, when you get your Avis back in September, the government says that instead of the 1200€ that you were going to pay this year (which they smoothed into 100€/month), you now owe 1600€.  As such, your automatic deductions for September-December will double to 200€ to get you to 1600€ total by the end of the year, and your 2021 contributions will now probably be 133.33€ per month, unless you make more money in 2021, in which case you can expect those contributions to go up, or if you make less money, in which case the contributions go down.

Keep in mind that this is simply for your personal tax return.  File a personal tax return in May, get an end-of-year regularization of your personal tax contributions in September.

Declaration Sociales des Independents

So, when you file your French personal taxes the Ministry of Finance makes the calculations and auto-adjusts your contributions.  But it doesn’t work that way for filing your French business taxes.  Once you’ve filed your business return, you’ll need to enter in certain values from your return into a website, in this case, it’s a website called net-entreprises.fr.

Now, I’m not your accountant, and that’s who you should be speaking with regarding these various boxes, as your business may have certain revenues and contributions that I have not made and vice versa, but the two most important numbers are going to be XA, which is your total profit, and XD, which is your total revenues (turnover).  You’ll also need to report if you received certain benefits or have certain obligatory contributions, but at the end of all this you are going to push “submit.”  This has to be done no later than the end of June normally, so unlike your personal taxes, which give you your new amounts owed in September, your revised business contributions to URSSAF will immediately display.

To follow the previous example, if you were paying 200€ a month in contributions to URSSAF (if you don’t know, this is your social security and health care contribution as a business) based on your previous year’s revenues, and this year was better, they will increase your charges in September-December in order to make you current for the year, then create a new schedule of payments for you for the following year based on your new “normalized” revenues.

The corresponding document you will get from URSSAF will come much sooner than September, probably sometime in early August, and this year would look like: “Regularisation des Cotisations 2019 et Appel de Cotisations 2020.”  URSSAF hasn’t yet caught up technology-wise with the Ministry of Finance so they are still sending these by mail, but I expect them to go paperless pretty soon.  President Macron has been pushing the dematerialization agenda pretty hard across all government agencies and that’s a good thing: more digital documents + less paper = fewer things to lose.

In this same document they will give you an estimate for your monthly contributions for the following year but it’s only “provisional” as things can change.  For example, this year URSSAF stopped taking our contributions beginning in March which didn’t mean our charges were forgiven, but that September-December of this year took up all the burden of the contributions that were not deducted from March-August.  URSSAF did tell us that we could continue to manually make payments during this time, but they made it sufficiently complicated that the majority of us opted to take the “free rent” from the government and just wait until later in the year when the charges would catch up.

Digital Has Its Benefits

So I hope that you now have a better understanding of how taxes work in France and the fact that what you file in the Spring has consequences in the Autumn, for better or worse.  An increasingly interconnected digital system across all the government agencies is reducing error and making managing your accounts easier, though of course this risks leaving behind the elderly, who are less comfortable with technology, or the poor, who don’t have ready access to the internet or computers.  Thankfully there are agencies and associations trying to help these and other groups keep up with change in France.

euros

“Free Money” for French Classes via FIFPL

Nine hundred euros?”  I was stunned.  The admin person for a French school in Paris had just called me back and told me that was the budget I had to spend on French classes.  I had spent a couple weeks sending some paperwork, stopping by their office to do an assessment, and just waiting.  It turns out that part of my social contributions as a small business owner in France goes into a fund which is then augmented by the government should I choose to use them.  I hadn’t made anywhere near to 900 euros of contributions into this particular fund, but the government said I was entitled to that much.  Great!

As an aside, this sort of program and goofy math necessarily anticipates most people not taking advantage of this benefit.  For all the talk about the benefits the French have, many of them, like this one, go unused.  Oh well, that’s not my problem.  I’m not usually going to pass up “free money” if the conditions attached are not onerous.

I had spent years seeing the humorous ads for Wall Street English in the Metro.  This is a well-established international company that teaches English and has an enormous office at Republique.  In the fine print at the bottom of the ads it always notes in French that these classes are eligible for reimbursement via CPF.

What is CPF?

This is a social program which stands for Compte Personnel de Formation.  Its overarching goal is to provide people with opportunities to train and study throughout their working life in France.  You earn credits for your CPF via your job.  It’s tied to you personally, not to your employer.  It’s available to private sector employees, the unemployed, and young people who are just entering the workforce.  You can use it to train for another career: for example, you could take coding classes, hoping to leave your current career for a new one as a programmer.  Or maybe you’re happy in your current job and you use the funds to take Japanese classes because you want to.  The amount of money available to you depends on the type of courses you are taking and whether those courses are considered “priority” or “non-priority.”

I had stupidly assumed that CPF was only for salarie types, never thinking that of course entrepreneurs would have their own corresponding scheme.  Such a scheme has existed since 1993, and it’s called FIFPL.

FIFPL

This stands for Fonds Interprofessionel de Formation des Professionnels Liberaux.  It’s essentially CPF but for us Prof Lib types.  I suppose I could use the funds for other classes, but I have no interest in coding (or Japanese, or anything else at the moment).  I decided to use the money for more French classes to progress to B1 and beyond.  The company I used in 2019 charged only 35€ per hour for private lessons in my home.  I wasn’t entirely happy with them so I am looking to spend my 2020 funds elsewhere, but the point is, these are “use or lose” funds so make sure you use them this calendar year.  I’m chagrined that I never used the 2016, 2017, or 2018 funds that I was entitled to (and had made a small contribution towards).

How to get your “free money”

  • go to URSSAF’s website to get your attestation
    • after you log in at Urssaf, go to the “attestations” menu and download the “Attestation de Contribution à la formation professionnelle.”  This form and its numbers won’t really mean anything to you, but the school you select will use this information to find out how much of a budget you are entitled to.
  • pick a school that accepts FIFPL money and email them this attestation along with the courses you are interested in
    • register on the FIFPL site: https://www.fifpl.fr or ask the school to help you establish an account
    • agree on a course of studies with the school
    • pay for the course upfront (for example, if the course costs 559€ and 500€ is what has been allocated for you then you are only out of pocket 59€)
    • complete the course, receive a certificate of completion from the school, and send it to FIFPL
  • get reimbursed a couple weeks later

Some years ago I wrote about the unbelievable work benefits that salaried workers in France have access to.  Turns out we small business owners have a few of our own. 🙂

Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

take A2 DELF test in French

How to Take a French A2 DELF Test

One of the misconceptions many have before moving to France is that living here will make us “fluent” in the language in a short time: 2-3 years at the very longest.  Not only have I come to appreciate that fluency in any language, including your native tongue, comes after 15-20 years, but that fluency in French will take at least that long for me, if not longer.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t get around or have conversations with strangers on a variety of topics.  It just means I won’t be able to speak at great speed, have cultural landmarks and references readily at my command, and will sometimes lack the ability to speak about a complex idea.  But that’s okay: those are not necessary parts of daily life in France.

There Will Be a Test

What I didn’t know before moving here is the high number of English speakers who do not speak French at even a basic level.  This takes effort: you have to not take any classes to improve and you have to not speak French on a daily or even weekly basis.  Naturally, the French expect you to speak French in their country and so they have two bars set in place to make life more inconvenient for those who choose not to develop basic competency in this language:

  • A2 competency required for a 10 year carte de resident
  • B1 competency required for citizenship

For those who aren’t familiar, these number and letter combinations refer to a classification system called DELF (Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française).  The lowest level is A1 and the highest level is B2.  From there it is taken up by DALF (Diplôme approfondi en Langue Française) which has levels C1 and C2.  While B1 and B2 are often acceptable not just for citizenship but for many jobs in multilingual (but French-dominant) workplaces, C1 and C2 are part of the path to studying at the Masters level without having to take additional language classes or for more technical jobs that require greater French proficiency.  This isn’t the only type of test that is acceptable, but it is the most popular.

First, Getting to A1

My journey of learning French has had many way stations.  I was 17 the first time I bought a “how to learn French” course on cassette.  It wasn’t very advanced but it got me going on some basics.  I also took a couple courses at community college and made three weekend trips to Montreal to give some of that French a trot.  In the last year before I moved here I was meeting with a private tutor at least twice a month.  When I arrived in 2013 I registered for a class at Alliance Francaise, down in the 12th, and they gave me an assessment that placed me somewhere in A1.  All of my previous studies led to my being classified as basically a beginner.  But you have to start somewhere, right?

I was attracted to the pricing of the larger classes at Alliance Francaise, but the commute to the 12th took its toll, as did the fact that you could only move as fast as the slowest person in the class.  But before too long our A1 class finished and we took a simulated DELF and I passed.  A1 competency is normally achieved by roughly 80-100 hours of study time.  I spent a few more classes at the A2 level but didn’t choose to continue on, as I was at a better level than when I had arrived, and that made me more comfortable interacting with the French in general.

How to Register for a DELF Test

Well even though I was in Paris, where we have a lot of DELF testing centers, I needed to find a date that worked for my schedule.  I found a pretty comprehensive list of DELF testing sites in France and after some checking with dates that I expected to be traveling I found the best fit was a testing center in Annecy, snug up against the Alps, and just half an hour from the Swiss border.  I had wanted to visit for some time, so why not for an exam?

The second reason I chose this testing center was because it was quite “advanced” in terms of registration for the test.  A number of exam sites allowed you to “register” online for the test, but then they required you mail them documents and payment.  No ability to pay online!  So, I didn’t want to fuss with this: I wanted to register for the test and be done.  I would still need to book a train and accommodations after that.  So, if you would like that one-step online registration and payment convenience as well, and don’t “mind” trucking out to the Alps, I can recommend CILFA for DELF testing.  Costs vary, but should not be much more than 100€ for A2 registration.

How to Study for the A2 DELF Test

I’m flabbergasted to say this, but the official government website has some absolutely fantastic resources.  Not only do they essentially provide you with a practice test that has answers you can check, but that practice test is almost exactly like the actual exam you will take.  You can get all the information you need right on their site.

The A2 level presumes another 100-120 hours of study, bringing your total hours to 180-200.  Some of the things you’ll be expected to know include:

  • demonstrative adjectives (this, that, these, etc.)
  • personal pronouns (I, you, we, etc.)
  • possessive adjectives (mine, yours, hers, etc.)
  • relative and interrogative pronouns (who, where, etc.)
  • the imperfect tense (I routinely did something in the past)
  • the passé compose tense (I did something in the past that has been completed)
  • the future simple tense (I will do something)
  • the conditional present (I “have to” or would “like to” do something)
  • the imperative
  • variations of asking questions

If you can competently deal with all these issues, and you have the vocabulary to match that knowledge, the A2 level will be an absolute breeze.

How to Take the A2 DELF Test

It’s fascinating to watch the crowd milling around outside of the exam site because you know that every single one of you have the same thing in common: you are not native speakers of French and for some reason, need to formally prove your competency.  Maybe it’s for a job, maybe, as it was for me, for a longer term residency, or maybe just as a milestone in your journey forward in the language.  I can genuinely say I saw every age group represented and overheard at least six different native languages.

You will be required to PRINT your convocation, in part because that’s the French being the French, but also because you will need it as part of identity certification at numerous stages of the exam.

After you’ve all made it into the waiting room you will be called into various classrooms (or, if your test site is big enough, one large classroom) for the first part of the exam.  As you enter the classroom you have to present your convocation and your form of ID.  You will then sign next to your name on a sheet of paper and be asked to sit at a desk which has your name and DELF ID on it.  Once everyone has checked in and the proctor has read the instructions, the first part of the exam will begin.

The Oral Comprehension Portion

You are given four scenarios.  The audio will play for you twice, with a thirty second gap between playings.  The example I will give was given in my practice materials and was also the one for my exam: Air France announces a delay for a certain flight number.  The reason for the delay is given.  A boarding gate is given.  Certain classes of people are allowed to board first.  People needing assistance will need to go to a certain location.  You have 5-6 questions in front of you.  Some of them are multiple choice with multiple correct answers (or a single correct answer) or have a space for you to write the answer.  One of the questions might be, “What was the reason given for the delay?” or “Who will be allowed to board first?”

Three of the scenarios are in this format, in which the audio plays for anywhere between 30-60 seconds in total.  The speakers are speaking at a natural pace, at the speed you are used to hearing at train stations and airports.

The final part of the oral comprehension involves four very short exchanges, of three sentences or phrases at the very most.  One example featured two roommates talking about who was going to clean the kitchen.  You then match these exchanges to four different possibilities, like “asking for information” or “making a decision,” etc.

The time is sufficient for you to answer everything, especially with the second playing of the audio.

The Written Comprehension Portion

Once this is done, the entire testing cohort continues on with the written portion, which has various documents and pieces of information in written French, with the same number of comprehension questions following.  Once again you have four different portions and the 30 minutes you are given here is only slightly longer than the 25 you are given for the oral section, but here you aren’t constrained by waiting for an audio recording.  You can go as quickly or slowly as you please.

Once again, the time is sufficient for you to answer everything.

The Composition Portion

You will now be given 45 minutes to produce two texts of at least 60 words for certain scenarios.  The first one I had involved sending an email to a friend to tell him all about a “culinary journey through France” day.  I felt very comfortable with this and ended up having to cut out a few regional cuisines I wanted to discuss just because of time and space constraints.  The second involved an invitation to a picnic and I had to respond with appropriate questions and the proper etiquette.

Again, if you don’t overthink these sections, they will be pretty straightforward.

Break

Once you’ve completed all these sections, the proctor will pick up your exams as well as a piece of scratch paper each of you has been given to use.  You’re then free to pick up your belongings which you will have stowed somewhere in the classroom.  They are quite strict about electronics, even including smartwatches and mobility trackers, so the less you bring that day, the better.

Oral Examination Portion

You will have been given a time slot for your oral exam in advance and mine was ten minutes after the written portion ended so I had almost no waiting period.  Others would have at least another hour before their slot.  Just after exiting the written portion my name was called and I was ushered into a prep room where I was briefed on what was going to happen.  There would be three portions:

  • A brief dialogue, in which I answered basic questions about myself and my life (1-2 mins)
  • A monologue, in which I spoke about a subject that I picked blindly from a pile of 12 choices and had 5 minutes to prepare (2-3 mins)
  • A role-play, again chosen blindly from a dozen possibilities and also had 5 minutes to prepare (4-5 mins)

My monologue was about a place I had visited recently and what I like to see when I travel, and my role-play was with a fictional French merchant (my examiner would play the part) about gifts I might buy for friends and family.  Again, things went well, and while there’s always some level of nervousness whenever you’re in a formalized test setting, if you know this material it will be a breeze.  My identity and convocation were again demanded, and I had to sign next to my name to certify that it was indeed me.

During this portion of the test you are being graded for pronunciation, vocabulary, and proper use of appropriate tenses: things you have done in the past, things you will do in the future, and things you do in the present.  One examiner is watching and writing observations down the entire time, the other examiner is interacting with you.

Results!

You will get your pass/fail notification within four weeks, but the formal diploma that you’ll want to have on hand for your prefecture appointment will take a little longer, usually another four weeks after that.  This is due in part to the fact that each exam is checked by two different examiners for the highest level of accuracy and fairness.  The tests are also graded anonymously: the reason you have a DELF ID number is so that they can’t see your name while grading: you’re just a number.

It is a wonderful feeling to pass the exam.  Yes, A2 isn’t a be-all end-all, but it’s enough of a bar to keep thousands of English speakers from getting a ten year card.  For whatever reason, these English-speaking French residents have given up on making progress in French and are content to do annual renewals of their CDS, perhaps forever.  I can only encourage you to put in the effort to get to at least this level.  You won’t get long-term residence without it, to say nothing of citizenship, which requires an even higher level: B1.

Image by F1 Digitals from Pixabay

This article also appeared on Medium and on Dispatches Europe (in two parts)

How to Move to France, Part 3

The Nomadic Network has had me on in the past months to talk about the ins and out of moving to France, particularly from non-EU countries.  Tomorrow will be the final webinar in a three episode run.  It’s free and you can ask whatever question you might have about coming to this beautiful country.  If you’d like to watch parts 1 and 2 you can find them on the Nomadic Matt Patreon.  I look forward to answering your questions as best I can!

The Covid Location Test

The arrival of Autumn last week was underlined by rain and punctuated by cold: summer is officially over in the City of Light.  It was, by all accounts, one of our quietest summers in recent history, as we were bereft of many of the non-European tourists that normally flock to our city.  But I had used that time to mull over an idea that had first occurred to me during lockdown: the Covid Location Test.

The test is simple.  Imagine that you were told that you could not leave your city (or if you’d like, country) for the next twelve months.  How would that make you feel?  Use those feelings to ponder the fundamental question: are you truly living the life you want to live?  If not, why not?

It certainly was a useful exercise for me.  While I was used to being location independent and sometimes having to work on an assignment for a client in the coffee shop du jour wherever I was in the world, I knew that remote work was a new and unwelcome experience for some of my friends, even the ones who had previously envied my ability to work from anywhere.  Hence, telling me that I could not leave Paris and would have to stay in my apartment didn’t qualify as punishment.  My home, after all, was designed as a refuge, a place for me to relax when I wasn’t working.  It fulfilled that purpose perfectly during March, April, and May of this year (even if it was also the place where I was working).

As for telling me that I couldn’t leave Paris, that wasn’t difficult to bear either.  I had perhaps traveled “too much” during my past seven years here, and some extended, unbroken time in Paris would be welcome.  Even if you told me I couldn’t leave for a year or more, it wouldn’t particularly trouble me: I was living in my dream city.

While I made a point to host a party at my house the very first week of deconfinement, I didn’t travel outside France until July.  I enjoyed my trips to the US, Croatia, Spain, and Andorra, despite the challenges of travel these days, but I took those trips not only opportunistically, because of work that presented itself, but because it was nice to travel around again and indicate by my actions that I refused to live my life in fear.

But something had changed.  In a world in which travel is a luxury, those who partake of it should feel quite privileged.  I very much felt fortunate to see places I had not previously been, and linger around some old haunts I knew well.  But for me the Covid Location Test was a reaffirmation of another privilege I feel fortunate to have in my life which I don’t take for granted: living where I want to live.

I encourage you to take the Covid Location Test yourself.  I suspect many of you have unwittingly taken it earlier in the year if you were locked down in any measure.  If you aren’t living the life you want to live now, why aren’t you?  What is holding you back?  We haven’t been promised that a similar situation won’t happen in the future and it’s folly to build a life assuming that history can’t repeat itself.  As I said in a previous article, at least as far as the EU is concerned, a residence permit = passport for freedom of movement, even in a pandemic, and that’s a powerful argument for those who felt trapped wherever they were.

Don’t be trapped.  Use the Covid Location Test to surface the feelings and sentiments you may have buried under the piles of routine and daily life.  Life the life you want to live now: you’re not promised tomorrow.

Photo by Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash

passport pages

Traveling without my French Resident Card

So in an earlier post I shared that I had been pickpocketed late last year and hence no longer had my physical four year Carte de Sejour, which was perhaps the hardest-earned French document in my possession.  In that same article I noted that it really wasn’t such an important document in terms of daily life in France, and after this most recent theft, I had a number of trips in which an EU residence card had no relevance: visits to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, Italy, then Bulgaria.  However, then a little thing called lockdown happened and when we were finally deconfined, the EU residence card took on a new meaning.  I knew in the back of my mind that I should have some kind of replacement document, but knowing that I was putting in for my ten year card quite soon led me to rely on my confidence on how the system worked and my inherent knowledge of and patience with French immigration.

First flight back

The end of July saw me at the Aer Lingus counter in Chicago, following a whirlwind three-week trip to the US which I took because of a convergence of very low airfares and the possibility of doing some work with a client as well as on one of my business projects.  I’d also get some family time.  I was tired, but the accomplished-a-lot-and-feeling-good kind of tired.  The agent at the counter asked for my passport and then she asked if I had residence in France.  I said that I did and handed her a photocopy of my residence card.  She didn’t really know her way around it so I pointed to the expiration date, which is in September of next year.  She nodded, but slowly.  A colleague hovered nearby.  “No way a photocopy is good enough,” he said in a voice probably intended to be low enough that I couldn’t hear, but I did.  “Legit, I think he needs to have the actual card.”  She seemed swayed by this and asked me to wait while she “checked on something” (read: go ask my boss).  She came out after a few minutes during which time I continued to smile and look composed.  She didn’t seem to look too dire when she came back, but wanted a bit more context.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said, “but here’s the police report noting it was stolen, and obviously since lockdown I haven’t gotten an appointment for a replacement.”  I smiled and simply gave the attitude that this was not a problem at all.  I live in France, I lost my card, leave this to the French.  For their part, an airline that incorrectly transports someone without entry rights has to bear the cost of repatriation, so she was not being unreasonable in pushing back a bit on me, but the fact that she didn’t really put up a fight was an indication of something I would continue to see: a willingness of those to be “understanding” to travelers in this time period.

Landing in Dublin turned out to be no big deal, as this was an inbound EU flight so I was just able to do a simple transfer within the airport.  I wasn’t forced out through customs as I had been on the way into the US.  Next stop: the French border.  I handed over my dark blue passport.  The border policeman’s eyebrow immediately flicked up as he saw the emblem of the eagle which grasped olive branches and arrows in its claws.  He assumed English and asked: “Why are you visiting France?”  “J’habite ici,” I smiled and answered in French.  “Ah,” he said, and asked for my residence card.  “Malheuresement…” I explained that I had been pickpocketed and handed him copies of the police report and a copy of the residence card.  He frowned.  He continued in French, asking why I had not gone to get a new card (he noted that the police report was dated November of last year).  I told him I had been traveling, and then afterwards there had been lockdown.  He pointed out that there had been deconfinement and I countered, smiling and polite, that it was hard to get an appointment (I knew from friends; I hadn’t actually tried myself).  He looked at some colleagues who had been obviously listening in.  They shrugged.  He flipped to an already crowded page and stamped.  “Merci; bon journee,” I smiled.  No documents?  No problem.

Not asked for?  The contact tracing form that Aer Lingus insisted we fill out before arrival.

The Croatian Question

I had planned to do some work in Salzburg with a client in August when an opportunity came up for us to do the work in Croatia instead.  Salzburg is still on my list to visit, but summer on the Adriatic is hard to beat.  Croatia was one of the countries that was “open” to Americans with a valid negative Covid test within 48 hours of arrival and proof of accommodation.  But, would they treat me as an American citizen or as an EU resident?  Surely, I couldn’t use the photocopy again?  Should I get a Covid test just in case they decide to treat me like an American?  Life continued on in Paris and a few days before the flight I decided to wander down to the Paris Plages to get one of the free tests they were giving out (the blood test used a pinprick and a few drops, with results in 15 minutes, the PCR test had a minimum 5 day waiting period for results – I opted for the quick result blood test).  The philosophy I have with French administration (always be prepared for everything they might ask for) guided me and while the negative test result printout I was handed didn’t look as “official” as I would like, I felt it would satisfy the Croats.

It was a fairly full flight to Zagreb (unlike domestic US flights, there seems to be zero insistence on the vacant middle seat) and I was one of the first off the plane and hence one of the first in line for passport checks.  When I handed over the American passport he asked where I had come from.  “Paris,” I answered.  “Transiting?”  “No, I live there.”  “Ah, where is your residence card?”  I handed him the photocopy of my residence card.  His face betrayed skepticism.  “It was stolen, here’s the police report.”  I handed it over to him.  I didn’t know if he could read French but his eye caught the filing date: “This was in November.”  “Yes, and we had lockdown so I didn’t get a replacement.”  He looked at everything again to satisfy himself, it seemed, then started flipping my passport pages to find a place to stamp me through.  He handed me a piece of paper with contact information for all the places I could get tested if I wanted.  No demand to self-isolate.

Not asked for?  Proof of accommodation, negative covid test, or contact tracing form.

Coming Home to France

Before March 2020, when I came home to France through passport control, the agents would scan my passport and lazily stamp it, usually while talking to their colleague.  They didn’t ask if I was a resident, because they didn’t care.  When I presented that passport, they assumed I was a tourist and just stamped me through.  I could have always bypassed this process by handing them a resident card along with my passport.  This would mean my passport would not be stamped.  But I never bothered with this.

When I handed my passport to the border agent his eyes flicked up at me as he perceived the dark blue US book.  He scanned it and after looking at his screen for a moment, handed it back to me.  I gave the usual, “Merci; bon journee,” and walked through.

The only way he would have handed my passport back to me without stamping it?  If the record he was looking at on my screen indicated that I had a legal carte de sejour, and hence was a resident of France.  No need to stamp the passport of someone returning home.  Had it always been this way and the border agents just assumed if I didn’t hand them my card I was just a tourist, and they didn’t look any further at my record?  Or is this a new level of digitization that’s been achieved by the French, something we’ve seen a lot of during Macron’s tenure?

Either way, I was home, and I it was my fastest way through yet.

Not asked for?  Carte de sejour.

I’m not saying that you should, as I have, push your luck.  Next week I’m going to stop putting it off and get a recipisse which will serve as a temporary ID until I get the appointment for my ten year card.  What I am saying is if you don’t feel like you’ve gotten everything just so during this period of travel, don’t let that deter you.  A ready smile, a good attitude, a fair number of documents, and a plausible explanation might just see you through.

The photo is one of my passport pages.  As you can see, the French don’t really care whether there’s “room” for a new stamp. 🙂

Getting Pickpocketed

So I’ve been pickpocketed three times in 7 years that I’ve been in Paris.  Once in 2015 and twice in the last quarter of 2019, when pickpocketing was at an all-time high in the city.  Nothing irreplaceable was taken; it was more a chance to learn weaknesses and correct behavior.

The Wallet

I was helping a friend get to Gare du Nord to catch a train.  We got onto line 4 at the Cité metro stop and just before the door closed we felt a crush of people get onto the carriage.  I felt a strong hand at my back as we felt people try to squeeze in, which was probably all that was necessary to distract me from a hand reaching into the inside left pocket of my overcoat, where my wallet was.  I didn’t notice until Gare du Nord, which of course was far too late to do anything about it.

My pulse quickened; chemicals swam into my bloodstream to “help” my body cope with panic.  I tried to clear my head and quickly used my phone to cancel credit cards that I remembered were inside (including one that wasn’t inside!).  I didn’t think there was anything that could really be done – so many wallets get lifted in any given day in a big city, not just in Paris – but there was one crucial card in that wallet whose loss I would have to document for the French authorities: my four year carte de sejour.

I had learned this some years back when I had left my wallet on an airplane, again, with a carte de sejour inside.  You have to file a police report to certify the “missing” status of the card.  Having that report allows you to get a new card.  You can’t start the process of replacing a missing carte de sejour unless you’ve filed a police report.  The sooner the better.

I was already in Gare du Nord, so I made my way down to the lower level branch police station that I knew was inside the station.  I briefly explained to the cop at the front desk what had happened.  He told me to take a seat and that it would probably be an hour (which in French bureaucratic speak means at least one hour).  The effects of the “panic chemicals,” cortisol and adrenaline, were ebbing away, and I smiled, nodded, sat down, and pulled a book out my bag (always have a book to read when you’re walking around in Paris).

I had started to feel a bit sorry for myself when a girl in her early 20s came into the station escorted by a couple officers.  One of them walked up to the front desk clerk and quietly said a few words.  The front desk clerk grimly nodded and the other officer walked the girl over towards me and put her into the seat next to me. He then said they would take her statement shortly.

The girl was shaken, and had either just been crying or was holding back tears.  I realized that however “poorly” my day was going, that others were having worse days, and I abruptly stopped feeling sorry for myself.

About an hour later, I was asked to come into the office and explain what had been lost.  The officer was very efficient and in about 15 minutes I was out of there with two crucial documents: the one page police report with an inventory of all that had been in my wallet, signed by me and sealed by the attending officer, and a recipisse that the declaration had been filed, again signed by me and sealed by the attending officer.

I could have used this to go in and get a recipisse, which would have given me “legal ID.”  But something had changed in the years since I had first started getting those coveted thick plastic ID cards: I had realized I didn’t really need them for daily life in France.  If I needed to rent a car, I would give the rental agency my US driver’s license.  If I needed to travel, I would use my US passport.  I might occasionally present the carte de sejour (CDS) if I needed to pick up a package, but I could just as easily bring my passport as well.  The cost of a replacement card is the exact same as the cost of the original card, and a part of my personality which has served me very well in past years, a character I call “frugal Stephen,” objected to the idea of paying for a new card with fewer than 24 months left.  “Why not just try to get by without one?”

Why not indeed?  I hadn’t foreseen that there might have been some sort of global crisis that would make the actual hard plastic card very important indeed.  More on that another time.

The iPhone

I am not the guy who gets the new flashy gadget.  I’ll gently use something until it gives up on me.  Case in point, Apple was offering double trade-in value on what was then my four year-old iPhone 6 Plus.  Because of software upgrades (which would lead to a class action lawsuit some years later, which would lead to me also getting a payout) the phone simply couldn’t perform anymore and crashed all the time.  I took the double trade-in value and got a shiny new iPhone XS.  The phone was dreamy in comparison to my faithful old 6 Plus.  Until it got stolen a couple months later.

I’ve mentally tracked down the 60 likeliest seconds in which it happened.  I have a habit of keeping my hand in my coat pockets during the winter season, and usually have my phone in one of those pockets.  The last time I remember using the phone was to show a friend of mine a funny meme.  We were on Line 2 and changed at Jaures for the line in my neighborhood, 7bis.  Somewhere between changing from those lines is when I got pickpocketed.

The thing is I offer ready advice all the time to friends and travelers about how to stand in the metro and on buses to be more protected against such a thing (have your back to at least one area/part so that no one can stand behind you, don’t leave zippers or pockets exposed, etc.).  Predictably, as I had in 2015, I got mad and turned on “find my iPhone” to once again turn into the angry vigilante to track down my phone.  I shut down all the Apple Pay rights and started quickly changing various passwords when I got a note that my Facebook password had been changed!  These guys were good.

I used a combination of the location features offered by my local carrier, SFR, and Apple itself to triangulate to where the phone was last seen, in the Barbes neighborhood, thirty minutes earlier.  Who did I think I was to go wander there?  Was I just going to approach anyone who I thought might have it and kindly ask that they return it to me?  Silly as it was, I went anyway, and found the street mostly deserted, with an empty kabob shop nearby.  At some point the foolishness of the endeavor caught up to me and I headed home.

The next day I bought a replacement at SFR and the kid helping me commiserated, telling me this happens pretty regularly and asked why I didn’t have insurance.  After explaining that after some time the insurance costs as much as a new phone he reasoned with me to carry it for two years and then dump the insurance.  I saw his point and agreed.  This particular insurance would allow for two full price replacements in any given year.  Later that afternoon I got a taunting text from a number telling me in French, “thanks for the phone.”  I blocked the number and all the subsequent spoofed emails that clearly showed this was a group of professionals who regularly grabbed phones on the Metro and looked to spin the grief/anger/desire of the victim to get the phone back into even more “profit.”

Adjustments

So, what happened as a result?  I bought an even thinner wallet than the minimalist one that I had stolen, one small enough that it could fit in my front pocket (good luck with that, thieves!).  I also created a new habit of always putting my phone in my back pocket when traveling on the metro, usually with my messenger bag additionally slid over that pocket (you’re going to have to work harder if you want it!).  I can’t say I became ever more alert, because like anything in life, your guard goes down after a while.  But I was reminded that yes, unfortunate things can happen at times, but never forget someone may be having a worse day than you, so keep everything in context, and keep smiling.

Photo by Andrea Natali on Unsplash