How to Apply for French Citizenship, Part I: Documents

I suppose ever since I began this blog in 2013, this article was in the works. But in my early days of life in France, I always thought I would apply for citizenship on the very day I became eligible. But that day passed more than four years ago. Why did I only just recently apply and what did I need to do in order to make that happen? Get comfortable; I’ll tell you all about it.

Why Didn’t I Apply Sooner?

When I first moved to France, I, like many fellow immigrants, felt great instability in my new home. I had no sense of my rights as a legal resident of France and I lived with an (irrational, unfounded) fear that I could be deported at any time for any reason. I truly feared that I might not get my visa renewed the first time because I might be missing a key piece of paperwork I would not be told about.

But then, with help, I figured out French bureaucracy and lost my fear. Once I got my first four-year card, I wasn’t dreaming of doing more paperwork (which is what applying for citizenship meant). I was enjoying my freedom! No trips to the prefecture for FOUR YEARS. 

Further, as I tell people often, if you are a French resident and you have a Class A passport, like my dark blue American one, French citizenship only really gives you the right to vote. It doesn’t really give you significantly more in the way of visa-free travel and it doesn’t convey any additional rights for your life in France. “I’ll get to that later,” I thought. Indeed, Covid had shown me that French residency was good enough to get me in and out of France in the middle of a worldwide crisis. Who needed to rush the citizenship process?

Yet, after some extensive travels outside France in the last two years doing research for a book, I decided it was high time to address this issue and I started the process (I alluded to some preliminary steps in a previous article). Citizenship would give me the option to be gone from France for an extended time — years, even — if I needed to work on a project. It also would mean I would never have to go to the prefecture for a visa issue again.

First, Get Your Papers

As you progress in your French residence and citizenship journey, you’ll need papers for renewals and new statuses that you didn’t need at the beginning.

For example, when it came time to renew my visitor visa the first time, they asked for a translated birth certificate. My story behind that is related here.

As I progressed in my Profession Liberale journey, they would ask for invoices and tax returns, the latter of which you couldn’t possibly have at the first application, because your business wasn’t yet open.

When you get to a ten-year card, you’ll need to show language competency at the A2 level, minimum.

Citizenship is all that paperwork, plus.

The plus is information about your family.

“Have a Folder”

There are many great lessons I take from my parents. One that I’ve very much adhered to over the years was my mother’s admonition to always “have a folder” with my key documents: birth certificate, baptism, confirmation, passport copies, etc. Not only do I have digital copies of all these items in a secure place in the cloud, accessible anytime around the world, but I have paper copies in a folder that is entrusted to one of my sisters.

So when it came time to get three necessary documents for my citizenship application, I thought it would be a breeze. Surely, I thought, my mom will have her birth certificate, my father’s birth certificate, and their marriage certificate, all in one folder, just like she always taught me.

She did not.

First, let me give you some context. My father passed away in 2018, and those who have gone through the bereavement of a loved one know that after the initial flurry of dealing with banks and credit cards and the government, you don’t necessarily think about nor keep track of the vital documents of your deceased loved one.

Further, my mom, for various reasons, did not have a need for official documents. Those of us who live outside our countries of citizenship always know where these documents are. For the rest of the world, life is much more simple. My mom currently lives a simpler life.

So, once I realized that not only did my mom not have a “folder,” but that she didn’t immediately have a solution to my needs, I realized I would need to work my own angles while she worked hers.

Look Online

My father was born in Los Angeles and a basic search led me to VitalChek, a website that looked like it had been designed about ten years ago, but had fairly decent reviews online.

I opted for a copy from the LA County Registrar ($32) + UPS Next Day Air Saver ($18.50) + VitalChek fee ($9) for a total of $59.50 USD

Once you place your order you will immediately be told your order is on hold pending a notarized document from you. I went the very next day to get the document notarized, and then I scanned and uploaded it.

Ten days passed, and they told me that they needed to verify the mother’s maiden name. I called in and verified it.

For some unknown reason, the case remained stuck for two more weeks until I called again to find out the status. The person I spoke to escalated the case, and less than a week later, I had a certified copy of my father’s birth certificate at a US address I had specified.

Keep in mind that this was only the first part of this process. The French would also need to see a translated version of this, because the French bureaucracy doesn’t “understand” English. It’s the same with countries worldwide, so it’s totally understandable.

Ask Other Family

My mom’s youngest sister, for her part, did adhere to the “keep a folder” routine, and she had a laminated copy of my mom’s birth certificate in a folder she had compiled when her mother, my maternal grandmother, had passed away some years ago. I wired her money and she sent that original to me by mail. It took a few days to arrive from Singapore to the States (I wanted all the documents going to a single location, and I would happen to be in the States when they arrived).

Hope Among the Boxes

In the meantime, my mother, who had responded originally with, “tell the French your mother doesn’t have a copy of the marriage certificate,” had started looking through boxes. A couple days later she found a certified true copy of their marriage. The part of me that pauses when looking at documents that are fundamental to my existence — this document was witnessed by people, including my parents, who at the time couldn’t know me or my part in their story — took a moment to look at the document lovingly. The practical side of me wanted an additional document in case the French didn’t like this one.

The Singapore government, efficient as always, got me a Certificate of Marriage (with a QR code, even!) within a couple weeks of requesting it.

Now with all these documents in my hand, the translator could move forward. But interestingly enough, Fields Granville, who has been my trusted translator for some time, didn’t need the originals to do their work. In fact, the entire process is digitized now, so I didn’t even need to send these originals to the prefecture (at least not right now). 

Within ten days they had all the documents translated and the one part of my application that wasn’t dependent solely on me was complete. The cost of translation varies based on your specific documents (it’s literally charged by the word) but you can expect costs to be anywhere between 200-400€. More if you are rushing. But why would you rush a citizenship application?

Moral: keep hope alive. In the meantime, do the work.

FBI Paperwork

If you have lived in France for fewer than ten years, you’ll need a fingerprint-based criminal background check from your home country. At the time I started the process I had been in France nine years and two months and I didn’t want to wait another ten months just so I could skip this process.

While some countries around the world now accept electronic fingerprints, at the time I went through the process, the FBI required traditional on-paper fingerprints for the background check. Thankfully, Eve Humrich of Fingerprints Paris was there for me, and I stopped by her office and got it done. Please follow her directions regarding your hands, i.e. unless your skin is very moist, try to use hand cream as much as possible before the appointment. Thinking that I had “no dry skin problems” I didn’t think I needed the cream, but the reality is that most problems with illegible fingerprints are due to dry skin. She had some lotion for me there and my skin was just moist enough for us to pull the prints necessary, but it would have been easier for us if I had just used lotion in the days before as she had directed me to.

You then send these fingerprint cards to the FBI (if you’re an American — to the equivalent agency if you’re not an American) along with your order (which has a barcode). Two weeks later I received an email saying that I had no criminal history. I printed out this email (not formal letter was mailed) and added this to the documents I needed Fields Granville to translate.

Next, Start the Process

Now, had I started this process four years ago when I first became eligible for citizenship, I most certainly would not have been able to go to an Etrangers site that has a specific button “Je demande la nationalité française.” But not only does that exist now, but you can periodically save and exit your application so that you don’t have to do everything all at once.

It’s hilarious that I’ve only been on this immigration journey for a decade and I can already say, “You people don’t know how easy you have it these days.”

If you do happen to have everything with you, even then the process shouldn’t take you more than an hour.

Your Information

You are going to need to provide the following:

  • Passport
  • Birth certificate (you will likely already have a translated version if you’ve been in France for this many years, but you will also need it to be apostilled).
  • Current CDS
  • Background/criminal check
  • Photo (after years of going to Photomaton machines in France for my official photos, imagine my surprise when they effectively allowed me to upload a selfie against a white wall).

Now, regarding the passport, don’t fall into the habit of your experience in France for all these years. This is the first and only time they want more than the identity pages. They want a photocopy of the entire passport. They want to know where a future citizen of France has been the last few years (e.g. have I been going to North Korea a lot?).

You might also be asking, what’s an apostille? Great question, and not something you would ever have to know, normally. An apostille certifies that the document you are handing to another authority has been certified as authentic by the issuing authority. In my particular case the apostille on my birth certificate was one of the earliest pieces of paperwork I prepared; I got the apostille at the end of 2022.

Your Family

I already mentioned the information I needed from my parents, but they also wanted to know some vital information about my siblings. They don’t require birth certificates or marriage certificates, thankfully.

If I were married and/or had children, that information would be needed too, but I got to skip this section, since I have never been married or had children.

Your Living Situation

This will again be familiar to anyone who has renewed visas in France. They want:

  • Your lease
  • An EDF
  • The identity card of your landlord
  • The last three quittance de loyers

All these documents are familiar to all who have lived in France for enough time to apply for citizenship.

Your Employment Situation

So here again, things are familiar. You need:

  • Proof of your employment situation (a CDI for those who have jobs or in my case, as a profession liberale, my certificate of inscription, the story of obtaining I detailed here)
  • A P237, which is a form you can request from the Impots site, which simply says you have paid your taxes the last three years and there are no problems. Because I had lived in Moret for two of those years I actually had to get two different P237s for the different tax jurisdictions, then scan them into one single document (the site can be very particular at times about only accepting one digital file). Each time I requested these documents I would receive them electronically within 24 hours. 
  • Your last three Avis d’Impots, which is the certificate you get every year after the Ministry of Finance reconciles your tax return around September.

Payment

You need to pay 55€ for your application. You can get the fiscal stamp you need here. Once again, it’s funny how much has changed since when I first came to France, when all this paperwork was done in person (you had to make an appointment to turn it in, even) and I would have bought fiscal stamps from a tabac in order to pay.

A Few More Things

Something I had prepared for some years was my “why” document: Why did I want to become a French citizen? I had also gotten letters of recommendation from two dear friends who were French citizens, as well as an essay on my integration into France.

I was not asked for any of those items in this part of the process, which leads me to believe that when I am called in for my interview not only will I be asked to turn in all the paper documents that up until now I have been scanning in, but I can also submit anything else I think would be helpful for my application. In the weeks to come I will find a way to get these documents added to my application (and tell you about it).

That was it. I hit submit and two months later (about a week ago) I received this:

Confirmation de dépôt

Bonjour STEPHEN HEINER,

Vous êtes informé-e qu’après avoir pris connaissance des pièces justificatives jointes à votre demande de naturalisation, la plateforme d’accès à la nationalité française atteste de son dépôt et va procéder à son examen afin d’en vérifier la complétude.

N.B. : dès lors que cet examen attestera du caractère complet de votre dossier, vous serez rendu-e destinataire d’un récépissé conformément à l’article 21-25-1 du code civil. À défaut, la plateforme d’accès à la nationalité française vous contactera afin de vous demander de compléter votre demande.

Dès lors qu’il sera considéré comme complet, votre dossier sera instruit par la Préfecture, siège de la plateforme d’accès à la nationalité française dont relève votre domicile. C’est dans ce cadre que vous serez reçu(e), au siège de la plateforme, pour un entretien d’assimilation.

Cordialement,

L’agent Instructeur

Ministère de l’Intérieur et des Outre-Mer

So now my file is in the hands of the Prefecture. Once they are satisfied with all the documents, they will send me a date for an in-person interview. If they are not happy with the documents they will ask for corrections/updates, and I’ll normally be given up to 60 days to file those amendments.

So that’s it my friends. I’ve started what might be potentially my last bureaucratic journey in France. It’s hard to believe it’s happening after that first blog entry back in 2013 when I authored one of the world’s first publicly-findable articles on how to get a French long-stay visitor visa. I’m glad to have you all with me on this last part of the journey as well.

There are no guarantees I will be awarded citizenship, and I do not take anything for granted in this process. But I will keep you posted every step of the way.

The next article in this series will be how I have been preparing for my in-person interview.

At current speed, based on what I’ve been hearing through the citizenship grapevine, I expect to receive communication from the prefecture within 2-3 months, and if all is satisfactory with my dossier, an interview date 2-3 months beyond that, meaning I could have a decision from the French government by early 2025, or at the very latest, by current Paris prefecture standards, the end of 2025.

The photo is from a visit I made to Vaux-le-Vicomte in July 2023. Like my citizenship application, that visit was long overdue.

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