My change of heart on Picard

In December 2015 I authored a (perhaps too indignant) piece slamming the frozen food chain Picard (and even questioning its raison d’etre).  It’s Spring 2021 and I have to take back at least some of my words due to a series of events that led to my first (and second, third, and fourth) visit to the chain.

Mailers

Picard regularly drops mailers into just about every mailbox in France.  I have had a habit over the years of using any sale flyers, be they from grocery stores or sports shops like Decathlon or Go Sport, as free language learning supplementation.  I will leaf through them, looking for words or phrases I don’t know.  If I see anything interesting, I’ll tear that sheet out and add it to my “look at later” pile.  Then I’ll message my French friends and clarify things (an example from the past: “You guys call any sports shoes baskets, even if they are for tennis?”)  In early March of this year a mailer landed with the title Hello America featuring a number of “limited-time” special items.

Hmm, what do the French consider quintessentially American,” I thought to myself, and started leafing through the mailer with a smile on my face.  The cover had a “Big Fried Chicken Burger” for 4€50 as well as a banana bread cupcake for 2€.  The next page featured something called “American box” which gave you 11 pieces each of mac and cheese bites, mozzarella sticks, and pulled pork bites: 33 in total.  That was 8€95 and thousands of calories.

There were also the 3€50 “Tex-mex burrito” and 2€95 “Hot-dog a la New-Yorkaise.”  They even had bottles of Sam Adams beer for 2€50 each.  But the one that caught my eye was on page 3 of this version: 400g of “American chicken wings” for 5€40.

Chicken

Those who know me well know that I am a great lover of chicken in general and even more so of chicken wings.  It’s traditionally classified in the “American food” category for me (even though people all over the world enjoy chicken wings in their own style and cuisine) which I generally stay away from while here in France to make the visits to my family that much more enjoyable: combining people I miss with food I don’t often eat.  But when this mailer landed in my mailbox it was the middle of Lent and I had been fasting from meat for some weeks.  I also considered that I wasn’t heading back to the States anytime soon and that given that these were frozen wings, they could be broken out on Sundays or after Lent was finished.  “Well, for scientific purposes,” I reasoned, I should really check out these Picard chicken wings and make sure they are good.

I can’t say I eat frozen chicken wings regularly (or ever, that I can remember) but these were really good!  Could Picard have other frozen food that is good?  Again, in the name of science, I decided to find out.

Subsequent Visits

The Paris stores aren’t very large.  You just have large freezers everywhere and some cardboard boxes in the front you can help yourself to if you don’t have one of your own “keep cold” bags.  The other limitation Parisians often deal with is freezer space.  Most of us in the city have smaller fridges with limited freezer space.  I could pick maybe 3-5 items to bring home, assuming that I had an empty freezer at home.

I pretended that I knew what I was doing, but having never really been inside one of these before, I slowly went by every single freezer, making mental notes on what they had.  I even picked up a few things on those subsequent visits, including:

  • a 20-pack of breaded Alaskan pollock filets (really good)
  • some snack-size ham and cheese calzones (decent)
  • the aforementioned “American box” (honestly, not bad but only meant to be consumed in one sitting if you want a food coma: I’ve been away from the States too long to take down so many calories at once so I took it in parts)

In my eighth year in France, I still love to cook multiple times each day (more than ever, actually) and I still find it unacceptable that many people choose to make Picard a regular part of their lives rather than just an occasional one.  But, almost six years after I penned my last article on Picard, I’m happy to admit that I understand a bit better why the French might choose it: there are some quality flash-frozen fruits and vegetables in addition to the pre-made food I treated myself to, all at reasonable prices.  There’s even the bakery section where someone can grab frozen pain au chocolats that they can warm up in their own oven and make-believe they put the effort in to make them.

While it’s not very French of me to admit that I was wrong, perhaps that’s why the Hello America campaign so brilliantly ensnared me.  Bonjour, Picard.  You got me. 🙂

Photo from the Facebook page of Picard.

usps delays

USPS to France? Be Prepared to Wait

Covid-19 has shaped many parts of our lives in the last 12 months.  One way that wasn’t entirely expected (at least not by me) was the performance of the United States Postal Service.

While the USPS has never been a world-beater, throughout my years abroad I’ve come to expect a fairly reasonable level of service.  If a package was sent to me from the US I could sometimes get it as early as a week, but more often than not it took two weeks.  Not anymore.

I still maintain a US address for various administrative reasons and every now and then I have some of that mail forwarded.  Sometimes it’s routine stuff like a new credit card to replace one that has hit its expiry date.  Other times there are some important bits of paperwork I need to deal with.  In 2020, I also got “free” money from the US government in the mail.

In late October 2020 I had a package put together with some of these important items as well as a couple Christmas gifts I wanted to give to friends in Paris.  Not only did the package never arrive, but it was returned to sender in late January of this year.

The USPS does provide tracking, but there was no update for that number beyond its first original scans.  According to the website, it didn’t appear to have ever left the state of origin.

I wondered if it had been delivered and my local post office had simply forgotten to give me a delivery notice, as the box would not have fit in my mailbox.  I showed the tracking number to a clerk at La Poste.  A few taps later he told me in French, “It’s in customs in Chicago.”  Of course the French knew where my package was, but the USPS seemingly didn’t.

It was late December by that time, so I was able to file a claim for the package, but I had given it up as lost.  I pictured it somewhere in the warehouse you see at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But just when I had given up hope, I found out it had been returned to sender.  On cue, the USPS called me to follow up on my claim three days later.

The woman on the phone sounded so kindly I had no heart to turn on my customer-service indignation of the US variety.  Indeed, I was so relieved to not have lost the contents of that package (which included a ring I had resized) that I just thanked her for following up and verified that I would get a refund given that I never actually got the package.  “Yes, no problem,” she said.

When a friend went to get the refund the clerk blamed the French.  “It was delivered,” he insisted.  True enough, the package did look like it got stamped/stickered through customs.  But somehow or another it never got to my post office.  It came to France, hung out, then was returned.

I didn’t want to take any chances on the next package so I stripped out everything that wasn’t critical (I’ll get those things some other time, I figured) and focused on only sending something business envelope-sized.  That envelope was sent on February 9th and I’m happy to say it arrived just before the end of February.  “It’s a Christmas miracle,” I typed to my friend as I sent a photo of the envelope in my hands.

Three months for a non-delivery.  Almost three weeks for something the size of an envelope.  Thanks to the tracking I was also able to see that of the 17 days it spent in transit, 12 of them were in the United States, and 11 of those days were spent getting from the origin, in the middle of the country, to New York.

What is going on?” I asked a friend of mine who I suspected might occasionally mail herself things from the US.  She didn’t have a ready answer, but did tell me that her mother had attempted to send her Halloween candy both in 2020 and 2019.  Both times the package never arrived: once it was returned to sender and the other time it disappeared.

The USPS has been underfunded for a long time and unlike what I’ve experienced in Europe and Asia, routinely undercharges for both domestic and international packages (while managing to charge a FORTUNE to ship to Canada, which is closer to 48 of our states than Hawaii or Alaska).  It seems to have caught its own strain of Covid-19 and is, for the moment, not to be relied on for timely package deliveries.

For comparison: a book I ordered from the UK on Tuesday arrived on Thursday of the same week, which is even faster than I’m used to receiving packages from across the Channel.  Clearly not everyone has the same Covid problems.

Over the years I’ve often sent small packages to friends who were flying into Paris.  This allowed, in some years, for nearly half a dozen “courier” deliveries that I paid off with bottles of champagne.  That means is currently not as available.

So, if you’re in France and awaiting packages from the US, adjust your expectations, file claims, and be prepared to wait.  It is, after all, a First World problem.

Photo by Pope Moysuh on Unsplash

passeport talent

How to Apply for the Passeport Talent Visa

Americans have had the Profession Liberale and Long-term Stay Visitor statuses closed for application from the US for some time now due to Covid-19.  Other countries do have these options available and Americans who have had legal residence in other countries have successfully applied for and received these statuses from the embassies/consulates in those countries and have subsequently entered France.  One status has remained open to Americans applying from the US: Passeport Talent, a status I had helped clients with in a limited capacity in previous years.  But a colleague of mine has watched many friends get it over the years and is now helping those who are stateside and do not want to wait for PL or Visitor to re-open (and who don’t fancy the student route) to get this visa.  I had her write this brief look at three of the 11 classifications available within Passeport Talent for this article.  I’ve added some editorial notes in italics but if you’d like help with this visa classification you can contact Molli at the link at the bottom of the article. – SH

Here’s how to apply for the Passeport Talent Visa

For non-Europeans looking to come to France to live, your best bet has long been the student visa. Even for those who thought their student days were long behind them, traveling to France for some continued education is by far the easiest way. And, continued education doesn’t mean that you need to sign up to do another undergrad or Master’s degree. You can obtain a student visa if you take French classes or attend a cooking school, among other options.

But then 2020 arrived and our lives changed. Traveling wasn’t as easy as before (if it was even allowed) and moving to a foreign country became a distant memory of something that you may have considered. Even college students had to put their study abroad semesters on hold, and if you did manage to get a student visa for yourself, your spouse or children weren’t necessarily able to apply for their own visas through yours. 

But there’s always another way, if you look hard enough. If you’re feeling frustrated and aren’t sure what to do, I’m glad you found this blog. Here’s how to apply for a different type of visa for France, the Passeport Talent. 

What is it?

Passeport Talent is a fancy French way of saying that if you’ve got talent, come and share your skills in France! It is a multi-year residence permit that was created to bring talented foreigners to France in order to develop the county’s “attractiveness.” As if France wasn’t attractive enough, right? Well, if you’ve got a special skill that you want to bring over to the français, you can, thanks to the passeport talent

Who can apply?

You can apply if you’re planning on working and living in France for more than three months. You’ll remember that people from many non-European countries are allowed to visit and live in Europe without a visa for 90 days. The passeport talent ensures that you’re allowed to stay for much, much longer. This long-term visa (otherwise known as a residence permit) is issued for up to 4 years and is renewable.

In order to apply, you must be from a non-European country. 

How to do it

If you’re still in your home country, you’re required to apply at the nearest French consulate. IF you’re already in France and are interested in changing your visa status, you’ll need to go to the closest prefecture. To start, you’ll have to provide these documents:

  • Your passport
  • Your birth certificate (translated in French by an officially licensed translator)
  • Your wedding certificate, if you are married (translated)
  • Your children’s birth certificate, if you have any (translated)
  • Proof of address
  • Three ID photos
  • Application (different according to your activity)
  • Official documents related to your activity.

It will cost you 269€ to get the final card.

So, who can receive the passeport talent? There are 11 different scenarios in which you could potentially get one, but for the sake of this article, I will briefly examine three of them. I encourage you to visit the official French website for this type of visa if you don’t see an option below that works for you. 

You want to create a business in France, or are taking control of one

(this is ideal if you have some money set aside for yourself and is essentially a more financially muscular Prof Lib – SH)

  • You’ll apply for “passeport talent – création d’entreprise.
  • You must prove that you have a serious plan to open a business in France. 
  • You’re required to invest at least 30,000€ in your project, have a degree that is equivalent to a Master’s degree (or are able to prove that you have five years of professional experience in your field)
  • You are also able to apply for the passeport talent – création d’entreprise if you are slated to take control of a French business.
  • You’ll need to show proof of the plans for your new business as well as proof of your investment, your diploma, that you’ll be earning at least the French minimum wage (roughly 1,500€ gross per month), and you must fill out this application.

You are an artist, a writer, or a performer

(this is perfect if you were already planning to come as a writer on Prof Lib – SH)

  • You’ll apply for “passeport talent – profession artistique et culturelle.
  • If you’re a singer, performer, author, or simply an artist, you must prove that you earn at least 1,064.85€ gross per month.
  • You’ll need to provide documents that prove that you are a professional artist, and if you are employed by a French company, you’ll need proof of that too. That being said, you can apply for this visa even if you are self-employed. You must fill out this application as well.

You are making a direct economic investment in France

(if you had dreams of opening a B&B or some other larger traditional business, this is a good route for you.  Simply buying a property is insufficient in and of itself.  The investment must create/save jobs. – SH)

  • You’ll apply for “passeport talent – investissement économique – toutes activités commerciales.
  • You must prove that you are investing at least 300,000€ in a French company that you own or through a company in which you hold at least a 30% share of the capital.
  • You must also prove that you will create or save jobs and you must have proof of your plans for your investment, and you must also be earning at least the French minimum wage (roughly 1,500€ gross per month). 

These are just three of the possible situations which would allow you to apply for the passport talent. Like all things in the French administration, the application process is long and very involved. I have done significant research on the subject, and I also know quite a few people who have managed to get this visa. If you’re interested, feel free to contact me for private consultations and help along the way. 

Photo courtesy of Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

euros

An Introduction to CAF (Caisses d’Allocations Familiales)

A friend of a friend told me that Shelby would be studying in Paris some time ago and we met and took a walk around Paris and hit it off.  She ended up doing some work for me as well before finishing her studies and heading back to the States.  In my quest to continue to try to fill in some blanks for those coming to France, she’s been kind enough to pen this brief essay on CAF, a benefit available to foreigners.

What is CAF

Caisses d’Allocations Familiales (CAF) is a housing subsidy available for students of French institutions.

How Do You Get It

In order to get CAF, you must be a student living in student housing (e.g. Cite Universite and CROUS), an apartment, a furnished rental, a studio, or a flatshare and have a rental agreement in your name (not a sub-let). For private accommodation, your landlord will need to sign the application, which they might refuse to do given possible tax scrutiny by CAF. During your housing search, make sure the potential landlord will accept CAF. This is especially important if you are looking at a flatshare on Appartager or Le Bon Coin. However, if your apartment is eligible and you have roommates, they can (and should) also apply for CAF. 

Living in Cite Universite or CROUS housing as an international student will make your visa and CAF processes much easier as they are designated specifically for international students and often will help you prepare the forms. Cite Universite even has its own visa and CAF office and can be very helpful if your French isn’t great yet.  

The Application

The website to apply for CAF is entirely in French. Here is a helpful overview of the application process in English for a private apartment. 

In order to apply for CAF you’ll need to have the following documents available: 

  • Photocopy of your passport
  • Photocopy of Birth certificate (and translation- you should have as part of your Student Visa) 
  • French bank account details (RIB) 
  • Document that proves your tenancy (an attestation de herbergement, electric bill, phone bill with your address. A rental agreement will not work)
  • Completed OFII or proof of school enrollment and a copy of your EHIC (European Health Insurance card)

In the application, you will need to have to declare your total income for the last two years and it will be helpful to have your home country tax returns.

How Much Do You Usually Get?

You will start receiving CAF the month after your lease begins (e.g. move in on the 1st August, you’re CAF-eligible 1st September). Importantly, you can get CAF retroactively, so if you don’t finish your application until two or three months after you start your lease, you can still get CAF for those months as long as you start your application the first month. 

Generally, students receive around 200 Euro/Month from CAF, but it scales based on your income (less CAF for higher income). You can also complete this simulation to see how much money you might receive. This money goes directly to your bank account which means you don’t necessarily have to use it for rent. It is likely that you will not receive payments right away as the French bureaucracy needs time to process your paperwork, but you will still receive payments for the entirety of the year, sometimes in the form of a lump sum. 

Shelby completed her Masters of Public Health at the École des hautes études en santé publique in Paris. During her time in Paris she lived in the 18eme, 17eme, 19eme, and 2eme and still, like Stephen, sees very little reason to go to the Left Bank, unless it’s for a party (and even then…). She works now as a public health strategy consultant at a boutique firm in New York City, but is looking forward to taking advantage of the new work from “home” policies created by Covid. She currently lives in the Upper West Side of New York City with her orange cat, Mauvo.

Photo by Christian Dubovan on Unsplash

prefecture documents

How to Get a Vie Privée et Familiale (VPF) Visa

I first met Gracie over coffee at the end of 2018.  She had some minor questions about visa issues but seemed supremely in command of what she needed to do.  Turned out my impression was true.  Now it’s her turn to help others in this article about how to get a VPF visa.  

I’ll never forget the interview for my first long-term stay visitor visa. It was December 2017, and even though I’d quit my desk job and was preparing for the move, the visa was the first real step — it would give me the legal approval to embark on my Paris dreams.

The French Embassy in New York City is just off Central Park East on a block of regal brownstones. I biked there from Brooklyn and switched into low heels and a blazer on the sidewalk: if I was over-dressed at least I would match the buildings.

The last question the woman asked during my interview was if I’d return to the U.S. at the end of the year. “If I don’t meet a Frenchman,” flashed through my mind. But I was being quizzed and this was the final question, so I nodded politely and kept my hypothetical romances to myself.

My Frenchman, Frédéric, appeared four months into my first visa, and we were PACSed (PACS stands for pacte civil de solidarité and is judicially one step below marriage in France) a year-and-a-half later. With my third visitor visa expiring in February 2021, applying for a Vie Privée et Familiale (otherwise known as VPF) visa was the next step in my immigration journey.

A Bit of Background

The differences between the two visas are tied to the rights they give you: a VPF visa allows you to work, to receive a Carte Vitale, and to leave the country for one to four years (depending on the length of stay you’re granted). The long-term stay visitor visa allows you to spend a year in the country, and…that’s about it. It’s simple when you think about the names — the VPF visa proves you have a (private or familial) tie with the country while the visitor visa means, well, you’re a visitor.

Since Fred and I are PACSed, please keep in mind I’m writing from that perspective. (This visa is also available to married couples with slightly different requirements, which I’ll include where possible.) Since I knew getting PACSed allowed me to apply for this visa, when I was starting that process in June 2019, I was also taking steps for my future VPF visa application. This means I’d spent nineteen months getting ready.

Preparation : A Year Out

Check the visa requirements

In order to apply for a VPF visa, you must be married or PACSed.  If the former, you need to have proof of your marriage, as well as six months of residence if you didn’t arrive on a long-stay visitor visa.  If you did arrive on a visitor visa, there’s no waiting period.  For those who are PACSed, you have to, as you do with so many things in France, prove the validity of this relationship, and that you’ve lived together for at least a year (though you can begin the process before that 12 months is up). The list of documents the prefecture sends after you book your appointment is more arcane, while the government site simply asks for the following documents:

    1. Your long-stay visa or residence permit
    2. Your passport (with photocopies of the pages relating to civil status, validity dates and entry stamps)
    3. Your birth certificate
    4. Three standard sized photos
    5. Identity card or certificate of French nationality of your spouse/partner
    6. Marriage certificate or PACS agreement of fewer than 3 months (or certificate of PACS fewer than 3 months old if the PACS is older)
    7. Proof of community of life: joint declaration on the honor of the couple attesting to their common life and all documents allowing to establish the community of life (lease, EDF bill, bank statement, etc.) over at least one year

Get your documents in the right names

You’ll need to add both your names to the EDF bill, lease statement, internet bill, as well as possibly open a joint bank account.  Whenever it’s possible, it’s best to have both your and your partner’s names on the document.

Note: This is not as easy as it sounds, and may take at least a month for everything to be in place. Be patient and steadfast in the daunting task of navigating French customer service.

Request birth certificate

You may already have one from a former visa or your PACS. If not, request it now since it needs to have an apostille which adds an additional step, depending on what state you were born in.

Note: If you don’t know about an apostille is, read more about them here. I naively thought they were unimportant only to have my birth certificate rejected when submitting the paperwork for my PACS.

Four Months Out

Make the appointment

Again, this might sound simple, but I spent two weeks in July 2020 calling the prefecture before getting through to a secretary.

(Note: If you’re switching visas, you’re required to make an appointment by phone.)

Wait times were abnormally high due to the back-up caused by confinement of March – May 2020. Regardless, the prefecture may be fully booked for appointments three – four months ahead, and with all things French government related, it’s best to assume the worst-case scenario.

Note: Your spouse/partner must come to the appointment as well, so make sure it works with both your schedules. Once you received your convocation, it’s difficult to change the time.

Review Prefecture List

You’ll receive your appointment confirmation via email, as well as the list of documents. In addition to the standard IDs listed above, here are the ones requested pertaining to my situation, which was “Proof of Personal and Family Ties in France”:

    • For the married: your marriage certificate
    • For those who are PACSed:
      • A copy of the PACS and certificate of non-dissolution of less than 3 months etc.
      • Proof of continuous relations with the members of the family living in France: cohabiting partner or civil partnership.
      • Justification by any means of the duration of continuous residence in France: visa, receipt of application for residence permit, documents from a public administration (prefecture, social service), documents from a private institution (medical certificate, bank statements), personal writings (letters, certificates from relatives).
      • Supporting documents on the applicant’s living conditions (income, salaries, bank statements, etc.).
      • Proof of its integration into French society (certificates from friendly circles, membership of associations, voluntary activity, participation in children’s school activities, etc.).

As you can see, the prefecture list is lengthier and less document-specific than the online list. My takeaways were:

    • The prefecture is still looking for proof of your and your partner’s shared life, as well as your commitment to your life in France.
    • The fact that I already had three year’s worth of visas, and was a member of two societies were in my favor.
    • I’d also need proof of my US income.
    • And, as always, for the French, the more documents, the better.

One Month Out

Request “Certificat de non-dissolution de PACS

This can be done via email (pacs.scec@diplomatie.gouv.fr): read more here. In the response to my request, the bureau said there was no record of our PACS, and I needed to have the mairie send a copy. At the mairie where we were PACSed, they found the certificate which had never actually been sent to Nantes. These bureaucratic mishaps quite common, hence the generous timeline.

Submit Translations

Since I couldn’t legally work in France with my visitor visa, and am self-employed in the US, I had a recent freelance agreement and my book royalty contract translated from English. Whenever possible, the original documents must be submitted to the translator and stamped along with the translation. The Minister of Justice has a list of certified translators, and you’re expected to use one of them.

Note: If you’re getting a birth certificate, this must be translated as well.

Week Out

Print and organize all documents

I’m not exaggerating when I say this took hours, and I’m grateful I gave myself time to do it. In the end, I had four different folders sorted into:

  • personal ID documents
  • shared documents
  • personal financial documents
  • bonus documents.

Note: This level of organization calmed my visa anxiety, and might not be necessary if you’re less intimidated by the process.

Make sure you have photocopies

Whenever you know you’ll be keeping the original document (i.e. your passport), you’ll need to make a photocopy to give to the prefecture.

Note: Be sure to make copies of the front and back of any ID cards or other two-sided documents.

Appointment Day

Arrive at least a half hour early

This will give you time to go through security, find your appointment room, and wait. As always, I dress my best when the most is at stake, and wore a blazer and a button-up blouse to soothe my bureaucratic anxieties.

Bring those documents; this was my final list:

    1. Convocation with my appointment time
    2. List of documents
    3. Request for the Titre de Séjour (you’re usually given this form at the prefecture)
    4. My passport (which also contains my first visa, along with photocopies)
    5. Three standard-sized photos
    6. My current carte de séjour (plus photocopies)
    7. Photocopies of all my visas and récépissés
    8. My birth certificate (with apostille and translation, plus photocopy)
    9. Fred’s French passport (plus photocopy)
    10. PACS récépissé
    11. Attestation de non-dissolution de PACS
    12. Joint bank statements
    13. EDF Bills
    14. Personal French bank statements (with our shared address)
    15. US bank statements
    16. Translated US income documents
    17. Attentions from the two French societies where I’m a member
    18. Credit card statements with flights to the US and tires we’d bought for our van
    19. Letter from Fred’s business partners corroborating our relationship
    20. Letter from my former roommate corroborating my and Fred’s relationship and co-habitation

At the Appointment

The man was most interested in the “shared” documents we had proving our life together aka our vie commun. When I mentioned I had additional documents, he wasn’t interested and only asked for 12 items of the 20 I had with me:

    1. Request for the Titre de Séjour (you’re usually given this form at the prefecture)
    2. My passport (which also contains my first two visas, plus photocopies)
    3. Three standard sized photos
    4. My current carte de séjour (plus photocopies)
    5. Photocopies of all my visas and récépissés
    6. My birth certificate (with apostille and translation, plus photocopy)
    7. Fred’s French passport (plus photocopy)
    8. PACS récépissé
    9. Attestation de non-dissolution de PACS
    10. Joint bank statements
    11. EDF bills
    12. Personal French bank statements (for both partners)

Since neither of the document lists mentioned #12, Fred didn’t bring anything besides his passport and a copy of his deed. But the man asked Fred for twelve months of bank statements: our joint bank account was less than twelve months old, and he wasn’t interested in the deed.

When we didn’t have them, the man said we could bring them back that afternoon, and wrote a note on my original convocation which let me re-enter the prefecture. After I came back with the statements and bypassed the line, he printed the récépissé for my new one-year VPF visa.

During the appointment, he’d also asked if I had a degree in French. Although I speak the language fluently, I’ve only studied it in America. When I went back, I asked him about this and he said if I had a degree or had taken the DELF (which Stephen has written about) I’d be eligible for a longer term visa.

For all its horror stories, I’ve never had an unreasonably negative experience at the prefecture. That said, I’m also aggressively prepared and speak unfailingly courteous French. Though I wish I hadn’t wasted paper in printing those extra documents, I’d rather be over than under-prepared.

Government Stamped Dreams

Back in 2017, when I floated out of the French Embassy, New York City sparkled around me. I biked to Central Park, found a bench in the sun, and basked in the feeling of being closer to my goal. Leaving the prefecture this past October, I was no less ecstatic. Even if they involve months of planning and paperwork, for me, each visa is a new lease on life, a government stamped document promising I can keep pursuing my dreams.

Gracie Bialecki is a writer and literary coach who lives in Paris, France. She is the co-founder of the storytelling series Thirst, a poetry editor at Paris Lit Up, and the author of the novel Purple Gold (ANTIBOOKCLUB).

Photo used with permission of the author.

electricity in France

A French Telemarketing Experience

During my time in France I’ve gotten a few telemarketing calls.  Once, my internet company SFR called offering a slightly better version of the home internet plan I already had.  The call lasted maybe 15 minutes in total and I saved a few euros per month with no real additional work on my part.

Earlier this year, fresh off a score of 94/100 on a DELF exam, I confidently decided to say, “Okay,” when a friendly voice asked in French if I was willing to explore saving some money on my electricity bill.

I’ve written an article before explaining that in France electricity is deregulated and as such there are lots of different providers for electricity and gas.  I didn’t really hunt for the cheapest providers when I moved into my current apartment because I had a lot of other things to attend to.  But now that I had had EDF as my electricity provider since 2018 and knew exactly what I paid each month, I felt in control of the technical aspect of the conversation in addition to feeling there was no way he was going to ask me anything in French I would not understand.

My interlocutor was calm, with the perfect soothing voice all of us want to hear from someone trying to sell us something.  I happen to have smart meters for both electricity and gas so he asked me to read the meter numbers to him, which I did.

In France it’s typical to read sequences of numbers in twos, so you would read the number 273629 as vingt-sept, trente-six, vingt-neuf (I’ve always been grateful that my telephone number has no combinations over 60, as I would have struggled in my earliest days here with the funny way of counting the French use between 70 and 99).  Americans in general just tend to read the numbers in sequence, which the French will still understand, but such an action will immediately spotlight you as a foreigner.

I heard a keyboard pattering away along with the hum of his colleagues.  He gently asked for my patience while he looked some things up.  No doubt, due to deregulation, all of the providers have access to common information.  “How much do you pay now?” he asked.  I told him around 100 euros a month for gas and electricity together.  He asked a bit more about my usage of gas vs. electricity and about the square meterage of the apartment.  A few minutes later he came back with a quote for 25 euros less a month, with that rate guaranteed for at least two years.  300 euros saved in about 30 minutes?  Sure!

The rest was fairly simple.  He sent a set of disclosures as well as a contract for me to sign by email.  He waited on the line while I checked my email and digitally signed off on the documents.  He cheerfully told me everything was taken care of and that they would disconnect with EDF for me.  I wouldn’t have to do anything on that end (this is a key feature for the French: their attitude towards bureaucracy is to stay with bad service because it’s “too hard” to change)  In the meantime, if I wanted to sign on to my account on Engie (my new provider) I could set up autopay and paperless billing, etc.

I don’t think I’ve ever hung up happier from a telephone solicitation call.  Of course I had saved some money, but I had managed to conduct the entire call in French and managed to be understood and to understand, even using some technical language that I had picked up over the years.  And, some weeks later, all happened as promised: my old electricity provider, EDF, was kicked to the curb, and I made my first new payment to Engie via the autopay I had set up right after the original call.

In general in France you have to “opt in” in order to get calls like this, but despite the fact that I studiously avoid opting-in whenever I give my personal information, I still get at least 5-6 calls a year.  Most of the time they will be pretty friendly if you tell them you are not interested.  The worst will be if you tell them you will hear them out, but just at another time.  Then they will just call you forever.  That’s just another reminder that in France, as in life, a firm “no” can save you a lot of time and trouble. 🙂

sale on courses

20% off Courses until the End of 2020

If you’ve been considering buying my courses on the Long Stay Visitor or Profession Liberale paths to living and building a life in France, I’ve created coupon codes that are good until December 31st, 2020.  Simply click one of the links in the previous sentence or use EOYSAVINGS20 when checking out.  These courses distill everything you need to know to successfully apply for those visas.

Tastefully understated photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

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