How to Get a Long Term Stay Visitor Visa (VFS and Covid-19 edition)

Those in our Facebook group know that for some time I have been seeking an updated version of my 2013 article on how I got my original visitor visa.  While that article was one of the cornerstones of this site and while certain principles of it still apply, since the advent of VFS taking over not just France’s, but other countries’ visa processes, and with Covid-19 limiting in-person meetings, I wanted an updated article from one of my visa clients who went through the process very recently, knowing that this would become an article that would be referenced for years to come.  Luke Middleton was kind enough to do just that for me and I enclose his very detailed story below.  For my video course that breaks down some of these steps in even more detail, click here.  If you’d like to read more of his writing you can do so here.

I also note that Luke got his visa while explicitly stating that he would be working his US job remotely, which once again undermines the misinformation peddled by Allison Lounes, that you cannot have a remote job on a visitor visa.  I stated as much when I applied (and renewed) such a visa almost a decade ago, long before remote work was something everyone knew about, and Luke has just done the same last month.  Alas, that means you don’t have to accept her narrative and drop $2000-$4000 using her services to get a Prof Lib visa, but I don’t suspect you’ll be upset about that.  -SH

How to Apply for a Long Stay Visitor Visa

After a long period of disruption due to Covid-19 the French authorities in the United States resumed processing all categories of visa applications in June 2021, including the visiteur category that Stephen has discussed so many times on this blog. 

The application process has changed from the one he encountered in 2013. Probably the biggest difference is that the French have now partnered with a third-party service provider which handles a portion of the application. While this arrangement may have streamlined things on the backend, some initial amount of confusion may result from having to interact with two completely different websites that have no evident connection to each other. And neither of these websites happens to be the website for a French consulate, which is where you might have started your Google search. In fact there are nine consulates (and one embassy) in the US and each has its own page, presenting information in a slightly different way. All the information you need is ultimately out there but it certainly wasn’t as plainly presented as any might like. 

Let’s start with the two websites I mentioned earlier: 

The first is france-visas.gouv.fr (I will call it France-Visas going forward). This is where you will fill out and submit your visa application form. 

The second is VFS Global. (I will simply call it VFS after this).  This is the third party provider with whom you will make an appointment to hand in your application form, passport, and other documents. Note that VFS handles visa applications to and from a wide variety of countries, not just for Americans going to France. So when you are on their website, make sure you are looking at the correct information. 

Here is the recommended order of steps as described by France-Visas: 

  1. Create an account at France-Visas.
  2. Fill out the online visa application form. Until you have “submitted” this form it can be saved and you are free to go back and edit it (well, you can edit some of it). You can even download a PDF version which will have a large “DRAFT” watermark on it. Once it has been submitted the DRAFT watermark will be removed and importantly at this point you are unable to edit, delete or recall the form. You are supposed to submit the form before proceeding to the next step, but I recommend you wait and will explain why shortly. 
  3. Next we need to go to the VFS website and book an appointment at one of the 9 VFS visa application centers. Here again they will ask in ALL CAPS if you have already submitted your form on France-Visas. I recommend you proceed with scheduling the appointment and only afterwards go back and submit your application at France-Visas.  
  4. Attend your VFS appointment where you will hand in your application form, various supporting documents as well as your passport, and have your biometrics taken. 
  5. After your appointment VFS will mail your documents and passport to the consulate in Washington DC (the only time the French authorities gets involved). At this point your application is either approved or denied and your passport is mailed back to you. 

That is the recommended order and the one I followed but here is a potential problem: when you fill out the visa application form on the France-Visas website, you must specify which VFS application center you will be going to. I live in Kansas so I chose the center in Chicago since various internet searches told me that Chicago is the “consulate for my region” (in fact that is true, but it doesn’t matter as we will see).  Having completed the form on France-Visas I submitted it and only then went over to VFS to book my appointment. That is when I discovered to my dismay that the Chicago office had no openings available for as far forward as it would let me look. But once the application form on France-Visas has been submitted it can no longer be edited, and I had already told them I was going to Chicago! Also I wasn’t sure if I was even allowed to go to a different office. 

In the olden days, including when Stephen applied, you had to book an appointment at the French consulate for your region – you couldn’t just choose any one you felt like. But today we are not booking an appointment at the consulate, we are booking an appointment at a VFS Global Visa Application Center. These application centers just so happen to be located in the same cities as the French consulates (with the exception of New Orleans), but they are not the same thing! For example in Chicago the VFS center is about seven blocks away from the French consulate. 

With this change it no longer matters what VFS center you go to, you are free to choose whichever one you prefer. There are nine located in the following cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C.

Since you have to tell France-Visas which VFS center you are visiting, and you won’t know which ones have availability until you book an appointment, I recommend the following:

  1. Go ahead and fill out the application form on France-Visas so you are sure you are able to answer all the questions, but don’t submit it yet – just “save” it instead.
  2. Now go to the VFS site and book an appointment. 
  3. Then return to France-Visas and “submit” your form. If you had to select a different location, you will actually need to fill out a new form on France-Visas since it will not permit you to edit the location field. At least you will already know the answers to all the questions, and after you submit the correct form you can delete your earlier draft. 

This is not the recommended order but you will avoid what happened to me: since I couldn’t change my submitted application for Chicago, VFS instructed me to create and submit a second application. I managed to reserve an appointment in Houston and prayed I hadn’t hopelessly confused their computer system (it all worked out in the end). 

I am told that VFS posts new appointment availabilities to their website once a week, and they don’t open appointments more than a couple months in advance. So if you really must go to a specific city you can also just keep checking back each week. 

Now let’s look at each step in more detail. 

Step 1: Begin the France-Visas Application Form

Create an account at France-Visas and start a new application. Most of the form is self-explanatory but I will highlight some important items here: 

  • Place of submission of application – for many TAIP readers, this is going to be United States of America
  • City of submission of application – this is where you select one of the nine VFS cities, make sure you can get an appointment there first! 
  • Visa type requested: we are applying for Long-stay (1 Year+)
  • Your plans: this is actually where the visa type is specified. We want to select Visitor
  • Main purpose of stay: there are two options, Visitor (adult) or Visitor (minor). Most of us are presumably going to be adults, unless you are bringing your children with you in which case you will be creating a group application that includes forms for each person. 
  • Planned date of arrival in French territory: remember that you can not submit your application more than 3 months prior to your planned arrival date.  You don’t have to arrive in France on the day your visa begins, you simply can’t arrive before that day.

Further into the application you will be asked to give your Host person or organization. Since we are visiteurs, I selected the option to provide the Name of hotel or place of accommodation. And since my place of accommodation is an apartment I just typed in Appartement for the name, and then provided the address. If you don’t have a residence lined up yet enter the name of the hotel or other lodging you plan to stay at. 

Another section is titled Funding of travel costs. Once again we see various options that make more sense for visa types other than the one we are applying for, here are the ones most relevant for our purposes: 

  • Credit card
  • Cash
  • Other

I checked Credit Card, Cash, and for Other I put USA Employment Income since I am keeping my US job while living in France. There is also an option to give them the name of a French guarantor, which I suspect most of us will not have. 

Note: in several places you will need to provide a US address (for your current residence; where you were born; the address of your American employer if you have one, etc). Of course this form having been designed by the French you will only be given a City field, but not a State field. Type both the city and state in the City field. 

Another note: pay attention as well to date fields and remember that the French put the day first and then the month. I found that the VFS website also used this French convention. 

Ok, we’ve made it through the application form, but as discussed above let’s just “save” it and hold off on “submitting to the visa center” until we complete the next step. 

Step 2: Book an Appointment at a VFS Global Center

Next, create an account at VFS Global and schedule an appointment. Hopefully you created the account from the correct section of the site in which case you will be relieved to see that it knows you are an American applying for France, and not something else. During this process you will select which VFS city you want to go to. It will also ask you for your Appointment Category which in our case will be Long Stay Visitor

In general I found the VFS website to be unrefined and buggy. When it asked for my US location it forced me to select a city from a predetermined list which strangely did not include my actual city, the largest in the state. The list did however include several obscure towns out in the boonies that no one has ever been to (I just selected one at random, it doesn’t seem to have mattered in the end). Multiple times the site croaked, showed errors, or just directed me to blank pages (maybe this was to prepare me for French life?), and I had to fortify myself with whiskey before I could log back in. But persevere and eventually you should be able to make an appointment. 

Note: at the conclusion of this process VFS will provide you an appointment receipt or “appointment letter” which will also be emailed to you. This letter will indicate the time and date of your appointment as well as the address of the VFS office. You need to print this letter and bring it with you to your appointment.

Step 3: Go Back and Submit Your France-Visas Application

Now that you know where you are going for your appointment, return to France-Visas and “submit” your application form for real. If you have to change your appointment city from what you originally specified, you will need to create an entirely new form. Save a PDF copy of your first draft so you have your prior answers, delete that application, use the draft to help you fill in the new one, and when done, submit it. 

Download the PDF of the final, submitted form and print it out (it should have no “DRAFT” watermark). This PDF will include three things – the completed application form, an application receipt, and a list of required documents to bring to the VFS appointment.

Note: depending on how you answered certain questions when filling out the application, there may be additional required documents not listed on the receipt, but which will be described nonchalantly in a wall of text on the confirmation page after you submit the application. So read that page well, because once you leave that screen you will never see it again.

If you, like me, answered “yes” to the question “Have you previously resided for more than three months in a row in France?” bring a copy of that previous visa.

Step 4: Show Up to Your VFS Appointment

Now you need to present yourself to the VFS office at the appointed hour, bringing with you all the supporting documents required. Don’t worry, this meeting will be in English and your documents can be in English as well.  As Stephen often reminds us, the visa interview is in the language of the country you are applying from.  They don’t assume you already speak French.

As already mentioned the required documents is listed in the same PDF as your France-Visas application form, but let’s go through them one by one: 

VFS Appointment Letter
This is not actually on the list, but I am repeating it here because you need to bring it.

Signed and dated application form
This is your France-Visas application. In my case the VFS person I dealt with already had a copy of this form on her computer and she preferred to use it instead of mine. All the same, bring your own copy since that’s what they tell you to do.

Receipt France-Visas
This is included in the same PDF file as your France-Visas application form, so you should already have printed it out. 

A travel document
The exact wording follows: “issued less than 10 years ago, containing at least two blank pages, with a period of validity at least 3 months longer than the date on which you intend to leave the Schengen Area or, in the case of a long stay, at least three months longer than the expiry date of the visa requested. Be sure to transmit (scan) ALL PAGES of your travel document containing visas, entry and exit stamps or any other inscription.” is included in the same PDF file as your France-Visas application form, so you should already have printed it out.” 

Clearly you need to bring your physical passport, which you will hand over to VFS and which will be returned to you later by mail. The language about transmit and scan I believe refers to the option to submit some documents electronically.

Although it is not explicitly stated, I remembered that Stephen was asked to bring a photocopy of his passport in addition to the original. Just to be safe I did the same thing (making copies of the title pages as well as all other pages with entries). The VFS lady took my copies without seeming to think that was unusual, so I would recommend you do the same. 

ID photograph
They are referring here to a passport photo. In my area of the country the usual place to get these are pharmacies. Your mileage may vary, but I went to two Walgreens stores and got terrible pictures both times (low resolution), but the ones from CVS were sharp and clear. White backgrounds are common so do not wear a white shirt or they may decline to take your picture as your head will appear to be floating in space.

As it turns out VFS will also be taking your photo as part of the biometric collection (in addition to your fingerprints). The photo that ended up on my visa is the one VFS took, not the one I provided. However it is listed as a requirement and they did ask me to hand it over, so whether they want to use it or not, bring one (I brought two but they only asked for one).

Letter from the employer or proof of business ownership / business license (if self employed). If retired, pension certificate.
I am employed by an American company and I got my boss to sign a letter that made the following points:

  • so and so is indeed an employee at our company
  • we are aware that he is seeking French residency
  • he has our approval to do so
  • his relocation to France will not cause any change to his employment status since he is free to work remotely
  • his salary is $X which at the current exchange rate equals Y€ per month.

I had my boss sign multiple copies of these letters in case I need them for something else later, and gave VFS an original. I am less able to speak about the other cases, though presumably the student category should not apply to those of us applying for a visitor visa. What ramifications self employment might have for the next item probably depends on what you do; if you need advice I would suggest posting your questions on the TAIP Facebook group.

Promise not to exercise any professional activity in France
I provided a signed letter declaring on my honor (as the French like to do) that I would “not exercise any paid professional activity in France.”  The fact that this follows directly after “letter from employer” means that the French do not consider your remote work “paid professional activity” for purposes of this visa.

Travel health insurance certificate
The text continues: “issued by the insurance company (covering any possible costs for medical repatriation, and emergency and/or hospital treatment, for a minimum amount of €30,000, valid in France for the whole stay. A copy of your American health insurance card is not an acceptable proof of adequate coverage).”

For this requirement I chose to purchase an International Health Insurance plan from Cigna Global as Stephen did so many years ago.  This is a process in itself, but I will try to restrict my comments to the basics. They offer three levels of coverage which they call Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Even the lowest Silver level offers 800,000€ coverage for inpatient and emergency care, which is 30X above the French requirement. Gold and Platinum have increasingly higher coverage levels and also include maternity care. In addition to selecting the three coverage levels you also specify your desired deductible ($0-$10,000), percentage of cost share (0%-30%), and out-of-pocket maximums ($0-$5,000). Higher levels of these selections will reduce the price of your premium but will of course increase the sticker shock if you ever actually ever use the insurance. You can also choose to pay monthly, quarterly, or annually, with the latter two options offering a slight discount. Even without the discount it makes sense to buy a one year policy since you need to show coverage for the full period of your visa.

After these selections you will be presented with various optional add-ons such as outpatient coverage, vision and dental, etc. but don’t glaze over this section because you will absolutely need to purchase the “International Evacuation & Crisis Assistance Plus” add-on to meet the French requirement for medical repatriation coverage.

While the cost may vary based on your age, gender, and other factors, as a point of reference I chose the absolute cheapest Silver plan, maxed-out deductible, cost sharing and out-of-pocket levels, with no other add-on except the international evacuation feature, and earned the discount for paying for an entire year up front. My total came to $900. 

Several minor frustrations are encountered during this process. At the beginning of the insurance application they ask what country you will be living in, which is obviously France. Later you have to provide your mailing address and at this point the form will only accept a French address. Even if you know this address in advance (and some won’t), by definition we are not living in France yet and we may not want mail going there. However they do provide the option to receive communication electronically which solves the mail problem. If you don’t yet know your future French address you can just put down the address of your hotel.

A second frustration is that Cigna will not allow you to schedule your coverage start date more than 45 days into the future, but it is entirely possible you will need to buy it more than 45 days prior to your departure. This means your one-year policy period may not overlap exactly with your one-year visa; in my case it was off by about one month.  But ultimately that’s no big deal.  You may, like Stephen, end up ditching Cigna immediately and buying a much cheaper private French policy.

Finally after having forked over your money and waited several days for your Cigna account to populate, you will be able to download a one page certificate of insurance. What concerned me is that this certificate does not explicitly describe the coverage levels: it showed that I had purchased the “Cigna Global Silver” plan, but who knows what “Silver” represents? I wrote several emails to Cigna asking if they could give me a more detailed cover letter, and never got a response. Afraid this would be a problem I printed off the entire 40 page Cigna Customer Guide and brought it to the appointment. I discussed the issue with the VFS representative and she thought the basic cover letter “should probably be enough.” My visa was approved so apparently it was. 

Proof of accommodation in France
The text continues: “property title deed, tenancy agreement or any other supporting document. Or proof that accommodation will be provided by a person residing in France, or if not, a document explaining the accommodation arrangements planned for France.

By various undeserved miracles I was fortunate enough to have an apartment lined up in advance and was therefore quite pleased with myself to be able to hand over a copy of my French contrat de location (rental contract). But my self-congratulation immediately ended with the next question: “Do you have a copy of your landlord’s identification?”

Uhm no, I did not. To my relief the lady once again said, “That’s ok, I think the contract will be sufficient.” And it was, but if this applies to you and you are able to obtain a copy of your landlord’s ID and electricity bill, it definitely won’t hurt.

If you don’t yet have housing arrangements made you will want to write a small letter explaining your plans to do so. 

Proof of enough resources to cover all expenses during trip
The requirement says bank statements and that is what I was asked for, so bring them whether they prove anything or not. Thankfully having now met the literal requirement I was permitted to provide other documentation as well; I gave them pay stubs from my employer and my savings account statement.  If you’re a pensioner that statement will come in handy.

If, like me, you decide you need to move funds around to present the best possible financial picture, make sure to plan ahead for the time it will take to make those transfers as well as for the statement to be produced from whatever account you move them to, since all of that will need to be done prior to your appointment.
After requesting each of these items in turn, my interviewer finished by asking “Do you have anything else you want to give me?” I did not. You don’t have to volunteer anything that is not requested, but by all means if there is something you think will help your case then provide it.  As Stephen often notes, have more documentation than you are asked for with you, but don’t hand it over unless they ask for it.  More does not necessarily equal better.

All that remains at this point is to pay for three things which will be combined into a single charge to your credit card (cash and checks not accepted): the visa application fee, a service fee to VFS, and the cost of overnight FedEx service to return your passport. Unlike in Stephen’s day you do not need to bring a pre-paid envelope with you, you will purchase it at the appointment. For me the total cost came to roughly $200 but no doubt this will fluctuate. 

Step 5: Wait for Your Passport to be Returned

At this point VFS will forward you application, passport, and documents to the French embassy in Washington DC where your case will be approved or denied. The VFS agent informed me at the time that they were currently very busy processing student visas (my appointment was in August) and she could neither guarantee nor estimate how long it would take to receive a response. She did say the consulate typically strives for a turnaround of two weeks. 

She also said that if the French authorities needed any more information they would contact me directly and if I didn’t want my application to end up in a forgotten pile somewhere I should respond as quickly as possible. 

In the end the French never asked for anything else and my approved visa was in my hands a mere seven days later. 

The visa appears as a large sticker on one of the pages of your passport. It will have a start date which in my case was two weeks earlier than the planned departure date I put down on my application.

Included in the envelope with my passport/visa were two miniscule slips of paper: 

  • The first informed me that upon arrival in France I would need to go online and register and validate my visa. This will be the subject of a future blog post. 
  • The second referred to current Covid travel regulations. Since these seem to change from week to week there is no point discussing them here, just check before you go and hope for the best. 

Whew! If you’ve made it this far and your visa was approved, congratulations – you’re going to France!

Final Thoughts

Start preparing early and try to think ahead as much as you can. Since you can’t submit the application more than three months prior to departure, and the recommendation is to schedule your VFS appointment at least 1 month prior to leaving, it can start to feel like a lot of activity is getting crammed into a very short period of time. Needless to say, these last few months are already going to be hectic with moving preparations. But there is nothing stopping you from starting to gather documents prior to the application process, and you will thank yourself for any groundwork you were able to do in advance. Bonne chance!

The process may be different now but the sticker in your passport will still look substantially similar to the featured photo above.

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

walking in paris

Meet Your Paris Greeters

Every now and then my readers tell me about something interesting that I feel needs to be better known and I’ll often ask them to write about it themselves.  Craig Ziegler was actually kind enough to follow through.  Enjoy!

Before my last visit to Paris I learned of the Global Greeters Network, an association of organizations around the world whose mission is to introduce visitors to volunteers who will take them on guided walks, at no charge, through their areas and give them a first-hand look at the places they call home. I was surprised to see how many cities had a Greeters organization and pleased to see that Paris had Paris Greeters.
Paris Greeters works like this: once you register with the website, you can request a walk (they don’t call them tours) with a volunteer. After taking into account your interests, language preference, mobility, the date of your availability, etc., a coordinator will assign you to a volunteer who will take you on a walk through his/her neighborhood in Paris. You don’t get to choose your walk; they choose it for you!
I signed up and received an offer of a guided walk through the Bastille quartier with Francoise. Even though I had walked through this area many times over my 15 years of visiting Paris, I accepted the assignment just for the experience. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
I met Francoise at the Ledru-Rollin Metro stop at 10h00 on a Thursday. She was a wonderful walking companion and her English was excellent. Over the next 2 1/2 hours of strolling through the eastern Bastille area, she showed me beautiful courtyards that I had never seen, as well as artisan areas that dated back to the Revolution.  She was so knowledgeable about her neighborhood and she had access to all the private properties. We walked past a historic dance hall on rue de Lappe, the Balajo, that was closed that morning, but she unexpectedly talked the custodian into letting us go inside for a look around at this wonderful slice of Parisian life.
We ended our walk at the Marché d’Aligre, an historic, multi-cultural, covered market in the 12th arrondissement with an extensive flea market outside. She ended the walk there by telling me how proud she was that so many cultures lived together in Paris in peace. She believed that the market area demonstrated this better than her words could explain it.  Paris Greeters do not charge for these walks with visitors, but a visitor can make a contribution to the organization if one would like. I donated €20 and received an email receipt from the organization shortly afterward.

My walk with Francoise was a wonderful experience and I will surely arrange another such walk in some quartier of Paris when I return this year.

Postscript: This walk occurred eight days before the attacks of November 13. I wanted to contact Francoise after the attacks to get her perspective; the Bataclan is only 2.5 kilometers from her Marché d’Aligre. I didn’t have the heart to call, but I know she was devastated.
Photo by Jeff Frenette on Unsplash