Yes, you should get a French bank account

A friend recently wrote an account of her experience getting a bank account in France and it reminded me to do an update of my various thoughts on this topic beyond my first time getting a personal account, a business account, and the legislation which is the reason for difficulties Americans face on this front: FATCA.  The most important reason to get a French account is that it’s the only way you may hit a snag on your renewal.  Not having a French account signals a lack of integration into society.  You may be able to squeak by with something else, which readers have received inconsistent results with, so the advice I give is to do what definitely works, not “let’s try this.”  Hope is not a strategy, and certainly a poor idea when it comes to renewing visas in France.

While major French banks are understandably reluctant to give a US citizen a bank account because of the high cost of compliance with FATCA, if you hold a residence card (whether a sticker in your passport or the hard card in your wallet), you can, respectfully and calmly, demand a bank account as a right.  Yes, there are low-cost online banks that have no branches, like Boursorama, that will eject you from the application process the minute they find out you are a US citizen (trust me, I tried).

My recommendations, based on personal experience, are BNP Paribas and Societe Generale, in that order.  They both have excellent online banking in the form of web access and brilliant native apps for your smart phones.  My counselors have always been available when I’ve needed help and my cards consistently work in countries all over the world, often offering an extra layer of security by needing me to verify purchases over a certain amount via entering my password on the app on my phone.

What I’ve been told secondhand by readers is that both LCL and HSBC are also willing to grant accounts to US citizens, and feel free to pitch your bank of choice in the comments below.

When you stop in at a bank you’ll almost always be making an appointment for a future date, as the bankers are often booked some time in advance.  If you don’t feel comfortable speaking the entire time in French, make sure to ask for someone who does speak English, and many of the staff do.  They will often provide you with a list of what to bring, which will include, but not be limited to:

  • Passport
  • Carte de Sejour (1st year visa holders – this is the sticker in your passport, everyone else – it’s the hard card)
  • EDF or ADH and/or lease
  • Proof of income
  • Most Recent Tax Filings – both US and French

and expect to pay around 15-20€ a month for even a basic checking account.  It’s part of the deal.

They also won’t let you pick your PIN, but I’ve found this to be a smart policy, because it doesn’t allow a thief who correctly guesses one pin access to all your cards, which Americas tend to use the same PIN for.

An intermediate step in the right direction, if you want to be able to easily transfer in Euros, pay your rent, etc., is a free Borderless Account from Transferwise that allows you to hold multiple currencies with no monthly rate and even includes a free contactless debit card.  But it is not clear to me that statements from a Borderless Account will pass muster with French immigration and no reader has yet let me know that such a strategy works.  The euro-denominated account in the Borderless Account is based in Germany.  I absolutely love Transferwise and use it for other transactions outside of my personal and business ones, which I use my French accounts for.

No, I don’t have a French Driver’s License (and probably never shall)

I hadn’t written about this before, but a number of people have emailed me about it more recently and I also just finished a book called French License by Joe Start which chronicles just how challenging it can be to get one of these.

So, why haven’t I written about it?

I’m writing this article while visiting Singapore, the city-state I was born into and where my mother’s entire side of the family lives.  It has a world-class public transportation system and I was taking the metro (known here as the MRT) by myself as early as 6 years old.

I love living in a city where not only do I not need a car, but even the costs of owning a car are a deterrent to ownership.  Apart from purchasing, there’s a flurry of licensing fees and taxes that go along with standard car costs, not to mention parking fees and gasoline that costs at least double what it does in America.  Did I mention the ticket-happy Parisian meter maids?

In the five years I’ve lived in France I’ve driven precisely 28 days, on vacations in Bordeaux, Provence, and the Basque country, as well as a work trip in Brittany.  These are all places you cannot truly get around without a personal vehicle.  Each time I drove I rented a vehicle using my American license.  In fact, the one time I got pulled over in France (I stupidly overtook a cop in a small town – it didn’t look like a cop car) I decided to pull the “dumb foreigner” act and spoke English, handing over a US license, all while looking suitably scared, penitent, and compliant.  They had no wish to do paperwork as they thought I would probably never pay the fine anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism to chase down foreigners (as they imagined I was).  I promised to pay more attention to the signs and slowly drove off with a smile and a wave.  Driving a vehicle without a French license is letter of the law illegal, as I am a resident of France past my one year grace period, but my insouciant attitude on the matter confirms that indeed, I have adopted the French spirit entirely. 🙂

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but…

So assuming that, like me, you love that hole in your budget where auto expenditures used to go, but are constrained by your circumstances and hence need a car and requisite license of your own, what are your choices?

The easy way

Trade in your US license during your first year in France.  The following states offer a straight swap of your license for a French one: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  If getting a driver’s license in France had been a priority in my first year I would have swapped my Kansas license then and then did what I advise my visa consulting clients to do, report their US license as lost (and it honestly was – lost to the hands of the French government) and get a new one.  Two licenses for the price of two.

The hard way

It’s too depressing to relate, and why bother when the US government has a handy PDF that you can peruse at your leisure?  If you want to get more depressed, read the book I referenced above.  The work I’ve done at the prefecture for French residency seems to pale in comparison to the work for a license, and given that 1/3 of the French nation doesn’t have a license, the written and practical portions, as well as the cost of the schools themselves, drive most people off from the process entirely, and keep in mind that these are native speakers who play games like Mille Bornes from their youth and have insight into just how arcane and impossible the French licensing process can be.

But why be depressed at all?  France’s infrastructure is advanced enough for you not to have to have a private car, and with services like BlaBlaCar more closely connecting us all the time, you won’t need to.  In a driverless future, no one will need driver’s licenses, and that future will come to France, albeit slowly, I’m sure.

Change your address? Not so fast!

It didn’t seem that long ago that I penned an article explaining the few steps necessary to change your address.  So, as a “veteran” of the process, I thought it would be just as simple to do it again.  Not exactly.

The Post Office

As I did the last time I wanted to change my address, I showed up at La Poste with a copy of an EDF from my new address as well as proof of my old address.  The clerk helping me seemed fairly new to the whole process, and after 15 minutes of typing in my information, he asked his supervisor to certify the form, and the supervisor squints at the computer monitor and says in French, “Oh, sir, this is much easier to do at home on your computer.”  “Why would I do that at home, I’m already here,” I responded in French.  Then he did it.  The shrug.  “It’s better,” he said, and walked away.

No need to get upset, I thought.  I just walked home and went to the La Poste website.  I laughed out loud at the tagline it sported: “Simplifier la vie.”  Oh yeah, you’re making it really simple.  I clicked through to get to this page.  I clicked the 6-month option to find out that I was required to create a La Poste account to do this.  Remember to smile, I thought.  It’s just France being French.  I created the account, filled out the contract for the change, paid, and got a confirmation.  At the bottom of the confirmation, in fine print, it told me that I needed to take this printout, with a copy of my ID, to the post office, to certify the contract.

I looked at the Paddington Bear on my desk with disbelief, asking him to commiserate.  But, remembering where I lived, within a couple days I duly showed up as required and 2 minutes after I got to the front of the line my contract was certified.  But, that was just my personal change of address.

INSEE

You might remember that I did a post on the alphabet soup of agencies that entered my life once I switched over to Profession Liberale.  The most important one is INSEE.  Their database serves as the clearing house for all the other agencies connected to your professional French life.  Your postal change of address is insufficient for INSEE.  You essentially need to do a professional change of address, using this exciting form.  Send that in to INSEE, or if you’re like me and like to outsource things like this, you can simply ask your business accountants to file it for you before or after tax season.  For a fee, of course.

The Banks

I’ll start with the easy one first.  My French business bank is BNP Paribas.  I opened it post-FATCA, but I had been in France for years at that point and I had a working visa, so despite the extra forms I had to fill out as a “US person” the account was opened without question on my first visit.  Additionally, BNP Paribas has amazing tools (disclosure: I’ve done some contract work for them so I really got some insight into how tech-forward they are) and technology and it showed in this simple desire to change my address.

I was able to change my address inside the online banking suite within two minutes.  I was also able to change agencies.  I then ordered a new chequebook with my new address.  This all happened with zero friction and to be honest, a fair amount of (pleasant) surprise on my part.

Not so with Societe Generale, holders of my personal bank account, and one of my very first “paperwork” experiences in France.  They required me to go to my original branch, in the 17th, with proof of my new address (EDF bill) that was from the last 90 days as well as ID, etc.  This only permitted me to change my address.  There’s no way to do it online.  “And, may I change my agency, too?” I asked in French with a smile, thinking, maybe it will be that easy.  “Non, monsieur,” she gravely replied to the lady who had dutifully stamped my address change dossier just moments before.  “You’ll need to go to that branch and request the change yourself.”  I laughed.  She was a bit bemused, but I gave her a smile and a bon journee and out I went.

I live in the 19th now and there’s a Societe Generale very close to my house, and I went there to request an agency change.  “You have to make an appointment,” the nice young man told me.  Of course I have to make an appointment, I thought.  It’s not like you’re my bank and have been for the last four years.  To be fair, this is simply politesse.  The new branch wanted to “get to know me” so they could serve me better, and to do that I’d need to come by, have a coffee, etc.  Fine with me.  I made an appointment and brought everything I thought I would need (and as usual, even stuff I didn’t think I would need) and fifteen minutes into our appointment he was on the phone with someone higher up asking about “US persons.”  I knew he was discussing FATCA stuff, but I was a bit puzzled as SG had been filing my FATCA paperwork for years now.  “I need you to bring your French tax return,” he said.  I handed it to him, from the pile of “stuff they may ask me for.”  “Okay, give me a week or so and I’ll get back to you.”  A week came and went.  No word.  I called and left a message.  No return.

I reached out to a banker I knew at my old branch in the 17th and asked her what the hold up was.  She made a couple calls and found out that the branch manager at the branch I wanted to transfer to didn’t want to accept an American into her branch.  The implication was obvious to me: she would have to do all my paperwork and be responsible for me and she didn’t want that merci beaucoup.  I laughed as the banker who had chased up the intelligence told me about her refusal.  “But you’re the same company,” I switched into English as I didn’t have the French to properly express my confusion.  “I know, I will talk to my branch manager to talk to her.”  That was four weeks ago, and even the friendly banker seems to have forgotten how to reply to my email.

I’ve decided to let it be.  There are only a few functions that require you to visit your branch (I’ve detailed a couple above!), and that branch in the 17th is in a lovely neighborhood, my very first one in Paris, and I can always find other useful things to do if I need to head out there.  But it’s just an example of two banks with differing approaches.  One, stuck in revered (and inefficient) Gallican ways, the other, daring to be a bit more Anglo-Saxon and customer-friendly.  One will receive my undisputed recommendation when friends ask where to open a bank account.  The other?  Well…let’s see if I ever get a call or email back.

As for that pesky French bank account question, I’ve been doing some research to get more updated information to you than I furnished in my previous articles here and here.  As an intermediate free solution with minimal paperwork, you could open a Transferwise Borderless account.  That will get you a euro-denominated IBAN as well as a free debit card so that you can start enjoying the privileges of a French/European bank account right away.  I’ve discussed Transferwise as an easy way to send or transfer money to France (I think it’s by far the cheapest way to send money to France) in the past but that assumes a European/French account to transfer funds to, and I wrote that article before Transferwise created their multi-denominational Borderless account (you can hold up to 40 different currencies), which is awesome (I have one as a backup in case anything ever happens to my French accounts).  Once my research is complete, I hope to have some updated options and scripts for you to carry into a bank with you to open your own French account.

In the meantime, remember to smile and consider: this is France.  This is how they do things here.  Love it or leave it 🙂

What I love about America

I am now, and always will be, an American.  Yes, I’m pursuing French citizenship, but getting that citizenship won’t make me French any more than it would unmake me as an American.  I know I will always be a strange creature of these two worlds, with vestigial influences of the country of my birth, Singapore.

In my travels as this strange creature, I discuss the land where I spent more than two decades of my life with fellow travelers and these days I often find myself focusing on its positives, rather than negatives. And truly, there are things I feel America has in exceptional quality and quantity.

National Parks

The concept of National Parks is one we take for granted worldwide now, but most don’t know it was something truly popularized by the United States, something historian Ken Burns calls “America’s best idea.”  Its first “public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was established in Yellowstone in 1872.  The early advocates of this idea in America noted that Europe had cathedrals and castles, but America had remarkable natural beauty, still unspoilt in many places, and that those places needed protection and promotion.

President Theodore Roosevelt gave the movement (and the Park Service) a grand push during his two terms in office: 5 new national parks, 18 national monuments, and over 100 million acres of national forest, just to name a few initiatives.  Today there are 392 National Parks, monuments, battlefields, seashores, etc.  This idea hopped across the pond to Europe and before long there were legislative protections in place for what had existed under the law of common sense for centuries.

Can-Do Spirit

“You can be or do anything you want!” is the quote that so many Europeans have given me, in one form or another, when I’ve asked why they immigrated (or at least attempted to immigrate) to America.

To understand the attractiveness of this idea, you have to understand the “good enough” life so available in the most prosperous countries of Europe: single-payer health care, 30 days of vacation, and unbelievable benefits even for entry-level jobs complemented by a comprehensive social safety net should you find yourself unemployed.  Life is truly “good enough” in so many ways.  Yet, what America promises, to those who hear that siren call, is “more.”

Conversely, in America, a country built by immigrants of so many nations, the rags-to-riches story born of “not good enough” is commonplace and highly coveted.  Almost all Americans, at every socioeconomic level, know stories of those who have started with nothing or less than nothing rising to a life of power and privilege.  It is assumed and repeated in America: you can do anything you put your mind to, if you work hard enough.  The Europeans, in possession of elements of the good life for so many centuries, never conceived of “hustle” in its Gary Vaynerchukian incarnation.

This optimism is still alive and well in America, and is radiant enough to be seen and felt oceans away.  It’s a spirit that led me to build the businesses I did that allowed me to finally make it to France.  I believe in the can-do spirit of America and the promise of results awaiting your hard work, because I experienced it myself.  America does not have a monopoly on this spirit, but it does have it in abundance, almost as a natural resource.

Regional Cuisines and Spirits

One of the classroom exercises we had one day in French class was to discuss, in detail, how to prepare cuisines from our country.  My teacher rolled her eyes and good-naturedly prepped the class for “here iz how you make a burger!”  But I surprised everyone, walking them step-by-step through the minimum 3-4 hours necessary to make authentic Louisiana gumbo, with all the ingredients and care such a dish needs.  I love Cajun cuisine (and the accent!) and can think of so many other regional American foods I enjoy: fried chicken in Mississippi, shrimp and grits in the Carolinas, Key Lime pie in Florida, barbecue in Kansas City and Texas, cornbread in Nashville, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, street hot dogs in NYC, lobster rolls in Maine, clam chowder in Boston, and those fish tacos of San Diego, just to name a few.  These are truly munchables of my heart, to say nothing of the pleasures of bourbon, a quintessential American spirit that has its name from the French royal family that gave assistance during the Revolutionary War.

The cliche of “burgers, pizzas, and hot-dogs” is not untrue: there’s a lot of bad food in America.  But if you take even a brief moment to look, especially these days, you’ll find local food made and sourced with love and care, and you’ll find these dishes not just memorable for their flavors but delightful in their simplicity.

The bike explosion happening during the Velib transition

While it’s true that you often don’t know how good something is until it’s gone, you also don’t realize how much better things can be until you get to try alternatives, and during the last 60 days, as Velib stations have been slowly but surely been deactivated and then ripped up for refurbishment, the dockless solutions of Gobee, Ofo, and Obike have cropped up seemingly everywhere.

Before we talk about the new kids on the boulevard, it’s probably best to understand how we got here in the first place, and that is because of the dreadful performance of JCDecaux, who had the Velib contract from the beginning.  It was their complacency that brought us to this exciting (though painful) new start.  For those who don’t know, Velib is Paris’ docked bike-sharing system and was originally pitched not only as a system that wouldn’t cost Parisians a penny, but would make the city money.  I know, don’t laugh too hard at socialists promising to turn a profit on a capital-intense venture.

But the reality wasn’t just that Velib failed to be revenue neutral.  It seems that for at least the last 5 years, Velib’s 24,000 bikes have cost the city of Paris about 15 million euros per year.  Those costs can be broken down into vandalism repair (10%), deployment to far-flung suburbs (75%), and maintenance (15%).  As most French firms sitting on a fat contract do, JCDecaux failed to proactively fix the system and predictably they were replaced at the first opportunity by a Montpellier-based company called Smoove which will offer a lighter bike, with over 1/3 of the inventory of the bikes in Paris being electric, which will surely help with the uphill/downhill problem in places like Montmartre and La Villette (people are happy to ride the bikes downhill, but uphill, not so much).  Unsurprisingly, JCDecaux reacted in a predictable French way when they lost the contract: crying, appeals, and attempted striking.

While this has been going on in the foreground, regular Velib users like myself, reluctant to change from a system we knew well (though didn’t especially love), started to see some of the dockless bikes show up in the city.  Velib is docked – meaning the bikes are parked at specific stations, whereas the dockless ones can be parked, well, anywhere.  Now, while the apps all give you ways to find appropriate places to “park” the bikes not everyone pays attention and at the moment at any given moment you could find a rainbow of bikes around you (Gobee is bright green, Ofo is bright yellow, and Obike is a subdued yellow).  I didn’t switch to trying dockless bikes until it became impossible to reliably use Velib.  The native Velib app and apps like Citymapper that scraped from the information provided by that app were not indicating which stations had been shut for maintenance, so sometimes you would have to hunt for a place to park your bike, with no reliable guide other than trial and error.

That’s what led me to first try Hong Kong-owned Gobee’s system first.  They had flooded the inner city of Paris with bikes and I needed a reliable bike system as I went about Paris on a daily basis and Velib in complete rebuild mode wasn’t going to cut it.  For flat riding in short distances, the bike is certainly adequate.  When you download the app you put in a 20€ deposit and then add money to your account.  With most rides costing around 50 cents, 5€ is plenty to get started with.  The downside?  They clearly didn’t adequately plan for this deployment.  A couple weeks ago I tried to unlock 9 different bikes in the span of 15 minutes and each time I was told that the bike was broken, though the status of the bikes had not been updated in the app, leading to a waste of time for the end user as he/she tries to unlock a bike that is showing in the system as available when it really isn’t.  Such unreliability has meant that I’ve tried to unlock bikes that are not only off the system but have a hanging tag that says “I’m broken” but still managed to unlock and work for me.  The QR scanner technology is also not great and almost always you will have to manually enter your bike number to unlock it.  Will Gobee figure it out?  We’ll see.

Taking a much more cautious approach was venture-backed Ofo out of China.  They had been in talks with the City of Paris to make sure that the deployment of the bikes was something that the city approved of and they sought a collaborative process.  Given the speed of the French government, this meant that they were slower to deploy their bikes (they’ve only got about 1000 out at the moment).  Because they are pretty rare I only rode my first one a few days ago, but I have to say these bikes are dreamy.  Unlike the single speed Gobee bikes, the Ofo bikes have three speeds and simply feel stronger and sturdier.  This does make them a little heavier than the Gobee bikes, but the Ofo bikes are superior to the old Velib bikes, with the new Velib bikes not due to make their appearance until early next year.  As far as their app goes, unlike Gobee, their QR scanner works flawlessly in well-lit conditions and I have yet to run into a situation in which I scan a bike and then the app apologizes, telling me that the bike is actually broken, not available.  They also don’t require a 20€ deposit (for now).

There’s also Singapore-based Obike, but I’ve really only seen those bikes in the Marais, so alas, I don’t have anything to report there.  I do know that their bikes and pricing are the same as Gobees: single-speed and 50 cents per 30 minutes, as opposed to Ofo’s multi-speed bikes costing 50 cents per 20 minutes.

What’s fascinating is that studies show that dockless solutions do not necessarily eat into the revenues of an existing docked solution, but create more user demand for bikes overall.  This makes sense as I very readily joined up to two dockless schemes despite being a Velib user since 2014.  Will I go back to docked once I’ve gone dockless?  The 29€ annual rate for Velib subscription is likely to rise, and given my current rate of use on the dockless schemes, Velib, even with a price increase, is likely to remain the most economical.  What has changed is that Parisians have been freed from the staid shackles of one “okay” choice in bike sharing and have multiple options of varying quality.  Instead of solely relying on Velib, active users like myself are likely to retain accounts with whatever solutions are out there and use them as time and occasion dictate.  Whatever 2018 holds for bike sharing in Paris, it’s going to be orders of magnitude better than what we’ve had until now.

The Airbnb Wars in Paris: for now, a truce

I’ve covered the Airbnb issue here previously, both my perspective as an entrepreneur and what Paris had been becoming more strict about.  On December 1st a “truce” will officially be in force as legislation first passed this summer comes into effect.  While the hotels have cheered this legislation, they are not quite done with their lobbying, as they may push for even more restrictive policies in 2018.

What’s changed

The city has mandated registration for every single property offered on Airbnb in Paris, which at last count, was north of 55,000 rooms (check out this mesmerising real-time map with the funny gap in the 19th/20th where Pere Lachaise is).  This registration, at the moment, is simply declarative, and requires no documentation/authorization from the city.  You go to the dedicated website, create an account and give them your name and contact information, and you’ll then receive a registration number, which needs to be displayed on your airbnb listing (there’s a field for it).  This will make it easier for city officials focused on compliance to find illegal listings (and monitor the registered ones).

The legislation also clarified that no full-time (365 day availability) airbnbs would be permitted without a formal change of classification of the property to “bed and breakfast” by the occupant (with all the paperwork and taxes that comes with).  Given that over 40% of the listings on Airbnb in Paris are “full-time” this should lead to a significant decrease in Airbnb’s inventory in the city:

Attention! Assurez-vous que votre situation vous permet de louer un meublé de tourisme avant de déposer votre déclaration. A Paris, la location de courte durée n’est possible que s’il s’agit de votre résidence principale (louée moins de 120 jours/an) ou s’il s’agit d’un local commercial. En cas d’infraction, vous vous exposez à une amende de 50 000 €.

For those still working on their French, this reminds people that should they wish to rent short-term (on a site like Airbnb or Booking) that they can only do so for 120 calendar days per year and that you can be subject to a fine of 50,000 euros for failing to comply.  Implied is also that your lease allows subletting (some do not) and that you either have written or at least oral permission from the owner to rent on sites like Airbnb.

Airbnb has added internal compliance by preventing hosts in the 1st-4th arrondissements from renting for more than 120 days, but Ian Brossat, who is Mayor Hidalgo’s senior advisor on housing was unimpressed, tweeting that that meant the law could be broken in 16 other arrondissements.

But, does this really change anything?

Assuredly, the city does not have the resources to audit the current 55,000+ listings on Airbnb and other platforms, but they have gotten very serious about this (other European examples include Berlin, which saw a 40% drop in inventory after passing a law aimed specifically at Airbnb, and Barcelona, which fined Airbnb 600,000€ last year over unlicensed properties), with the biggest concession being that Airbnb collects the occupancy tax on informal housing in Paris, and rather than pass that cost to its hosts in its most-used city, it has eaten that cost itself, paying the City of Paris more than 7,000,000€ per year.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been very intentional about her vision for the city, not just in splashy things like courting the Olympics, but in every day things like transport and design choices.  She doesn’t get her way all the time, but this is one of the issues in which she faces no real opposition: Parisians do not want their already difficult housing situation squeezed by too many short term rentals, and this will certainly return many of studios and studettes into the medium and long-term inventory of the city, and some of the larger properties into real options for families who want to live in the city.

There will be some who continue to risk having an unregistered listing or listing for more than 120 days, but with this official registration period (between October 1st and December 1st) and the push from Airbnb itself for hosts to comply, we are likely to see the vast majority of listings in Paris fall into line and the borderline/illegal ones go away.

What can still happen?

The hotels have openly stated that they are targeting a 90-day allowance rather than the 120 days now given, but given the extensive vacation that Parisians take, 120 days covers periods in the Summer and Winter in which residents can be gone and the city willingly grants that there should be allowance given to offset rent and/or make income for residents and permission for visitors to live “as a local” should they choose.  So, while there might be a push for further legislation, at the moment the hotels, like most of Paris, are focused on the holidays, and we are all enjoying our longest respite without a major attack.  That will allow those visiting Paris and using Airbnb to enjoy their stays particularly now, because if and when they return, those rooms may be off the market, literally.

Airbnb, having seen the writing on the wall for some time, is happily diversifying into fields that hotels cannot, recently adding experiences and restaurants (not yet in Paris, but here’s the link for NYC) to their offerings to travelers.  Their vision is to allow people to experience real life in those cities, not just rooms in a building, and there’s no way to restrict travelers from doing precisely that.

Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

A side hustle that becomes part of your business

If you pay attention and spend a bit of time thinking through the economics, you’ll see that there are dozens of ways that people build incomes for themselves in Paris.  I wanted to tell you about two of them.

Cobblers and Keys

In America there are automatic key-cutting machines which can be operated by a 16-year old employee, can be found in both drug stores and hardware stores, and produce keys at a cost between $1-$9 USD.  To be fair, American house keys tend to be small and not particularly complicated.

But, as far as I can tell, machines such as these are illegal/unknown in France (knowing the power of strikes, more likely illegal).  Every place I’ve been to in order to get keys cut has a professional grade key machine, with access to even more.  The “even more” refers to the high-end computer-encoded keys that take a couple weeks that can cost 125 euros to make and require a copy of your ID and lease, or the badges, which run 20-40€ that some people use in order to save having to remember their key codes.  Paris has a very particular key market, with skeleton keys playing a prominent role, and the cheapest you’ll pay for any key reproduction is 6€.

This is all to say that rarely will you find someone who only does keys.  The most common combination you will see is a cobbler who also makes keys.  Because there’s more skill required for cobbling than for key making, I’m assuming these are cobblers who simply added key-making to their repertoire.

I’ve estimated by observing business at several locations, that between these two income streams, someone could easily take in a minimum of 70k€/year at such establishments, and they probably take in much more, given that they have rent and often have at least one employee.  Not to mention our favorite: French social charges.

Tailors and Packages

In France, as in the US, not all dry cleaners do alterations.  You’ll often see signs for “retouches” that indicate someone who does alterations and sometimes tailoring from scratch.  My tailor does a lot of trade in dry cleaning as well, but it’s clear that he has it done by one of the dry cleaners nearby, and then simply adds his markup.  Many dry cleaners don’t do alterations here, so the convenience of dropping something off that needs patching, then having it cleaned for you after, is what you are paying for.

But apart from the dry cleaning side hustle, my tailor also provides what can best be understood as “Amazon locker” services.  For years before Amazon mainstreamed such a concept, people in big cities needed places to drop off and pick up packages: essentially a storage place without shipping services.  For example, if you are moving out of an apartment and need to return your modem/router, you will often be asked to print out a prepaid shipping label.  You slap it on a box and bring it to a location like my tailor’s, which is listed as one of the possible drop-off locations (along with optician shops or sometimes small boutiques).  He gets some marginal extra income for no investment (he’s provided with the scanner and software to accept your package) and he’s happy to pile the boxes around what could generously be called his “reception area.”  He also has a cross-marketing opportunity to snag some customers who may not otherwise have known of his existence, and are happy with his nice demeanor.

Both my tailor and my cobbler make decent livings, make their own hours, and never worry about business.  They always have smiles on their faces.  Yet, they were smart enough to dig their wells before they were thirsty, and created multiple streams of income without being distracted from their core line of work.  You can still hustle here in France.  They just do it with a more leisurely attitude.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

Just trying to help…

I was standing with a number of my fellow passengers that had just disembarked at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres metro station.  There were a number of ticket inspectors in front of me scanning the Navigo passes or simple tickets of the passengers.  Were we on the Metro legally or not?  They were there to find out.

My thoughts on fare cheats in general, and on those in Paris in particular, are for another day and another article.  Suffice to say there are always at least half a dozen people receiving tickets of between 35€ (you have an unused metro ticket in your possession) and 50€ (you have nothing) fines.  If you’re using a friend’s Navigo (we all have our pictures printed on them) you’ll get a 70€ fine.  And those are the “on the spot” payment costs, and yes, they do take credit cards.  It’s more if you pay later, and even more if you pay that fee past a certain date.

So why am I telling you this?  Obviously I had an intact Navigo (I’m on the annual pass plan), right?  Yes, except when my inspector tried to scan it she had a bit of trouble.  “Follow me,” she said in French.  We went to the main ticket window and they verified that my pass was indeed valid and that I had scanned in correctly from the last station.  “I’m going to get you a new card, this chip has worn out – it’ll be at your home metro station, which is?” Her French was fairly fast but by the time she stopped speaking I had put it all together and told her, “Reaumur-Sebastopol.”  “Okay, so I’ll have it there for you this evening.  In the meantime, here’s a day pass good for all 5 zones.”  I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and verified, “Pensez-vous qu’il pret ce soir?”  “Definitely, perhaps even in an hour,” she replied.

True to form, I got a text message telling me that my Navigo was waiting for me at my home metro station about an hour later.  I was flabbergasted by the efficiency of, of all agencies, the RATP.  Some time later I got there and showed them my text message and asked for my Navigo.  It was indeed there, but then commenced a 15 minute ordeal for the woman who tried to activate my card.  She called three different colleagues asking them about “a little checkbox that won’t click” in my profile on her screen and then asked me in French if I was in a hurry.  I nodded.  “Well, if you want to come back before midnight…” “Ici?” I interrupted.  “Non,” “not here, and not me, but my colleague in Les Halles.”  My head swam as I thought about which window to go to in the largest metro station in the world, Les Halles.  “Which exit?” I asked.  “9.”  I thanked her and some hours later I wandered into Les Halles and her colleague had not had a card printed for me but used my text message to create a new pass for me.  I tested it, and it worked, and I went home.

The next morning, I got a text message saying that my card was ready at Reaumur-Sebastopol.  On my way into the office I stopped in and told them that I had already gotten a new card made the night before, and after a bit of checking, he marked that I had picked up a card and tossed the extra card made for me in the trash.

All this is to say kudos to the RATP, who are proactively trying to fix a problem: updating people’s defective Navigos at an inspection point, and even making it easy, using a day pass and text messaging.  But even when they make it easy, it isn’t necessarily frictionless.  And that’s okay.  Be patient.  It’s France.  Why are you in a rush anyway?

The image is of a Paris Metro ticket from the WWI era.

“Does anyone know any locksmiths who are not crooks?”

This was a question I posed over a year ago to a Paris & France facebook group that I help moderate that has a fair number of Parisian residents in it.  While the post yielded some laughter and plenty of chagrin, I got no direct leads from it, but mentioning it to a friend got access to a very honest one who then was quite curious as to how I got his name, as he normally only works directly with concierges/gardiennes of buildings.  The chase for an honest locksmith all started because a friend couldn’t get into her apartment.  The lock was very old and had never been replaced, and just finally gave up the ghost.  However, it gave up the ghost while she was outside and no one in our friend circle had someone reliable we could call on a Saturday night (of course, that’s when the key had to stop working).

I had had someone add a bedroom lock for me a few years back at my current apartment, and I tried him, but he was a regular weekday 9-5 type and didn’t do “emergency” visits.  That left us with the only option, which is to call one of those dreadful numbers that are left for you in the hallways of your apartment.

Every day and every week some building in Paris is getting flyered or stickered.  Some people with backpacks or trolleys go from building to building and leave cards (or small stickers) that have helpful telephone numbers printed on them, like for the police (dial 18), or the firemen (17) or for the paramedics (15).  But the other “helpful” include plumbers, electricians, and the people in question, “serrurier” or “locksmith.”

I had never called any of these numbers because in Paris, as in many other places in the world, you ask your friends for trusted providers.  There is no screening or certification process for the numbers on these flyers – they don’t even have names.  They just say, “Plombiere” and have a phone number.  No name, no hours, nothing else.

Alas, needs must, and we called one of these numbers and yes, of course, he could come, in the next two hours, for…300€.  I called around to a couple of my friends who confirmed that yes, this was standard on a Saturday night.  She bit the bullet and agreed to pay and on the way there they told her that it would cost 400€, actually.  While my friend is from the American South and hence disposed to be kindly, she’s also lived in NYC and doesn’t respond well to being scammed.  She politely informed them that she only had 300€ and could they please hurry up.  They did show up and she told me that they jimmied the lock like a couple of thugs, which they also happened to look like, and left pretty quickly after taking her money.  She was told that she would be getting a new lock for that cost, but no, that didn’t happen either.

We got a trustworthy locksmith through a friend to come Monday and install a new lock, for 120€.  He was on-time and was, unsurprisingly, not a thug.  He also didn’t “advertise in one of these flyers.

The moral of the story is dig your well before you’re thirsty.  If you don’t have names for handymen, plumbers, electricians, and locksmiths that can be trusted, ask your friends and put them away for a rainy day.  If you don’t get any from those friends, ask me, I have a few.  But don’t wait for something bad to happen, and please, please, don’t rely on those “handy” cards that show up in your mailbox every single week.  Most of the time, they are anything but.

Changing your address

Most Americans are used to being able to go online and for the cost of $1 (USPS says this is for identity verification) and the time it takes you to fill out the necessary online form you can change your address for 12 months for no additional charge.  I’m sure you can guess, the French have no reason to make it that easy for you.

Prepare the documentation

You need to bring:

  • Mail from the old address
  • Proof of your new address (a lease or QDL would be fine)
  • Money – a full year of forwarding costs 26,50€, 6 months about half that (you can pay cash or CB).
  • ID – passport or CDS is fine

When you arrive you will also need to fill out a form recapitulating all the above information.  After you hand them everything and pay, you’re done.  The process took about 5 minutes from start to finish and it only took that long because I took 2 minutes to fill out that form.  They recommend that you come at least 5 days before you want the forwarding to begin.

This visit was occasioned by my old concierge in the 17th telling me that she was leaving France and as such would no longer hold my mail and packages still going to that address for my monthly pickup and nostalgia coffee in my old haunts in the 17th.  I’ve lived in the 2nd for 3 years now so that tells you how long she’s been doing this great service for me (and getting treats for doing so!).  My concierge in the 2nd was aloof for my first year in the building but we’ve become fast friends as I’ve passed on to her old luggage I no longer wanted.  Oh well, all things have to go at some point, and it was nice to learn about this rather simple piece of administrivia.