Troubleshooting: Bank Accounts

Some time ago I was sitting with some friends and the conversation turned to banks and bank fees.  Both of my friends shared how much they hated “establishment” banks and described with relish how they had recently “fired” them.  They had chosen to move on to the “internet only” banks.  One banked at Fortuneo, the other recommended Boursorama.  I was happy with Societe Generale and had long ago written off bank fees in France as “part of the deal.”  Turns out, as an American citizen, I don’t really have a choice.

I went through the process of applying for a basic checking account at both Fortuneo and Boursorama, banks that leveraged technology and virtual offices to offer low-to-no fee banking.  At the end of both applications I was rejected, in no uncertain terms.  Not because of my credit score (because there’s no such thing in Europe), but because unlike my friends, who possessed German and Czech citizenship, respectively, I was considered a “US person” for legal purposes, and was subject to FATCA.

FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) became law in 2010 in the US but came into force officially in France this year.  It places an enormous regulatory reporting burden on French banks servicing US citizens.  The “budget banks” mentioned above do not have the means or the staff to comply with this reporting requirement so they rejected me.  I was told by one person in the know that it costs French banks up to 10,000€/year to service someone like me (a “US person”).  This is all because the US government is determined to get its grubby hands on every last shred of our income, even if it was not earned in the USA.

Now, even if that number of 10,000€/year is wildly exaggerated, something like 2,500€/year is still a lot just to comply with US reporting requirements.  When you keep that in mind, you can smile your way through the two hour process of opening a new checking account, as I had to do a few months ago for my new French business.  It’s not enough to sign a few forms and give the bank your money, as we often do in America.  The French want to know what kind of business you are operating, how much money you think you will make, the name of your most recently deceased pet, etc.

Part of this is simply a “get to know you” policy that French banks are encouraging these days.  But part of it is both French governmental compliance and now US regulatory compliance.  My poor counselor told me that I was his first “US” account and he called in backup from his colleagues no fewer than three times as unexpected screens kept popping up during my registration.

All in all, I was happy with the process and BNP Paribas offers the same level of service and convenience that I’ve become accustomed to with French banks but is (to my knowledge) not widespread in the US.

  1. RIB (releve d’identite bancaire) This is an upgrade over traditional “online billpay” as there is never a paper check issued.  The money leaves your account and 48 business hours later it is in another account, whether it’s the account of a friend or that of a regular payee of your household.  When you add a new payee you must key in a pin and everytime you issue a RIB payment to someone you must key in a pin.
  2. App-based verification for online purchases.  When you make a credit card purchase on the web you will receive a push notification on your phone.  You must key in a pin in order to approve the purchase.  Then, and only then, is your purchase approved.
  3. No ATM fees.  By French law, you cannot be charged fees for withdrawing your own money, even if it’s from the ATM of another bank.  So you can use any ATM anywhere, anytime.

It’s a lot of trouble to set up a French bank account as an American these days, but once you have that account, it’s a great thing, and it makes your life here that much easier.

Guest Post: Paris Greeters, by Craig Ziegler

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 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 10:00 AM 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.

Bad information

“This can’t be right.”  I looked down at the address for the shop on the map: 250 rue de rivoli.  But I knew that address didn’t line up with its drawn position on the map I was holding in my hand.  “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll go to one of these other shops marked as adjacent to the phantom one in question, even though they were 194 and 194 bis.  I was just past the Hotel Regina, which some might remember from the very first Bourne movie.

I poked my head into what looked very much like one of those standard money changing places I so despise.  “They take passport photos?” I wondered.  Sure enough, they didn’t.  The “helpful” map, which I had gotten from the US embassy which allegedly showed locations that took US-standard passport photos, was wrong on three counts.  Alas.

I wandered into a nearby copy shop and asked in French if they took American passport photos (slim chance) and they gave me directions to a shop that did.  Photo Pyramides, 14 rue des Pyramides, in the 1st.  10€ gets you four photos, and you’ll only need 2 for your application.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve run my poor passport into the ground with stamps and I need to renew three years early to make room for future travel in that time.

I’ve added this resource to my FAQ, which contains contact information for English-speakers in Paris for banking, renter’s insurance, apartments, cell phone and internet coverage, health care, taxes, etc.  I give this FAQ to all who use my consultation service.  This FAQ also features a checklist for visitor visa renewal and obtainment of Profession Liberale.

Moral of the story: trust, but verify.

 

Doughnuts, networking and other writings

There is just a little over a week to be involved with a cool new doughnut startup by (no surprise) a fellow American in Paris.  Check his story out here.

Speaking of startups, I had my first meeting with someone via Shapr, which is the “tinder for business networking.”  It was, oddly enough, with someone on the Shapr team, and it was heartening to see someone in a tech startup be so excited about delivering a great app, against lots of obstacles, in a country that has a long way to go to become startup-friendly.  Give it a try – it’s slowly rolling out in parts of the US as well.

I was watching the PSG Champions League match this week with friends and at half time a French friend remarked that the extension of the “state of emergency” had him worried about civil liberties.  “It’s like the Patriot Act,” he told me.  I nodded, and didn’t say much more, as I was in football mode.  But I recently wrote about this, and other themes, for an American magazine’s April issue, and as such, I don’t own the digital rights to share it with you at the moment, but I can share some other writings I have done following the attacks, like this piece for Front Porch Republic and this one on Medium.

I also occasionally answer questions on Quora, write on business themes on LinkedIn, and share my thoughts on where to eat in Paris and lots of other places on Yelp.

Mailbag: Passport Pages, transferring your visa, and taxes

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but it’s often helpful for me to share some of these answers to questions I get in email so that others who are also wondering might have their questions answered as well.

How does adding passport pages to my (US) passport or renewal of it affect my visa?

Well, this is a two-parter.  As of December 31st, 2015, the US Embassy in France is no longer adding pages to your passport.  What that means (and I confirmed this in person at the Embassy) is that you will have to apply for an early renewal of your passport, as US citizens living abroad are not permitted to mail their passport back to the US for pages to be added there.  For my battle-worn blue book, that renewal ends up being roughly 3 years early.  But given that I’m down to room for exactly 5 more stamps, it’ll have to do, especially since I have a lot of travel later this year.

As to how it affects your visa: it doesn’t.  If you’re in your first  year of your long-term stay visa, your carte de sejour exists in the form of the sticker that OFII put in your passport roughly 90 days after you arrived during your follow-up visit.  If you add pages/renew your passport you will get your cancelled passport back and still show that sticker, if you need to.

If you’re in your second year and beyond, you will be issued an actual carte de sejour after your renewal, which effectively functions both as your ID and your visa.  Those stickers in your passport from years ago are then like the rest of the stamps in your passport – memories – but nothing legally important.

You said recently that you had to file taxes?  How did that go?

Great question!  Funnily enough, despite sending them a properly filled-out French tax return appropriate for a foreign filer, in which I indicated that my income had not been derived from French companies, they still sent me a bill for 1781 euros.  After some laughter with my accountant and attorney, an email was dispatched to the relevant department:

réf de l’avis:15 75 XXXXXXX XX
Nº fiscal déclarant: 30 25 XXX XXX XXX X

Messieurs,

Je reçois cet avis d’imposition dont je conteste le fondement. En effet, l’assiette de la CSG et de la CRDS est l’ensemble des revenus français quelque soit leur nature et montant.

La totalité des revenus composant l’assiette de cette imposition a été d’origine américaine, perçue et imposée aux USA conformément au traité fiscal franco-américain.

En conséquence, de par la définition même de cette double imposition CSG – CRDS, l’assiette de cette imposition ici présente est non conforme. Je demande donc son annulation immédiate et sans condition.  

Cordialement,

Stephen HEINER

The next day, which is essentially light speed by French standards, had this response in my inbox:

Monsieur,

Votre demande a bien été prise en compte. Vous allez bientôt recevoir un avis de dégrèvement.

Salutations.

Translation: You’re right.  You don’t owe any money.

Stephen: Gee, thanks. 🙂

Taxes and Transferwise

I recently had the opportunity to meet with one of the readers of the blog over lunch.  We discussed some of his strategies for staying in France but since he had just recently arrived I asked him to check with some of his connections (he had done work at an accounting/consulting firm) about getting taxes filed.  That’s right – as an American, even if you’re here on a visitor visa and prevented by the terms of your visa from working for a French company in France, the French government requires you to file a tax return.

You read that correctly.  Now, despite the fact that you don’t owe any taxes, you still have to prepare the taxes, in French, according to French accounting laws.  If you don’t have these intersecting skill sets, let me know and I can connect you with an amazing firm that did this for me for the 2014 tax year.  If this has slipped through the cracks for you, let me know asap and I will try and connect you – there’s no fine and no fee to pay (as ostensibly, you don’t have taxes to pay) but you don’t want the French government catching you doing something you are supposed to do.  Better late than forgetting altogether.

2015 will be the last year that I will be considered a “non-fiscal” resident – as part of the path to citizenship (which involves my new visa) is paying taxes.  If you aren’t married to a French person, and don’t pay taxes for 5 consecutive years, you aren’t on the path to citizenship.  I still can’t say I “look forward” to paying taxes, but I do look forward to “being on the path.” 🙂

* * *

Early on in this blog’s life I wrote about opening a French bank account.  It’s honestly something you’re going to need to do if you plan to stay here for longer than 6 months.  However, again pursuant to your visa status, you really only want wire transfers coming in from yourself, not from employers – even if those employers are outside France – this will just cause questions at the Prefecture should they look closely at your bank accounts when you come for your appointment.

Wire transfers are “old-fashioned” in our modern age and carry old-fashioned fees.  The originating bank charges the sender (i.e. YOU sending to yourself), the receiving bank charges the receiver (again, YOU), and then there are currency exchange fees.  However, this system is in the midst of being disrupted by a company started by the guys who built Skype and bankrolled by the likes of Sir Richard Branson.  It’s called Transferwise.  If you click this link your first transfer is free so you can try it for yourself with no risk.  To learn more about how they do this, and circumvent the wire transfer system, watch this funny video.

Hope you enjoy the service as much as I do.  I’m an unabashed user, though I can’t imagine my US or French banks have been happy to miss out on all those fees I used to pay them 🙂

Absence/Podcast/A trip to the police station

I apologize for the very long break from the blog.  It was an amazing summer – my second spent working in the spectacular beauty of Switzerland (here’s one of my favorite images from that time).  I kept a journal, but didn’t have Parisian reflections to share with you.  But I am back in my beloved city and regular programming will resume 🙂

I’m not yet certain if I will continue a podcast for the blog next season – but episode 2 was on the “Au Pair life.”  Take a listen here.

Finally, on my travels I was stupid to lose my wallet, which contained things that were by and large replaceable, but which contained my French identity card, which allows me to travel passport-free inside the Schengen area.  For those who face the calamity of losing a wallet, in addition to shutting down all your cards and getting new ones – you need to go to the main Police station of the arrondissement you live in – ideally this address should match the one on file with OFII.  I have said this before but do everything you can to maintain a consistent address throughout the immigration process – you’ll be surprised that many gardiennes are willing to keep your mail for you even after you’ve moved out – if, of course, you maintained a positive relationship with him/her (who am I kidding, there’s no such thing as a male gardienne in Paris!).

Once you’ve identified which station is yours, bring your passport and/or another form of ID (remember the rule of always overwhelming the French with documentation, thereby removing their ability to intimidate you).  If you show up around 15h00 on a Friday (as I did last week), the whole process should take about 5 minutes.  You will need to clarify whether you lost it or it was stolen.  If it’s the latter, be prepared for a lot more in terms of questions (where did you lose it, what else did you lose, etc?).

You will then obtain a “récépissé de déclaration” which will allow you to apply for a new identity card.  Since I’m only 2 months away from renewal I’m not going to drop the 100 some euros to get a replacement but will simply wait to get a new one when I get my new visa.

What would you like me to write about this next year?  #YearThree in Paris begins December 11th.  I have so much to share with you but am also happy to write about your thoughts/questions/concerns.

***Featured photo comes from Daxis on Flickr.  Labeled for reuse.***

Mailbag: Okay, so how do I move to Paris?

Latest from cyberspace:

Dear Stephen

I’m sure you get a gazillion emails similar to this, but I had a question about your visa process that I was hoping you could clarify (which might have been a few years ago already!). I think in one post you mentioned that you applied for a visa stating that you would not work while in France, but then how did you eventually end up getting work in France, and ultimately staying? 

My current situation is that I am a freelance web developer in Brooklyn, and I really want to move to Paris (studied abroad there and loved it so much– I could not get it out of my head), but it has been difficult finding a job in Paris that would sponsor me. So I was thinking I could continue my freelance work abroad because I have a steady client that I work remotely for. But then the visa situation seems to get a bit tricky because I would not be paying taxes in France (a couple of expat forums were saying this would eventually catch up with me). I thought about applying for the Auto-Entrepreneur program, but I make more than the amount stated for self-services, which was around 35,000 euros if I am remembering correctly. So I’m a bit stuck at the moment! 

I realize that you are not an immigration officer, but any advice you have would be greatly appreciated! And again, I know you probably get so many of these emails, so even if I don’t hear back, I just wanted to say I really enjoy your blog and keep up the fantastic posts. Wishing you the best in this wonderful New Year! 

Mindy

***

Dear Mindy

First of all, thanks for the kind words.  It’s neat to know that people out there are getting help from my work.  You’ve got a lot of questions so let me start by giving you a phrase to guide some of your thinking: Le Gris.  It’s “the gray” in English.  Think of it as a giant “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy writ large against your French life.  For example, when you go to an appointment have all the documents that you need and then some.  But if they don’t ask you for a document, don’t give it voluntarily.  “More” is not better.  So too, I would ask, how does “not paying taxes in France” catch up to anyone who has signed up to “not work in France”?  Yes, I came here as a visitor, and as of this moment, I’m still classified as a visitor.  And that means I can’t work for a French company.  But I can work for German ones, Spanish ones, American ones, pretty much anyone.  I just can’t work for a French company, because that’s not the visa I hold.  I don’t see how the French government is going to ask you not to work here, and then turn around and ask you why you aren’t paying taxes.

Now the auto-entrepreneur thing is relatively new and I think you could use it to your advantage because yes, the upper limit is 35.000 euros a year – and I know, it’s dumb – that’s a discussion for another time – but why couldn’t you retain your steady client AND take on freelance work as an entrepreneur in France?  That way you are quickly integrated into the “tax paying system” (are you sure you want to rush that? 😉 ) AND you can keep your “day job.”  Remember the application is not asking what you make outside of France – France doesn’t have any claim on that income.  It’s asking you what you make or project you will make in France.  As of this moment you make Zero, but you can make an estimate.

You have what many people wish they had – a skill that is not geographically bound.  I’m excited for the possibilities for you as you explore coming to what I consider to be the world’s most beautiful city, and my home.

This email came in on the 13th so I’m only on a 10-day delay at the minute.  I’m working on getting faster! 🙂

Photo used by Creative Commons.  Photo by m43photos.

Je ne suis pas Charlie: why I’m not marching in Paris tomorrow

This shrine, among others, was set up around Place de Republique this evening.  I had used the spot as a convenient place to meet two friends before dinner at my favorite Cambodian place in Paris.  I had completely forgotten Republique’s status as a shrine for the Left (there is a huge monument to “Liberty” in the middle of the square) and since I had not been avidly following the Charlie Hebdo news, I didn’t realize how decked out it would be: candles, pictures, drawings, graffiti.  People had plastered bulletins of Voltaire mouthing the now eponymous, “Je suis Charlie” all around the monument.  The devotion reminded me of a much smaller “shrine” in the largest cemetery in Paris, in Pere Lachaise, at the grave of Oscar Wilde.  When I first gazed at all the lipstick marks at his grave, I felt the same feeling I felt just a few hours ago witnessing all the people milling around the monument, around all the reporters doing stand-up interviews with whomever was around (hopefully you would be holding a child, showing that you were “teaching” your kids how to “stand up” to violence): bemusement.

While I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most empathetic of souls, I did feel the normal disgust at a senseless loss of human life.  Any civilized person would.  But then there’s what comes after.  Would I stand up for or march in “solidarity” with “free speech,” for a disgusting magazine, and for a national security policy that is essentially tone-deaf to the unique and challenging situation that is militant Islam (hopefully France doesn’t call it “workplace violence“)  Quite definitely, non.  If I’m going to march it’s not going to be to soak myself in some gooey sentiment of “solidarity,” but because I truly and deeply believe in something.  Because I would be willing to be tear-gassed and arrested for it.  Was I going to march for people who taunted Muslims with outrageous cartoons?  No way.  But before we even get to that, I suppose we should address what this is being universally painted as: an attack on capital F, capital S: Free Speech.

The media and governments and many of the “Je suis Charlie” drones (some of whom I count as friends!) push the idea that this was an attack on free speech.  I dispute that, but I suppose I should admit at the outset that I don’t accept the notion of free speech, either intellectually or practically.  It’s gospel to many people, as certain a value as 2+2 equaling 4 or the sun rising in the east, but to me it’s an abhorrent and dishonest modern fantasy: something that protects the prose of a child molester extolling the virtues of pedophilia in the same manner as that of a nun speaking about outreach to the poor and abused.  In a nation (and city) in which egalité is literally carved into stone, the idea of many ideas having “equal value” resonates – but perhaps because it is taken for granted it is never truly scrutinized.  “Free Speech” is a lie the West tells itself, and then is shocked when others don’t accept it as gospel truth.

So there’s my first stumbling block to the #jesuischarlie movement: I don’t accept the so-called “Western value” of “free speech.”  I think that there are ideas that are dangerous and words that are beyond the most foul and disgusting and rather than buy into a system where I accept that all ideas are equal (something I can barely type!) I accept that some things are beautiful and should be protected and some things are vile and disgusting and should be discarded.  The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo fall into the latter category.

That’s the second problem – while I find their cartoons disgusting (I cannot even bring myself to describe the Christian “satire” that this rag of a publication has served up) I do not believe that their pictures should have carried a death sentence.  But I do think the editorial staff knew what they were doing and in the French tradition of “brave journalism” were “daring” to do things that upset people, and they knew what might happen.  A true “Western value” (read: values derived from Christianity) is respect for life and we try, prosecute, and in some places in the world, execute murderers.  We don’t tolerate the wanton murder of people.  Yet, saying Je suis Charlie precisely means you are standing up for the disgusting values this magazine propagated (calling the magazine the French version of the American Onion is not just American oversimplification at its worst, its simply inaccurate).  Saying “Je suis Charlie” extends beyond the borders of empathy for the murdered to solidarity for their work, which was, at its very best, highly questionable, and at its worst despicable and wantonly provocative.

Finally, “Je suis Charlie” insouciantly marches with banners of “we are not afraid” while failing to examine the real problem: militant Islam.  NPR Americans whose “Muslim friends” eat bacon will tell you that Islam is a religion of peace, but those who have read history, have actually read the Koran, and know the violent arc that is the founding and ongoing mission that is Islam know otherwise.  When someone in New York whose name isn’t even remembered does an art exhibit depicting a crucifix in a jar of urine, does anyone fear reprisals from Christian terror groups?  No.  Because there aren’t any roaming around or training in special terrorist training camps!  There isn’t anything in the Christian New Testament that instructs Christians to convert people by any means necessary, up to and including the threat of murder.  This week France, when confronted with an Islamic terrorist attack, reacted the same way that England and Spain did when they experienced their own attacks in their own cities: explained how this had nothing to do with Islam, took no responsibility for military policy in the Middle East that stirred up such hatred and violence, and then pivoted to say this is a “terrorist” issue, without taking the time to point out this is a uniquely ISLAMIC issue.

Something that the West does well, for better or for worse, is tolerance.  We may not agree with you and may even disagree with you on fundamental human matters, but we will live in peace with you as long as you observe our laws.  The people who committed these murders trained in places where it is a crime to possess a crucifix!  Western governments have the opportunity to take a long hard look at this and ask if this is a problem of “religious fundamentalism” (something bland and generic that implies there could be such things as buddhist terrorists or hindu terrorists that are operating on even a fraction of the scale of Islamic terrorists) or of “Islam and the West.”  Those who’ve read history know that the Muslims tried and failed dozens of times over centuries to militarily invade Western Europe, conquer it, and put it under the Crescent.  It failed, perhaps most famously, on a 9/11 few know about, the night in 1683 when Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, arrived at the gates of Vienna to successfully repel the Muslim invasion.

The Muslims are no longer at the gates of Vienna.  They don’t need to invade Europe because they are already here and they will simply not permit “free speech” that mocks their religious beliefs.  You can say what you want about these men, but they truly believe in what their religion professes in its scriptures.  As for the West, it has to decide whether it will keep pretending to be shocked when these things occur or actually start to formulate public policies that take into account the realities of Islam instead of the lies we tell ourselves about that religion.  The march tomorrow blithely ignores that reality, preferring instead sentiment and tears.  There is a time for such things.  Then there is the time to fix public policy so that such things don’t happen again.  Je suis Charlie sure is catchy, but it doesn’t even begin to address any of the problems this horrific event has laid bare.