What Is a Contrat d’intégration Républicaine (or CIR)?

As with many things involving French bureaucracy, when I received my visa vié privée et familial, the process was not truly over. In addition to coming back to pick up my titre de séjour, the administrator told me that I’d be summoned by OFII to sign a contract d’intégration républicaine, have a language proficiency interview, and take four days of civic training.

What is a contrat d’intégration républicaine (CIR) you ask? I wondered the same thing even as I was waiting to sign it. A CIR is an agreement between any non-European foreigns who wish to live in France permanently and the French government –– you’re agreeing to attend the courses on French government, society, and culture, as well as attain a A1 proficiency (the lowest level) while they’re agreeing to provide you with language classes, as well as employment and other integration services. The concept of such an arrangement is very foreign to me, and I’m not sure if any such thing exists in the US.

The Process

The process of my CIR technically begin in October 2020 when I received my visa vié privée et familial, however, I wasn’t summoned by OFII until March 2021. Five months after the appointment, when I was in contact with the prefecture to pick up my new carte de séjour, I mentioned that I hadn’t received a date and they immediately sent one. Never trust French bureaucracy to function as they say it will — it’s always best to follow up since you’ll still be required to have the paperwork, even if they never sent it.

Once I had the interview scheduled with OFII, I knew there would also be four days of civic training where I learned about France.

There is also an exit interview which no one mentioned to me through out the process, and I only discovered when doing research for this article. Since the civic classes are typically scheduled a month apart, and the exit interview is done within three months of completing those, it’s best to assume the entire process will take 6-8 months.

OFII Visit

The OFII visit took place at their office in the 13ème, a different location from where I’d gone to have my medical exam for my first long-stay visa. No one gave us an official explanation of the afternoon’s agenda or why we’d been summoned, which made the experience even more Kafka-esque. After waiting for what felt like a long time, we were given a basic French proficiency exam which, along with the spoken interview, would assess if we were at least A1 French.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a written exam, so while it was very easy, it was also surreal. My French is fluent thanks to French classes from middle school through college, a study abroad semester, and my French friends and partner. That said, I don’t have any degrees to prove this (in France or the US) so the proficiency exam was both required and necessary for my visa. In fact, in order to have French citizenship, you must have passed a level B1.

After the test was over, we were called one by one for our language interviews. In a moment of foolhardy optimism, I’d left the apartment without a book. Thankfully, I still had a notebook and pen — the wait was so long I wrote my friend back home a letter. When the man who was interviewing me asked what I did, I told him about my writing and he pulled up my website. We talked about literature for quite awhile, and he was clearly pleased to be having a fluent, interesting conversation. Before leaving, we scheduled my first two civic courses at OFII and he printed me convocations for two Fridays in May.

Day One

I arrived for at the OFII office of the twentieth arrondissement. It was across the péripherique which I’d always thought meant the address would be outside of Paris and the arrondissement numbering. Enough of us were puzzled by this that we asked the teacher who explained that this street managed to make it “into” Paris while the next block hadn’t. Like French grammar, there are the rules and there are the exceptions.

The classroom was fluorescent, unpleasant, and had tightly sealed windows. None of the twenty-or-so other immigrants looked particularly thrilled to be there either. I’d been intrigued by what they’d serve us for lunch but it was a sandwich, apple sauce, and bottled water. I’m not sure why I thought it would be something more interesting.

The day’s lessons were divided into the following sections:

  • The Nation: General information about geography, population, economic standing, and government structure
  • Health: Emergency phone numbers, health insurance, mutuelles
  • Employment: Searching for jobs, national employment agency or pôle emploi, CVs and letter de motivation, starting your own business
  • Parenthood: Parental rights, protecting children, types of childcare
  • Housing: Types of housing, finding housing, requesting government housing

Since I’ve lived in France for over three years, most of this information was a review to me, though in each section, there was at least something I didn’t know. For example, I never learned any of the emergency numbers here. And whenever I saw the phrase “France mêtropole” I’d translate it to “French metropolitan” in my head without knowing its second definition as “parent state of a colony.”

Reflections

As tedious as these days of slideshows and infographics were, I’m grateful the French government offered them. Or rather, required them. Maybe I’m still used to the United States form of capitalism where nothing is free, especially in terms of services. The cynical part of me thinks these courses wouldn’t exist in the US because they focused in large part on government services, and we don’t have many of those.

Featured photo is of my contract: I can’t say I never expected to have to sign a contract with France… 🙂

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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.

Which Long Term Visa to Pursue: Visitor or Profession Liberale?

Often when people schedule a consultation with me about the profession liberale visa, they do so convinced that this is the right path for them, but on more than one occasion, after asking the right questions, I’ve helped them understand that what they should probably do is obtain (or renew) a visitor visa instead.  This original misapprehension is due in part to an unclear understanding of immigration and the visa process in general, and other times it’s due to a lack of clarity as to the why and how of the client’s projected time and future in France.  So this article is a hopeful corrective to the confusion about which visa to get.

In brief, I characterize “visitor” status as easy, option-oriented, but repetitive, and “profession liberale” status as all-in, with a path to citizenship, but challenging, as it involves starting an actual business.

Visitor

People consider it a “hassle” to show up once a year with a predictable and easy list of paperwork so that you can continue to legally live in a country in which you have no citizenship.  But it’s not a hassle.  It’s pretty easy once you get used to it, and it becomes something seasonal, like putting up Christmas decorations.  It’s a chore, but you’re so happy when it’s done.

Visitor status does not provide a path to citizenship.

Visitor status requires you to file taxes, even though your visa status ensures you won’t be paying taxes.

Visitor status gives you access to the EU, as you are a French resident.  Technically you should be in France the majority of the calendar year, but the French have no real way to verify this, and don’t really care, as long as you fulfill your legal requirements.  I know of someone who lives in Malta most of the year, but for some reason has chosen to have French visitor status and flies in for his prefecture appointments.

Visitor status allows you, after the first renewal, to switch to another visa, at any time.  You’re not stuck with this status forever.  If at any point you want to wind things up, simply leave France.  No additional paperwork required: you’ll just expire out of the system.

Profession Liberale

Profession Liberale status (not to be confused with “auto entrepreneur,” which is a tax classification, not an immigration status and hereafter PL) was a dream fit for me for a number of reasons: I’m a veteran business owner, I want French citizenship, and I wanted the possibility of a multi-year card.

People get very interested in this visa status because of the citizenship path but ignore or downplay that you have to start and validate a business.  This means you will enroll in a number of French agencies that will continue to bill you forever. This includes your social charges, health care charges, and your pension, to say nothing of taxes.  Visitor status is just about obtaining the right to live in France, whereas PL is about living AND working, and the paperwork is correspondingly more onerous, both in application, verification, and renewal.

If at any point you decide this (by “this” I mean France or running a business) isn’t for you, you’ll need to close your business, close down your bank account, and de-register at all the agencies you are registered at, which otherwise will continue to bill or charge you indefinitely.  It also means that your visa will expire at the end of your current term.  In that sense, it’s not as traumatic as a traditional work visa, in which you lose your residency rights within 60 days of losing your job, but it does mean that unlike a Visitor visa, a PL visa is connected with something other than your simple will and desire to live in France: it relies on your ability to maintain and keep a business, which is an entirely different set of skills from obtaining a basic visa or having a “regular job.”

Now, if you already have a successful or growing business/freelance career, you would simply start billing your clients through your French entity and such pressures are obviated.  Otherwise, if you are starting a business from scratch, you add the pressure of business startup to an immigration visa.

Whatever visa you decide to pursue, remember to banish panic and fear and replace it with knowledge and calm.  This process is only as scary as you let it be.

Profession Liberale, Part 4: VAT (or TVA)

This is the latest in an ongoing series about my transition to a citizenship path.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.  

Most people who find out that I’m self-employed in France assume I am under the auto-entrepreneur regime, but I avoided that for a number of reasons, not least of which was the income ceiling of 33,100 euros.  You simply aren’t allowed to earn above this amount without reclassification of your status.  There is talk that President Macron may change this, but that remains to be seen.

That number of 33,100 is also quite close to 33,200 euros, which is the limit for a non-VAT tax return for my regime, profession liberale.

What is VAT?

VAT stands for Value Added Tax.  In French it is TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutee).  It is, generally speaking, a 20% consumption tax that is added onto all goods and services bought or sold inside the EU.  But this means that if you don’t live in the EU, you don’t have to pay it…unless you do.  Let me explain.

Let’s say you are here as a tourist but you don’t really spend that much money on souvenirs, etc.  You probably won’t take the time (or have spent enough to qualify) to fill out the paperwork to get a VAT refund before you go home.  Some stores have the software and capability to process you on the spot so that you don’t have to pay the VAT at all, but there needs to be a minimum purchase amount.  Through VAT, most people end up paying extra taxes into Europe without enjoying any of the privileges or benefits of being a European taxpayer, the same way that Europeans visiting the US pay sales taxes whenever they visit America without reaping any benefits (that said, there are two states – Louisiana and Texas, that do offer refunds to foreign visitors, and of course the states like New Hampshire, Alaska, etc. that don’t have sales tax).

If you’re here on a long-term stay visa or other equivalent, you are ineligible for a VAT refund because you are a fiscal resident here.

Then there’s my French business and my non-French clients.  If I bill less than 33,200 euros in any given year, I don’t owe VAT and neither do my clients.  But if I bill more than 33,200 euros to my clients in any given year, I have to change my tax return from a non-VAT return to a VAT return, which means that I have to pay my accountants more (they have to do paperwork) and then I have to turn around and assess a 20% tax on all of my clients (they will now be required to pay), some of which are headquartered outside of Europe and may not know what VAT is – and I’m uncertain as to the deductibility of it for them from their tax returns.  In any event, though I don’t technically have an income ceiling as the auto-entrepreneur status does, there’s a “soft ceiling” here that will cause me to make administrative and business changes, none of which makes me any more money…

Auditing Agency

I also have to pay about 300 euros a year to belong to an agency for profession liberale adherents that “audits” my returns.  By being a member of this organization (in my case, France Gestion), my total taxable income is lowered by 20%.  They will tell you that you don’t have to belong to one of these agencies – but do the math – 300 euros is a small price to pay to reduce your taxable income by 20%.  But, it is “one more thing” you have to do in order to have a small business.

The Citizenship Narrative

Some years from now when I put together my citizenship dossier for the prefecure, I will not be able to simply show them a set of tax returns which show business income that has mysteriously stopped growing at 33,200€.  I know that in a couple years, I will need to move to a VAT return and find a way to bring my clients along with these charges (or eat the loss myself).  The reason for this is the French want to see that you are not just integrated into French life, but are growing and have a vision for the future, and they will smell a rat if they see your business rapidly grew to a certain level and then stopped.

Obviously, this one business isn’t the only way to earn income, and I could easily start other businesses or create other streams of income and avoid some paperwork…but it would only come at the cost of even more paperwork.

Again, I’m here because I love this country and so many things about it.  But I’m not here because France makes it easy for me to create businesses and jobs, things which I can do fairly well.  Indeed, as you’ve seen in numerous articles I’ve written here, the French administration doesn’t make it easy.  I do know that if Macron removes some of these constraints people like me will help grow the economy faster, just by being ourselves.

Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

Three Years On, Part IV: Where Is Home for the Immigrant?

A few days ago I began my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the final article in a series of four.  Here are the first, second, and third.  

“It will be nice to be home for a month, right?”  My friend smiled, expecting an affirmative rejoinder.  I smiled too, as I knew what he meant, but I gently replied, “The US is home for my family, but Paris is my home now.”  He nodded, though his countenance said, “I want to talk to you more about that sometime,” and I’m sure my smile betokened a willingness to do so.  But I haven’t fully articulated through those thoughts, even mentally, until recently.

My recent month Stateside was full of activity – one sister got married at the start of it and another one had a baby at the end of it and all the while I carried on running my businesses while catching up with old friends.

Home.  In the seven years I lived in Kansas City it wasn’t long before I felt that warm sensation upon returning there from a trip.  Home was near family.  Home was where my friends lived.  Where my business was growing.  Where my staff worked.  Home where was where my bed was – where I had a fireplace and where I could quietly cook breakfast.  But as I look at these characteristics, even now, I realize I am describing comfort.  And yes, a component of home is comfort.  But that’s only part of it.  That’s the present.

Home.  There’s also the past.  You need to feel a rootedness and a belonging.  But that was a tenuous position for me in KC.  Yes, I finished an undergraduate degree there and built a productive company.  But it was self-made.  Perhaps that desire to connect with the past was why I loved St. Louis so much.  Not only did I have relatives buried in that city, but in the one year I lived there I felt the comfort of knowing that when a branch of my family had emigrated from Europe (from England, Ireland, and Alsace), that they settled in Southern Illinois and the St. Louis area.  Yes, Kansas City was in Missouri, but the St. Louis side of the state was actually tied up with my family history too.  Rootedness and community – people who know your name, your habits, your history, and your family.  That’s home too.  That’s the past.

Home.  Home is the future too.  I have some truly lifelong friends in KC that I cherish time with whenever I visit.  As I built my life in that area all sorts of ideas were mooted as I considered a lifelong stay.  The University of Missouri at Kansas City had a fully funded Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship that would have offered a leisurely career in academia, but it didn’t excite me, and given my experience teaching a couple semesters as an adjunct in an MBA program, it was clear that the hierarchical setup in a university setting wasn’t for me.  I considered politics (a sure indication of the naive 20-something) because I held (and still hold) practical nonpartisan civic planning principles that I think have wide appeal.  I thought about buying into businesses, and went so far as preliminary discussions with some principals of those companies.  But none of it inspired me in the visceral manner that Paris did.

Home.  Knowing you are where you belong now, with roots in the past, and a future to look forward to.  That all comes together for me in Europe, in Paris, deep in my bones.

* * *

Two weeks ago I visited the Museum of Immigration out on the edges of the 12th.  It’s a remarkably ugly building, but the exhibits and information are good, particularly in explaining the flow of different immigrants to France – some for reasons of war and violence, others for economic betterment.

As I took in the mountain of data I considered my own case.  I wasn’t fleeing war, as so many are in Europe these days because of incoherent US-led actions and policies that managed to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  I wasn’t seeking a better life economically.  Indeed my experience at the time of just selling a business should have encouraged me to stay.  I had moved to a US city with no connections, and with some of my own funds, a couple investors, and a co-founder, built a company from nothing to one that successfully sold and transitioned to a new owner.  I could simply wash, rinse, and repeat if I chose, with little interference and regulation from the US government.

There was also my family’s disapproval.  They, who had already considered me an absentee uncle and brother would be even more aggrieved.  But that was in part my fault for not successfully explaining to them before how differently I weighed my own personal desires and ambition against family and community pressures.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1988, I was already a citizen, but the move wasn’t my choice.  In 2013 I came to France as a noncitizen, but entirely by choice.  And like many immigrants before me, I jumped through legal hoops while setting up the infrastructure for my own businesses to be based in my new country.  I didn’t come here to “get a job.”  I came here to build a life.

I’ve always been an optimist, but it’s only recently I’ve realized that immigration – of whatever kind or character – is a supreme act of hope, not just for the “better life” which is, seemingly the only reason ever mentioned in news stories about immigration, but because it is such a big ask to make and create a new home.  Getting a new job, a new house, learning the ins and outs of a city – these things are not so hard.  But building another home – tying those long, colorful, and winding threads of past, present, and future into a coherent tapestry, that’s hard.  That’s perhaps why those of us who weren’t born here love it so much, because we don’t take any part of this experience for granted.

As the year ends, I would challenge you to consider whether you are truly living at “home.”  And if not, why not?  2017 is waiting to challenge you.

The photo is from my own instagram feed, from the day I officially moved out of America, December 10, 2013.

OFII Checkboxes: Two Classes Done

In my last post chronicling a visit to OFII since getting on the path to citizenship, I attended the two classes which were mandated as part of my immigration classes: “Living and Working in France” and “Civic Formation.”

Both of these classes were unexciting eight hour affairs, punctuated by lunch.  The lunch was provided for us and the training itself was completed by an agency known as SJT which was responsible for certifying that we were the persons we claimed to be, that we knew our stuff, and that we weren’t sleeping in class.

In both classes an English translator was provided to give delayed translation to the English speakers in the room.  In both classes the English speakers comprised more than 35% of the class, and no doubt it could easily have been a half-day if the classes were separated into the languages that were easiest for the students to understand, but that would have ironically undermined the fact that these classes were to welcome immigrants to FRANCE where they speak FRENCH. 🙂

The classes themselves provided some interesting information and were deeper dives into themes discussed at our first briefing at OFII.  In the Civic Formation class we took a closer look at French history, from the time of the Romans and then Clovis all the way to present day and the French Republic.  We explored the themes of liberté, egalité, fratérnité, and laïcite.

The “living and working in France” class also included some 16 and 17 year olds as the law only recently changed to exempt those who had emigrated to France at an early age from these classes.  And, indeed, it felt like a high school class, in some ways.  In the “getting a job” section we were instructed in granular ways how to create a CV (that’s “curriculum vitae” and in Europe is often what they say when they mean “resumé.”  It’s not to be confused with the academic CV that’s often submitted when you apply to graduate programs in America.) as well as how to dress and act in an interview.  I was once again astonished at the amount of social help available to the French in terms of nursery schools, job finding, housing, and subsidies.

Social housing was a subject of a prolonged digression in our class, as one woman, an Ivorian, shared (thankfully, in quite deliberate and paced French) her travails in social housing with her three children in a 20 square meter apartment.  The French State does guarantee very low rent for those who get social housing, but it can’t guarantee spacious accommodations.  Our instructor told us that the wait inside the Peripherique (the 20 arrondissements) was roughly 8-10 years, and that you had to renew your place in line each year or you had to start over.  If you were wiling to live in the suburbs you could get a place within 18 months or even sooner.

At the end of each class we were given a multiple choice quiz which was graded on completion, not accuracy, and we went over the answers as a class and noted whether we had known this information prior to taking the class.

So, all is now clear for me to pick up my actual carte de sejour, over 6 months since I obtained legal rights to work and live in France beyond my previous visitor status.  Apart from keeping up on my regular payments to the various social and governmental agencies I needed to as a French business owner, I wouldn’t need to start thinking about my next visit to the Prefecture for at least another…3 months. 🙂

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OFII for Prof Lib

It was 07h40.  “I’m early,” I thought, and decided to stop in for a quick breakfast.  It was a patisserie on rue de la roquette, halfway between Bastille and my 08h00 appointment that morning.  My thoughts flashed back to my first visit to OFII, back in 2014.  What a greenhorn I was back then – worried that my French wouldn’t be good enough, or that I wouldn’t have the necessary documents.  How times change.

I took my last sip of coffee after finishing off a strawberry beignet and at 07h55 casually sauntered towards OFII (L’Office Francais de l’immigration and de l’integration).  There were two lines.  The one on the left was for asylum-seekers.  My eyes involuntarily flicked up to the 6-8 souls in line, who looked forlorn.  I couldn’t imagine their individual situations and stories.  Then my gaze fell on the line on the right, my line, which was already 20 deep.  I wondered to myself why they had felt the need to get there early.  But then I realized that some of these people may have just arrived in France, and like me in those early days, didn’t want to take a false step: cue arriving 15-20 minutes early for your appointment.  Good on them!  I, on the other hand, wasn’t going to get there until right about 08h00.  I love my sleep and I knew this wasn’t really going to be that stressful.

I’ve written before about the dread that one might feel about entering a prefecture.  How many dreams and plans have foundered and died on the shoals of French bureaucratic requirements and the moodiness of civil servants!  And yet, I’ve always maintained that the antidote to that dread is to be overprepared.

But the Prefecture is the “scary” part: you are getting authorization from the French government to be here, legally.  OFII, by comparison, would be giving me the bise, and welcoming me to France, which is why I wasn’t carrying a thick sheaf of papers, but rather a book to read while waiting.

Promptly at 08h00 we started shuffling forward.  One guard checked the nature of our appointment to verify we were at the right place at the right time.  The second guard verified by ID (I brought my passport and recipisse).  We then went upstairs and got into another line, to check us in for our orientation.

The lady at the desk verified our names, checked us off her list, and verified which language we would be interviewed in after the orientation.  We then shuffled in, one by one, into this room.

IMG_1900

At about 08h20 or so we were all assembled, roughly 25 of us, and our orienter came to tell us what would be happening today.  She spoke entirely in French, but not with the typically hurried Parisian cadence, but the slower measured cadence of the south, knowing she was dealing with many novices of the language.

She said there would be three parts of our day: video, interview, and a physical.  The video also worked with individual audioguides you could hold up to your ear which would allow you to follow along in real-time in the language of your preference.  One of our class requested Arabic, and another Kenyan.  If you’re uncertain, be brave and ask for Anglais, svp.  No one cares about your French level at this point, I promise.

The video was quite good, as orientation videos go (not too many cheesy situations or fake drama).  Obviously, as a royalist, I smirked a bit as the narrator spoke about the French “values of the Revolution,” considering that France was built upon superior values that predated that revolution by centuries, if not a millennium, but today was a day for quiet learning, not for a disquisition from Stephen on the murders, excesses, and poor logic of that revolt.  The video concluded with an explanation of the necessary steps of integration we would all need to go through now, namely:

  1. Attendance at a one-day class in French civics, with a translator supplied if requested.  This class purports to teach you about liberté, egalité, fraternité, laïcité, solidarité, and any other és that I may have missed.  They will also teach you the mechanisms of the French state, for example, that the President of the Republic still wields the ancient power of the Kings of France, i.e. the ability to pass a decree without legislative consent.  The class is one day, goes from 09h00-17h00, is obligatory, and is scheduled during your interview.  Mine was scheduled for the 30th of June, about 6 weeks from the visit I made to OFII yesterday.
  2. Attendance at a one day class in “living and gaining employment in France.”  As with the aforementioned civics class, this one is obligatory, is one day only, and requires you to bring your ID.
  3. Attendance at free French language classes to obtain a basic level of competence as determined by the French state.  The course runs a minimum of 50 hours, and a maximum of 100.  You simply ask to test whenever you are ready.  This condition is in force unless, when you do your interview at OFII, your French is competent and clear.  Then you get an attestation that you don’t have to take the class.
  4. Your signature on a contract which commits you to doing all of these tasks within one year, and that you will integrate into French life and the French way of thinking “avec assiduité.”

I was pleased to be exempted from the French courses via my interview.  If you are required to take the classes I believe they occur on either Mondays or Saturdays in your arrondissement.

She then asked if I had kept my medical exam from OFII from my 2014 visit.  I laughed and told her that I kept ALL THE PAPERS, gesturing to simulate a large stack.  She laughed and asked if my visa renewals were continuous, with no gaps.  I replied in the affirmative.  She then told me I was done for the day, as I didn’t need a new physical (which I ostensibly would have if I didn’t have that record or hadn’t kept a continuous immigration record).

She printed out my appointments, had me sign the contract, and gave me a lovely folder to put it all in.

It was 09h30 and I was done for the day!

Three things to note:

  • I was the first person called after we watched the video and our orienter briefly recapitulated the important points and answered some stray questions.  My being called first may only have been because they knew I didn’t need a physical and wanted to see me first.  But I don’t think you need to schedule more than a half day for this appointment, even for a worst-case scenario.
  • You will get the convocation to go to OFII after your second Profession Liberale appointment.  If you can’t make the date they give you, reschedule as soon as possible so as not to hold up this end of the process.
  • If you bypass my two-years-as-a-visitor route and go straight to Profession Liberale, you’ll be doing this appointment 90 days after you first officially move to France.

* * *

I slowly walked to Bastille after the appointment.  I was in the official “immigrant” stream.  The appointment went well, and I felt welcomed to my beloved France.  That, after all these years of hard work, felt good.

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Featured image of an early morning Place des Vosges, not far from OFII, originally appeared here.  Follow the photographer here, who gave permission for this photo to be used.