passport pages

Traveling Without My French Resident Card

So in an earlier post I shared that I had been pickpocketed late last year and hence no longer had my physical four year Carte de Sejour, which was perhaps the hardest-earned French document in my possession.  In that same article I noted that it really wasn’t such an important document in terms of daily life in France, and after this most recent theft, I had a number of trips in which an EU residence card had no relevance: visits to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK, Italy, then Bulgaria.  However, then a little thing called lockdown happened and when we were finally deconfined, the EU residence card took on a new meaning.  I knew in the back of my mind that I should have some kind of replacement document, but knowing that I was putting in for my ten year card quite soon led me to rely on my confidence on how the system worked and my inherent knowledge of and patience with French immigration.

First Flight Back

The end of July saw me at the Aer Lingus counter in Chicago, following a whirlwind three-week trip to the US which I took because of a convergence of very low airfares and the possibility of doing some work with a client as well as on one of my business projects.  I’d also get some family time.  I was tired, but the accomplished-a-lot-and-feeling-good kind of tired.  The agent at the counter asked for my passport and then she asked if I had residence in France.  I said that I did and handed her a photocopy of my residence card.  She didn’t really know her way around it so I pointed to the expiration date, which is in September of next year.  She nodded, but slowly.  A colleague hovered nearby.  “No way a photocopy is good enough,” he said in a voice probably intended to be low enough that I couldn’t hear, but I did.  “Legit, I think he needs to have the actual card.”  She seemed swayed by this and asked me to wait while she “checked on something” (read: go ask my boss).  She came out after a few minutes during which time I continued to smile and look composed.  She didn’t seem to look too dire when she came back, but wanted a bit more context.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said, “but here’s the police report noting it was stolen, and obviously since lockdown I haven’t gotten an appointment for a replacement.”  I smiled and simply gave the attitude that this was not a problem at all.  I live in France, I lost my card, leave this to the French.  For their part, an airline that incorrectly transports someone without entry rights has to bear the cost of repatriation, so she was not being unreasonable in pushing back a bit on me, but the fact that she didn’t really put up a fight was an indication of something I would continue to see: a willingness of those to be “understanding” to travelers in this time period.

Landing in Dublin turned out to be no big deal, as this was an inbound EU flight so I was just able to do a simple transfer within the airport.  I wasn’t forced out through customs as I had been on the way into the US.  Next stop: the French border.  I handed over my dark blue passport.  The border policeman’s eyebrow immediately flicked up as he saw the emblem of the eagle which grasped olive branches and arrows in its claws.  He assumed English and asked: “Why are you visiting France?”  “J’habite ici,” I smiled and answered in French.  “Ah,” he said, and asked for my residence card.  “Malheuresement…” I explained that I had been pickpocketed and handed him copies of the police report and a copy of the residence card.  He frowned.  He continued in French, asking why I had not gone to get a new card (he noted that the police report was dated November of last year).  I told him I had been traveling, and then afterwards there had been lockdown.  He pointed out that there had been deconfinement and I countered, smiling and polite, that it was hard to get an appointment (I knew from friends; I hadn’t actually tried myself).  He looked at some colleagues who had been obviously listening in.  They shrugged.  He flipped to an already crowded page and stamped.  “Merci; bon journee,” I smiled.  No documents?  No problem.

Not asked for?  The contact tracing form that Aer Lingus insisted we fill out before arrival.

The Croatian Question

I had planned to do some work in Salzburg with a client in August when an opportunity came up for us to do the work in Croatia instead.  Salzburg is still on my list to visit, but summer on the Adriatic is hard to beat.  Croatia was one of the countries that was “open” to Americans with a valid negative Covid test within 48 hours of arrival and proof of accommodation.  But, would they treat me as an American citizen or as an EU resident?  Surely, I couldn’t use the photocopy again?  Should I get a Covid test just in case they decide to treat me like an American?  Life continued on in Paris and a few days before the flight I decided to wander down to the Paris Plages to get one of the free tests they were giving out (the blood test used a pinprick and a few drops, with results in 15 minutes, the PCR test had a minimum 5 day waiting period for results – I opted for the quick result blood test).  The philosophy I have with French administration (always be prepared for everything they might ask for) guided me and while the negative test result printout I was handed didn’t look as “official” as I would like, I felt it would satisfy the Croats.

It was a fairly full flight to Zagreb (unlike domestic US flights, there seems to be zero insistence on the vacant middle seat) and I was one of the first off the plane and hence one of the first in line for passport checks.  When I handed over the American passport he asked where I had come from.  “Paris,” I answered.  “Transiting?”  “No, I live there.”  “Ah, where is your residence card?”  I handed him the photocopy of my residence card.  His face betrayed skepticism.  “It was stolen, here’s the police report.”  I handed it over to him.  I didn’t know if he could read French but his eye caught the filing date: “This was in November.”  “Yes, and we had lockdown so I didn’t get a replacement.”  He looked at everything again to satisfy himself, it seemed, then started flipping my passport pages to find a place to stamp me through.  He handed me a piece of paper with contact information for all the places I could get tested if I wanted.  No demand to self-isolate.

Not asked for?  Proof of accommodation, negative covid test, or contact tracing form.

Coming Home to France

Before March 2020, when I came home to France through passport control, the agents would scan my passport and lazily stamp it, usually while talking to their colleague.  They didn’t ask if I was a resident, because they didn’t care.  When I presented that passport, they assumed I was a tourist and just stamped me through.  I could have always bypassed this process by handing them a resident card along with my passport.  This would mean my passport would not be stamped.  But I never bothered with this.

When I handed my passport to the border agent his eyes flicked up at me as he perceived the dark blue US book.  He scanned it and after looking at his screen for a moment, handed it back to me.  I gave the usual, “Merci; bon journee,” and walked through.

The only way he would have handed my passport back to me without stamping it?  If the record he was looking at on my screen indicated that I had a legal carte de sejour, and hence was a resident of France.  No need to stamp the passport of someone returning home.  Had it always been this way and the border agents just assumed if I didn’t hand them my card I was just a tourist, and they didn’t look any further at my record?  Or is this a new level of digitization that’s been achieved by the French, something we’ve seen a lot of during Macron’s tenure?

Either way, I was home, and I it was my fastest way through yet.

Not asked for?  Carte de sejour.

I’m not saying that you should, as I have, push your luck.  Next week I’m going to stop putting it off and get a recipisse which will serve as a temporary ID until I get the appointment for my ten year card.  What I am saying is if you don’t feel like you’ve gotten everything just so during this period of travel, don’t let that deter you.  A ready smile, a good attitude, a fair number of documents, and a plausible explanation might just see you through.

The photo is one of my passport pages.  As you can see, the French don’t really care whether there’s “room” for a new stamp. 🙂

How to Get a Same Day US Passport (in Los Angeles)

One of the challenges of living in Europe is that you may get your passport stamped a lot.  I say may because there are times I’ve traveled through four countries and never been asked for ID, much less a passport.  But if you do leave Schengen (most notably, to go to the UK, or to the newer Eastern European members of the EU, i.e. Poland/Hungary/Croatia, etc.) you will probably be asked for your passport.  If you have your French carte de sejour (the card version, not the sticker in your passport one) you can sometimes use this in the EU passport line.  I’ve tried it more than once with success, and always had the backup plan of playing “dumb American” if it didn’t work. 🙂

This is all to say that my 26-page US passport was coming to the end of its useful life last November.  Though it was still 3 years to go until renewal (American passports are good for 10 years these days), I was out of pages for stamps.  Yes, I know, tough life for Stephen.  My problem was compounded by the fact that the US Embassy in France was directed to stop adding extra pages to passports on December 31, 2015, a fact I found out in late November when looking through their website.  Given that I would need my passport all throughout December for travel, I couldn’t spare it for the 2-3 weeks the embassy would need to make the extra pages.

By the time I had a moment to go to the US Embassy in Paris in late January of this year, I had figured out that I had to renew in person: foreign residents aren’t permitted to mail their passports back to the the US for extra pages service (which still exists there, anyway).  The instructions stated this in bold and the embassy employee confirmed it.  Again, due to travel, I couldn’t surrender the passport for 2-3 weeks or even the 2-3 business day expedite service.  My “I’m out of pages” reason didn’t qualify for any higher level of expediting.  And given how customs officials don’t seem to care about stamping over previous stamps, perhaps it wasn’t that big of a deal anyway.  But I didn’t want to chance it.

“So I should do rush processing when I’m in America next month?” I asked.  He shrugged, then nodded as he realized that would be easy.  I told him I would be in Los Angeles for a segment of my trip and he said they did same day processing.

As I got ready to leave France I called 1-877-487-2778, which is the number to make an appointment for passport services in the USA.  Since I wasn’t 14 days from leaving the US (I hadn’t even technically arrived), they said I couldn’t make an appointment yet (I found out later this wasn’t true).  She then told me to call back 14 days prior to my leaving with the date I wanted the appointment.  Alas, the next available time was while I would be in Kansas City for a week visiting friends and family – and there was no regional consulate there.

After perusing the interwebs, I gleaned that I might be able to get in with no appointment IF I showed up at some terrible hour in the morning (note: terrible is generally anything prior to 10am), but in this case it would be compounded by waking up even earlier to drive there.  I left north Orange County at around 5am to arrive at 11000 Wilshire Blvd at 6:30am, 30 minutes before the opening time on a Wednesday (normal hours are 7am-3pm).  The line was 30 deep already, but of the 20 only 5 were without appointments, including a couple who had their suitcases with them!

When I got to the window around 7:15am I got the skinny which the interwebs didn’t provide: no-appointment folks (like myself) would only be seen if they had proof of travel within 48 hours.  I was 12 days out, timely by appointment standards, but not by standby standards, which was only for the most desperate.  “Make an appointment for 2 days before you leave,” he told me in response to my stating I was going to be in KC shortly.  Trusting in the “we see everyone in line on Fridays” rule (my flight to Europe would be on a Sunday) I called the 800 number again and this time used the automated system to get an appointment for a date and time of my choosing, which would be the 18th of March at 7am.

* * *

This time, I left at 530am, with the confidence of someone who had an appointment in hand and who understood how the system worked.  Even better, I was a veteran of the French immigration system.  Did these Americans, with their simple and easy five requirements, think they could intimidate me? 🙂

Everyone lined up in the same place as before, but the line was longer as I arrived right at 7, not at 6:30 as I did the time before.  After a few minutes, the guard left the main lobby and walked over to that side of the building and that line and directed those who had appointments to go to the lobby and everyone else (non appointment peeps) to stay there.

Anticipating this, I had loitered in sort of a neutral in-between spot, pretending to look at something important on my phone.  As the line started moving my way I slowly ambled towards the main lobby to the line outside to enter the security check.  I was third in line to enter.  The French “lines are for other people” attitude was engrained, I guess!

I had my paperwork ready to go after I passed the security check, and 20 minutes and $200 USD later, I had a claim check and a 2:00pm pick up time.  The costs included a passport book (the super size 52-page edition, no extra charge), a passport card (used for travel in North American and the Caribbean: I figured why not pick one up since I was there anyway), and the expedite fee.

I got breakfast, went to the beach, about 10 minutes away, then whiled away 2 hours at the amazing Getty Center, just a few miles up the road, and one of my favorite places in Southern California, and returned at 2pm thinking I would simply go back into the building and high five myself after getting my new stuff.  The guard pointed me in the direction of a line that was three times longer than the morning line.

“But I’m here to pick up,” I said, thinking I was special.  “So are they,” he must have said for the thousandth time.  And coming back earlier wouldn’t have helped – a couple who came at 8 got into the line at 1 so they would get to the window at 2.  No luck – theirs wasn’t ready yet.

So I plopped down at the end of the line and read for about 90 minutes as the line slowly snaked forward.  As it got closer to 3pm some nervous nellies asked the guard if they would close the window at 3pm.  “We’ll see everyone in line,” he said patiently.  And it made sense.  It was a 120 second interaction for the slowest, as far as we could tell, and about 30 seconds for the fastest.  You or a designated agent hand over a claim check, show ID, sign, and get the passport.

So around 3:30pm I finally pulled onto the 405 to go back to Orange County, which most people know is precisely the wrong time to get on that freeway, and the carpool lane didn’t have it any better.

So, I “lost” almost a full day bringing you this information, and you will likely lose the same executing this, but bring a book, some snacks, a friend, and a fully-charged phone, and you’ll be fine.  To say nothing of the fact that you’ll have a brand new passport in your hand that same day.  That will make it all worthwhile.  Even the 4am wakeup part.

Featured passport photo taken by Lena LeRay and used by Creative Commons copyright.  

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. 🙂