How to Get a Long-Stay Visa for France Through French Lessons

While it would be nice if Americans were able to live in Europe visa-free, it’s not the case (one can dream that it will be someday, right?). If you’re from the US and want to live in a country like France for more than 90 days, you’ll need to apply for a long-stay visa (known as the VLS-TS) first.

If you don’t have family or a French spouse, there are (to really simplify things) two ways you can live in France legally as a non-European: through work or school. 

I’ve already touched on how to obtain a student visa for France, but this “hack” is for those of you who are more interested in improving your French skills rather than going to a university.

What Kind of French Classes Get You a Long-Stay Visa for France?

If you’re like me, you cringe at the thought of going back to school. Maybe you finished your undergraduate degree and thought to yourself “Never again!” Or, maybe you’ve gotten as far as your master’s or doctorate and there isn’t much university-level schooling out there for you. Or, hey, maybe after high school you decided to go straight to work.

As someone who never thought she would ever go back to school after my undergrad, I eventually did get my master’s degree here in France. But, that’s another story for another day. In between being an au pair and enrolling in my master’s program, I did one year of intensive French classes. And, those classes enabled me to get a long-stay visa for France.

For a bit of background, once I did ultimately decide to go for my master’s degree, I knew I needed to improve my French for a few different reasons. First of all, I wanted to be able to intelligently engage in a conversation with a French person. I also knew that in whatever master’s program I enrolled in, I would be required to understand, speak, and write at least basic French (a level I had not yet reach after living here as a nanny). Plus, if you want to go to a public French university as a foreigner, you need to prove that you have at least “B2” level French. 

B2 refers to a level in the “Common European Framework of Reference” (CEFR) scale for languages. It is used to assess people’s language levels and ranges from A1-C2. Here is a breakdown of the different levels for French:

  • A1: Beginner
  • A2: Elementary 
  • B1: Intermediate
  • B2: Fluent
  • C1: Advanced
  • C2: Bilingual

To be honest, whether or not you want to continue on to a master’s or doctorate program if you plan on living in France for an extended period of time, you should try to obtain at least a B2 level. 

The good news is, an intensive French language program will get you that student visa you’re after whatever level you’re at! Here is what is required:

Once you’ve found your dream program, you’ll have to go through the steps of applying for a student visa for French. I’ve mapped out everything you need to know here.

If you’re in Paris, I did the FETE program at Université Nanterre (yup, that Nanterre. Any other 20th-century history buffs out there?). It’s located just outside of the city to the west. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in improving their French. The classes are a mix of speaking and writing as well as cultural classes. Fieldtrips include visits to Parisian museums and landmarks, how cool is that? There is also a similar option at La Sorbonne

If you’re not in Paris, simply take a look at the list of FLE accredited schools I linked above!

Some Things to Remember if You Want to Renew

If you plan on spending just one year in France and know that you won’t need to renew your visa, you can skip the next section.

If you already know that you’ll want to extend your time in France after one year, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You need to pass the school year in order to renew. That means you’ll have to take school seriously. Attend all of your classes and study for your tests. Stay on good terms with your professors, as well.
  • Make sure you have a plan for what you want to do next. Do you want to continue with intensive French courses until you’ve achieved C2? Do you want to enroll in university? Remember, for the latter, you’ll need at least a B2 level.
  • Start gathering the paperwork you need to renew 4-5 months before the end of the school year. You’ll need to schedule your renewal appointment at least 3 months before your visa expires.
  • As a general note concerning all French visas: keep everything. That means bank statements, cell phone bills, copies of your lease, or a letter from the person who is housing you saying that they are housing you. You’ll need all of this plus proof that you passed the school year. 

Disclaimer: I’m not giving you permission to slack off or stop going to school if you don’t plan to renew your visa. My advice? Take advantage of the fact that you’re in France learning French. It’s the best way to learn a new language, and you’ll have the opportunity to speak French with actual French people. Don’t throw away an opportunity like that.

Molli offers private consultation services which range from help with visas, adjusting to life abroad, to Paris travel itineraries. Click here to learn more.

Photo by Faisal Waheed on Unsplash

An Expat Discussion of Study Abroad Experiences

Editor’s Note: In these articles, Molli Sébrier (MS) & Gracie Bialecki (GB) discuss their study abroad experiences, particularly in the light of later on becoming Paris residents.

MS: I was never someone who imagined herself in a foreign country. But, when I found myself in the study abroad office of my university in the fall of 2011 and the advisor suggested Paris in January 2012, I said yes. When I think back to that gloomy afternoon on my New England campus, I know now that it was a defining moment in my life. If I had never said “yes” to Paris almost ten years ago, I most likely would have never gotten my master’s degree, learned a foreign language, or said “yes” to my French husband. 

I’m getting ahead of myself. I needed a passport (I never had the need for one before), to apply for financial aid, tell my parents, quit my job…all of these seemingly onerous tasks stood in the way of me and my great escape. But, none of that mattered because I was going to Paris. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I did want to live abroad. I had just never let myself have those feelings because it seemed impossible. A lesson in never saying never, for sure. 

Gracie, did you always know that you wanted to study abroad, or was it a spur-of-the-moment decision like it was for me? What prompted you to spend a semester in Paris?

GB: I’m pretty much on the exact opposite end of the study abroad spectrum. At age twelve, I decisively chose to study French over Spanish, and I fell even more in love with the country when I visited with my family the following year. On that trip, I also met our French family friends who continue to play an integral part of my life and my expat experience.

Clearly, I had the France bug from a young age, and I continued to study it in college with the goal of spending a semester abroad. There were programs in other French cities and countries, but I was all eyes on Paris. To me, it was incredible to have an opportunity to live in the city for an entire semester, and it was something I’d wanted to do for as long as I could remember.

I’m interested in what you imagined Paris would be like before you left – did you have a clear idea of what you were getting into? Any specific hopes and dreams for your first extended stay outside of the US?

MS: I honestly went into the entire experience blindly, with next to zero expectations. The week before I was set to leave, it suddenly hit me that I was actually going to be living in a foreign country for the next 6 months, and I got really emotional about leaving friends and family behind. I was so caught up in spending time with everyone, that I didn’t really have time to imagine what I was getting myself into!

I definitely did have certain expectations once I did arrive in Europe – I remember getting to my host family’s apartment with my roommate and we were both really disappointed. We looked out of our window, looked at each other, and said, “We can’t even see the Eiffel Tower from here!” when in reality, we were in the beautiful and quintessentially Parisian neighborhood Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

But, looking back, I’m happy that I didn’t spend much time imagining what Paris was going to be like (other than assuming that you could see the Eiffel Tower from every window in the city). Going into it so blindly meant that I was shocked and awed by nearly everything I saw. One thing that I loved about Paris at the time (and still do!) is the fact that everything is just so old. I’m from New England, the oldest part of the United States, but nothing can compare to the thousand-year-old buildings that are around every corner here.

I imagine that you must have had certain expectations about France since you had been dreaming about coming here for years. Did Paris live up to your expectations? Did anything surprise you about living abroad? 

GB: My study abroad experience was quite stereotypical in that it had a mixture of joyful-loving-Paris highs as well as frustrated-at-foreign-living-lows. Unlike you, my host family lived in Boulogne which is in the west of Paris at the end of the Line 9. While the subway goes there, it’s not in an arrondissement and wouldn’t be considered part of Paris proper. 

So while you could walk many places from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I was at least a forty minute subway ride from everything I wanted to do. On top of that, the métro closes around midnight on the weekdays at one a.m. on the weekends. This meant I was constantly watching the clock and making sure I could get home. Keep in mind that I studied abroad before Uber, electric scooters, and all the transportation options we have today. And at that time, there was no way I could’ve afforded a taxi from the center of Paris out to Boulogne (laughs).

Transportation struggles aside, I did the most I could to immerse myself in French language and culture. I spoke exclusively French with my host family and prioritized spending time with my French friends. My main goal was to be as “French” as possible. Many of the other students in my program spent all their time together, which meant they were speaking English and exploring the city in a way that felt overly touristy. As I mentioned in my other article on studying abroad, I only took one class at a French university, so I struggled a bit with being in a program which was teaching us about the city while also not necessarily integrating us into it.

On a personal note, I was also in a relationship with my boyfriend who lived in Los Angeles which is nine time zones away from France. It was hard to be that far apart and I spent a lot of time and energy missing him even though I was only gone for three months. It’s interesting that your program was twice as long as mine. How did you feel after six months in Paris? At the end of your stay, did you consider yourself comfortably “Parisian”?

MS: At the end of my program a group of friends and I actually ended up moving to the South of France because we weren’t ready to go back to America and reality. I wasn’t ready to leave my newfound French life behind just yet! 

But, funnily enough, I was a lot like the other students in your study abroad program – I stuck with the group and didn’t have any French friends until I moved to the south. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was so comfortable in our little “English bubble,” and breaking away from that felt scary! I barely spoke French and had a hard enough time trying to communicate with my “host mom” that just the thought of trying to make friends in French made me break out into a cold sweat.

So, in that way, I don’t think that I felt Parisian after my 6-month study abroad program, no. I feel much more French and Parisian now after my 7+ years here, mostly because I had a completely different mindset the second time I moved to France. But, that’s another story for another article. 

You mentioned that your host family was located outside the city. Were you disappointed when you learned that or excited that you were going to be with a “real” French family in a “real” Parisian suburb? I already told you that I was pretty terrified of my host mom, what was your relationship with your host family like?

GB: I had mixed feelings about living in Boulogne rather than Paris “proper.” Part of me was quite disappointed to be that far outside of the city, especially since other students on the program were located centrally, like you in Saint-Germain-des-Près. To anyone familiar with Paris, it seems cruel and unfair. At the same time, my other French “family,” who I met through my father when I was thirteen, also live in Boulogne. So in a crazy coincidence, I ended up having both my official and my unofficial French parents in the same neighborhood. That said, being so far outside of Paris did significantly change my experience, and I think it’d be hard for anyone to get the most out of the city while navigating métro closings and public transportation schedules, especially in the time before smartphones. 

My relationship with my host family was fairly cordial — they were considerate and certainly took good care of me, though they didn’t seem particularly interested in learning about my life or my American perspective. They’d been hosting students for many years, and it felt more like a way to fill an empty room in their house than to have a cultural exchange. In retrospect, this is totally reasonable, though going into the program, I expected to be greeted with slightly more open arms. Then again, that’s also a cultural difference. My family had two sons who lived at home, and though they weren’t around much, they always chatted with me. Everyone spoke French which gave me lots of practice — I don’t remember ever once reverting to English. In that regard, being immersed with a family who doesn’t speak much English can be a blessing. Since the easy way to improve at a language is to slog through the daily communication in order to be understood. Overall, I’m grateful for my experience and the way my French improved in those three short months.

Do you have any final thoughts on your time studying abroad in France? Any takeaways that stick out to you as you look back?

MS: The major takeaway for me is how important it is for anyone to leave their home country and live abroad. I mentioned that it was never something that I thought I would do, I wasn’t encouraged to do it by my family, or by anyone around me, really. If it wasn’t for that one persistent study abroad advisor, I honestly don’t know where I would be today! 

That said, studying abroad was totally life-changing for me. That’s not to say that I think everyone who studies abroad should eventually leave their home country for good, but it is an eye-opening experience. Even going from one Western country to another, there are immense differences between France and the United States, and it was really important for me to see that with my own eyes. I think this is especially true for Americans. We tend to grow up in a bubble, quite separate from the rest of the world — both in terms of geography and in terms of mindset. It can be helpful to realize that there are other ways of life out there.

So, if you’re waiting for a sign — this is it! We encourage everyone reading this article to visit the study abroad offices at their university and to think seriously about their options. You never know where a semester or two in a foreign country could lead you.

Photo was taken from the bell towers of Notre Dame, when such views were available to anyone willing to stand in line.

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Why Study Abroad in Paris?

My first visit to France was with my family when I was thirteen. We were the classic sweaty tourists in late-July Paris, dragging ourselves from monument to museum. But I loved old buildings, narrow streets, and outdoor cafés — everything we walked by was tinged with foreign magic. And when we met French friends of my father who had a daughter my age, I knew I would be back.

I kept studying French and visited over a few high school summers, but I was waiting for study abroad so I could live in the city. It would be my chance to speak French until my accent didn’t mar my words. My chance to drink wine in cafés, take the métro to non-touristy neighborhoods, and meet real Parisians.

While I had a few specific reasons why I wanted to study in Paris, it was less of a rational choice and more of an emotional one. I’d been in love with the city for so long, that the thought of spending time there was a dream come true. Here are some of the more (and less) concrete reasons why I chose Paris:

To Speak French

The easiest way to get better at a language is to speak it, hear it, and live it. I already knew this from the time I’d spent with our French friends, and I also knew I needed more practice before I could be anywhere close to fluent. Since I’d started studying French in middle school, speaking it was a comfortable challenge — something I’d already made progress in and knew I wanted to keep working on. Of course, there are other study abroad programs in other French cities, so my other reasons for choosing Paris are specific to it.

To Spend Time in a Beautiful City

If I ever make a list of stunning cities, Paris will be near the top. The historic buildings, tree-lined boulevards, myriad gardens, the Seine cutting through the city and forming two surprise islands — it’s hard to argue against these aesthetics. What’s more, because it was built before cars were invented, Paris is highly walkable (assuming you’re measuring within the bounds of the périphérique). Even better, as you make your way through the city, each neighborhood has a distinct character.

To Learn More About French Culture

American media has a tendency to idealized French culture — carelessly beautiful women, artists in cafés with their endless cigarettes, fine wine, renowned food. It all adds up to a half-glamorous, half-bohemian lifestyle that had me entirely enthralled.

While the rational part of me knew French life couldn’t be this dreamy, I’d fallen for it years ago. What was most fulfilling about my study abroad experience was deepening my relationship — I took a course on architecture in which we toured the city and visited specific buildings. And another on theater where we read French plays before seeing them performed in a variety of venues. Rather than being on the outside of the city looking in, I was immersed in its offerings.

You Never Know What Will Happen

No, this isn’t the part where I say I fell in love with a Frenchman who is now my husband. My study abroad program had us take a single course at a French university while the rest of our school time was with the American cohort. This meant that we glommed together and spent most of our time wandering Paris and speaking English in a sort of extended tourist outing.

I was lucky in that I already had a two French friends, and I was able to tag-along to their truly “French” life. While I did spend a good amount of time exploring the city, I only lived in Paris for one semester — from September to mid-December. In order to have truly felt like I was committing to this adventure, I would’ve needed to stay longer. This is one of the reasons why I decided to move back in 2018 and have another go.

When I think back on my study abroad experience, it’s a distant blur. But I’m grateful for the way my French improved and all I learned about the city. And instead of worrying that I didn’t make the most of my time, I see my experience as a stepping stone to my current Paris life.

If you’re thinking about studying abroad in Paris, it might be helpful to make a list of reasons why you’re attracted to the city. Is it to speak French? To have access to its museums and rich cultural history? Or simply to go on an adventure? What’s your why for studying abroad in Paris?

Photo is from a French classroom which will be dramatically different from a US university setting. 🙂

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student visa

Obtaining a Student Visa for France

Over the summer I gave a series of webinars on moving to France (recordings available on Nomadic Matt’s Patreon).  One of the strategies I suggested for coming to France in the short term (given that some visa windows were indefinitely closed) was the student visa.  A “student” visa doesn’t necessarily mean getting enrolled in a degree-seeking program.  It just means any course of study.  France continued to rubber stamp these all throughout 2020, despite the fact that many of the programs were online, meaning that even though you didn’t have to physically come to France to “take” the course, France still approved you for transit.  I concluded that France wanted to continue to signal that they were making a conscious choice to at least appear to allow education to continue even as they forbade commerce and leisure travel.

One of my friends and colleagues in my years here in France, Molli Sebrier, has gone through the student visa process twice and I asked her to write a guest post on the process.  She also does consulting on the process, so her information is at the bottom of the post should you wish to learn more. – SH.

The first time I ever stepped foot in France was as a student in 2012. I was there to do the elusive “study abroad semester,” which has a reputation of being more about soaking in the culture of wherever you go rather than taking classes. Spoiler alert, the rumors are true. Although I will say I attended most of my classes, they were nothing compared to the workload I was used to at my university. I had an architecture course in which the professor actually took us around Paris to explain treasures like Notre-Dame and Les Invalides. Interesting? Extremely. Do I remember everything about the architecture I learned about? Seeing as we didn’t have any exams, no. 

In addition to 2012 being the first time that I stepped foot in France, it was the first time that I had ever left the United States. I never really considered myself a homebody or uninterested in travel, but an international trip was just not on my radar at the time. I didn’t even have a passport. 

Fast-forward to 2020, and in total, I have about seven years of French living under my belt, three student visas, one au pair visa (when that still existed), and one visa I have courtesy of my French fiancé. I’ll soon find out what the newest chapter in my immigration journey, marriage, will be like. 

Whether you’re in the same situation as I was in 2012, or you have a bit more international travel experience, navigating the world of French bureaucracy can be intimidating. This is the country that is known around the world for its “red tape.” And, to be honest with you, it is a lot to figure out especially if you don’t speak French or have never applied for a visa before. 

In these unpredictable Covid times, the easiest (and most plausible unless you are in a relationship with a French person) way to move to France as an American for more than 90 days is through a student visa. Don’t let the word “student” scare you, especially if you’re not a teenager or in your twenties anymore. You could take a French language course, a culinary program, or simply shoot for another degree…for 1/10th of the price of American schools.

In an effort to help those interested navigate these sometimes murky waters, I’ve come up with this basic guide to obtaining a French student visa. 

Step 1: Determine your program

The most important thing you’ll need to do before you get started on the path to obtaining a French student visa is to find a program. It’s important to note that not all programs will make you eligible for a visa. You will need to be enrolled in classes that are between 18-20 hours per week or more. Here are a few examples of the types of programs you should be looking for:

  • A study abroad or exchange program (if you are currently enrolled in a college or university this is your best option)
  • A degree-granting program 
  • French language program (please note that the program must be FLE accredited)
  • A specialized school in France

You must be accepted into the program of your choice before you move onto Step 2. And, remember, don’t get discouraged if you don’t want to take French classes or go back to college. As mentioned, if you love to cook or are interested in wine, there are several options. Does the famous Le Cordon Bleu, ring any bells? Channel your inner Julia Child and check out their options. 

You won’t be able to apply for your student visa until at most 3 months before your program starts, so keep that in mind as you continue on through the process. 

Step 2: Apply through Études en France and Campus France

Once you’ve been accepted into your program, you’re ready to start the process of applying for your student visa. First, you’ll need to make an account on Études en France, a platform that was created by the French government to make applying for a visa easier. 

Once you create your account you’ll have to follow the instructions on the site. It involves knowing the name of your program and finding it on a list, entering your personal information including your name and passport number, and other administrative information. There is an option for “students not yet accepted,” but I do recommend that you wait until you have been accepted to begin the process as it’s much easier. 

Études en France and Campus France are connected so after you’ve filled in all of your information, you’ll be able to directly submit it to Campus France via the Études en France platform. You will also have to pay a fee of $190 (subject to change) to Campus France. It can take up to 3 weeks for Campus France to review your application. You will receive a confirmation email if and when you are approved.

Step 3: Apply for a student visa via the France-Visas platform

Once your application has been approved by Études en France and Campus France, you will move to the next platform, France-Visas. You already know that you need a student visa, so feel free to skip the “Do I need a visa?” step. Create your account and fill out the application form. Here you’ll note that “Visa applications cannot be submitted more than 3 months prior to the start of your trip for a long stay visa, and 6 months for a short stay visa” as I mentioned! Please also note that you will need to pay another fee of $37.15 (subject to change) when you’ve finished filling out your application.

Step 4: Make an appointment at the VFS Global Center closest to your home

After you’ve submitted your application on France-Visas, you’ll be able to directly book an appointment at the VFS Global Center closest to your home. It’s recommended on the site that you make your appointment at least 15 days before the date of your departure. In my experience, the longest I’ve had to wait to receive my visa was 7 days, but, I was also in Boston.  Your consulate’s waiting time may vary.

Step 5: Go to the appointment and then wait to receive your visa

You’ve made it this far and for that, I congratulate you! But, you’re not out of the woods yet, as you still need to attend your in-person appointment where you’ll need to present a fair amount of paperwork in order to obtain your visa. You will need:

  • France-Visas Visa application form
  • France-Visas receipt of payment
  • ID Photograph (please note that this needs to be a “European-size passport-style headshot” which is 1.4 inches by 1.8 inches)
  • If you are a non-U.S. citizen, proof of your legal status in the U.S.
  • Passport
  • Campus France USA confirmation email
  • Études en France electronic acceptance letter
  • Proof of accommodation in France (this can be an Airbnb or hotel while you look for something more permanent)
  • Proof of sufficient funds for your time in France

Pro tip? Bring at least 3 copies of everything. It’s a lot, I know. But you’ll have to get used it this amount of paperwork if you’re going to be living in France! At your appointment, they’ll ask you pretty standard questions such as why you want to move to France, why you chose your program, etc. Try not to be too nervous and just be honest.

Step 6: Begin preparing for your trip to France!

Now for the fun part: preparing for your long-awaited new life in France. Consider where you want to live, what you want to bring along, and your new daily routine. The road to the French student visa may be long, but it isn’t as complicated as it looks! 

Molli offers private consultation services which range from help with visas, adjusting to life abroad, to Paris travel itineraries. Click here to learn more.

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash