Taxes, again

So in France you receive a tax bill for the current year based on what you were assessed the previous year.  You then pay that bill in payments so that by the time that year’s taxes are due, you will ostensibly be “ahead of the game.”  Of course, this depends on your income stability.  If you make a lot more money this year than last year, then those payments are simply a down payment on your future tax bill.  Conversely, if you are unemployed, you will still be paying into the system at the rate you did when you were employed.

Wait, Stephen, I thought you said I didn’t have to pay taxes?  You’re right, as a visitor, I don’t have to pay taxes, but I still have to file and declare taxes.

But the French government didn’t do their sums correctly, and I had to do a bit of correspondence with them to fix it.  In this blog post I told you that they recognized this error but they ended up only removing some of the amount, so I had to write another letter explaining that I didn’t owe anything.  It only took four months and two letters. 🙂

But the person who issued my corrections didn’t update my file, because I got a notice to start paying taxes based on last year’s amount…which I got dismissed.  So I had to draft another letter explaining (with photocopies of the dismissals) that not only did I not owe taxes for the 2014 taxes, but I did not owe advance payments for 2016, as I wouldn’t have any tax liability in 2015 either.  I only moved to my right to work status in January so next year I will actually owe something.

Remember in dealing with the French: be patient, have your documentation to the Nth degree and backups, and trust the process.  The fastest road to frustration is to imagine you are entitled to anything.

I expect to get a dismissal of my current tax bill.  I’ll let you know if something else happens.

Profession Liberale Visa: Part 2 (90 days later)

Ninety days after you obtain your profession liberale visa, assuming you have done everything correctly after that momentous day at the prefecture, you will have a number of new documents to present to the Prefecture for your follow-up visit.

Chief among those “correctly done things” is a visit to URSSAF within 24-72 hours after you obtain your visa.  I went to the office near the BnF right when it opened, and completed my appointment within 20 minutes.  I showed her my recipisse designating my new status, as well as answered some basic questions regarding where I lived and which specific classification I was looking for.

URSSAF is in charge of social security contributions, among many other things, and feeds out its information to other agencies, including RSI, INSEE, CIPAV, Ram, and the Ministry of Finance.  In turn all these agencies will start flooding your mailbox, asking you to send them follow-up documents.  This is a dizzying number of acronyms so let me start with the easy one first, and perhaps the most important.

INSEE is the Institute de la statistique et des études economiques and is responsible for issuing you a national identification number, which you will need now that you are formally entering French society.  It’s similar to the American “social security number,” though your French one is oddly longer but easier to decode.

RSI is the Régime Social des Indépendants and is a mutuel – it’s a subassociation of URSSAF (which, by the way is Unions de Recouvrement des Cotisations de Sécurité Sociale et d’Allocations Familales).  Without taking you too far into the woods of unnecessary and redundant and overlapping French agencies, RSI serves as a “mutuel” for health insurance and pays the difference between what the national health insurance pays and what you owe.

Ram is a partner agency of RSI that works with small business owners and artisans.  They are, in my case, responsible for issuing my Carte Vitale, which is what you use to pick up meds at the pharmacie and for all your medical visits.

Finally, there is CIPAV (still with me?) – Caisse Interprofessionelle de prévoyance et d’assurance vieillesse.  They are in charge of your pension, and no, you cannot opt out of contributing.

If you end up getting employees (I have absolutely zero intention of doing so, given the draconian anti-business laws in this country) you will also need to know about one of the huge mutuels, like Malakoff-Mederic, for example, who would handle health care, insurance, and retirement for your employees.

The Ministry of Finance, of course, handles your taxes and they have a very distinctive looking envelope.  As I was writing I turned to a colleague at my coworking space and told her, “Nothing good ever comes in this envelope!”  She laughed in agreement.  They want to know what space, if any, in your home is going to be dedicated to your work.  I maxed that out.

Registering at URSSAF after you obtain your visa will trigger letters from all of these places.  Don’t worry, you don’t need to register individually!  You’ll also get schedules of future billing – membership ain’t free.

You will also need to bring your first 3-5 invoices from your new professional life, proving you’ve already started working.  My agent raised her eyebrows at the four invoices I handed her.  “Not bad!” she said in French and smiled.  I reminded her that she was the agent who had approved my first long term visitor renewal, back in 2014.  “It’s a long way!” she said.  My nod didn’t convey just how much I agreed with her sentiment.

And finally, you’ll need to show them your shiny new French bank account dedicated solely to your new business.  If you aren’t well advised, when you go to open one you’ll ask for a professional account and pay all the fees that come with that designation.  Both my accountant and my attorney advised me to get a simple personal account and dedicate it to my business, which I did.

I have been extremely satisfied with Societe Generale, but by way of auditioning a new bank (and giving myself more options), I opened an account at BNP Paribas.  With the recent implementation of FATCA and my US citizenship, this was anything but a smooth ride, but I’ll talk about that in another article.

So bring them most of this documentation (they don’t care about your CIPAV stuff, for example, but as I’ve said in previous posts, bring the second folder with all the “just in case they ask” material), along with “the usual,” i.e. your lease, renter’s insurance, passport, and recipisse.

Your agent at the prefecture will double-check all your paperwork, and then cross-check it with your file from 90 days before.

They will then print another recipisse and have you sign in two boxes in the application for your physical carte.  Processing time is about 10 weeks at the moment.  I got a July 13th pickup date from an April 21st appointment.  And, thankfully I always keep all my paperwork that I’ve ever done for French immigration, as I have to bring the original police report I received when I lost my last card.  And I get to pay extra (16€) for losing that card, despite having paid over 100€ to pay for the card in the first place.  Remember, this is France, not Germany. 🙂

It’s sinking in.  I work in France, legally.  I’m on the long road to citizenship which comes with paying taxes here.  I know that all these acronyms and agencies can be scary and intimidating, but honestly, it’s also a great filter to separate the dreamers from the doers.  Those who want to be here will laugh through this process because a little (or a lot) of paper shouldn’t stand between you and your dreams.

Featured image comes from the Australasian Mine Safety Journal, under creative commons usage.

The path to French citizenship begins, or “Visitor no more”

I saw her place the green and white paper on top of my file.  It was the paper used to print a recipisse (the temporary document one uses for identification while waiting to get a permanent identity card).  Externally I remained stoic.  Internally my jaw dropped and I wanted to shout out.  That enormous dossier that I had handed over 15 minutes earlier had worked.  Not only had I successfully jumped the track from the hamster-wheel of visitorhood to the track to an EU and French citizenship, but this had been the shortest prefecture visit since I moved to France in 2013.  From start to finish it had been thirty minutes.  I had felt supremely confident in my dossier – but this was France, after all.  There could always be something objectionable.

Still dumbstruck, I silently handed over my photos.  As the big printer hummed, she clipped out one of them, handed the rest back to me, then dutifully affixed it to my recipisse.  She then gave it all the stamps and signatures it needed after I had verified all the information and signed it myself.

Today is eight days after I successfully changed to a Profession Liberale visa.  As long as I earn a certain income over the next five years and pay the requisite taxes, I’ll be eligible to apply for French citizenship (note: that does not mean I’ll get it).  I’m officially allowed to work in France, now.  I had to go to URSSAF yesterday to do more paperwork, and I need to come back in 90 days to give the prefecture that paperwork, but that’s literally paper pushing, rather than the complex compilation of a dossier.

Could I have taken this path immediately in 2013 instead of taking the visitor route?  Yes.  Indeed, if there are any of you out there interested in taking this path, I can help consult you through this process as someone who has successfully completed it and has a winning template (and if you live in Paris I’ll throw in a lunch, too).  For more information, email me.

And yet, the answer for me is also No.  I could not have taken this route myself, knowing as little as I did about France in 2013.  I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, and my plans and ideas about my time in France were so inchoate when I landed here.  Yes, eight days ago I took a bulletproof dossier to the Prefecture…but I knew it was bulletproof because of my last two visits there and what I had learned about the French and their expectations in the last three years.

It’s also been marvelous to hear from people I’ve met because of this blog – not just those who needed help regarding the visitor visa but those who have started to meet with me to strategize about what I’ve just successfully done: a transition to the citizenship route.  A few of their testimonials are here.

Thanks for continuing this journey with me.  Last Thursday was the end of the beginning.

The image is the flag of the Bourbon Restoration.  It’s as good a time as any to admit that I’m an unabashed royalist.

Absence/Podcast/A trip to the police station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Renew Your French Long-Term Stay Visa

The heavy, ancient printer started printing my recipisse.  I closed my eyes.  Whenever the old printer starts running in a French immigration office, you’re in the clear.  I had done it.  I had survived my first year in France and I had just renewed my visa too.  The relief and triumph wasn’t nearly what I felt when I first got one or confirmed it.  But it was relief.  Palpable relief.  I could go on about my year without having to think about this again for a while.

Because I had originally moved to Paris in December 2013 my one year visa was up that same month in 2014.  Trouble was it was around the time I needed to go back to see my family, take care of some business, etc.  I could have chosen to renew it earlier, or I could have just chosen to move to France sometime other than in December, but there it is.  Think about where you will be in one year whenever you do apply for your visa.  I think December and January make a lot of sense for many, though, because the move has all the notes of “new start” and you give yourself a whole year of runway (although some of our readers need only two months!)

To be fair, I had to make two visits, because they asked for some things I didn’t have on hand the first time.  Let’s start with that list, shall we?  You can find it on the Paris Police Prefecture website, right here.  You can also make your appointment for renewal online at this link.  I should make the point that I am speaking to people applying for a long-term visitor visa.  Students and workers should consult their own subcategories when preparing their dossiers.

So, my dear long-term visitors, if you clicked on the link you came to a page that listed your requirements.  Let’s start at the top.  Notice that they want the original and 1 photocopy for each of these documents.  If you have forgotten or the copies get damaged there are large commercial copying machines that charge you 10 cent(imes) per copy in the vestibule of the office you have to go to.  There’s also two photomaton booths to take your pictures should you have forgotten them.  They honestly do have your bases covered here.  When I say “here” of course I mean this building below:

1212px-Paris-prefecture-de-police
It faces Notre Dame directly and is easily accessible via the Cité stop on the Metro.  Bring water, snacks, a nice book to dig into, charger for your phone, and block out your whole day for whenever your appointment is.  Some say mornings are better, others afternoons – I only chose afternoons because I’m not a morning person and in both instances I “checked in” an hour before my appointment which allowed me to actually be seen only 30 minutes after my scheduled appointment time.  Be early – or you may not even get seen that day.  I’m serious.

Paperwork you MUST have:

1.  A copy of your original titre de sejour as well as the passport which contains it.  This is the sticker you would have gotten on your follow-up visit when you first arrived in France.  For visitors your first year titre de sejour resides simply in your passport.  Come renewal time, you actually get issued a card.

2.  Your birth certificate.  You’ll need a certified French translation of it.  Mine was written in English by the Singaporean government and the French translation cost 72€.  If you need the translator’s contact info, simply ask me.

So, about that birth certificate.  If you’re like me, you keep all your important documents in a folder somewhere.  The trouble was, up to the point when my eyes first looked upon these requirements, I thought I had brought them with me to France.  My birth certificate, immunization record, baptismal certificate, all that jazz.  After the search that starts with, “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” turned to, “Goodness, did I actually not bring it to France?” I ended with the eye-closed panic of, “Oh no, it must be with my stuff in storage.”

Before I went to the nuclear option of having to order new copies I called up reliable people in my life – a business partner, a sister, and my mother: “Did I leave any documents with you or do you happen to have a copy of my birth certificate?”  They all replied in the negative.

The boxes of “stuff” that comprised my life when I had an enormous townhome in the United States were currently peacefully residing in the spare room of a dear friend in Kansas City.  It was already enough that he was storing these things for me at no charge.  I wasn’t going to ask him to do the dreaded task ahead: go through all the boxes looking for a manilla or green folder that has a bunch of important documents in it.

Who could I call?  My ex-girlfriend.  I know, this sounds odd, but hear me out.  She is one of the sweetest, best girls I’ve ever dated and she can tell you herself that the move to Paris was perhaps the biggest reason we broke up.  So, could she now assist me in helping to prolong said stay in Paris?  Yes, she’s actually that awesome.

After work one day she drove 30 minutes to my friend’s house and audibly inhaled when she saw the roughly 20 boxes and rubbermaid tubs she had committed to going through.  She called me.  “You’re kidding, right?”  Chagrined, I replied, “Look, if you find it, great.  If you don’t find it, I still owe you.”  Various words of affection were exchanged and she commenced.  Two hours later, no dice.  She hadn’t found it.  (Postscript to the story: when I visited last month to clear out those boxes I found the documents, in a green folder, in a box closest to the doorway.  It might have been in a state of fatigue that she missed the closest possible option.)

So I was officially out of luck, and given that I had only pulled up the requirements 6 weeks before renewal (how hard could it be, right?  Wrong!) I now had to convince either the American government or the Singaporean government to get me a certified copy of my birth certificate.  Why would both of them have one?  Well, I was born in Singapore, so that’s why the Singaporean government would have one.  But I was born as an American citizen abroad, by virtue of my father, so we had a Consular Report of Birth Abroad as well.  Either would suffice.  I decided to bet on both simultaneously.

I went to the American Embassy the Monday after Meghan’s unsuccessful search and got a notarization for a request for the certified copy of my consular report.  I enclosed an American check with the $14.95 overnight mailing fee.  The Singapore process was a little more complicated, but more automated.  I would have to request a copy of my birth extract, which would contain my birth certificate number.  Then I could use the birth certificate number in conjunction with other documents to request a certified copy of my birth certificate.

What had my failure to bring this single document to France with me cost, apart from the emotional distress of waiting?  Roughly 300USD.  So, don’t forget, kids.

Ultimately, Singapore won my bet.  A registered letter containing my birth certificate arrived the day before my appointment at the Prefecture.  The American one had arrived at my American post office box (I use US Global Mail to receive mail and packages while I’m in Europe) a day before but because it was around the Thanksgiving holiday I would not get it overnighted to Europe in time.  And you can’t ask them to ship your certificate outside the US.

3.  3 photos of standard size.  As I said in previous articles, you can find these literally all around Paris and even if you don’t, they have two machines out in the vestibule you can use.  5 euros gets you 5 photos.  Keep the photos.  You’ll need them for other documents and applications while here.

4.  If you are married or have children you will need proof of marriage as well as the birth certificates for your whole family.

5.  EDF or QDL.  EDF is short for “Electricité de France,” the monopoly state-run organization who provides you with a bill you can use for pretty much EVERYTHING in France.  If you rent, like I do, you might not get an EDF, so you’ll bring an up-to-date Quittance de Loyer which is simply proof from your landlord that you are paying rent and have done so faithfully, etc.

So those are the basics for all visas.  Now, let’s look at page 2 and what we long-term visitors additionally need.

6.  12 months of bank statements.  I hope you saved yours or get them digitally.  This could be either a French bank account or an American one.  If the former, you need to ensure that you are not receiving any income from any French companies.  Make sure any wire transfers that come in come from a corresponding account in your name.  Remember that you signed an attestation when you got your visa that you would not do work while here and the careless forgot that (or just stupidly got jobs) and the careful civil servant may look at your statements line-by-line.  You are not required to have a French bank account but I don’t see how you could tolerably live here for one year and not have one.  All my paperwork had been in order up to this point so when my agent started flipping through my bank statements she looked up and asked, “where do you get your money?”  “I tutor on the internet and I also write.”  She nodded, flipped through to October 2014, which was the last statement I could provide, and promptly turned them all over to her “done” pile.  If you don’t have sufficient cash flows in said bank account (they like to see a minimum of 1.5-2k € a month of revenue) you may have to produce other evidence of means – be it a savings account, etc.  As I’ve written before, a simple letter from your bank will not be sufficient.  They will want statements.

7.  Health Insurance.  When I was in America, it was okay to provide proof for this in English.  Not now.  You’re in France now, so just as my birth certificate needed an official translation, I needed one for my medical policy as well.  I had originally selected Cigna Global and while I only found out later that they did have French translations of all the relevant documents, the agent on the phone told me that the “front page” of declarations would be sufficient.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t.  The cost of translating my whole policy would have been more than simply buying a French policy of health insurance for foreigners.  So I did just that, and in my cancellation call with Cigna (with a very courteous and apologetic Irish girl) I was told that they did indeed have French docs.  Sorry, I told them.  Maybe next year.  If you want a French policy, I can put you in contact with my agent.  Great lady.

8.  Renter’s insurance for my apartment.  Ohhhhhh.  Well, despite the fact that my lease had stipulated that I carry this, I had simply forgotten.  This held me up at my first appointment and led to a “follow-up” at which time I would bring said documentation proving I did have it.  Rather than admit straight out that I didn’t have such insurance I simply said that I didn’t bring it, which was true – I hadn’t. 🙂  We scheduled a time 7 weeks out, when I would have been safely and actually back from my Stateside visit, and when I came back, having secured insurance (if you need that, my guy is great), I handed said docs to her.  She stamped a couple things, had me sign the document for my new carte de sejour and the old printer started printing.

What was printing was my “recipisse.”  It was a “temporary ID” that was valid for two months.  In two months I could come back to the prefecture, drop 106€, and pick up my permanent card (which I’ll have to renew again).  This was the final separation of my passport from the act of flashing “ID” when asked in France.  To be honest, my American driver’s license worked most times.  But if you’re writing a check, they will prefer a French ID, though some smiling and hand wringing will usually allow for the exceptional passport to be used as proof.

I was, of course, relieved.  I didn’t do this entirely by myself, though.  I consulted with someone who specializes in helping expats, Jean Taquet.  I first started speaking to him last year as part of a long-term strategy to build a business and stay in France.  If you want he will hold your hand every step of the way through the titre de sejour process, up to and including coming with you to the Prefecture.  It’s not free – but I’ll leave it to you to discuss fees with him.  I’ll also talk more about Jean and his help for those who want to make a long-term living here in a future blog post.

As always – remember that if you have your stuff in order and are polite you’ll have success.  Speak the French you’ve hopefully been learning all year with even a measured diffidence, and you’ll go further.

Long Term Stay Visa, Part 2

Despite the work it took to obtain my visa in the first place, my paperwork was not completed.  This is what happens when you get here.

I will admit, I was planning for a full-day affair on March 12th.  That was the 90-day mark of my arrival and OFII (Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration) wanted my bright shining face in the 10th arrondissement at 09h00.

I needed to bring the following with me:

1.  The letter whi2014-03-12 07.59.26ch had been mailed (and emailed) to me providing proof of my appointment.  Easy enough.

2.  My passport.  Of course.

3.  My quittance de loyer or attestation d’hébergement.  Asked my landlord, piece of cake.

4.  A photo.  They have photomatons all over the city where you can step in a booth and knock this out..  5 euros for five pictures.  You can use them for all sorts of things.  Notice how happy I look!  But in all seriousness, you’re not allowed to smile.

2014-03-12 07.59.37

5.  Fiscal stamps.  This was hilarious.  I needed to go to a Tabac – a store that sells tobacco – which is often a cafe – and buy these.  You use them for all sorts of taxes and fees.  There were two and then soon ten anxious smokers behind me in line, as the lady kindly counted out 241 euros in fiscal stamps.  To be fair you can now, mirabile dictu, buy these online!

6.  A vaccination card. This was proof that I had gotten all the basic stuff.  The kind folks at Sunflower Medical Group faxed that to me the same day I requested it.

2014-03-12 07.59.40So I had a bit of work I had to do in the days leading up to my appointment.  Day of, I packed snacks, sandwiches, a book, my journal, etc.  I was ready to be there all day.  Boy was I wrong.

Perhaps it is the repetitive nature of what they do, but this group of French civil servants are among the most efficient I have seen in any country, ever.

I was checked-in downstairs by a security guard, who sent me upstairs to my first waiting area.  I had arrived at 08h50, about 10 minutes before my appointment window.  I was seated for about 3 minutes before I was moved to another area.  Instead of the first room, which had 30 seats and only 6 people seated, this oval room had 40 seats and all but 3 were taken.  These were immediately taken by myself and the other two aliens/immigrants who had been walked down the hall from Room #1.

I got comfortable, got out my book (Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, an excellent read, by the way, and free on your Kindle or Kindle app) and got ready to be there for a while.

After 20 minutes of reading I looked up to get used to the flow of traffic.  Immediately to my left there were nurse practitioners or equivalents calling out names.  After going in that room, you are a little later called into another room, then another, then you leave to go back to the front.

One of the interesting aspects of the morning was hearing the French try to pronounce non-French names.  “Stephen Heiner” comes out as “Steve-fen Eye-Nehr.”  I’ve often thought of creating a “stage name” during my time in France – something like “Etienne Henry.”  Etienne is French for Stephen and Henry would just be an elision of Heiner.  Oh well, next time perhaps.  When I didn’t have to show documentation that I was someone else 🙂

I heard my name amid the buzzing French conversations and stood up and went into the first room.  I was asked to take off my coat and scarf and was weighed, measured, and given an eye test.  There didn’t seem to be any problems, and as a bonus I found I had dropped 5 kg, about 12 pounds, since I had been in France.  I could keep this up and be at my ideal weight after 9 more months! 🙂

I should note here that I’ve very much taken on French rhythms and customs of eating, with a paleo twist.  I don’t snack in between meals, my portion sizes are sensible (read: not American), and I cook my own food most of the time.  My paleo twists are frequent use of butter and meats, and a reversal of my age-old practice of increasing meal size as the day goes on.  I now have a huge breakfast (when it isn’t Lent, of course), a medium-sized lunch, and a modest dinner, with the dinner taken before 19h00.  Of course, when I go out with friends for meals we usually don’t even get to the restaurant until 20h00.  But most days this is the regimen – and that, combined with my having to walk and bike everywhere – an average of 3 miles per day – was probably the main reason I lost that winter weight that had been storing up during my car-dependent life in America.

I sat down after this felicitous weigh-in and dug back into my book.  09h45.

The next station was the radiologist.  There were three changing rooms we lined up outside of.  We would step in and lock the door, which would activate a light on the other side to let the radiologist know there was a new “customer” waiting.

We were to strip above the waist and wait patiently.  After a few minutes my door opened and I was walked to an x-ray machine.  The radiologist said “Breathe-in” in French and I took a deep breath and held it.

At around 10h30 I was called for my last stop in the oval room: the doctor.

She asked if I spoke French and I said that if she spoke slowly, please, I would be able to keep up.  Fluents, by nature, speak quickly.  I do unconsciously in English all the time.

She laughed and obliged.  She looked over my files, asked for my vaccination card, and ticked off some other questions like was I taking any medications, etc.

She stamped and signed a sheet – one for my records and one to hand to my final stop.

I was back in the room I started in.  I sat down just in time to watch the exchange between the woman in charge and another person, like me, getting ready to check-out.

(In French)

“Your papers, please”

(girl hands them over)

“Photo, proof of residence, and fiscal stamps, please”

(girl hands them over)

Woman takes everything, then frowns and hands back a piece of paper.

“This is not sufficient.”

Now, the girl had handed her an SFR cell phone bill, which everyone knows isn’t good enough for anything.  The woman asked for a quittance de loyer or attestation d’hébergement, or the single most important piece of paper for your administrative life in France, an EDF (Électricité de France) bill.

(girl stammers back in halting French that she doesn’t have it)

“bien revenir, alors,” the woman said, annoyed.

The girl stammered, in English, “I come back?”

“Oui, oui, cet après-midi, demain, ce n’est pas grave.”  She was more annoyed now.

The girl made it into a statement, “I come back.”

The woman stared her into going away.

That girl left without the one thing we all were there for today: the sticker in the passport saying we were “legal.”  I was scared.  I triple-checked all my stuff.  But I had everything.  She smiled and handled my papers, and put this all important sticker in my passport, and stamped it.

2014-03-12 15.18.35

 

She handed me a sheet of paper which instructed me to go to my police station in my prefecture, which is the final step in this process.  And she demonstrated what I’ve come to realize:  if you come prepared with all you need, the French are happy to help you on your way.

So, I’m not totally done, but mostly done, and the second step was a total breeze compared to the first.

How to get a French long-term stay visa Part I, or “learning to love bureaucracy”

You would think the fact that I’m conversational and literate in French, and that I’m a teacher, would alert me to the fact that as I went back and forth with the machinery of the French consulate, I would remember that the very etymology of bureaucracy traces to the French word for desk.

When I first started doing the research behind the visa I would need to live in Paris, I didn’t find much help.  About.com had a decent article, but it was from 2006, and who knew what had changed since then?  Here’s what I was able to glean from the web, before I made my way to the website for the French Consulate office for my region, which happened to be in Chicago:

1.  You cannot get a student visa unless you are going to school at least half-time.

2.  You cannot get an “au pair” visa – where you trade out work around a home in exchange for rent – once you are over the age of 26.

3.  You cannot get a work visa without a sponsor in France who is guaranteeing your job.

The last option, you have to imagine, for someone who has spent the last decade building businesses, was the least viable.  And so, I had to look at the long-term-stay visitor visa.

I received a one-year stay visa just a few weeks ago so this is not just a chronicle of how I did it for the edification and amusement of my friends and family – it’s also a how-to for those of you who are US citizens who want to follow in my footsteps to successfully obtain a visa and can’t get any of the visas I listed above.

Guiding principle when dealing with the French: be calm, polite, friendly and prepared.  And never assume you will simply get the visa because you gave them the form and the money.

Here is what you will need:

1.  A filled out application form.  That link is for the English version.  I decided to kiss-up and fill out mine in French (couldn’t hurt my chances, I thought).

2.  One passport sized photo which will go onto the application form.  You need to make sure it’s against a white background, captures your full face, has no glasses or hat, and has your mouth closed.  Don’t smile!

3.  A questionnaire – not to be confused with the above application – and this one has to be filled out in French AND notarized.

4.  Your  passport (you’re going to have to leave it with them) plus one copy of the identity pages.  I suggest you make a couple copies so that you have some on file yourself should some mishap happen.  This might also be a good time to make sure you have a passport card so that if you need to travel to Canada or Mexico while your passport is with the consulate you will be able.  This is mutually exclusive, though – the State Department will need your passport too in order to send you back your passport card so you would have to apply for it in plenty of time to get your passport back before your visit to the consulate.  Your passport must have been issued less than 10 years ago, must be valid for at least 3 months after your projected return to the US, and have at least 2 blank visa pages left.

5.  Status in the US:  A simple statement saying “I am a citizen of the United States.”

6   Letter explaining what you intend on doing in France.  I wrote a one paragraph statement that said I was planning to visit France and learn about it and perhaps write about it.

7.  Notarized Letter promising not to work in France.  I wrote a one paragraph statement in which I stated that I would not be working for any French companies during my stay.

8.  Letter of Employment in the US stating occupation and earnings.  So here’s where it gets interesting.  It seems as though the French expect that you either have a job or are taking a leave from a job in order to come and they want certification.  They are even okay if you continue to draw pay from that employer.  As long as its not a French company (and hence, you are not depriving someone in France of a job they could have) they don’t care.

9.  Proof of means of income.  They will want at least your last 3 months of checking and savings accounts, if not more.  How much are you going to need?  Great question.  From what I could tell during my interview in Chicago, they want your rent + $800 per month for every month you are staying, minimum.  So, let’s say you have a very small place in the city, like my apartment in the 17th arondissement, where you will pay at least $1000USD, add in $800, and that brings you to $1800/month.  If you want to stay for six months they will want to see that you either have that in savings or that you will earn enough (item #8) in combination with your savings to stay.

10.  Proof of medical insurance.  This one requires a bit more pirouetting.  You may not apply for a long-term stay visa until 90 days before your departure.  The company I use only sells annual policies.  However, the French are going to want to see full coverage during your time there.  I split the difference.  I got a policy that went into effect two weeks after my visit to the consulate, which was 86 days before my departure (I wasn’t taking any chances!), and when I sent the proof of insurance to the consulate I stated that the policy auto-renews at the end of one year.

11.  Marriage and/or birth certificates for the children.  I got to skip this one!

12.  Enrollment in school for your children.  I also skipped this.

13.  Proof of accommodation in France.  I initially presented them with an email from my landlady.  This would be rejected and a copy of her passport as well as her utility bill was asked for.  Have those on hand to skip my delay.

14.  The processing fee.  This will change so check here to see the latest cost.

15.  For those who want to stay more than 6 months, you must fill out the residence form.  You only need to worry about the top part.  The bottom comes after you’ve been approved.

16.  A self-addressed prepaid EXPRESS MAIL envelope.  Absolutely no UPS, Fedex, etc.  Good ol’ US MAIL.

Did you do all that?  Good.  You’re still not done.

Now you have to make an appointment in their system.  The French are not known for their amazing websites and often this link will not work, or be wonky.  Be patient.  Switch browsers.  Keep trying.  At some point you will get to the appointment system.  Make an appointment.  Keeping in mind that processing time can take up to one month, I would recommend that you have your appointment no later than 60 days before departure.  Despite the fact that I submitted my application at perhaps the earliest possible date, I was still incredibly nervous and stressed as the back-and-forth commenced.  I wouldn’t wish it on you.

I had no other business in Chicago the weekend I planned for my visa so I simply scheduled a flight up for Friday morning (my appointment was at noon) and a flight back Sunday morning.  I got a rental car so that I would be in complete control of my destiny on Friday.  Didn’t want to take any chances.

I had all my paperwork together.  Now I had to have my in-person interview.  Don’t let the word “interview” fool you.  All you are doing is dropping off forms, giving them money, and smiling for the camera.  It’s all very routine.  I imagined I would be asked all kinds of questions about what I would do in France.  I wasn’t.

I got to Chicago around 9am that Friday morning and drove immediately to the consulate.  It’s located in an office building but it’s accessible only by a secured elevator.  You can only enter the secured elevator with one of these

photo (18)

Half worried that for some reason my appointment wouldn’t show up in the system, waves of relief washed over me when the receptionist handed this to me.  I then went to have breakfast, came back, and dropped off my forms.

It couldn’t be 100% smooth sailing, for sure.  At the interview was where I was asked for proof of insurance – I had simply provided them with a photocopy of my American insurance card.  I had also originally simply brought a letter from the President of my Bank attesting to the readiness of my funds and my good record there.  They wanted statements.

As soon as I got back to Kansas City I got the insurance policy and the bank statements.  Not enough.  They wanted my savings account statements for the entire year.  Sent.  Now they wanted a photocopy of my landlady’s passport and her utility bill.  I reached out to her (Que Dieu vous bénisse, Carole!) and she was very quick at getting this to them.

The interval was total agony.  During the one month in which I was sending them (via email scans) all that they asked for, I kept thinking, “All of this to be denied?”  It was totally unpalatable.  Because, let me explain how this would go down if I got denied.

I would only be eligible for the standard tourist visa, which anyone entering France is usually eligible for.  You may stay in France – or any of the 26 countries – for three months, but then you have to leave the Schengen Zone (the European Union save for the UK) for at least 3 months, before you can return to restart with another tourist visa.  This would kill my plans for travel, ruin my mobility, and most of all, have wasted all the time I spent applying for the long-term stay visa above.

The final week before I got my visa I was visibly stressed to my colleagues and friends.  I had made plans and already made major decisions (and the money that goes along with that) as part of the preparation process and the fact that I might be denied really weighed on me.  So my advice, dear readers – don’t let it stress you out!  I had applied 90 days out and as much as the French like to take their time and make sure everything is just so, they didn’t want to hang on to my passport unnecessarily long, either.

One of my colleagues texted me when an Express Mail package arrived from the French Consulate.  I called immediately.  “Open it,” I told her breathlessly.  I just wanted to know, Yes or No.  I just wanted it to be over.

I heard the package rip.  She opened it up.  “There’s a visa in here, Stephen.”  Despite the fact that I have no problem screaming whenever my soccer team scores a goal, I was in a public place when I was on the call so all I could do was pump my fist in the air.  “Thank you thank you thank you,” I told her.  “I’ll be by soon.”  I said a brief prayer of thanksgiving, and then headed in to the office to see it myself:

corrected visa

Even now staring it I get happy (note my incredibly non-happy/very French expression).  I think of all the documents and diplomas I’ve received in my life and they always seemed to be at the end of an arduous journey.  But this document, this was an authorization to change my life.  The difficulties and stress in obtaining it melted away in the endless possibilities the next year would present me with.

It’s said that the American Dream is owning your own home.  I’ve never understood how paying $100,000 in interest to a bank over 30 years on top of whatever you paid for a home was a dream.  My American Dream?  Living the life I want, on my terms.  This visa cleared any final obstacle to that beginning.