9 Things to Know Before Moving to France
1. Learn the language
Even in the largest cities in France, French remains the predominant spoken language. There is an expectation for you to speak, write, and understand French. You will find many English speakers, English is taught in French schools, but understandably the French prefer to communicate in French. To find work, unless you take a very menial role, your French language skills will be essential.
Though learning French is much easier when you are immersed in the culture and speaking with native speakers daily, taking a course before you move to France is advisable.
If you have children who will go to a French school, they will be expected to keep up with other students, but some extra support may be available. There are international schools in, or near to, most cities where the curriculum is taught in English.
2. You have to “Faire la bise”
You will be expected to greet people in France in the traditional French manner, “faire la bise” refers to the two kisses, one to each cheek for greeting. In some parts of France four kisses are common.
Two kisses at least are required and it’s rare you will get away with just shaking hands – so get used to it! The French are very polite, so you should greet your neighbours, shop assistants, and people you pass in corridors at work with a “bonjour” or “bonsoir”.
3. Enjoy the food and lifestyle
Lunches and dinners in France are relaxed and often lengthy, broken up with light entertainment. Even small family suppers can be long and usually involve wine! The French diet is healthy and the French love fresh food. You won’t find many processed or packaged meals in supermarkets; French dinners are usually cooked from scratch. The variety and quality at supermarkets is excellent and the cost of food is reasonable.
If you have children, they will usually have a long lunch break from school and where possible return home to eat. French children are encouraged to eat like their parents from an early age, and new tastes are part of the school curriculum. France has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.
The French love cheese, wine, bread, pastries and meats. Duck, rabbit and all kinds of offal are normal day to day fare in France. Agriculture is a key sector in France and you will find lots of locally grown produce at local markets.
4. Education in France
Schools in France can be seen as being strict. There is an expectation to keep up and children who don’t may find themselves repeating a year.
Universities are also much stricter, with far less socialising and longer schedules. Class sizes can be large and learning is by rote, rather than by practical experience, or more fun and practical applications.
Unless you choose a private or international school your children will need to attend a public school in the catchment area of your address. So, it’s always wise to look at schools and their ratings before you decide where to live.
5. Healthcare and health insurance
The French healthcare system is excellent, but if you do not qualify for any state provided healthcare it is a legal requirement to have private health insurance. To be covered by the state provided system you must have state French health insurance (sécurité sociale) and will need to register with the CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie).
You should also register with a doctor and a dentist as soon as you arrive in France.
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6. How to get a work visa in France
To get a work visa, you must first have a job in France. Any long-term visas, like the 12-month long stay visa (visa long de sèjour) or a twelve-month work visa, must be applied for and granted, before your move. You cannot arrive in France on a short-stay visa and extend it.
When you have a job offer in France, your employer will apply to the local Labour Office on your behalf. If your application is approved, it will be sent to the French Office of Immigration (OFII) to obtain your work permit. Once endorsed your permit will be sent directly to your nearest French Consulate office in the USA who will issue your visa.
Read my guide to Job Hunting in France for more information.
7. Applying for jobs and the work environment
French companies have a marginally more formal environment than some other countries. Work wear is likely to be more formal in professional occupations, and you may even find that you are seated by rank at a business meeting.
When applying for work you should formally introduce yourself in writing, with a cover letter, and your CV should be concise and well structured.
French workers are treated well however, there are work unions who protect rights and working conditions. The minimum wage in France is one of the highest in Europe.
Many French employers operate a 35-hour working week and two-hour lunch breaks are common. Most businesses close on a Sunday.
8. Documentation and bureaucracy
Starting with your work visa and then your residency application, and including registrations for school, healthcare and so on, you will find application processes are lengthy. Be prepared for form filling, presenting documents getting used to reading in French. If you are renting a property, organising tax or applying for a bank account you will need all your documentation and it should be in order. For residency in France, and sometimes to access services, you may need to have your most important documents, like birth and marriage certificates translated into French and notarised.
9. Paying tax
When you work in France, or become a French resident you are responsible for paying your own taxes by the end of May each year. A tax return will be sent to you or you can obtain one from your local “mairie”, or town hall, tax office, or online at www.impots.gouv.fr. If you do not file your tax return or pay your taxes on time you can be fined 10% of your tax bill.