(Editor’s note: This collaborative post on France with Phoebe Conner of YesIHaveABlog is sponsored by Aetna International.)
The potential of a laidback French lifestyle, a peaceful existence amongst France’s rural landscapes or a taste of high culture in some of its most exciting cities has long been a lure for expats looking to relocate. However, with a new pace of life comes a completely different way of doing things. To help you make your move as smooth as possible, here are five important things expats should know before moving to France.
1. Lifestyle and work-life balance
The French are renowned for their attitude of ‘working to live’, not ‘living to work’. Whilst this more relaxed way of life is an attractive prospect for expats looking to relocate for a better work-life balance, those relocating to France should expect everything from different attitudes to different structures to their day.
A typical working week in France is 35 hours and lunch breaks tend to be between 1 to 2 hours long. Taking time to dine, enjoying what you’re eating and who you’re eating it with, is an integral part of French culture. Because of this, life in France tends to be less frantic than those relocating from the USA or UK may be used to.
Jennifer Dombrowski, an American expat who has been living in Bordeaux for 2 years, says that “the work-life balance is much better in France than in the United States. Time away from work is very important in the French culture and the French receive paid time off as a benefit.” Jen also notes that the French “typically work shorter work hours each week than Americans; shutting off your phone and email after work is encouraged.”
The one drawback that those used to a faster pace of life may experience is that, typically, businesses and shops close early in the evenings in France; Sundays are also very much a family-centered “day of rest” – so it’s rare for businesses to be open. If you’re living in a rural area or outside of larger cities, you may also find that some shops and businesses close during the middle of the day from 12-2pm.
If you’re looking for a less chaotic lifestyle after your move, having to plan things in advance rather than rushing around trying to get everything done in your lunch break may suit you. Jennifer says “I truly enjoy the French lifestyle. It’s a slower way of life than in the US, where everything is about convenience 24/7. I feel like people take time to appreciate the little things and moments in life, whereas in the US we’re always on the go.”
2. Bureaucracy and documentation
As the word bureaucracy itself is French, there should be no surprises to discover that the French have a robust bureaucratic system. Unfortunately, this means that certain processes can take a while.
When you’re looking to open a French bank account or sign a lease agreement for your new home, be prepared to hand over proof of documentation too. You may need to provide evidence of your payslips, bank details, reference letters, passport, birth certificate, job contract, guarantor information and so on.
It may also be worth having some, or all, of these documents translated into French by an official translator ahead of your move.
Jennifer’s experience of being an expat in France is that “there are a lot of differences when it comes to everyday things like paying bills”. However, she does explain that, compared to her experience of living elsewhere in Europe, the French way of doing things is at least a little more familiar to someone from the USA.
“In Italy, paying bills was the bane of my existence and involved visiting multiple ATMs to obtain enough cash, then standing in line at the Post Office to pay everything. It could be a half day process!”. In France, “payments for bills are all handled online, or you can set up a regular payment”.
Depending on which country you are relocating from, you may not need a visa to live and work in France. European Union nationals don’t need a work permit or visa, for example. However, a valid passport is necessary.
Non-EU nationals will need to apply for a long-term visa (visa long de séjour) and residence permit before arriving. Jennifer’s experience was that “if you’re coming to France to work, you do need to find a job before you move as you’ll need your employer to sponsor a work visa.”
As an American national, Jennifer found that the visa process wasn’t very straightforward and that there were “Catch-22s throughout the entire process: you need an apartment rental contract or deed to apply for the visa, but you can’t rent without a French bank account and you can’t apply for a French bank account without the visa.”
Investigate whether your bank has an associated French bank you can set up an account with before you set off, and if not, look at options for opening an account with an international institution who have branches in both your home country and in France.
The French healthcare system, known as Protection Universelle Maladie (PUMA), is available to those who have been living or working in France for a minimum of 3 months. Once you are eligible for PUMA, you will be issued with a carte vitale (health card) which entitles you to claim back a percentage of your healthcare costs (usually around 70 percent of the fees).
If for any reason you are not eligible for PUMA, you wish to cover yourself for the first three months that you’re in France and are not covered by the scheme or if you wish to top up the difference between what PUMA covers and what you will have to pay in medical fees, you should investigate expat health insurance policies.
5. Everything is different
Finally, when talking about anything else that expats may find different about life in France when compared to their home country, Jennifer says “what isn’t different is the better question! Every day, even two years on from when I moved to Bordeaux, is a lesson in cultural differences. If you’re even considering moving to France, be prepared that everything will be different”.
Even for those seeking a complete change in lifestyle, adapting to the French way of doing things may present a bit of a culture shock. However, taking the leap and embracing these changes offers expats the potential for a better quality of life, at a far different pace.
About the author:
YesIHaveABlog is a travel and wellbeing site curated by writer and wellness advocate Phoebe Conner, offering inspiration to explore, to write, to attain better wellbeing and to do a little more of what makes you happy. Her posts for Dispatches Europe are published in collaboration with Aetna International, who provide worldwide health insurance for expats and the globally mobile.