The Road to French Citizenship
On June 16, 2016 I became French. Getting French citizenship was the “easy” part, staying in France was the real challenge. The most exciting part is that I never have to go to the Prefecture [above] to renew my paperwork as a foreigner again, otherwise what was known as “my least favorite day of the year”.
I was reading expat expert Jean Jaquet‘s latest newsletter, and there was a section about living in France by starting a small business. In his words: “Clearly, one needs cold blood and iron nerves to choose this solution, as it makes impossible to comply with the requirements of the prefecture, but it can be done.” I can confirm, this is a true statement. Living in France as an expat is ripe with catch-22s. Rules have changed since I went through the gauntlet, and I’ll openly admit if I knew what I knew now, I probably wouldn’t be here. The first years after grad school my seasoned professors would see me, and say “Anne, how are you still here!?!” with genuine awe. Most of my friends have managed to stay, stayed by getting sponsored by a company (only an option for higher level positions), or getting PACSed (civil marriage) or married—both which involve their own rounds of paperwork.
I never moved to France with rose colored glasses, I knew there would be hurdles, but knowing that I stayed here on my own, by starting my own business (a path I never imagined for myself, but can’t imagine any other way), it’s even more rewarding knowing not only did I become French, I did it the extra hard way.
(Read my French Bureaucracy, Explained post for a better appreciation of the challenges and limitations of living in France. Skip to the bottom of the post for naturalisation/citizenship specifics.)
Jump to the bottom for more citizenship specifics!
Long story short.
I moved to Paris in 2009 for a Masters in Global Communications from the American University of Paris on a student visa. After I graduated, I became an auto-entrepreneur which allowed me to freelance in France (all freelancers must have a SIRET number to work in France). I spent the August after I defended my thesis writing a 50-page business plan in French while every other French person was on holiday. Collecting the pile of documents was even more painful than writing a business plan from scratch. Miraculously, I had everything I needed for my appointment at the Prefecture. Unfortunately, I was naive enough to think after all that I may even receive a 3-year carte de séjour, but the reality is when I went back, they gave me a piece of paper, a récipissée, a document that extended my visa for another THREE MONTHS. Auto-entrepreneur status can easily sound appealing to freelancers with lower charges, but the reality is it’s a secondary working status for the French which allows one to have a side business (it also has a salary cap). The catch: auto-entrepreneur is not a residency status for foreigners, hence the paperwork living hell. The irony of course being that I could have been making money and contributing to the economy, but instead I was running in circles hunting down documents.
I continued on the auto-entrepreneur track, going back and renewing every three months until I hired Jean Taquet to talk about my residency options. Upon his recommendation I went in for a changement du statut, a status change to profession libérale status—I now ran an official business in France, along with paying the significant social charges that go with it. I’m fairly certain in one of Jean Taquet’s recent newsletters, he mentioned that the path I took is no longer a viable option.
I can’t stress enough that every foreigner in France has a different situation, and laws change, and sometimes people just get lucky. I’m definitely sparing you a lot of the agonizing details. All the paperwork below is after I did a major purge.
The application process.
The general rule to apply for French naturalisation is that you must be a legal resident of France for five consecutive years. As I write that sentence, five years sounds short, but trust me, the mountains of paperwork make it feel like you’ve lived through ten.
There are certain situations that lead to a reduction in time required to apply. One is getting a two year Masters degree in France. As I studied at the American University of Paris, I went into the Bureau de Naturalisation office to specifically ask if I was eligible [given it wasn’t a French university]. The woman was very friendly, explaining everything I need. And when it came to my early eligibility, she went to the back office to confirm that my degree would count. “YES,” she said, “as long as you take the French exam as your studies were not in French. ” Remember this statement…
Compared to a typical annual carte de séjour renewal, applying for citizenship didn’t feel that much more complicated. Here’s an incomplete list of what was required:
- Every address you’ve lived in your life (I have definitely lived in more than average!) and every job you’ve held.
- Birth certificate (recently issued), with apostille. My parents were sweet and took a trip to Richmond, Virginia to pick up my apostille for me (it is possible by mail, but I think my dad was looking for an excuse for a train trip). The document was incredibly underwhelming given the hassle it took to get it. Essentially it was a printed Word document on normal white paper with a gold sticker on it. Then have both documents certified translated, which runs you about 50€ per document. (I used Davron Translations). It’s important to realize that French birth certificates are more like status updates, which are updated throughout your life (I have one now!!). Therefore, as a longtime foreigner in France, you are required to get multiple birth certificates issued, and re-translated despite the fact that most of the document is French 101 and a US birth certificate never changes. The translator is required to start from scratch after a month or two time limit. My theory is it’s a ploy to keep the economy going.
- Birth certificates for your parents. Translated, certified, of course. Marriage certificate was on the list as well, but I didn’t do this.
- A background check “casier judiciaire” for everywhere you’ve lived for more than 6 months. The woman at the naturalisation office gave me a small sheet of paper with the contact of a place to get fingerprinted. It was completely wrong and out of date! In any case, thankfully I learned about Eve from a friend. Eve does FBI finger printing—wait for it—in a squash court in Montmarte! [See photo below.] I had some other friends go to French police stations, which, sure, it was cheaper (free), but they can not say they got finger printed in a leather chair with squash matches going on! Dope… The FBI background check was the slowest part of the process, which usually takes about 6 weeks. However, mine got stuck in the U.S. government shutdown a couple years ago, so there was a delay. With expats in France, you often hear about “documents must be collected within 3 months.” It’s probably a complete constructed concept (or it applies to married people). So I went ahead and sent in my [first] citizenship application without having received my background check (instead sending a photo of my fingerprints and envelope)… Which of course had to then be certified translated once I was cleared!
- Declaration of revenue from Centre des Impôts (tax forms)
- Avis d’imposition for past 3 years (more tax stuff)
- Bordereau situation fiscale P237 for last 3 years – this was no fun for me because I lived in 3 different arrondissements in the course of 3 years, and hence had to visit the Centre des Impôts [tax office] in each area. Of course two locations were so nice and did the form for me immediately, while in the arrondissement I actually lived in tried to tell me to come back in a few days. These documents alone are a very good example of the “running in circles” insanity of French bureaucracy.
- Copy of my diploma
- Biz docs
- 3 last rent slips + EDF or phone bill in your name
- A copy of passport and carte de séjour
- [ugly] photos
- French exam (level B1 required)
The French Exam
I’d tell you more specifics about where I went for my TEF French exam, but I know from another friend who applied after me that they changed the exam since my time. Still, I’m going to tell you about it, because I found it highly amusing.
The French exam is not necessarily only for those applying for naturalisation, but it is required with the application. And it’s only offered about once a month. For me, it became an “oh crap, I have to reschedule everything so I can fit in this exam.” I didn’t study, but in talking with a friend going through the process at the same time, I was glad I had at least seen the format of the exam, because it was not like any test I’d taken before. Welcome to France.
First it’s important to know that you should have plenty of ugly photos of yourself on hand as you need to mail one in to take the exam. It’s hard to do much in France without ugly photos. I also sent a check for 90€.
Next, goodbye Number 2 pencils, you use pen to take this exam.
The form was Scantron-esque, but instead of ovals, you had to fill in thin rectangles. One point for a correct answer, minus one for a wrong answer, and no point for leaving it blank. If you messed up, you were to fill in all the rectangles in the row, and you had one more chance in the row below to fill in your final answer. [Rumor has it the scoring has changed for the exam too, but again, mine makes a good story.]
Then it’s time to start listening to the oral part of the exam, where a dialogue is played and you have to fill in the items in the order you hear them. That is correct, if you miss one, then it means you’re probably going to get everything wrong afterwards. Also, make sure your proctors play the correct audio to go with the exam book in front of you with the images and questions. A couple people in my test room definitely started to fill out answers for an audio that made zero sense.
The questions get increasingly hard for each section. You listen to phone conversations and a radio program, and select the multiple choice question.
The second part of the exam was a conversation, however, it’s France so I felt like I was being graded on my ability to debate rather than my language skills. Each person is called into a private room with a proctor who facilitates and records the conversation, that will later be graded. The first conversation is 5 minutes, and my topic was about wanting to rent an electric bicycle from a shop. A phenomenon I find myself in all too often is that people seemingly don’t understand me because I don’t ask typical questions. For me it was completely normal in this scenario to ask how someone becomes a bicycle tour guide, as I have many friends who would be interested. The proctor definitely responded like I asked a completely different question. It’s not my fault I ask different questions. I also got points off because I said “booking“—a term my friends were using and I’d see on metro posters at the time—rather than the proper “réservation“. C’est la vie.
The second conversation was 10 minutes, and this is where I feel like my lack of debate training came into play. This was a back and forth exchange where in the scenario I received, I was trying to convince my friend (played by the proctor) to help me clean up an oil spill. “Don’t worry if you don’t know the vocabulary” she assured me. It was all about hitting the key points, and “don’t be like the guy before you who didn’t understand the concept of a debate and kept giving up on his friend.” I will also add at this point that another friend had her “debate” regarding getting a dog or a cat. Good thing I wasn’t trying to pass the BAC that day.
About a month later you receive two thick pieces of paper with your score. Scores rage from A1, A2, B1 (required), B2, C1, C2. Given that I’ve studied French since high school I was disappointed not to get a higher score than I did (still, was above the requirement), but I’ve never been a good test taker, and I was not prepared to debate an oil spill clean-up.
Rejection. And re-application.
I was rejected the first time I applied for citizenship and the reason given was that I have not lived in France long enough. The irony is that if they had held my dossier for another 4 months, I would have hit the 5 year mark. In 2003-4 I worked for a year as an English Teaching Assistant for the French Cultural Ministry, but no sympathy. Nor did my time studying abroad into the count.
One friend said they reject a lot of people on their first attempt. They want to know you really want it. I could have contested, but by this point I was making more money and decided I was about to pay my next round of taxes, so I may as well shut up and reapply two months later.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized why I was rejected. I was organizing my paperwork, something I’ve lost way too much time to over the years in France. I found my document from AUP stating my graduation was in January, but I graduated in May after I defended my thesis. I did two a 2-year Masters, however this document claimed it was only a year and a half. As I was communicating in English when I requested this document (that was in French) it was the only document I didn’t think to read closely and double check. I shouldn’t have been rejected at all! Alas, half of the adventure in living in France is having good stories. Only the strong survive
I received about three weeks notice before my interview. That June morning in 2015 I dressed up (and was surprised how few people waiting did), looking as French as the day I became French and was ready for anything—at least I hoped.
In talking to a French friend the Friday before my Tuesday rendezvous she tells me another friend has been studying for her French citizenship test. Mais non, there’s no exam! I have a minor heart attack and end up talking to that friend, who indeed has a Livret de Citoyen PDF she’s been studying. (Apparently they now send the link when you receive the convocation for the interview.). I immediately printed it and studied. That’s the perk of only discovering it exists a couple days before your appointment—you can only freak out so much.
I went in calm, and decided that day I would have an answer for everything. No being wishy washy. Are the majority of your friends French? Yes. (That’s the right answer.) Why do you want to be French? Which number is correct on your tax form? Now that was the biggest curve ball, but thankfully had looked at my accounting recently, and pointed to the number. (Don’t worry, the tax form question was likely just for me, as I tend to always be a special case). She gave me a copy of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et Citoyen to read over before signing. I was sure that was going to be when she started with the real questions. I knew friends had been grilled on anything from the color of the French flag, the three key foundations of France (liberté, équalité, fraternité), three dishes made with cheese, the major rivers of France, French writers/singers, to naming presidents of the Fifth Republic and key Ministers. I got asked nothing. I actually called a friend afterwards and said, that was too easy, what’s wrong.
My best theory is that the functionnaire with my case took a bit of pity on me because the first question was about the fact that this was my 2ème demande—my second application—and she asked why I wanted to apply again.
Another friend had pointed out that when they ask you why you want to be French, they’ll quiz you on that topic. If you say architecture for example, they want to know you have actual knowledge on the topic. My response was daily life, and I was clearly passionate in my reasoning. It may have been reason enough that I didn’t need further questionning.
I also learned a new word in the process: enquête [inquiry]. At the time I thought that the functionnaire was saying “inquiéte” which means “worry”, regarding my French background check. She explained the situation saying they need to make sure my last name isn’t on any lists. Turns out my French background check went through later that day, which she emailed to tell me. I now had a contact, and emailed her on a couple occasions (for once having a French friend assist me in making sure my French was impeccable).
A normal renewal.
Just because you’re applying for French citizenship your other paperwork doesn’t stop. Every year for the past three years I’ve gone to the Prefecture hoping change in my carte de séjour that I renew annually for a carte de 10 ans that I only have to renew every—you guessed it—10 years. And every year—including this year—my dreams were crushed, and the paperwork hell lived on. My student years (the type of visa associated with it) do not count towards the 10 year card.
In my nearly 7 years in France, more of the “paper”work has gone digital, which would be a good thing, except the designer in me cannot navigate the bureaucratic websites to save my life. At least with mailed documents you know you don’t have to print everything just in case. And don’t be fooled that things got easier over time. During my annual renewals in 2014 and 2015 I was missing a document (that of course was not on the list for those running their own business), so I had to go running to get the document and return to the office later that day. (Once I said I’d be back in 30 minutes but it took me 3 hours and that result still was me returning with screen captures.). It routinely would be a 2-3 day mental recovery for me after those visits, not to mention the anxiety of having to book appointments 6 months in advance at times.
In 2016, I got lucky. I “got the guy”. No, not the man of my dreams, but the jolly guy who works at the Prefecture. The night before a friend had told me “get the guy, he’s awesome.” I got my number, and saw it wasn’t his guichet, and was disappointed, until I realized my number hadn’t been called yet. The angels were watching me that day, because I got him, and the breeziest renewal I’d ever had… But of course a month later I found out I was French, so it was all for show. But on an up note, I never had to pay for that renewal!
The strange reality of this all is that it was easier for me to get French citizenship—with French passport and birth certificate—than it was for me to get the ever elusive 10 year card.
A piece of paper says you’re French.
Technically I’ve been French since the beginning of April. I found out while checking my email on an elevator. Can you say anti-climatic!? Every step of the process had taken longer than expected, so I did write a follow-up email that day. Even the email said I had been French for a week! I still would hardly believe it, only announcing it to friends privately on Facebook. This was France. I needed the official letter for it to be real.
Another friend had her interview a couple weeks after me. She had her letter, mine could come any day. But it didn’t, and my guardian started to get annoyed that I was checking my mail every day (yes, I had to knock on their door—at certain hours to get my mail). I forgot about it, and about three weeks later it finally showed up. Enter anti-climatic moment number two. I’m French, shouldn’t there be confetti inside!? Instead there was a photo copied stamp, which I didn’t think would look very official to border control when my carte de séjour was set to expire in June.
Still, I refused to celebrate and only made it public by telling people in person. Why the skepticism? One friend had received that letter—the same letter that says congrats you’re French, you’ll be invited to a ceremony at some point, anytime, in the next 6 months, so just sit around and watch your mail again. Except after she received that letter that she was now officially French, she was required to produce yet another document! She’s been in France longer than I, and even had a 10 year card. With the help of her parents she got the document, but still, I became scarred in the process. I could only truly believe I was French once I had the ceremony and the documents in hand!
The other irony, I received the second letter with the date for the ceremony on the last day I moved out of my apartment. I call that fate.
The day of my ceremony came just over a year after I had gone into the Bureau de Naturalisations for my interview. All told it was 3 months to collect documents, 8 months from submitting my documents to interview, 10 months until I received word I was French, and another 2 before I was sworn in. The last part happened faster than expected.
The day I became French.
The best part about being French is how nice they are when you go to the local Prefecture. The week after I was sworn in, I made my appointment online with a few days—not a few months—notice. I thought I was prepared, but hadn’t photocopied enough copies of a couple documents, and I’d only filled out the form once, thinking that it’s the same form for the passport and identity card, so figured one form would work for both. Clearly I forgot I was in France. Despite my slightly unpreparedness, the functionnaire was incredibly nice. It was the most pleasant experience. I was proud that better customer service was one of those unexpected perks of citizenship.
A few weeks later I received a text that my passport was ready and went to pick it up at the local Prefecture, which happens to be on the same street as the squash court in Montmarte where I was fingerprinted, and it all felt like my story was complete.
I’ll get to re-live that squash court memory again soon in a couple more weeks, when hopefully my ID card is ready too. There’s no notification system for that, so France still has their ways of keeping me running in circles…
Tips for applying for French citizenship.
- Go into the Bureau des Naturalisations on Ile de la Cité and ask them which documents you need for your situation. (aka don’t ask me!) They’re very helpful and can tell you exactly what you need and can answer technical questions. My rule of thumb is to go in person whenever possible; the phone will either ring forever, or you’ll be on hold forever.
- Find other people who are applying and are going through the process at the same time as you. It’s mutually beneficial, and more relevant. Requirements have already changed since I went through it, and when it comes to bureaucracy, I like to block it from my brain.
- Be patient, and realize you’ll probably have to renew your other paperwork in the meantime.
- If you’re married parts of the process get fast tracked, so be prepared to be summoned at any time. One married friend applied after me and became French before me. (But because I’m not married, it meant I received my birth certificate at the ceremony, which she did not.)
- If something bad happens, it makes for a good story. The best way to survive is a good sense of humor. I’m very thankful I can call myself French today, but I know for everyone it’s not so easy…
Readings from some fellow “French” friends: