{Un}Glamorous Paris: Paperwork

Social media does a lot of things. One of the things it does best is let you construct an image that you wish to project (don’t you love the view from my window above?). For myself, that tends to mean sharing the good stuff. Of course, I love the bad stuff when it makes for a good story. Lately I’ve been getting more emails asking me how they can move to Paris and seeing folks on Twitter planning their great move. Meanwhile, my friends and I debate daily if, and how, we’ll be able to stay. Don’t get me wrong, there are so many great things about living in Paris, but as I and my classmates and fellow Americans can attest, there are a lot of hard days too. So this series is designed to break down the glamour and share a little more grit in the day to day life of living in Paris. So let’s start with Chapter 1: PAPERWORK

PREFACE (aka before you go)
Even on American soil the trials in tribulations of French bureaucracy start to feel like a reality. But you’re so excited to move to France that you hardly let them get to you. Instead you blame it on the fact that you have too many things on your mind like what to pack and where your favorite boulangerie will be. For me, after being accepted to my University my student visa process started with something called “Campus France” – an online forum to “ease” the process of getting a visa. My favorite question was “list 3 activities you’ve completed in the past 3 years.” Now this question did not make any sense to me. Did they seriously want to know that I participated in the waterballet in Baltimore? It wasn’t until months later that I realized this question was designed for undergraduates – not old people like me. Bureaucracy, fail.

Time warp to going to the consulate in DC to submit my visa forms. Lucky for me I lived close enough to DC that this was doable, yet also a pain as they have tightly scheduled online system. As with living in France, you should not only bring every form they ask for to this meeting, but also every possible form you could think they may ever ask for in their wildest dreams. It is no joke. Luckily I passed the test and had all my forms the first round (so I could entertain myself through critiquing the awful and inefficient signage in the room – hey, I’m a designer!), despite feeling on edge while there. Meanwhile, the girl next to me was sent home for being inadequate. Did she ever make it to Paris? We will never know…

There are two things you can never have enough of while living in France – passport sized photos and stamps. Now there are photomatons all over the city, but I’ve always been instructed to go to a “approved” photo store on Rue Jean Nicot in the 7th. I don’t really see the real difference, but I just know I don’t want to be sent home. I think the owner is really good at reminding you not to smile in said pictures – which is very reflective of the tone of all French bureaucracy. But I can’t help but see the irony in the fact that he takes my picture with a digital camera, yet no other organizations have discovered this wonderful invention yet. All the while, I’m not sure why I continue to only buy 4 at a time – I really should have invested in 50 ugly pictures of myself the day I arrived. (I use them for my library pass, my pool pass, my museum pass – everyone wants ugly pictures of you!)

As for stamps, these aren’t your typical stamps – they’re OMI stamps. I don’t know what that means, but in my mind it translates to Oh My! Those are expensive stamps. Not only do they cost 15 or 30 Euros (depending on the form), but then nothing real every really happens with them. I guess they do get licked by an official person, but then they stick them on a piece of paper that no one will ever look at again. I guess I’d feel better if they mailed me a form I didn’t understand or something with them.

Now my greatest experience in paperwork deals with getting the carte de sejour – the card with the ugly picture of you that validates your visa to live here. You collect LOTS of forms – proof of housing (a chapter on housing coming soon!), proof of student status, proof you have at least 400 Euros in your bank account (good luck with that after buying all those stamps), a “real” stamp – that’s (only) 5 Euros – from La Poste. I’m sure there’s more too, but trust me, it takes a good week to get everything together. Oh, the bank is closed for lunch? Oh, school is closed for a holiday I’ve never heard of? Oh.

Anyway, I’ve even had a lot of hand holding through this whole process (when you’re filling out the forms DO NOT sign outside of the black box or else you will be in BIG trouble!), yet it still is long and excruciating. Then, one lucky day, several months later, you get an “invitation” in the mail with very little notice (a week if you’re lucky) to come to a very special doctor’s appointment. I think on this letter in very, very small print that no one can read and is written in invisible ink reads: DO NOT MISS THIS APPOINTMENT OR YOU WILL DIE. Or something close to that. In any case, that’s a fun appointment that really makes you feel like you’re one of the French family. They check your eyes and then shuttle you into a little corral-like animal stall to go and have your chest x-rayed. Don’t worry, this isn’t out of the normal at all – everyone’s doing it. And you even get your *FREE* souvenir chest X-ray when you leave. Congratulations, now you and every other foreigner [legally] living in this city have a common bond (and a good story to share).

This chapter only provides a brief introduction to the paperwork of French bureaucracy that repeats itself annually, and somehow doesn’t manage to get any easier with the passing of time. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to update this post with adventures in French Social Security and health care, but after taking 3 months to compile those forms, I have been waiting another 2 months to find the next round of papers I must dig up. Oh and heads up, on Social Security you will have the joy of having your birth certificate translated into French. Despite the fact that any French 101 student could complete this task, you instead need to go to a professional translator. No, not any translator, but one approved by the consulate, who will run you at least 50 Euros. Now that’s one way to support the economy.

note: My experiences are primarily based on being a student (which as a later chapter will attest is one of the best and “easiest” ways/excuses to move to this city). I first came to Paris in 2001 on a 3.5 month study abroad program, in 2003-04 I taught English in a French highschool through a teaching assistantship offered through the French Cultural Ministry. These days I’m finishing up my Masters at the American University of Paris.


  • I have my chest x-ray (somewhere) and I had to have my birth certificate translated for my carte de sejour, since the lady in the window on my first attempt insisted that is what I was missing. And of couse, on my return trip they came up with something else I’d “forgotten” so I think it took me three consulate trips for that CdS! But OH how I miss la france!

  • hahaha I love this, I just had a friend live there and get a job and then try to apply for Grad school.. it was a nightmare for her. But in the end she finally got it all figured out <3

  • What a great idea! It makes me wonder what kind of bureaucracies foreigners have to go through in America. Is it worse? Better? about the same?

  • Jamie: I went to the US on a student visa… It has been one of the most difficult countries to go to for me, so far (of course I’m lucky enough to be a EU citizen and avoid *that* mess).

    You need to:

    – book an appointment with the embassy in Paris – there is a waiting list of about 2 months and you are charged 15 euros per call
    – assemble a very thick file of paperwork, including a form in which you swear that you are not a communist, not a nazi and are not going to the US to kill the president (true story!), and a proof that you have $10,000 in your bank account
    – start queueing outside the embassy at 7 in the morning, because even if you have an appointment there’s a daily quota and it’s first come, first serve
    – strip for the security search – their metal detector got set off by my *hairpins*
    – have a scary interview during which a clerk will check your paperwork, listen to your story and arbitrarily decide if you can be trusted or if you fail and need to try your luck again a few months later.

    Once you land on American soil: get photographed, fingerprinted and submit your credit card data which the US government will keep tracking for the following 3 years.

    But as far as I recall, after that no one bothers you ever again! So, better, worse? Probably less absurd but more paranoid.

  • The other thing is that you never hand over all the paperwork at once; keep everything in a folder and hand them each item as they ask for it. If you give them everything, they’ll invariably ask for something completely obscure–just to see if you can produce it.

    And yes, it’s pretty crazy the US embassy charges to call them. Although I spent 2 weeks calling the French embassy in San Francisco non-stop and no one would pick up the phone. So €15 may not be such a bad deal after all.

    (Well, if they actually do pick up..)

  • quite funny perspective. I am French though I have lived in other places like The Hague, New York, Geneva and Arusha (Tanzania). When I was in the US I remember filling in many many forms. I think it all depends of perspective and what one is used to.
    I must admit that frnech bureaucracy can be quite annoying but the good news is that it has improved. I am used to travel, a lot, and so far the worse country to deal with paperwork in Tanzania. Just imagine that if you go to dinner in a restaurant you can have as many as 2 bills: one for food and one for drinks with duplicates.
    And if you want to press charge at the police station, it cost you money to open a file! I am afraid I am missing my French bureaucracy

  • Ha. Tell me about it. The first on-French-soil step of my carte de sejour involved going to one prefecture, waiting in line for hours, only to be told to go to a different prefecture across the city, waiting in line for hours, only to be told to COME BACK to the same prefecture that I had come from!! The key is not to get frustrated, that it’s not you, it’s them. Also, I suggest bringing 100+ passport-sized photos from the states (have someone take a picture on their digital camera against a white wall, then have a gazillion mini photos printed on 8×11 sheets of photo paper). That’s what I did and it probably saved me 500 euro!

  • This is making me so antsy and worried about getting to Paris. I still have a year, but I know that I need to start my graduate school checklist soon(you know, the GRE and the various applications). This is really helpful! :)

  • Come on ! Time to have a French opinion on that : it IS all true, but believe me, it’s not because you’re in France ! Ever tried to migrate, say… to the US ?
    Aaaahhh, bureaucracy around the world…

  • Hi Johann,

    You are correct. It is everywhere, but not everyone realizes that. Hence, I chose to share my story. So many people think I lead the most glamorous life in Paris, but the reality is that it is far from perfect. Also, I chose to do it with a dose of humor. People are constantly asking me for advice so this is my attempt to share what I know so that others realize what they are getting into.


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