“Creative constraints” of working (& freelancing) in France

I often get asked about moving to and working in France, so I thought I’d put together a list to help break down some assumptions for non-EU citizens. This post is a synthesized variation of my recent post, Everything I learned the hard way about running a business in France. The other thing to keep in mind is that laws and bureaucracy haven’t exactly kept up with the times, and the ways people work, or the fact that the internet allows many of us to work from anywhere.

Even if you have no plans to start your own business in France, it can be helpful to better understand the French mentality when it comes to having the legal right to work. Working in France forced me to get more creative (in a good way), and led me on a path I don’t think I would have otherwise imagined.

“Creative constraints” are a theme that come up in a lot of my business writing. They’re the forces beyond your control that can be frustrating, but at the same time can make you come up with more creative solutions to “make it work”. When telling my own story, the factors and limitations of living and working in France helped shape my trajectory. If I wanted to survive I needed to be creative. While it wasn’t all fun and games it lead me on a path I never imagined for myself. An even better one!

Here’s an (incomplete) list of assumptions deconstructed as they relate to living and working in France:

  1. Everyone in France has a working status. Even French people.
  2. To be a freelancer you must have a SIRET which is a freelancer’s number, which is connected to several different working statuses, depending on your business needs. Most HR departments won’t want to work with you as a contractor if you don’t have this number.
  3. Just because you have the right to live in France doesn’t mean that you have the right to work in France.
  4. Students have the right to work 50% with a student visa. This can mean working part time throughout the year, or full-time for half of the year. (FYI, I had more working rights as a student than I did with my business status). It’s also worth noting that French universities in general are 500€/year or less for Masters. Some of the best business schools in the world are in France, but tuition is more than most universities in France.
  5. In order to have an internship you MUST have official student status. Internships pay something like ~500€/mo (I think the number is less).
  6. Most companies don’t want to hire foreigners because it’s a giant pain in the butt. Not only does it take time, but human resources, and often involves expensive lawyers. In other words, it’s a risk. (Think too from the employer’s POV. Does the employee really want the job or do they just want the paperwork, and will leave in less than a year? FYI, most of the time the paperwork for that status is tied to the job).
  7. You’re more likely to get sponsored by a company if it’s for a high level role (otherwise they have to prove that a French person can’t do the same job). Huge companies like Google or Microsoft are also more likely to sponsor people and help you with the paperwork.
  8. A “carte bleu” visa can get you in sometimes as a high level employee. You have to earn something like ~55k€/year as a salary in France to qualify.
  9. Realize that salaries in France are a fraction of what many people earn in the US. Essentially the company has to pay what they pay you to the state. On the flip side, healthcare is universal and one ER visit I went to cost me 7€ . In a way it evens out. Rent in Paris is not cheap but it’s also not as insane as SF or NYC, however apartments are MUCH smaller.
  10. In general if you’re a full time employee on a CDI (long term) contract as a foreigner, you don’t have the right to have your own side business. It’s seen as taking away from your full-time work. The auto-entrepreneur status was initially developed for French people wanting to earn income from a secondary “activité”.
  11. Similarly, under my professional liberal self-employed business status, I had the right to work other than salaried positions. That would be “taking a job from a French person.” (I could have unlocked this limitation with a 10-year carte de séjour I believe, but I unlocked it by becoming a French citizen). One of the roles I was not able to take on before I became French was teaching—even a 3 day short course was considered a “salaried” activity.
  12. If you want to start a business in France it’s not just filling out a form (for foreigners). I wrote a 50 page business plan in French, but collecting all the documents was the bigger challenge. And that got me to a place where I still had to renew EVERY THREE MONTHS to keep my residency in France. I believe there are some more streamlined processes (and more business statues), but my first years in business were equal parts business and bureaucracy. In other words, I didn’t make much money.
  13. Tech is becoming an easier road to France. I’ve heard it requires a Masters degree or 5 year equivalency of work experience. France is looking to become a tech hub, so places like StationF with Le French Tech are actively looking for talent, sometimes from abroad.
  14. Some people manage to live in France on a long stay tourist visa. This makes more sense if you have income coming from the US (or wherever you are from). The down side is this time does not count to tenure if you ever hope to get citizenship, and you don’t have the right to work in France (even at a café).

It’s always a good idea to double check any information I’ve shared with the related agencies in France. Laws change from time to time, but this is what I’ve uncovered from my experiences.

This incomplete list of “creative constraints” is also how I came to have a “portfolio career”. It’s a term I first learned from happiness consultant Samantha Clarke in London, and I think it’s a term that may be a bit more common in Britain than beyond. Samantha defines it as: “A portfolio career is a collection of multiple strands of work (that might include part-time employment, freelancing or self-employment) that when combined are the equivalent to or more than a full-time strand of work.”

Being able to think more creatively about work allowed me to not only overcome the “creative constraints of France”, but also created an environment where I thrive. France or elsewhere, I do say the future of work is changing.

Like any job, I learned my strengths and weaknesses, and learned many lessons along the way, often the hard way. The main difference was that after grad school in Paris I was working in less traditional ways—namely with the help of forward thinking US-based startups—where income streams looked different too. I also already had 5 years of work experience under my belt by this point, and was stubborn enough to believe I could figure anything out.

My best advice is to ask a lot of questions. And as them in different ways. People won’t always volunteer information, and the answer for an expat isn’t always the same for someone who has lived somewhere their entire life. My goal is my posts can be a jumping off point to help you ask better questions.

Here’s a bit more reading that may help you think more creatively about your own work wherever you life, and whatever you do.

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6 comments

  • I’ve been freelancing for 15 years in France and haven’t felt too much bureaucratic burden. I started as an autoentrepreneur, but switched to régime réel when I wanted to earn more (and a year later, they raised the limit on BICs!). Yes, there are URSSAF and RSI and ARAPF and CIPAV and a zillion different taxes to pay. It hurts to write the (big) checks, but it’s all straightforward–no bureaucratic rabbit holes.
    Thank you for emphasizing the legal way to do things. I came across a blogger who has lived in France for five years and does not yet speak French. She is on a year-to-year visa that prohibits her from working, but she does work, running tour groups (but not speaking French!). She recently tripped and fell and ended up in the hospital, where she learned emergency care isn’t billed. But she isn’t contributing–she doesn’t pay French taxes and her tour work is off the books. On top of that, a commenter suggested she sue the city where she fell for having uneven sidewalks! This kind of expat attitude I can’t stand. I far prefer people like you who respect the rules.

    • Ughhh, yeah. . . . I’m glad you’ve had a smooth road yourself :) And yes, I prefer to be realistic. I do know one person who was deported – it can happen.

  • Hi, I’m an international student and i came upon some jobs that have good pay but requires KBIS extrait. being an international student am I eliible to get a freelance certificate (registering an enterpeise)

    Thanks

    • You’ll need to check with an official entity. I have no idea what a KBIS extrait is. Good luck! Keep asking questions :)

  • Hi!

    This is a very helpful article, thanks!
    I have been looking for some answers regarding my status, maybe you know…

    I have been living in France for 1 year, I’m working in a company, I have a CDI and a working visa. Soon my visa will be renewed for 4 years.

    When I get the new visa, do you know if I can quit my job and be a full time freelancer and still live in France?

    Regards,
    Anne

    • In the past visa status was always tied to a job, but I have no idea if rules have changed today.

      Before I became French as a freelancer I had the right to work other than salaried (which meant most universities couldn’t hire me.)

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