Finally you have made it... you're here! What now? There are a myriad of things you need to take care of, from administrative procedures to opening one or more bank accounts, looking for a place to stay, and so on. If you moved here for a job, your company will in all likelihood assist you with many of these tasks. If you're on your own, especially if you do not speak French, you'll be glad to know that there are organizations that can help you.
The AVF (Accueil des Villes Françaises) are organizations similar to the Welcome Wagons in the United States; they help French and foreign newcomers integrate into their new surroundings. They can help you find doctors and other professionals who speak your language, assist you in finding housing, and give you a hand with choosing the right school for your children. Most even offer basic level French conversation classes (séances de conversation) to give you enough knowledge of the language to go shopping and generally find your way around. The AVF also organize activities that allow you to meet other people who are in the same situation as you; in addition, they maintain lists of clubs and organizations where you can speak your own language. There usually is a small sign-up fee, but it is well worth it. You can obtain more information by checking out the AVF web site (where you can sign up before your arrival in France), or simply by calling or walking into one of their offices. In Sophia Antipolis, the AVF office is located at the Place Sophie Lafitte, and their telephone number is 04.93.65.43.00 (from abroad, dial an international access code, 33 for France, and the last nine digits of the phone number).
If you are already in Sophia Antipolis, you can also contact "Adapt in France", a non-profit organization that maintains an office in Garbejaire. Check their web site (available in French and English) for information such as opening hours, services provided, and so on.
Before getting into paperwork issues, it may be useful to quickly explain how at least some of the French bureaucracy is set up. France is divided into geographic regions called départements which have local administration and by-laws in much the same way as counties in the UK, or States in the US do (though national laws are the same throughout France). The official in charge of each département is called a Préfet, and the administration and office he leads is called the Préfecture. The Préfecture deals with most bureaucratic procedures, such as residence permits, driver's licenses, vehicle registrations, and so on.
The Mairie, or Town Hall, is the local representation of state administration. The Mayor (le maire) is elected democratically for a six year term. Your Town Hall is responsible for civil matters, and it is a good source of information for education, health issues (including vaccinations), registration of marriages, births, and deaths, and local taxes. Each mairie is responsible for the municipal police which deals with traffic control, beach surveillance, etc.
The state controls the national police force which is structured as follows:
If you plan to be in France for more than three months, you need a carte de séjour (resident permit); this is true for all adults, including spouses of individuals already in possession of a residence permit. Unless your new employer handles this for you, it is your responsibility to obtain this important document at the Préfecture (see above). You will need the following for each applicant:
The first time you apply for a carte de séjour, you are issued a temporary card (called récépissé) which is valid for three months. On its expiration date, you need to return to the Préfecture where you will either be given a carte de séjour or another récépissé. There does not appear to a limit as to how many temporary cards can be issued before a normal residence permit is finally delivered. Each time, the full list of items must be provided again. Note that failure to renew temporary cards can result in a denied application for a residence permit.
The residence permits (temporary or definitive) state whether one is authorized to work or not. As a rule, citizens of European Union member nations are authorized to work in France. All others must file for employment authorization at a French Consulate or Embassy in their country of origin prior to moving to France. There will be additional steps to follow once in France; these will be communicated to you at application time.
The Sécurité Sociale is the body that reimburses medical expenses, pays pensions, and provides other social services. Each person working legally in France is given a personal Sécurité Sociale number and card. If your partner doesn't work, you will be considered responsible for him or her as well as the children (if any). They will therefore be registered on your card. Your employer will handle the paperwork with the Sécurité Sociale and you will receive your card in the mail. The reimbursement procedure for medical expenses is explained on the Healthcare page.
People with children should register with the CAF (Caisse d'Allocations Familiales) upon arrival in France. Any family with at least two children under the age of 18 (or, in some cases, over 18 but still attached to the parental household fiscally) is entitled to some benefits. The amount paid per child each month depends on the parents' income, the education level of the children, and the number of children in the family. No benefits are paid for one child, a little bit of money for two children, quite a bit more if one has three, and so on. Depending on the number of children one has, there may be additional benefits (such as the right to retire one or two years earlier with full benefits). There is quite a bit of information available at the CAF web site but it's in French only.
To register with the CAF, one needs birth certificates for the children and a social security number. In some cases, it may also be necessary to furnish school certificates. To find the nearest CAF is easy by means of the the Yellow Pages (entering the search term CAF and providing the desired department number, one obtains a list of all CAF offices in that department).
Citizens from European Union member nations may keep using the driver's license issued in their country of origin indefinitely or exchange it for a French license. All others must obtain a French license no later than one year following the issue date of their first resident permit. The really bad news is that the United States does not have a reciprocal agreement with France that permits Americans to exchange their driver's licenses for French ones. In effect, this means that Americans must pass a road test in order to obtain a valid French license. As of July 2008, there are fourteen states that have negotiated independent agreements with France (this list keeps changing and states are sometimes added or removed, so check with a French embassy or consulate for the latest version):
Holders of a driver's license from one of these states may exchange it for a French license, provided that the US license was issued prior to the holder's arrival in France as a resident. This should be done at the Préfecture at least three months before the expiration of the first year of French residency to allow enough time for the required formalities. There is one exception: students may use their foreign license during the entire duration of their studies.
Opening a bank account will be one of the first things to do upon arriving in France. Most companies require their employees to have a bank account (for direct deposit of monthly salary payments, among other things). It is customary to open a checking and savings account and apply for a carte bleue (a VISA debit card) at the same time. That's right: in France, VISA is a debit card, and any purchases paid with the card will appear on your bank statement, not on a separate credit card bill. The following documents are needed to open a bank account:
An interesting aside is that in France, one does not receive cashed checks back from the bank the way one does in the United States. Therefore, it is customary to ask for a written receipt (quittance) even when paying by check since the cashed check is not available as proof of payment (in case of litigation, the bank can furnish a copy of the canceled check, but banks charge extra for this service).
If you have problems filling out administrative forms, or writing official documents, most towns can give you access to a person who can help you, the écrivain public, a public writer. Your local town hall (Mairie) can provide further information.
If you have moved your household (furniture, etc.) to France, it may arrive before you are ready to move into your permanent place of residence. In that case, you may find it convenient to put your shipment in storage until you are ready to receive it. To find a suitable facility, look in the Yellow Pages under "garde-meubles".
Other items, such as housing, are covered on different pages in this section.
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