What to Expect When Living in France
It's natural to have hopes and expectations when you make the move to France. You've likely been dreaming and planning for months, even years. But there are often some unexpected surprises, like baffling cultural differences, that could tarnish your dream. Fear not! Here is a guide of what to expect before you go so you can feel more at home in your new home in France.
Staying in France Legally
You can be in France up to 90 days on the visa waiver program, so lots of people come for what we call "mid-term" to test the waters without having to apply for a long-stay visa. If you plan on staying longer, then you should apply for a long-stay visa with the French consulate in your home country before your move to France. There are several types of visas, so do some research to find the best for your situation. Consult our immigration specialist for help.
Finding the Right PROPERTY
Finding a rental apartment for one, two, or three months isn't so easy, but neither is finding a furnished apartment to rent for longer (up to one year), especially in Paris. Every furnished rental, one-year lease (and even unfurnished three-year leases in Paris) comes with a mandatory 30-day cancellation clause. This means that if for some reason you are unhappy with the apartment you've chosen, you can easily cancel your lease and move to another.
Most of our previous short-term rental apartments have changed to long-term rentals in order to comply with the current Paris rental laws. As a result, we no longer represent these properties, but we offer a service to find potential properties and help you secure it. The landlords have a whole lot more respect for you when your hired representative presents your "dossier" for approval, so if you've tried this on your own, you'll fully understand the difference a bit of clout makes in satisfying the landlord.
If you are thinking of owning your home in France, we can help you find the perfect property to suit your needs and budget. The same is true when our consultants represent you to the selling agents. On your own, they might not take notice, but with our professional agents, they will be anxious to find you the perfect property. Set up a consultation and I’ll show you how.
Setting up a French Bank Account
A French bank account is essential if you’re going to live in France for any length of time—whether to secure a rental, purchase property, set up your utilities (even some rentals require that you contract directly with utility companies), and/or pay fees or taxes, most everything is done by direct debit (or "virements").
A bank account in France has never been easy to open and has become increasingly difficult thanks to FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). This is largely because the regulations imposed on foreign banks by the U.S. government make it difficult for these banks—and that makes American clients undesirable. (If you are unfamiliar with FATCA, get familiar.)
You will need to report your foreign account to the IRS, but that doesn't mean you pay tax on the amounts held. It's just that the IRS wants to know about them and ensure that your income was reported prior to having transferred it into those foreign accounts.
You must open a French bank account with a commercial bank in person. There are almost no banks willing to do this long-distance without seeing the physical person and viewing original documentation, like identification, etc. (with the exception of one bank, HSBC, which allows an online application). The good news is that we offer a service that introduces you to a local commercial bank so you can easily open an account without any minimum deposits. You can get a checkbook, a debit card (Visa or MasterCard), and access to online banking.
Knowing about Insurance, Taxes, and Other Fees
As a renter, your landlord will require that you have homeowner’s insurance, which is also necessary as a property owner. This can be purchased easily with an insurance company or broker, or even your commercial bank. You will only be responsible for insuring your personal belongings as the building's charges de la copropriété (maintenance costs) include insurance on the building itself.
If France is not your primary residence, than you will also be expected to pay the annual Taxe d'Habitation. This annual residence tax is paid by the occupant of the property on January 1, whether an owner or tenant. It is calculated on the basis of the "notional rental value of the property"—the rental value multiplied by the tax rate in that locality. There are variations applied in the case of low income or with dependents. The tax authorities send out the bills for the year in the fall of that same year.
As an owner, you must also pay Taxe Foncière, or property tax, as well as any common maintenance charges for your building. The two taxes are approximately the same in amount, but are calculated differently. You will find them both very inexpensive compared to U.S. property taxes.
Living in Smaller Spaces
Space in most large cities, like Paris, is at a premium and costs dearly. Europeans are accustomed to living in much smaller spaces than North Americans, so an apartment suitable for four people will be quite a bit smaller than a North American home for four. In Paris, for example, 65 square meters (700 square feet) is considered large enough for two bedrooms and because of cost, "palatial." You'd be surprised how much one can do with that amount of space. I contend that "space" is highly overrated—don't actually use much space except to fill it with things we don't really need!
Planning for Stairs and Elevators
Don't expect to have 20th-century amenities in 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century buildings. Apartment buildings older than 100 years, which comprise most of central Paris, for example, are unlikely to have elevators. If one does, it's been wedged into a tiny shaft and may not accommodate more than two or three people, much less lots of luggage. Therefore, if a description of an apartment does not mention an elevator ("ascenseur") it likely does not have one.
Even stairwells can be very narrow and steep. The European method of naming floor levels starts with zero (0), then one (1), two (2), three (3), etc., so a second-level apartment means two flights of stairs. Buildings can go as high as five or six flights. Even so, some ceiling heights are higher than others, which can mean more stairs between floors. What really counts are the number of stairs and the height of the rise (numerous low-rise stairs are still easier to climb than fewer high-rise stairs).
If you choose an elevator-equipped building, be forewarned that the elevators are often out of order, and that means you'll be climbing stairs for a while. So, either choose an apartment on a lower floor or one on a high floor in a building with two elevators (very rare) in case one is non-functioning. Keep in mind that the higher you go, the more light you may have, particularly on narrow streets or small courtyards (if that's important to you), so you may find climbing stairs a sacrifice not only worth the pain, but a lot healthier for your heart!
Accepting Conditions of Common Areas
No matter how beautifully renovated an apartment is, the owner is at the mercy of the collective ownership of the building to maintain the common areas. This means that the standards of the common areas—the entry, stairwell, elevator, courtyard, etc. in older buildings may not fit your idea of Perfect Paris or Nice in Nice. Don't let a first impression of the building color your experience of your life in your dream "pied-à-terre."
Acclimating to Noise
There is a lot of renovation taking place in these old buildings. By law, construction can take place and noise can be made from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Expect to encounter noise and dust as the cities are always gentrifying and improving. There is absolutely nothing you can do about this, and there are rarely advance warnings
Walls and ceilings may be a bit thin, so it's also not at all unusual to hear noise from your neighbors, or from people on the street. If you’re in a big city like Paris, in an apartment on a well-trafficked street, you will hear noise from cars, buses, motorbikes, and even the daily trash collectors. Cities with lots of life have lots of noise, so if you're sensitive, opt for an apartment on the courtyard if you can. But don't expect only the sounds of birds chirping like you might have in the countryside.
People partying to all hours of the night can be stopped by calling the local police. The law in France is on your side. It states that people should make no noise at all between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and nothing above "ambient noise" for a prolonged period outside of these times. Use the non-emergency number, 17, to speak to the local police directly. However, just know that noise complaints won’t be their top priority, so you might not get an immediate response.
Understanding French Plumbing
Most buildings in Paris didn't have plumbing until relatively recently, so consider how bathroom facilities have to fit into the floor plan of a modern apartment. If it uses a hot water tank instead of a "chaudière" (gas-heated instant hot water), the tank may not be large enough to accommodate many long, hot showers coming from modern rain showerheads.
Toilets are often separate from the tub/shower and sink. Consider this an advantage as more than one person can use the facilities at the same time (but be forewarned: this small room may not have a sink in which to wash your hands). A tub may have a hand-held shower, but no shower curtain nor a hook on which to prop the showerhead. It's not unusual as the French have different habits and are comfortable without these conveniences that we think are normal.
Using French Electricity and Lighting
Electrical currents and appliances differ from those in North America. If your apparatus is not dual voltage, don't bother bringing it. Plugging in a 110-volt hairdryer into a 220-volt plug is sure to blow out even the strongest electrical system—and could easily cause a fire. (Phones, computers, and tablets are normally already dual voltage, but you’ll still need an adapter to charge them.) Adapters for American-style plugs can be easily purchased just about anywhere in the States or France.
Electricity is expensive in France. Lighting in common areas is normally set on a timer for economic reasons; just push the button to light the hallway. With that in mind, also be conscious of your usage in your apartment. Turn off lights (and other electricity-consuming devices) when not in use—for your own sake as well as the environment's.
Removing Expectations for a Happier Life
I warn you. Everyone moving to France has stories to tell of situations that have made their head spin. The bureaucracy can be overwhelming and the concept of customer service unthinkable. Nothing happens as quickly or smoothly as your North American experience so just don't expect it.
In my own world, I’ve learned to have no expectations whatsoever, then whatever comes is a blessing, and I never have disappointments. Once you master this thinking, you’ll find that you never want to return to your old (less sane) way of seeing things. So, when you come to France, if you leave your expectations behind, you’ll not only avoid disappointment, you will fall in love with your new life in France like the rest of us have!