It doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are, moving to France (or any new country for that matter) is going to be chock full of unexpected surprises. Some good, some bad. So here it is- 99 useful and practical things you should know about moving to France and what expat lifestyle is like. The good, the bad and the quirky.
Every year over 83 million people visit France, making it one of THE MOST popular countries to visit in the world. It’s no wonder so many people dream of moving to France. Unfortunately, visiting France as a tourist is nothing like living in France. But you probably already knew that. What you may not know is in which ways living in France is going to be different than you expected.
EVERYONEt talks about like how much you’ll enjoy French food and wine. It’s common knowledge that you should learn to speak French at at least the basic level.
But what about all that other stuff that no one ever talks about? The practical and useful stuff?
Here is my carefully curated list of 99 useful things nobody ever tells you about moving to France. Most of the things on my list are from personal experience and from talking with my friends who actually live in France, some of whom are French and others who moved to France from other countries.
What you need to know about moving to and living in France!
Let’s start with Paris because “Paris is always a good idea,” or is it?
Take it from someone who’s lived in France as a foreigner since 2011, what you see (in the media and magazines about Paris) is not always what you get. People tend to see Paris through rose coloured glasses and omit or overlook certain things. Just ask all those poor people who suffer from “Paris Syndrome”- an over-idealized and romanticized expectation of what Paris is actually like. Here are a few idiosyncrasies about the city of lights.
1) Paris and Parisians do not represent all of France: Tourists and foreigners, especially those that only experience Paris often conclude that what they see or experience in Paris is also true for all of France. What they fail to understand is that Paris and Parisians are radically different than other people and places in France.
These same people will make blanket statements about France solely based on their experience in Paris. For example, the idea that French people dress well and are incredibly fashionable, which isn’t true for all of France. People in bigger cities always tend to be dressier, but Parisians take it to the next level. In the south of France, people dress much more casual and practical. What many people don’t realize is that just as Texas differs from LA, New York and Oregon, there are also considerable differences in lifestyle in France depending on where you live.
2) French people that hate Paris: In France, there are those who love Paris and then there are those who detest Paris or Parisians or both. This anti-Paris sentiment came as a shock to me at first, but then I remembered how some Americans feel about different areas of the US like New York and New Yorkers. (I have nothing against New Yorkers, this is just the closest example I could make to explain why some French people don’t like Paris). If you can read French, here is an article titled “Paris is the worst place in the world.”
3) There are homeless people in France: I know it may be hard for some people to believe that the city of lights, love and luxury is also home to an ever-growing homeless problem, nevertheless; there are homeless people just about everywhere in France.
4) Paris is grimy and dirty: PARIS is the land of luxury, beautiful architecture and historical museums, but it can also be filthy, grimy and noisy. One of the common complaints I hear is the streets and metro smell like urine.
5) Paris is extremely expensive: If you come from another expensive city like San Francisco or London, then you’ll be just fine otherwise you’re going to get sticker shock at the cost of living in Paris especially the cost to rent an apartment.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to work in France.
6) French Salaries tend to be smaller for comparable jobs in the US: Although salaries in France are on the rise, in general, the French tend to earn less than Americans for specific jobs. This has also been my personal experience. It’s extremely rare for someone to earn the equivalent of 100K USD in France.
7) You need a visa: If you’re not a citizen of an EU country or France, you need a visa which is surprisingly easy to get as long as you can prove you can support yourself. Either by having a job in France or through your savings and assets.
8) You might not be able to find a job: There are exceptions, but if you’re not an EU or French citizen, it can be challenging and complicated to find a job in France.
French companies are encouraged to hire EU citizens over foreigners. They don’t want foreigners stealing French jobs, especially since unemployment hovers around 10%. You might fare better at landing a job in France if you have a particular skill in high demand. Teaching English is also a popular job foreigners like to apply for.
9) Americans can’t get a working holiday visa in France: but Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and a few others countries can as long as you’re less than 35 years old.
10) You need to create a CV the French way when applying for jobs: which means including some very personal information like a photo of yourself and even your age.
11) The 35 hour work week myth: British and American media love to tout how easy the French have it because they have a 35 hour per week.
The reality is people usually work more than 35 hours. The 35-hour limit is simply the threshold above which overtime and rest days start to kick in. Although not everyone earns over time. Many salaried white-collar workers and managers work well beyond the 35 hour work week with no additional overtime pay.
12) You can become a French citizen after five years: You become eligible to apply for French citizenship through naturalization once you live in France for five years as a permanent resident. In some cases, the length of time you must be a resident is shortened, for instance, if you study for two years at a university or you marry a French person.
The French are famous for their bureaucracy and red tape, but what does that mean? Here are a few examples
13) There are Catch 22 administrative and bureaucratic conundrums- like the chicken and the egg.: For example, you have to have a bank account to sign up for utilities, but you need a utility bill to open a bank account to prove you live where you live. How do you proceed? Things like this really do happen, more than I care to admit. We had our landlord vouch for us; otherwise, I am not sure how we would have gone about opening our first French bank account back in 2011.
14) Documents in triplicates: If you’re not a citizen of one of the EU countries (that’s you Americans and Canadians and soon Britain), you’ll be faced with a mountain of paperwork like you have never experienced before for just about everything. The hardest part is knowing what to do when to do it and where to do it.
15) If you need anything notarized from your own country you have to go to your countries consulate or embassy: A French notary will not work. For example, if you are a US citizen and need something notarized for the US, you have to go to the US embassy in Paris or US consulate in Marseille but make sure you make an appointment in advance using their website. It also costs 50 USD per notary. “OUCH”!
16) You need to have all your documents translated into French: Part of the visa renewal process is having your documents such as birth and marriage certificates translated but not by any old interpreter. They have to be a court-approved translation called a “traduction assermenté” which can cost north of 50 euros per page. We, as a family of five, had to have almost 1,000 Euros worth of documents translated.
Banking & Finance & Taxes
17) Your credit card may not work in France: If you have a foreign credit card without a chip, it may work just fine at shops and restaurants but not work at automated ticket booths like the train station or autoroute toll booths. Unfortunately, you won’t know unless you try your card. This still happens to me in 2018 when I try to use a certain non-chipped US credit card at certain places.
18)Checks are still used: in some stores, restaurant and food stores checks are still accepted (French checks) which is fine I guess but is a nightmare when the person ahead of you is taking forever to write out their check.
19) Taxes: After a year as a legal resident living in France, you are supposed to file taxes in France whether or not you earn income in France.
20) You don’t have to pay double taxes: I’m not sure about other countries, but France has tax treaties with the US and Canada which prevent you from paying double taxes. For instance, the tax paid in the US or Canada will be deducted as a foreign tax credit from your French taxes and vice versa. This is a very simplified answer so please check with an expat tax accountant who can help you answer all these complicated tax questions.
21) European driver’s licenses are valid in France, but US, Canadian and other foreign licenses are only valid for one year: By law, you are supposed to get a French drivers license after you’ve lived in France for one year, but a lot of foreigners ignore this rule.
22) You can exchange your driver’s license for a French one maybe: Certain countries have agreements with France that allow you to exchange your driver’s license for a French one. In the Us, however; not all state drivers permit can be exchanged. For example, you can exchange a Maryland drivers license but not a California drivers license for a French drivers permit.
23) If you’re allowed to exchange your drivers permit, do it within the first 12 months of your stay in France. My husband made the mistake of waiting longer than one year to exchange his driver’s license and was denied.
If you wait, you’ll have to go through the regular channels to get a French permit which can cost between 500 and 1000 Euros, and you’ll be considered a new driver which translates to higher car insurance premiums.
24) France embraces the “roundabout” / “traffic circle” culture rather than the four way stop: Learn how to manoeuvre around and through them. It’s harder than it looks.
26) Train travel is not as affordable as you think: Get an SNCF or interrail discount card which can give you 25% or more off the total cost of your train tickets. If you have kids, you can get them a discount card and up to four people travelling with that child will also get a discount.
27) If you plan to drive a car in France, learn how to parallel park in tight spaces: People in France tend to get right up on your grill leaving you less than a cm front and back to get out of a parking spot. It’s just the way it is.
28) Learn to drive a stick shift: Most cars in France are manual, so learn how to drive one.
Housing In France
Renting a house or apartment in France is complicated and different than what you’re probably used to. Here are some essential things you should know and prepare for.
29) Homes in France are usually hidden behind or surrounded by a wall: unlike some cultures like the Netherlands, Great Britain and North America which typically have a lawn and walkway viewable to all who pass by.
30) Renting an apartment or home in France is extremely difficult if you don’t have a job contract showing you make three times the rent: The most common and most desirable contract is a CDI “Contract Duration Indeterminate” – Essentially a permanent job:
31) Renting an apartment or house without a job: If you don’t have a job contract, and you can’t get someone to sign for you as your guarantor, you may have to provide a bank guarantee to secure housing.
This usually involves providing one to three years rent up front as collateral in a special escrow type bank account where your funds are frozen and held as collateral in the event you don’t pay rent (it may or may not earn interest).
Once the lease ends, the funds are released back to you unless you renew your lease. This service is not free and can cost a couple of hundred Euros. (A bank guarantor is needed because it’s difficult and costly for the landlord to evict a bad tenant. )
32) You are required to pay an additional dwelling tax called “taxe d’habitation” on any home you rent and live in on the 1st of January but do not pay until November: It doesn’t matter if you move out on the 2nd of January, you are still responsible for paying the tax in November, not the landlord. The amount you pay depends on the area but is usually between 300 and 1500 Euros per year.
33) Gutted Kitchens: When you rent an apartment or house in France, don’t be surprised if the kitchen comes with just a kitchen sink. – No oven, no cupboards, no electric or gas stove, dishwasher etc. When searching, pay attention to the ad. If nothing is mentioned about the kitchen, it could be because it comes equipped bare bones so you should ask. If the ad mentions “cuisine aménagée” or “cuisine équipée” than it does include some things in the kitchen. Here are a few examples.
Cuisine aménagée = Is a kitchen equipped with built-in cupboards but no electric units.
Cuisine équipée= is a kitchen equipped with some electric units, built in cupboards etc.
34) Furnished or unfurnished: Landlords are required by law to provide a lease of 3 years for an unfurnished home but only 1 year for a furnished home or apartment.
35) The toilette is usually in a separate room from the shower and sink. Think W.C. “water closet” style.
36) Homes in France don’t typically have closets: Instead, people buy free standing wardrobes like an armoire.
37) Not a dryer culture: People in France don’t typically have dryers and tend to hang dry their clothes from their balconies or on indoor drying racks, especially during cold or rainy weather.
38) Grass lawns in front of your house are rare in France
Culture & Manners In France
39) It’s ok to bring dogs on the metro, trams, buses: From what I understand, it’s illegal, for sanitary reasons to bring animals in places with food; however, it still happens. Usually, they fly under the radar because people bring small dogs and carry them. In other places like the mall, metro and bus, you’ll see dogs of all sizes. Above is a photo I snapped at Ikea in La Garde France. The dog loved the shopping basket.
40) Toothy grins, smiling or grinning without a cause feels strange to the French:
There’s a joke about how to spot an American. Aside from baseball caps, it’s how they smile for no apparent reason. The French aren’t to the only nation who do not value smiling. The Russians feel the same way although they take the no smiling thing to a whole new level.
41) Why North Americans think the French are rude:
Surely you’ve heard the stereotypes that the French are very rude! The thing you need to understand is this sentiment may be due to cultural differences.
The French have different definitions of what politeness is. Once you understand this, you’ll see that the French are not rude. Here are a few examples.
In North America, being polite or not being rude has more to do with making the other person feel at ease, warm and fuzzy and tend to value happy, high- energy feelings like excitement, enthusiasm and overly friendly tendencies. Many French find this overly friendly attitude phoney and superficial.
The French value showing the other person respect, not big happy, friendly faces and attitudes.
42) If you don’t say hello and goodbye in shops, YOU might be the person considered rude: In France, you should always say Bonjour when you greet someone. Even in a shoppe, on a bus, in a classroom, in a waiting room. It is considered polite. You should also say goodbye, “Au Revoir” when you leave.
43) The French are much more formal than you may be used to: For example, in France, co-workers will typically shake hands with each other in the morning and ladies will “faire la bise” (cheek kiss) with certain co-workers they interact (in the morning). Whereas in Anglophone countries people typically walk to their desk or say hello in passing or give a head nod.
44) Cheek Kiss, don’t hug: In France, you greet your friends with a cheek kiss called “la bise.” Depending on the region you can give anywhere from 2 to 5 cheek kisses.
45) Good service in a restaurant in France means leaving you alone:
The goal of eating out is to relax and enjoy your food not to be asked every ten minutes if you would like more water or bread. This is the way French people think.
So don’t expect your plate to be whisked away the second you are finished eating, or your water glass to be filled before you even ask or your check to be dropped at the precise moment when you are ready to pay.
In the US and Canada, being left alone might be considered lazy or lousy service, but in France, this is considered good service. A French person would feel rushed or pestered in a North American restaurant.
46) The tipping policy in France works differently than what you may be used to:
You don’t have to tip 15% to 20% of the bill to the server because they are paid a living wage in France. However, tips are still appreciated. When people do leave tips, they usually round up, leaving a few centimes or a couple of Euro coins. If you received extraordinary service or are in a higher end restaurant, you can leave more if you like, but 15% would be considered a lot.
47) Use a fork and knife to eat hamburger and pizza: If you’re in a restaurant and order a hamburger or pizza, think twice before using your hands. Some French people consider this impolite and disgusting. So if you see a fork and a knife with your meal, opt to use them. The exception is if you’re in a fast-food restaurant.
The French Language
47) There are different dialects and regional accents throughout France: Just like there are different dialects of English in the US and Great Britain, a Parisian talks differently than a Marseillans who talk differently than someone from Perpignan.
48) No one says ‘s oooh-La-La: The stereotypical phrase ooh-la-la that many people associate with the French language to indicate something is super sexy is pronounced and used very differently in France. First of all, it’s pronounced “O-La-La,” with the “O” sounding like the “O” in the word “boat,” not OOOOH.
The word is commonly used to express annoyance, surprise or disappointment and not to express something positively sexy as it does in English. It’s also rarely used. You’re more likely to hear someone say “Merde” or “Putain,” French swear words.
49) If you don’t speak French, you’ll get frustrated at not being able to communicate the most basic things:
50) You won’t be able to have a fulfilling conversation with anyone unless you speak French or they speak your language: Unless you speak excellent French or stick with people who speak your language, you won’t be able to have deep philosophical conversations.
Food In France
There’s no doubt that the French take food very seriously, but the average person doesn’t eat gourmet every day for breakfast lunch and dinner.
51) Tacos in France have nothing to do with the hard shell tacos of Mexico: If you have a craving for Mexican food and see a restaurant with the words Taco over the door, don’t get too excited because a Taco in France is not a “real taco.” You know, the hard shell filled with Mexican seasonings, cheese and salsa. Instead, tacos in France look more like a Burrito put through a panini machine. The fillings vary but usually involve meat of some sort with lettuce and sometimes French fries. And if you are in the mood for Mexican food, Mexican restaurants are few and far between unless you live in a big city like Paris. Even then, they are hard to find. In the US, especially in California, Mexican restaurants are everywhere.
52) You’ll miss certain foods: After the honeymoon period is over, you’ll start to miss food from home because you can’t get certain things in France or they’re just not as easy to find. And if you can find them, they’re probably going to be super expensive.
54) Kebabs, pizzas and French fries are incredibly popular: I don’t know why, but I never expected Pizza to be so popular in France yet it is and so are French fries.
55) Frog legs and Escargot- fact vs fiction: Yes some French people eat “les escargots” snails and frog legs; however, it’s not an everyday thing like steak or chicken. The vast majority of the roughly 16 Million tons of escargot are eaten during Christmas and New Years.
56) Limited beer selection: If you love beer, you’ll have to drive to Belgium or Germany because the beer selection in France is pretty limited.
57) Good wine is extremely affordable. Sometimes cheaper than bottled water
58) Cheddar cheese isn’t considered real cheese by many most French people: I might go so far as to say that some French people look down their snooty noses at cheddar cheese. In fact, of the 1000 varieties of cheese produced in France, cheddar is not one of them.
59) Dinner is eaten much later than you may be used to. A typical restaurant in France doesn’t open before 7:00- 7:30 pm.
60) Breakfast in France never involves bacon or eggs and omelettes are eaten for lunch not breakfast: A typical French breakfast might involve a hunk of baguette, croissant, (never sandwich bread), confiture, butter or Nutella You might also see things like yogurt and juice included on the menu when you go out for breakfast. Think continental breakfast.
61) Being a vegetarian in France can be tough: Don’t count on there being loads of vegetarian options on menus.
62) French Baguettes bought at the boulangerie typically have only four ingredients by law: flour, water, salt and baker’s yeast.
63) You should learn how to order a coffee in France: When you order a coffee in France, you’re basically getting an expresso sized coffee. If you want a biggish “American size cup” you should ask for a café alongé. It still won’t be as big as an American cup but close. If you want milk in your coffee, then ask for a “café crème.”
64) The emergency number in France is NOT 911: If you get into a situation where you need emergency services like medical, fire or police than dial 112 from anywhere in Europe from any phone. It’s free. You can find more information at the European Commission website
65) Over the counter drugs like aspirin and cold medicine are not sold at food stores like they are in North America: You have to pick these things up at a dedicated pharmacy, but you can’t just go in and grab some off the shelves at the pharmacy. You have to ask the pharmacist to get it for you.
66) Dr. visits are cheap: A visit to a doctors office will cost you about 23 Euros up to 60 euros for a specialist like a gynecologist. Many doctors take walk-ins; otherwise, just walk into an office and make an appointment and make sure to bring cash. Many doctors only accept cash.
67) Pharmacies are usually closed on Sunday and in some small villages, they are closed on Mondays like in the city of Castres: If you are in need of cold medicine or medication, Sunday is really not the day to go.
French Education & Schools
68) Preschool is free in France: School is mandatory from age 5 or 6, but you can send your child to preschool as early as 3 years old (as long as they are potty trained): It’s called Maternal, and there are three sections- Petit, moyen and grand.
69) No religious symbols in public schools: By law, all public schools in France are non-secular, and school-aged children are not allowed to wear religious symbols such as crosses.
70) Most private schools in France are very affordable: A run of the mill private school should cost you about 1 to 3 thousand Euros per year. International schools are much more expensive. Some cost 10k and more.
71) University is practically free in France: 200 for tuition and 200 for insurance. This is what I pay for my son to attend the University of Montpellier. There are the Grands écoles which can cost as much if not more than American Universities but the vast majority of students attend normal lower-cost universities. As of 2019, the tuition has increased and is closer to 1K per year.
72) School hours are very long in France for children at the elementary level: School typically begins at 8:00 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. depending on the school and ends between 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. That’s an 8 hour day of school.
73) No brown bag lunches allowed: Most schools DO NOT allow children to bring their lunch to school in France. There are exceptions, for instance, if your child is a vegetarian, has allergies etc. Some private schools may allow you to bring lunch to school, but they are rare.
74) No school on Wednesdays? Elementary schools either have no school on Wednesday or finish before lunch on Wednesday. When children enter middle school and high school, school schedules vary.
75) No School sponsored sports or activities: After school sports sponsored by schools is rare. If you would like your child to participate in extracurricular activities such as dance, art or sports then you will have to sign them up separately. This is the norm.
The cost varies for activities but in general, can cost between 100 to 300 euros per year. Many children attend their extracurricular activity on Wednesday since it is a short day or a day of no school.
76) 3-year university degree: It takes three years to finish university, not 4. A university degree is called a license, not a bachelors degree.
77) No prom, balls or high school dances in high schools.
78) No sorority or fraternities at university
79) Student grades are scored over 20, not 100: For example 18/20, not 75/100
80) The French flag is “Blue, white and red” not “red, white and blue.”
81) Bastille day is not called Bastille day in France: France has its own version of the 4th of July only theirs is on the 14th of July. Most English speakers refer to this day as Bastille day, but in France, it’s officially referred to as “Fête Nationale française” are more commonly as “14 Juillet”.
82) Not all French women dress like they stepped off of the cover of Vogue: There’s a myth that all French people are concerned with how fashionable they look. France is an important country for fashion, but many people just wear practical clothes. Especially in the country or in the south. In bigger cities like Paris, you will see people dressed up like the stereotypical fashionable French woman you see in magazines.
83) Not all French women are thin, beautiful and better mothers:
The impression many people have of the French woman is that they are somehow superior. Magazines and books tout how to stay slim or look more beautiful by following some mysterious French secret. French mothers are idealized in books about how French kids are well behaved and eat anything.
Although I do agree, there are less obese women in France than North America; there are thick people in France. And the idea that French women are more beautiful has a lot to do with what the magazine covers and movies show us. This is my own opinion, of course.
There is an overwhelming presence of white, middle-class men and women in French cinema, which is misleading to the outside world. France has always been a country of immigration, and although a law from 1872 makes it illegal for the French Republic to collect data on ethnicity and race, there are various population estimates.
In 2004, roughly 15% of the population of Metropolitan France was estimated to be of NON-White, NON-European descent.
The Arab population is the second largest Ethnic group in France after French people of French origin with the majority settling mainly in the industrial regions of France, especially the Paris region, but also in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Languedoc-Roussillon, Alsace, Rhône-Alpes and Corsica.
85) Racism in France: There is widespread racism in France towards Arabs who represent about 10 % of the population and Roma/Gypsy people.
86) Daft Punk and Parkour come from France:
87) Denim was born in the Languedoc-Roussillon city of Nimes, France: Levis Strauss imported it from Nime to California to make tough clothes for gold miners. The word “Denim” is actually a phonetic spelling of the word “De Nimes,” which means “From Nimes.”
88) There are homeless people in France: This may or may not shock you, but many tourists are shocked to see homeless people when they come to France.
89) Graffiti in France is alive and well: Especially in big cities like Marseille and Paris.
Shopping & Businesses
Here are a few essential things you need to know about shopping and how businesses work in France.
90) You need a coin to use shopping carts at the food stores in France:
If you’ve ever lived in the US or Canada, I’m sure you’ve seen how people leave their shopping carts anywhere they please in the parking lot after they unload their groceries. “Guilty as charged.” In France, this doesn’t happen because, in order to use a shopping cart, you have to insert a coin or token to release it from the cart in front of it. (Carts are daisy chained together).
When you return the cart to its designated area, you reconnect the cart, and the coin is returned to you.
91) Bring your own bags to the grocery store: You must buy grocery bags which can cost 5 to15 centimes, so the vast majority of people bring their own grocery bags.
92) Bag your own food at the grocery store: As the cashier is ringing up your food, it’s up to you to bag your own groceries, so you need to work fast.
93) Food stores in France are usually closed on Sunday or close by noon:
94) Stores and business, including banks, may close during lunch hour:
95) Stores play music with profanity and don’t even know it:
Grocery stores usually play music over the loudspeaker. A large portion of that music is in English but rather than playing soothing classical music; you’ll often hear popular songs including songs with profanity in them.
The first time I heard a song with the lyrics “F Uthis and SH&#T that,” it stopped me in my tracks. I looked around, but nobody noticed because nobody could understand the English word. It’s happened in doctors offices too.
Other Things To Consider
If you’re moving to France for only a year or two or even permanently, you’ll have to make certain decisions.
96) What do you do with your stuff? Do you put your things in storage? Do you sell it all? Do you ship it?
97) Where will you go when and if you return home to your country? Your parent’s house? A friends house? Do you find a new house to rent?
98) Don’t expect a ton of people to come and visit you: it’s expensive.
99) You can’t complain:
Last but not least, if you’re unhappy with certain aspects of your expat life in France, it’s difficult to talk to your non-expat friends about it. From their perspective, they think you’re lucky and might make comments like “I’ll trade shoes with you anytime,” or “you’re so lucky to live there” or “if you’re not happy, just leave.” You can be happy and sad no matter where on this earth you live. Living in France does not mean your life is suddenly going to be perfect and full of happiness because there are good and bad aspects of life in France, just like there are anywhere you live… You should be allowed to vent when you want.