Whether you’re curious about the Montpellier prefecture or looking to commiserate about French bureaucracy, here is an account of our frustrating experience at the prefecture of Montpellier.
The dreaded French prefecture
Unfortunately, If you live in France for any length of time, you’ll become all too familiar with the world-famous French bureaucracy and red tape that everyone, including the French, has to endure.
If you’re a foreigner living in France like us, or an immigrant living in France, you have the added pleasure of dealing with EXTRA RED TAPE for all your immigration needs. Most of which are handled at one of the many French préfectures across France.
What is a French prefecture?
A préfecture is the “dreaded” bureaucratic office where non-French people, like us, with visa and immigration issues, must go. The préfecture also handles some non-immigration matters such as renewing drivers’ permits or handling a change of address for the title of one’s car. There are roughly 100 préfectures in France.
Address: 34 Pl. Martyrs de la Résistance, 34000 Montpellier, France
A little backstory
We moved from La Garde, a small town in the South of France, about an hour’s drive from Cannes, to Montpellier, France’s 7th largest city.
Like all NON-French people who move from one city to another, we had to register our change of address with our new prefecture in Montpellier, which sets in motion the transfer of our dossier/file from our old préfecture in Toulon.
Changing your address at the préfecture is something you DO NOT want to skip, especially if you plan to renew your visa after your first year in France. The préfecture uses your physical address to send you correspondence.
You might be interested in reading my article about renewing your long-stay visa.
We mistakenly thought this change of address would be an easy affair because we had already been through this four years earlier when we moved from Marseille to La Garde. Like so many things in France that involve paperwork and immigration matters, we were sorely wrong.
As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Here is an account of our frustrating experience of simply trying to make an appointment at the Montpellier prefecture.
How to make an appointment in a French prefecture
One of the first things we did when we moved to Montpellier was “TRY” to make an appointment at the Montpellier préfecture to change our address.
Every day for nearly two weeks, Blake and I tried and failed to make an appointment online using the préfecture of Montpellier’s website. No matter when we looked, there were never any open appointments.
We decided the only thing we could do was physically head over to the prefecture and see if we could make an appointment in person.
Each time we showed up, the line was already snaking around the building. We knew from experience that a line this long would be at least a 3 to 4-hour wait, so we left.
We decided to outsmart everyone and return early on Thursday morning before the prefecture opened. Our goal was to be one of the first in line rather than the 100th person waiting in the hot sun with irritated people who often came with their bored children.
It was a good idea, but not good enough.
Thursday 7:45 a.m. (30 minutes before the Montpellier prefecture opens)
Our hearts sank when we arrived in front of the Montpellier prefecture at 7:45 a.m. There was already a long line of people standing around, waiting for the préfecture to open at 8:15 a.m. There had to be about 50 or 60 people ahead of us.
As we stood there queued up, waiting for the doors to open, I couldn’t help but feel a little defeated, wishing we had come 1 hour earlier instead of just 30 minutes. I looked behind me repeatedly and saw more people queuing up behind us until finally, it seemed there were at least another 100 people waiting behind us.
I felt mildly better because it could have been worse.
8:15, the doors to the prefecture open: (Security check and a mad dash for the building)
At 8:15, the doors to the prefecture officially opened. We slowly inched our way to the front gate, where a security officer passed a wand over our bodies and briefly looked in every bag before letting people pass through to the building.
8:25 a.m.: Stand in line again inside the préfecture
I passed through security before Blake and walked briskly to the building, trying not to let people pass me up. I didn’t want to lose my place in line because people seemed to be sprinting to get inside. I was determined, so I picked up the pace.
Once inside, we had no other choice but to stand in line. There was no ticket machine like there was at the prefectures in Toulon and Marseille.
There we stood, creeping forward as the two prefecture workers sitting behind the counter handled each person’s questions and requests. Some people moved on quickly, while others seemed to take longer.
A man behind me pushing a baby in a stroller got into a heated argument with another man trying to cut in the line for some strange reason. I hear them cursing at one another.
9:45 a.m. It’s finally our turn
Almost two hours after arriving here, it’s finally our turn.
As I walked toward the counter, I smiled, made eye contact with the French civil servant, and politely said “bonjour” before asking my question. It’s rude not to say bonjour.
Our conversation, which was in French, went something like this.
Me: “Hello! I would like to know how can I set up an appointment to make a change of address for our “carte de séjour?” Carte de séjour is what our resident card is called in French. It’s like a French Green Card for foreigners living in the United States.
French woman behind the counter: “You must make an appointment using the website,” she replied.
Me: “I have tried for 13 days straight to make an appointment using the prefecture’s website, but each time I try, I get a message that says there are no more available times for appointments and to try my request again later.”
(Below is a screenshot of the prefecture website showing this message)
French woman behind the counter: “Yes, this is normal. Times slots fill up very fast. Try checking the site at the beginning of the week when new slots open up.”
Me: “Instead of making an appointment through the website, since we are here, can we make an appointment through you now?”
French woman behind the counter: “NO!”
Me: I’m speechless for a moment and ask, “Can we come early, on any day, to change our address?”
French woman behind the counter: With a slightly annoyed voice, says, “NO! you must use the website.”
9:47 a.m.: Defeat
Our hopes of getting an appointment to change our address were crushed in less than 3 minutes at that counter.
Blake and I begrudgingly left the counter and walked home in a confused state of disbelief, feeling like we got bitch-slapped by another French bureaucratic hurdle.
So back home we went.
10:30 a.m.: (Try again online to make an appointment online)
When we arrived home, after stopping off to get a brioche au Chocolat (Blake’s favourite), I immediately went to the préfecture’s website only to be met with the same stupid message, “no more open spots for new appointments.” However, this time, I noticed something that did not make sense before.
In tiny print, a message stated appointments are scheduled only three weeks in advance and If the calendar was full that you needed to try again at the beginning of the week.
Is this what the woman at the prefecture was talking about? Did I need to try on Monday at the beginning of the week to secure a spot before every other desperate person trying to do the same thing?
Still in disbelief that there was no other way to get an appointment, I searched on Facebook and found that the préfecture of Montpellier had a Facebook page. I decided to check it out and see if I could discover some secret to making an appointment.
Instead, I saw more frustrated people posting comments.
One person left a very useful comment.
She said you had to log on to the prefecture’s website at midnight, but you only had five minutes before the reservations slots were taken up. She also said the site was buggy and the process was unjust. “what does one do if we cannot get an appointment?
Unfortunately, the préfecture never answers any comments on their FB page. (see screenshot above of the message left on the prefecture FB page.)
At this point, I have no idea what we are going to do if we can’t make an appointment, especially since we had to renew our visas soon but can’t until we transfer our dossier to our new préfecture.
So far, we have had to deal with three préfectures because we’ve lived in 3 different French cities; Marseille prefecture, Toulon prefecture and now Montpellier prefecture.
Out of all our prefecture experiences, Montpellier’s has been the most difficult because of its defunct appointment system.
To be continued……….
Well, we managed to get an appointment, but it was bizarre. As the woman at the préfecture instructed us to do, we logged on to their website just before midnight on Sunday night.
Three of us were trying to make an appointment; Blake, one of my sons, and me. Each of us sat in front of the computer pressing the “schedule an appointment” button. Each time we pressed the button, a message popped up “no more available times.”
Then at one minute past midnight, a calendar opened up, and we saw about 30 spots on the calendar that were available.
I quickly selected a time and waited. The little hourglass turned and turned, but I received a 503 message instead of a calendar. The server was probably overloaded by hundreds of people trying to get those 30 spots.
If you’re unfamiliar with a 503 error message when viewing a site, it means, “The server is currently unable to handle the request due to a temporary overloading or maintenance of the server.”
“SHIT, I keep getting a 503 server message,” yells my husband from his computer.
“Me too!” yells my son Kieran from his room.
I was determined to get an appointment.
I kept hitting the back button to retry my request again and again.
It felt like I was playing a video game against other online players.
Then suddenly, after 15 back attempts, I secured an appointment three weeks in the future. Woo HOOOOOOOO. Now it was Blake and Kieran’s turn. After a dozen or so error messages in a row, we finally secured one appointment each.
It was now 12:30.
It wasn’t over yet. To secure our appointment, which we just made online, we had to wait for an email and click on a link in the email to confirm the appointment.
After about 2 minutes, the email arrived in my inbox, and I clicked on the link, but then the server timed out again. People were still hitting the system hard, trying to get an appointment, causing the website servers to crash. Eventually, all 3 of us confirmed our appointments, but it was now 12:45 a.m. A little over 45 minutes of this nonsense to get an appointment to change our address so we could then renew our titre de séjour.
I logged back onto the website at 12:45 a.m. just to see if I could get one more appointment for my other son, who was sleeping. Nope, there were no more appointment slots available.
Guess we’ll have to wait until midnight next Sunday.
As the French say, it’s just the way things are done. What can I do about it?
Each prefecture in France is different
Not all prefectures operate this way.
Some take walk-ins. At other you can call to make an appointment. Some prefectures let you make an appointment in person.
Some have machines to dispense numbers, so you can sit down and wait. Others don’t, and you have to queue up in line for your turn.
Life in France is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
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