Being a foreigner in a foreign country is harder than it looks.
Here is a look at what we foreigners living in France have to go through to renew our visa, called a “titre de séjour,” and tips for dealing with the prefecture.
I hate going to the préfecture- the place where foreigners living in France like me must go to take care of bureaucratic nuisances like visa renewals and other inevitable immigration issues that pop up at the most inconvenient times.
There is nothing you can do to avoid the stress or frustration of dealing with the préfecture; however, there are some things you can do to lessen the blows and bureaucratic obstacles when dealing with the infamous French bureaucracy.
Here are a few helpful tips I’ve learned from dozens of visits to various prefectures across France in my ten-plus years living in France. The things I wish I had known.
You might be interested in reading: How to Get French Citizenship and a passport after 5 years of residency
THE UGLY TRUTH
Like most bureaucratic offices, a visit to one of the 100 plus préfectures in France almost always means hours of waiting in line, frustrating amounts of paperwork and irritable civil servants (known as “les fonctionnaires”) who hold the fate of your life visa in their hands.
But that is where the similarities in French bureaucratic organizations end because a trip to the prefecture IS NOT like a trip to the Department of motor Vehicles to get your driving permit.
No two préfectures are the same.
Each préfcture has its own agenda, different procedures, processes and styles. In my experience, even the documents required from one prefecture to the next may vary.
A simple trip to the préfecture to renew your visa, titre de séjour (resident card), or to change your address could mean queuing up the night before only to be told 12 hours later that there are no more spots for the day and come back another day. Frustrating for anyone, but even worse if you are elderly or have to bring your children.
This is the indignation many foreigners endure; the shame of France, as some call it, to be treated like cattle for the right to stay in France legally is not just my opinion.
It is a known fact that the system in which French préfectures operate and treats foreigners is lacking. There are articles upon articles across the internet ranting about how frustrating it can be for foreigners.
Maybe you will be lucky like we were for four years and live in the district of the Toulon préfecture, which, in retrospect, has a pretty damn good system when compared to some of the other préfectures. But again, we didn’t know how bad it could get until we moved to Montpellier.
Maybe you’ll get really unlucky and end up in the district of the Bobigny prefecture, where people arrive as early as 1 a.m. to queue up with no guarantee of being seen at the prefecture at all.
So now that you know how bad and how good it can get, let’s get on to some general tips which may or may not help. The more you know, the better prepared you will be.
Making an appointment
Here is a list of préfectures across France.
Generally speaking, smaller city prefectures are better, or rather less painful than big city préfectures. I think this may have to do with the fact that bigger cities have a bigger influx of foreigners, which
- Try to make an appointment online or by phone.
- If you have to go to the préfecture without an appointment, check the website hours for walk-ins. Some préfectures are closed on certain days and or only accept walk-ins during certain hours.
- If you plan to walk in without an appointment, do you need to get there early? At some prefectures, people queue up the night before. Do a drive-by or walk by your prefecture to get a feel for what the lines look like in advance. If you see hundreds of people standing outside, then you know you may have an issue and need to get there early to line up.
- Be prepared to wait even when you have an appointment.
- Be Vewy, Vewy patient. *Elmer Fudd voice*
- Some prefectures call out your name when it is your turn. Listen carefully because the way French people say your name may not sound like your name to you. I’ve seen many people waiting for their name to be called only to realize that a clerk came out and butchered their name. For example, the last name “POWER” will be pronounced “POE-WAH” in French. “THOMAS” will be pronounced “TOE-MAW” in French.
- Learn as much as you can beforehand. You may get a clerk who is not very helpful and not forthcoming with suggestions to help you achieve your goals. The more you know, the better questions you can ask.
- Always check the website first to see what the procedure is for dealing with your particular need.
- Try to get a list of requirements from your prefecture’s website.
- Don’t assume that you will be able to skate by without that “one document.”
- Don’t throw anything away.
- Keep careful records of correspondence and phone calls to the bureaucracy. Write down what you say and what they say.
- Follow the bureaucracy’s procedures.
- Fill out their forms wholly and carefully.
Mind your manners
Remember, the people behind the counters at the prefecture are human beings. Always be polite.
- Say “bonjour” before asking your question, and be sure to say “merci” when you are finished. It is common practice to say bonjour everywhere.
- DO NOT lose your temper. The front-line clerks are used to this and may write you off as completely irrational or insane.
Be over-prepared with regards to your documents.
- Have originals and copies with you.
- Create a “contents” page or put post-it notes on each section of documents you bring so you can find everything quickly.
- Be aware that most documents must be translated into French. Even a simple birth certificate may need to be translated into French, as is the case with us.
- Translations must be notarized by a sworn translator called ” traducteur assermenté” which can be extremely expensive. Don’t be surprised if you are charged 45 or 65 Euros per page. We paid a little over 700 Euros to have all our family documents translated. Luckily, we can use those translations over and over every year.
- Go to a French photo booth to get a few extra French legal-size photos, and always have them handy. We seem to go through them quickly in France.
Legal size photos in France for official documents
Legal size photos for official documents in France is 35mm x 45mm (approximately 1.38 inches x 1.77 inches).
Which might be different than your country.
- United States: 2 inches x 2 inches (51mm x 51mm)
- Canada: 50mm x 70mm (2 inches x 2.75 inches)
- United Kingdom: 35mm x 45mm (approximately 1.38 inches x 1.77 inches)
Expect the worst, but hope for the best.
- Never be too optimistic about going to the Prefecture.
- You may be asked to provide documents that were not originally requested of you or not listed on the website.
- The rules are changing all the time, so you never know what you might face. It’s like a box of chocolates.
- Don’t expect administrative employees to treat you as if you were a customer in a restaurant or a store.
- Don’t expect the clerks to be able to speak English. It is doubtful they will. You are in France, after all.
- If you don’t speak French, have your questions written on a piece of paper in French. Look on Google Translate or have someone help you.
- If possible, bring someone to help translate.
No sometimes means YES.
If you get stonewalled or don’t get the help you need to complete what you set out to do, here are some ideas.
- Return another time. You may get a different person with different interpretations of policies. On one visit, you may get someone who just won’t help you at all, and on another visit, you might get someone who goes over and above.
- Ask to speak to a supervisor. Nothing is set in stone, and supervisors have more authority to consider individual circumstances and bend the rules..
You’ll never completely escape bureaucracies. It’s a necessary part of the French government’s functionality. But if you know how a system works, you can at least set some standards for how to deal with them.
Bonne Chance, my friends.
You’re going to need it.