Annual Trip to the Préfecture

Hugh standing in front of the Prefecture de Police, Paris

Standing in line before the riot started

On Thursday, January 7th we went on our annual sojourn to the Préfecture de Police to renew our residence permits. Our original appointment was December 10th, the day before we were leaving for a Mexican cruise vacation. It seemed then to be a good thing that the nice lady at the Préfecture asked us if we could please delay because their staff was overworked, but in hindsight it was a mistake. We got up at 8am after a late night out with our friends Cat and Jacques for our 10 am appointment at the Préfecture. We wanted to arrive early. It was also pouring rain.

After arriving at the Préfecture, we found that it was unexpectedly closed as a security precaution for memorial ceremonies being held for the killings at Charlie Hebdo a year earlier. Also there was a madman knife attack at the Préfecture de Police office in the 18th arrondissement that same morning, which may have added to the heightened security. The signboard outside the Préfecture told us they would reopen at 2 pm. We knew we would need to be early so, after getting some coffee, we went shopping (it was the first day of the semi annual government authorized sale in France). After visiting my favorite store, Zone Nordique, I had a big bag of clothes that I didn’t want to take to the Préfecture. I headed back across town to dump off the stuff at our apartment while Brenda continued shopping at some of her favorite stores. I took a 15 minute nap, then hit the road again to meet Brenda at the statue of Charlemagne in front of Notre Dame. They’ve been cleaning the outside of the Cathedral with some kind of pressure washer, so now all the black parts are spic and span.

We arrived at the Préfecture at about 1 pm. The line was already 100 yards long. We got in line and eventually struck up a conversation (mostly in French) with the Moroccan lady in front of us. She kept telling us how much she loved Michael Jackson, that he was very rich, that Americans are all very rich, that Madonna is rich (but was she as rich as Michael Jackson?). She was singing songs by Michael Jackson. He was related to Elvis, etc. Meanwhile the line had formed a U and gone back another 100 yards or so. About 5 minutes before 2pm, someone broke from the line and rushed the door. Suddenly everyone broke out of line and made a big crush of humanity in a semicircle around the door. We were, of course, at the back. The lady from Morocco was probably at the front.

Finally about 10 policemen showed up and told everyone to get back in line again, but this time in a direction different from the original line. Naturally some people who had stood in the original line for more than an hour were outraged to find that they would now be now at the back of the new line. I went to get in line, thinking surely the police would enforce their order by admitting only the people who were in line. Brenda remained with the defiant ones in the crush of humanity around the door. Eventually the door opened, and the police started to let people in. There was a great outcry from the people in line because they saw that the police started to let people into the building from all directions, despite their order for all people to line up in one direction. After about 20 minutes of pushing and shoving, Brenda called me to say that everyone around her was in agreement that I should come forward and join her, since this type of pushing and shoving match occurred every day, and cutting in line was the only way to ensure you could get in the door – so I did.

After more pushing and shoving we were in. I noted that a French lawyer, who had pulled his American client out of our original line and left the area before all civility disintegrated, somehow mysteriously reappeared ahead of us in the room for Americans. None of his client’s paperwork was complete so he kept cutting back in the line in front of us to speak to people, while all the time going back to explain and fill out her forms. She must have been one of those Platinum Club members. Eventually we appeared before our fonctionnaire (civil servant) and presented our files. Everything was in in order, and she issued us our récepassés, the documents that fill in for our cartes de séjour (residence permit) until the new ones are received. Our next appointment, where we get to fight through the line again, is to pay them 106 euros each on February 3rd to receive our cartes de séjour. Our past experience is that they won’t be ready then, and that after much waiting and presenting of the paperwork, we’ll find that we have to come back in March to receive the final product.

Bienvenue à France!

We finally get our Cartes de Séjour (residence permits)

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh's birthday

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh’s birthday

Since November we’ve been working to assemble the paperwork required to spend another year in France. The French name for the residence permit we need is carte de séjour. A week ago we had an the appointment at the Préfecture de Police to present our dossier and receive the permit. We documented in an earlier article how we started the process and got permission to stay in France until our official appointment. In that article we showed how we had assembled all of the details we would need to provide. From there it seemed like it would be simple enough to assemble the final documents and present them to the French authorities. Not so!  What might normally be straight forward became convoluted and difficult because we don’t speak or understand French very well.

In mid-March, about a month before our meeting at the Préfecture de Police, I contacted the service assisting us to prepare for the carte de séjour, Mon Ami Andy. We met with Jennifer Denison. Since all of our translations (birth certificates, marriage certificate, health insurance policy) were more than three months old, they had to be redone. The same with the documentation of all of our assets and account balances, sources of income, etc. With Jennifer’s help we planned the following activities to get ready for the meeting:

  • We resolved questions and completed the application forms for the carte de séjour
  • We resolved that Mon Ami Andy would update the translations
  • We would need to make new copies of of our passports and the visa pages and copies of our current récépissés (temporary visa extension document)
  • We would need to include copies of the health certification from our original visit to OFII (agency who cleared us for our visa when we arrived in France).
  • We would need to rewrite our letters promising not to engage in work while in France
  • We would need to collect three months of French and US bank statements and retirement pay statements. We would also provide the letter from our French bank stating we have an account in good standing.
  • We would need to collect the latest financial account statements
  • We would need to make a spreadsheet showing all sources of income and assets, both in France and the US.
  • We would assemble three piles of documents, one of originals and all details of all documents, including our latest tax return, one with copies about Brenda, and one with copies about me.
  • We would make color copies of all color documents, black and white copies of all black and white documents. Copies of financial statements only needed the page showing the account balance. We could look at the original if there was a question.
  • We were encouraged to use a highlighter on each document, highlighting the important information we wanted the administrator to understand.

In addition to this overarching plan, we thought we needed to change our address since we moved to a new apartment in early March. Our understanding was that we needed to update it within 8 days of moving. As soon as we had what we thought were the required documents (rental contract, utility bill showing both our names, receipt showing we had paid rent, and our current passports, visas and récépissés), we went to the Préfecture at Rue Truffaut, where we had gone before, to attempt the change. They sent us away, telling us they didn’t handle changes of address. We had a difficult time figuring out where to go after that. We were told that the police station at Rue Truffaut could do it, and that might have succeeded except that they told us we didn’t have all the required documents. We needed proof of insurance, which we didn’t have with us. They told us that we could do it at our local Préfecture in the 5th arrondissement, but a policeman there told us we couldn’t. We thought maybe we could do it at the downtown Préfecture, but then found out that was not the place. Then we were told we might be able to do it at the Mayor’s office in our arrondissement, but that wasn’t correct. Finally we discovered that what the policeman told us was wrong, and that we needed to go to the 5th arrondissement Préfecture. When we finally met with them, they said we didn’t need to change the address yet, and we should just do it at our carte de séjour appointment.

By now we were closing in on the end of March, so I started in earnest getting the packages of documents together. We don’t have a printer, so every time I needed to print something I had to walk 6 blocks down the street to “Copy Self”, a local printing and copying store in our neighborhood. The guys inside know me, even though I don’t pick up much of their French chatter. I think they talk “copy speak”, mostly consisting of terms of art about toner cartridges, document settings, color correction.

I carefully planned to print as many of the documents I needed as possible. I went to Copy Self and plugged my USB flash drive into their computer. For some reason I could not print my tax return at my usual printer. The office assistant came over to help me. First he printed my tax return to another printer in the back. It came out completely distorted and sized wrong for the paper. He then asked if I wanted to print all the documents at once, which I agreed to do since it seemed easiest. He moved my USB drive to another computer, selected all the documents, and hit print. My tax return document required that I type in my password. Only one hitch – I didn’t know of any password for that document. The assistant asked his boss for assistance. They exchanged copy speak – soon the boss took over. Every document required a password, but he did something to get them to print. Everything printed in portrait even though a good percentage of the documents are set up to print in landscape. It was printing disaster!

I took my 80 plus pages of financial documents home. That night I lay awake worried about identity theft. The next morning I assembled another package of summary financial pages and pages that needed to be printed in color, plus my tax return. I returned to Copy Self and kept things under control this time. By then my packages were coming together, but I was sick of getting ready for this meeting. All my time in France was being spent preparing to get a residence permit. I complained to our French tutor. I complained to Brenda. They tried to make helpful suggestions, but I was having none of it. I wanted this monkey off my back. I complained to my coach, who pulled me up short to ask how was I taking care of myself. We figured out that I needed a rest. Also I needed to recognize that others were making suggestions to try to help me because they could recognize better than me that I needed help. My real job at that point was to help myself.

A few days remained until our appointment. I agreed to take time off – we surfed the web at the Luxembourg Gardens and walked around town. I went to the gym and went to bed earlier at night. I resigned myself that if there was a problem, they would give me more time to fix it.

Our package was assembled. We had another meeting on Skype with Jennifer from Mon Ami Andy to go over everything. I highlighted the places in our documents where the income stream on my spread sheet showed up as deposits in the three months of US bank statements. I highlighted where transfers occurred from the US to France, and provided copies of the transfer documents themselves. I downloaded and printed the Tricare Overseas (retired military medical insurance) pages to show that we were enrolled and to show the list of recommended physicians and hospitals in France. I created an example of a bill from our doctor that I paid and for which I filed a claim and received reimbursement. I went over the checklist again and again, finding a few more mistakes and fixing them (and trudging back to Copy Self to print new copies). Brenda and I rehearsed how we would assemble our documents, how we would present them, and what we would say. On Sunday before our Monday appointment, we rested.

On Monday we went about 2 hours early to our official appointment at the main Préfecture office on Île de la Cité. We got through security and lined up outside of the room where we were to have our meeting. A man at the front door greeted us and quickly checked our paperwork, which he pronounced as “magnifique”. Then he gave us each a ticket and told us to sit down. In our room full of people, there really weren’t others like us. There were corporate employees with their families and a corporate attorney to shepherd them through the process, spouses one of whom is a French citizen and the other requiring to establish residence, students following the instructions from their schools, and others who spoke good French. People always ask us, why are you here, to which we shrug and say because we thought we would like it.

We were finally called to our meeting with a young woman, I would guess in her ’20s. She first went through Brenda’s paperwork and then through mine. She asked questions about our medical insurance, but after we demonstrated the process for reimbursement, she checked with her supervisor and accepted the plan. She was happy with everything else. Finally she wanted to know why Brenda’s last name was neither mine nor her maiden name. Brenda had been married in Australia in the ’70s. The woman asked for a copy of the divorce decree. I told her that I didn’t have it with me, but could get a copy at our apartment. She said she was going to lunch, and for us to get it and meet her back afterward with it.

We raced home and got our copy of the nearly 35 year old document, which I had attached to an original copy of our marriage license in an envelope of extra stuff I had brought first to San Francisco and then to France just in case. 25 years ago we sent to Australia for it so that we could obtain a military ID for Brenda when I was in the Navy. No one had ever asked about it since. We raced back to the Préfecture, entered back through security and waited for our inspector to return from lunch. When she finally returned I gave her the document, and she asked me for the translation. Checkmate – I told her I didn’t have a translation. She consulted her supervisor and bought back three documents for us to sign, two swearing that we were married and one for me to agree to accept whatever liability France might bear for our not having a good enough divorce decree [my interpretation]. Since I have already signed many software end user agreements, I readily signed what was put before me.

Our inspector printed new récépissés for us to verify and sign. We are once again legal residents in France. She also gave us each a Convocation (appointment slip) to pick up our real Cartes de Sejour on or after June 25th. The new permit is good through the end of January 2015. To renew that one, we need to start 5 months ahead of time, which would be next October.

In the aftermath I came down with a cold, which I’ve now passed on to Brenda. Still, we celebrated our new cartes de séjour and my birthday with our French friends Cat and Jacques, including a night of dancing. I just hit 21 for the third time (63), still trying to grow up.

A new apartment in Paris

Boulevard Saint-Germain when it was first created

We’ve moved just 3 blocks from our first apartment in a medieval building along the Seine to a new apartment in Paris built on Boulevard Saint-Germain during the Haussmannian era of the mid 1800s. From roughly 1850 to 1870 France was governed by Emperor Napoleon III, who as a main priority set about remodeling Paris to open up the view from the narrow, cramped medieval streets and to install sewer and water systems that would serve the city as it grew. To do so, he appointed an exceptionally strong public administrator, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, as Prefect of the Seine Department of France. Haussmann carried out a program to demolish crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, to annex suburbs surrounding Paris, to relocate many thousands of people from central Paris to the suburbs, to create a series of wide, straight avenues with parks and squares, to construct new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. He overcame tremendous opposition to do this, and in 1870 he was dismissed by Napoleon III to assuage pressure from his critics. The third phase of Haussmann’s plans was still unfinished, but work continued even after he was fired and was finally completed in 1927. In the end, hundreds of old buildings were razed, and more than 80 kilometers of new avenues were constructed.

Our new apartment building

The Paris you know today was the Paris created by Haussmann. The uniformity spelled out in Haussmann’s building codes created a look that is distinctly Parisian, but if you’ve seen one Haussmann apartment, you’ve seen them all. There is still a certain sentiment for the old medieval streets and wood beamed buildings.

We moved for several reasons, but our new place has both pluses and minuses compared to the old one. We looked at apartments all over Paris, but in the end opted for another apartment in the 5th arrondissement simply because we like that neighborhood the best. The basic improvements we sought were a quieter location with more space for guests and a kitchen with an oven. The new apartment is about 50% larger and has a much better arrangement for guests. It has high ceilings and appears much more spacious. Also the fixtures and appliances are better quality. It looks on a courtyard rather than out into a noisy street. On the negative side, the new apartment was quite dirty, and we spent many unanticipated hours cleaning. We were able to negotiate a rent credit for some of the time we spent. The new apartment was not nearly as well furnished as our first, so we’ve spent considerable time and money buying missing pieces. The old apartment had double paned windows, while the new one has the original single panes – you can see the glass flowing. Brenda misses the view of Notre Dame and the light and bright feel of the old place, as well as the large luxurious marble bath with double sinks. Hugh loves it that the new place is quiet at night.

Our medieval street, Rue de Bievre. The French President François Mitterand had lived halfway down the block.

The medieval street, Rue de Bievre, at the old apartment shows how Paris was before Haussmann.

It was the first time we had to arrange for gas and electricity, since utilities and Internet had been handled by the landlord in the first apartment. We were able to call the Frech utility EDF and make our arrangements in English, which really helped since we had to estimate our usage of gas and electricity to properly size the capacity that would be allocated to us. We pay a flat rate that can be adjusted based on meter readings each quarter. The start up of our service went very smoothly. While at the old apartment the heat was electric, here we have gas heat (radiators) and hot water. The old apartment had two electric meters, one with a lower rate from 11pm to 7 am, the other with a higher rate during the daytime. Here we have only one electric meter and one gas meter, the assumption being that since we use the cheaper gas for heat and hot water, we don’t need the same incentives to save power. Gas in Europe generally costs 2-3 times as much as we pay in the US. We have become much better conservers of energy.

It was also the first time for us to sign up for Internet service. Since we already had two mobile phone accounts with Orange, a provider of both mobile and residential communications services, we shopped with them first. For and additional 25 Euros per month, we arranged bundled services that include, in addition to our two cell phones, fiberoptic internet and HD TV with extra on demand movies and TV (all in French of course), unlimited calling to US land lines, plus a mobile hot spot for up to 4 devices that has unlimited data usage. Telecoms are competing in Europe! Our total bill for two cell phones and all our residential communications needs is about 75 Euros per month, far less than we pay in the US.

Installation was not easy. Hugh made an appointment to meet the installer, but when he contacted our building concierge about getting access to the basement for part of the work, she refused him and told him it would have to be after 6 pm because she had other plans for that day. Hugh went and requested that the appointment be cancelled, but the installer showed up anyway. It took over 6 hours to figure out the best way to pull fiberoptic cable from the connection point outside our apartment into the place were the “set top box” was to be located. The installer was quite ingenious and revealed many secrets about how these buildings from the 1800’s can meet the needs of today.

Shortly before 6 pm we again contacted the concierge, who argued with the installer for about half an hour about why we should need to upgrade service, also noting that she had not agreed to assist prior to 6 pm even though she was now there talking to us. She called down some of our neighbors, who testified on our behalf that what we were requesting was necessary. We remained quiet throughout the process and let the installers and the neighbors settle the issue. Finally the concierge relented and our installer was able to complete work in about 5 minutes.

Living room and dining rooms – picture on left was my Valentine’s present

We had to change our address with the mail service so that mail sent to the old address would be forwarded. In France it costs 35 Euros for the service to forward mail for 6 months. Unfortunately, there was a parcel had been sent though the mail that could not be forwarded. Brenda purchased a French print for Hugh to be delivered on Valentine’s Day. It was being sent by mail through La Poste. Unfortunately, the company promising delivery notified us that there was a delay. Perhaps a week later they sent email to us that the print had shipped and included the tracking number for the package. Hugh tracked the package but noted that it remained at an unidentified location at La Poste (somewhere in Paris) for more than a week. We contacted the company that shipped the print and also visited our local post office, who could not help us with locating the parcel. Finally we received email from La Poste that they would be contacting us for delivery. Unfortunately by then we had moved. After the mandatory 2 tries to deliver (we think you need to be standing by your mail box when they show up because they made no attempt to contact us), we received notice that we could pick up the parcel at the post office. We went there the next day with our notice. The postal clerk asked us for identification. He would not accept any ID except an original passport (not drivers license or copy of passport). Hugh had to go back and get the passports before we received our package.

When we opened it we discovered it was damaged – a small dent in the tube caused a crease the length of the print. Eventually we were able to return the print to the company that shipped it and receive a new one. We were able to purchase a frame and hang it a month or so after Valentine’s Day. Voila! All’s well that ends well.

The new apartment remains a work in progress. Here are some photos comparing old and new and showing what it’s like in the new place. It has been a pleasant surprise to discover that there is a world of new shops and activities right in the same area where we’ve been living the past year.

Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris

US Embassy Paris - visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

US Embassy Paris – visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

I recently had to use the Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris. My strategy to transfer funds from our US bank to our account in France has been to use a 3rd party company, Venstar Exchange, to provide a better exchange rate than we  could get through the bank. A US bank might charge 3% above the spot exchange rate (plus a wire fee) to transfer funds. A 3% premium is also what you might pay for Euro purchases with your US credit card. On fairly large transfers, such as $25,000, the difference in the quoted exchange rate (Venstar charges a little over 1% above the spot rate quoted at 10 minute intervals) can amount to a significant amount of money. Previously I had been able to initiate wire transfers by sending wiring instructions to our US bank using secure email on their web site.

Recently I sent a funds transfer request to our US bank, and they told me that their procedures had changed. I would need to complete and have notarized a new form with two parts, one authorizing the Venstar account where we send the funds (which they convert to Euros and forward to our French account), and a second part that specifies how to handle recurring transfers so I could complete future transfers with just a phone call verification of my identity. Where do you get a US Notary in France? You have to go to the US Embassy.

We’d been by the American Embassy before. It’s on 2 Avenue Gabriel, just off Place de la Concorde and close by the Elysée Palace where the President of France lives. One day after hiking the Champs-Élysées we were passing by, and I tried to take a photo from the sidewalk outside the security fence. I was immediately whistled down (you know you’re in trouble when guys start to whistle at you) and informed that photos were not permitted.

To see a notary, I made an appointment on the Embassy web site – they had one available in 5 days. The consulate sent me a couple emails asking me to confirm the appointment and assuring me that correct completion of the form was up to me and that they could not in any way help me interpret my paperwork. Fair enough. I sent the bank a list of questions and then used their answers to make sure that I correctly filled out their form, which was an internal bank form not really set up for use by a notary. Their answers also provided instructions about how Embassy was to notarize the form.

Armed with my passport, my appointment form, and all my other paperwork, I set out for my appointment at the Embassy. The weather was cold – windy and in the mid ’30s (yes I know that would be a heat wave in Minnesota). The guard outside checked me off on his schedule and directed me to go stand in line outside the security building behind about 20 other people. We all stood there for about 15 minutes until they began to invite people one at a time into the secure guard building nearby for a security check. Eventually I got to go inside, where they used procedures similar to what you experience at the airport to clear me for entry. After the security check, they took away my cell phone and keys and directed me outside, across a courtyard and into the visitors area in the Embassy itself.

While I was waiting in line, I could see Embassy employees coming and going through a different entrance, but the area where visitors were sent was completely isolated from all embassy staff. Visitors can interact with staff to address their needs through 15 bullet proof glass windows with pass through slots. Perhaps a hundred visitors were waiting in the large seating area. I took a number and followed the instructions they gave me to sit and wait for my turn.

When my number was flashed on the monitor, I went to the designated counter and described what I needed to the woman behind the bullet proof glass. She took my form and passport, issued me a bill for $100, and sent me over to the cashier to pay. The employee taking my credit card laughed when I remarked that the service was “très cher”. Then I went back to wait some more. I was called back to sign the document and swear that the information I was providing was true and accurate, and I was done – it only took a minute.

I left the visitors area and returned to the guard building to recover my keys and phone. Then I exited the security perimeter and headed for freedom, reflecting on how the politics of our world has so restricted many aspects of our lives. I guess we really wouldn’t want it any other way, but what should be a “friendly home” to Americans in France has been transformed into a foreboding and unwelcoming space. I made my way into Place de la Concorde, looked back, and furtively took a photo.

Getting a Carte de Séjour (Residence Permit)

From the back of the line at the Prefecture de Police

From the back of the line at the Prefecture de Police

Before I relate our process of obtaining a residence permit, a note of caution: Information we found on other Internet blogs was not always reliable and up to date. You will need to do your own research. The requirements change often. There have been major changes to the Préfecture de Police Web site even since we began our process. This post should in no way be interpreted as legal advice.

Last week we finally received from the Préfecture de Police permission to remain in France until April. The Préfecture is the agency that implements French government policies for non-citizens visiting or working in France for periods beyond one year. When we return to the Préfecture in April, they will review all of the documents and hopefully issue a resident card allowing us to remain an additional year in France.

In late October, about 3 months before the expiration of our visa, I checked the web site for the Préfecture de Police. How I wish I had checked this earlier! Right away I knew we were in trouble; the first requirement for visitors was to visit the Préfecture 4 to 5 months prior to expiration of their visa.

I relied on the information from our visa issued by the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII). We’ve already related the story of our visit to OFII. This visa gave us a resident permit for our first year in France. The application contained the following information about renewing our residence permit:

“If you wish to renew your residence permit you must, within the last two months before your visa expires, go to the relevant local authorities of your place of residence (“Préfecture”) and apply for a resident permit. You will be given the necessary forms and the list of requirements, which can vary according to your stay. Failing to do so will result in your having to return to your last country of residency to request a new visa.”

The Préfecture Web site provided a list of items that applicants need to present for their first renewal. It included some items not required by OFII, such as certified copies of birth certificates with date of issue within the past 3 months. Other items were similar to what we had presented for our original visa. About the same time, I found an article on the blog Paris Missives letting us know that obtaining a residence permit was no walk in the park. There was a form on the Préfecture Web site to request an appointment to renew the residence permit, but I could not figure out what number on my long term visa would allow me to sign up. The numbers in the online form appeared to correspond only to numbers on the residence permit card.

Knowing we were running out of time and still not having an official appointment, on November 1st Brenda and I went to the Préfecture de Police on Rue Truffaut, the designated place for people living in our part of Paris. We took with us everything on the checklist that we could pull together, and I hastily ordered our birth certificates by overnight mail from the US.

This first visit was a complete failure. We arrived early in the afternoon and found two long lines. We understood the line on the right was for first time renewals, and the line on the left was for people who were renewing a subsequent time. We waited outside, standing in a crowd in sub 40 degree weather for 5 hours. The line on the left moved quickly along, but our line moved hardly at all. Just as we neared the front, an administrator appeared and told everyone to go home. No more appointments that day. At least 100 angry people, trying to get the feeling back in their legs, trudged off.

Later we found out that traffic that day was especially heavy because people who normally would have been at work were off for some school holidays. The next week we received our birth certificates. Still hoping to get in the door to start the approval process, we went back to the Préfecture at 8:30 am on November 6th. This time we got inside, received a number, and within 2 hours were called to the front desk. The administrator spoke rapidly in French (too rapidly for us to understand what she said) as she looked at our paperwork. She handed our paperwork back, told us to leave and to call the phone number on the checklist to make an appointment. Since appointments were running about 5 months out (April 2014), and our visas were to expire in January, we did not understand why the Préfecture would not see us. We returned home to look for some bourbon and professional help.

We searched the Internet and found a company in Nice called “Mon Ami Andy”. They help clients obtain residence permits. I filled out their online form. Within a day I received a response from Jennifer Denison, who specializes in helping with visa/immigration issues. She answered my list of questions regarding our circumstances and explained how to obtain items required by the checklist. Her being in the south of France was not a problem. She met with us in our Paris apartment when she was in town early in December. Below are some requirements and answers for questions:

Is this our first renewal?

Our visa authorized residence for our first year in France. We were confused about whether we were now applying for our first residence permit or a renewal because the laws changed 2 years ago. Before the change one would apply for a separate residence permit at the Préfecture within 3 months of being in France. Now the first year of residence in France is authorized by the visa approval by OFII. Older websites discussing residence permits were not up to date with this change. With current rules, because one holds only a visa and not a separate residence card, one is classified as making his/her first request to the Préfecture.

Getting an appointment at the Préfecture

I hired “Mon Ami Andy” to obtain the appointment for us. For nearly a week they had no success contacting the Préfecture. Finally on a Monday they succeeded. Since July 2013 the Préfecture has a cap on how many appointments they can give out per week, making it easier to manage the workload for their employees. The previous week all of the spaces had been filled by 10 am on Tuesday, so for the rest of the week the switchboard was off! The Préfecture confirmed the appointment by sending us a “convocation” inviting us to individual appointments on April 14th. Since our visas expire near the end of January, we still had to have temporary permission to remain in France. Back to the Préfecture!

Get first Recepissé

With our letters of convocation, passports and a proof of address (a bill in each of our names), we went to the commissariat 19 rue Truffeau at 8:30 am to request a Recepissé. This time we got to stand in the faster moving line on the left. As a precaution recommended by “Mon Ami Andy”, we took additional paperwork – apartment lease and receipts, bank statements, and translated birth certificates and marriage license, but these were not required. As Jennifer predicted, we were issued the Recepissé without any problems. It allows us to stay in France legally until our meeting in April. We are also permitted to enter and exit France freely.

Note on what documents were needed to prove residence

Our landlord kept the utilities in her name so we did not have a utility bill to prove we live at our address in Paris. “Mon Ami Andy” recommended that we use a cell phone bill in each of our names, copy of the apartment lease with the most recent 3 months of rent receipts, and bank statements in both our names as a backup. Both our cell phone accounts were in my name. It took us more than a month to complete the paperwork so that our cell provider Orange could change one of the accounts into Brenda’s name. An Orange phone cannot list more than one person on the account.

Now we are looking forward to our meeting in April. We have given notice to our current landlord with the hope of finding a larger apartment in a quieter location. Below are additional details for our April meeting:

Marriage certificate

The checklist didn’t say we needed a copy of our marriage certificate, but we were advised that one is needed, the requirement being lumped in with “etat civil” documents. As with our birth certificates, this document must be translated into French by an authorized translator. “Mon Ami Andy” provides authorized translation services. All translations in France need to be dated less than three months from the day of the appointment.

Proof of Health insurance

Our health insurance policy letter showing coverage while we are in France must be translated into French. Another option would be to sign up for French coverage. We’ve been advised that we can do this without being members of the French social security system. Generally the cost of this coverage is not based on history/need/preexisting conditions, but simply on age. A person aged 40-50 is about 90 euros per month, 50+ about 100 euros. The Préfecture loves it if you have French coverage. It is easy for them to understand and determine approval. Since we already have US insurance with coverage in Europe, our current goal is to find a way to convince the French that our coverage meets their requirements.

Documents to show OFII health check

We have to provide the original (from April 2013) OFII health exam and chest X-rays. The Préfecture only needs to see the certificate signed/stamped by the doctor saying that we passed the medical.

Justification of resources

As visitors, we must justify our resources as sufficient for the time of our stay in France. We must provide our last 3 months bank statements from our French bank and an “attestation de compte”, which is a letter from our bank that says that we have a bank account in good standing. It is a good rule of thumb that whatever was used to justify assets for the original visa at the French consulate in America should be used again – now with the addition of any French bank assets and the bank letter. A summary of our US assets will need to be translated into French and converted into Euros.

Letter not to engage in work or services

“Mon Ami Andy” provided us with an example of a letter with appropriate French language to formally declare that we would not engage in work. This is a requirement only for visitors.

Proof of payment to OFII

The Préfecture checklist requires proof of payment to OFII for the original receipt of their approval stamp. The OFII stamp in one’s passport is proof that the taxes owed were paid.

Other considerations for success

We’ve been advised that, despite the appearance of a difficult bureaucracy, as long as all the ducks are in a row, paperwork translated, photocopies, not bound by staples, etc, Carte de Séjour (residence permit) requests very rarely get refused. Most of the decision process is based on whether or not you can afford to support yourself in France without needing French social assistance. We were able to justify this to the French Consulate in the US, and they are generally far more difficult to please than the Préfecture! At the Préfecture they like to see the documents the way that they like to see them, eg specific photocopies, specific order etc. It is worth the effort to ask for assistance in getting prepared.

Rendez-vous time

Our appointments at the Préfecture are scheduled for April 14th. This is long after our current visas expire. Unfortunately these are the earliest available appointments. The procedure is as follows: Documents for all the items on the Préfecture checklist need to be updated to within 3 months of the appointment. Only translation dates of translated documents need to be updated. Documents must be organized by originals and then copies- color documents with color copies, black and white documents with black and white copies.

Renewal date for new residence permit

Our new residence permit will expire at the end of January, 2015, a year after the original expiration of our visas. An updated Recepissé will be issued after the meeting, and a couple months later the actual residence card arrives. By that time we will need to start application to renew our residence permit for year 3!

Can we renew our lease or rent a new apartment prior to approval of the residence permit?

The Recepissé is a legal document issued by the Préfecture, which means that we are authorized to stay and reside. For all intents and purposes it has the same authority as the Carte de Séjour. We are fully legal in France until the 14th of April. Also, if for whatever reason we are not approved for the Carte de Séjour in April, we would only have to give one month’s notice to our landlord in order to terminate the contract. The lease at our current place could roll over automatically whether or not we have a valid Carte de Séjour, and our recipissé status should be no problem for any new individual owner or real estate agency. If requested, we may have to show our Carte de Séjour (residence permit) in April once we have received it. At our appointment, the Préfecture only needs to see a current rental contract; they will assume it will simply roll over upon approval of our residence permit.

How to give written notice

In France to terminate a lease you have to give written notice via the mail, to be sent with signed delivery upon receipt. The post office can help with this. Using the postal system web site, I was able to mail my signed termination and pay for the postage online and skip the trip to the post office.

Getting a French Visa

French visa

You can’t stay in France for more than 3 months without a visa.

Most tourists coming to Paris from the US never have to worry about getting a French Visa, but since 2009, to remain in France for longer than 3 months, you must have the permission of the government. Though we arrived in France in late January, we started the procedure to obtain a Visa early in November, 2012 by making the trip to San Francisco to visit the French Consulate. The French Consulate in Seattle does not process these Visas. The San Francisco Consulate is located close to Union Square, so it’s possible to combine business with pleasure when you go. We made an appointment in October via their web site (the only way you can do it) bought plane tickets and made a hotel reservation, etc.

For that visit we followed their detailed checklist of materials to bring. In our case we were applying for a long stay visitor’s visa, so we needed to present the following items:

1. ID photos – a separate photo is placed in your passport. The French government is particular about the appearance. T&C photo in Poulsbo provided everything we needed, but you’ll want to remember to be sure to bring the requirements along to your photo session.
2. A completed application form
3. Original passport plus copy of the identity pages
4. Status in the US (green card if you are not a citizen).
5. Letter promising not to engage in employment. The French don’t want visitors to be employed because it is very difficult to fire a worker in France, and they don’t want to add additional burdens to their social safety net.
6. Letter of employment in the US stating compensation and earnings.
7. Proof of means of income. Since we could not easily estimate business income, we brought every piece of financial information we had to prove to the Consulate that we would have sufficient funds to remain in France.
8. Proof of medical insurance. They were particular about ensuring that our US coverage also provided coverage in France. Though not necessary for us, we found that there are companies that will provide insurance that provides the necessary coverage.
9. Marriage certificate
10. Proof of accommodation (this meant we needed to have our hotel reservation, which meant that we needed to know our date of departure from the US).
11. Processing fees of $127 per person
12. A residence form with the top part completed. We searched Google until we found a student web site that translated the form so I could complete it correctly.
13. E ticket or reservation confirming the date of departure for France. (So in November before knowing that we had a visa, we had to make all reservations for lodging and travel with a firm arrival date).
14. A self addressed pre-paid express mailing envelope so they could return completed documents to us.

The application procedures made it clear that the Consulate might request additional documentation, that submission of the documents does not guarantee visa approval, and that approval does not guarantee the right to enter in France, which is still subject to immigration control procedures once we arrived. Do you think this was an uncertain time for us?

The visit to the Consulate in San Francisco actually went smoothly. The procedures require you to have a copy of every document but what they do not explain is that they want you to have copies because the Consulate doesn’t want to keep your originals. In our case we had a giant mound of paper including originals and copies of all bank and financial statements and every other document in the list above. The first thing the man at the consulate asked us was “Why so much paper?”. Still we must have done something right because by Wednesday of the next week we had received via snail mail our passports back with French Visa’s. Yes, you must leave your passport at the Consulate!

Now fast forward to a month ago. After we arrived in France it took us about a month to find a permanent residence, and because of the uncertainty of when we would be living where, we delayed our visit to the French Office of Immigration and Integration (called OFII here) until we were living in our apartment. At that point we completed the original residence form returned to us from the Consulate and mailed it (by registered mail with return receipt) to the local OFII office in Paris. Along with the form, we also needed to send copies of our passports including the pages with the stamp when entering France and our visa pages.

A few days later we each received an acknowledgement of receipt of our application forms. Everything was written in French so we had to scramble to interpret the web site and documents. Perhaps a week later I received a letter from the consulate scheduling an appointment, including a physical exam, on April 2nd. There was no letter for Brenda. We didn’t want to call because speaking French to talk about the terminology of our visas would have been difficult for us. Twice we trekked over to the OFII office only to find it closed both times. Finally we decided to just go to my appointment and ask about her at the same time.

April 2nd arrives and I’ve compiled the paperwork needed for my appointment – another passport photo (thanks T&C Photo in Poulsbo!), a copy of a letter from our landlord certifying that we live at our address, and funds to pay the €241 (a little over $300 US) tax for my visa. Funds had to be in the form of stamps, like postage stamps. They are sold at some tobacco shops and online at a government web site. I was wary of using the online purchase since I didn’t know how long it would take to receive by mail and since I don’t have a way to print at home. We decided to visit tobacco shops – there was a list of those who sold tax stamps. An hour or so before my appointment we go to the first tobacco shop on our list – no their stamp machine is broken. We go to another shop – no they don’t have €241 in stamps, but they suggest a government tourism office down the street that might be able to help. We never would have understood this except that we were helped by an English speaking hotel concierge from across the street, who happened to be in the shop. We go there (walking blocks and blocks to all these places, first in the Latin Quarter, then over by Hotel d’Ville) and are able to purchase the stamps. We debate whether to purchase stamps for Brenda too, but decide against it because we don’t yet have her letter.

Then we go to OFII (walking of course – over by the Bastille in an office that looks like a hole in the wall). Perhaps 100 people are lined up outside for a 1330 appointment-I thought I had the only one. There are all nationalities, many Chinese, Africans from various countries, Japanese, Brazilians. Most are students but some are new wives of French citizens (we didn’t see any new husbands) or people coming to work in France. There was one older American couple who seemed to be in our situation-sort of stupefied! The sign on the doors said that OFII wouldn’t reopen after lunch until 1400, so we all just stood around and waited to see what would happen. Eventually there was movement in the line.

A big security guard examines each person’s paperwork as they enter. I explain in poor French to him that Brenda is my husband, and he laughs and lets her in without paperwork. Inside we pass through a reception desk, where I provide my passport photo, passport, and tax stamps. We ask about Brenda’s situation, and the woman processing forms says there’s no time now and we must ask later. We receive directions to go sit in a cramped waiting room, where officials start calling out names and issuing instructions in French – I can’t understand much. I’m shuttled to another waiting room where I eventually am called for a cursory physical. They measure height and weight, take blood pressure, a blood sample, and a chest x-ray, then shuttle me back to the waiting room. Then I am interviewed by a doctor, who pronounces me fit and sends me back to the waiting room. Eventually I receive a letter certifying that I am medically acceptable to remain in France. Then I get back in line at the reception desk, where I receive my Visa sticker certifying that I am OK to remain in France. Voilà!

Meanwhile we don’t yet know about Brenda’s letter. We ask when I am receiving my completed visa and the lady says we’ll just have to call OFII when we get home since they didn’t have any information there to help us. We go downstairs where Brenda asks again at the front desk. The woman there marches us back upstairs, reads the riot act to the woman who told us to go home, reaches down and pulls Brenda’s letter out of a stack sitting next to the lady at her desk. Next thing we know Brenda is getting her physical completed. Once we have everything done we’re back at the reception desk providing passport, photos, etc., so we can complete the process. The woman asks about Brenda’s tax stamps. We don’t have no stinking tax stamps for Brenda! It’s about 10 minutes to closing time when she tells us to run to a tobacco shop just down the street. We rush over there and, guess what, they have lots of tax stamps. We purchase Brenda’s and hustle back just as they are beginning to lock up. The woman upstairs issues Brenda’s completed visa, and we are ecstatic! 3 1/2 hours of fun.

Imagine working in a chaotic office where you process 100 mostly non French speaking people through the visa pipeline every afternoon. Our hats are off to the workers at OFII. An aside, we only had to get the tax stamps because our trip occurred in the interim period before implementation of a new law that requires long stay visa holders such as ourselves to pay the tax at our visit to the consulate in America.

Paris is pricey, but it’s the best city for students

This article from The Local, a French newspaper for English speakers, describes some aspects of what it’s like to be a college student in Paris. The Sorbonne is just up the street from us, we were just standing in the square in front of the Sorbonne (photo in the article) this afternoon. Students interviewed in the article have very favorable things to say about University life in Paris, including price of school, ease of obtaining a visa (we’ll chime in on that in a separate article), quality of school, and what a great place Paris is (what were you expecting).

If you need us we’ll be over at La Crocodile.

Paris is pricey, but its the best city for students – The Local.

About to leave the old Hotel

In his collection of stories called Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell told about an old man who, while grieving for the loss of his friends at their funeral wakes, secretly rejoiced in having outlived them. The things you can’t say. What we the living can say is that we are about to leave this hotel, the Adagio Paris Vincennes, our home of the past 3 weeks, and life up in the old hotel is a story worth telling.

The Adgio is a modern apartment hotel mid block on a busy street in Vincennes. From the outside it’s pretty nondescript, but inside it’s a modern place with all the conveniences. A few photos will tell the story:

Leaving life behind

Every Thanksgiving the Wall St Journal runs an editorial (The Desolate Wilderness) that tells in part the story of the Pilgrims voyage to America. They leave behind all their friends and all that they know, and go forth into a life unknown with few resources and little help besides each other. In our small journey we’ve gained some appreciation of how the Pilgrims must have felt, though we have a great deal more in resources and assistance. Still leaving the Pacific Northwest and all of our friends, detaching from the world of work, and making arrangements to care for, store, or dispose of almost all of our worldly goods was a daunting task. I can’t help but recognize that any immigrant coming to America these days is making these same sacrifices-in most cases many more. The Pilgrims must have been really motivated to do all that it takes to leave life behind. The same can probably be said of any immigrant to our country.