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.


Add Yours
  1. Don Merry

    Great story you tell it so well and thanks. I do have a question, the French consulate kept your passport? What did I miss about you getting it back for travel.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Don, the Consulate kept our passports after our appointment in San Francisco and then mailed them back (using the postage paid envelope we brought to our appointment) to us after completing their review of our paperwork and affixing the visa to a page of the passport. The visa has the start and end of our authorization to stay, a reproduction of the photo we supplied, and some other officialdom. It sticks to a page of our passports like a self adhesive label. At the end of our visit to OFII in Paris a second label was attached to our passports, providing final approval for the visa. Had we not received the second approval from the local French authorities, then if at any point after 3 months we had left the Schengan area, such as by taking the Eurostar to Great Britain, the French could have chosen to not let us return.

  2. Ardis Morrow

    My WORD, you two are something else. It’s hard to believe how much persistence it took for you to complete all the requirements.
    Congratulations for keeping your cool and accomplishing this. Whew !!!!!

  3. Keith Russell

    Hugh, you write like you speak. Although this was hilarious for me the reader, I too applaud you and Brenda for your patience and tolerance. One thing I did not read about though, there was no mention of the clown car. Enjoy your stay.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Keith, unfortunately the clown car went the way of the buffalo, so to speak. One of the things we did when we left Poulsbo was get rid of all our vehicles, the moving truck, Brenda’s Lexus, and yes, my beloved clown car. I have to admit it was an emotional moment for me to leave it behind the last time – I think I was finally realizing we were leaving.

  4. Karl Ostheller

    Yep! Sounds about like our experience in Hong Kong. We eventually got a card which allowed us to go through the lines at an airport as a Hong Kong citizen. Made things a lot easier in a number of countries.
    Now think of what those poor souls must go through to get into the USA!
    Karl Ostheller

  5. Liz Murray

    Well, that certainly encouraged me to stay home!! And I thought THIS country was a bureaucratic mess. Keep smiling!

  6. Keiry

    Hello Hugh and Brenda
    Laughed at lot at your story. Oh it all sounds so familiar. Looking forward to seeing you at WICE again.

    • Brenda

      Hi Keiry,
      We went on the WICE tour of the Theatre des Champs Elysees yesterday. It was excellent. We will be back to conversation group soon.
      Cheers, Brenda and Hugh

  7. Donna Bumgarner

    Hugh and Brenda,
    This gave me a chuckle. You both have the patience of saints. I’m now finished working for tax season and going to enjoy what’s left of Spring.

    • Hugh Nelson

      Donna – glad to hear you are done with tax season and can enjoy some peace and quiet at home. We may not have the patience of saints, but there is something to the adage that you can’t fight city hall.

  8. Kathryn

    Hugh and Brenda ~ sounds eerily familiar ~ rather like getting a visa for my stay in UAE….thankfully I got a multiple exit/entry visitors visa for Saudi….good for 5 years in and out…still it took a trip to California last summer and months of waiting…..
    loving your posts ~

  9. Debbie Toppan

    Hi ..I just sent a note to Brenda through Pasa’s blog (which I foudn researching the mobile phone question), but had no clue if she would get it. I am coming to France 7/29 for a year. So far I have housing through April. (Well, I will be leaving la Belle France for a month, as I will be in Portugal for the month of April!) But I will be in Surenes for the first three weeks in August. I will read your blog now that I have found it. (I have had my first trip to the French Consul which is luckily in Boston-10 miles from my home.) ..What do you use for a mobile phone? Thanks! Debbie

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