How to Move to France (and Stay There)

Every language assistant, study abroad student, and (if you’re me in 2012) silly tourist on a four-day trip to Paris has a moment where they ask, “How can I stay here forever?” It’s a common thing, because life in France just seems so romantic…especially at the outset.

Seriously wanting to stay is a difficult impulse to satisfy, though; trying to find an answer is frustrating and can turn depressing pretty fast. You come across a bunch of blogs full of peoples’ pictures of their morning croissants, charming little French neighborhoods, and jaunts to Barcelona and Milan. These bloggers (myself included, up until this point at least) don’t even have the decency to explain how the hell they got to that “perfect” place!

Well, people tend to not explain their immigration stories because they’re not always 100% sure how they did it; it feels like luck (or was the result of marriage, which I’m not knocking, but you can’t just go get married). More typically, people don’t write it down because they haven’t actually figured out a forever plan for themselves.

It’s hard, for sure, but it’s not impossible! You have to really want it and be willing to make a series of (sometimes very lateral) moves before you find your long-term solution. With some realistic planning and stringing together a bunch of different experiences, you can find a way. Read on for real advice on how to become that expat person…ups and downs, uncertainties, and croissant Instagrams included.

(Featured image by Ryan Maple on flickr.)

Step One: Find a temporary way to live in France. Why would I suggest something temporary? Well, it’s the way that most people begin their expat journey. Most options for moving to France tend toward the short-term anyway, but they do allow you to get acclimated to the country while figuring out what it is you really want to do in life.

Here are some ways to test out living in France for a good chunk of time:

  • Study abroad in France for an entire year – rather than just a semester – if you’re still in school. Think about changing cities halfway through, so you can get an idea of French life in a couple of different places. I tend to forget, but Paris is not France and there’s a substantial difference between the life you can live in Tours and what you’ll be doing in the capital city.
  • Participate in TAPIF and try to do the two year maximum. Whether you renew your contract and stay for two years in a row, or you take a year off the program and reapply to go do it a second time, it really is the best way to get there if you’ve already finished your Bachelor’s degree.
    • Just go to the search bar in the upper right-hand corner of this blog and type in “TAPIF” for more info on the program and to read about why I think it’s the best option for college grads seeking time in France, despite its shortcomings.
  • Au pair in France, but do your research and find a reputable, well-reviewed agency. There are lots of risks that come with living in someone else’s home and working with their children, so finding an agency you trust can help you avoid the au pair quicksand.
    • While I’ve never gone ahead with the decision to work as an au pair, I’ve thought about it pretty seriously and looked into a few companies. I found the people at Au Pair Paris to be really warm and clear on what their process is, though admittedly I only have this impression from having done a Skype interview with them. (Do plenty of your own research should you go this route.)
  • If you can’t do TAPIF, apply to a different English teaching program through a company like InterExchange.
    • The caveat here is that these programs are run by businesses (unlike TAPIF, which is basically run by the French government), so they’re a little less reputable. You also pay a fee to do them, in addition to the application fee. I would only teach English abroad through one of these programs if you can’t find a way to fulfill your dreams of living in France with one of the aforementioned options.
  • Do a French language course at a university or language school in France.
    • These programs cost money and are usually on a short enough term that you don’t need (read: can’t apply for) a visa, but they’re an option if you can afford them and don’t feel 100% confident in your French.
    • The Alliance Française in Paris offers programs for 1-12 weeks at various price points and can arrange housing for an additional fee.
    • The Sorbonne has its Cours de Civilisation Françaisewhich offers non-degree granting culture and history courses, but also has DELF and DALF test prep courses as well as general language and civ classes. These are paid as well, but the advantage is flexible start dates (in winter and spring) that can fill in an odd gap of time before being able to start a true, degree-granting university program.

Step Two: While in France on a temporary basis, do everything you can to set yourself up to succeed in your next, more long-term step. What I mean is to do a little soul searching and decide what you might want to study, because the most common way of returning to France, by a long shot, is by doing a Master’s degree.

In addition to this soul searching on top of the work you’re already there to do, find time to improve your French and pass the DALF or TCF exam. I can’t say this part loudly enough. One of your goals in living abroad should be fluency (if you aren’t before you go), and it opens the doors to a multitude of professional and educational opportunities.

There are American universities and programs for English speakers in France, but I think the best thing to do from a job search perspective is to attend a French university. Whether you go for a course at the Sorbonne or another public university, want to shoot for the moon and go to Sciences Po ($$$), or attend a business school in France (also $$$ but French B-schools are highly ranked and not as expensive as they are in the U.S.), you need proof of a certain level of French in order to get in.

Step Three: Like I’ve said before, the most fool-proof way to get back to France is by continuing your studies. It’s common for some really good reasons, too. You’re further developing your language skills, you can network through internships and part-time work related to your program, you can normally renew the student visa within France so that you can complete the second year of your program, AND the tuition fees for French universities are crazy low compared to schools at home.

Here are some tips for choosing a worthwhile program and actually getting there:

  • During your temporary stay, research programs in your downtime and get familiar with the Campus France website.
    • Campus France is sort of like the Common App, but it’s actually the required portal for Americans looking to study in France.
    • You can technically apply directly to a French university (and you have to do this for schools that aren’t officially “connected” to Campus France), but in order to get a student visa you will have to make a CF account and upload all of your documents and acceptance letter. This has to be done before your student visa appointment in the U.S.
    • If your current visa status is a “travailleur temporaire” (i.e., the case for TAPIF participants), you cannot apply for a student visa in France. It’s expensive and not ideal to go home with plans to come right back, but you have to come home at the end of your temporary visa to take care of applying for a student visa.
  • There is a possibility of getting denied to a program if you haven’t studied the same thing as an undergrad. For example, it’s difficult to get accepted to a marketing program if your undergrad degree was in English lit. The French education system is less flexible than the American system in that way, even if you make a good case for  yourself in the application. Apply to a bunch of programs in a variety of your areas of interest – including those with the same title as your undergrad major –  to maximize your chances of getting accepted.
  • Be open to changing locales. Even if you love Paris, you might take a weekend trip to Nantes and realize that, because of the increased affordability, it’s a better choice for your next couple of years as a student.
  • Get started on the application and prep as soon as possible, because the timeline is rigid with a lack of programs that allow for a spring semester start. You should begin working on things about year out from when you plan to go to school.

Here’s an unofficial timeline for applying to Master’s programs through Campus France, based on how I’ve done it:

September – November:

  • Research schools/programs and their minimum application requirements.
  • Register and start studying  for the DALF or TCF exam.
  • Find someone in the States (a parent, sibling, or close friend who wouldn’t mind running an errand) who can purchase a money order for you and mail it to the Campus France office in D.C. on your behalf. There is an application fee for Campus France and it has to be paid by money order, which can’t be done from France. The easiest thing to do is send someone you trust to the post office to buy the money order, make copies of it and mail it the original with the application form you’ve completed from France. Then, send that person a gift basket to say thank you!

December – February:

  • Pass your required French language exam
  • Create your Campus France account if you haven’t already. Once you’re into CF, choose the programs you want to apply for and upload your essays and other required documents (passport ID page, DALF/TCF exam results, etc.)


  • Finalize your application via Campus France
  • Complete the required phone interview, which is done after you finish your app and are assigned a CF “counselor.” This person should contact you to set up an interview time. It’s the final step before Campus France can send your application file to the programs you’ve chosen.
  • Although some programs close earlier or a bit later, most applications need to be sent in the first two weeks of March. CF’s deadline is usually mid- or late-March, but your schools/programs may require CF users to submit earlier, so work off the dates set by your programs and not just the CF deadline.

April – June:

  • Check Campus France for your acceptances and then decide on the program you want to actually attend in the Fall.
  • Then, make your student visa appointment and prepare for it.
    • The student visa should be applied for through the French consulate closest to your residence in the U.S. Once you figure out which consulate you should report to, check its website for the official list of documents you need to provide on the day.
    • You will have to show lots of documents, including proof of your finances. You have to show an amount equal to anything from 615-820 euros per month for the duration of your program. The exact number depends on what your consulate’s list of requirements dictates. Most of us don’t just have $12,000 lying around, so instead of that you can show a notarized financial guarantee signed by your parents accompanied by their three most recent bank statements. You can find that form on your consulate’s website, too.


  • Go to your student visa appointment and get ready to move back to France
  • Save money and start looking for an apartment (if you need a new place)


  • Your program will usually start between September 1 and October 1
  • You’ll probably want to arrive in France a few weeks before (if your student visa start date allows this) to visit apartments and handle other administrative things

Step Four: Think about finally entering the working world, whether you’ve totally finished your Master’s or want to break up the normal two years of study.

Whether you’re in France or not, you can look at the French-American Chamber of Commerce to see what professional opportunities they offer. Among many other things, the FACC’s American Trainees in France program sponsors visas for paid internships at French companies looking for Americans. Be aware that these are temporary (CDD) contract positions.

You can also apply to be a lecteur/lectrice. This is like being a TAPIF language assistant, except you work for a university and teach English classes to their students (typically not the English majors, but students studying business, engineering or something else that has some required English courses as part of the degree program).

  • Lecteur/-trice positions are competitive, but universities all over France hire them. You apply directly to the schools with vacancies (instead of doing a TAPIF-style application that could place you anywhere in France), so you have a say in where you go. The jobs pay about 1200 euros per month, so they are a step up from being a language assistant.
  • The golden ticket with these positions is that they are typically given to foreigners and allow you to apply for a temporary work visa. The big thing is that most schools prefer someone who’s completed at least one year of Master’s studies, whether that year was at home or in France.

No matter what you’ve done over the course of your Master’s program, if you’ve earned your degree in France you can apply to change your status from student to worker once you’ve found a potential employer. (More info on the changement de statut process on the French government’s Service-Publique website, here.)

In some cases, you can apply for a non-renewable, twelve-month provisional residency permit in order to look for a job at the end of your studies. The job you find must be exactly related to the subject you studied and pay 1.5 times the SMIC (French minimum wage, which is currently ~1500 euros per month before taxes).

Keep in mind that finding a company willing to hire a non-European is rare (because they have to pay certain taxes on non-EU citizens), but it can be done. This is why, as much as I hate the word, networking is seriously important for foreign students.

In the end…

Realize that there comes an end to the studying, au pairing, internships and English teaching. You can string together plenty of years in France by doing TAPIF, earning a Master’s or PhD, interning, and working, but that can be a source of anxiety; it forces you to seek a series of different visas, one for each time your status changes. Stay on your toes and know that going to France with this kind of game plan means you need to constantly have your mind on the present and the future at the same time.

Most options for Americans are temporary, unless you’ve found a company willing to hire you on a CDI contract. (A CDI, as opposed to a CDD, is a contract that is not temporary and has no fixed end-date.) You might find that full-time job with a société or entreprise willing to do the maze of paperwork and pay the taxes to hire you after your studies, but there is no guarantee.

There’s no guarantee for any of this, really, but remember that there are thousands of Americans living in France; there’s no reason not to at least try. There are so many things you can do in order to get there, including the things I’ve written about above. Don’t give up the ghost just because it’s hard.

Also, don’t forget that Instagram, Facebook, and blogs are all a farce to a certain extent. People, myself included, only tend to share the super impressively good things. Most of us won’t document the minutiae of the months they spent at living in their parents’ house again before being able to return to France. No one’s taking selfies of the sleepless nights they had worrying about the expiration date on their current visa. I say this to say, don’t worry if your path is circuitous. Everyone’s path is.  Just think about that quote, “Success is not a straight line.”

Keep your eyes open, enjoy the time you do have in France…and maybe fall in love.

Okay, I’m not endorsing green card marriages. There is an unending list of reasons not to marry someone you don’t know solely because they’re French, the most important reason being that it’s illegal. Period. On top of that, it’s a terrible life choice. Don’t marry just because it helps you do some paperwork. Just don’t do that; it’s not smart to try and game the system and I wouldn’t suggest that to anyone, in person or in a post.

What I am trying to say is that if you’re reading this post, you want to live in France. Part of living your life is usually dating. So, keep yourself open to meeting someone while you’re there, despite the fact that you may not be in France past the end of your studies/internship/English teaching job. I just don’t want to hide the fact that every American I’ve personally met in France who was not a tourist, au pair, student, English teacher, or scientific researcher was there, at least in part, because they fell in love with a French person and chose to get married.

The key thing, though, is that they fell in love before deciding anything. The fact that you are allowed to ask the French government to live there because you’ve married a French person isn’t the point. That’s just the cherry on top, the green light that means you get to stay with that person in their home country instead of your own.

We know that the ways for non-Europeans to emigrate to France are limited. Let alone the fact that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, especially when it comes to France. We’re talking about immigration. Gaining access to a country for anything other than tourism consists of a lot more than just showing up at the embassy with a passport and the will to move. Hopefully this post has made someone aware of options they hadn’t considered before, even though it is by no means an exhaustive list — or one written with the expertise of an actual immigration lawyer. I know I’m not an expert, so please remember that there are real people you can contact with the legal knowledge to truly help you out!


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