July 23, 2007

Looking back: Our first visit to the French consulate

When we started thinking about this blog, we had the idea that we’d document every step we took to get to France in real time. We thought other people trying to do something similar would find it useful to see a chronological record of all our steps (and missteps). Although that didn’t happen, there’s a series of events we wanted to go back and describe in some detail, even though they happened a while ago: our four visits to the French consulate in San Francisco. Before I get to the first one, though (the other three will be future posts), I wanted to give a bit of background.

We’d read that folks from the U.S. who want to live in France for more than three months need a long-stay visa, and that one applies for such a visa at the nearest French consulate. (The one nearest to us, the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, was only about 15 minutes away by public transit.) We’d also seen the actual visa application form, which you can download from the consulate’s Web site, and the list of the other documentation you need to bring.

The problem was, despite having done considerable research, some elements of the application process just baffled us. For example: the visa application form asks for your address in France. Fine, we’d be renting an apartment, but how were we supposed to do that before knowing if, or when, our visas would be granted? It’s tough to look for an apartment when you have no idea when your move-in date might be. In fact, we’d already made some inquiries, and one person had told us that she couldn’t rent us an apartment at all unless we already had a visa—a real chicken-and-egg problem. The same went for health insurance: you need to have proof of health insurance that meets certain criteria and will cover you for the entire duration of your stay in France, but how can you buy health insurance without knowing for sure if or when you’ll be allowed into the country? We were also supposed to bring a letter stating that we wouldn’t have any “paid activity” in France, but we’re freelance writers who will certainly continue getting money for writing while we’re there—does that count as “paid activity”? And finally, we were unsure whether our applications would be considered separately or as a couple; there were some requirements we couldn’t both have met individually, but would if considered as a family unit.

So we figured the best way to get the answers to these questions was simply to go to the consulate and ask. That in itself was a problem: it was clear that you needed an appointment to apply for a visa, but there were no indications on their Web site whether you needed an appointment just to ask a question. We called, but their voicemail system didn’t have an option either to talk to a live person or to make an appointment without a specific reason. And the consulate was open very weird hours, only some of which were designated for processing visa applications. We decided we’d just walk in and take our chances, and it so happened the day we did this was Valentine’s Day—February 14, 2007.

When we walked through the door, we found ourselves in a cramped entryway with a desk, a metal detector, and a guard. He asked what we were there for, and we told him; he seemed confused that someone was there without an appointment, but after searching our bags and checking us for illicit metal objects, he sent us through the glass door and said to talk to the guy at a certain window.

Without having to wait at all, we walked up to the clerk and explained our situation. He couldn’t have been nicer—he patiently and clearly answered all our questions. (And he spoke perfect English too, which was a relief because we weren’t sure we could say everything we needed to in French.)

When asked about housing, he gave that stereotypical French expression consisting of a half-smile, pursed lips, and a shrug; his response amounted to, “Yeah, we know, if you’re going by the book, you’re not supposed to rent someone an apartment unless they have papers. A lot of landlords just ignore that, though.” Great. But what, we asked, if they insisted on following the letter of the law? “Well,” he said, “you don’t really need to bring us a lease. What you could do, instead, is bring us copies of email correspondence between yourself and French landlords (all translated into French, of course) that can document your attempts to rent an apartment, and where you’re looking. As long as you can show us you’re making a serious effort, that should suffice.” Cool, we thought. We can do that. (Although we later solved the problem in a different way; see Finding an apartment in Paris.) In terms of figuring out a move-in date, he told us, quite confidently, that it was a two-month process to get a visa. The consulate’s Web site says “2–3 months” and we’d heard from at least one source that it can take as long as six months, but the guy we talked to sounded quite certain that it would take two months, period—so we could pick the date we wanted to move and work backward from there to figure out when to submit our applications.

Health insurance, he said, was inflexible. You just have to have it, and they have to see the documentation. So basically: suck it up. We’d have to see whether we could find a policy that would give us a refund if our visas were denied.

He went into some detail about the “presentation letter” we were to include with our applications, made it sound like the officials who reviewed our applications put a lot of stock in what we said there. He described what we could and should say in the letter about our reasons for wanting to move to France, what we’ll be doing while we’re there, and so on. I asked if we could say that we’re moving because the bread’s better there. He laughed and then said, thoughtfully, “Yes, the bread is definitely better,” and told us it actually wouldn’t hurt to mention that in passing. (We did.) This was helpful, because otherwise we might have written a very short and perfunctory letter that didn’t have the right tone or emphasis. As far as “paid activity” goes, he said that the important thing is to show that you have enough resources so you won’t have to get a job in France—that would require a different visa and a whole new set of hassles. Being self-employed, if our income is coming from the U.S., is not a problem.

Finally, he said that since we’re married, our applications would automatically be considered jointly; he recommended bringing a copy of our marriage certificate when we applied (something that wasn’t mentioned on the Web site’s list of documents).

Well, that was all our questions. We left greatly encouraged. Not only did the parts of the process that had seemed muddy before look much clearer now, we knew that at least one person at the consulate was a friendly, helpful, ordinary guy rather than a scary bureaucrat—that recognition eliminated a lot of our stress.

Following that visit, we did some math and decided that July 1 would be our ideal moving date; that’s what we’d tell prospective landlords and the insurance company. If the visas took two months to receive, we’d need to apply by at least May 1. But we’d need a bit more wiggle room, because we had to give a month’s notice on our apartment, and we didn’t want to do that unless our visas were in hand; we also had lots of other arrangements to make that we couldn’t undo in a day if the visas didn’t come through. So we backed out another month: April 1. And, for good measure, just in case something went wrong or took longer than expected, we decided we should submit our applications even sooner. Our target date for having all our documentation together was March 1, and we almost made it: our next visit to the consulate happened on March 7. It was…interesting. We’ll explain in a future post.

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