Relocating to France? Here are some problems to avoid and tips to take...
Thinking of relocating to France? It can be a great move, but it’s not always as simple as you think. Read on, avoid the potential pitfalls and pick up some valuable tips.
“My French isn’t very good, but I’ll pick it up as I go along…”
Yeah, right. If you're relocating to France, learning while you live there is fine, provided you’re prepared to wait… ooh, let’s say somewhere between ten and twenty years, and in the meantime, you’ll be stabbing in the dark and suffering the consequences. How do you imagine you’ll talk to the French tax man, the solicitor, the doctor, the insurance salesperson, the car mechanic and everyone else, unless you actually speak their language properly? Sure, any fool can bluff their way in the boulangerie, but to really argue your case with (let’s say) a bolshy neighbour who claims your dog ate his cat, you need to have mastered the lingo properly.
Time for a reality check: if you're relocating to France, learning French doesn’t just happen by osmosis, unless you happen to be under 10 years old. Buy all the books, tapes and videos you like, but plan on taking some proper lessons from a qualified teacher if you want to master the subjunctive, the past historic and all the other intricacies of la langue française. If you’re envisaging relocating permanently to France, being able to speak the language properly will pay enormous dividends – you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the culture, fully access the media (and decide for yourself if French TV really is as bad as everyone says it is), live life like the French do (which naturally includes dealing with the tax authorities, the bank, the dentist and all the other joys of daily life), and build deeper relationships (as opposed to just buying your daily baguette and muddling by for the rest of your life with schoolboy French – who wants to talk like a schoolboy when they’re no longer in short trousers, anyway?). Don’t underestimate the importance of being able to communicate accurately; French life is riddled with bureaucracy, and you’ll need good language skills to plough your way through the paperwork if you're really planning on relocating to France.
Top tip: take French lessons and be prepared to do your homework if you really want to make a success of your new life in Languedoc.
“As Brits relocating to the south of France, we don’t need top-up medical insurance; we can use the French national health service for free…”
If you’re used to accessing the national health service in the UK and seeing your doctor for free, while accepting long waiting lists, overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical staff as par for the course, then you’re in for a couple of surprises. Firstly, it’s true, the French national healthcare system is renowned for its efficiency and competence; most UK ex-pats are unanimous on this point, and full of praise for the excellent care they receive in France. However, a second surprise is that the French national health service works in a very different way to that of the UK, the main difference being that you often have to pay for your treatment upfront, and then claim the cost back from the authorities. This is something you have to bear in mind if you're relocating to France. Costs are not always reimbursed in full either, leaving the patient to fund the shortfall, and this is where top-up health insurance (known as a complémentaire or mutuelle) comes in.
To be able to access the French system, you have to contribute to the social security system (sécurité sociale). Contributions are calculated as a percentage of your taxable income, and employers also pay a contribution towards their employees’ costs. You can register at the local sécurité sociale office or health insurance office (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie), and your payments will cover a range of health and social security benefits for both you and your dependants. Contributions are generally much lower in the UK than in France, so although you’ll be able to enjoy a very good standard of healthcare if you're relocating to France, it doesn’t come cheap.
Paying into the social security system will entitle you and your dependents to treatment free of charge up to a statutory limit (different treatments have different limits), but the state only pays for a percentage of the cost (usually 65 – 90%) and you will have to pay the difference, with the exception of some more serious illnesses. For this reason many people choose to take out a complémentaire health insurance policy; the premiums are relatively low, and if you are likely to be making regular visits to doctors, dentists and the like, (if you have a young or large family, for example) then this may be a wise move. Be aware that some policies may exclude certain pre-existing conditions, and others will not be valid for pregnancy cover unless taken out at least 10 months prior to conception, for obvious reasons.
Top tip: take out a top-up health insurance policy if you're relocating to France, unless you are prepared to pay the extra charges yourself.
“We’re going to buy a ruined barn in the Languedoc for a bargain, and then do it up ourselves…”
Have a lot of time on your hands, do you? Restoration, renovation, call it what you will – DIY is not for the faint hearted or anyone with a day job (unless you’re in the construction industry, of course). Probably best to avoid it unless you’re builder, a buff or a real dab hand and feel confident in your skills. Yes, buying an older property can be delightful (loads of charm) if you're relocating to France, but likewise it can also turn out to be a nightmare come true (lots of expensive renovation to fund, not to mention ongoing repairs and upkeep.) Be realistic about what you’re prepared to put up with in terms of discomfort - and financial strain - while the work is being done. Do you really want to live on a building site for a year or two?
Paying someone else to do the dirty work is an easier albeit more expensive option, but remember to count your pennies (dollars, euros, whatever) carefully to avoid going over budget. Err on the side of caution and plan on spending the same in renovation costs as you paid for the property itself. When choosing builders, plumbers or electricians, personal recommendation goes a long way; use bona fide French workers to ensure up-to-date knowledge of, and strict adherence to, French regulations. An ability to speak fluent French (you, not them) is helpful (here’s a test: how do you say “stopcock” in French?), and appointing someone to manage the project in your absence is wise. Don’t expect the work to be completed on time; if it is, it’ll be a nice surprise.
Top tip: Look before you leap. Get a reputable builder’s opinion before you buy, and ask for all estimates and plans in writing before work starts.
“We’ll earn our living by renting out a couple of rooms or gîtes…”
A bit of an old chestnut, this one. You might like to try visiting an online forum or two and reading some of the comments on posted by gîte and chambres d’hôtes owners, who exchange views on the viability of running this kind of business, should you be thinking of relocating to France. The majority advise against dependency on earnings from a gîte business as your sole source of income, and many offer words of warning. Research this idea just as you would any other kind of new business – try writing a business plan. What is my product? Is there a market for it? Where will my customers come from? How will I reach them, and what will my marketing costs be? What capital do I need to invest to get the business up and running? How long will it take until I break even or (heavens above) turn a profit? What are the tax implications? Where would be the ideal location for this kind of venture – or alternatively, is the area you are considering valid for a gîte business? Finally, and most importantly… if it all goes pear-shaped, what is plan B? Writing a diary about the trials and tribulations of relocating to France and selling it to a national newspaper does not count, either.
Top tip: Write a business plan and have someone else read it. Decide what plan B is, and how you will implement it if necessary.
“I’m taking my car from the UK to France and just getting the number plates changed when I get there – should be pretty straightforward…”
When it comes to relocating to France - moving your car over can be a difficult issue. The procedure for obtaining a carte grise (also known as a certificat d’immatriculation) can vary from one region to another, but inevitably you will need to compile a dossier containing several essential pieces of paper, with which your application can then be made to your local préfecture. The first step is to ascertain exactly which documents are required, and a list can be obtained from either the préfecture or the Directions Régionales de l’Industrie, de la Recherche et de l’Environnement (DRIRE), whose website (www.drire.gouv.fr) gives regional office contact details.
Normally you will be asked to produce a completed application form (the Demande de Certificat d’Immatriculation d’un Véhicule), the original bill of sale and registration document, a quitus de TVA (available from your nearest tax office or Centre des Impôts) which proves the car is exempt from VAT, and a valid contrôle technique certificate which may cost in the region of 80 euros. Bear in mind that to pass the contrôle technique your car will almost certainly need to have its headlamps modified for driving on the right, and if it fails to pass any of the sections of the test then repairs will be necessary, which is another cost to factor into the equation. Finally, a letter is needed from the French head office of the vehicle manufacturer (ask for the service homologation) stating that your car type and model has been approved for France – and for this you may be charged a fee of around 110 euros. Proof of ID and residence in France are usually required too. Do you see what people mean when they say that relocating to France involves a lot of paperwork?
The completed dossier can then be submitted to your local prefecture, along with your payment by cheque; the amount is calculated depending on the age of your car and its horsepower, and costs more if the vehicle is less than ten years old (as a guideline, the charge in 2003 for a 1995 Volvo Estate was 234 euros).
Top tip: assemble each and every document relating to your car when relocating to France, and make photocopies (you’ll have to hand over the originals). The whole procedure may cost more than you had imagined, so be sure it’s worth your while. You might want to consider selling your car while still in the UK, and buying another (French) model once you’ve crossed the Channel.
“In relocating to France, we’re going to move from a large city in the UK to a little cottage in the Languedoc. We need a total change of lifestyle.”
Here’s a question for you: have you ever lived in an older property, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter, for several months at a time? If not, you might want to consider renting this sort of French home before you buy and relocate in France, as the experience can be an eye opener. You’ll need to offset the peace and quiet of a rural idyll against the potential boredom of life in a small village in la France profonde. Nothing against la France profonde, but if you have young children and are used to accessing city services and amenities (need to buy nappies on a Sunday? A pint of milk at midnight?), it’s time to think again. You may feel you want to be far from the madding crowd, but if you’ve never lived in splendid isolation before, try renting before purchasing. French Locations (www.french-locations.co.uk or telephone +44 1275 856691) provide subscribers with a directory of long-term lets across France, so you can experience the joys of your chosen lifestyle before committing yourself to relocating to France; similarly, try Rent a Place in France (www.rentaplaceinfrance) or call +44 1467 651471.
Finding a home to rent in the Languedoc can be fairly straightforward , but if you find your rented accommodation via a French estate agent, be prepared to sign up for a “3-6-9” contract, binding you to a minimum rental period of three years (renewable by the landlord at three yearly intervals), or a notice period of three months. You may well be asked for proof of income and references – tricky if you’re self-employed or have arrived recently in France.
Top tip: try before you buy. Rent out of season and see if your dream home turns into a little house of horrors in the deep midwinter.
“I want to set up a business when relocating to France, so I’m going to register with the Chambre de Commerce…”
The first thing you need to know when relocating to France is that getting your business paperwork sorted out can become a vicious circle, as you will need to coordinate the setting up of your business with evidence of your residency status in France (not so much of a problem if you come from an EU country – coming and going in France is a breeze for Brits, but it’s trickier for anyone else). If you’re a non-EU national relocating to France and you’ve had to apply for a Carte de Séjour, the chances are you’ll be asked to provide evidence of how you’re going to support yourself and your dependents (fine if you have a salaried position with a French employer, a little more difficult if you don’t), and saying you plan to set up a business won’t quite cut it. Chances are you’ll be asked to produce your business registration papers from the Chambre de Commerce (or Chambre des Métiers, if you’re a self-employed tradesperson), so brace yourself for several trips to the Préfecture and the Chambre de Commerce, armed with your dossier of documents and photocopies and plenty of patience.
To get out of this Catch 22 situation, ask the Préfecture for an attestation (official piece of paper) saying you have indeed applied for your Carte de Séjour, and show this to the Chambre de Commerce. Alternatively, get an attestation to the effect that you have applied to register a new business, and present this to the Préfecture – whichever seems easiest.
Strangely enough, apart from the potential glitch mentioned above, relocating to France and registering a new business in France is deceptively simple, particularly if you’re going to be self-employed. Take along all the usual papers (passport, birth certificate, proof of address), answer the questions about the kind of business you plan to run, and pay 83 euros. In return, you will be assigned the official reference numbers (known as SIREN and SIRET) to quote on your invoices. Your details will be automatically sent on to the tax and social security offices, as well as a variety of other bodies who will contact you in due course with regards to employee rights, benefits, pensions and provident funds. One word of warning: as soon as you have officially set up your business you are “in the system” and will be asked to start paying the obligatory contributions to the French national social security, healthcare and pension schemes. This can come as a bit of a shock when relocating to France, particularly if your business is not generating much income in the early days (allowances are made for new business start-ups, but be warned, not earning actually any money is no excuse for not paying your dibs).
Top tip: Ask for an attestation if the official document you need cannot be provided there and then. Set up a good filing system in preparation for all the paperwork that will be generated.
“We’re going to retire when relocating to France, we just feel we’ll be very happy there…”
If you’ve lived – or spent extended periods of time – in a particular region and feel comfortable there, the chances are you might spend a happy retirement there, too. But while the emotional aspect of relocating to France is important, attention to practical matters is key; take professional advice on pension, tax and inheritance issues that might affect you and your partner if you were to retire to France. Consider what your future healthcare needs might be, and contact the Overseas Benefits Agency in Newcastle (+44 191 218 7777) to check what paperwork you will need to access the French medical system, whether you will need to make any special arrangements before your move, and how your pension can be paid to you in France. Think about your social life when relocating to France; are you out-going and keen to make new French friends (speaking good French will help here), or it is more important to be within an English-speaking ex-pat community? In some cities you’ll find Anglo-French Societies (Montpellier has the British Cultural Association www.bca-montpellier.com, while Nîmes has BritsNîmes www.britsnimes.com, for example), which can be a good way to meet new people of both nationalities, and living within striking distance of a large town or city will mean easy access to essential shops and services (e.g. opticians, mobility aids, taxis and public transport). If retiring as a couple, the great unspoken truth – one of you has to go first – means that the surviving spouse will need to have sufficient means of support (financial, practical and social), to see them through. It’s a sobering thought, but one that deserves attention.
Top tip: Try living in France before relocating to France - for an extended period of time before committing to permanent retirement there. The practicalities and paperwork can always be sorted out, but your ultimate happiness will probably depend on your choice of region, and the friends and contacts you make when relocating to France.