The One with the French Bureaucracy

Let me take a moment to share some insight on what it means to be an American (or any non-French citizen) living in France. In order to be official for (in my case) longer than 90 days in France, I applied for a long-stay visit visa, good for one year. I did that way back in July and got a special page in my passport complete with a photo that makes me look like a 7-year-old boy who just got the talking to of his young lifetime.

BUT, with that visa also comes the OFII form. This is the form that must be submitted within three months of arriving in France, so they can schedule you for a medical exam. Yea. Three months to spread whatever disease they will screen for later on. Makes perfect sense. What actually does make non-sarcastic sense is that this “stamp” or, carte de séjour costs 241€. So I personally think it’s less about the medical and more of a government fleecing.

I’m sure it’s much worse in the US, but since they told me I’m not allowed to work while I’m here, shelling out 241€ is a lot and that particular day, the exchange rate had me paying about $330– which again, I get is cheaper than the US but sheesh.

Anyway, when we arrived and found our permanent place of residence in October, we did the necessary paperwork and played the French government waiting game. A considerable time after mailing them in, we eventually received confirmation letters, stating that they had in fact received our paperwork (which was somewhat of a small relief for me, since I was the one who tried her luck translating the automated machine that dispensed stamps at the post office) and appointment times would be sent in a future correspondence.

Dave’s appointment ended up being scheduled for the same week we returned from our break but in the meantime, I still had heard nothing about my time. I knew my paperwork had been significantly behind his (to which I assume was because I was a visitor and not a student) and I was not-so-secretly hoping my paperwork would come so close to our leaving in the summer that I would just inadvertently “forget” to show up (can’t find me if I’m already in Italy with no intention of coming back to France!) Sadly, a few days after Dave’s appointment, I received a letter saying my appointment was on the books for February 1.

I spent January 31 collecting the items on my list in preparation for my appointment first thing the next morning. Included in their list of must-haves is a passport photo. Oh French passport photos, how I loathe thee. They require that you not smile, your hair is behind your ears, with no jewelry or headware and they want to see your neck. All standard I suppose, but they never turn out looking like me, so good luck looking at the picture and having it match up to the person presenting it, Mr. Official-Document-Checker.

I trudged over to the same automated machine inside our grocery store that we’d used for Dave a few weeks earlier. The machine had a language setting so at least I understood what they were saying. I put in my 5€ which the machine then ate. I would have asked for it back, but I didn’t know how to communicate the issue to an Inno employee, so when I couldn’t figure out how to work the card reader, I put another 5€ in and lucked out this time and got started.

I got three chances to get the picture right and all three pictures came out featuring just my face. This would not work. They wouldn’t even come close to accepting it because you couldn’t see the rest of my head! Just my face. Argh. The machine, which had told me the camera would detect distance to the subject, most certainly did not detect. The rest of my head had disappeared like it was lost in a green screen.

I fed the machine another 5€ and pasted myself against the back wall of the photo booth. By this time, about 20 minutes had passed and I was getting annoying, openly cursing the machine and not caring if a stray English-speaking ear heard.

My photo came out and now my parents and the internet will know what my mugshot will look like if I’m ever arrested. Just what they always wanted.

The next morning, my appointment was scheduled for 8:30am, which was also the time the office opened. There was already a handful of people there when I arrived at 8:10am, but I waited my turn and by 9:30am, I’d completed my examen clinique général, which entailed reading the top line on an eye chart and having my French (read: metric) height and weight taken, my examen radiologique (chest x-ray), and been seen by the doctor, who simply called me into his office, asked me point out Napa on a map and told me to call him if I had any other medical questions and wished me a good day. Literally, that was the entire meeting with the doctor. It was the shortest of the three stages. But I still had to wait and take all the morning’s paperwork and the items I’d brought with me and get my special passport sticker.

My x-ray, passport stamp and photo. Ironically I needed this photo to <em>avoid</em> being a criminal
My x-ray, passport stamp and photo. Ironically I needed this photo to avoid being a criminal

Commence waiting. I had been able to predict my turn based on the check in order first thing that morning. Then the rude French stamp lady broke the pattern and skipped me. Twice. Then a Korean lady (who was after me) made a stink and got in. Then a nun who was there before all of us asked to go and I didn’t feel bad letting her go in front. God had given her way more patience than he’d given me. We were approaching the 2.5 hour mark and I was one of the last ones in the waiting room. The lady finally called me in. I quickly put all the necessary documents on the table so she wouldn’t need to ask (thus forcing me to fumble with French) and of course, she asked me for something. I said to her (in French) that I was sorry and my French wasn’t very good. She looked at me, sigh irritably and said in an exasperated tone, “ugh, English…I need your OFII letter.”

I handed it over with a passive-aggressive “you’re-welcome-but-really-I-hope-it-gives-you-a-paper-cut” smile.

She gave me my stamp and told me something about two months (I think she was trying to tell me I need to get it re-upped at least two months before my visa expires but I certainly didn’t care after that) and I left with my stamp and my x-ray as a parting gift (in France, you’re responsible for your own medical record-keeping). A card will probably be mailed to us by the time we leave for Bordeaux in June, thus making it so we never actually see/need the card.

The experience had been fine up until the stamp lady got involved. She left me so irritated that I bought myself (and Dave) a pastry on the way home (to also help ease the pain of being stuck with a heinous card image for the next five months, too).

a Sete canal
a Sète canal

Since Dave had a rare afternoon off, we decided to take a study break (for him) and go to Sète for a few hours. It is a quick 20-minute train ride to the port-city with lots of canals (I heard it was called the Venice of France?) I will save the recap for our next visit there because in the winter, it leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the waterfront restaurants were boarded up for the winter and since we hadn’t planned the trip, we didn’t know what to see that wasn’t dependent on warmer weather. It was like going to the beach in winter. That’s not when it’s awesome.

I gave the beach my best Mckayla Maroney 'unimpressed' face
I gave the “beach” my best Mckayla Maroney ‘unimpressed’ face

Also, the only “beach” we saw was a covered in giant rocks without much sand so we must have done it wrong. I wasn’t impressed this go-around, so we’ll give it another try in April or May because everyone has said it’s a great town to visit, but I’m also fairly certain they went in a warmer season. Instead, we just enjoyed a coffee at a cafe and then headed home to make dinner and commence with the studying/working again….which is now where we’ll be until the evening of February 15, when Dave’s finals are over.

It’s only 13 more days away…not that we’re counting around here.

15 comments on “The One with the French Bureaucracy

  1. I applied for US Global entry which required me to also drive to the US/Mexican border to wait in line and get interviewed, fingerprinted etc.. That was in October. My application say “in progress” today and calls and emails don’t help. I think the border German Shepard ate my application. Only good thing is that United paid the $100 for the application. Govt and efficiency are opposites.

  2. Wow, those French folks really know how to make a girl feel welcome, don’t they?

  3. Yes! When do you head back for summer? School doesn’t finish for Dave until the end of June but then we are going to Italy (isola d’elba, I think it’s called…off the coast of Tuscany?) and hopefully he will work a harvest somewhere in Italy, then we will be in Udine for January for classes. We’ll figure something out 😀

  4. I totally feel your pain!! I have to go this week to pic my new residence card up!! 🙁 🙁 🙁 but I hope you are planning on visiting me before leaving!

  5. Awesome, Udine is acutally really close! Will you be living in Italy next year!? That sounds awesome!

  6. &I go back for summer early this year (I have exams from the 1st week of May until the 1st week of June) but I am going home on the 3rd probably for Bob’s graduation, and I will probably be coming back early August, so hopefully we can work something out!

  7. Totally understand your pain in the Resident card deparment …over here -in Bordeaux – my experience is slightly different – letter/payment – long wait – 3.5 hours to then be told that my VISA is good for 2 months – but my medical appointment may not be scheduled before then…so I would have to come back and get the VISA automatically renewed (meaning another long wait!) for another couple of months until medical is completed and then it’s good for longer term – ah, yes bureaucracy!! Don’t get me started!

  8. Ryan, let me know when you finally get it! And I LOLed when you said the German Shepard ate your application. Ha!

    Jennifer, we’ll be living in Bordeaux for the month of June–we’ll have to get together again–October seems like forever ago!

  9. I would love to ask you a question and I hope you don’t mind. I am sorting out the carte de sejour thing well in advance (years). And, i feel your pain. Also I think you described the process VERY well and it follows what I know but in more detail.

    Here is my question: What steps above did you complete BEFORE leaving the US?

    In other words, can you enter France with a 90 day typical stay on a US passport and start the process in France? Or, as I have read, do you have to go to a French Consulate in the US (for me, SanFran at the moment) and start the carte de longue sejour process in the US?

    And bless you for having endurance. My kindle will come in handy, plus a picnic lunch. 🙂

  10. Hi Kassandra,

    I’m happy to answer any questions you may have! We DID have to begin at our “home” consulate, which was also San Francisco. My understanding is that they require you to file your visa application at your “home” office.

    The preparation for the application was fairly straight-forward. They had a list of various items to bring to the application appointment, for which we had to sign up on the San Francisco French Consulate website. However, they did say on their website that they wouldn’t process applications more than three months out of intended departure to France.

    It was tricky because they required us to show our flight information. I called to see if there was any way around that (my argument was that if my application were denied, I would have bought the airline ticket for nothing!) Alas, they make you purchase it and take a gamble that it will be approved. We just got lucky 🙂

    I found their website very handy: since it breaks it down by type of visa (student, long-stay, short-stay, work, etc.) and tells you what you need to satisfy the application requirements.

    At the appointment, we also had to turn in our passport (so they could print the visa inside it, if approved) and it was mailed back to us about a week or so later.

    The whole application process wasn’t hard, but it was stressful to think about getting approved or denied, especially since we’d had to book a flight! But all’s well that ends well! If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask 🙂

  11. Dear Colleen,

    You are very kind to reply and so quickly!!! i will likely follow your path…and!!! I know about having to commit to leaving in 90 days, or else, but the plane tickets!!! eeeek…I get that….one foot in the US, one in France!!!! Everything you say makes a LOT of sense, and good for you walking through all the steps…you knew what you were doing even if it didn’t feel like it…

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