Life Abroad
10 min

What To Keep in Mind When Moving to France

Here, you will learn what to pay special attention to when moving to France and how to make your life in this country easier.
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StudyFree mentor Stasya Tikhmyanova is studying urban management as part of a master's program at the Sciences Po Paris. We have asked her to make a guide for those who are going to study in France.

About My Studies in France

I've always been interested in big cities, and I wanted to make them more comfortable to live in. That's why I went to Sciences Po to study in Governing the Large Metropolis. Technically, it is one of the programs by Sciences Po Urban School. However, it also includes courses on regional development and is focused on large cities in developing countries.

In the first year, there were general lectures with no specialization. At the end of the year, we went on a research trip to Dubai to see how the urban environment functions there and how different areas of urban life are managed.

For the third semester, the university offers various exchange programs in London, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles. I picked the latter where I studied at the UCLA Luskin School in Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) until January 2022. Now I'm back in Paris where I need to complete a mandatory internship.

France is a comfortable and friendly European country, although you may find some aspects of local life pretty surprising. In this article, I will talk about the peculiarities of daily life, habits, and mentality of the French. Keep them in mind if you seek to study and live here for a while.

There Are Many Student Benefits…

France is a welfare state. Both citizens and residents are entitled to free health insurance and drug reimbursement. There is also the Aide personnalisée au logement (APL) system under which the state refunds part of the rent to low-income citizens. Students are also eligible for this form of support.

Until 2019, international students could study at public universities in France practically for free. Later, higher tuition fees were introduced. But even so, they are still affordable compared to other European countries. A year in a bachelor’s and master’s degree is €2,770 and  €3,770 respectively.

…but It Takes Patience To Start To Enjoy Them

Bureaucracy here is a nightmare for any Frenchman, let alone a foreigner. After submitting the documents, it can take a month or even a year before you receive an answer. Files often get lost, so you have to call or even pay a visit to the office to check in. Besides, they often require documents to be mailed, even if the recipient is in the same city as you.

My studies in France started over a year ago, but I still have not received several important documents such as a health insurance card (Carte vitale) and a residence permit (Titre de séjour). Until your insurance card is issued, you receive a temporary registration number, which can be used to get medical services. The equivalent of a residence permit is a student visa. When it expires, you use a temporary certificate of consent to issue a residence permit.

It is possible to live without these documents, but not having them makes everything much more complicated. For example, if you don't have an insurance card, you have to pay for medical services every time you have an appointment, keep doctor’s certificates confirming your visits and drug receipts, and send them by mail to the insurance department. Traveling outside the EU without a residence permit card is tricky too, especially when you fly in from another country, because you need to explain every time why you show this weird piece of paper instead of a residence card.

The good news is that now you do not have to send the documents to the neighboring building by mail. During the pandemic, the APL application process and rent refunds were switched to online. Students, including international ones, can apply on the CAF website.

My point is that if you want to stay sane when handling bureaucratic issues, you need to have a lot of patience and submit all documents in time or, even better, in advance.

If Eligible for a Room in a Dorm, Don’t Turn It Down

Finding a place to live in Paris is a major challenge. So if you’ve been awarded a scholarship and provided a place in a dorm, don't even think twice. Thus, you won’t have to surf the Internet tediously looking for a landlord who does not cheat.

The state organization CROUS is providing university halls of residences in all big cities. In Paris, there are several CROUS residences. Among them is a huge student campus Cité Universitaire in the south of the city. The advantages of living there include a beautiful area, a solid student community, parties, and a good cafeteria.

If you can't get a place in the dormitory, use student communities on social networks to look for housing. I’d recommend joining not only the online communities of your university, but also those of others. For example, I joined the Facebook community of École normale supérieure (ENS) in addition to Logement Science Po Paris. You can also look through communities of people living in the neighborhood where you’re going to rent a place.

There are neighborhoods in Paris that are considered to be unsafe. Having lived in one of them for a year, I can say that things are not that bad. A “bad” neighborhood can start just a couple of buildings from a wealthy one. For example, the 18th arrondissement accommodates both the kingdom of rich English-speaking expats of Montmartre and the Colline du Crack, or Crack Hill, which has been eliminated quite recently (only on paper, though). Even though the hill was removed, and they even started to build a university campus in its place, the regulars of the hill are still there.

Food as Part of Culture

Food is an integral part of French culture. If breakfast can be about grabbing a croissant and a coffee on the run, lunch takes at least an hour and dinner lasts even longer. The French always go to lunch together: good company is just as important for a meal as eating slowly. If you study or work in a team, don’t forget about it to not fail the socialization process.

After a morning tartine or croissant, there comes a three-course lunch with a glass or two of wine. Even after a substantial lunch, the French are able to continue to study and work, and even make it to dinner, which is the most important meal in France.

Coffee culture is not very well developed in Paris, both in terms of drink quality and as a way of socialization. As a person who is used to drinking good coffee several times a day, I had to spend a lot of time making a list of ten decent third-wave coffee shops and roasters. Working with a laptop at a cafe is not common either: if not an office, the French prefer working in libraries or parks.

Parlez-Vous Français? 

French is a must for those who want to integrate into local life. Many French people feel insecure when speaking English, while some simply don’t speak the language and do not really want to learn it.

Going to each other's houses is an important element of French life and socialization. Being invited to a home gathering is a great chance to get to know new people and make friends. Of course, speaking French will make it much easier.

French is not just an advantage, but a prerequisite for getting a job or internship. Even if the company is international, a formal presentation is likely to be the only thing you will hear in English. In informal communication, French people immediately switch to their mother tongue. So, if you don’t want to be a black sheep, learn French.

Colloquial French is not enough. The French expect foreigners to have a very good command of the language. For example, I studied French for four years, so I speak it quite fluently. However, during both of the two internships I had in my first year, I would get remarks about my heavy accent and how it made it difficult to understand what I said.

Forget About a Car and Get a Bike

Paris, the largest French city, is actually pretty small. It will take you about 45 minutes to cross it from south to north by bicycle. Interestingly, it can take even longer by car due to traffic jams. The current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is making a lot of effort to encourage people to switch to bicycles, from reducing speed limits for cars to developing bike rentals.

The French capital has a very friendly environment for cyclists and pedestrians. If you've been to Paris, you probably rode a bike rented from Vélib, the city's bike rental system. After you ride one, you immediately want to get your own bike: unfortunately, rental bikes are very heavy and often in poor condition.

Got yourself your own bike? Good job! The next step is to learn how to ride in the rain, so that you will be able to enjoy autumn and winter in Paris.

Enjoy Sightseeing and Traveling

Thanks to the high-speed rail network, you can get from Paris to Bordeaux, which are two thirds of the country apart, in just two hours! You can often buy tickets at a discount, especially if you're under 26.

Paris is an open-air museum. In addition to outstanding architecture, the city boasts numerous museums, from the well-known Louvre, Centre Pompidou, and Orsay to the Jacques Chirac Museum, private galleries, and small house museums that the Marais and Montmartre are particularly rich in. Also, be sure to visit palaces and sculpture gardens like the Tuileries.

French sightseeing destinations are, of course, not limited to Paris. My advice is to go to the south of France to visit the Picasso and Matisse museums. The Loire Valley, where you can admire French castles and taste the local wines, is also a must for those visiting France.

By Stasya Tikhmyanova

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