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November 6, 2023
10
min read

Guide for Expats Living in France

Luis Minvielle
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🇫🇷 Country Facts:

Population: 67,750,000

Average salary: €39,800

Capital city: Paris

Temp. Summer: 23 to 35°C

Avg temp. Winter: 0 to 7°C


Despite the overwhelming influx of tourists that pack churches and photograph pigeons and the Mona Lisa alike, France is still a country where most people enjoy living — including expats. With perks such as universal healthcare and a law-protected 1-hour long lunch break, it's unsurprising that France, one of the seven most significant economies in the world, ranks among the best countries to live by quality of life measures. 

If you're considering moving to France, still, there are some aspects you should know beforehand. We've put together a guide for expats who want to live in France and want to know what life is like there.

Language

Many expats agree there is a “French way” of doing things. If you're wondering what this way is, it's specifically about speaking French to get around in life. Even though speaking French to sort out life in France was an out-an-out necessity by the turn of the century, expats agree that this trend has become less absolute in the last years and that nearly everyone today speaks English thanks to socials and international content (not exactly Emily in Paris, though).

In a small village, you may have a hard time with English, but not in a big city like Paris. In bigger and more visited cities, such as Paris and Lyon, locals are overwhelmed by tourists, so that’s why you might feel unwelcome. If you are an informed, cultured individual, you’ll be just fine. 

So yes, depending on where you establish yourself in France, the language barrier could make your French experience considerably less fantastique than what travel agencies advertise. That doesn’t mean you are doomed if you live by your English banter, but for day-to-day life, learning the basics is helpful, to say the least.

So, taking some lessons is highly recommended if you plan to move to France. If you only speak English, you might mostly hang out with other English speakers.  In the bigger picture, you’ll notice that English skills in France aren't as strong as in some other Western European countries; but upon closer inspection, you’ll realise that, in Paris, English has a proficiency comparable to Berlin (very high). 

In a nutshell, if you want to live in France for a while, learning French is a smart move, although where you’ll live will affect how well you need to speak French. If you're in a big city like Paris, work in an international corporation — such as some based in the Parisian district La Défense —  or study at a French university but with courses in English, you can manage without speaking much French.

Here are some reasons to learn French before moving:

  • Administrative and day-to-day paperwork: from opening a bank account to signing a lease or understanding healthcare procedures. Reading, writing, and speaking French can make these processes much smoother.
  • Low tuition fees: France is known for its prestigious public schools and universities, and many of their programs are offered in French. These institutions often offer lower tuition fees compared to other countries, making them an attractive option for international students.

  • More job opportunities: While some international companies in France go about their business in English, many — if not most, unless you’re senior — job opportunities require proficiency in French.

Visa check by the OFII: Do it in French

We recommend speaking French to get through the Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration (OFII) appointment and get their stamp of approval. You must notify the French government of your arrival within three months and visit them. You’ll need your stamped form from your Visa Long Séjour appointment, along with a copy of your passport info page and a copy of your visa. One highly visited branch is near the François-Mitterrand library in Paris.

From anecdotal evidence, poor French skills, especially a noticeable American accent, will make the officials dunk on you with fast-paced questions in French and potential delays due to minor form errors. Still, some expats with English accents have explained that they didn’t get bashed upon and were treated nicely, so it seems it’s up to the officials. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that visitors making an effort to speak clearly in French are rewarded with… interactions in English.

So you better buckle up and dust off your French pronunciation skills to ensure you can get ahead with the paperwork and your stay in France is a walk by the Seine and not a walk through l’enfer. If you think this is too much, please check the office reviews and filter them by language.

Housing

Rent Per Month Price
Apartment (1 bedroom) €525 – €665
Apartment (1 bedroom) in Paris €850 – €1,150
Apartment (3 bedrooms) €965 – €1,300
Apartment (3 bedrooms) in Paris €1,750 – €2,600


Property prices in Paris are some of the most expensive in Europe, and finding a flat in one of the bigger cities can be an intimidating task. You might find it easier to rent a place for a short period before moving to France as they are already furnished and landlords are not that big of an issue. But when it comes to long-term renting, make sure you have your work contract and bank account, as landlords tend to prefer tenants that are already living in the country. Most landlords will ask for the last three pay cheques, to not be on probation, and to have some form of guarantee in France (in case you just leave). Going through agencies can make this much easier.

In France, tenants usually pay for the “private charges,” such as utility bills, so if you ever come across an offer that includes those expenses, you should consider your monthly rent has a discount of sorts. Out of all the options where you can find a place to stay, Facebook groups offering student lodging are frequently scam-laden, so watch out.

In major cities like Paris, living expenses are pricey. For example, a monthly rental for a small two-room flat can range from €850 to €1,500 (Numbeo). Please note that a deux-pièce is not necessarily a 2-bedroom flat. It generally refers to one bedroom and one living room (with a couch). These numbers are also for non-furnished, which an expat might not find useful. Renting a three-room flat can cost upwards of €2,500, but it could work if you share the flat with two other tenants. 

Online Portals to find accommodations (and are not AirBnB):

What is bail civil or civil lease?

France is a very regulated country and renters can expect to be more protected than landlords. However, strict regulations usually bring about tricks to avoid them, and expats will notice that most — if not all — lodging options are labelled as bail civil or civil lease. Bail civil is a type of rental agreement in France often used for secondary residences or non-residential purposes. Many landlords prefer it because it allows them to avoid some regulations, like rent caps, that apply to primary residence rentals. This means they can charge higher rents and have different rules for ending the lease. It could be riskier for renters as they have fewer protections compared to standard rental contracts for primary residences. Still, bail civil is not a synonym for a swindle by any standards. You can opt for it, but remember you’ll be more exposed.

Phone number

France has the cheapest phone rates in Europe, so buying a SIM card is the best way to stay on budget since you can travel across the EU with the same fees. Nevertheless, if you bought your phone in Japan, South Korea, Canada, or the US, you should buy a new French mobile given that phones on CDMA network don’t run on SIM cards, but phones in France do, as they operate on the GSM network.

If you plan to live in France for less than 12 months, it’s probably best to opt for a pre-paid SIM card. You can buy one from Orange France for €2.99 or from SFR France and Bouygues Telecom for about €10 either in markets or at the airport (but note they tend to be pricier in the latter). 

Free Mobile is another viable option that only costs €2 and provides unlimited SMS texting — less than ten years ago, SMS was prevalent even over WhatsApp, although that’s not the case any more  — but it doesn’t include calls or network coverage. Nonetheless, their €20 includes 5G, 150 GB usage, unlimited calls, and unlimited SMS. Just remember that even though it is a sans engagement (no-contract) type of deal, it still requires a formal physical letter to cancel the service, which leaves plenty of people back home still footing the bill because they can’t cancel it (you can still use La Poste’s “Envoyer une lettre en ligne” service to have them send the cancellation letter). So make sure to double-check before you sign up for monthly automatic payments. 

If you intend to stay for more than a year, then it’s highly recommend getting a phone plan contract, which is cheaper in the long run. In order to get one, you should present your French residence permit, proof of address in France and your French bank account details to sign up and set up future payments. 

Bank account

The order is as follows: first an address, then a bank account, then a salary. Proof of housing is mandatory to open a bank account in France (so make sure to check and book your place beforehand), and proof of that account is obligatory to receive a salary. 

Most of the bank processes are in French, so it’s important to know the following distinctions at least: if you are a resident of France, then you can open different types of bank accounts — such as a current account, deposits account and term account — as long as you present your passport, residence permit, proof of address and proof of employment (or enrolment in a French education institution). 

Selecting a bank can be difficult and overwhelming for an expat, depending on how many documents and additional information they require. Here is a list of some French banking options for expats:

  • BNP Paribas: it is the biggest French bank, which makes it very active in other EU countries. Plus, it offers a discount on subscriptions for people between the ages of 18-24.

  • HSBC France: In some countries, this bank offers the chance to open an account abroad from your home country, so ask your representative if you can open a French one before arriving.

  • Société Générale: it is one of the biggest banks

  • Wise: setting up an international account with a digital wallet is always a good plan B. 

However, if you are not a resident, or planning on staying in France for less than 183 days, the best option would be to open an account through online banks such as N26 and Revolut as many French banks do not open bank accounts for non-residents. Check out if your selected bank requires a deposit or not.

Finally: French banks open at 8:30 — sweet — and close at 17:30 after a good day’s work. However, many expats have noticed that the blinds are shut when they come by the doors by noon. That’s because banks, even the most prestigious and high-end ones, take a one-hourr lunch break at noon. Most commercial banks will be open on a Saturday, but closed on Sunday and Monday. So better check their opening hours before showing up with a dossier full of paperwork.

Transportation

As in most EU countries, France has an efficient public transportation system that allows passengers to get almost anywhere in the country by train, metro, or bus. Just two years ago, the French government invested almost €190 million into the transportation industry, and with the arrival of platforms such as Omio and Citymapper, travelling around the country has never been easier. 

Let’s break down each type of transportation:

  • 🚌 Buses: logically, prices and schedules vary depending on each region. Accessing tickets is relatively easy considering you can buy them either onboard the bus, from the machine at the bus stop, or at a nearby tabac (their very own drug store).

  • 🚇 Metro: this is the most viable solution for anyone who decides to move to a big city. It’s quick, efficient, and frequently runs until past midnight. Paris, for example, implemented the use of Navigo — which is the French equivalent to London’s Oyster card — allowing commuters to buy single, weekly, and monthly passes.

  • 🚆Trains: public trains in France are managed and controlled by the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF). It also offers an app called Assistant SNCF which allows passengers not only to book tickets but also to check on live updates and plan their journeys (friendly advice: this is your best option for longer journeys. For shorter ones, stick to city-specific apps). You can get discounts with the Cartes Avantages, an SNCF fidelity programme. You pay around €49 once and get a 30% discount for all your SNCF travels that year, among other benefits. 
  • 🚗 Carpooling: BlaBlaCar, used throughout Europe to find carpoolers or to hitch a ride, is proudly headquartered in Paris. This system is widely adopted in France: Many French people still prefer getting to the low-cost airport Paris Beauvais by carpooling rather than by taking the shuttle.
  • 🚴 Bikes: The French call their bikes a vélo (veh-loh). You can find them in most cities and taking them requires a credit card and no hassles. But watch out: leery police officers may fine you and be bullish if they catch you riding the bike outside the designated lanes. You better be wise with that vélo.

Food & Drink

Breakfast Ideas Average Price Per Person
Coffee in a bakery €1-€2
Pastry in a bakery €1-€3
Breakfast in an average hotel €13
Copious breakfast in a brunch-café €15-€20
Coffee in a café €2
Breakfast in a luxurious hotel €40
Breakfast in a café €5-€6
Breakfast in an affordable hotel €7-€8


France certainly has a reputation for being one of the world’s most expensive destinations, with Michelin-star restaurants and luxury boutiques all around. However, copping a reasonable and budget-friendly meal is totally viable. It all comes down to your preference. You can buy a regular lunch with a drink for €15 or even a street crêpe for €5. 

Most of the restaurants, markets, and boulangeries are equipped to accept both cash and cards, but bakeries typically require a minimum amount to use a credit card (frequently between €5 and €10), so don’t forget to withdraw cash beforehand. The French people's wine consumption accounts for more than half of their total alcohol consumption, and also, their cheese intake for each person is 30 kilos per year. Like in many European countries, the French might buy high-end wines in corrugated cardboard boxes (boxed wine) instead of in bottles. In some Western markets, boxed wine is synonymous with low quality, but that’s not true in France and most of Europe, so go ahead and try their Merlot from a bag-in-box, which, by the way, is more environmentally friendly than bottled wine. 

When it comes to eating habits, the French don’t sit down for dinner until 8 pm or even 9 pm. Plus, they never eat while on the go. You’ll also find joy in sitting down and enjoying a coffee with a croissant instead of awkwardly walking while trying to eat. 

Lastly, be prepared to enjoy grocery shopping. Supermarkets in France (Carrefour, Auchan, Monoprix, etc.) are usually not too pricey, especially if you're not in the city centre. You'll find plenty of different things to buy. They tend to have fresh food. There's often a butcher or fishery in-house, or a dedicated cheese corner, or a large wine selection many even have their own bakeries. 

Social Safety and Benefits

Before we jump into the taxation system, which is considered heavy, we want to acknowledge some benefits French and expats get in return for their taxes. These benefits include affordable education, unemployment payments (known as chômage in French), and 25 days of allocation of paid holidays. 

We mentioned how universities have low tuition fees compared to other European countries, and the 25 days of paid holidays are self-explanatory, but the unemployment compensation is especially attractive because it can help expats as well. If you don't get sacked and lose your job on “good terms,” you can request a chômage even if you're an expat, and the State could cover a significant percentage of your (former) salary for a while. You should always check for details, but, as generally in France, expats can also enjoy these welfare measures.

Wages and Taxes

Now that we said this, we’re repeating what most people affirm: France is very heavy on taxes, even if you’re a freelancer working for an EU or non-EU company. You know the brackets process: The taxes go up as they earn more money, like in other European countries. Non-residents of France — those who spend less than 183 days a year in the country, among other similar criteria listed below — pay 20% of their income up to €27,478 annually and 30% if they make more than that for any income (i.e. even freelance roles) from France.

Tax Rates for Non-Residents
Residency Status Income Range (€) Tax Rate (%)
Non-resident 0 – 27,478 20
Non-resident 27,479 and above 30

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), the average gross salary in France (2023) is approximately €39,800 (please consider that the national average lumps in Paris with small towns – wages in Paris are the hightest). This is one of the highest figures among EU countries. The minimum hourly wage is €11.52 for a 35-hour workweek; past the 35 hours, it’s overtime. France’s long-told history of labour-centred socialist governments has worked towards these figures. So it could be a good idea to land a proper job (not a freelance contract) in France provided you obtain the coveted Work Authorization for a Foreigner (hint: you’ll probably need a sponsorship).

Nevertheless, wages and salaries depend on individual professions and each industry sector:

Salary by Position and Experience
Position Entry Level (0-2 years) Mid-Level (2-5 years) Senior Level (5-15 years)
Administrative and Financial Manager €55,000 €65,000 €75,000
Lead Developer €51,000 €59,000 €65,000
Client Relationship Manager €32,000 €42,000 €50,000
Logistics Assistant €24,000 €28,000 €32,000
Data Entry Operator €22,500 €23,000 €24,000


Understanding how taxes work in France can be a bit complicated. There are different taxes for things like your income, healthcare, and the stuff you buy. First and foremost, there are three types of personal taxes in France:

  • French income tax (impôt sur le revenu); employers and freelance workers pay this alike. The “good” part is that they take it automatically and you just need to adjust it once a year, so it’s not a hassle.

  • Social security contributions (charges sociales/cotisations sociales). Social security is paid by your employer, though.

  • Tax on goods and services (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée TVA, or VAT, in France).

We gave you a brief overview of how non-resident taxes work in France. On the other hand, you’ll need to pay resident taxes in France if:

  • You work abroad, but still live in France
  • You stay in France for more than 183 days a year
  • Your main job is in France
  • You have substantial assets in France

The resident brackets are different and go from 0% to 45% — with your average (well-educated) worker paying between 15% and 25%.

Don’t expect French people to open up about their salaries unless you’re close to them. They’re usually fairly private about that. So you better don’t bring up your earnings. It could be considered rude.

Cadre and non-cadre in France

France has a distinction between cadre and non-cadre workers. Expats can’t seem to point out an illustrative example from a different country for this distinction, but they do know what it entails. A cadre is typically someone who has the responsibility of managing others, even if it's just one assistant. The work schedule for cadres is defined by the time they do not work, usually one day off in every seven-day period. This means that a cadre's working hours can vary, ranging from regular hours if their job is completed to overtime.

According to certain expats, being cadre carries a social status and indicates belonging to the white-collar world, while non-cadre refers to those in blue-collar or clerical positions, although not everyone agrees. Being a cadre has implications for pension systems, participation rates in social programs, and even electoral colleges and labour unions, so it’s a keyword you should consider in your employment.

Cost of Living

The average cost of living in France monthly for a single person is around €1,800. Paris, its capital, ranks as the ninth most expensive city in the world, and the average cost of living reaches €2,200 per month.

Monthly Expense Average
Expense Average Cost
1-bedroom apartment €900 ($989)
Utilities €189 ($207)
Internet €30 ($33)
Monthly public transport pass €64 ($70)
Fitness club €35 ($38)
Groceries €300 ($330)
Leisure €280 ($307)
Total €1,798 ($1,974)


If you are planning on moving with your family, Numbeo estimates that a family of four needs around €3,100 per month excluding rent, while a single person’s average monthly costs are about €870 before rent. Despite France being considered expensive, one positive note is the subsidised health care which we’ll tackle further in this blog. 

Culture

French culture (and wine, cheese, artwork, and sports), means that people in France have their “French way” of doing things. Here’s a brief summary of what that means:

  • 🥐 Food and drinking is a serious matter: France considers itself — and inarguably is — a top culinary destination and laughs off at the alleged “German cuisine.” The French take pride in the “joie de vivre,” which translates to “joy of living” or “zest for life,” and eating and drinking is part of it.
  • 🙍 Intense regional rivalries: Brittany–Normandy, Paris–Marseille (rivals on and off the pitch)... Regional antagonisms define France, and historical clashes have been followed by peaceful cultural differences. These contrasts extend to everyday items such as cider or butter, with some regions claiming to have the right version!

  • 🚬 Smoking culture: France has a long history of smoking culture, and it's not unusual to see people smoking in public places. Serge Gainsbourg even has a song calling God a “cigar smoker.” Still, smoking has dropped off quickly in the last decade.

  • 😡 Strikes: France has a well-known tradition of strikes and protests to express dissatisfaction with various social injustice issues. The frequency and intensity of these strikes might be surprising, as they can occasionally disrupt public services and transportation.
  • 📖 Book and literature appreciation: France has a rich literary heritage, and the French people have a noted passion for books and literature. Writers such as Victor Hugo and Proust continue to influence movie scenes. Non-French authors such as Nabokov wrote some of their most celebrated work… in French

  • ☀️ Public holidays: France celebrates numerous public holidays. They’ll be 11 by 2024. Some of the most notable holidays include Bastille Day on July 14, France's national day, and Christmas, even though it's a secular State.

  • 🚫 Shops now open on Sundays: Not long ago,even if there was an onset of affluent tourists walking by the most high-end stores on a Sunday, they’d all be closed. French people take their R&R close to heart, and the government didn’t allow them to open up. But this has changed and certain stores open on Sundays now. There's a different tax code, and they can't sell alcohol, but many grocery stores will be open. Most will do it only in the morning.

  • 👮 Slow bureaucracy: Bureaucracy in France can be notoriously slow, often involving a substantial amount of paperwork and wait times for various administrative processes. Paperwork and red tape are tedious everywhere, for certain, but a slow bureaucracy in France is part of its charm — they’re simply focused on more important things.
  • Sports: France is the rare country that excels at both football (soccer) and rugby. They do have a mystique against powerful sides. We might add basketball to that list soon enough. The Tour de France and Roland Garros tournaments are also hosted in France. If you make French friends, they might invite you to play a five-a-side football game.
  • 💭 Comic strips: Many French grew up reading Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées (comic books). Astérix, created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, is a well-known French comic strip making fun of contemporary European tropes. The volumes set in Britain, Switzerland, and Belgium are excellent ways to understand how France and those countries got along. Yes, the French fries issue is addressed.

How safe is France?

Living in France is pretty safe for expats, but it's wise to be cautious, especially in big cities. While Marseille is usually labelled “the most dangerous city in Europe,” most French cities are far from that judgment. For example, French people admit there aren’t any “no-go zones” in Paris, and scoff at foreign media reports that point to the contrary. That being said, while the overall crime rate is low, things like pickpocketing can happen in crowded places, so keep an eye on your stuff and stay aware of your surroundings, especially in dimly lit or unfamiliar areas at night.

Cities in France are generally safe for women, but it's important to be careful, especially late at night and when using public transport, even during the day. Always stay aware of your surroundings, just as you would in any country. France is known for being progressive when it comes to women's rights, especially in Europe.

When protests occur, it is prudent to stay away from centric and tourist places, as strikes often tend to get violent. However, these protests are contained and overseen by the police and the gendarmerie presence. Just make sure to double-check the news and avoid the areas in which the strikes will take place.

Medical Care

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the national healthcare system in France is one of the best in the world. With its access to highly trained doctors, top-notch facilities, and affordability, many say Assurance Maladie is the biggest pro about moving there. Just note that, if you’re not from the EU, you have to live in France for at least three months before you can access their healthcare system. However, you can still see a doctor during these months, but will have to pay for it yourself. It’s not like it will be an exorbitant bill in most cases, though: Expats report it will cost between €30 and €50. A very useful alternative is Doctolib, the telemedicine service where you can book remote appointments.

In case of an emergency, you can call the French emergency hotline 112 or 15 for specific medical emergencies. Getting to your nearest hospital’s les urgences (emergency rooms) is another option. If an emergency happens after your first three months in France, then the costs will be covered thanks to the French healthcare system. So it would be prudent to hire a short-term travel medical assurance to be covered for your first months in France. 

Remote work 

Unlike other EU countries, France hasn’t introduced the digital nomad visa. The biggest issue is taxation. As most foreigners are allowed to enter the country for 90 days thanks to the Schengen Area agreement, technically, you are allowed to work remotely. But if you want to stay for a more extended period of time, or are a French resident, then you will need to apply for a long-term stay visa which allows applicants to reside in France for up to one year. This visa enables you to engage in professional activity in France as a self-employed or freelancer.

For setting up your home’s Internet connection, the biggest and most known internet providers in France are Bouygues Telecom, Free, Orange, and SFR. If you are renting, you’ll be better off by just making sure the place you’re staying at includes Wi-Fi (even though the landlord usually won’t foot the bill). 

Weather

In France, the weather can be different depending on where you are in the country. Near Paris, the winters can be cold, with temperatures around 3-7 °C, and you might see some snow. Summers in the north are generally mild, with temperatures ranging from 15-25 °C (although recently temperatures crossed the 40 °C mark). Parisian apartments don’t have any air conditioning, as summers in the capital are quite bearable with the help of ceiling fans. More importantly, it's illegal to install anything that would ruin the city's aesthetics, and buildings aren't equipped to manage air conditioning appliances. This might make life in an apartment less bearable in summer, but it’s entirely worth it when you look up and check the facades.

As you move south towards the Mediterranean coast, the climate becomes milder in winter, with temperatures rarely going below 10 °C. Summers, on the other hand, get hotter, with temperatures often reaching 30-35 °C. In the mountainous areas, like the Alps or Pyrenees, winters are colder with more snow, making them great for winter sports. The Ministry of Energy is currently developing an energy-saving plan to achieve a 10% reduction in energy consumption. However, no need to be alarmed as no one will be checking on how high you set your heating. 

Finding Work in France

WeAreDevelopers connects top European tech talent with companies in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. You can sign up in minutes and browse job opportunities for various tech stacks. If you're still not convinced about living in France, consider some of Europe's other hotspots, or learn more about in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Good luck!

Guide for Expats Living in France

November 6, 2023
10
min read

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