When I moved to France I was quite overwhelmed by the immigration process so I thought it might be useful for some of my readers to read about the process that MCM and I went through. Please note: none of this is intended as legal advice. Immigration is confusing because the laws change frequently and even bureaucrats may find it hard to keep up (and thus you might get contradictory advice). You might also have a particular situation that complicates the process. Follow the advice given by the French Consulate where you live, but don't be afraid to ask for clarification, written documentation, or to speak with someone else.
This is what I went through as an American passport-holder, recently married to a French citizen, without dependents or any previous marriages. The process might be very different for someone who is coming to France without a French spouse but on a work visa, for someone with a passport from a non-Visa Waiver Program country (the VWP program includes US, Canada, Western Europe, etc), or for someone who has complicated custody issues, for example.
The basic process was:
* Trailing spouse (TS) and French national (FN) must get an entry visa for spouse before entering France to live. (TS can, as far as I understood, visit France beforehand for up to 3 months, for example to look for an apartment, but not to undertake legal things like opening a bank account). You cannot get the entry visa before you are married. (There is a special, separate application if you are marrying in France).
* This entry visa is obtained on application at a French consulate in the country where TS legally resides (which, in my case, was not my country of citizenship). Both TS and FN must go in person, together, to get the visa.
* TS and FN enter France with entry visa. Within a certain period of time (3 weeks for me), TS must go to the local prefecture (city or regional hall) and apply for a residence permit, called a carte de sejour. TS may have to present the documents for the residence permit in order to get a date for an interview a few months later.
* At the interview TS will receive a temporary carte de sejour, which grants permission to work. The official carte de sejour, which is a passport-sized laminated card, will be available for pick-up three months later. You pay when you pick up the laminated card (current cost, subject to change: 270 euro).
Sounds simple? In a way, it is, especially when you hear of people spending one year and thousands of dollars on lawyers' fees in order to get green cards in the US. I found the system complicated because it was never outlined for me from start to finish (and I looked everywhere and asked everyone I could - I just couldn't get a straight answer). We would finish one step of the process and then be surprised to learn that there was another. If we had known from the beginning we would have been prepared. So, I'm warning you now! Here's a little bit about our experience...
* Regarding weddings: French law changed a few months before our wedding. (I know better than to do this, but in the stress of wedding planning, job hunting and moving, I didn't check to see that the laws hadn't changed). It used to be that, if you are French, you could get married abroad and then get the French consulate to just translate your foreign marriage licence after the fact. Now, you must actually notify the French consulate in the place where the wedding is being held, before the wedding, and they must issue you a livret de famille (equivalent to a French marriage licence, but it is a small book, also used for recording births of any future children, etc). We didn't know we needed this until after we had an appointment for an entry visa, and we lost about a month and incurred the wrath of the French consulate in the American city where we had been married. There were some very stressful phone conversations with Consulate Lady saying, "But how could you! How could you disrespect the laws of France! Your consulate is here for you and you didn't even call!" Next time, we'll send a postcard...
* Had we known that we needed to do this, we would have gotten copies of our marriage licence before we left the US. Our state is in the process of digitizing and rewhatevering all its public records and you need to wait 6 months to order them by phone or internet. My long-suffering, ever-patient parents had to go and get a copy for me.
* Note that you cannot move to France and apply for an entry visa once you get there. Note also that you must be married to get the entry visa as a TS. So, you can't get married in the US, immediately go to some other country for your honeymoon, and then go directly to France. You would need to return to the US to get your entry visa. And you need an appointment for that. And...
* Getting information out of the French consulates regarding entry visas was near-on impossible. This was, without a doubt, the worst and most frustrating part of the whole process. I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to go to the US or the UK. The consulate in the US did not answer my emails or provide a phone number for visa enquiries. I finally figured that I should get the visa in the UK (my last country of residence), and then I spent 3 weeks phoning every morning from 9-12 to try to get an appointment. Finally, I wrote to them and they wrote me back with an email address. I sent an email and got an appointment for two weeks later. That's when I learned that I needed the livret de famille and I had to reschedule the appointment. I started calling the first week of August and had my appointment in the middle of October (I could have had it at the end of September had I not screwed up the livret de famille thingy).
* We got to the consulate in the UK at 7am for our 8.30am appointment and there were already about 200 people in front of us. Fortunately, they were nearly all from non-VWP countries and were just getting tourist visas. When the staff at the metal detector realised that MCM was French, they were ridiculously nice to us, shuffled us to a special desk, and we didn't have to wait at all. We were out of there at 9.45. That was a great feeling!
* I went to my regional prefecture, one of the busiest in France, and waited in line about an hour to get an interview date. The interview date was scheduled for January. I asked if there was anyway to have it earlier (no interview, no work permit!) and was told that they took "urgent" walk-ins most mornings, and to get there early. The FN must accompany the TS to the interview.
* It turns out that they only take 15 walk-ins each day, and that you have to get there at 7am at the latest for a chance. We made the mistake of arriving at 7.30am the first time and were turned away.
* We got it on the second try: arrived a little bit before 7am, were let into the building at 8.30, waited in another line inside, then took our seats and waited in a large hall on plastic chairs for about 4 hours. This was fairly unpleasant: unfortunately, a lot of the people who want to move to France come from countries with rather unenlightened ideas about women. We saw some really shocking behaviour from some men towards their wives.
* The actual interview took about ten minutes and the staff member was nice and polite. One of the documents I had to produce was a letter stating that I had married MCM out of my own free will and he did not, to the best of my knowledge, have other wives. (In the context of the waiting room, this made sense). We were successful and I got my recepisse de carte de sejour (a temporary card - like a formal receipt). We left around 12.45pm.
* Three months later I went and got my official carte de sejour, valid for one year beginning on the date that I had the interview. I was elated to get my card, until I realised that they had me down again as Mme Mari - not Mme Smith-Mari. I went back to the desk and explained that this was not my legal name, and that I came from a country where a married name is a legal name, not a "borrowed" name. She just shrugged and said, "That's the way we do it in France." Yeah. You just change peoples' legal names. Now that's a slippery slope - why not Francicize the rest of my name, too? I was still upset from the bank episode and didn't know what to do, so I just asked, "Am I allowed to use Smith-Mari as my name?" She shrugged again and said, "You can do whatever you want." Well, there you have it! MCM and I debated whether or not we should contest this, but worried that it would means months of waiting and additional fees, so we haven't. Hopefully we won't regret it down the line.
* In theory, renewing the carte will be quick and cost 70 euro. But by November, it all may have changed...
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't too lengthy or expensive a process, but it didn't feel like it at the time:
Total amount of time, from trying to get entry visa appointment to getting actual carte de sejour: about 6 1/2 months.
To getting the recipisse de carte de sejour, which allowed me to work: about 3 1/2 months.
Total cost of getting official forms, cartes, postage, etc, private insurance while you are not legally resident and therefore not allowed to be covered by the French system, plus making brief budget trip to a consulate: around 800 euro.
Lost income: 3 1/2 months.
Not having a clue what you are doing, panicking and worrying that you will be deported or never be allowed to work: priceless!
Getting that carte de sejour in your hands: utterly fabulous.
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