Moving to France was one of the most exciting and exhausting experiences of my life. I packed things I didn’t need and left behind things that I wish I brought. I had unrealistic expectations about how fast I would learn French, and what life would be like once I arrived. Do not expect to do things the same way, or as quickly, as in the US.
My biggest shock came when setting up a bank account. I am charged monthly fees for having a debit card and I will have to pay 35 euros for a replacement if lost or damaged. The bank will not be responsible for fraudulent charges to my account, which is difficult for me to digest because I do most of my shopping online. So I pay an additional monthly fee for insurance so that I would be covered if my debit card is lost or stolen. This is a sharp contrast to my free checking account in the US where I do not have to pay anything if I lose my card and am not responsible for transactions that I did not authorize.
Another notable rough first experience was trying to get a cell phone. I needed a bank account in order to sign the contract, but since I just moved to France and we were renting a month-to-month vacation home until finding somewhere permanent, I did not have proof of address. Without proof of address, I could not get a bank account. So to get a cell phone, my husband (boyfriend at the time) had to put it under his name and use his French bank account. After sorting all this out and arriving home with my new Blackberry, I realized that I could not receive emails or use the Internet (my main reasons for getting the phone). In order to call support, we had to use a landline. We didn’t have a landline. We had to return to Orange the next day and the let us use their landline for support (they didn’t offer support within the store). In the US and Canada, I walked into the store and came out within an hour later with a fully functioning Blackberry… so this was completely unexpected.
So even the smallest tasks can become big ordeals. All you can do is breathe, think positive thoughts, and keep your sense of humor.
10 Tips for Moving to France from the USA
1. Do not pack a lot of clothes and shoes. The best reasons to leave your wardrobe behind is that shopping in France helps you get acquainted with the language, gets you out meeting people, and you blend in with local fashion. I brought my entire high heel shoe collection to France and realized that while they were very fashionable in the US, they were a bit over the top in Bordeaux.
2. Leave behind electrical devices. It is a pain to use an adapter to plug in all my electronic devices from the USA. I packed my hairdryer, camera chargers, cell phone, computer – all which need adapters. So you either need to buy a lot of adapters or constantly be switching things around. It’s annoying when I go on excursions because I need to charge my phone and camera batteries, answer emails, and use the hairdryer! Give yourself a break and leave as much as possible behind because you will find whatever you need in France.
3. Hire a baggage forwarder. I moved to France with 2 large suitcases, 2 large duffel bags, 2 smaller duffel bags and 4 boxes. The cost of checking it all onto the flight would have cost a small fortune. Even their option of me checking it in with cargo was exceptionally high. I found a baggage forwarder and was in heaven! They came right to my apartment to pick up my luggage and everything was delivered to my door a couple days after I arrived in Marseille. I brought one small suitcase and two dogs on the flight – which made life much easier.
4. Make additional copies of important documents. If you have paperwork that you must provide to the government or bring to the prefecture after arrival, then have several duplicates prepared in advance. It’s difficult to find a store to make prints from a USB, and copy machines can be expensive in some locations. Prepare your file carefully to make sure nothing is missing, and then make duplicates in case it gets lost, damaged or you need to resubmit everything (happens more times than you may think).
5. Freshen up your language skills.In order to get anything accomplished, you need to speak basic French. I was lucky to be moving to France with my French boyfriend, otherwise, I would have had a difficult time. So dust off your French books and get ready. Here are some tips for learning French, and you can subscribe to my free French word of the day emails.
6. Get health insurance coverage. If you are entitled to health insurance under France’s social security, then still look into getting a private insurance (commonly referred to as a mutual). Health insurance through mutuals are cheap and allow you to become 100 percent covered. For instance, I pay 31 euros per month and when I broke my finger (two surgeries, 20 physical therapy session), I paid nothing out of my pocket. If you are not entitled to health insurance through social security, then you should look at international health insurers. When I moved to France, I registered with an international health insurer located in England and then switched to social security after six months.
7. Find out the requirements for driving. If you are coming as a student, then you will be able to drive under your US drivers license. If you are moving to France under a different visa, then you only have a year until you must apply for a French drivers license. The tricky part is that France has an agreement with only a few US states. If your state does not have an agreement with France, you may have to go to a driving school before getting your license. I was lucky… I am from Florida, which as such an agreement. Otherwise, it could cost you about 2,000 euros to go through the driving course and get a license. The cost of the course depends on where you live – the most expensive being in Paris.
8. Use public transportation. I was skeptical of using public transportation at first because it is not popular in Florida. I ended up preferring it over taking the car. Metro, bus and tram schedules are simple to figure out and can save you time and money. I lived in Bordeaux for almost a year and we only used a car two or three times. After Bordeaux, we lived in two quaint villages that did not offer public transportation. The first had no commerce, so we had to drive everywhere. The second has commerce and I walk to do my shopping, go to the post office, etc. We only take the car when we need to leave town. I miss living around public transportation though, it is so much more convenient than driving.
9. Immerse yourself. Participate in local classes, clubs or associations in order to meet locals and practice your French. It is okay if your French is very basic, these classes will help you become much stronger. My yoga instructor spoke very slowly and was more patient than I expected. Immersing yourself through local activities also provides you with opportunities to make friends and get to know the culture. Some ideas of things to do is take a yoga class, painting class, or wine tasting course. What happens if you don’t immerse yourself? Read my post about culture shock and depression.
10. Open a bank account quickly. You can’t open a bank account until you have proof of address and a valid visa. You will need this account to sign register for a cell phone and other services. Read my post about opening a bank account for more information on what to expect. A tip to avoid high currency exchange rates and fees from your bank, use xe.com. I still use this company today because I get the best rates, no fees, and they are relatively quick (usually takes a week for the money to reach my French bank account). When my family comes to visit, they deposit money into my US account and I transfer it with XE so they can get more euros with their dollars.
Image Credit: MowT on flickr.com