Applying for French Residence

If you’ve ever heard anything negative about French bureaucracy, let me just confirm for you right now that it’s true. The French have really perfected the art of creating tedious, drawn-out, ineffective, and incomprehensible government processes. If you ever have the pleasure of living in France, you will, without question, experience fits of hysterical laughter and from time to time shed tears of overwhelming frustration after interacting with the French bureaucracy.

Today I’ll be explaining the nightmare of attaining a French residence card, the carte de séjour. First, you have to have the right type of visa to enter France and apply for residence. You cannot merely enter the country as a tourist and convert your visa status. Before moving to France, Eric and I lived in Germany, and therefore we had to obtain our French visas through the French consulate in Frankfurt. As I recall, Eric had an extraordinarily difficult time emailing back and forth with the consulate to arrange an appointment, and we were required to have an appointment. Eric had to have this one sheet of paper from the university before we could apply for his scientifique-chercheur visa and my conjoint visa. It took at least a month to get this piece of paper, because it had to be completed by Eric’s lab, signed the university president, and then get a special stamp from the local French prefecture. This document had the least extraordinary appearance of all the documents in our application package, but naturally it was the most important one for obtaining the correct visas. Once we had all the paperwork submitted at the consulate, the process took two to three weeks before we could go retrieve the visas.

After entering France, the real fun begins. Within two months of entering as a conjoint, you have to apply for French residence at your local prefecture. When I first arrived I had very little idea what this entailed, and a few well-intentioned locals told me all I had to do was mail in a couple of documents. My request was denied. My documents were mailed back to me along with a checklist of about fifty documents one might possibly need to apply for residence, 10 of which were checked off for me. I gathered up all the documents I needed, and submitted them in person to ensure there were no problems. At my local sous-prefecture they are nice enough to accept submissions in person, but some prefectures require you to mail in your application.

Weeks passed by with no communication from the sous-prefecture. The expiration of my three-month visa drew imminently nearer, and still there was no news. I took measures into my own hands and visited the sous-prefecture about two weeks before my visa expired. They issued me a récépissé, a receipt of my request for residence. At first I thought this was a success, but then I researched the document. You can’t travel on a récépissé for your first request of residence. If I traveled, it would essentially be illegal for me to try to re-enter France without applying for another visa while I was out of the country, an excessively burdensome requirement. When I asked the sous-prefecture about this issue, they would only tell me that it was “risky” to travel on a récépissé.

Well, as long as I had no plans to do any travel by air, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Three months passed by, and OFII, the French immigration and integration administration, finally contacted me for the required medical exam. I was checked for TB a full five months after I first arrived in France; if I had it, I would have spread it to everyone in Burgundy by that point, I’m sure. There was also a brief French language test, but the required level of knowledge was very low. OFII gave me a bunch of papers that they said I would have to turn into the prefecture when my carte de séjour arrived.

My récépissé was set to expire about a week after the OFII appointment, and the sous-prefecture told me I would need to get another récépissé. However, the sous-prefecture would not issue a new récépissé before the old one had expired. I explained that I would be out of town when it expired, and that I didn’t want to go without proper documentation of my status. The administrator at the sous-prefecture treated the prospect with a blasé attitude, and told me to come back as soon as possible after my récépissé had expired. I did so, but did not get my new récépissé until after they wasted a day trying to locate my misfiled dossier.

Well, nearly another three months has rolled by, and two weeks ago I went into the sous-prefecture again to check the status of my carte de séjour. Initially the answer was that nothing had happened with it yet, and I would have to obtain a third récépissé when the current one expired. I again asked about the travel situation, because I may travel to the US at the end of the summer. This time the administrator basically told me that if I am still on a récépissé by the time I travel, I should lie to the immigration officer when I re-enter the Schengen area; I should hide my récépissé and pretend to be a tourist, and because I’m American it should not be a problem for me to re-enter this way. Yes, the French government told me to commit fraud to regain entry to their country. Then the administrator asked me if I had had my OFII appointment yet, and I replied that I had, back in February. Her eyes grew wide, and soon the truth unraveled. Apparently I was supposed to bring those OFII documents to the sous-prefecture before they could process my carte de séjour, not after it had arrived as OFII indicated. I took the documents in the next day, and hoped for the best.

Last week we had to go down to the main prefecture so Eric could begin the process of renewing his residence status, and I was able to find out that my carte de séjour is now in fabrication and should be ready the day after my current récépissé expires. How it possibly takes more than 10 minutes to “fabricate” a card, I have no idea. Leave it to the French. So now I am waiting to see what happens when I next visit the sous-prefecture. Hopefully when I finally get this card, it will be valid at least long enough for my summer travels. I really have no idea though, as it could possibly expire as soon as August when Eric’s titre de séjour expires.

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