Moving to France – how to zap the culture shock

Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.

Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Heather, now, and in 2011 after her family's move to France

Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.

A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.

“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you’re either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it’s much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”

Take the pain out of your move to France. Plan your relocation with AGS Movers

It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family – you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”

Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It’s a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.

“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It’s totally different to the system in the UK.”

“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I’d been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”  

France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.

“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It’s hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it’s very efficient.”

Heather and her family just after their move to France.

But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.

“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental,” Heather says. “I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”

And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can’t speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you’d probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”

Zap that culture shock by planning your move to France with AGS Movers. Get a quote here

But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”

There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.

“At first you’re nervous before you go,” says Heather, “and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. This is awful. Everything’s so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don’t know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don’t want to go home because you can’t remember how it works in the country you came from.

“At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”

Make your relocation much less stressful by contacting AGS Movers

Member comments

  1. “The prescription will be fulfilled by a pharmacy and must be paid for; the little price stickers (vignettes) from each medicine should then be stuck on the Feuille de Soins, which is a reimbursement form for medical expenses. It’s all so gloriously complicated.” Not once you are in the system (Ameli). I haven’t had to do the sticker thing you describe for more than 20 years.
    And if you haven’t lived in the UK for 10 years you’ll be shocked by the petty-fogging bureaucracy that now exists. It’s (much) worse than France, because no matter the pleadings in your individual case, or the insanity of the demand, you will get zero flexibility. So change the record, change the stereotype, UK is now much more painfully bureaucratic.
    Vive la France!

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Reader Question: Can I find an American-style real estate agent in France?

Buying - and even finding - property in France can be a challenge for those accustomed to the system in the United States. Here's how the French system works and some tips for American buyers.

Reader Question: Can I find an American-style real estate agent in France?

For many Americans looking to buy a place in France, the French property buying system comes as a shock.

In contrast to the US system of having a realtor who guides you through the entire process, in France – as in most of Europe – buyers are expected to do much work of the house-hunting work themselves. 

Finding a property

The first step of simply finding property you might be interested in buying is inherently different, as France does not have a Multiple Listing Service (MLS) as exists in the United States.

This means that you need to look in several different places to make sure that you’re seeing all the properties on the market, and you would usually need to do this research yourself – rather than a realtor providing you with information about what’s up for sale.

In France property is usually advertised by real estate agencies (agences immobiliers), listed on websites or sometimes sold through personal connections.

Where can I find property listed in France?

Real estate agencies – Before moving to an area in France, you can check online, or by walking through the main street of the village (if you are looking for a rural location), to see which real estate agencies are popular.

Once you have a good idea of which agencies operate in the area, you can begin by searching their websites or by going in person to look at the listings. Oftentimes, real estate agencies will place adverts in their windows which gives you a good idea of the type of property prices in an area.

Most real estate agencies will be happy to take your details and send you information when new property that meets your specifications comes on the market, and some agencies cater specifically for foreign buyers (more on them below).

Websites – There are several property websites – similar to Zillow in the United States – that sellers use to list their homes.

The first commonly used website is LeBonCoin, which operates similarly to Craigslist. Another is Particulier à Particulier (PAP), this website is for sellers and renters looking to place their property online without using an agency. You can also try the website Bien’Ici or Seloger, or Logic-Immo. Most offer a search function where you can specify what you are looking for (location, size, price etc) and sign up for alerts when new properties meeting those requirements are listed.

Personal connections – If you are looking to move to France (particularly rural France) and do not know anyone in the area you are looking to move to, you might consider visiting the local town hall.

This is a useful location for many parts of life in France, and can be an essential starting place to get to know the village you are looking to move into. Employees with the town hall may be able to point you in the right direction if they know of any property being sold as well.   

READ MORE: Préfecture v Mairie: French admin offices explained

Newspapers – Many newspapers in France continue to list property for sale as well, including in the final pages of local and regional papers. For example, if you are interested in moving to western France and Brittany, you could look at the properties listed with Ouest France Immobilier. Keep in mind that the listings are often put in place by a real estate agency.

The role of the real estate agent

While it is possible to have a dual real estate agent representing both the buyer and the seller in the United States, it is more common that one real estate agent represents the seller and another represents the seller.

In France, a key difference is that there is typically only one agent immobilier, and in most cases the real estate agency has been hired by the seller.

Their role is to advertise the property for sale and then facilitate and act as an intermediary between the buyer and the seller. For American prospective buyers who might assume that a real estate agent ought to negotiate on their behalf, search existing listings for them, and take them to open houses or visits, such actions should not be expected from a French real estate agent. 

The level of assistance offered from the French real estate agent depends greatly by each individual agency. Prior to working with an agent immobilier, you should check to ensure that they carry a carte professional (professional card, or proof that they are accredited).

For an insight into how French real estate agents work (and for a fun TV show) check out The Parisian Agency (l’Agènce) on Netflix, a reality TV show which follows the family-owned Kretz agency in Paris – although they deal with very high-end property, don’t expect it all to be like that.

The role of the notaire

Another key difference is that in the United States, many people use their real estate agent to write up the purchase agreement.

In France, the contract process is typically handled by the notaire (notary). 

The notaire‘s role, however, is not to give you legal or other advice about the contract or the sale process.

The notaire is a representative of the state and their usual role is simply to register the change of ownership on the land registry – for this reason a sale cannot be legally completed without a notaire. If you want someone to give you advice, guide you through the process or flag up potential problems then you will need to hire a notaire specifically for this purpose, otherwise they will simply draw up the paperwork and register the sale.

The other thing that frequently confuses foreigners is the notaire fee – despite its name, the notaire only keep a small portion of the fee, with the rest going to the state. So really it’s a property tax. And it can run into thousands of euro, so it’s worth factoring into your budget in advance.

READ MORE: The reasons why you’ll need a notaire in France

What about fees?

Typically, the seller is responsible for paying the fees for the real estate agent in France. The fees might be included in the selling price, however. If this is the case, then the property price would be listed as “F.A.I” or “Frais d’Agence Inclus”.

It is possible that the property might be advertised as ‘agency fees paid at the buyer’s expense’, and in this case the real estate agent would be required to specify the amount.

Agency fees might range from three to 10 percent of the price of the property, according to French property website SeLoger. The law does not offer a specific amount, in the same way notaire’s fees are regulated.

READ MORE: Revealed: The ‘hidden’ extra costs when buying property in France

Be aware that no deposit should be paid to the agency before the sale has been completed, as per the Hoguet Law which regulates the real estate agency profession.

What are the next steps?

Once you have located the property you are interested in, then there are several steps left before you can get the keys. You will need to make a formal offer and find a notaire. The actual process of the sale comes in two stages in France, with an obligatory cooling-off period.

You can read more about the timeline, and how long it might take HERE.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Time-frame for buying and selling property in France

US-style realtors

So is there anyone who offers the US-style service of a realtor who holds your hand throughout the entire process?

While there isn’t a direct equivalent in France, the closest thing may be an expat-oriented real estate agency or a relocation agency.

France is a popular destination for foreign buyers especially second-home owners, and there are some real estate agencies that cater specifically for foreign buyers. They are more likely to offer extra services such as accompanying you on viewings, translating documents into English, making phone calls in French if needed, guiding you through the sale process and recommending local English-speaking professionals. 

Similar services are offered by some relocation agencies – these work with people moving to France or buying property here and basically act as a guide and translator, helping you through the process, translating into English as required and accompanying you on viewing.

Naturally, both of these business types charge a fairly hefty fee for their services.

Listen to our Talking France podcast for more tips on buying a property in France