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REVEALED: The problems foreigners have getting started in France

A recent international has ranked France among the 10 hardest countries for foreign citizens to settle in. But what makes getting started in France so difficult?

REVEALED: The problems foreigners have getting started in France
A person stands on the Petit pont-Cardinal Lustiger in front of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

France is among the top 10 hardest countries to get set up in after first moving for foreigners, according to a recent survey by InterNations – a platform that connects foreign residents abroad.

The survey, called “Where expats struggle most to get settled”, used survey responses from people living abroad to rank countries based on how easy they are for dealing with administration, language, housing and digital life. 

Overall France was placed in 44th place out of 52 countries, faring better than Italy (48th place) and Germany (52nd place), but well-behind other European countries like Norway (15th place), the Netherlands (25th) and Sweden (26th). 

Overall, the survey noted that administrative processes and language were the most difficult parts of setting up a life in France for foreigners.

Complex administration 

France ranked among the bottom 10 countries – in 43rd place – when it came to administrative topics. This subsection encompassed things from setting up a bank account upon arrival to the general ease of dealing with local administrative workers and residency permit renewal procedures.

More than half of the people in the InterNations survey (55 percent) said that is not easy to deal with the local authorities – higher than the global average of 39 percent.

About a third of respondents said that it was hard to open a local bank account. Readers of The Local have signalled this challenge as well – many struggle with the Catch-22 of being asked for a proof of your address to open an account, while on the other hand meeting many landlords who will not rent to you until you have a bank account.

The Local created a guide with vocabulary and relevant information for opening a bank account in France – you can find it HERE.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about setting up a bank account in France

One British resident in France told InterNations, “What bothers me most is the bureaucracy, particularly the time it is taking to get full access to healthcare services. In general, France still has work to do to make such official processes easier and fully possible online”.

As for readers of The Local, several have echoed these types of complaints about French administrative procedures. 

In a 2021 survey by The Local on foreigners’ experiences living in Paris specifically, several mentioned bureaucracy as a challenge. One reader, Weronika Lasko referred to French admin as a “pure nightmare’ and others, like Pavan Puli, advised that for “any administrative assistance it takes a lot of time to get done”.

Nevertheless – readers of The Local had helpful advice for those just moving to the country. In a recent survey on applying for and renewing visas and residency permits, one respondent advised everyone to “Bring more paperwork than you think you need and don’t expect anything to make sense”. 

When giving The Local their ‘top tips for life in France’, several readers offered ways to make administrative processes less complex. One reader, Kerstin Hallert, said that it is “absolutely necessary to have a French-speaking friend not afraid to deal with bureaucracy endlessly.”

Despite the challenges many foreigners have experienced with French bureaucracy, several of France’s administrative procedures have been gradually moving online. In The Local’s survey about France’s visa procedures moving online, 78 percent of respondents said they had completed their most recent visa or residency procedure online (rather than in person).

Other tasks that may have been a challenge for foreigners a few years ago – like having to call to make a doctor’s appointment – have been simplified with the advent of websites, like Doctolib, which allow users to register for their healthcare appointments online.

More recently, the French government put forward a new website called “démarches simplifiées” which allegedly speeds up certain admin tasks by 50 percent. 

READ MORE: The website that speeds up French bureaucracy ‘by up to 50 percent’

From driver’s licences to submitting documents related to residency permits for foreigners, the new French website aims to streamline administrative procedures and make more processes that once required in-person, paper-heavy meetings available online.

France is also notorious for requiring large paper dossiers for different tasks in life, notably finding and renting an apartment. This is another process that has been put online – now you can use the tool Dossier Facile which allows you to upload all your house-hunting documents to a single site, have them checked and verified and then gives you a link to give to landlords and agencies, which makes the process a little simpler.

Language struggles

According to the survey by InterNations, 60 percent of respondents said that they find it “difficult to live in France without speaking the local language”, which is almost double the global average of 32 percent.

The survey did find that the vast majority of foreigners living in France speak French fairly or very well (72 percent), but may reported that they struggled to learn it. 

One Greek resident told InterNation that “French is REALLY difficult, even after all these years, and without it you are lost!” 

Readers of The Local have also found language barriers to be one of the most challenging aspects to life in France. For example in a previous survey respondents talked about the difficulty of understanding French people due to the speed they speak the language.

It’s also more important for foreigners in France to learn the language because unlike other countries like Switzerland or the Nordics where locals have a high level of English, France has traditionally ranked low in regard to English levels. The 2022 scores for the Education First English Language Proficiency test actually ranked France at the bottom of all EU countries on English levels. There are many reasons that might explain this ranking, ranging from the way English is taught in French schools to the fact France still tends to dub English language films rather than use subtitles.

READ MORE: Worst in the EU? Just how well (or badly) do the French speak English?

In France, English-levels vary greatly based on several factors, such as region – those that ranked “high” instead of moderate on the test, and the best score (in order) was Île-de-France (the Paris region) and the regions with the lowest English levels were Burgundy, Brittany, and Hauts-de-France.

And if you go up to anyone on the streets of France, hoping they speak a little English, the study also found that those aged 26 to 40 were most likely to score “high” instead of “moderate.”

On a positive note…

The InterNations survey did conclude with a positive message – France scored well in the “Digital Life” category.

According to the survey – France came in 24th place in this area.

“Around nine in ten expats rate the cashless payment options positively (89 percent vs. 84 percent globally) and agree they have unrestricted access to online services, such as social media (90 percent vs. 82 percent globally)”, the survey found.

This stacks up with the figures – in 2013, the French government launched a €20 billion plan to make sure that all households and businesses across the country had access to very high-speed broadband, and that goal was achieved. By the end of 2021, 99 percent of households and businesses had been equipped with it. 

More people also opt to pay using contactless options. According to a study by the group Panorabanques, 86 percent of French people in 2020 opted to use contactless payment with their bank cards – an increase of seven percentage points when compared with the year previous. 

France is also going digital in other aspects – with the goal of reducing waste and its carbon footprint, the French government plans to gradually phase out paper receipts. Customers will still be able to request them, once the new regulation is put into practice.

READ MORE: How France’s new anti-waste laws will affect you

Several local authorities have also begun to phase out paper transport tickets, while expanding options to buy rail passes with mobile phone applications and reusable cards.

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For members


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