Our first Christmas in France was a quiet one, though after the travails of the previous year we were glad of it. The only downside was not seeing my daughter, who I’d said an emotional farewell to on 4th December, fully expecting that she’d be able to come for a visit over the New Year. Sadly, because of Covid travel restrictions, this was not to be and would not be possible for some time. On the bright side, the owners of the house we’re renting kindly gave us a Christmas tree which brightened the place up a bit and we feasted well in front of a roaring log fire and hibernated until January, both contemplating the huge step we’d made.
The first priority after getting to France was making sure we could stay beyond the 90-day limit for visitors. The French government had decided that British passport holders legally in France before the end of 2020 should have to apply for a residence permit, rather than use the ‘declaratory’ system chosen by many EU countries. As estimates of the number of British residents in France vary between 170,000 and 400,000 this meant a lot of extra work for them but perhaps they just want to know? To their credit, they made this process as straightforward as possible, creating a new website in both French and English, and requiring the bare minimum of paperwork.
As recent arrivals, we were asked to upload a scan of our passports, proof of address such as a recent utility bill and evidence of having enough income to support ourselves; thankfully set at a relatively small amount. I’d made sure that our electricity account was set up in both our names and my modest NHS pension was enough to keep us from being a burden on the state. The only other requirement was to have health insurance until we could apply to join the French health system.
Having filled in the online forms for our residence permits and uploaded the required documents, all fairly straightforward, we received an official email to use as evidence that we were in the ‘system’ should anyone challenge our presence here. All we could do now was wait for any queries from our Prefecture, the local government headquarters in Limoges. We knew that this could take at least three months just because of the work it would take to check so many applications. Nevertheless, the possibility that they might say no and scupper our plans was always in the back of my mind.
The next challenge was to register our car. The rules say you should do this within a month of arriving, or at least have started the process. It is far from straightforward, not only requiring more paperwork but also access to the ANTS online registration system which, as new arrivals, we didn’t have. Fortunately, I’d already asked for a ‘Certificate of Conformity’ from the manufacturer and, because the car was here before the end of 2020, could import it without having to pay any duty. After more research, and thanks to an online forum, we were able to find someone to submit the paperwork on our behalf.
Doing my homework had paid off and the process was relatively quick and not too costly, so it was a proud day when I was able to take the car to a local garage, clutching my new registration document (Carte Grise), and swap the number plates for French ones. Of course, I then had to book the car in for a Controle Technique (CT), the French equivalent of an MOT, which to my relief it passed. Our French insurers then issued the final insurance certificate, or Carte Verte, which together with the CT sticker is now displayed in the window of our car.
In April, after three months had elapsed, I was finally eligible to apply to join PUMA, the French health system, again by downloading and filling in a form, providing evidence of identity, residence and means and sending it off to CPAM who administer access to healthcare. They promptly replied asking for a full and legible copy of my birth certificate; UK versions being about an inch longer than A4. Thank goodness for our local Tabac and their A3 scanner. I’m now waiting to be accepted, which I’m told could take up to a year, but at least I have a temporary Social Security number.
Meanwhile, my other half had registered as a Micro-Entrepreneur. Rather than this describing her stature, this is a tax and social security ‘regime’ that offers sole traders a simple way to set up a business with the minimum of paperwork. Each quarter she submits her total income and pays a fixed percentage in cotisations, the equivalent of national insurance contributions, which entitles her to health coverage. Having both now received a Social Security number, albeit temporary ones, we no longer needed to pay for health insurance, although we do have a ‘mutuelle’ or top up policy which covers the balance of any health care costs over the standard 70% that the state reimburses.
We’d opened a French bank account before moving to France, all done online and requiring us to upload multiple proofs of identity, income and address. This has been a massive help as many French utility providers won’t accept a UK bank account, particularly after the end of last year. It also meant that arranging and paying for insurance for our car, rental property, health care and business was also straightforward. We arranged all these via an English-speaking broker here in France; again, all online and relatively straightforward.
Being out of the UK has also meant having to use the ‘roaming’ allowance on our mobile phone accounts. My account generously let me use my allowance of data and calls in France but, of course, as the year wore on I began to get text messages from my provider saying that this was only intended as a temporary measure. As I was out of contract, I decided to take the plunge, cancel my UK contract and get a French SIM card. This meant giving up my mobile number, one I’d had for ages, but I figured that as this was a new life it was time for a new number. It was relatively painless once I’d found a pin small enough to open the SIM compartment on my phone!
Many people complain about bureaucracy here in France, but I can’t say it’s been any more onerous than in the UK. Nothing has felt unnecessary and most of the systems have been fairly straightforward if you’ve done your research in advance and have all the necessary documents at hand. I might change my tune if “the computer says no” but, considering we’ve moved to another country it could have been much worse. It may be that I’m unusual, or that having a degree in public administration helps, but I’ve secretly enjoyed the form filling and at least it’s given me something to do whilst we find our new home!