So many Brits dream of moving to France…

From the tranquil lavender fields of Provence to the bustling streets of Paris, moving to France has long been a dream for British expatriates seeking a new life filled with culture, cuisine, and that je ne sais quoi. With its close proximity to the UK and a deep-rooted historical connection, France has become a popular choice for many Brits looking to venture across the English Channel.

We are a Franco-British couple and have been sharing our time between the UK and France for many years. Being fluent in the French language hasn’t prevented us from finding French bureaucracy complicated, not to say incredibly frustrating at times, and a bit of a headache, to be honest.

We hope this post will be useful to British expatriates who decide to take the plunge, and that it will help them adapt to the French way of life, navigating the highs and lows of cultural integration, language barriers, heavy paperwork, and the pursuit of la belle vie.

What to expect once you’ve taken the plunge?

Our first and main point is language immersion: quite often armed with a simple basic command of the French language, British expats in France are usually surprised to find that it isn’t enough and that speaking English doesn’t get them very far (this statement applies to larger towns as well as remote or small villages). It can be a challenge, but on the plus side, as they are exposed to the French language on a daily basis, this often leads to improved fluency and understanding of French culture. As far as we are concerned, this is a positive point: being thrown in at the deep end can be a plus. However, we recommend taking French lessons long before you decide to move instead of waiting until you’re settled.

Adapting to a new healthcare system is another must: the French healthcare system is considered one of the best in the world. Obviously, expats must familiarize themselves with the process of accessing healthcare, including registering for a Carte Vitale, which is the French social security card (a must): no long waiting lists to access medical care, and from our own personal experience, great communication between GPs and specialists. They actually seem to care about their patients. Or perhaps we have just been lucky?

Pharmacist-Health insurance card

Food, glorious food

French baguettes on a white cloth

French gastronomy is world-renowned, so changing diet and eating habits is inevitable: expats living in France often experience a change in their diet, with an increase in fresh produce, bread, cheese, and wine consumption. Most French people buy their daily baguette from their local boulangerie or supermarket (where choice and quality are also very good) and are spoilt for choice with countless styles of baguettes ranging from Céréales to Rustique, from Pain au Maïs to the baker’s own signature baguette, to Pain de Campagne, Boule or simple plain Pain.

Customers can even buy half a baguette or loaf. Bread is definitely THE staple food in the French diet. A meal without bread is simply unheard of. Besides, isn’t it funny how suddenly dipping your buttered baguette, croissant, or other viennoiserie in your morning coffee has become so natural when it once felt revolting?

Work/life balance, Bureaucracy, and French customs

Embracing French work-life balance will help: the French are known for their work-life balance, with a 35-hour work week and a focus on leisure time. This may be an adjustment for British expats accustomed to longer working hours. But isn’t it great?

Navigating bureaucracy: now, this is more of an issue. France is known for its complex bureaucracy, and once living in France, expats must adapt to the various administrative processes, such as obtaining a residence permit, registering a vehicle, paying taxes, etc. The French have a paper document for everything. Paper is big. In fact, even cheques are still a widely accepted form of payment!

Adopting French customs: expats often adopt local customs, such as greeting others with a cheek kiss (la bise or les bises, depending on the region. Hugging is not really the done thing, though), observing the French tradition of apéritif which is incredibly popular (l’apéro), or celebrating French holidays like Bastille Day. Dare we mention the strikes? Striking seems to be part of the culture in France, so expect regular disturbances ranging from shortages of petrol due to refineries being blocked on a regular basis, to strikes in the public transport sector (SNCF, Air France, etc.) and the education sector. Most people are inconvenienced by these strikes but generally tolerate and even support them.

Education, Currency, and Driving on the right-hand side of the road

Education system: British expats with children must navigate the French education system, which can be quite different from the UK’s. This includes understanding the grading system, the school calendar (France is usually divided between 3 different regional zones, A, B, and C, in order to avoid overlapping. Depending on where you live, you may find that your Easter break takes place well after the actual Easter weekend) and the significance of the Baccalauréat diploma.

Old style wooden school desk-Slate-Book

Currency and banking: moving to France means adapting to the use of the euro instead of the British pound. Opening a French bank account to manage your finances is a must.

French car-Red-Citroen C1-Left hand drive

Driving on the right: unlike in the UK, and similarly to every EU country, people in France drive on the right side of the road, which may require an adjustment for British expats. We have always found that owning a French car with left-hand drive makes it a lot easier to drive on the correct side of the road: less chance of getting confused, especially when negotiating roundabouts.

A nice, slow, easy pace…

Adjusting to a slower pace of life: France, especially in rural areas, tends to have a slower pace of life compared to the UK. This can be both a challenge and a welcome change for British expats. Lunch breaks generally last between 1 and 2 hours, and Sunday trading is not as widespread as in the UK. There are no 24-hour supermarkets (certainly none that we know of), and most shops are closed on a Sunday (except for boulangeries and the odd supermarket which are open in the morning). Small towns are absolutely dead on a Sunday afternoon.

Last but not least: Brexit consequences

Brexit implications: since the UK’s departure from the EU, British expats in France have faced additional bureaucratic hurdles, such as applying for new residency cards and dealing with possible changes in access to healthcare and pensions. Watch out for your stay allowance until you get a residency card: 90 days in a rolling 180. If you go over the allowance, French immigration will most likely give you 2 or 3 days’ grace, but any longer and you risk getting banned from entering the EU for a whole year. So beware!

British passport full of French entry and exit stamps

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