Trialling an EU country for 3 months without any obligations

It’s a little known fact that as a citizen of the European Union you are allowed to spend up to 90 consecutive days, working, living or playing in any other EU country without having to tell anyone what you’re up to. Although this time limit might seem arbitrary to some, I think it’s safe to assume it’s based on social norm, like when you’ve been staying in someone’s house for more than twelve weeks and they ask you to start contributing to household bills – because, frankly, you’ve outstayed your welcome.

If you overstay your EU welcome, that is, reside in a member country for more than 90 days, you’re required to declare yourself resident and asked to start contributing in the form of taxes; unsurprisingly, once that three-month period expires, so, too, does your home-state healthcare and social security cover.

Although 90 days of total continental freedom for every EU citizen might be the thorn in the side of immigration officials, with counter-terrorism units and similar agencies trying to track down people à la Jason Bourne, it does present a wonderful opportunity to those of us who are lucky enough to be born in such times. To put it simply: you can try before you buy.

When we discovered this for ourselves, our initial fears about making the move to the Alsace in France were immediately swept aside as we realised we wouldn’t have to commit one way or the other for the trial period. Or at least, that’s what we thought.

Finding somewhere to stay for no more than three months proved near impossible. Although we were able to find a gîte in central Strasbourg for three weeks, it would have been cost-prohibitive to extend our contract at the most expensive time of year, Christmas. We were thus forced into looking for a short-term apartment rental – which we were soon to learn doesn’t actually exist in France; you either rent long-term or you don’t, voilà. After less than a month in the country, we found ourselves committing to a three-year rental agreement with, it should go without saying, a three-month get-out clause.

Strasbourg's Christmas FestivalFinding accommodation during Strasbourg’s Christmas Festival can be a problem.

On the work front things seemed a bit more flexible. I found office space available for short-term let in the city centre, where it turns out the minimum rental period was, coincidentally, three months. Here, I’d hoped to have an opportunity to network with the other business folk renting office space next to mine, as picking up a few local clients wouldn’t hurt my company’s prospects. In practice though, the only place where schmoozing would’ve been feasible was in the elevator – I met and conversed with more people on my way up and down the building than I did by the coffee machine. During office hours it seemed that people preferred to, er, work; an alien concept to me, but it does explain France’s reputation for high productivity per hour worked.

Using an elevator as a networking centre has its obvious drawbacks: small, crowded, no personal space, strange odours and constant interruptions. It did, however, teach me a thing or two about French etiquette. You say bonjour to everyone when you get into an elevator and you say au revoir when you get out. So, logically, if you’re staying in the elevator you say either bonjour or au revoir to everyone else who either gets in or out. I imagine this could be a real pain in the ass if you’re working on the top floor of a skyscraper – which thankfully I wasn’t – but may explain why there are so few high-rises in France.

So with no water-cooler moments to tide me through the day, I was rather glad that three months was the minimum let period. I would be out in a matter of weeks. Perfect. Or at least it would have been had my French been good enough to understand the terms of the contract. At the end of the 90 days, as I was clearing my desk, I thought to send one last email to the rental firm to enquire about the return of my deposit. Their reply was short and to the point: “We will return your deposit at the end of the contract which, if you wish to terminate, requires you to send us a letter by recorded delivery … giving us at least three months’ notice.”

Barth Hulley lives in Strasbourg and his most recent book, Freelance in France 2015, offers practical advice on working for yourself in France. See www.freelanceinfrance.fr

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