Many expat women come here as "trailing wives" following their husbands. I am an anti-trailer: I came here to leave one. But that makes settling in a foreign country tricky, particularly when you are not an EU citizen. I needed to find a way to live and work legally in France - where I wasn't constantly looking over my shoulder for fear of being found out and, more importantly, was able to work in a proper job that required my qualifications.
As luck would have it, while looking for work in Nice, I met an American couple recently transferred from Paris. The wife had attended a "Living in France - How to Obtain a French Visa" seminar there and provided me with pages of information on visa options for Americans. In exceptional detail, it listed the documentation required as well as the pros and cons for the types of businesses (sole proprietor, EURL, SARL, SNC ...) one can set up in France.
Masses of paperwork
Visa categories for legally living in France vary: 6-month multiple entry visa (non-renewable); one-year renewable visa; visitor with no intention of carrying on a gainful activity in France; employee of a French company; long-term transfer from a foreign company to a French affiliate; intern; student; scientist ... and so forth. Visa applications are a one-shot deal: you cannot turn around and apply for another type of visa immediately after your initial request is rejected. Obviously, whichever visa you seek, it's going to take time and money. Best to understand up front, too, that French companies are not going to apply for a work permit on your behalf because it's too expensive and they have to prove that a French person cannot do the job that you are applying for. To give an example, a language school needing Russian teachers has to hire Russian-speaking French people.
I applied for an independent worker visa (profession libérale) through the French Consulate in San Francisco. I could have chosen any French Consulate but the city where you apply will be the city you have to return to at the various stages of the process, so this was convenient as its my hometown. My submitted application included: a form supplied by the Consulate, cover letter (lettre de motivation), letters of references from France and abroad, CV, proof of profession (qualifications and memberships), proof of resources/existing means in the US (I had to provide an official letter from my bank showing account numbers and balances plus a letter from my previous employer indicating I would be rehired if I moved back to the States), details of address in France, proof of existing medical coverage, certified copy of long form birth certificate, police record and passport photocopy.
Within three months, I received the okay from the French Consulate and was issued a titre de séjour temporaire in my passport, stating I had to report the prefecture in Nice within eight days of my arrival in France and I would not be permitted to leave and re-enter the country. At the prefecture, I had to provide passport photocopy, proof of financial resources in France, medical insurance, medical certificate translated by a sworn interpreter, proof of residence (utilities bill) and letters of intent from prospective clients.
I was then given a "récipissé de demande de carte de séjour" - a temporary card valid for three months, issued if you have private health insurance to cover you until the French Social Security kicks in. A one year carte de séjour is eventually issued, once you complete the necessary formalities: a mandatory physical with an appointed doctor, business registration, etc. This card has to be renewed annually and after five years you can apply for a ten year residence card.
Expensive and bureaucratic
As I was a profession libérale, I registered with URSSAF (social security equivalent). Those in commercial business would register at the Chambres de Commerce and artisans would register at the Chambres de Métiers. Within 30 days of this, you are obliged to join a régime d'assurance maladie and a régime d'assurance Vieillesse des non-salariés. Remember, you start contribution payments to these bodies the day you register your business, before you even earn your first euro.
Being self-employed in France is not at all similar to contracting in North America. This country devours small businesses and I know that I will never make my fortune living here. Having said that, the quality of life is well worth my monthly "cotisations" and I've learned hugely about French business firsthand. Plus, as a profession libérale, I don't have to worry about what happens if the company that transferred me here goes under.
From Riviera Reporter Issue 126: April/May 2008