Know Before You Go
It's natural to have hopes and certain expectations of your upcoming life in France. You've likely been planning it for weeks or months and certainly dreaming about all the things you're going to do while you're living in the City of Light, on the Riviera or wherever your move takes you in this beautiful and ancient land. But be prepared – and know before you go, what you can expect, and what not.
In my own world, I’ve learned to have no expectations whatsoever, then whatever comes is a blessing, and I never have disappointments! Once you master this thinking, you find that you never want to return to your old – less sane – way of seeing things. But in the meantime, here are a few things to plan for in order to make the most of your experience:
How Long You Can Legally Stay in France
You can be in France up to 90 days on the visa waiver program, so lots of people come for what we call "mid-term" to test the waters without having to apply for a long stay visa. If you plan on staying longer, then you should apply for a long-stay visa with the French consulate, within 90 days of your move to France.
Finding an apartment to rent for one, two or three months isn't so easy, but neither is finding a furnished apartment to rent for longer – up to one year – especially in Paris. Every furnished rental one-year lease (and even unfurnished three-year leases in Paris) comes with a mandatory 30-day cancellation clause. That means that if for some reason you are unhappy with the apartment you've chosen, you can easily cancel your lease and move to another.
Most of our previous short-term rental apartments have changed to long-term rental in order to comply with the current Paris rental laws. This is a big advantage for you as a mid- to long-term renter. Not only can we offer you American-style service when booking, but one of the best things about renting an apartment we represent is that you won't have to go through a highly rigorous approval process, nor sequester a year's worth of rent in an escrow account to satisfy a nervous landlord. Our landlords are almost all North American and appreciate having North American (or other Anglophone nationality) tenants who feel comfortable with one another, culturally.
Getting a Bank Account in France
To secure a rental apartment in France, you will need a French bank account. A bank account in France has never been easy to open and has become increasingly difficult, thanks to FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). This is largely because the regulations imposed on foreign banks by the U.S. government make it expensive and difficult for foreign banks and therefore American clients are undesirable. (If you are unfamiliar with FATCA, get familiar!)
If your landlord requires that you contract directly with the utilities companies, you will not be able to without that French bank account. The bottom line is that it is essential. Don't be frightened by this. It doesn't mean you pay tax on the amounts held in your foreign bank accounts. It's just that the IRS wants to know about them and ensure that your income was reported for tax purposes prior to having transferred it into those accounts.
To open a French bank account with a commercial bank in France, it must be done IN PERSON. There are almost no banks willing to do this long distance without seeing the physical person and backing up the account with a bit of documentation. The good news is that we offer the service to introduce you to a local commercial bank for easily opening an account without any minimum deposits. You can get a check book, a debit card (Visa or MasterCard) and access to online banking.
Insurance and Taxes
Your landlord will also require that you have homeowner insurance. This can be purchased easily with an insurance company or broker, or even your commercial bank. You will only be responsible for insuring your personal belongings as the landlord's "charges de la copropriété" (maintenance costs) include insurance on the building itself.
You will also be expected to pay the annual "Taxe d'Habitation." This annual residence tax is paid by the occupant of the property on January 1, whether an owner or tenant. It is calculated on the basis of the "notional rental value of the property" – the rental value multiplied by the tax rate in that locality. There are variations applied if the residence is principle vs secondary or low income or with dependents. The tax authorities send out the bills for the year in the fall of that same year.
Space in Paris is at a premium and costs dearly. Parisians are accustomed to living in much smaller spaces than North Americans, so an apartment suitable for four people in Paris will be quite a bit smaller than a North American home for four.
Stairs and Elevators
Apartment buildings older than 100 years, which comprises most of central Paris, are unlikely to have elevators. If it does, it's been wedged into a tiny shaft and may not accommodate more than two or three people, much less lots of luggage! Therefore, a description of an apartment that does not mention "elevator" likely doesn't have one at all – so don't expect to have 20th-century amenities in 17th-, 18th-, or 19th-century Paris buildings.
Even stairwells can be very narrow and steep. The European method of naming floor levels starts with zero, then one, two, three, etc. – so a second level apartment means two flights of stairs. Buildings can go as high as five or six flights, although we don't represent apartments any higher than three flights ("troisième étage"). Even so, some ceiling heights are higher than others, and what counts really are the number of stairs and the height of the rise – as many low-rise stairs are easier to mount than fewer high-rise stairs!
If you choose an elevator-equipped building, be forewarned that the elevators often are out-of-order, and that means you'll be climbing stairs for a while, so either choose an apartment on a lower floor or one on a high floor in a building with two elevators (very rare) in case one is non-functioning. Keep in mind that the higher you go, the more light you may have, particularly on narrow streets or small courtyards (if that's important to you), so you may find mounting stairs a big plus!
No matter how beautifully renovated an apartment is, the owner is at the mercy of the collective ownership of the building to maintain the common areas. This means that the standards of the common areas – the entry, stairwell, elevator, courtyard, etc.) in such old buildings may not fit your idea of "Paris perfect." Don't let a first impression color your experience of your life in a luxury newly renovated Paris "pied-à-terre."
There is a lot of renovation taking place in these old buildings. By law, construction can take place and noise can be made from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Expect to encounter noise and dust as the cities are always gentrifying and improving! And there is absolutely nothing the landlord can do about this and rarely are there advance warnings.
Walls and ceilings may be a bit thin, so it's also not at all unusual to hear noise from your neighbors or from people on the street. An apartment on a well-trafficked street will hear the noise from the cars, buses, motorbikes and even the daily trash collectors! It's the city with lots of life, so if you're sensitive to noise, opt for an apartment on the courtyard or bring earplugs! But don't expect the sounds of birds chirping like you might in the countryside.
Most buildings in Paris didn't have plumbing until relatively recently, so consider how modern bathroom facilities have to fit in to the floor plan of a modern apartment. If it uses a hot water tank instead of a "chaudière" (gas-heated instant hot water), the tank may not be large enough to accommodate many long, hot showers coming from modern rain showerheads!
Toilets are often separate from the tub/shower and sink. Consider this an advantage as more than one person can use the facilities at one time. This small room may not have a sink in which to wash your hands. A tub may have a hand-held shower, but no shower curtain nor a hook on which to prop the showerhead. This is not true for any of the apartments we represent, but it's not unusual, as the Parisians have different habits and are comfortable without these conveniences.
Electricity and Lighting
Electrical current and appliances differ in France from North America. If your apparatus is not dual-voltage, don't bother bringing it. Plugging in a 110-volt hair dryer into a 220-volt plug is sure to blow out even the strongest electrical system, and could easily cause a fire. Phones, computers, and iPads are normally already dual voltage. If the apartment is not already equipped with plug adapters for American-style plugs, they can be easily purchased just about anywhere.
Lighting in common areas is normally set on a timer for economic reasons – just push the button to light the hallway. With that in mind, also be conscious of your usage in the apartment; please turn off lights (and other electricity-consuming devices) when not in use – for your own sake as well as the environment's.
Don't expect Paris to be like any other city you've ever lived in. You will encounter cultural differences you never dreamed of, or perhaps don't even understand. But remember, no way is right or wrong, just different than your own. If you leave your "expectations" behind, you will not have any disappointments, and will be sure to fall in love with the City of Light, just like all the rest of us have!