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Please take my advice and arrive at least a week before orientation or October 1. You need to find housing and open a bank account as soon as possible, plus visit your schools and meet the people you will be working with. I waited until September 26 to arrive and had no real contact with my school, and then had to go to orientation for the next 3 days, so I wasn't able to get to Annecy until a Friday night. I had no cell phone, no bank account and no housing set up for me. I managed to stay with some nice Americans whom I had found on couchsurfing.com, but not having a place to live made my stress almost unbearable. Having no contact with anyone because of a lack of a cellphone and internet access was also very frustrating.
Get your passport stamped when you enter France. You will need to show this stamp to the OFII in order to validate your visa, which will serve as your residence permit. If your passport did not get stamped or if you entered the EU in a different country, you just need to include your flight itinerary in your OFII paperwork to prove the date when you entered the EU.
The following are summaries of things that you (might) need to do during your stay, some of which you must take care of during your first month in France:
Orientation: Your orientation will most likely be in the main city of your académie. It may take place the week before October 1, and if it is, you will receive the information about it before your arrival in France. It will last 1-3 days and the académie will provide lodging if needed. Check CIEP's site (primary or secondary) for information. At the orientation, you will meet the other assistants in your académie, learn about the French school system, get some tips on teaching English, and get information about applying for social security and your carte de séjour, etc. However, I've heard that some orientations are pretty useless and don't provide much information, so be prepared with any questions you may have. And you might receive an attestation de stage to prove that you did go to the orientation, but you don't really need it for anything.
Carte 12-25: If you are under 25, you should buy the Carte 12-25 so that you can save money on train tickets in France (usually 50% off, sometimes only 25%). You can buy this card until a day before your 26th birthday, and still have it be valid the year that you are 26. Currently, this card costs 49 €, but it is well worth the money if you plan to commute or travel by train a lot. You'll have to buy this card in France at an SNCF train station (the SNCF website will not deliver to US addresses) and you'll need to put your own photo on this card (just as you did for the ISIC), so make sure to either bring some ID photos from home or take a bunch once you get to France. There are photo booths in all of the train stations and in most supermarkets and they are much, much cheaper (4 € for 4 photos) than buying a bunch of ID photos from Kinko's in the States (or you can buy one set of photos and make copies of different sizes and color on your scanner and printer).
Riding the trains in France can be a bit stressful if you don't pay attention to the signs and announcements. Sometimes the final destination listed on your ticket will not be the same as on the screens (so look for the departure time instead). Make sure you're sitting in the correct class (there are big 1's and 2's on each car so you really shouldn't screw this up...) Look at the screens at each stop to make sure you are actually going in the right direction. I almost ended up in Geneva instead of Annecy when I took a train from Grenoble because I didn't know the train would split apart at one of the stops, with the front half going to Annecy and the back half (where I was sitting) going to Geneva. Always remember to validate your ticket and show your Carte 12-25 with your ticket if the conductor checks it. Don't put your feet on the seat facing you or you will be fined. You aren't supposed to use the bathroom while the train is at a station; you can only use it while the train is moving. Another aspect of the 12-25 card is the carte de fidélité called Gagnez à Voyager, which allows you to accumulate "S'Miles" that you can redeem for several things, including more train tickets. You can also accumulate more "S'Miles" by using the card when you buy things at Monoprix, Casino and Géant.
Housing: Finding housing will probably be the most stressful part of this program. You can try using websites such as appartager.com and colocation.fr, but it's hard to actually find a place to live until you are in France. You can also try your local Bureau Information Jeunesse (BIJ). Apartments for rent are listed in several immobilier announcements that you will find throughout your town, such as Top Annonces or Paruvendu. You can also try looking on leboncoin.fr for housing, as well as for furniture or kitchen stuff. If your school does not provide housing, and you are not having any luck finding an apartment, see if there is a Union des Foyers pour Jeunes Travailleurs nearby. They provide housing to people under the age of 30, and the rent is usually reasonable. If you are in Paris, you need to give yourself 4-6 weeks to find an apartment. You can check the American Church in Paris and the FUSAC magazine (FrenchUSAContacts) for ads aimed at anglophones, and also the Particulier à Particulier magazine, which comes out on Thursday mornings, but you need to be very quick in order to find something.
If you decide to go through a real estate agency, be prepared to pay about one month's rent in agency fees (and only pay AFTER they have found you an apartment). Stay away from companies that charge 180 € for a list of apartments because usually these apartments don't even exist or they have already been rented. You can also try to rent an apartment without going through an agency, but be careful of scams, especially in the Paris region. Never pay your security deposit in cash and be wary of renters/landlords who only have copies of official documents (electricity bill, passport, etc. which can be easily faked) instead of the originals.
Be aware that renter's insurance is a legal obligation in France, so make sure to take out an insurance policy for the value of your furniture and belongings. In many cases, you will have to get insurance before you can even sign a lease for an apartment. If you are renting a room in someone's house or apartment or living in foyer, you will need to make sure to get the insurance on your own because it's unlikely that anyone will remind you about it - and you do not want to lose everything if there is a fire or someone steals your stuff.
CAF: The Caisse d'Allocations Familiales (CAF) helps low-income people pay rent, so you will most likely qualify. Once you have your housing, there's a calculator on the website so you can figure out how much money you might get back. You will need your residency permit before you can receive any aid, but you might be able to start the paperwork process earlier. I sent my paperwork to the CAF office at the end of December, and two weeks later I received a letter saying that I had been refused because I didn't have my Carte de Séjour (the old residency permit)yet. When I finally received my carte de séjour in February, it still took another 4 weeks to receive my benefits from the previous months. CAF will not give you anything for the very first month however, so the first month you can receive any money for is November. And some CAF Offices will only back-pay for 3 months prior, so make sure to get your paperwork in as soon as possible even if you don't have your residency permit yet. This whole process should go faster for the new assistants since the carte de séjour is no longer required. As soon as you have the registration stamp in your passport from the OFII, you should be able to receive CAF.
You do not need to be on the lease in order to receive CAF! If you live in a host family, for example, it's called famille d'accueil on the CAF application. For a room that I rented in a woman's apartment at 280 € a month, I received 160 € back from the CAF. For a studio apartment a friend of mine rented at 350 €, she received 240 € back each month. You should be paid around the 5th of each month. And keep in mind that your income from the previous year plays a large part in determining how much assistance you will receive this year. CAF's "calendar" changed in 2008 - you no longer have to fill out the déclaration de ressources each year if you file taxes in France (so this will most likely only apply to renewing assistants). The old system used July 1st to June 30th as the CAF year, but beginning with 2009, it will follow the regular numerical years. Income reported for 2006 will be used until December 31, 2008. Then as of January 1, 2009, the income reported for 2007 will be used and so on. The new system means that you will have to report your income from two years prior instead of one.
Bank account: Once you have housing, the next thing you should do is open a bank account, and for this you will need your passport and proof of residence in France (a copy of the lease, a bill in your name, or if you haven't found a place to live yet you can ask someone at your school to write a letter explaining the situation). Keep in mind that banks are closed on Mondays in France. You must have a bank account in order to get paid (direct deposit only). I've heard that Crédit Lyonnais and BNP Paribas are not good banks to open an account in if you are an assistant, so you might want to stay away from those two. I opened my account with Crédit Agricole and it took about 45 minutes, but I did have to make an appointment and sign a ton of papers. I was renting a room in a French woman's apartment, and I needed the following documents: my passport, my arrêté de nomination, attestation du logement (letter from the French woman stating that I did live with her), an electricity or phone bill from the apartment, and some form of identification of the person I was living with (I took her passport and they made a copy of it). Make sure they give you at least one RIB (relevé d'identité bancaire) before leaving the bank because your school will need it. Two days after opening my account, I received 3 more RIBs in the mail. A few days later, I received a confidential code so that I could access my account online. About 6 days after opening my account, I received my PIN number for my bank card in the mail (you don't get to choose it). I could also go back to the bank and pick up my ATM/debit card and checkbook then.
Cell phone: You will most likely want to buy a cell phone after you arrive in France. I would suggest going to France Telecom/Orange and buying the Mobicarte through Orange. This is a non-contract cell plan (similar to a pay-as-you-go plan), in which you just pay for the phone (the cheapest ones are 49 €), and add money/minutes to it when needed (I started out with 30 € valid for two months). You can choose among some plans, such as the simple plan (55 euro cents a minute at all times), the weekend and night plan (cheaper calls at off-peak times: 35-55 euro cents, but more expensive calls during peak times: 65 euro cents), etc. This way you will not have to sign a contract (which requires a bank account anyway) and be stuck in it after you have left France. But keep in mind that although the Mobicarte does allow you to make international calls, it is expensive (80 euro cents a minute to the US) and you will probably empty your account in a relatively short time. So if you want to talk to your parents back home for a cheaper price, you will either have to use a phone card (télécarte) in a phonebooth, or use Skype on your computer (if you have internet). Of course, you can also send text messages (10-13 euro cents each to phones in France; 15 euro cents to phones abroad); and remember that receiving calls and text messages is always free for you as long as you are in France. If you leave France, it costs money to receive calls as well. You can buy minutes in several locations (some ATMs, tabacs, FNAC, etc.) and on the internet. Be sure if you purchase prepaid phones that they do indeed receive coverage in France.
Internet/Television/Telephone: There are several internet providers in France that offer package deals so that you also will have "cable" TV channels and telephone service. If you just want a regular land line phone, go with France Telecom. However, if you also want internet or internet/television, the price generally starts out at 30 € a month. Sometimes it can take a month for the service to be installed though, so decide quickly and get the process started as soon as possible. Depending on where you live, you will be either dégroupée or non-dégroupée. Dégroupée means that you can receive the cable tv channels and non-dégroupée means that you cannot. I registered with Free and managed to get my internet working within 10 days. I live in a dégroupée area, so I have about 150 TV channels (which I can watch on my computer too - I think this is only currently available through Free and Neuf though), free calling to land lines and cell phones in North America, as well as internet with wifi.
Shopping: Obviously you will need to go grocery shopping soon after you arrive. The major difference between grocery stores in the US and France is that you will need to bring your own bags or buy them in the store. Not all stores will give you free bags to carry your stuff home. You will have to bag your own groceries too. If you've ever been to Aldi in the States, that's what it's like (Aldi is in Europe too, of course). Most stores are closed for lunchtime, so don't plan on getting anything done between 12 and 2pm. Remember that over-the-counter medicine and contact solution are not sold in grocery stores in France. You must go to a pharmacy and an optician for those.
Post Office: Again, the post office will most likely be closed during lunchtime. Stamps to the US cost 87 cents and they can be used on postcards as well as letters (up to 20 grams). Stamps for France cost 58 cents, and stamps for EU nations and Switzerland cost 70 cents. You use the 87 cent stamps for all other countries in the world, including countries that do not belong to the EU but are located in Europe (such as Norway or Iceland, for example.)
Public Transportation: Figuring out public transportation can be strange for Americans from rural areas. However, it is really quite simple and cheap to use buses, trams, and subways in France. You can probably look at the maps on your city's website if you want to be extra prepared, as well as figure out how much to pay and where. Remember to keep your ticket on you at all times so that you are not fined, and to keep a lot of small coins on you since some bus drivers get annoyed if they have to give you change.
Transportation Reimbursement: A new law in France states that employers must reimburse their employees 50% of their public transportation costs for commuting to work from home. If you take an SNCF train to work, you will need to buy the monthly abonnement, but for local buses you may need to buy a yearly abonnement. Regardless of what transportation you take, it must be the longest abonnement that is offered. If you drive your own car, or take the train but do not have an abonnement, you will not be reimbursed. You might not receive your first reimbursement until January even if you start the paperwork in October. You can get the paperwork to fill out from your rectorat or Inspection Académique and you will need to do it every month.
Laundry: Washing machines and dryers are small in France. Don't expect that you will be able to do a large load of laundry. Some apartments come furnished with washing machines but it's rare that they will have a dryer too. If you go to a laundromat, be prepared to pay 4 € just to wash (and not even dry) one load.
School: When you go to your school(s), you will need to sign the procès-verbal d'installation, which is basically the contract saying you are going to work at your school(s). You will also be given a form to fill out in order to get paid (so make sure you know your bank account number and you have a relevé d'identité bancaire), as well as a form for Social Security (for which you will need a signed and dated copy of your passport, your birth certificate and translation, and another relevé d'identité bancaire). You should also make sure to get a key to the rooms you will be teaching in, a code for the photocopier, a login/password to use the computers, and a card for eating in the cafeteria (you may have to pay for your lunches - it depends on your school). You may also eventually receive a Certificat d'Exercice, which basically states that you do indeed work at your school.
Residency Permit (ex-Carte de Séjour): As of June 1st, 2009, long-stay visa holders no longer need to obtain a carte de séjour after arrival in France. The visa will be valid for the duration of the stay in France, and will serve as the residency permit after it has been stamped by the Office of Immigration. Within 3 months after arrival in France, you will need to send to your local OFII by registered mail:
Then you will asked to appear for an interview and medical visit in order to complete your file and get your residency permit stamp. You will need to bring:
When your file is complete, you will receive a registration stamp in your passport that serves as your residency permit. You will then be eligible for CAF and you can travel freely throughout the Schengen Space (for up to 3 months outside of France during your stay in Europe.)
Medical Visit: You should receive a letter at your school from the Office des Migrations Internationals (OMI) or the Agence Nationale de l'Accueil Des Etrangers et Des Migrations (ANAEM) telling you when you have your medical exam. You will need this paperwork in order to obtain your residency permit. In some cases, a form was sent with your arrêté that you were supposed to send to the OMI office, so make sure to bring it with you to France or mail it just before you leave for France. I mailed my OMI form to France the day I left the US (September 25), and I received a letter at my school on October 5 informing me of my medical visit scheduled for October 18. Depending on your académie, you may have to travel to the largest city for the medical visit. All assistants in the Grenoble académie had to go to the city of Grenoble.
The medical visit itself is really short and simple (it doesn't take more than a half hour), but make sure to bring the letter you received at your school informing you of the appointment. First, you have to get a chest X-ray (but you will not be given anything to cover up with so be prepared to go topless). Then they check your weight, height, and eyesight. Last, a doctor will check your blood pressure, ask you a few questions about your health (When were your last vaccines? Do you smoke? etc.) and listen to your heart. There are no shots involved, and you don't have to give a urine sample or have blood drawn or anything major like that. You will also get to keep your chest X-ray. Then you will be given two certificats de contrôle médical; one you will have to give to the OFII and the other one you can keep for your records.
Health Insurance/Carte Vitale: You must do paperwork for the numéro de sécurité sociale, which will provide you with health insurance while you are in France. When you first arrive, you will not have health insurance, nor will you have insurance outside of France (unless you have the International Student ID Card). Sécurité sociale will reimburse you for 70% of your medical costs (doctor visits, prescriptions, etc.); but if you'd like to be reimbursed for the other 30%, you must go to your local Mutuelle Générale de l'Education Nationale (MGEN) office (or any other mutuelle office). However, I've heard that sometimes the MGEN mutuelle is not worth it, so it's up to you to decide if you want to get it. There is a person at your school, called the Intendant, who is in charge of helping you with the social security paperwork. This paperwork needs to be processed within two months of your arrival in France.
You should receive your social security number by the end of November. I received an Attestation paper at my school on November 21 with my "No. Insee" and the amount that I would be paid each month (about 770 €). On November 30, I received my Carte Vitale in the mail. However, I had to send my Carte Vitale back a week later because they had assigned me a wrong number. Then I was sent a second Carte Vitale with the wrong number on it a few days later. I did not receive my actual Carte Vitale (with the correct number on it) until March 3, but at least I could login to the MGEN website and see my details. One confusing thing to keep in mind is that MGEN takes care of social security as well as being a mutuelle. You will automatically be covered under social security (which reimburses 70% of medical costs), but it's up to you to join their mutuelle or another mutuelle (which reimburses the other 30% but costs extra). I did not have MGEN's mutuelle, but I did belong to Mutuelle Existence with my boyfriend which costs about 30 € a month.
Going to the doctor: If you get sick in France or need to go to the doctor while you are there (yearly gynecological visit, for example), it's actually quite simple to make an appointment. Most doctors offices don't even have nurses; it's just you and the doctor. There's barely any paperwork to fill out and if you have your Carte Vitale, you might not have to pay for anything. If you don't have your Carte Vitale yet, you can still be reimbursed for your medical costs. Just pay by check and the doctor will give you a feuille de soins that you fill out with your name, address, and SS#. You will find your SS# on your paystub. You should receive your first paystub in December, as October and November will be lumped together since October's pay is considered an advance. Sometimes the SS# is a temporary number however, so unless it follows this formula, you may want to wait until your real number is assigned: First set of numbers: 1 for males; 2 for females; Second set: year you were born in; Third set: month you were born in; Fourth set: 99 for foreigners (departement you were born in if you're French). For prescriptions, you also need to attach the sticker from the medicine box to the feuille de soins. If you do not have this sticker, go back to the pharmacy and explain that you need it to be reimbursed. They should be able to give you another sticker. You should have your regular health insurance (social security) through MGEN, but some académies use CPAM instead. Make sure you know which one you are signed up with so you know where to send your feuille de soins!
Your Carte Vitale most likely won't arrive until right before you leave to go home, so don't worry so much about not having it. If you are too sick to work, you can get an arrêt de travail to give to your school to prove that you are not just skipping work. In my experience, the appointments went by quickly and I never had to wait long. The doctors were very nice and understanding. One piece of advice I can give is to bring plenty of cold medicine from home. I got the flu while in France in January and none of the medicine here seemed to help me much. I really wish I would have brought DayQuil, NyQuil and some cough drops. Another thing to keep in mind for American women is that French doctors will not give you anything to cover up with when you have to undress (such as when getting a pap smear).
Check the Health Insurance page for more info about the social security system and doctor visits in France.
Getting paid: If you turn in your bank account information at the beginning of October, you should be paid at the end of the month (but not the full amount). I turned in all the paperwork to my school on October 5, and I was paid 740 € on October 26, 2006. (Though the amount of this "advance" differs for each académie). You will receive the rest of your October stipend along with November's stipend at the end of November. I was paid 805.04 € on November 29, which averages out to 772.52 € per month. I received my first Bulletin de Paye at my school on December 11. It's pretty incomprehensible (even to French people), but you are supposed to keep these things for life. You will also need a copy of it when you apply for the CAF. I received my December stipend on the 19th at a total of 772.52 € and my second Bulletin de Paye at the beginning of January. I received my January stipend on the 26th at a total of 777.24 €. I received my February stipend on the 23rd at a total of 778.83 €. I received my March stipend on the 27th at a total of 781.86 €. I received my final stipend on April 26th at a total of 780.28 €.
Working at a 2nd Job: The rules have changed recently and assistants are now able to have a second job legally, as long as these conditions are met: 1) You must have the permission of your school director; 2) it cannot interfere with your teaching; and 3) you cannot earn more than 30% of your assistant's salary. Ask your académie's assistant contact person for more information about how to go about getting your 2nd job approved by the school and rectorat. Then the new company that you want to work for will need to send paperwork to the Direction Départementale du Travail so that you can receive another APT (authorisation provisoire de travail). You can also work under the table, and give private English lessons (15-20 € an hour) and/or baby-sit (around 10 € an hour, depending on where you are in France).
Working during the vacations: In 2008, a program to offer free voluntary English classes to secondary students during the winter, spring and summer vacations to reinforce conversational skills was begun. Language assistants are allowed to teach these classes and will be paid "vacation time" (though I do not know how much that is.) If you'd like to work during the vacations, let the teachers and your proviseur know.
Moving: If you decide to move, you can change your address at the post office (or on their website) to have your mail sent to your new address. You're supposed to fill out the paperwork before you move though, because you will receive a confirmation code at your old address that proves you are who you say you are and that you really are moving. This service costs 23 € for 6 months, or 40 € for 12 months. You can have your mail sent to international addresses too, but that costs more of course. You also need to inform the OFII or préfecture that you have moved (within 8 days) so they can change the address on your residency permit.
Driving: If you'd like to drive in France, you can do so legally with your American license for up to one year after the start date on your residency permit. It is highly recommended that you buy an International Driving License though (available from AAA for $10), and attach a French translation to your American license. Find out more about driving in France and exchanging your American license for a French license.
And a few words about French culture / culture shock: If you've never been to France before, you might want to read a few books on French culture. Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong and French or Foe are highly recommended. They offer plenty of personal anecdotes and information on a wide range of topics, such as history, politics, education, family life, shopping, dogs, etc. Yes, cars, elevators, refrigerators and washing machines are smaller in France. People do take their dogs everywhere (stores, restaurants, buses) and might not clean up after them (watch your step!) There are no screens on the windows. You probably won't get ice in your drink. A closed door does not necessarily mean you cannot enter the room. French people must have a reason to smile. Always say bonjour and au revoir when entering and leaving a store. It's knowing these little things that will make you love or hate your time in France. Here are a few articles that discuss French life and culture: All I really need to know (about the French) I learned in Grande Section - Expatica article about that may help explain the behavior of your students in France; Hillary Equals France - Bill Maher article about stealing what's best from France, like the healthcare system; and Goodbye to la belle France? - Guardian article about the fear that Sarkozy will change France to become more like the US (also has a nice statistical comparison of the two countries). You can also read expat blogs of Americans (or Anglophones in general) living in France for first-hand experiences.
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