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Make a few copies of all of your documents and your ID & credit cards (in case they get stolen). Leave one copy at home with your parents, and put your copy in a different suitcase as your originals. These are the official documents you will definitely need to bring with you:
Birth Certificate: If you need to give a copy of your birth certificate (when applying for social security, for example), it will probably need to be less than 3 months old. You should order another certified copy of your birth certificate from your county clerk before leaving for France in order to avoid having to do so once you are in France. You may or may not need it, but it is better to have it just in case.
It may be possible to get a certified translation at your consulate in the US, but they will no longer accept this template from the University of Nottingham. You will have to make a literal translation of your birth certificate for them to accept it. You could also do the translation yourself and hope that it doesn't need to be certified (mine didn't have to be). Here is a sample American birth certificate (state of Michigan) translated into French.
If you want to get translations done in France, you can go to the Mairie (or l'Hôtel de Ville) in your city and ask for a list of official translators, or check the American Embassy's list of certified translators. If none of them are close to you, you can mail your birth certificate recommandé (registered) or some translators will work with just a copy of your birth certificate.
Personally, I needed a certified copy of my birth certificate that was less than 3 months old and a translation into French (but not official) for my carte de séjour (which new assistants will no longer be getting!) and I needed just a plain copy of my birth certificate and a translation into French (but again, not official) for social security.
Other documents/papers/cards to bring:
You should make some sort of accomodations for when you first arrive as well, such as youth hostels or foyers, if you don't already have a place to live so that you will have a definite place to go when you leave the airport or train station.
Bringing Money: Try to bring a debit or credit card so you can withdraw euros from an ATM and have some cash to deposit into a French account. Keep in mind that most banks will only allow you to withdraw $300 (about 220 €) a day, so if you need more money than that right away, you may have a problem. You can talk to your bank and try to get this limit raised. Every time you withdraw money in France, you will be charged a service fee for using a different ATM (usually $1.50) and an international fee (1% of the total amount). If you plan on bringing traveler's checks, make sure you get them in Euros and not US dollars. Some French banks don't really know what to do with traveler's checks in dollars. You might also want to get a letter from your bank stating that you have sufficient funds to support yourself in France (some French banks might want this before they'll let you open an account, but I don't think it's necessary - you can always go to another bank.) You probably shouldn't deposit most of your money right away because it can take 10 days to get your carte bleue as well as your PIN, and you won't be able to get any money out of your account until then.
Transferring Money: Transferwise is probably the easiest way to transfer money between your American and French accounts.
For smaller amounts, you could also use Paypal. You can open two Paypal accounts, one connected to your American bank account and one connected to your French bank account. Then simply Send Money from your American Paypal account to your French one, choosing Euros as the currency and Service/Other for the reason. The only fee for this is 5 € which is taken out of the total sent to your French account. Depending on if the funds are coming directly from your American bank account or being billed to an American credit card (whichever you have linked to your American Paypal account), this can take a few days to complete. And once the funds arrive in your French Paypal account, you have to transfer them to your French bank account, which can also take a few days.
Paypal accounts connected to French bank accounts can also add a foreign bank account, but the opposite is NOT true for Paypal accounts connected to American banks. It may be a simpler option to open a Paypal account with your French bank, then add your American bank account and "send" money between the two by using Paypal's currency converter. The exchange rate is slightly worse than what you will find on xe.com but it is the easiest way to transfer money. Keep in mind though that Paypal accounts connected to European Union bank accounts have a yearly limit on how much money you can receive of 2500€ so you will not be able to send a large amount of money through Paypal.
In Your Suitcases: I wouldn’t recommend buying new clothes before you leave, especially since you will want to pack light. I would recommend buying more socks and underwear though (I brought almost a 30 day supply), so that you won’t have to do laundry as often. Buy some space bags so you can vacuum the air out of them to make more room in your suitcases. Bring travel size bottles of bathroom stuff, like shampoo, conditioner, body wash, etc. because you can buy normal size bottles when you get there (and still use the small bottles for when you travel throughout Europe). Put ID tags on the inside and outside of every piece of luggage. Most major airlines today only allow 50 pounds in the two suitcases that you check in, but you probably don't want to bring that much with you anyway since you'll have to carry it all yourself. If you plan on using the low-cost airlines in Europe, make sure to check their weight restrictions because they don't allow very much luggage.
Adapters/Voltage: If you are bringing electronic equipment that needs to be plugged in, such as a laptop, mp3 player, digital camera, etc., you will need to check if they can handle the higher voltage in Europe. Look at the transformer and make sure it says something like AC 100 - 240 V. If it says this, you will only need a plug adapter for Europe. If it only says 100 V, then you will need a voltage converter in addition to the plug adapter. For other electric equipment, such as hair dryers or straighteners, you will most likely need a voltage converter as well since the majority of American ones are only 110 V. It is possible to find dual voltage hair dryers (I found mine at Target for $17), but you might want to just wait until you get to France and buy a cheap hair dryer there. If you plan on travelling to the UK, Ireland, Italy or Finland, you will need different plug adaptors too. The other countries in mainland Europe (I think) all use the circular two prong plug.
What you might want to bring if you can spare the extra weight in your suitcase (these can be hard to find or are more expensive in France): batteries, film, plug adapters/voltage converters, sunscreen, socks & underwear, towels, medication (pain relievers and antacids - and any cold or flu medicine that works for you; French medicine did not work for me at all), deodorant, disposable razors, tampons & pads, pantyhose & tights, floss, contact lens & saline solution
What not to bring: binders or folders (paper size is A4 in France, not 8.5" x 11")
What to buy when you get there: umbrella (it rains a lot in certain places); hair dryer (you can bring your American one, but it's probably better to use a French one so you don't need the voltage converter); office supplies
Remember! PACK LIGHT! You do not want to have to drag three heavy suitcases (that weigh more than you do) around random cities in France when you aren't even sure where you are going. I was only going to bring two suitcases, but one of them weighed too much, so I transferred some things to a third suitcase to take as a carry-on (with my laptop). That was a big mistake. It was hard to go anywhere without another person to help me carry all of my things. This may not be much of an issue if you have housing and can unpack right away, but I did not, and had to drag my stuff with me from Lyon to Grenoble to Autrans, where I finally was able to shove everything into 2 suitcases and leave the third behind before heading to Annecy.
However, beware that you may have to pay import taxes in order to receive things that your family ships to you. France has been cracking down on packages received from outside of the EU in the past few years (to make sure that taxes are paid on online purchases). I would recommend calculating the estimated cost of taxes you'll have to pay before deciding to ship a box. It may actually be cheaper now to just check another suitcase at the airport even if that means carrying the extra weight with you.
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