10 Mistakes to avoid when moving to France
Published on 28. September 2023 from Ines Sachs
When you immigrate to France, you want everything to go smoothly and ideally get everything right from the start. However, the reality of immigration often differs from our initial expectations. In this article, you’ll find my top 10 mistakes made when moving to France. And not just that, I’ll also show you how to avoid them.
My husband and I have moved to France several times. But we’ve also lived in other countries such as Portugal, Switzerland, and Cyprus. Naturally, we’ve met many other expatriates along the way, with whom we’ve shared our mistakes and misguided expectations from our various moves.
Here are the most significant mistakes, which are not only relevant for France but also, at least in part, for other countries.
Mistake #1: Taking your problems and stress to the new country
I hear it time and time again. „I want to emigrate, I want to escape the stress in … I want to live in a country where the culture is more relaxed, and I can live more peacefully and unwind.“
If you’re not relaxed at home, if you work a lot, why would it be any different abroad? If you have a hectic daily routine with your partner or children at home, it’s likely to be the same under the southern sun. Just because you once had a relaxing holiday in your dream destination doesn’t mean that everyday life there will be equally laid-back. Living somewhere is different from holidaying there. Unless you’re retired and don’t need to work, the stress levels in the first few months after moving will probably be even higher because everything is unfamiliar and new. Uncertainty arises when you’re unsure about how things work. This can easily lead to additional tensions within the family, especially if one partner copes better with stress and frustration than the other.
- Try to reduce stress before you emigrate. If you’re self-employed, for instance, do you really need to work 60 hours a week, or could you outsource some tasks?
- Discuss your expectations with your partner (and with your children if they’re coming along). What do you all expect from your new life? What should it look like? Dive deep into the details and clarify this for everyone involved before making a decision.
- Also, consider who will take on which tasks in preparing for the move, ensuring clarity about everyone’s roles and contributions.
Mistake #2: Being blindly in love and ignoring problems
That charming little town on the Côte is, of course, an ideal image. One doesn’t imagine any problems there. But things will turn out differently than you expected. On holiday, we tend to wear rose-tinted glasses. You stroll through the romantic alleys of the old town, enjoy a coffee at the harbour, watch the sunset on the beach. The blocked driveways, piles of rubbish by the roadside, the striking SNCF staff… You somehow don’t notice these things when you’re relaxed and on holiday. Living there is a different story, believe me.
- Research your desired location thoroughly beforehand. What problems exist there? For instance, could you cope with the high crime rate in Marseille? How does the high unemployment rate look, and could it impact your business? Where are the main traffic routes? It would be unfortunate to buy a house right on the favourite diversion route when there’s a traffic jam on the Route Nationale.
- Test out commutes. For example, we made the mistake of thinking it would be no problem commuting daily by train from Cagnes-sur-Mer (near Nice) to work in Monaco. Big mistake! When there’s a strike – which unfortunately happens more often than you’d think – you’re going nowhere. Then you resort to cycling as far as Nice, hoping that maybe a train will depart from there. Driving on such days, by the way, is a complete no-go; you’ll just be stuck in traffic. So, try it out and think about what you’d do if there’s another strike.
- Check if you can get all the medications you need in France, or what their French alternatives are called. This also applies if you use specific products, such as dietary supplements, or if you rely on a particular diet.
Mistake #3: Expecting a Club Holiday
This point somewhat ties in with the previous one. As already mentioned, a holiday is different from living in a place. On holiday, there are service providers who take care of many things for you. That won’t be the case when you live there. People working in the tourism industry, who know their jobs depend on tourists, might be more open, friendly, and willing to speak a language other than French with you. This can create a misleading impression, and there’s a significant risk of later disappointment when your new neighbours, the tax official, or the customer service representative at EDF aren’t keen on conversing with you in English.
- Trial the lifestyle by renting a holiday apartment for a few weeks before making the final decision to emigrate. And, of course, all family members who are supposed to emigrate should come along – that’s a given. Ideally, do this twice: once in the summer and once in the winter. Especially in the south of the country, the perception of a place can change dramatically in winter. If you’ve often holidayed there, the winter test might suffice.
- During this time, try to maintain your daily routine as if you were living and working there. This only works in a holiday apartment, not in a hotel or bed and breakfast. Force yourselves to be entirely self-sufficient. Shop at the supermarket. Pick up your morning baguette from the nearest bakery, and so on.
- Engage with the locals. Ask them lots of questions. And leave your rose-tinted glasses at home.
- Consider how you’ll make connections and find new friends at your new location. It’s best to start this process early.
- Are there any clubs or associations that interest you? Ask if you can join them for a trial session. You’ll quickly gauge whether these people are welcoming or not.
Mistake #4: Expecting the same working conditions as at home
If you’ve been employed in your home country, the first question that arises is whether you can retain your job and work from a home office. Or do you need a new job? Perhaps you already have a new position lined up. If not, familiarise yourself with the job market in your desired location. Are your specific skills in demand there? I used to think that German language skills would be a good foundation for finding a job anywhere. However, they’re not sought after everywhere. In Occitanie, for instance, there are very few jobs where German is a criterion. Spanish is more often required as a foreign language there. And so is English! So, what can you offer that’s genuinely needed in that location?
And please acquaint yourself with employment law. Many things in France differ from other countries. The working culture in France is also distinct. Don’t make the mistake of telling a French colleague, „In the Uk, we do it this way.“ That’s a quick way to lose favour. And a note from my own bitter experience: Monaco is not France!
Taxes and social security contributions also differ in France. Even if you find a job with the same gross salary as in the UK or US, the net amount won’t be the same. And the cost of living will differ in your new location. Have you calculated whether you can manage? We found that salaries in France are lower than in Germany. This is somewhat offset by slightly lower taxes.
- Use one of the online salary simulators to calculate what you’ll take home from your salary.
- Examine the cost of living in your new location. On Numbeo, for instance, you can easily compare major cities worldwide. However, the most significant expense is always rent. So, check real estate portals to see the actual prices.
- Learn French if you haven’t already. Even if you’re fortunate enough to find a job where it’s not a hiring criterion (Do these exist? I doubt it.), you’ll still need it for internal communication with colleagues.
- Read the fine print of your employment contract carefully. If you don’t fully understand it due to language barriers, seek assistance. Pay close attention to the job description. Is the workplace specified, or could you be relocated to other sites?
Mistake #5: Moving with a Company
A very tricky subject! If you were self-employed as a freelancer in your home country, you must deregister this activity with the tax office, as you can’t simply „take it with you“. However, it’s relatively straightforward to start anew in France with a Microentreprise.
Emigrating while retaining a company in your home country is possible but incredibly complicated. We tried it. It wasn’t a good idea. While the company’s registered office can be relocated abroad, you’ll probably still need an address for mail delivery in your home country. You also still require a tax consultant in your home country. However, you’ll also need a French tax consultant, as you’ll likely want to draw money from the company at some point – after all, you need to live on something. This will be in the form of a salary or dividend, which will then be paid to someone living in France, and thus taxed in France and processed in some way for social security. I strongly advise against this. It’s too complicated. It’s better to have a clean break and start afresh in France.
- If possible, close your company before emigrating.
- In advance, find out which type of company in France is most suitable for your business and your expected turnover.
- Examine the topic of company taxation closely. Also, look into any other fees and levies you’ll have to pay. What insurances must you have? What permits might you need for your trade?
- Consult a tax advisor – both in your home country and a new one in France. Don’t expect to find one who knows both systems. No one can offer that; both systems are far too complex.
Mistake #6: Insufficient Financial Cushion
Approaching emigration as if it’s just a move to another city… It’s doable. This approach works quite well if you already have a new job in France and are essentially being relocated there by your new employer. In the best-case scenario, the new employer might even pay for the move and assist with finding accommodation. However, this is rarely the case. And what if, just before the end of your probationary period, the employer decides they no longer need you? Suddenly, you’re without an income. What then? Head straight back home? Surely, that’s not what you’d want.
Regardless of how you plan to finance your life in your new location, you’ll definitely need a certain financial cushion. Perhaps your new business idea doesn’t take off as quickly as anticipated. Maybe you need to purchase some additional equipment or cover unexpected expenses. You might even be tempted to dine out more frequently than you did back home. Everything looks so delicious, and you’ll want to discover and try the culinary delights of your new homeland.
France isn’t a cheap country. Groceries may cost more than in your home country. Anything related to beauty care is also significantly pricier. Review prices in advance and calculate your budget.
Remember, you might not know the country as well as you know your home country. Mistakes can happen, leading to unexpected fines. A friend of mine fell into the trap of making an error on her tax return. Somehow, her address was recorded as a secondary residence. As a result, she was asked to pay 800 EUR in housing tax for the previous year. She hadn’t anticipated this, as for her, it was her primary residence, which should have been exempt from this tax. Such things can happen, and it’s better to have some financial wiggle room.
- Have at least six months‘ worth of living expenses saved up as a cushion. Just in case.
- Inform yourself about the actual cost of living (as mentioned above) to calculate your cushion.
- Create an Excel spreadsheet with your regular expenses and income. Add 30% to the supermarket category. Research local prices for services like hairdressers and factor in future expenses. Calculate how long you could survive without any income.
- Always round up rather than down. Always factor in a buffer. If there’s something left at the end of the year, you can always splurge in a fancy French restaurant.
- Allocate a budget for unknown expenses. You’re moving to a country you don’t fully know, and unexpected costs can arise.
- Remember that your rent might not remain the same forever. Landlords can increase the rent. Factor this in from the outset to ensure it fits your budget in subsequent years.
Mistake #7: Failing to Integrate
You’re now the foreigner. Out of all the countries in the world, you chose France as your new home. Remember that the next time you stumble upon something here that you don’t like. When you hear the French criticising France, resist the urge to join in. Only the French are allowed to criticise France. This doesn’t mean you have to adore everything; far from it. But you must be cautious about how you express your opinions.
Show your new neighbours that you want to integrate, that you’re here to stay. Don’t limit yourself to the English-speaking community. Attending English gatherings is undoubtedly pleasant and an easy way to make friends initially, but it shouldn’t be your only point of contact.
Beware of making comparisons. If you want to make friends, refrain from drawing parallels between France and UK/US/… in conversations with locals. You’ll often hear from the French that the American economy, education system, healthcare, etc., are far superior to the French equivalents. Don’t make the mistake of agreeing and possibly reinforcing this with examples. Don’t rub salt in the wound. A better response would be something along the lines of, „True, but not everything is perfect in the US either.“
- Join a local club or association. Every town has an annual ‚associations‘ day, where you can get to know all the local clubs at once, engage in conversations, and see what you might enjoy.
- Invite your neighbours over for an ‚apéro‘ and show them you’re keen to build a relationship. Ask them for recommendations for tradespeople, garages, doctors, etc.
- Register to vote and participate in elections to have a say in local politics.
- Listen! When you’re with your new friends, pay close attention. There’s so much to learn about French politics, history, culture, and more. You’ll be amazed. But don’t assume your neighbours are equally interested in your home country. Why should they be?
Mistake #8: Applying “Your” Quality Standards
It’s best to leave behind the standards from your homeland, especially when it comes to construction and craftsmanship. Otherwise, you might find yourself constantly frustrated. Embrace a high degree of patience and acceptance; you’ll certainly need it. Learn to see things as they are and make the best of them.
Someone once explained to me that in France, anyone can call themselves a „plombier“ (plumber) without any formal qualification. So, anyone who believes they can tinker with water pipes can set up a business doing so. Finding a truly skilled professional can be a real challenge. The only way to ensure you get quality work is to familiarise yourself thoroughly with the subject matter so you can give clear instructions and keep a close eye on the work being done.
Here’s an example that has always irked us: Particularly in areas where strong winds like the Mistral or the Tramontane blow, French windows have mandatory ventilation slots built into the frames. Familiar with those? They’re a requirement. No way around it. You could order double or triple-glazed, top-quality, new windows with the best insulation ratings, and they’ll still carve those slots into the frame.
Of course, we’d never opt for that. But that’s how it is. You might think about ordering windows from abroad and even find someone to install them. BUT… even if you own the house and are sure you’ll never move, remember that if you ever need to sell, you might only attract fellow foreigners. And only those who aren’t concerned about resale value. For everyone else, it’s a defect. The property wouldn’t be rentable, and they’d have to modify all the windows to comply with regulations. So, it’s better to live with it. Buy some thick foam rolls from a DIY store and plug those slots. When you move out, just remove them.
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- If you’re looking to buy, build, or renovate a property, familiarise yourself with French regulations before making any changes. Think about resale value. When the time comes, you’ll need to get „Diagnostics Techniques“ done, and the inspector will scrutinise everything.
- Become an expert in the field so you can supervise craftsmen closely. Stay involved and don’t leave them to work unsupervised.
- Patience, patience, patience! Make the best of what you can’t or shouldn’t change. Getting upset will only shorten your time in this earthly paradise you’ve chosen for yourself.
- Forget about punctuality. In my many years in southern France, I’ve only ever met one punctual craftsman. With the rest, you’re lucky if they show up at some point on the agreed day. Just relax!
Mistake #9: Moving to France without knowing French
Sure, it’s possible. Even in France, there’s a growing realisation that English might be a useful addition to French. Many professionals need English for their jobs. And as mentioned earlier, you might have gotten the impression from holidays that you can manage well with English. But remember, those in the tourism industry or whose jobs depend on tourists know they need to speak English. Unsatisfied tourists don’t return. The receptionist at the campsite or hotel speaks fluent English, the tourist office staff might even know a bit of German, and while the waiters might only speak French, that’s part of the charm, right?
From personal experience, I can tell you: Arriving in France with little to no French knowledge is no joke. I’ve tried it. It wasn’t great.
And think about it: Do you really want to bring an interpreter for every visit to the authorities, every doctor’s appointment, etc.? Even if you have a close friend who speaks both German and French, they won’t always be available. At some point, you should stand on your own two feet. The sooner, the better!
- Learn as much French as possible before emigrating!
- Whether you believe you can learn French or not is solely a matter of personal belief. Everyone can do it, at any age! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (including yourself)!
Mistake #10: Choosing your beloved holiday destination as your new place of residence without scrutiny
I’ve mentioned it before. The requirements we have for a holiday destination differ from those for a place to live. Year after year, you might have enjoyed wonderful holidays in that picturesque town. Naturally, it seems like the perfect place to spend the rest of your life. But is it really? It’s crucial to test whether the location is suitable for living throughout every season. In some holiday spots, things practically shut down during the winter. You should check this in advance. Ideally, rent a holiday apartment next winter and give it a trial run. And, of course, bring the whole family along.
I shall delve deeper into this topic in a separate article later.
Have you had experiences with emigrating? What mistakes did you make? Let others learn from them and share your insights in the comments below!
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