Our Blog - Getting our first Carte de Sejour
At long last, our Carte de Séjour blog. A carte de séjour is a French residence permit and is required by visitors who wish to reside for more than 12 months. The first 12 months is covered by the 1-year visa that you get before you leave the US. So, let’s start back at the beginning ….
The first step was a visa. Since we wanted to stay more than 90 days, we had to get a visa. We had to apply for a long-stay visa (which would allow us to stay for up to 1 year) at the French Consulate, which in our case was in Houston. We did lots of research to ensure we had everything we would need and then booked our appointment for a Friday. We had done lots of research in advance, reading multiple blogs from different people on their experiences. I must admit, it was a bit scary since in some cases, their experience was basically a trip through hell. Case in point, one blog called “The French Visa Process Is A Nightmare”. Some of the items seemed like chicken-and-egg things … I have to show proof of housing before applying for the visa … so I rent something on the chance that I get a visa? Proof of health insurance with several requirements specific for expats had to be provided, which was not too big of a problem. But the insurance company would only provide us proof of coverage 1 month before the start of the coverage, and we wanted to give ourselves a bit of leeway in case the visa took a bit of time, so we ended up paying for 2 months of extra health insurance coverage. But oh well, it is only money, right? After multiple months of preparing, gathering documentation, stressing (and more stressing), we were ready. We drove down that morning (no issues), had the appointment (no issues), submitted our application (no issues) and then spent the weekend in Galveston before heading back to Austin. Within a week, we had our passports back with the Visa’s properly stamped in them. Well … that was anti-climactic!
Next step, OFII (French Office of Immigration and Integration). After arriving in France, we filled in the residence form that was provided and stamped by the Consulate in Houston and sent it to the OFII office. We were told we would then be notified by mail of our appointment for an interview and medical exam. Well, we had some problems with our mail and ended up talking to the OFII office multiple times on the phone. Then I had a French friend of mine call … always coming back to the same thing “you don’t have to do anything with the OFII office with your visa”. That’s odd, the Consulate had told us we needed to, along with every website and blog on the planet. So, we made a trip to the OFII office directly (computer in hand with the website already loaded) … same response … with your visa, you don’t have to do anything. Okay, so we didn’t know what else to do so we just accepted that.
Fast-forward up to November, when we have decided to start looking at what we need to do for our Carte de Séjour, so that we can remain in France past April. Going through the required documents, we are missing the medical certificate from the OFII office. Hmmm, well, OFII said we didn’t need to do anything, but the application requires you to have the certificate. We head over to the Prefecture to ask a few questions. Mind you … you can only ask questions on Mondays so we had to wait until the following week. Then you arrive and take a number, waiting for anywhere between an hour and 3 hours for your number to come to the top. We finally get to the window and after 2 minutes, the nice lady says (in French) that we have “the wrong visa”. What??? The “wrong visa”??? Huh??? A couple minutes later and the outcome was … talk to the Consulate …. Go back to the US, get the right visa. Ut Uh!
Back home, we sent an email to the French Consulate in Houston, explaining our situation and what the Prefecture had told us. As we waited for a response, we went through various options for going back to the US ... do we change our April trip home to visit family earlier? Do we make two trips? Will they "fix" it in a single day, or will we have to spend anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks in the US waiting for another visa to be processed? Here I must give kudos to the French Consulate … they were really good in helping us resolve the issue, and were very responsive. The following day, we received a response with a letter from them, explaining that they had, in fact, given us the “wrong visa” and what type we should have gotten. They told us to try to see if the Prefecture would accept the letter, and if not, we would have to return to the US to fix things. The following day we were back at the Prefecture, taking a number, waiting 3 hours (you’ll see this trend throughout the blog). Finally, number called, we headed to the window with the letter. Not sure what the odds were, but we got (by chance) the SAME young lady who we spoke to on Monday, and she remembered us! She took the letter, went in the back, came back with two folders and told us (again in all French) that we would have an appointment with her (personally) the following week to submit our dossier. Oh no, we aren’t ready yet! I asked her about the fact that the website said you can’t request it earlier than 2 months before your visa expiration (no problem, she said), and we don’t have our birth certificates nor marriage license translated to French (no problem, she said), and we never got the medical and have a letter from the OFII saying roughly that (no problem, she said). We spend the next few days getting all of the paperwork together and the following week, we had our appointment and submitted our dossiers (no issues). She said that it takes about 2 months or so, and that they would be done together and we would get a text when they were ready.
Then all of the sudden in December, we each get a letter in the mail from OFII. Seems we need that medical exam after all. Mid-January, we go up for our medical exam, which ends up basically being a chest X-ray. The office was quite efficient, actually, as we were called back for our X-rays within the first 10 minutes. After the X-ray, back to the waiting room for another 10 minutes or so. Then they had us go into another room where we could, if we wanted, participate in a study that they were doing. Seems they were attempting to see if they could streamline the medical part by asking a set of questions and based on those answers, maybe not have to do the exam for as many people. Part of this was taking a small amount of blood to be tested, and we both agreed without any issues. Back to the waiting room for another 10 minutes or so, and we were called into the main office. There, she explained that everything was good, and she gave us our medical certificate. Perfect! Then she had us wait outside for the last part, where we would get our OFII stamp on the visa in our passport. About 15 minutes later, the same person came by and explained that we could go ahead and go, the stamp was not necessary because (well, what we understood based on catching about 75% of the French) we had already submitted our dossier at the Prefecture and they were basically waiting on the medical exam to proceed. By now, the office was closed and locked up tight and so she actually had to show us out, unlocking all of the doors and outside gate for us to leave.
While we in Barcelona at the end of January, Tom gets a text on his phone saying that his Carte de Séjour is ready. We go online, purchase the “stamps” (basically, pay the fee for the carte), and go on a Tuesday morning to the Prefecture. We take a number, wait 3 hours, and finally get called up. He asks us who is it for, and I say me first, but we both are there to get our cards. Nope, 1 per ticket (crap). Okay, well we’ll get mine and then get another number and wait for Tom’s. He looks for it, looks over there, looks over here, over there again, and then after what feels like an hour, he tells me that it isn’t ready. Hmmmm. Then he goes ahead and gets Tom’s (which was there and ready). I asked how much longer mine would take but he didn’t know.
The following week, I show up on Monday (this is the day that the “welcome” desk is open). They are personally handing out numbers and I have to actually argue with them to get a number. They told me to come back Tuesday through Friday when they have the pickups, but I explain no, I was there last week and they didn’t have any information. The sign also says pickups only after notification that it is ready. I think she got annoyed and just gave me a number. A couple hours of waiting and I got to speak to a very nice gentleman who explained that yes, it was done and I could pick it up anytime. Mind you, he also mentioned that Tuesday is probably not the best day since it was always very busy! Okay, so feeling more confident, but not yet fully confident until I have it.
We spent an hour or so on Tuesday afternoon waiting (although they were never going to get to our number) just because we had the hour to waste between two other things. Wednesday morning, we headed back over and, interestingly enough, the line wasn’t all that long. We waited a couple of hours before they got to our number (same guy as last week). He looks for it, looks over there, looks over here, over there again … oh no, not this AGAIN! He then basically asks us to step to the side and be patient.
Perhaps nobody told him that patience is not one of my strengths! Another woman is brought in to help and about 20 minutes later, here she comes by smiling, indicating that she has it! WOO HOO …. Sure enough, finally, after several ups and downs, a bit of stress, and multiple hours waiting at the Prefecture … both of us now have our Carte de Séjour in our hot-little-hands. Official “residents” of France for a year (well, in fact, the date on the card is November when we submitted the dossier, so another 9 months or so). We’ll celebrate for a few months and then start the research on what is required for the first renewal!
At the end of this all, even though we went through some highs and lows, the process wasn't as painful as we had expected. I think the majority of our issues stemmed from getting the "wrong visa" originally in the US, which then caused the confusion with the OFII in the first place and the concern about having to potentially go back to the US to get a new visa. For all the talk of the French bureaucracy, it was actually fairly straight-forward if you take out the wrong visa part. We also learned that you never go attempt to pick up your Carte de Séjour on Tuesday (with the rest of the world) and always take something to read because you most likely spend a couple hours there even on the slower days. With this behind us, we are now ready for the next part ... exchanging our US drivers license for a French license. Fingers crossed.