A Troubleshooting Guide to Landing in France

With a whole new culture and lifestyle to discover, going to live in a different country is usually an exciting experience. But administrative issues can spoil the fun if not sorted out in time, and finding one’s way around a new system, often in a foreign language, may sometimes have a Kafkaesque feel. With these struggles in mind, France and Europe have put in place many sources of help for France 's scientific visitors. One of these is the Alfred Kastler Foundation (FnAK) , which was created by the French Academy of Sciences in 1993 and partly funded by the French government. The remit of the foundation is to offer free services to foreign scientists to help them with practical issues related to their move to France . Seeking help for scientists planning to visit and work in France , we spoke to Antony Mauvais, director of the Alfred Kastler Foundation.

Q: I am a European/non-European citizen. What are the visa, residence, and working permit requirements?

A: European nationals from the 15 "old" member states--and also nationals of Cyprus and Malta--benefit from the free-movement regulation within the European Union. No visa or resident permit is required. Nationals of the new E.U. states--Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Slovenia--will benefit from this regulation within 5 years.

Anyone from outside Europe, however, will need two documents to come and work in France. The first is a visa issued by a French consulate abroad, and the other is a residence permit issued by French prefectures in France.

The Kastler Foundation strongly recommends that scientists obtain a "scientist" visa, as it has profoundly eased administrative formalities since it was created in 1998. The scientist visa may be obtained from French consulates with only 2 weeks’ (rather than the usual 2 to 3 months’) wait. All scientists need is a so-called protocole d’accueil ("agreement for temporary stay"), which can be issued by any French university, research organisation, or research team.

Then, once researchers have arrived in France, if they intend to stay for more than 3 months they need to go to the prefecture to get a residence permit. Because they have a scientist visa and a protocole d´accueil, they will be given a "scientist" residence permit, which has the advantage of also acting as a work permit. Another advantage of the scientist visa is that the holder's spouse will automatically get a work permit with the scientist's residence permit. If researchers need to extend their stay, residence permits are automatically renewed; scientists merely need to produce a new protocole d’accueil.

Under the current system, non-European students--including graduate students--ought to obtain a "student" visa and a "student" resident permit. To do this, they must prove that they are registered at a French university and have enough money to cover their stay in France. But from 2007, Ph.D. students with a signed work contract (such as an allocation de recherche or a CIFRE convention from the French government)--and researchers entering the private sector--will become eligible for the scientist visa, thanks to a new European directive. The broader aim of the directive is to make other European countries adopt a system similar to the French scientist visa because it is faster and easier, and it also provides a work permit, which foreigners would otherwise have to obtain separately, when necessary.

Q: How do I get health insurance?

A: Whether French or foreign--European or from outside Europe--the health expenses of researchers receiving a salary (including Ph.D. students on an allocation de recherche or a CIFRE convention) are automatically covered by French social security. Eight days before the beginning of a contract, employers must inform the French authorities, and once they have received their first salary, researchers need to get in touch with the social security authorities to assert their rights and benefits from the system. Researchers will be reimbursed for health expenses from the first day of their contract.

French social security, which is financed by contributions from employers and employees, provides a very good cover for most medical expenses, although some of them, such as dental prosthesis or eyeglasses, are not well reimbursed. It is thus recommended to register for a complementary insurance policy with aprivate insurance company, for an often modest additional fee.

The situation is different for nonstudent researchers who do not get a salary--those on a fellowship, for instance. These scientists are not automatically covered and need to organise insurance themselves, either within the social security system or with a private insurance company. The advantage of joining a private company rather than the social security system is that it is less expensive and quicker to reimburse expenses. Private insurers, however, will ask potential clients to fill in a health questionnaire.

Young researchers who choose a private insurance plan should shop around and also ask their host organisation if they have arrangements with a private company. For those working at organisations that don't have such arrangements, the Kastler Foundation has negotiated a special offer for foreign researchers coming to France on fellowships. This sound private insurance plan includes benefits equivalent to both the social security and a complementary private insurance plan. Scientists can apply online, even before their arrival.

Students are covered by student health insurance provided by the social security system. On their registration day at university, they need to subscribe to a private insurance company specialising in dealing with students ( mutuelle étudiante), which will manage their contributions to the social security system and provide whatever additional coverage they choose. Ph.D. students who are already covered through their work contract may choose whether to get their health coverage as an employee or as a student, whichever works out in their favour.

Q: Should I contribute to a retirement pension fund?

A: Part of the benefits offered by the national social security is the possibility of contributing to a pension scheme that will then provide for retirement. Pension provisions are proportional to contributions, years in employment, and salary level.

Here too, salaried employees can enjoy the same benefits as native scientists, but to enjoy these benefits, after they retire they must notify the pension fund to which they contributed. Europeans can transfer their accumulated pension rights as they go from one European country to another. But for non-Europeans, contributing to a pension fund is of interest mostly to those who expect to work long-term in France, or then (perhaps) to retire there. Although anyone who contributed can notify their French pension fund and collect benefits, however small, the decision whether to contribute will come down to the willingness to do the paperwork.

Finally, although affiliation with the social security system gives some provision for retirement, most experts recommend both Europeans and interested non-Europeans to contribute to a private company as well to boost retirement income. Researchers who do not plan to get any salary in France should consider contributing voluntarily to a private pension fund, the Plan D’Epargne Retraite Populaire .

Q: Should I pay my taxes in France ?

A: Although it is being discussed, there is no such thing as taxation at source in France yet, so taxes are to be paid by every employee. Employees should go to the nearest centre des Impôts (tax centre) to ask for an income tax form. This form has to be filled in and sent back before the end of May. For the amount to be paid, you need to look at the " revenu net imposable" on your last pay slip and report this amount on the form. Postdocs on fellowships also must pay; only students with a grant rather than a salary do not have to pay income tax, under certain social conditions.

But declaring your income in France does not necessarily mean that you will pay your income tax here. France has signed fiscal conventions with many countries. Some of them contain specific clauses for scientists invited to universities or public institutions. If you receive a salary and don't pay taxes in France, however, you will certainly have to pay them in your own country!

Q: Where do I look for a job or research funding in France ?

A: Look on the World Wide Web, as both France and the E.U. have recently launched dedicated information portals. Scientific Employment in France is the right place to look for researchers in all fields aiming to work in France within the public sector. It also gives a good overview of the French research system. Then there is the Portal France Contact, which provides thorough and practical information on funding your stay and research in France. Finally, there is EraCareers, a single entry point for European researchers wishing to work in another country, as well as for European organisations wishing to recruit the most talented European and non-European researchers. Three main types of information are available on EraCareers: fellowships and grants, research job opportunities, and practical information on making the move. Like the Kastler Foundation, both the Portal France Contact and the French EraCareers pages strive to facilitate scientific mobility toward France.

Q: Can my family get support?

A: Europe has a network of Mobility Centres, called ERA-MORE, which are designed to help young researchers jump from one European country to another or to come to Europe from overseas. Any mobility centre--there are 23 of them in France--will provide foreign researchers with customised assistance that may involve family financial support from the Caisse d´Allocation Familiale , day care, schooling, language courses, and social and cultural aspects of living in France.

Another very important issue that foreign researchers often have to deal with is schooling. Parents of school-age children must decide whether to choose an international school or enrol their children in a local public school. Often what tips the balance in favour of one or the other is how well the child is mastering the French language, although the cost must also be considered. The French public school system is quite good, but it requires children to have sufficient knowledge in French. If they don’t, some public schools, depending on the headmaster, may offer them special classes in which they can progressively adapt to their new educational environment and to the language. Of course within an international school, language will not be an issue, but in many locations international schools might prove difficult to find. Although the French school system has to take on newcomers, an international school doesn’t have this obligation and may choose not to accommodate schooling needs after the beginning of the new term.

Q: How can I find a place to stay?

A: Because the Mobility Centres are working in the field, in close co-operation with the universities and research bodies in the region, they have direct access to local expertise and reliable information. Any foreign researcher planning a move to France should register with their local mobility centre to get help with their accommodations, although finding them can prove to be quite difficult. In most cases, one has to pay a 1 or 2 month deposit beforehand, which can be recovered at the end of the stay. This may take a couple of months, however, so if you are back in your country then, make sure to keep your bank account open in France until you have recovered the deposit. Students and those with modest income may benefit from a special housing allocation from the Caisse d´Allocation Familiale .

More broadly, for all the issues mentioned above--visas, work permits, salaries and taxation, social security, pension rights and healthcare, housing--and even recognition of foreign qualifications and intellectual property rights, ERA-MORE can help. So in order to benefit from these services in France, we strongly advise researchers to register online for the (free) Guest Researcher Card, which can be found on the FnAK Web site. The card allows newcomers to benefit from the assistance of the nearest mobility centre, as well as from the Kastler Foundation, with up-to-date and reliable information on how to prepare for and complete their move to France under the best possible conditions.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe .

Antony Mauvais is director of the French Alfred Kastler Foundation.

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