Let’s talk about one of the practicalities of moving abroad — getting your visas!

I know this can be a confusing term because the first thing most Americans think of when they hear the word ‘visa’ is their credit card. But when referring to moving abroad — or even traveling abroad — a visa means official permission to enter and stay in another country.

There are lots of countries where Americans can travel without having to do any particular visa paperwork. For example, you can show up at the Mexican or Canadian borders and you just need a passport, and you can show up in most European countries and you just need a passport. America has an agreement with certain countries that allow American citizens a sort-of automatic visa for short visits or basic travel.

But if you want to stay in another country for a longer time period — say, six months — you’ll need to apply for a specific visa to allow you to stay. And if you want to work locally, or be a student, or be an au pair, you’ll need specific visas to do all of those things too.

Visas require a ton of paperwork, and I don’t know of any quick fixes or short cuts. So if you think you need a visa, start researching right away and try to get a handle on what the process is like. There’s no easy way out. But if it makes you feel any better, getting a visa to visit America or move to America, is as hard or harder than any other country. So try not to feel sorry for yourself, and instead, take the opportunity to feel compassion for immigrants all over the world — especially those being forced out of their country or origin, and who still have to deal with all the paperwork and red-tape, even in extreme, life-threatening situations.

As for France, Americans can visit for up to three months, on an automatic-visitor visa. We knew we wanted to come for at least a year, so we knew we’d need a different visa. The best fit in our case is called a Long-stay Visa, and it allows you to live in France for up to a year. If you want to stay longer, you can apply to renew it.

Applying for a visa is risky. It takes a huge amount of time, and it’s expensive too. You have to pay application fees and shipping fees. And you have to sign a rental agreement and buy your plane tickets in advance — even though your visa might get rejected! You may also need to travel to another city in America that has a French embassy, and that’s just to apply — again, before you know if you’re approved. So if you’re not approved, it’s going to feel like a big waste of resources.

When we lived in Denver and were applying for long-stay visas, our assigned embassy was in Los Angeles, and we had to travel there to apply. But this time, our assigned embassy was in San Francisco, which was much easier for us to get to, and required no travel.

I can only speak to French visas, but timing is very particular. They want you to apply within 6 weeks of travel, but no later than 3 weeks of travel. And sometimes, the appointments are fully booked several weeks in advance. So your first step is deciding when you want to move, then booking an appointment for the specific application window, but booking it well in advance when there are still appointments available in the required window of time. (I hope that makes sense!)

In our case, we had a really hard time with the booking system. Since the last time we applied, France has outsourced the visa application process to an independent company, and their booking system was very different than what we’d encountered before. We needed to book six appointments for six people, and tried to do so in plenty of time, but each attempt was rejected. We were trying to book them in a block so we could attend the appointments at same time, but every time we tried, the system would boot us out.

It was super frustrating, and days were flying by, and we knew that appointments were filling up in our required window. We made phone calls and tried to figure out a fix and couldn’t get any answers. Eventually, we tried booking just two appointments at a time — on the same day, but not at the same time — and that worked! But. By the time we figured this out, the soonest appointment available was 15 days from our travel — and we were supposed to have at least 21 days between the appointment and the travel.

The embassy wants a full three weeks to process the visa application. And when you apply, you give them your passports and they keep them. If you’re approved, they’ll put the visa (it’s like a fancy sticker/label) into your passport and mail it back to you via 2-day or overnight Fedex. If your visa is not approved, your passport will simply be sent back, again via Fedex.

We were of course very nervous we wouldn’t receive our passports back in time. And remember, we had to purchase plane tickets in order to apply. Which means, we wouldn’t be able to fly out, because we wouldn’t have our passports. I’m telling you, the timing is tricky even when everything is happening as smoothly as possible.

Once you have your visa application appointment scheduled, you’ll need to gather all the required paperwork. It’s a lot. You’ll need originals and photocopies in triplicate. For each person applying. No exaggeration. No exceptions. If in doubt, make extra copies. And then a few extra again.

Start with an accordion folder, and label each section with the different types of paperwork:
-Birth certificates and marriage certificate (originals plus copies).
-Passports (originals plus copies).
-ID photos — these are like passport photos, but have to be a specific size for the French visa applications, and you’ll need multiple.
-Bank statements from the last three months (and copies).
-Proof of income — this might be paycheck stubs or current contracts (and copies).
-Proof of health insurance (and copies).
-Proof of school registration for the kids (and copies).
-Proof of a place to stay — typically a rental contract (and copies).
-Plane tickets (and copies).
-A letter explaining you won’t try to take a French job, translated into French (and copies).
-A separate visa application for each person (you can find the form on the French embassy website — yes, you’ll need copies).
-And maybe a few other things… I’m trying to remember.

If you just read that list, you may have noticed a few things:
You need to sign a rental contract before you apply for a visa. You need to register the kids for school in France before you apply for a visa. You need to buy your plane tickets before your apply for a visa.

That’s what I mean by risky. You have to make decisions on travel dates and buy your plane tickets. You have to decide on a school, contact them, register the kids, and get a confirmation of registration back. You have to find a place to live and sign your rental contract, and pay your first months rent and deposit. And you have to do all of this without knowing if your visa will be approved!

Let’s talk a bit about working in another country. You may have noticed I mentioned a letter promising not to take a French job. This will depend on your situation. If you work for a company that is transferring you to France, your visa process will likely be totally different than ours. The company will probably have a department that helps with things like work visas and shipping all your stuff overseas.

But what if you don’t have a company moving you?

Then frankly, you might not be able to move to France. So much of it comes down to how you earn money. Before they grant you a long-stay visa, the French government wants to make sure you’re not trying to take a French job.

In our case, we both work online, so we can work from anywhere in the world, and our income sources stay the same. Which means, as part of our visa application, we just had to explain what our work is, prove that it would continue, and promise not to look for French jobs. If you have a U.S.-based job, are paid in U.S. dollars, and can work remotely (similar to our jobs), then getting approved for a visa should probably work out for you.

Beyond demonstrating how you earn money, you will also need to show bank statements that demonstrate you have some savings. The idea is: if something horrible happens, you have enough to bail yourself out, and get yourself back to the U.S. — and won’t be coming to the French government for help.

Along those lines, you’ll also need to show that you have health insurance. It could be insurance provided through work, or it could be insurance you pay for yourself. (I’ll write a separate post about how we handle insurance while in France.)

A couple things that were different for us this time around: 1) Because we own a house in France, we didn’t need to show a rental contract. We could just show that we owned a property. That was nice. To be clear, we weren’t planning to live there because it’s currently way too rustic. So we booked an Airbnb until we could find a rental. But having that permanent French address meant we didn’t have to find the rental before we moved. Which is what we had to do last time, when we rented La Cressonniere.

And 2), because the French visa application is now outsourced, they couldn’t process our family’s passports as a group. So each one had a completely separate application with completely separate paperwork. And we had to pay for six separate FedEx labels instead of one. That’s a significant extra expense we weren’t anticipating. (Last time, our passports were all sent back to us in one package.) So just something to be aware of. Oh! And if you’re local, you don’t have to have them shipped at all. You can just pick them up once they’re processed. But shipping is faster — and we were already worried about timing.

The last thing I want to talk about is the actual appointment in San Francisco. This time around it wasn’t at the French embassy. It was at some basic office space of the company who the visa applications are outsourced to. You couldn’t even enter the space until you showed printed copies of your appointment reservation, and your passport.

The people processing the visa applications did not speak French and couldn’t answer questions about how long things would take or if there was a way to speed things up. They had their process and knew information about that specific process, but couldn’t really talk about exceptions to that process.

They were very patient and professional, but also a bit detached from the process — compared to the actual French citizens we’d worked with at the embassy for previous applications. They were a bit overwhelmed that their were six of us (should I have told them that last time we applied we were eight?).

At the appointment, we went through each of the six applications, and stacked all the paperwork in a specific order for each one, double checking nothing was missing, and having each person sign their application. If you are missing a copy of something or other, they will make copies for you, and charge you. If you don’t have the correct size ID photos, they can take them for you, and they’ll charge you. So come prepared, and if you aren’t quite prepared, get ready to pay some extra fees.

Once all six applications were in order, we paid the application and shipping fees (if I remember, it ended up being about $130 per person). And lastly, they took our biometric data — fingerprints and digital ID photos.

Then we went home and tried not to worry that our passports wouldn’t make it back to us in time for our flight. And hooray! The passports — with approved visas inside — literally arrived the day before we flew out! I snapped that photo above after we’d opened the six different packages. It was such a relief! By that time our household goods had been shipped to France, so we had moved out were staying in a hotel for a couple of days before we flew out. Fedex gave us a four hour window for the delivery that day, and Ben Blair had gone back to the house and just sat there in our car for a few hours so that he didn’t miss it. Hah!

Okay. I think that’s it for visas. I know it’s a lot of information. If I missed something, or I wasn’t clear, feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I would definitely say applying for visas is the hardest part of moving to France, but that’s largely because you can’t apply until you’ve completed several other huge tasks — like getting passports, finding a rental house or apartment, registering the kids for school, buying plane tickets, etc..

But if you really want to move abroad, and your work allows you to do so, don’t let the visa process intimidate you. All those big tasks have to get done one way or another, and the visa appointment gives you a helpful due date so that you’re basically forced to complete those tasks.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever moved abroad? On your own or through a company? What was the visa process like for you? Does any of this sound familiar? Or do you read this and think: not worth it!?

P.S. — On visas, there are lots of countries where Americans need to arrange for a visa before they go, even for short visits. So if you are making travel plans, be sure to do a quick search: “do I need a visa to travel to X”.