Your guide to expat life in France

Living in France

The quality of life in France is exceptional, with a highly developed infrastructure, excellent schools and one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

In our 2016 Expat Explorer Survey, France was ranked 36th out of 45 countries for expat economics. But it’s the lifestyle rather than high salaries that draws many people and France came 5th overall for its good work-life balance. Locals place great emphasis on ‘joie de vivre’ and French cuisine is renowned across the globe. The country is also famous for its fine wines – and its sun-drenched resorts along the Côte D’Azur are a magnet for the world’s glitterati.

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Accommodation

Housing options range from city apartments to countryside chateaux. It’s not easy to find a place before you arrive because landlords prefer to meet tenants first.

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Types of accommodation

By far the most common type of accommodation in French cities are apartments. In rural areas, cottages are usually up for sale rather than being available to rent. Although full of character, city apartments tend to be old and small with poor insulation. In an unfurnished rental property, the kitchen may be bare, with no appliances or white goods.

Renting property

To secure a rental property in France, you’ll need proof of income – and your monthly salary should be at least three times the rent. While deposits for unfurnished properties are usually no more than a month’s rent, you may be asked for a much bigger deposit to secure a furnished place. If you live in an apartment building, utilities will be included in your rent, but you’ll have to get home insurance and pay an annual French occupier’s tax.

Buying property

Purchase costs are high, the process is highly regulated and many properties are sold through word of mouth before they make the listings. Despite this, there are many expat homeowners in France, particularly in the countryside.

Culture changes

The French cherish their history and culture. They’re also fiercely proud of their language and any effort you make to speak it will be appreciated. Manners and etiquette are highly valued and it’s important to follow French codes of conduct in social and business circles.

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Privacy

The French tend to be discreet and they don’t like overt displays of emotion. They’re also forthright and their honesty can sometimes be misconstrued as rudeness.

Greetings

‘Bisous’, the French tradition of kissing both cheeks, is reserved for people who know each other. Wait for a local to initiate this intimate greeting.

Etiquette

If you’re invited to a French home, you’ll probably be expected to arrive fashionably late. (This isn’t the case for business appointments where punctuality is important.) It’s customary to send flowers a few hours before you arrive or to take a thoughtful gift such as beautifully wrapped chocolates or a book.

Food

The French enjoy and celebrate their wonderful cuisine. They don’t like fussy eaters – and leaving food on your plate is frowned upon.

Shopping hours

Most shops are closed on a Sunday because it’s seen as a day for unwinding and spending time with family. Some shops, especially in the countryside, may also close for a few hours at lunchtime on weekdays.

Education

Education in France is of a high standard. French teachers consider schooling their domain – and parents are expected to keep a respectful distance. The academic year runs from September to July with the main holidays in July/August and February/March. Primary school children only attend school for half a day on Wednesdays.

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Public schools

Public schools in France are free for all residents. They’re catchment based and most follow the national curriculum. Sending your children to a public school is a good option if you want them to learn French and make local friends.

Private schools

Private schools are either state or privately funded. State-funded schools have much lower fees and a better reputation, but they follow the national curriculum more closely. Many private schools are Catholic and religious education is an integral part of the curriculum.

International schools

France has good international schools – most are in cities like Paris, Nice and Lyon. The majority follow the American, British or German curriculum or the International Baccalaureate. Waiting lists can be very long and fees are high.

Keep a clock near you showing your native time so you'll know what loved ones are up to- but not your watch, phone or computer. You're living somewhere new now. This is the time you're living.

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Keeping in touch

Mobile

There are four main mobile telecommunications providers in France – Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom and Free Mobile. Contracts can have hidden costs, such as penalties if you want to change providers.

Landlines

Most expats get a landline through Orange, although there are other providers. To have a line installed, you’ll need to provide ID and proof of address. You’ll pay an installation fee (abonnement) at the start of the contract. Line rental and call charges are billed every two months.

Internet

The level of Internet use in France is among the highest in Europe. The main providers are Orange, Free, Alice and Bouygues Telecom. In some areas you’ll need a Orange landline to access the Internet.

English media

Some of the most widely read English-language newspapers and magazines are The International Herald Tribune, The Connexion, Expatriates Magazine and Paris Voice.

Television

There are a few free public TV stations in France. English-language channels are available on subscription, along with many satellite and cable channels. There’s also digital television called TNT – it’s free but you’ll need to buy a set-top box and viewing card. 

Postal service

With post offices in most urban neighbourhoods and rural villages, state-run La Poste is efficient, usually delivering mail the next day. La Poste also offers a range of banking services.

Healthcare

With a good choice of public and private hospitals and clinics, the French healthcare system is among the best in the world. The country is a global leader in medical research and has a high doctor to patient ratio.

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Public healthcare

There are many excellent public healthcare facilities across France and waiting lists are short. Government funding and salary contributions cover up to 70% of medical costs – most expats take out insurance to cover the difference. The government provides free treatment for people who are seriously or terminally ill.

Private healthcare

Private hospitals and clinics tend to specialise to a greater degree than public hospitals. The French government is active in negotiating reasonable fees in the private sector.

Pharmacies

With a large illuminated red or green cross outside, French pharmacies are easy to spot – and many stay open late in the main cities. Because over-the-counter medications can only be sold in pharmacies, it’s unlikely you’ll find even basic painkillers or cold remedies in a supermarket.

Emergency services

Most serious medical emergencies are handled by SAMU (Service d'Aide Médicale d'Urgente), a public organisation that provides ambulance services as well as other specialist help. Not all call operators speak English – so it’s worth learning how to describe various emergency situations in French.

Getting around

Public transport in France is excellent. An extensive railway network spans the country and most cities have tramlines that make commuting easy. The best way to get around Paris is to use its metro system.

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Railway

France’s high-speed trains (TGV) are among the fastest in the world. As well as connecting all the main cities in the country, the TGV network extends to Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Spain The France Rail Pass lets passengers hop on and off the TGV and other intercity and local trains.

Eurostar

The Eurostar links France and England via a tunnel under the English Channel. Its high-speed trains run frequently and are able to transport cars, buses and passengers.

Buses

Buses in France are less expensive than trains, but they’re slower and not as comfortable. Intercity bus routes are limited and there isn’t a long-distance bus network – so driving or taking the train are the best ways to travel between cities. Bus services are more frequent in rural areas where there are fewer train lines.

Driving

With highways crisscrossing the country, driving in France is a pleasure, although parking in cities is limited and expensive. Motorway tolls are high, but you can avoid them by taking detours along more scenic roads. If you’re from the EU, you can use your driving licence from home. Expats from outside the EU must have an international licence and convert to a French licence within six months of arriving in the country.

Air travel

The national airline, Air France, has flights to many domestic and international destinations. The country’s two main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, are both in Paris.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in August 2016. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.