Everyone has different ideas about what it’s like living in France. For some, it’s the daydream of strolling down the Champs-Elysees, indulging in the cafe culture, and being part of the effortlessly chic Parisian lifestyle.
For others it’s all about the food and drink. They dream of sipping wine in the sunshine surrounded by fields of sunflowers. Spending days touring one of the many vineyards in places like Bordeaux or Cahors. And of course, enjoying a French pastry or two whilst they’re at it.
Whilst for some it’s more about the joys of rural life in the French countryside. Their vision is to renovate a big old French property with lots of land, maybe run a gite and have a menagerie of animals to look after. And living as I do in the Charente in South West France, I know a thing or two about rural life.
Whatever your French dream you need to do your homework if you’re thinking of making the move to France. There are many things to consider and although France is renowned for its rich history, culture and high quality of life, some extensive research is required before opting for the expat lifestyle.
And speaking of expats, France is popular all over the world from the high population of British, Canadian and American Expats, to further afield in Australia and New Zealand.
And let’s not forget those in Europe looking to make the move too. France is a popular place to live for Belgians, Dutch, Italians, Germans and Portuguese, to name but a few.
Table of Contents
The Departments in France
Metropolitan France is made up of 96 departments with a further 5 in French overseas territories. Each of these departments are numbered and these are derived from the first two letters of your postcode. I live in Department 16 and my postcode is 16460.
My department is in what was formerly known as the Charente Region. Back in 2016 the three major administrative regions, Poitou-Charentes, Aquitaine and Limousin were amalgamated to become the Nouvelle Aquitaine.
I adore this area as it is stunningly beautiful with fields filled with sunflowers, rolling hills and village upon village that’s filled with history. It’s like opening the pages of a storybook and taking a trip back in time.
Each village remains untouched by the ravages of time and if you closed your eyes you could almost see the knights riding through on their war horses.
Where do you want to live in France?
Before making the decision to move to France you’ll need to look at your priorities regarding which region you want to live in and why. Ask yourself questions such as how important schools are, access to public transport like airports and train stations, and whether or not having big cities close by is an essential for you.
If you love shopping, art galleries and museums then maybe cities such as Paris, Bordeaux, Lille or Cannes are going to be a good option for you. If it’s a slower pace of life you want then regions such as Provence, Dordogne and Alsace would be perfect.
However, if you’re looking to be by the ocean then you can’t go far wrong with Biarritz and the Basque Coast. Île de Ré, Étretat in Normandy, the Brittany Coast, and my personal favourite, the western Mediterranean coast, from Montpellier to Narbonne, should be on the list too.
You’ll also need to think about practicalities such as work. If you’re looking to get a job when you move to France then possibly a more rural area won’t work for you. You’ll need access to bigger towns for more opportunities.
Alternatively, if you want to start a business as a micro entrepreneur you’ll need to do a feasibility check on the area.
Then there’s your budget. How much do you want to invest in property or rent? This is an important factor and one we discovered when we were house hunting. We were originally looking in the Dordogne region until we discovered the Charente.
It was about 22% cheaper whilst offering a comparable lifestyle and choice of property.
What are you moving to France for?
Are you moving to France to enjoy the weather and outdoors, go on bike rides and enjoy long walks in the gorgeous countryside? Or are you looking for something more vibrant where you have an active social life full of new fun things?
Of course, you can have a combination of all of these things, but they need to be considered when making a location choice. Where we live it’s rural and I’m good with that. But it’s not for everyone.
Sometimes we can go a couple of days without seeing a single soul, especially in winter. We really do live in the middle of nowhere and it can be quite isolating. We can’t just walk into the village to pick up our bread every day as our village doesn’t have a boulangerie. All we have is a church, library, and local school.
Friends of ours live in the lovely village of Verteuil and have a really busy social life. They’re out nearly every day either meeting friends in the local bar, playing in the local ukulele club, (yes that’s a real thing) or doing one of the many quiz evenings the British expats here love.
Verteuil is only a 20 minute drive for us so we can dip in and out when we want. I prefer not to live in a village like that as I value my privacy and peace and quiet. But it is nice to have the option when I want it.
Visas in France - crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s.
Whatever you’re looking to do, whether it’s moving to France permanently or doing an extended trip of some sort, you’ll likely need a visa. These come in all shapes and sizes. They’re usually dependent on your country of residence, length of your stay,, and what you want to do once you get there.
This article published on Expatica is updated regularly and has extensive details on visa requirements – Guide to visas and immigration in France
As you’re probably aware, being an EU citizen or holding dual citizenship allows you to move freely in France and doesn’t require you to have a visa. However, for the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many other countries, that isn’t the case.
The main types of visas are listed below but as mentioned above please check the article mentioned above for up to date information.
- Student Visa – for those studying at university or are enrolled in an approved course
- Talent Passport – this visa is for those who are deemed able to make “significant contribution” to the French economy. There are 11 categories:
- The investor
- Founder of the company in France
- Developers and founders of innovative projects
- Representative of a company established in France
- Qualified employee
- Employee of an innovative enterprise
- Transfer of an employee within an international group of companies
- A foreigner who has received state or international recognition
- Self-employment Visa – this is quite new and is done through the micro enterprise scheme aimed at small businesses and freelancers
- Retiree Visa – aka ‘Visitor’ Long-Stay Visa (visa de long séjour visiteur or VLS-TS Visiteur) – you will need to be able to prove you have accommodation, funds to support yourself and access to healthcare.
- Long Stay Visa – The Carte de Sejour is a French residence permit for those staying in France but there are different groups and types, which is where it can get complicated. We applied for our Carte de Sejour before Brexit and are currently on the maximum ten year version.
The Cost of Living in France
Budget is always a deciding factor in any move and the cost of living certainly has to be taken into account. France, not unlike other countries, has regions that are expensive and regions that aren’t.
Of course, living in a city like Paris, Nice, Marseille, Rennes, Lille or Toulouse is going to be pricey. And the cost of living reflects that.
Interestingly even in the rural areas like the Charente you notice the difference between towns. When I go shopping it’s the same difference for me timewise to go to Ruffec or La Rouchefoucauld. But the quality of fresh vegetables along with the variety differs greatly between the two.
I favour La Rouchefoucaul because I love the drive and I get a better quality of fresh produce. Having said that, the cost is slightly higher there than in Ruffec so it depends on your priorities.
This article on the Cost of living in France compared to the UK dives into the details.
Raising Children in France
I can quite honestly say that France is a wonderful place to bring up kids. Life here, especially in the country, is all about family time. Spending time with your children is prioritised over spending money keeping them amused.
There are so many things you can do that don’t cost anything. Here near us we regularly see families out on picnics on a Sunday. It’s wonderful to see a family sitting at a picnic bench by a river laughing and eating together. There is always wine, bread, cheese and smiles. The simple things in life.
I’ve also found French children to be very polite and well behaved, certainly the ones I’ve met. And they just seem to stay kids for longer here than in other countries.
Schooling in France
The good news is that the school system here is excellent. But it’s also very different from schools in the UK or US, so you need to be prepared for that.
Primary school (école primaire) is mandatory from three years old in France. Life for them begins in ‘école maternelle’, which is like the French equivalent to pre-school. They’ll usually stay there till around six years old.
Unlike other countries those pre-school years are taken quite seriously. The focus is more on listening and learning than laughter and fun. And the days are quite long too. School usually starts around 8.15am and finishes at 5pm. But most schools have a half day on a Wednesday.
Afterschool care in France
I should also mention that before and after school care here is pretty cheap compared to elsewhere. This makes juggling work and other commitments a little easier.
What's French food like in Schools?
The food is also quite different and more often than not sourced locally and will include at least three courses. Just like in adulthood lunch is taken seriously, and is an indulgence the French love.
How does high school and beyond work?
Once reaching high school age at eleven they go into collège where they stay for four years before moving to lycée where they finish the last three years of their education. A great system in France is the Lycée Professionnel where teenagers can learn a profession or trade instead of traditional high school.
And finally, there is the option to take the Baccalauréat in their final year in lycée. This is the equivalent to a high school diploma in the US and the level of A Levels in the UK. However, unlike A Levels this is one exam, a written and aural, not different exams for different subject.
Finding the Right Property in France
When it comes to finding your dream home in France you absolutely MUST do your research. We’ve already talked about areas and regions in France and how to decide where to live. Now I want to talk about finding the right property for the right budget.
One thing I’ve found with French properties is that they often aren’t listed with full descriptions. This means you could be missing out.
When hubby and I were house hunting in the Charente, the house we ended up buying was only added to our list as an afterthought. We were going to be in the area so I thought why not?
Had I known about the three adjoining barns just crying out to be renovated, and the gorgeous roof terrace, none of which were mentioned in the particulars, it would have been top of the list. The point being, I could have missed out on this wonderful place we now call home.
We actually booked an entire day with one real estate agent where he met us and took us around five properties. We left our car and he drove us around the Dordogne to house hunt. It was a wonderful experience and not once did we feel rushed.
There are many great real estate agents to choose from. We ended up using Leggett Immobilier in Mansle who were great. Another option we’ve heard lots of great things about who are more regional and based in the North Charente are Tic Immobilier.
If you’re looking for a nationally based firm with bilingual agents then I’d recommend My French House.
The Climate in France
Now of course, this does depend where you are. In the North of the country in regions like Brittany and Normandy the weather can be very similar to the UK. Too much rain and cold for me. However, move further South and it’s a whole different ball game.
Where I am in the Charente we get on average over 2,100 hours of sunshine each year. Our winters are mild and it’s not unheard of to have a BBQ in January. As you get nearer to the Spanish border those temperatures start to go up again.
French History & Culture
If you’re a history geek like me then you’ll love France. There’s a chateau on every corner and the French love to celebrate their history. We have everything from the Knights Templar setting up a port in La Rochelle to the hundred years war and the French Revolution. Everywhere you look you’re surrounded by history and there’s a story to tell.
But it’s not just about the history. There are 130 museums in Paris alone. And we haven’t even mentioned fashion. Their couture houses are talked about around the world and are globally-renowned. We’re talking names like Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior.
Art also plays a huge part in French life with famous artists like Monet, Renoir, and Matisse all calling France home. In fact, art here is categorised into ten different classifications. There’s even one for comics. Check out The Comic Strip Festival in Angoulême.
The Famous French Cuisine
The fact there are 436 Michelin-star restaurants should say it all. Whilst I’ve not yet managed to bring myself to try escargot I have indulged in oysters, foie gras and frog legs. For me though, hands down it’s the bread, cheese and pastries that have me salivating. I’m yet to eat a bad croissant or pastry in France.
I also love how each region has its own specialities. For example, here in the Charente we have a wine called Pineau made from the same grapes as Cognac. My neighbour Claud, who is also the local farmer, makes his own Pineau and it’s like rocket fuel!
And let’s not forget Cagouilles à la charentaise, the local garden snails, and the Charentais melon often served with Pineau.
Like I said, every region has their own culinary delights unique to them.
French Wine and Wineries
Living within 90 minutes of Bordeaux and 50 minutes from Cognac I’m spoilt for choice when it comes to local wines. One of my favourite wine regions though is definitely Cahors in the Occitanie region. Their reds tend to be dark and rich and are reminiscent of a good Shiraz, which I leant to love when I lived in Australia.
Wine is one of the things that is cheap here in France. It’s interesting though, unlike in a UK supermarket where you find wines from lots of different countries, in France that’s not the case. They stick with their own and it’s French all the way, and who can blame them.
Some of the best regions for wine are Beaujolais, Rhône Valley, Champagne, Burgundy, Loire Valley and of course Bordeaux.
The Fabulous French Lifestyle
There’s no doubt that France has the liveability factor in spades. It’s hit the top ten most desirable countries to live in many times and life here is just that little bit easier.
The pace is slower, even in the big cities like Paris there is a more calm approach to everything. The French don’t do anything fast but they have a wonderful zest for life.
Their joie de vivre is infectious.
Two hour lunches are a tradition that I don’t see them breaking any time soon, especially not in the rural areas. In their opinion food is something to be savoured and enjoyed. You can’t do that if you’re wolfing it down at breakneck speed.
Sundays are a day to relax and enjoy time with your family. You can’t rush off to the shops for retail therapy as they aren’t open. It’s a day of leisure. Where I live you’re not allowed to use lawn mowers or heavy machinery after 9pm, or on a Sunday or public holiday. It’s the law.
Oh and then there are 11 days of national or public holiday, although I’m sure there are more than that. Some months there seems to be so many it’s safer to ask which days aren’t public holidays.
Bridging days - one of my favourite French traditions!
They have a lovely tradition called bridging days. If a public holiday falls on a Thursday or Tuesday, then you get the Friday or Monday off as a bridging day. One thing’s for sure, the French will never die of hard work, and who can blame them, I love it.
The French also love to chat and have real conversations with each other. That’s what shopping counters and aisles were made for. Often you’ll be stuck behind someone in the supermarket who’s having a conversation with whoever is serving them, completely oblivious to the queue forming behind them. They simply don’t care.
It’s not a concern because life here doesn’t happen in a rush, it’s taken at a leisurely pace. It’s one of the many charms of living in France.
The Markets in France
The weekly markets in France are an institution in themselves and such a wonderful thing to enjoy. Seasonal fruit and veg is a way of life here and everything isn’t always available. You get used to eating only the food that is in season and plan your meals accordingly. If it’s not asparagus season then you don’t eat asparagus. It’s that simple.
But as a result the food is wonderfully fresh and tastes like no other I’ve ever had. I love the fact that by doing this we’re supporting the local farmers, which is a big thing here in France.
Supermarket shopping in France
Even in the supermarkets there is usually a local produce basket or two at the end of the aisle. I always try to buy from there if I can and you often get some great shapes and sizes as they aren’t mass produced.
Most villages have at least one weekly market, if not two. You never know what you’re going to get, but usually they’ll be a cheese stall, fish stall and meat stall. Fresh bread can often be found along with some other random finds like hats, wooden dolls and doilies.
Yep I’ve seen all sorts at our local markets. It’s all part of the fun because you never know what you’re going to get.
Tax in France
Along with all the pros of living in France there are of course some cons, but not many. Taxes in France are high with income tax at a huge 45%. Add to that the housing tax, d’habitation and the taxe foncière, plus your social security and it’s pretty hefty.
Luckily though it is reinvested back into the country. Around 30% is spent on social programs, healthcare and pensions alone. So it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, in an OECD study France was found to have one of the highest social spending percentages in the developed world. In a way the benefit almost outweighs the whole thing.
The French Bureaucracy
I think if you ask anyone about the thing they like the least about living in France it would be the French bureaucracy. Admin here is insane. Why fill out one form when you can fill out five is their motto. The more paper used the better.
And everything moves at snail’s pace. Just because you submit things on time doesn’t mean you’ll get them back on time.
When we were applying for our Carte Vitale (our medical card) it took nearly two years for it to come through. And despite having informed them about our change of address twice by letter and once by going into the local office, they still sent our housing taxes to our old address in the UK.
Consequently, we had a huge bill which they took out of our bank account with no warning, which sent us overdrawn. We got charged interest despite it not being our fault and us asking for copies of our bill.
Unfortunately, it’s the French way of life and you have to get used to it. So take a deep breath before attempting any admin and be prepared for it to go wrong.
The Healthcare System in France
This is where France excels itself. The French healthcare system is in a class of its own and is worth any of the bureaucracy I mentioned above. It really is one of the best in the world. Not only is it affordable, but it’s open to everyone no matter what your financial status is.
I never have an issue getting an appointment and the service is excellent. I know quite a few friends of mine who have undergone various operations, and all of them have said it was a seamless experience.
As a patient, we only pay between 0-25% of the cost and with an average appointment costing just €25 you can see how affordable it really is. Although in the UK, we’re used to the National Health System, which is free, in most countries you have to pay.
Learning to Speak French
This is the one thing I wish I’d done before moving here. To really enjoy French life, speaking French is a must. Not only will the French look more favourably on you, but you’ll feel more in control of your life.
There’s nothing worse than going to the DIY store or trying to book an appointment and not being able to ask for help. Google Translate can only do so much and you end up feeling stupid and helpless. Not a great way to feel.
There are so many options now to help you, from conversational French lessons at your local bar or coffee shop to online lessons from experts.
Throwing myself in at the deep end: learning French on the go!
I’ve done both but I’ve found just throwing myself into French life has been the best way to deal with it. Grabbing every opportunity as it comes around and not just mixing with expats is the key. Volunteer to be on the events committee at your local Marie (mayor’s office) and join groups run by French people. Things like choirs, book clubs, theatre groups, craft workshops, even line dancing etc. are great for this.
You can read all about my experience of learning French when living in France >>
Starting a Small Business in France
As wonderful as the thought of living in France is, there are certain practicalities that can’t be ignored, such as earning money. Not every Expat living here is retired and they may well need to earn a living. However, the thought of working a 9-5 job isn’t exactly enticing, especially if you moved here to enjoy the fabulous French lifestyle.
So instead many people who move to France end up starting a business of some sort and become a Micro Entrepreneur, also known as Auto Entrepreneur.
Plus, when you move to a new country there are always things you miss. This in itself could be a business opportunity. I recently wrote about 3 Things I couldn’t Live Without in Rural France. All three are businesses set up by Expats offering a great service.
There are lots of different options and below are some of the most popular ones:
Gites & Chambre d’hôtes.
Lots of people are drawn to the idea of running a gite or B&B from their property. Sometimes the gite comes as part of the existing property as a going concern. Other times they renovate a barn or outbuilding and turn that into a gite. It’s a viable option and I know many people who have done this successfully. But it’s not for the faint of heart as it’s harder work than it sounds.
Trades & Services
There are a lot of expat trade people living in France known as Artisans. This is great news if you’re a fully trained and experienced tradesperson. We know many plumbers, builders, electricians, plasterers, carpenters, roofers etc. who have thriving businesses here. They’re often booked out for months in advance.
If you’re proficient in French then this is a great option. My next door neighbour offers translation services and gets good rates of pay. You’ll find some set up a business around helping others who can’t speak French. They offer services such as document translation or phoning the tax office and other departments to help negotiate the admin and bureaucracy. We used a service like this when we first moved over. The lady we used came to our appointment when we were applying for our Carte de Sejour to help with anything we couldn’t understand or answer.
This is a very popular option and there are quite a few well established companies who you can work with on a franchise basis. We used Les Bons Voisins when we first purchased our property. They held our keys and got the house ready for us each time we came over. It was a Godsend knowing someone was looking after the property when we weren’t there. They have a great franchise program too.
Hair & Beauty
Just like the tradie option, if you’re a trained hairdresser or beautician then there’s no reason why you can’t start your own business in France. We have five or six expat hairdressers within 30 minutes of where we live. Appointments are booked out weeks in advance for the good ones and they’re making a great living. Usually, they are mobile without the overheads of a salon. Or in the case of Nicky, my wonderful hairdresser, she has a purpose built salon in her home. It’s wonderful.
Restaurants & Cafes
This one is one we see a lot. Even though we all want to live the French lifestyle we still like to be reminded of home. So places like tea shops and fish & chip restaurants do very well. As much as I love French cuisine I still love a good Sunday roast I haven’t had to cook myself. So there are lots of options to start your own business in the hospitality space.
Retreats & Workshops
This type of thing is really popular. Everyone wants an excuse to travel to France and a retreat is the perfect excuse. From painting, cooking, yoga, writing, jewellery making, millinery and more there are plenty of options. If you have good organisational skills then putting together a retreat is a fun business to run that allows you to use those skills. If you can find the audience they will come, it’s France afterall.
Weddings & Events
As a wedding planner in a former life I can tell you the wedding industry is alive and well in France. I know many photographers, planners, cake makers, caterers, celebrants, florists and make-up artists all working weddings over here. The call for a fairytale chateau wedding hasn’t waned. A great website to get you started is French Wedding Style.
Real Estate Agent
The people who showed us our house were British Expats and they started working with Leggetts Immobilier as independent sales agents. It’s a popular model and one that certainly helps you learn the ropes and get started. There is no shortage of people wanting to buy property in France. One of my husband’s friends works as a real estate agent at Beaux Villages in Verteuil and told us they have more clients than properties right now.
Pool and Garden Maintenance
Gardens in France can easily run wild and as properties are often large people always need help with their gardens. From gites to domestic homes there are always gardens in need of some TLC. If you enjoy working outside it’s the perfect job. And it’s the same with pools. Although the thought of a pool is very appealing they take quite a bit of upkeep. All the pool and garden men we know are extremely busy and often fully booked.
LGBTQ+ Rights in France
France is considered to be one of the more progressive countries in Europe when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. According to the Rainbow Europe Index, which measures the legal and political rights of LGBTQ+ people in Europe, France ranked 7th out of 49 countries in 2022. This ranking is based on factors such as legal recognition of same-sex relationships, protection against discrimination, and access to healthcare and other services.
Same-sex marriage became legal in France on May 18, 2013, after the country’s National Assembly voted in favor of it on April 23, 2013, way before either the UK or US followed suit. Prior to this, France recognized same-sex civil unions, known as “PACS” (Pacte civil de solidarité), which were introduced in 1999.
Making the Move to France and Finding a Community
As humans we all crave social interaction and if Covid showed us anything it’s that being locked away on our own isn’t’ healthy. So it stands to reason that when you move to France you need to find your own tribe or community.
Loneliness can set in quickly if you don’t get out there and mix. Especially if you live in a more rural area. And besides, the whole point of living in France is to enjoy the wonderful lifestyle here.
For me, when I moved, I started off by joining a local book club. I’m an avid reader so it was an easy one for me. But there are lots of things like this that you can join from choirs to theatrical groups.
You can start off by looking online as there are lots of Facebook Groups you can join that will help too. Some are regional and some are national. In general they’re really helpful and make you feel like you’ve got a community you can turn to.
Some of the ones I belong to include:
- Living in France
- LIFT – Ladies in France Together
- Expat Life in France
- Expats Living in France
- Expat Women in France
- Charente Expats
- Travel in the Southwest of France
If you’re in business then you might find a networking group for your region. We have a great group that I belong to called Network Nouvelle Aquitaine. There are monthly meet ups where we have a speaker, get to meet other business owners, and of course indulge in the obligatory coffee and cake.
Community is here if you look for it and want it and lots of it too. There is always something to do here in France and there’s always something happening.
Make sure you don’t limit yourself to just Expat stuff either.
The line dancing group I joined is completely French. It’s run by the local French community and although there are a couple of English people who attend, it’s mainly French. From that has stemmed some great friendships. So much so, I was invited to the Bastille Day celebrations at the home of one of the members.
To see how other Expats have settled into their new life living in France take a look at our Series of Interviews with Expats.
All information included in this article is based on the most recent information available at the time of writing – February 2023.
À bientôt et merci beaucoup!