Surviving French Bureaucracy: A Beginner’s Guide

I admit I thought they were exaggerating. When expats warned me about the French bureaucracy nightmare and how hard it was to be a foreigner in France, in my naivety I thought it couldn’t be that bad. I would just accept it, be organised and not let it bother me.  After 7 months in France there have been tears, inner-monologue tantrums at red tape and frustration to no end. It doesn’t make me regret choosing to come to France, but after 7 months I’ve found some coping strategies to make the process a little easier.

My folders

Keeping everything organised can help keep you sane in France. Whenever you need to do something in France you will likely need a million pieces of paper to go with it. I have lived overseas twice before and in both countries I had one display folder where I had all the important paper work for living there and that was sufficient.

But living in France I soon had so many papers for all different organisations/immigration processes that I didn’t know what I had and what I didn’t. After 5 months I needed a solution and that’s when I discovered the folders system!

The folders system: Simple, yet effective

I bought 4 coloured slim folders to categorise every area of my French bureaucratic life. I organised my folders into 4 sections

  • Work/Travail (all work contracts, attestations, bulletins de salaires etc)
  • MGEN (French social security – all letters I have received from them, security social number, photocopies of doctor’s receipts etc)
  • CAF (French rental assistance – all papers/confirmations/letters I’ve received)
  • Bank (all information from my French bank)
I could probably have added another one, a ‘visa‘ folder, for all of the requests to come to Lille letters, confirmation of titre de sejour and the compulsory doctor’s appointment if I had thought to do this at the start.

Learn to take everything with you

This will save a lot of time and frustration because whenever you are in France and need to do something you always need one piece of paper that no one mentioned.

Now whenever I have to do something in France depending on the situation, I will take all the documents I need plus documents I ‘might’ need.

For example when I cancelled my private home contents insurance (which I was refunded for) I took my insurance documents but then also thought to take my passport with me. Sure enough the kind lady at the insurance office told me she needed a ‘justicatif’ (proof) that I would be leaving France. When I told her I had my visa with me, she told me that would be ‘parfait’.

It’s like you start to develop a 6th sense in France where you instinctively feel what else they will need of you, but for those who are developing this sense just take everything.

Learn French Opening Hours

French opening hours are erratic to say the least. Some places will be open during the week, but not on Monday mornings and open only on the first Saturday of the month. And that is for private business’! When you start trying to figure out when bureaucracy places are open and closed it gets even worse.

My advice to you: Never assume something is open. Even if it’s the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, that’s no guarantee it’ll be open.

Use a website like (something I wish had discovered earlier) to find out all French business hours.

Tip: Some places will only deal with certain issues at a certain time of the day or maybe even only on a certain day. For example, my sous-prefecture only deals with issues about visas between 8am-11am (so I wasted my time going there at 3pm, even though it was open).

Take comfort in the fact the French hate it too

It may be harder for foreigners but it’s not easy for the French either. Going through organisations such as the MGEN and trying to get unemployment benefits can be a nightmare for them too. There’s always a paper missing, no one can be bothered to check if all is there, they get letters by mistake and have to deal with the general frustration just like us.

I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when I was reading through the FAQ’s on the French Consulate’s website.

“Q. I have jumped through all of the administrative hoops in France, now what?’

A: Congratulations, you are now officially a French person. I’m sure you will find that it was all worth it.”


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