Teaching Assistant in France Survival Guide/Arrival
Arriving alone in a foreign country is a jarring experience. Even well-travelled assistants are sometimes driven to tears in their first few days. The best way to keep your spirits up is to stay busy and stay smart: decisions you make now will affect the rest of your year in France.
- 1 From the airport
- 2 Lodging
- 3 Calling home
- 4 Banking
- 5 Mobile phones
- 6 Carte de Séjour
- 7 Social Security
From the airport
Unless you work in a city and are flying directly into that city, part of your travel will likely be by rail. Remember to get your Carte 12-25 immediately if you're 25 or under. Unless you've bought a Prem's ticket in advance, buying the card now will get you a big discount on your first trip (in fact, the card will likely pay for itself on your first trip if you're going far enough). Just bring a passport picture to a ticket counter at any train station (this is easier than buying one online). The SNCF services remote towns by bus only, but the same tickets and discounts apply.
Make a photocopy of your Carte 12-25. If you lose it, this will help you get a new one.
- Note: if you're turning 26 before going to France, you might want to consider buying the Carte 12-25 in advance. You are allowed to buy it the day before your 26th birthday and use it for the year, but you cannot buy it after you've turned 26.
The lucky ones
If your school has arranged for your lodging, breathe a sigh of relief. You'll normally have to pay a small monthly sum to stay in the internat, and its funishings may be spare beyond reason, but at least you'll have somewhere to sleep.
If your school has not arranged for your lodging, you will arrive in your town and literally have no place to go. This happens most often in larger cities, with busy school system offices that pay little attention to assistants. Assuming you arrive by train, make your way to one of the hotels near the train station (there are always a few). Looking up a place in a Lonely Planet or similar guide before you leave home and phoning ahead to make a reservation might be a good idea - you'll be tired and weighed down with luggage. You can expect to pay around 30 - 40 € per night for a single room with no toilet. You'll want to find something cheaper immediately. Don't be ashamed to share your troubles with teachers or anyone else at your school or inspection; it's not uncommon for teachers to take in assistants while they find a place to live.
Another accommodation solution is to take a room in a Foyer des Jeunes Travailleurs. They're organisations providing accommodation for young people up the age of 30. Accommodation ranges from single bedrooms to studios with their own kitchenettes and bathrooms, it varies from foyer to foyer. They usually have a cafetiera, a common room, internet access and maybe even a minigym and a bar! In larger towns it should be easy to arrange a short stay whilst you're looking for an apartment - again, phone ahead, maybe a couple of weeks before you leave. In smaller towns where you might be the only assistant, or indeed the only foreigner, a FJT might be a good longer-term solution as it's a great way to meet (French!) people by getting involved in the activities they run (like sports, yoga, theatre, cultural nights, trips) or by just hanging out. And the rent's usually very cheap (typically around 100 € per month if you get benefits - see below) and they will help you with all your paperwork, which is rather useful! They will also usually only charge you the reduced rent whilst you wait for your benefits application to come through, which many landlords might not be so willing to do. You can look up FJTs on the Union des Foyers des Jeunes Travailleurs web page: . If no luck there (not all FJTs are members) try googling or asking at the mairie when you arrive in your town.
Many assistants have never had to find their own apartments before, much less do it in French. Consider asking someone at your school for help; one of your teachers should be happy to help you make phone calls to set up appointments. Most regions have free classified ad newspapers. Get a feel for the average prices, decide what you can afford, and then start looking at apartments. Be sure to see a few before you make your decision! And attention girls: it is generally not smart to go to view apartments alone. Try to make arrangements to view the apartments in pairs. In all likelihood, you won't have the necessary paperwork to sign a lease (un bail) for at least a week anyway.
A major difference between American and French apartments : there are no large companies who own apartment complexes. Instead, each individual apartment has a different owner, with whom you must negotiate the lease.
A typical French apartment lease, following the law of July 6, 1989, lasts for three years with the option to exit from the lease at any time as long as you warn your landlord three months in advance. (It’s also possible for a landlord to write up a lease for less than a year that does not have this option, when the apartment is furnished.) Most landlords hate French paperwork as much as you do, and so their ideal tenant is one who will stay for the full three years. It is in your interest, then, to be vague about your own departure plans. Perhaps you’ll stay for the Summer – who knows?
Furniture and your welfare
When you're looking for an apartment, remember that your rent can be subsidized by the generous French welfare system. Believe it or not, assistants have full rights to public funds (we do pay taxes, after all). The amount of aide au logement to which you are entitled (you can calculate it online) is determined by a few different factors:
- Your income
- The size of the city you live in
- The size of the apartment
- Your roommates' (if any) income
- Whether the apartment is furnished.
The best apartment to have is a large, unfurnished one. The amount of aid goes down drastically if you have a small, furnished studio. It may seem silly to buy furniture for such a short stay, but it's possible to do it cheaply and actually save hundreds of euros.
Look around your town and ask your teachers about used furniture stores, sometimes called salles de vente. You'll probably need to either have someone take you there or have things delivered, but just remember that France could be paying for some of it. Another option is "vide grenier" sales, which are similar to community garage sales - keep an eye out for posters in your town.
Whether your arrival in France is hard or soft, you'll likely want to talk to your friends and family back home soon, and at length. There are lots of ways to do this, ranging in cost from zero cents a minute to $50 for a short call. Fais gaffe!
The cheapest way is to use voice-over-IP (that is, Internet phone) either from services such as Skype, either from DSL providers such as Free.
Many public phones have stickers or posters, both official and unofficial looking, advertising cheap international calls with a credit card. Never, in France or any other country, use one of these services! Their rates, which are not usually posted, are simply awful. Calling their free number and giving your credit card number may seem like a good idea when you're desperate, but you won't be happy when you see your credit card bill.
Purchasing a real France Telecom card (with a chip) is a good idea. This will allow you to make calls within France easily and at a reasonable rate, and you can call home at a rate that, while not good, is at least discernable.
Cards are sold for amounts of 7.50 € and 15 €, each with a certain amount of credits that you can watch count down as you make the call. These fast and easy cards are particularly useful when you're only calling home to ask that someone call you back.
To make an international call from France, you first dial 00, then the country code, then the number you are calling. For the U.S., you will dial something like
If you're calling the U.S., it's a good bet that the rate for a direct dialed call from home is better than the FT card's rate. (And if it's your parents, they probably have more disposable income than a French assitant!) Fortunately, every public telephone in France can be called from abroad at the number posted above or near the phone.
To call from the U.S., you first dial 011, then France's country code 33, then the number in France leaving off the leading 0. This comes out to
For those frequent stateside callers
You're probably skeptical of the “10 10” numbers advertised by worn-out celebrities during Jerry Springer commercial breaks. You should be! One of these services, however, has been a big help to assistants: it's the cheapest way to talk by phone between the U.S. and France.
10 10 987 : as of this writing a U.S. to France call is 53¢ to connect, 3¢ per minute afterwards. Ask people to call you at a French landline phone with this service and they really won't have cause to complain about the cost of the call. They will complain about the numeric soup of numbers required, though. Get ready…
Since July 2004, 10-10-987 does apply a mobile phone surcharge. It's presently 12¢ a minute for France, significantly eroding the benefit of the service. Now there's no terribly cheap way to talk on a mobile phone in France for more than a few minutes, whether you're talking to your potes or your parents.
Similar services also exist in France - a favorite is Telerabais (http://www.telerabais.com/index2.php). You can call pretty much anywhere in the world for 1.4 cents nights and weekends, and 2.8 cents per minute during peak periods. There are also reduced rates for calls to mobiles. No switching of services is required, the bill will just come as an extra page on your normal phone bill.
For a call to the US, you would dial the US access code: 0811 310 310, then 001+area code+phone number, then press #. You are charged from the moment the operator starts talking, so it's in your interest to start dialing right away!
Discount calling cards
If the jumble of numbers required to call France is too much for some people, or if you don't always want to be taking a free ride, you'll need to find a good calling card.
In larger French cities you will be able to find calling cards with reasonable rates. A 15 € card should get you at least a few hundred minutes of talk time. Go to a large Tabac and ask for a discount international card, and check the rates printed on the card before you buy it. In larger cities look for the orange EuroMaxi cards usually sold by shady looking vendors or automated telecarte machines. It will give you about 5 hours to the U.K, Canada, France and the United States.
These cards do trade quality for quantity. Be prepared to redial several times if the call doesn't go through. Sometimes, there is a very annoying echo or a delay in the conversation. And you may need to let the service automatically call you back at your pay phone to get the best rate. It's a hassle, but in the end this is the only practical way to have a long conversation dialed out from a French pay phone in the rain after dark while your stateside pal is sipping an afternoon martini by the pool.
Fixed lines, VoIP and Internet access
Neuf Telecom are also a good bet - they do ADSL deals and cheap international calling. It may also be possible to get your land line set up through them, which is a bonus as they don't demand the one year's minimum engagement à la France Telecom.
The preferred way to access the Internet is through ADSL. Wanadoo offers ADSL service almost everywhere in France outside of some rural areas. However, other companies such as Free offer better deals. Typical rates are 30€ a month for broadband ADSL (a whopping 16 mbit/s for Free in good circumstances), digital TV and unlimited calls to land lines within France and to any phone in the US or Canada. Orange, through FranceTelecom, offers a similar package.
Roaming mobile phones
Don't use a foreign mobile phone service in France if you can avoid it, it's obscenely expensive. See below for information on a French subscription.
If you've got a computer, a microphone, speakers and an internet connection of reasonable speed, instant messaging is your best option by far. Get a hold of some IM software such as MSN Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger and you're set. True, your parents or friends back home will need to be online at the same time. But it's free, and none of the above alternatives can beat that!
Skype: The Cheapest Rates!
Skype is a program that enables you to make phone calls from your computer, as long as you have an internet connection. You may also need a headset with a microphone, it depends on how your computer is set up. Rates to the US (landlines and mobiles) are 2 euro cents a minute. Rates to other countries are low, too! See http://www.skype.com/products/skypeout/rates/.
First, you will have to create a Skype account. Then, you buy a SkypeOut credit. You pay 10 or 20 euros, you choose. Next, call whomever you want and talk for hours! You are always able to see how much money you still have left on your account and you can just buy more credit as needed.
However, if you don't feel like paying 2 cents a minute to call home, there is an even cheaper way to chat with friends and family back home. If they download Skype and you have Skype, you can talk through Skype together, for FREE! You can also instant message, in case you catch laryngitis, from chatting too long. Visit http://www.skype.com to sign up.
You will need an account with a French bank in order to receive your salary. While a savings account is sufficient for that purpose, a checking account with a bank card is required for cell phone and internet contracts. Several pieces of documentation are typically required to open a bank account in France:
- justificatif de domicile: something that definitively indicates your address in France.
The justificatif de domicile could be a lease, a phone bill, or a letter from a school administrator asserting that you live somewhere. Sometimes banks will accept customers without these; however, many banks are wary of opening accounts for foreigners without a reliable address.
You will most likely need to make an appointment to open your bank account. Make an appointment with a bank that is convenient to you. When you make your appointment, request a brochure on the accounts available. If the reception at the bank is rude, find another bank. As you will see in the next module, these are people you will have to deal with over and over throughout the year.
La Poste (or, more properly, la Banque Postale) is the post service's financial arm. It has a wide network of agencies (that is, any post office) and tends to be very relaxed about people with little revenue and justificatifs. Its only inconvenience is that the post offices may have long lines, which may be a hindrance if you really have to show up in person (you'll use your card for most transactions anyway).
Banks in France bear little resemblance to those in the United States. Bank cards are not free; they generally cost 30 € up front or are billed monthly. On the other hand, withdrawals from other banks are generally free (or you may get 3 or 4 free withdrawals each month, which should be sufficient). Checks are free. However, even having access to the bank's web site is often a paid service. Glean what information you can from brochures and be sure to ask questions about each service (including account closure!) before you open your account.
The Compte Bagoo offered by La Poste, available for those between 18 and 25 years old, is a good option. The fees incured for this account are minimal; generally around four dollars every three months. There are several different types of visas and check type cards to choose from, along with the additional bonus of free checks, which come in handy when you need to pay for the cafeteria at school. The best part about this account is that your liability is limited similarly to what you would expect from an American account for both your checks and bank card. This can be reassuring if you plan on spending any amount of time in Barcelona. They even send you monthly magazines as a Bagoo account member.
If you do plan on traveling, check your bank's fees and commissions for purchases or cash withdrawals outside the euro zone as they can be high (sometimes a percentage+a fixed fee). BNP Paribas is partners with Bank of America, meaning debit cards from either bank can be used at either bank's ATM's for free for an unlimited number of withdrawals. Other banks in this network (a debit card from any bank in the network can be used at any other bank in the network for free) include Deutsche Bank, Scotia Bank, and Barclay's for non-American assistants.
France has an advanced carte bancaire system, in place since around 1985, that allows you to pay for purchases just about anywhere in France using your bank card and code. In many ways this system is superior to anything available in the United States, as it checks the PIN code using a small microchip on the card for almost any purchase done in person. This allows fast, easy transactions all over the country... and deters thieves, since stolen cards are hardly usable inside the country for lack of the PIN.
But unlike ATM and credit cards in the U.S., where your liability is normally limited to $50 or less, a stolen bank card in France could leave you owing the bank thousands of euros if it is determined that you were at fault. Even if you're not, recovering the money may take time and a lot of quarrelling with the bank.
Though it may seem unlikely that someone could steal your card and know your PIN, you shouldn't underestimate creative thieves. (One assistant was pick-pocketed by criminals who had spied her code from a balcony at McDonald's. They took far more than her account balance, and after an extended fight with the bank she was granted only part of the money back.) Hunch over that code entry machine, use one hand as a blind, and don't expect sympathy from the bank for what they consider carelessness.
Be especially careful of internationally capable bank cards. Because standard cartes bancaires only function in France, French banks have linked into Visa and MasterCard networks to allow their customers to make bank card purchases abroad. Unfortunately, the same consequences apply for purchases made through these relatively insecure networks. If you are traveling outside France and your wallet is stolen, a criminal can charge money to your account without needing to know the code until you manage to call the bank's number in France to cancel the card, and then you'll have to complain about the loss and ask to be refunded. If you do have a French bank card with a Visa logo, cough up the extra euros for bank card insurance or leave it at home when you travel.
A better solution is to get a bank card without the Visa or MasterCard logo and use ATMs (or American credit cards) when you travel abroad. Or, if your bank offers it, look for a card with Visa Electron. These cards can be used to make purchases outside of France (particularly in the U.K.), but will always require the PIN. If your bank manager is unable to understand what you want, feel free to leave without opening the account. There are many confused bank employees in France who are unaware that purchases can be made abroad without the PIN, or that purchases can be made in France without a Visa; you do not want one of these people to be your bank manager.
The mobile phone system in Europe, like everything else, is different. For once, people do not pay for incoming calls, but the price for calling mobile phones from land lines is higher than the price to call other land lines.
Will you need one?
You will most certainly want a mobile phone as soon as possible. Everyone else will have one, and you'll feel left out if you don't. If you are one of the lucky assistants provided with lodging upon your arrival, you would have to be extraordinarily lucky to have a landline as well, as very few internants have working ones. If you move into a private apartment, you could likely have your landline up and running in a few days and theoretically do without a mobile phone — you'll want one anyway, of course.
The easy solution
The fastest, easiest, and safest way to have a mobile phone is to bring a Europe-capable GSM phone with you to France. In that case, you only need to purchase a power adapter for the phone and a SIM card (une puce). These cost around 30 €. Although remember to get it unlocked from the network before you leave, especially if you're coming from the UK! You won't need to enter into a contract, and you won't need to wait for all the documents required to enter into the contract. Do this if you can!
Another way is to get a pay-as-you-go phone (as we call them in the UK - "sans abonnement" in France). This means you make a one off payment which gets you the phone, the SIM card and a bit of credit - instead of having a contract you buy top-up cards from a tabac, then activate them by ringing a number. Currently on the Orange website [www.orange.fr], the cheapest deal is 79 €. Note that pay-as-you-go plans are quite costly compared to regular contracts, where you pay a fixed amount each month and get a number of minutes of credit each month. If you intend to talk regularly over your mobile phone, you may want to get one of these, but it is more of a hassle to set up.
Sending short messages (SMS) is also considerably cheaper than talking.
Other mobile phone providers are: Bouygues Telecom  (if you can pronounce it!) and SFR . SFR and Orange have the best coverage - important if you're in a small town! You just need some ID to get a 'sans abonnement', (give your address as the school where you're teaching, explain you're an assistant if necessary) which means you can get the phone as soon as you arrive.
You might be able to get a handset secondhand from a previous assistant and therefore cut your start-up costs. Have a look on the Assistants in France webpage to see who's advertising.
If you don't have a compatible phone already, you can either buy one at full price or you can enter into a mobile phone contract (abonnement) and receive a discount. Several things are required, some of which you will not have for at least a few weeks:
- justificatif de domicile
- R.I.B. (Relevé d'Identité Bancaire) — this will come with your bank account
- bank card
The mobile phone carrier SFR has contracts ranging from six months to two years. The longer the contract, the better the deal on the phone and monthly credit allowance. As the salespeople will assure you, it is possible to terminate the contract if you are a foreigner when you depart permanently from France. However, keep in mind that having to cancel a phone contract will add to the paperwork and general stress of your departure. Signing a contract that you can fulfill is a better choice.
“08” Numbers, phone cards
Don't call numbers beginning with 08 from your mobile phone. Not only will you pay the high rate of that 08 number, you will also have to pay for the airtime out-of-pocket, not from your forfait. (Free numbers, 0800, can't usually be called from mobiles.) For this reason, most international calling cards will be useless with your phone. But if you look hard enough, you may find a card with a Paris (01) or other access number. So long as you have the forfait minutes to spare, you can use these cards to call home relatively cheaply (compared to dialing directly, even with SFR Monde, et al.).
Carte de Séjour
Obtaining a carte de séjour is one of the many administrative responsibilities of a language assistant that is a ressortisant hors-UE or non-EU citizen. This process tends to vary by académie, départment, préfecture, and établissement scolaire, in addition to usually varying between different fonctionnaires within a préfecture.
The basic objective is to submit the necessary paperwork to get your carte de séjour as soon as you can. Your visa is valid for roughly 2 to 3 months, therefore you need to apply for your carte de séjour before your visa expires. You should receive specific instructions from your académie at your first stage, regarding your obligations. The general series of steps is as follows:
At your first stage or soon thereafter, you should receive an appointment for a medical visit (basically a checkup to confirm you're in good health while working in France). This visit is conducted by the Agence Nationale de l'Accueil des Etrangers et de Migrations or ANAEM, and it is best to avoid missing this appointment as it will seriously delay getting a carte de séjour. It consists of two parts, a lung x-ray and a visit with a doctor at the ANAEM office in your area. You are excused from work to attend this appointment. If you are reading this before leaving France, remember to bring your vaccination records as they are requested at the visit, though generally, assistants without them have been to pass the visit without a problem. At the end of the visit with the doctor, you will be given a certificate that says your health is in good condition. This document, the certificat de controle medicale will be one of several to be submitted with your carte de séjour request.
This is a sample certificat from a recent assistant.
Rendez-vous à la préfecture: deposer le dossier
At some point, depending on the prescribed procedures for your départment, académie, or school, you will receive a convocation to come to your designated préfecture, sous-préfecture, mairie, or commissariat to drop off your carte de séjour request paperwork. You may also be told you can come by during certain hours during the days they're open, at your leisure. At your appointment, you will leave copies of several documents (your académie or even better, your préfecture, should be able to tell you which exactly you will need if you have questions):
- your arrêté de nomination
- your certificat de controle medicale
- your attestation de domicile from your landlord (whether an individual or your school's principal)
- copies of your passport information page, your visa, and your entry stamp into France
- the attestation that you are indeed working as a language assistant in France
- an official copy of your birth certificate (extrait d'acte de naissance), translated into French
- three passport-size photos
- the request form that is provided at the préfecture
The meaning of official or certified has yet to be determined, but call your préfecture to confirm what they will be requiring.
Assuming you have brought all the required documents, you will leave with a récépissé de demande de carte de séjour. This document, with your photo stamped on it, acts as your carte de séjour until the real card actually arrives. It has the following data on it:
Préfecture, dossier number, date of entry into France, first and last names, place and date of birth, parents' names, nationality, family situation, address in France, expiration date of the récépissé, signature of the fonctionnaire, your signature
This is a récépissé from a recent assistant.
Last, it includes a box that says that the récépissé is not valid unless accompanied by the document identifying the requestor with document number (this seems to always be your passport and passport number). DO confirm that your passport number is correct BEFORE leaving. It also states your carte de séjour will be valid for one year.
Obtenir votre carte de séjour
You should receive a notice several weeks later that your residency card is ready to be picked up, and the notice will give directions and hours of business for when and where to get it. This card is what allows you to stay past the normal three months granted for tourists.