The Trails and Tribulations of Getting a Long-Stay French Visa
Having bought the house in Moissac, we decided that we wanted to spend more time in France in 2013. Although Rita, being a Swiss citizen, could stay as long as she wanted to in France under the Schengen Treaty provisions, I could only spend 3 months without getting a special visa. But this year we wanted to spend about 5 months. This period was determined by three factors.
Firstly, in the two previous years, Kanumbra had been used by the Mayor of Moissac for the Pentecote Festival in late-May, where they went out onto the Tarn River to lay wreaths for the deceased members of the French Navy. This year, Pentecote was a bit earlier, and we promised Kaz and Iain Noble that we would come over in mid-May and clean Kanumbra before the Festival, rather than leaving it for them to do as in previous years.
Secondly, I had been involved in the organisation of a DBA Barge Rally to be held in Toulouse in mid-September, and so would like to be able to attend the Rally. But given that this was more than 3 months after the Pentecote Festival in May, then this would require a Long-Stay Visa.
Thirdly, having bought the house in Moissac, we decided we would like to spend some time in the house (as well as time spent barging), doing some preliminary clean-up and getting things prepared for the real start of the renovation work when Nico (our builder) would arrive in November.
At one stage, we considered applying for Swiss Citizenship for me, since I would be eligible having been married to a Swiss citizen outside Switzerland for more than 6 years, having a close connection to Switzerland (all Rita's family still live in Switzerland) and being a regular visitor to Switzerland (once a year for many years). In future years, we also considered that the Swiss passport for me would be useful if we needed to spend extended periods in Switzerland at short notice, as Rita's parents are not getting any younger (now 94 and 87 years old). However, it appeared that getting the Swiss passport could not be done in time for 2013, so it was put on the back-burner for now. We may still go down that path, but for 2013 it seemed like the French Long-Stay Visa was the best option.
We had heard from many others that Australians had various degrees of difficulty in getting a French Long-Stay Visa. Some said all you had to do was fill out the forms; others said that it depended on who you got examining your application and whether they were having a good day; everyone said having to personally go to the French Consulate in Sydney was a real pain in the bum. Luckily, living in Melbourne, it wasn't too much of a trip (but still $500 for flight costs); I pity all those barge owners in Perth who want to spend an extended time in France.
The situation is much simplified if you or your spouse holds an EU passport. Friends of ours (the Coates) have been living for extended periods each year in the South of France and I always wondered how they did it so easily; turns out that Peter never relinquished his British passport when his family moved to Australia, and as the spouse of an EU citizen, Kaye needed no Long-Stay Visa at all. Indeed, if Switzerland was part of the EU (and not just part of the Schengen passport group), then I would have no problem staying for as long as I wanted in France.
On the face of it, getting a Long Stay Visa for France is not all that complicated. Simply go to their website, read all the bumph to see what situation applies to you, download the appropriate form, assemble all the materials you need for your application (see below), make an appointment (easier said than done), go to the Consulate in Sydney, follow-up with any extra information they demand, then wait and see what happens!
Of all these steps, the most frustrating part (for me) was booking an appointment. On the face of it, it seems easy. The website says that Visas take 2-3 weeks to obtain. But don't be fooled - the actual process takes much longer. Firstly, you need to be aware that you cannot get a Long-Stay Visa more than 90 days before you intend to depart; you therefore need to have booked your flight before applying for your visa, to prove when you are going to depart Australia. For stays less than 12 months, you also need to have proof of a return flight. The Consulate website says that "We strongly advise that you do not purchase a non-refundable, non-flexible air ticket before receiving your visa when booking through a travel agency. Instead, we recommend that your travel agent prepare a detailed itinerary (indicating flight details, hotel names and addresses) with payment of a deposit (the full itinerary and proof of deposit paid will have to be presented on the day of your interview)". While this might make sense if buying tickets through a travel agent, how many people still do that in an age of ubiquitous personal online ticket purchases. Much harder to get a booking with a deposit payment when buying direct from the airline (or discount ticket website). So, in practice, you need to buy your ticket beforehand, perhaps with more flexibility (at higher cost), and maybe buying travel insurance (another cost). Or you can do what I did (in ignorance of the Visa constraints) and just buy your normal ticket and hope!
If you are leaving Australia in autumn (April-June) for the summer barging season in France, this means you will likely be making your application in the Peak Visa Season, when demand for appointments is at a premium. Therefore, you should book your appointment as early as possible within this 90 day window.
Secondly, however, you also cannot book an appointment (online only - no phone or counter bookings) more than 60 days in advance. When I started looking for an appointment in March, there were no free time-slots within the next 60 days. As time went on, the next free appointment date receded further into the distance, until it soon became later than my scheduled departure date (which I had already committed to, because I needed to buy my tickets to prove when I was entering and leaving France). I therefore gave up all hope of getting a Long-Stay Visa (actually I gave up hope of getting an appointment!), and was resigned to simply staying for 3 months without the need for a Visa, and then re-booking my return flight.
However, I found someone at the Consulate who was willing to answer some emails I sent about the situation, and they advised me to just keeping checking the online appointment booking page, because cancellations sometimes gave rise to free time-slots. So I made that page my Home Page and every morning it would pop up when I started the computer. Weeks went by and I had given up hope. Then with a month before scheduled departure, a vacancy popped up for April 24. Since I already had all my paperwork prepared (or so I thought), I grabbed the appointment time, and booked a flight to Sydney. I realised that the appointment was just a bit less than 3 weeks before my departure, but I was optimistic.
At this stage, let me remind you what paperwork was needed before making an appointment (as stated on the French Consulate Website) with my comments shown in italics:
"Long Stay Visitor visa
This visa allows applicants to take residency in France from 4 to 12 months to enjoy a French cultural experience. This is not a long stay Schengen visa allowing you to travel around Europe for more than 90 days, its validity covers France only.
This Visa does not entitle you to work in France.
REQUIREMENTS PER APPLICANT
- 1 Long Stay Visa application form duly completed, dated and signed
[this form was fairly straight-forward]
- 1 passport size photograph pasted on to the form
[but they also take a picture of you at the interview, and this is the one that goes on your Visa. They also take fingerprints at the interview]
- 1 «Demande d’attestation OFII» with the first part (« RUBRIQUES A REMPLIR LORS DE LA DEMANDE DE VISA ») duly completed.
[not quite sure of the purpose of this one; they glanced at it at the interview, then gave it straight back to me]
- the last 3 months bank statements showing money at your disposal immediately
[I submitted the most recent quarterly eStatement that I downloaded from my bank's website; luckily it came through just a few days before the interview. The previous one was already 3 months old; not sure if that would have made any difference]
- a letter explaining your project for the whole stay.
- a statement from you or your employer explaining what will be your job situation when you return to Australia.
[I had recently retired from running my own company. So I just wrote a letter from myself, saying that I intended to remain retired when I returned to Australia]
Originals + 1 set of copies of the following documents::
- Valid passport
[for the copy, I just made a colour photocopy of the picture page from my passport; seemed OK with them]
- Police certificate(s) :
- for Australia, a National Criminal History Record Check (less than three months old) : standard disclosure - police name check - issued by the police authorities of your State or Territory.
- for any other countries in which you have stayed more than one year over the last ten years. In the event of impossibility of obtaining a police certificate in less than two months, applicants must submit evidence of application thereof accompanied by a statutory declaration relating to conviction status and an undertaking to provide the document when available.
[for the Police Certificate, I downloaded the application form (National Name Check only) from the Victoria Police website, and then mailed it off to them. Cost $34. Came back in about 2 weeks. Make sure you allow time to get this.]
- Evidence of sufficient financial resources: recent bank statement(s) and professional advice from accountant, bank manager or financial adviser
[this seems to be in addition to the bank statement required above. For this, I got my accountant to write a letter saying that I had "sufficient financial resources".]
- Proof of property ownership in France (if applicable).
copy of tenancy agreement in France covering the full length of stay.
signed letter from host together with copy of host ID (passport or ID card) + copy of recent utility bill + proof of ownership or rental agreement.
[this documentation proved to create some problems for me, and could be a problem for other bargees, since the officer on duty said that the regulations had recently changed and that barge ownership was no longer acceptable proof. I understood this clause to mean that it required evidence of where you intended to live during your stay in France, given that it talks about "tenancy agreements" etc. Since we intended to live on our barge for the period, I enclosed the ownership papers as "proof of property ownership in France" (i.e. where the property is a barge on which we will live, rather than of a house in which we will live). However, at the interview, it was clear that this was not acceptable, although I never did work out what was really required. The officer on duty did ask where we would live, and I explained that we would live on the barge which would move up and down the canal from town to town. He then wanted an address at which we would be living. I explained that we would have no fixed address, but that mail would be delivered to the Port de Plaissance at Moissac. This was still not OK to him, and he wanted evidence of a commercial contract, stating where the barge would be moored for the entire period of our stay. I gave up trying to explain the concept of a moving barge, and asked whether a letter from the Capitainerie at Moissac saying that we were paying mooring fees there for the summer would be OK. This seemed to be acceptable but I wasn't really sure. In any case, he asked me to send this evidence through ASAP. Luckily, we know the Capitainerie at Moissac quite well, and he was willing to provide such a letter overnight. In addition, and as an afterthought, I also sent through the contract papers for the purchase of the house in Moissac, in the hope that if the Capitainerie letter didn't work, then maybe the house contract would be "proof of property ownership in France". In the end, I'm still not quite sure which of these two forms of "proof" were deemed to be acceptable]
IN ALL CASES, THIS MUST COVER THE WHOLE LENGTH OF THE REQUESTED VISA.
- Statutory declaration (duly legalized by a Justice of the Peace) that you will not take up any form of employment during your stay in France
[fairly straight-forward, once you find a Justice of the Peace. In the end, I went to our local pharmacy, who could also witness a Stat Dec]
- Evidence of comprehensive international private health insurance cover covering the entire length of stay in France
[I normally don't take out such cover, but I had heard from others that it could be a stumbling block. So I took out an international medical coverage policy from Medibank, and took the contract as evidence]
- Return tickets to France or full comprehensive travel itinerary issued by a Travel agent or an airline. If you intend to stay for 12 months and more, a one way ticket will be accepted.
[I took the receipt and itinerary for our booked return air trips; at the last moment, I saw that it says above "return tickets to France". For convenience and cost reasons, however, we were not flying into France but rather into Barcelona (which was quicker, cheaper and more convenient to Moissac than any French city destination). So, in addition, I booked train tickets from Barcelona to Toulouse and took the receipt as evidence, just in case. No questions were asked about Barcelona, so maybe it would have been OK alone, given that Spain and France are both Schengen countries. However, I was just a bit wary given the first paragraph on their website that says "This is not a long stay Schengen visa allowing you to travel around Europe for more than 90 days, its validity covers France only".]
If you travel as a family, you will also have to provide copies of:
- Marriage certificate issued by the State or Province Registrar (+ copy). Documents issued by religious authorities will not be accepted.
[no problems, just make sure you get the originals back. Also, even though my wife is Swiss and doesn't need a French Long-Stay Visa herself, the officer on duty asked to see a copy of her passport, even though it is not mentioned on their website as being required. I told him I therefore didn't have a copy with me, and he didn't seem concerned. So I'm not sure why he asked in the first place.]
- Children’s birth certificates (+ copy). Documents issued by religious authorities will not be accepted. If under 16, a letter of certifying enrollment in a French school. Children from the age of 6 must be registered in a French school.
[we didn't have any kids travelling with us, so no worries. But if you are going with your school-aged kids, note that they need to be registered in a French school before you can apply for your Long-Stay Visa. Whether you can change the school after you get over there, I don't know.]
Applications should be lodged in person at the Consulate-General of France in Sydney with all the requirements, in the order indicated above.
[I paid attention to the note about correct order, and was glad I did once I saw the officer on duty going through them at the stand-up counter. I don't think you'd want to unnecessarily annoy him]
If you intend to ask for your passport to be returned by post, please provide a prepaid, registered and completely filled out self-addressed envelope (preferably Platinum Express Post).
[Given that I don't live in Sydney, I decided to go with this option (I saw later that one can pick the passport up personally, but only on Tuesday and Thursday between 9am and 12noon without an appointment). However, given that it was less than 3 weeks between my appointment and my date of departure, and that they were asking for additional documentation, I made the mistake of asking the officer on duty what I should do if the passport was not returned in time to travel. He informed me that would just be my bad luck, and that they were very busy, and that I should have bought a flexible departure date ticket. As I stood at the counter, many thoughts ran through my head; should I just leave my passport with them and take my chances, should I keep my passport and cancel my application for the Visa and just stay for 3 months etc etc. As I stood there trying to work out the best thing to do, he asked me "do you have any more questions?" When I said "No", he told me that my standing there was therefore delaying other people who were waiting for their interview! As I wandered away from the counter muttering "Merde", I noticed others in line smiling as they overheard my mumbling.]
Processing visa fee: please see list of applicable fees
[the Visa fee was $122.20. To this, however, must be added the following costs which were incurred in getting the Visa: Melb-Sydney flights ($585.70), Sydney taxis ($85), Melbourne Airport parking ($49), driving to Melbourne Airport from Taggerty ($140), Police Check ($34). All-up cost for the Visa: $1015.90]
Important: only payments by Efpost, Debit and Credit card will be accepted.
[something that was actually convenient]
Processing time to obtain the visa : 2 weeks minimum for a complete application
[after returning home and sending off the extra documents, I then had nothing to do but wait. With now only 2 weeks before scheduled departure, my mind starting thinking of Plan B and Plan C in case my passport didn't arrive in time. I checked whether there were any replacement flights in the same week that would get me to Moissac in time to prepare the barge for the Mayor. If so, what would they cost? Could I change the train trip from Barcelona to Toulouse in time, especially since they insisted on sending paper tickets in the mail? Could I change the hire car in Toulouse? Should I just cancel the trip entirely? If there was this much hassle just getting a Visa, should we abandon the idea of renovating the house in Moissac? Should we this, should we that? But, just a week after sending off the additional material, my passport with Long-Stay Visa arrived in the mail, a full week before we were due to depart. Many sighs of relief all round. But I couldn't help thinking that the officer on duty at the Consulate had just the tiniest of smiles on his face ;-) ]"
It's been cathartic just writing this description of the process. If you need to go through the same process, I hope you find this educational. In the end, everything worked out OK. Along the way, I had my doubts. My advice would be to take full advantage of the 90 day window. Start gathering all your documentation, including your Police Check, 4 months before your intended departure date. Start looking for an appointment 90 days before your intended departure date. If possible, keep some flexibility in your departure date, but don't lose sleep if your best ticket price involves a fixed departure date. If in any doubt about what to take to the interview, take it! I was going to take our house purchase contract papers with me, but decided against it because I thought they were looking for something else. If I had taken them with me, I may have saved myself a lot of nervous moments waiting for the passport to be returned after sending in the additional paperwork. Overall, just treat the Visa application process as a good learning experience for dealing with all sorts of administrative matters in France.