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Moving to France – how to zap the culture shock

Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.

Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Heather, now, and in 2011 after her family's move to France

Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.

A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.

“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you’re either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it’s much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”

Take the pain out of your move to France. Plan your relocation with AGS Movers

It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family – you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”

Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It’s a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.

“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It’s totally different to the system in the UK.”

“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I’d been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”  

France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.

“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It’s hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it’s very efficient.”

Heather and her family just after their move to France.

But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.

“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental,” Heather says. “I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”

And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can’t speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you’d probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”

Zap that culture shock by planning your move to France with AGS Movers. Get a quote here

But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”

There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.

“At first you’re nervous before you go,” says Heather, “and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. This is awful. Everything’s so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don’t know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don’t want to go home because you can’t remember how it works in the country you came from.

“At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”

Make your relocation much less stressful by contacting AGS Movers

Member comments

  1. “The prescription will be fulfilled by a pharmacy and must be paid for; the little price stickers (vignettes) from each medicine should then be stuck on the Feuille de Soins, which is a reimbursement form for medical expenses. It’s all so gloriously complicated.” Not once you are in the system (Ameli). I haven’t had to do the sticker thing you describe for more than 20 years.
    And if you haven’t lived in the UK for 10 years you’ll be shocked by the petty-fogging bureaucracy that now exists. It’s (much) worse than France, because no matter the pleadings in your individual case, or the insanity of the demand, you will get zero flexibility. So change the record, change the stereotype, UK is now much more painfully bureaucratic.
    Vive la France!

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MOVING TO FRANCE

France v Spain: which is the better place to move to?

Trying to decide to if you want to move to France or Spain? Want to know which country is better for taxes, which one has a cheaper cost of living and which offers more diverse culture and landscapes? Here's everything you need to know.

France v Spain: which is the better place to move to?

Ultimately the decision of whether you move to France or Spain will come down to personal preferences – the areas you like, the language you want to learn and the types of cuisine you want to enjoy, but there are several factors that can make living somewhere more difficult than others, such as taxes, visas and cost of living.

Taxes

France has a long-standing and justified reputation as a high-tax country – in 2021, it had the second highest top statutory personal income tax rate among European OECD countries, after Denmark (55.9 percent), France (55.4 percent), and ahead of Austria (55 percent).

It’s almost impossible to compare and contrast tax systems between the two countries – and much depends on personal circumstances as to how much an individual or household pays in taxes and social charges.

Like many nations, it has a progressive tax banding system, which are as follows:

French income tax bands

Up to €10,225

€10,226–€26,070

€26,071–€74,545

€74,546–€160,366

€160,36

French tax rate

0%

11%

30%

41%

45%

Self-employed workers under the micro-entrepreneur scheme benefit from a tax status that simplifies tax and accounting requirements. For income taxes, you’ll file under the standard personal progressive rates.

Like France, Spain has a progressive tax system. The rates for 2022 are as follows:

Spanish income tax bands Spanish tax rate
€12,450–€20,200 24%
€20,200–€35,200 30%
€35,200–€60,000 37%
 €60,000–€300,000 45%
over €300,000 47%

France may have the second-highest top statutory personal income tax rate among European OECD, but low to mid earners pay significantly less income tax in France than in Spain. 

When it comes to being self-employed, Spain is unfortunately not a great country to choose regarding taxes. Autónomos (self-employed) pay the highest monthly social security fees in the EU. Currently, this is paid as a flat monthly fee of €294 per month, no matter what your earnings are. Taxes are then paid on top of this monthly fee. 

If the new proposed changes come into force in 2023, self-employed workers could end up paying double the amount of freelancers in France.

Golden visa

France doesn’t offer a ‘golden visa’ per se, but it has a ‘passeport talent’ scheme for any non-French self-employed person planning to create a business or make an economic investment. 

Be aware, this scheme does not allow investors simply to stump up €300,000, or buy an apartment in Paris and expect to be handed a passeport talent. They must take an active role in the business in which they are investing.

READ ALSO: How France’s ‘talent visa’ programme works

Golden visas do exist in Spain, allowing you to essentially ‘buy’ Spanish residency by investing €500,000 in property. The Spanish golden visa is also a pathway to citizenship, enabling you to renew your residency status and apply for citizenship after 10 years. 

Spain also offers a residency visa for entrepreneurs and business activities, also known as the visado de emprendedor in Spanish. Entrepreneurial activity is considered as anything of innovative character with special economic interest for Spain. There are no minimum capital requirements or a minimum number of jobs that your business must create, however you must submit your business plan to be approved. 

READ ALSO – Pros and cons: What foreigners should be aware of before applying for Spain’s golden visa

You can buy a property in Spain to get a Golden Visa. Photo: Ralph (Ravi) Kayden / Unsplash

Digital Nomad Visas

France does not offer a visa option specific to digital nomads – professionals whose line of work allows them to engage in remote work and who are therefore not location-dependent – but long-stay options are available for those who do want to spend some in the country.

READ ALSO: Working remotely from France – what are the rules for foreigners?

In 2021, Spain announced that it would be introducing a digital nomad visa, as well as tax cuts for startups and investors, but has yet to finalise all the details. 

Spain currently also offers a non-lucrative visa (NLV) scheme, but as the name suggests you are not allowed to work on the NLV.  For 2022 you need to prove you have an income of €27,792 for the year to be eligible for this visa. 

READ ALSO – Tax cuts and visas: Spain’s new law for startups, investors and digital nomads

Cost of living

There are cheaper places to live than France, we have to say. Much, as always, depends on where you plan to stay – property is, as you’d expect, more expensive in the big cities, with the capital, Paris, particularly hard on your bank balance.

Outside the big urban areas, property prices, whether you want to buy or rent, fall away rapidly – but you can pay for a cheaper property with a reduction in amenities.

Eating out and grocery shopping can be pricey, depending on where you shop, but you might be pleasantly surprised by the cost of a reasonable midweek lunch, and there are always the regular markets to explore and lose yourself in.

READ ALSO Bikes, gig tickets and holidays: 7 things the French government might pay for

Paris

Paris is more expensive to live in than Madrid and Barcelona. Photo: Pete Linforth / Pixabay

Traditionally, Spain is seen as having a low cost of living compared to its western and northern European neighbours. But of course, it does completely depend on where you live within the country. 

According to expat price comparison website Expatistan the cost of living in Madrid is 48 percent less than in Paris. Monthly rent for 85 m2 (900 sqft) furnished accommodation in an average area costs €968 in Madrid and €2,289 in Paris. 

But if you compare the two countries’ second cities – Barcelona and Marseille – the cost of living is about the same. Generally speaking in Spain, the south and western parts of the country such as Andalusia, Murcia, Extremadura and Galicia are cheaper than Madrid and northern regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country. 

You can still get some incredible bargains in Spain when it comes to property, and both eating out (a three-course menú del día for €10) and clothes shopping a generally cheaper than in France too. 

Keep in mind though, wages in Spain are generally less than in France. In 2022, the average salary in Spain is €2,710 gross per month or €32,520 per year, while in France it’s €39,300 per year. 

Lifestyle and culture

For all the talk of snooty waiters and rude public officials, the French are generally laid-back and fairly welcoming. If you’re polite, they’ll be polite, too. Try a bit of French – it really is appreciated. Just be ready for a direct answer if you ask a direct question – and don’t expect them to act like your best friend straightaway. Politeness is one thing, bosom buddy status has to be earned.

Culturally, France is very diverse. As well as French, France has five ‘regional languages’, not counting those spoken in its overseas territories – Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, and Occitan – and each region has its own cuisine, festivals, dances and traditions.

France boasts 49 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has more historical and cultural centres than you can shake a stick at. The likes of Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Marseille, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Nantes, are known for their fine food and their impressive museums. 

The Spanish are generally said to be friendly, easy-going people who are fun-loving, passionate and very family orientated. You’ll notice this in the music and the way festivals are celebrated. Think Spain’s fiery Las Fallas festival, Catalonia’s human towers, the crazy Canary carnival and southern Spain’s Semana Santa parades. 

Like France, Spain is also very culturally diverse and also has five different regional languages – Castilian (Spanish), Catalan, Basque, Galician and Arranese. Each of Spain’s 17 regions has its own cuisine, festivals, dances and traditions which differ greatly from one to the other.

Spain equals France when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, also boasting 49. Paris may be one of the world’s most famous capitals, with more sights than you can visit in one trip, but Madrid and Barcelona can definitely hold their own when it comes to art museums and architecture. Valencia, Seville, Bilbao, San Sebastián, Málaga and Granada are also known for their great museums and cultural offerings too.

Alhambra

Granda’s Alhambra is one of Spain’s 49 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Photo: granagramers / Pixabay

Nature and landscapes

France – with its mountains, extinct volcanoes, plains, coastal areas (its coastline is nearly as long as Spain’s), dunes, lakes – is a nature-lover’s paradise whatever the season. It has 9 national parks and 58 regional ones, dotted all over the country.

It’s hugely popular with tourists all year round, with the Alps and Pyrenees must-go areas for winter sport lovers. Get the time of year right, and you can ski in the morning and swim in the sea in the afternoon…

Spain is also great for nature lovers, especially those who love hiking, cycling and water sports, and comprises diverse landscapes from soaring mountains and wide river estuaries to lunar-like deserts and one of Europe’s best coastlines. 

Home to 16 National Parks, as well as countless natural parks in each of its 17 regions, it offers many options for nature lovers to get out and explore. Like France, winter sports can be found throughout the Catalan and Aragonese Pyrenees and in the region of Granada skiing and sunbathing can be done on the same day too. 

Camargue

France’s Camargue National Park is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. Photo: Christian Klein / Pixabay

Healthcare

Healthcare in France is widely reputed to be among the very best in the world – evidence of your tax euros at work. Once you’re registered with a doctor and on the social security system, care is routinely excellent, speedy and affordable – with almost all point-of-need costs covered by the State. 

Many people also take on top-up health insurance to cover additional expenses that do crop up – be aware glasses can be expensive, though the government has stepped in to ensure genuinely affordable eye care is available. And the system is smart and co-ordinated enough to ensure that any paperwork is kept to a minimum.

READ ALSO How to register for a carte vitale and why you need one

Spain is also said to have a great healthcare system. According to the World Health Organisation’s latest global report, Spain’s health system ranked number seven in the world. Those paying into the social security system, either via their employer or through being self-employed, have access to free healthcare and primary healthcare services are available within a 15-minute radius from where you live in most of the country.

Having said that, many Spaniards – 19 percent to be exact – opt for private healthcare. This is because it’s very affordable, sometimes a little as €15 per month. The advantages are that waiting times are dramatically reduced and you are able to see a specialist directly without having to be referred. 

READ ALSO: How to apply for a public health card in Spain

Transport

The French state-run high-speed rail service makes getting from place to place easy and relatively affordable, while in the big cities, public transport is generally good.

Get out of the towns though and you’re pretty much dependent on having a car. For driving longer distances the pay-as-you-go motorway system allows swift and, generally, easy travel.

Spain has a very efficient and affordable public transport system, which comprises highspeed rail networks run by RENFE, as well as regional rail networks and buses across the country. The regional rail networks are extensive and often serve small towns and villages, as well as larger cities. However, if you choose to live in a more rural area, then having your own car is best. 

Most highways in Spain are free to use, apart from a few which require you to pay a toll. In 2021 400km of motorways in Spain (mainly in Catalonia) became toll-free.

Renfe

Spain has an excellent transport network. Photo: Antonio Garcia Prats / Pixabay

Language

Speaking French helps in everyday interactions. Even if you have just a little basic French, use it – especially bonjour. The effort is appreciated, and you’ll find life becomes a whole lot easier. 

And it’s easy enough to find places to improve your language skills – your local mairie will probably have information. Even something as simple as listening to French radio or watching French TV shows helps. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you pick things up.

Speaking Spanish is almost essential if you move to Spain, apart from if you choose to live in one of the towns in southern Spain where Brits outnumber locals.

The Spanish are also not as good at speaking English as many of their European neighbours, so learning the local lingo will go a long way to helping you get by. 

READ ALSO: Spanish now ranked worst in EU at speaking English

But don’t worry, according to language-learning app Babbel Spanish is the third-easiest language to learn for English speakers, way above French which comes in at number eight on the list. Spanish is also the world’s fourth-most spoken language with over 500 million people speaking it worldwide. Conversely French comes in fifth place, but only has 282 million speakers. This means that your Spanish will help you not just in Spain, but when you travel too. 

The Spanish are also a lot more accepting of foreigners who try to speak their language, even if they get it wrong, and will rarely switch immediately to English, except in very touristy areas. They are encouraging and don’t mind if you make mistakes. 

Compromise

Really can’t decide? The Basque country is predominantly in Spain but also covers parts of south west France, including Bayonne and Biarritz.

It has its own culture, traditions and food – including delicious spicy peppers – and the countryside is stunning.

Zorte on euskerarekin

*(good luck with learning the Basque language) 

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