Or as I like to call it: 3 mois d’enfer…
Actually, it’s not as bad as all that, though the process of obtaining a French visa really can take about two to three months. But first:
What is a visa, anyway?
Simply put, a visa is a special sort of stamp issued by a government to non-citizens entering that government’s country. There are many different types of visa issued by every country in the world, but for the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on French visas, and more specifically Long Stay Student Visas or Visas de long séjour in French.
Thanks to the United States’ geopolitical hegemony, Americans can travel to many countries throughout the world using just their passport. They might not realise it, but there are many people from less developed countries who actually need a visa just to enter a country for any amount of time, even a short vacation or tourist trip.
The 90-Day Rule
Thanks to friendly ties with European Union member states, Americans can enter the Schengen Zone for a period of up to 90 days using just their passport. However, if an American wants to stay in France for more than 90 days, he will need a visa affixed to the inside of his passport specifying his reason for living in France and the duration of his stay.
If your program lasts less than 90 days, you can visit France using just your passport, but you will need to leave the Schengen Zone when that time has passed or you risk being deported (and prevented from returning).
If your program lasts longer than 90 days (and it most likely will if you’re studying during a semester as opposed to a summer program), you will need to obtain the French Long Stay Visa. The good news about this is that once the visa expires, you may still travel freely within the Schengen Zone for 90 more days.
Obtaining the French Visa
Hold on to your patience because this is going to take a while, which is why you need to start this process at least 3 months before you leave for France. There are two parts to the whole affair (possibly three if you’re staying for a really long time), but for now, we’ll focus on the two major parts.
Part 1: CampusFrance
CampusFrance is a sort of national database of all foreign students in France at any given time. You will need to create a Pastel account with them in order to receive a document which you will bring to the French consulate, but more on that later.
Like many French websites, CampusFrance is rather poorly designed and given to weird quirks, but they have kindly provided this PowerPoint presentation to walk you through the process. Some of the fields in the application will not apply to you as an American student (the “scholarships” field, for example), so you may leave them blank.
As of this writing, once you have validated your application, you’ll need to send in the $100 money order made out to “MCUFEU,” a copy of that money order, and a letter of acceptance or proof of enrollment from your institution. According to CampusFrance:
This should be a copy of your official acceptance letter or acknowledgment of enrollment, addressed to you and mentioning your full name. It should be printed on institutional letterhead and specify the exact beginning and ending dates (day, month, year) of your academic program, including full contact information for the individual issuing the offer or acknowledgment, as well as the full address of the educational institution.
For students taking part in an exchange program between an American and a French institution, the acceptance letter may be issued from either institution. The formal exchange agreement should be identified in the letter.
For students enrolling in an American study-abroad program in France (operated by an American institution), the acceptance letter must come from the American institution.
You should mail these documents to
4101 Reservoir Rd NW
Washington D.C. 20007
Once that is finished, you will need to check your Pastel account’s inbox periodically over the next month to receive a a confirmation email and proof that they have received your money order. You will print that email out and bring it with you to your French consulate appointment (don’t worry, the email itself tells you what to print).
Part 2: The French Consulate Appointment
Because of the size of the United States, not only does France have an embassy in Washington, D.C., they also have consulates all over the country.
General Consulates of France: Atlanta|Boston|Chicago|Houston|Los Angeles|Miami|New Orleans|New York|San Francisco|Washington
You will need to make an appointment at the consulate for your region of the United States. French consulates do not allow you to walk in; they are government offices with security, and due to the high volume of applicants, they cannot accommodate people without appointments.
You cannot book an appointment more than 90 days before your program start date. Ideally, you would schedule your appointment at least 2 months before you leave the United States, though this can be difficult if they are booked full. You should take the earliest available appointment, and if the only one is a couple of weeks before you leave, call the consulate and (very politely) explain your situation to them. They will often work to move your appointment back, though you should also keep an eye on their website’s calendar for any openings.
French Press TIP: If you attend a university in a different jurisdiction than your permanent address, you can sometimes apply at the consulate which covers your school’s address, but you will need to put your school’s address in your CampusFrance application the FIRST time you fill it out. While the address can be changed within your CampusFrance profile, they only keep the one you first signed up with on record.
What to bring to your visa appointment:
Each consulate is slightly different, but fortunately (as of this writing in 2014), French consulates accept faxed/copied documents instead of requiring originals. If you click on the link to your consulate above, you can find an entire checklist of documents you’ll need to bring with you to the appointment.
Generally, this includes:
- The application for a visa from the consulate website (printed)
- Residence form from the consulate website (printed)
- Your passport
- Your CampusFrance attestation email (printed)
- An ID photo (you can have one taken at Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, the post office, etc.)
- A letter of acceptance/proof of enrollment from the institution where you’ll be studying (Note: this must include your full name, the address of the school, and the dates of your program).
- Proof of financial support while in France (this can be as simple as a notarised Word document from your parent, spouse, employer, etc. stating that they will provide you with a monthly allowance of around 615 EUR, though you should check the consulate website to see how much you should be guaranteed for)
- Your credit/debit card for the visa processing fee (this is different from the $100 money order you sent to CampusFrance and varies by location; check your consulate website for details)
- A self-addressed, pre-paid envelope with a tracking number from FedEx, UPS, USPS, etc.) for them to return your passport to you.
French Press NOTE: This list is not exhaustive; the French consulate will be the final authority on all required documents and fees.
What to expect at your visa appointment:
You will not be able to bring any visitors with you into the consulate itself. In my experience, the one in Houston was basically a suite in an office building with a small waiting room and a couple of windows where you will conduct your interview with one of the French foreign ministry workers.
You should bring a large envelope with all of your documents as well as a copy of each one for your own records. They will likely take your photo for the visa itself and ask you a few questions about why you are studying in France. Don’t expect them to be terribly friendly; they are there to process you as quickly as possible, and being French on top of it, well… just expect the whole affair to be rather brusque.
The whole process won’t take longer than 15 minutes, at which point, you will leave your passport with them (they will mail it back to you using the pre-paid envelope you provide). It may take up to a month or slightly longer for them to return your envelope to you, which is why it is imperative to book an appointment as early as possible. However, I have had my passport arrive at my house literally the Friday before my plane departed for France the following Tuesday. As long as they know when you will arrive in France, they are generally pretty good about getting your passport to you in time, but be prepared to come down to the wire. I would highly recommend purchasing refundable or transferrable plane tickets in the unlikely– though possible– event that you do not receive your passport in time.
The visa process is by far the most arduous and nerve-wracking part of the whole preparation stage, so keep calm and trust your checklist. Once you have your visa in your passport, the biggest administrative hurdle is passed, and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the flight!