As a blogger in this space, I field a handful of advice-seeking emails each week that come from people looking to move to France. I think it’s great that people are doing their research and trying to get as many perspectives as possible before making such a huge life change and I’m happy to help them understand the reality of living in France.
A recurring theme in these emails is that people severely underestimate what a major life change a move abroad can be. Is France a good place to live? Let’s talk about it. I want to get into eight important things people overlook when deciding to move to France.
8 Things people MAJORLY underestimate when moving to France from the USA
First, this is a huge, nuanced topic and one blog post can’t do it justice. There are so many variables that play into why someone would consider a move to France and the steps they take to get there.
I can’t answer the question, “Is France a good place to live” for you. That’s something you’ll need to carefully consider based on a whole variety of factors.
I think it’s easy to focus on the fun and exciting aspects of planning a move to France. But it’s equally as important to spend time researching the less glamorous sides of a move.
What I talk about below is my perspective after having lived in France for a decade and being in this unique position of connecting with so many of you out there over the years, from all walks of life. I can’t tackle it from every angle, but let’s get started.
I’d like to kick this off by saying you don’t have to look too far online to find content from people who love living in France. I’m one of them and love telling you about French habits, amazing places like Le Mont St. Michel, and so much more. I do it often and enjoy sharing all the beautiful parts of France with you. I wouldn’t still be living here in France if that were not the case.
But I feel that there’s less content out there about the harder aspects of life abroad. There are fewer people pointing out realistic hurdles one might face. It’s just as important to talk about the tough parts of living in France and I’d be doing you a disservice if I brushed all of that under the rug. Maybe it doesn’t get as many clicks, but it’s important.
Focusing on only the great parts of life in France won’t prepare you for the more challenging aspects. I hope that what I talk about here might open your eyes to something you hadn’t considered or is at least a reminder to continue researching.
If you’re new here, my goal here on Oui In France isn’t to convince you to move to France or sell you a fairytale. That’s not the purpose of my blog. I don’t work for the tourism board, I’m not a travel agent, and I find it refreshing to be able to speak freely about the good and the bad.
I’m not here to blow smoke — excuse the expression — up France’s ass, so if you’ve been around the blog for a while now, you know my point of view. But what I am here to do is to honestly share my experience over the past decade in the hopes that it’ll help you in some way.
Maybe my content will help you prepare and make your France vacation a bit better, encourage you in some way to go after what you want, open your eyes to a perspective you hadn’t considered, provide some camaraderie, and give you some tips and tricks along the way if you are considering a move abroad or you already live abroad.
Now all that said, it boggles my mind when people write to tell me about how they’re planning their move to France but have never visited the country. Or visited Paris once for a week and are moving. It tells me people fall in love with the idea of France but don’t have any first-hand experience on what living in France might actually be like.It boggles my mind when people write to say they're moving to France but have never visited the country. It tells me people fall in love with the idea of France but don't have any experience on what living in France is actually like.Click To Tweet
That’s where research comes in and I hope this blog post gives you food for thought. If researching your move to France feels easy, then you’re doing it wrong.
For the record, it’s normal to have doubts. That doesn’t mean moving to France is the wrong choice. Just make sure you’re putting in the work before taking the leap. Learning about the hard parts shouldn’t make you any less excited — just more prepared.
As I tell you all the time, real life in France is very different from vacationing in France. Nothing about moving to France from the US should be taken lightly.
Is France a good place to live? Well, what do you want out of life in France? What are you looking for or trying to get away from? I’ve flat out told people on many occasions that they can find what they want by moving to another American state instead of uprooting their lives to France, where they might be surprised to find more red tape and frustration than a move across the country.
To be clear, none of this is to discourage you. Just the opposite. It’s to encourage you to seek out diverse opinions on what life can be like in France and spend as much time in the country as you continue to plan. Or at the very least, I want it to open your eyes to some topics you haven’t considered. I hope you can learn from things I’ve gone through and experienced.
Also, be sure to not only look at the positive posts and videos and assume that’s how life will be for everyone, all the time. Definitely don’t take them as gospel, especially if the person 1) only lived in France for a year 2) doesn’t speak French and 3) is selling you the dream via a course or membership.
It’s important to remember that we will all have very different experiences depending on so many factors. That’s the beauty of it but also what makes it so difficult to objectively answer some of the mails I get.
A couple moving to rural France at retirement age who is financially stable and won’t be working will need vastly different advice than someone who wants to move to Paris on their own, integrate, and build a career at age 25.
Anyway, these are just my thoughts on the reality of living in France.
Here are 8 things I’ve found that are majorly overlooked when people plan their move to France from the USA (or anywhere really):
1. Learning French takes dedication and patience.
One of the biggest misconceptions about moving to France and learning French is that you’ll just “pick up” the language by living here and it just doesn’t work like that. If that logic were true, then every foreigner everywhere would speak the native language of the country they’re living in fluently. But that’s not the case at all. A beginner is not going to be fluent in a year.
Living in a French-speaking country can certainly help you get a leg up on the language and even get you conversational. But learning French to an advanced level takes a lot more than just random chitchat and hearing it around you. It’s not osmosis when it comes to learning grammar, how to properly write, and the nuances of the French language.
Prepare to put in serious time learning the language and start well before you intend to move, especially if you want to integrate and participate in French life around you ASAP.
I’ve found that people (me included!) seriously underestimate the amount of work, dedication, and patience that’s needed to get to a comfortably fluent level of French. I underestimated the frustration of it all.
Even if you have an intermediate level on paper before you move like I did, it might take a couple of years before you feel comfortable in day-to-day life. Your mileage may vary depending on your starting level, if you speak French at work, if you take lessons, if you’re outgoing and like to practice, how hard you are on yourself, and so many other factors.
Not learning the language to a decent level will severely limit your ability to integrate and fully enjoy French life. Start now.
2. French healthcare is not perfect.
I’ve talked about French pharmacies at length on my blog (and even made a behind-the-scenes pharmacy video) and am a fan of so many aspects of the French healthcare system. You’ll see foreigners rave about it online and rightly so. It has a lot going for it and is a system I think we could learn from in the U.S.
One of the main things I love about French healthcare is that an accident or emergency surgery won’t bankrupt you. Healthcare is a human right in France and not a privilege that is attached to your employment. But it’s far from perfect and isn’t without its problems.
For the record, care in France is generally excellent and French doctors are well trained and just as capable as American doctors. But depending on where you live, it can be hard to get a quick appointment and even be accepted as a new patient. (I know this can be true in the U.S. as well, but I’m pointing out that it can also be the case in France.)
I live in an area that’s dubbed a “medical desert” for some specialties and I’m not in a rural area!
People have also characterized French doctors as being a less patient friendly, a bit cold and standoffish, and less collaborative than they’re used to at home. I’ve had several bad experiences. French hospitals are also less modern looking than what you’re used to.
Also, because it’s a public system, doctors seem to be a little more hesitant to do tests or order scans unless it’s absolutely necessary. You’re kind of at the mercy of the doctor. Patients don’t seem to advocate for themselves here as much. The doctor is in charge. Let me give you example.
Our pre-teen nephew was having a bad stomachache on and off and his dad brought him to the emergency room. The ER doc did an exam but wrote it off as just a stomach bug and didn’t do blood work or anything beyond a physical exam before sending him home with Doliprane.
My brother-in-law asked the doctor if she could please do an ultrasound — that this wasn’t normal for his son to feel this way — or at the very least a blood test.
She declined and condescendingly told him it’s a public system, monsieur, and if they did tests on every kid with a stomach ache, they’d never have time or money to do anything else. FYI, a blood test would have shown something was wrong and costs about 5 euros.
To make a long story short, our nephew had appendicitis and ended up having an infected appendix due to the delay in care. He went on to have surgery and spent a week in the hospital because it wasn’t caught earlier.
Let me point out that of course this could happen anywhere and I’m sure it does. I agree. Doctors miss stuff all the time. But the point is that it happens in France too. French healthcare is not perfect.
I’ve experienced instances where doctors in France refuse to do a particular test because it’s a public system… in cases where they wouldn’t have hesitated in the U.S. Malpractice cases aren’t really a thing in France and doctors don’t fear being sued for millions.
It’s a vastly different healthcare system in France and it’s important to be aware of these differences especially when it concerns your health.
3. There are extreme politics in France, too.
While the political scene in France doesn’t match the American one, there still is a political scene. You’ll find people with far right, nationalistic views. Marine Le Pen has gained support in recent years and politicians’ ugly views make the news here too. Some might consider this one of the bad things about living in France, but it is what it is.
In each election, there are no fewer than 12 candidates. There’s a far left party called La France Insoumise (LFI) and a Parti Communiste Français (PCF). People’s political views are diverse.
That said, one’s political views don’t seem to shape people’s identities as much in France and you won’t see many bumper stickers on cars in support of one candidate or another. Or profane lawn signs or decorations. Anyway, I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole on this one, so I’ll leave it there.
4. The tax burden.
You hear people say time and time again that the French pay high taxes. From income tax, to self-employment cotisations, to CFE (Contribution Fonciere des Entreprises) tax if you’re a business owner, to property tax, inheritance tax, yes, it’s true. Taxes in France might be a bit of a shock.
Regarding income tax, you pay a personal progressive income tax on worldwide income and you file jointly as a household. There’s no option to file separately as a married couple. The more kids you have, generally the less you pay.
If you’re employed in France, the social charges (goes to the social security system, not to be confused with income taxes, which are separate) that come out of your pay on the backend might be a bit of a surprise.
If you’re a particularly high earner, you pay a supplemental tax (as a way to help curb the budget deficit). If you’re single and earn between 250-500k euros/year, that extra tax is 3% on your total income. Keep in mind a salary like that would be very rare and French salaries tend to be much lower than comparable American ones.
Now all that said, for paying into the system, you get a lot in return. You have healthcare, unemployment pay, housing assistance, and all kinds of parental benefits, for starters.
Even as a self-employed person with no kids, despite paying a hefty chunk of taxes/social charges, I do think the quality of life in France is worth it. Paying into the system for the greater good is a concept that I’m OK with, although at first glance it might seem like one of the bad things about living in France.
Not sure if I’d be singing the same tune though if I was in that high earner category. Just being honest!
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5. Inheritance matters.
No one wants to think about their death, but if you plan on living (and possibly dying) in France, definitely look closely at inheritance laws and succession/gift tax (droits de Succession et de Donation).
If you’re a French resident at the time of your death (or gift), there can be some pretty hefty inheritance taxes due from the recipient — especially if you have a high net worth. The rates vary based on the relationship to the deceased and the amount.
To give you an example for a parent/child relationship, you get a tax-free allowance up to 100k but would pay a 30% inheritance tax on amounts ranging from €552,324–€902,838. And please, for the love of all things holy, make sure you have a will.
Please note that I’m not a tax or inheritance expert and everyone’s situation is different, so do your research and hire the appropriate professionals so you’re aware of what your options and obligations are.
6. Culture shock can be quite an adjustment.
We hear the words “culture shock” being thrown around all the time. There are little things that seem “weird” and are clearly different when we examine French culture. They’re not that serious. But sometimes culture shock in France is more insidious and catches up with us when we aren’t expecting it.
We know to expect trivial things like places being closed on Sunday or stores closing earlier than we’re used to. We know small talk is different in France and so are social norms. The bureaucracy can be maddening.
But there are less obvious aspects of French culture that you’ll only become familiar with a little at a time and aren’t things you’ll recognize after a couple of vacations or even being here a year. These ingrained aspects of French culture can make it hard to connect with people, establish yourself, and feel secure in your new identity as a foreigner in France. Not to mention the language barrier. Or when the French keep switching to English.
Simple things aren’t always so simple and when you’re already dealing with a lot (see #7), sometimes the culture shock can wear on you, get you really wound up, into a depression, bring about anxiety or a meltdown…. and it’s just part of the process. Don’t underestimate it. Or when it can strike.
7. Life problems will be harder to deal with.
I’ve talked about this one before on the blog and it bears repeating because I feel it’s that important. After a while, you’ll realize that regular life problems can be even more difficult to handle — both logistically and mentally/emotionally — when you live abroad. That’s just the reality of living in France or anywhere far away.
The emotional aspects of divorce, health crises, miscarriages, job loss, financial problems, and grief, for starters, are hard enough on their own in our own country where we speak the language and know how to get support and handle administrative processes.
But all of these very real life challenges are exponentially more emotionally taxing when you’re so far from home. I’m talking distance wise, having to handle everything in French and in a place where you’re an outsider and don’t quite know the culture like a native. Or if you just haven’t dealt with a particular situation before in any country.
If you live abroad long enough, something terrible will rock your world because that’s life. It’s not just one of the cons of living in France, but again, of being far away.
I’ll be completely honest with you. After the last 18 months, I can confidently say that if I were single in France, I wouldn’t still be here. Luckily, Tom is an amazing support system and we started a life here together and enjoy many aspects of life in France. I want to be here with him and this is where we’ll stay. I’m happy with that as a married person.
But if I were single, ooooh boy, knowing what I know now about how much harder life problems are to deal with when you’re not in your home country (and the reminder of how important family is), well I wouldn’t continue living here. I couldn’t have gone through all the grief alone.
I wouldn’t move to France on my own (did that already when I taught English and life was simpler then and was grateful for the experience) and I wouldn’t pursue such a huge life change as a retired person. But that’s just me.
At that stage of my life, I’d be seeking out more ease and comfort and not frustration and challenges. But of course there are many retired folks who move abroad all the time and love it. I’m happy I moved to France in my 20s.
Thank goodness Tom and I have each other! And please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t move abroad if that’s what you want. We’re all different and deal with life in our own ways. I just want to make sure you’re doing it with your eyes wide open.I'm not saying that you shouldn't move abroad if that's what you want. We're all different and deal with life in our own ways. I just want to make sure you're doing it with your eyes wide open.Click To Tweet
Any way you slice it, life is hard. Moving to France from the USA (or anywhere!) can be very challenging — not just the first year. I think a lot of that stuff gets swept under the rug, hidden from view, because people are ashamed to share it or those on the receiving end only want to hear about their loved one’s dream life and nothing less than that.
I think it’s easy to hide away the hard, ugly stuff because it’s not fit for public consumption. But it’s still there and if we’re human, we are bound to go through hard times. They hit hard no matter where we live. But the magnitude of “hard” should not be underestimated. Have a support system in place before you need it.
8. Living in France is not a cure-all for all of life’s ills back home.
France is not a utopia. I try to hit that point home hard to counteract all the BS out there. It’s not a paradise where everything is rosy and nothing bad ever happens. I love living in France for so many reasons, but I see it clearly for all that it is (and isn’t).
France has racism. And crime. And bad neighborhoods. And homeless people. I hear from people via email who seem to think that if they could just move to France, that all the problems they have with their lives in the U.S. will disappear. And that France is going to be inherently better in every single way, for everyone, always and forever.
Maybe that’s true for a select few. But I think it’s a naïve mindset. We often trade in one set of problems for a brand new set, just with different scenery.
There is one caveat though. If you’re coming to France for a year with your private funds to essentially take a one-year vacation, maybe it’ll feel like a paradise. Vacations often do. But living here long-term, and working, speaking French, and integrating will thankfully pull back the façade. You’ll see that France is just like anywhere else. Life here has its own set of challenges. Just with better food and wine. 😉
I hope you enjoyed this real talk post and understand where I’m coming from with it. I feel like there’s a lot of content out there that shows living in France as this dream life we should all aspire to and envy. People’s excitement overshadows some of the other important things that need to be considered before such a huge life change.
Talk to me in the comments about the reality of living in France. What did you underestimate before moving and what are some of the bad things about living in France?
P.S. If you got something out of this post, would you mind sharing it? Here’s why that helps. 😉
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