Watch your step, surviving the French Prefecture

© Jessie Kanelos

On a recent trip to the Prefecture, the dreaded bureaucratic destination of all expats living in France, I promptly took a number and a seat.  “80 people ahead of you in line,”  snarled the ticket.  Along with almost one year of marriage under my belt, no celebrations are complete without the anticipation and trepidation of renewing my visa.  Albeit the edible, instant perks of the living in France, there is a long paper trail to get something like a visa.  Although I still cannot go to the Prefecture without getting butterflies in my stomach, I could not help but compile a few quick tips while counting down from 80 on my last trip.   So be warned, fellow francophiles.

1.)  Always address someone with ‘bonjour madame/monsieur’ first thing.  This is common protocol for good reception in France.  Whenever I get back to France from a trip back to the States, my father-in-law always gets a chuckle saying “Welcome back to civilization!”  Although I did not think it was funny the first time, there is a lot of truth in this.  France is still greatly indebted to politeness. In the States, good manners are read as stuffy and a bit outdated.  But in France, the ultimate insult is to call someone mal élevé or not brought up well.  Case in point, about once a week, I see two hot tempered people get in a scuffle on the metro if one person bumps into the other without a pardon or excusez-moi.

Although I am still awaiting customer service to arrive in France, taking an extra step to be polite might certainly pay off with better service later on.  And do not forget to say hello, too.  Americans, myself included, when arriving in France all sparkly eyed, tend to demand exactly what they want the moment they have someone’s attention.  But like sitting down when I eat, acknowledging a person before addressing my own concerns is a  French custom that I have adopted as my own.  And at the end of the day, it is a bit more civilized.

 2.)  Never be too optimistic going to the Prefecture.  Although I am an optimist at heart, I always tell myself on the way to the Prefecture, “ok, this will be a pain”.  Bureaucracy in France is a continual wild goose chase.  And although one thing is stated on the website, there might be one imaginary thing that you do not have when your number is finally called at the Prefecture.  After our wedding, I had to fly all the way to the French Embassy in New York to apply for a visa to come back to France.  I followed the website’s precise requirements.  Although I had mon mari’s French passport in my hands, I was quick to learn it was not proof enough that he was French.  So I had to scrounge up birth certificates from my in-laws at the last minute.   Nevertheless, always ask as many questions when you do have someone to speak to because it has the potential of saving several trips in the future.

3.)  Be prepared to wait.  I trekked to the Prefecture at 8am that morning.  And there was line wrapping halfway around the block.  Much like DisneyLand, the queue continues in an unseen location after, too.  Once the doors opened at 9, myself and my fellow bovines in the cattle call were given numbers and waited in a packed waiting room inside the building. Never schedule another rendezvous in the morning if expected to handle anything at the prefecture.  Because it could take all day.  And always bring a book.

4.)  Be prepared to argue.  The French are notorious arguers.  It’s a continual battle between right and wrong.   Children learn argument/counter-argument at an early age.  The best thing to do is play it innocent.  If you can convince the person helping you that their exceptional knowledge can be of exceptional service to you, then maybe you can get your way.  But since everyone always wants to get the last word,  the lines are particularly long.

5.)  Over-prepare.  And take the time to organize ahead of time.  Buy a binder and organize everything carefully in plastic sleeves so it is easily visible and accessible.  Make a photocopy or two of all originals beforehand.  And don’t forget to bring  a pocket of change in case you need to make last-minute, emergency photocopies.  And for the coffee machine, if you can be so lucky.

Living anywhere has its tradeoffs.  But like everything, preparation and a sense of humor can work wonders.

Do you have any Prefecture horror stories?

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  1. Tammy says:

    Hi, I am an American married to a French (in France) and we both laughed at your blog. We are going to the prefecture on Friday to apply for my 10-year residency (carte de sejour). In the 4 years I have been here I haven’t had any problems (cross my fingers) but it’s still nerve-racking. The rules are changing all the time so we never know what we might face. I also had to get my French drivers license and that was another experience. I had two young Indian men in my class (in their mid-20’s) and they said studying for their French drivers license was more difficult than studying for their masters degree – lol.

  2. thefrancofly says:

    Thanks for the pointers Melissa. Every time I go to the Prefecture I learn something new, usually by trial and error.

    Bonne soiree!

  3. melissa says:

    Hi, I live in a france, well theoratically. I live in a Caribbean country but it’s under france (government). And as a native English speaker, sometimes I want to take a croissant and slap the clerks into next week. Three, no four offices you need to take note of that you definitely will have to visit if you live in france are: prefecture, tax office, social security, and la CAF. Walk with extra photocopies at ALL times, get there early especially if you do not have a rendevous. Preferably before they open. Expect the unexpected so walk with all your french documents. Utilitiy bills come in handy. Always (pretend to) love the french. Always smile and say ”bonjour, ca va?”. Most important thing, be wise at the prefecture. If you know you’re lacking a document that you just couldn’t get or is impossible to, hand them those you do have and keep your mouth shut. If they don’t ask for it (because sometimes they forget or they don’t notice) don’t talk about it. They don’t ask, you don’t tell. That has helped me a few times. This only works if most of your things are in order and you’re dropping of a dossier or something.

  4. Meg says:

    Hehe good to know! That’s what I had read. ALL SET.

  5. thefrancofly says:

    Hi Meg,

    I will be applying for my international drivers license the same day as I renew my visa. I will keep you posted. But from what I know from a friend who is PACS-ed, a US drivers license must be exchanged within the first year of marriage or PACS in France. But the format of the carte de sejour has changed so there is a lot of grey area. But I would definitely take care of it within the first year if it is not too late. Phew, good luck.

  6. Miss Bougie says:

    My husband and I have both a French driver’s license, passed waaaay back in France. As there are a lot of fake licenses in circulation, the Préfecture checks them, every time someone brings theirs to their attention. As I had to show ours for the International one, they seized the opportunity. Normally it is just a routine check, which, unfortunately, didn’t turn out “routine” for my husband.
    As ours were old licenses, the info had been data processed by hand. From paper to computer. Apparently that job had been handed over to students in Toulouse who were paid by the license; hubby’s license didn’t get processed. Luckily the paper version had survived, probably stored in some dusty box high up on the shelf, somewhere on the third floor below street level…yeah,I know, being overly dramatic here. 🙂
    The person at the Préfecture told me that they had had problems before with licenses passed in Toulouse. A lot of them had not been properly processed.
    Anyway, the “new” version is a smaller version of our old driver’s license, although the pink colour remains. It seems a “new, new” version is on the cards, again. Credit card type card; isn’t that what you have in the US? It seems whe have until the year 2032 to get it!
    Plenty of time. LOL

  7. Meg says:

    These are great tips, and all so true! I always forget coins…! I’ve learned now that you just have to bring every document you own.

    BUT, I didn’t have the glory of experiencing this type of trip to the préfecture …*yet* Ha!

    I have 4 carte de séjour “étudiante” are under my belt, and my carte de séjour for my boyfriend and I’s PACS was SO OVER prepared on my end that it was ridiculous, it ended up being a piece of cake and surprisingly quick (weird, right? I was prepared for the WORST)… it sounds like I have more coming my way the next few years! The potential hell experience at the French préfecture. OY. Everyone always has such a different story, it is so interesting to hear about!

    As for your drivers license, I’d love to hear about that story… After reading up I’m preparing the paperwork for the exchange now! Wahoo! But you are applying for an International one or changing for a French one? I only read up on the exchange but not sure what that entails?

  8. thefrancofly says:


    I plan to apply for my international driver’s license the same day I renew my visa. Thanks for the pointers because it will take all day!

    Thanks again for reading, Miss Bougie.

  9. thefrancofly says:

    Thanks for reading Mary Louise! Wishing you the best on your next trip to the Prefecture…

  10. marylouise says:

    So well written…..and so true! I don’t have a story but after many years here, I confess to butterflies
    as I wait my turn, with a book, at the Prefecture.

  11. Miss Bougie says:

    Préfecture, as in obtaining an international driver’s licence?
    Been there, done that.
    A few years back I went to the Préfecture with my husband’s and my French driver’s license (plus his carte d’identité – just to be on the safe side 🙂 with the number of photos required.
    Arriving at the counter I was told that first we needed the “new” (smaller paper version) of the driver’s license, before they could give us the international one. Apparently there were quite a lot of counterfeit licenses circulating in France, so each time someone came with a request, they checked if you really did have a valid license. Naturally I only had one photo each, and for the “new” license I needed two each. Sigh….

    Checking if your licence is valid implied checking with the Prefecture who originally emitted your license. I had no problem, as my license had been emitted at that Préfecture.
    Unfortunately my husband was not so lucky. He had passed his driver’s test in Toulouse and his name didn’t show up on the computer. So they had to do a manual search in Toulouse which, I was assured, would take one week.
    In the end it took 2 months!!!
    I don’t know how many times I went to the Préfecture to check whether his driver’s license had arrived, not being able to obtain info by phone. In the end the lady at the counter took pity on me and gave me her phone number;

    Lucky I always tend to organise ahead and we had plenty of time before our plane took off for the US.
    On the upside the lines are much shorter for the permis de conduire as for the carte de séjour.

    And, oh yes, definitely bring a book. 🙂

  12. thefrancofly says:

    Thanks, darling. It’s good advice because you plan to move to Paris?

  13. oh man, sounds like a nightmare–this is all very good advice!

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