How to Move to France

Salut.  Despite the thirteen months that I’ve lived abroad in France and Switzerland, I have never been faced with the conundrum of immigrating to Europe all on my own. Little by little I’ve been tossed over into the sea of chaos that is the French bureaucracy and the red tape of immigration paperwork.  My first two experiences abroad were facilitated by student exchange programs, one for high school students who depended completely on host families to take care of them, the second cushioned by my university’s study abroad office.  My four-month stay in France was not the typical American “study abroad” – the direct-exchange threw many Americans for a loop, accustomed to a style of education where everything is delivered to them on a platter. Nevertheless, the paperwork and hurdles one faces as a student independently applying to a French graduate school program center around one daunting online process: CampusFrance.usa.

In short, moving to France as a young, inexperienced American is easier said than done.  First of all, there are two important factors to keep in mind: money and visas.  Compared to the high cost of funding an education in the U.S., the extremely reduced price tag of Master’s programs seems like a hoax.  However, there are many invisible costs that make such a reality less attainable if you are funding yourself independent of family support.  First of all, you will rarely be eligible for government-subsidized loans from either the U.S. (you’re not applying to a U.S. graduate school after all) or the French government.  The application process itself involves many hidden expenses.  And then you must have a substantial amount saved to even be eligible for a student visa.  Don’t expect to hop off the boat and “pay your way.”

Second, there are few options for obtaining a visa if you are a young college graduate from a liberal arts program, no matter how prestigious it might be.  Unless you can prove that you have the assets and skills to start your own business in France, you are eligible for a long-term visa only if A) you are accepted into a French degree-program, B) you will be housed by family members in France or a French significant other who agrees to “Pax” you, or C) a French company agrees to sponsor your work visa.  Which is a pretty tall order if you have little work experience or expertise, as it would be much much cheaper for them to hire your French or European counterpart, who already has the paperwork and the degree they are looking for (not to mention it’s highly discouraged by the French government).

Hence, this post will attempt to explain how to go about applying for a Master’s program via the mandatory avenue of CampusFrance.

Here’s the instructions they give:  Applying to a French Institution at the Graduate School Level.


I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of CampusFrance for now, but here’s a brief overview of what my past year looked like:

May 2011: Leave France a month earlier than most French universities finish for the semester in order to accommodate an American university schedule of summer school classes.

July 2011: Send emails to professors at different universities inquiring about the requirements for different programs.  NB: The French school system places law school and medical school at the undergraduate level, eliminating the need for “pre-law” or “pre-med” designations.  Which means that those who wish to pursue law or medicine in France must apply for an undergraduate degree, a whole other can of worms.

With my background in literature and languages, I looked into French literature, English literature, and LEA (Langues étrangères appliquées) Master’s programs, discovering to my dismay that I wasn’t especially qualified for any of them.  My university’s French program is nowhere near on par with the level of undergraduate programs in France, and it would be rather ludicrous to look into teaching jobs in France as a non-native speaker.  In order to graduate in three years, I opted out of double-majoring in English, despite being an avid reader and writer.  As for LEA, you must demonstrate that you have studied two foreign languages (in addition to French/English) since high school and are near fluent in both in order to pursue a Master’s degree – not to mention a background in economics, foreign relations, and/or law.  My years of mastering French, although well beyond the par of most Americans, was not enough to pursue programs in translation or applied language training.

So I opted for a degree in English in France, with an undergraduate background in French in the U.S.  Maybe the negatives will cancel each other out to equal a strong candidate for teaching English as a foreign language to French high school students.  Or maybe I’ll look like I’ve always opted for an easy path.

August 2011: Convince CampusFrance to “reset” my application from when I had to apply for a visa to study abroad.  For those who do choose to study abroad from an American university, CampusFrance is a (somewhat) less painful ordeal involving a mere third of the steps.  After numerous emails and much coaxing, my dossier was reset.  I was not able to create a new Pastel account, however, as it would show two entries for my passport ID number, a definite visa no-no.

October 2011: Take the TCF (Test de connaissance du français) at the Alliance Française de Chicago, the only place offering the exam in the greater Midwest Region, only offered on one Friday for the entirety of Fall 2011.  As I was applying “Hors DAP” (DAP is a requirement for licence 1 and licence 2 applications), I decided to opt for the additional Speaking and Writing portions of the exam.  Luckily I did, for I found out when applying that some schools require that you demonstrate written proficiency in order to qualify for their program.  The minimum requirement is a score of B1 or B2 in some programs.  I received a C2 in the required tests, with a C1 in Oral expression and B2 in Written expression.  Other exams qualify such as the DELF and DALF.  The October TCF was the only exam that would allow me to have my results early enough for when I wanted to begin the application (end of December).  The exam came to a grand total of $300.

November 2011: Have all my transcripts from high school through undergraduate translated, since I had not graduated before applying for a Master’s program. Unlike in France, which gives degrees each year of undergraduate and a qualifying high school diploma called the Baccalauréat, I had to have all coursework over a period of seven years translated into French by a professional translator and then certified by the French Consulate of Chicago.  I stopped by the consulate in October when I took the TCF asking for the name of a translator.  I am glad I used one of their official English-French translators, for she was able to get the Consulate to certify it for free.  Nevertheless, with both transcripts and my high school diploma translated on a per word basis, the cost came to $180 – and this doesn’t include my need to eventually have my completed college transcript, diploma, and birth certificate translated for registration and immigration purposes in France.

December 2011: Travel to France over the Winter Holiday, visiting friends in France and taking an opportunity to talk to the International Office at my former university in Amiens.  I spoke with the scolarité and the exchange coordinator in order to make sure I was properly going about the online process.  Unfortunately, due to Christmas recess and first semester exams, I was not able to meet with professors of the program to which I was applying.  Even more valuable than university staff, however, was the information I picked up from Tunisian friends who had gone through a similar application process in applying for Master’s programs.  I also began to fill out the required sections of the CampusFrance forms and struggled to convert my jpeg images of transcripts into a small enough format to submit on the online application.

January 2012: Pick out the French universities I wanted to apply to – initially too many, the maximum of 15, until I was told during my interview that most applicants apply to only 6-7.  I ended up with eight: two schools in Paris, and a school in Amiens, Lyons, Lille, Rennes, Nantes, and Tours.  I then submitted my online form and sent a paper copy of the application along with my money order of $140 to CampusFrance in Washington, D.C.  They acknowledge the receipt of my money order on January 30.

February 2012: Wait, wait, wait, wait….. I waited for two weeks for them to acknowledge my paper application and to let them know that my online application was complete.  No response.  I finally received the name of the woman responsable for overseeing my application.  I scheduled an interview, only to have her tell me to reschedule it after March 10, as she was too busy working on the DAP applications.  Mind you, the deadline for our application is March 31.  I agonized over the fact that I couldn’t reschedule as the online Pastel site no longer let me “cancel” my interview since my responsable notified me after the scheduled time.

March 2012: Finish the application – Finally, after a few weeks of ignored emails, I called back the French woman working on my file (or not working on it more precisely) and had her reschedule an interview for March 22.  The interview went just dandy, thirty-odd minutes of talking about yourself in French and about your future aspirations.  Make sure to think through what you want to say, and do not mention that you might plan (*cough*) to indefinitely settle down in France or Europe.  My responsable then winnowed down the number of requests to universities (at my behest), and the next week, (almost) everything on my online account went green.  I was in the clear, a day before the deadline.


And so now, what’s left? Waiting, waiting, and more waiting.  Universities are technically able to respond, via CampusFrance, any time now, but they have until June 30 to respond.  Most won’t start sending responses back until at least the end of April.  My friends have already declared their final choices for U.S. graduate schools, and I will still be waiting for eight odd schools to decide my future.  Wish me luck!

Categories: Bureacracy, France, Immigration | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “How to Move to France

  1. Thank you writing such a detailed post. I’m thinking about graduate school (Mathematics) in France and I had no idea what the process is. I guess this is a good starting point. I wish you well in your adventure!

    • Il n’y a pas de quoi. The application process differs for all individuals. Keep in mind that France does things quite differently than the U.S. The most important thing is to have a lot of patience and to give yourself enough time for all the steps. CampusFrance can be helpful, just make sure to call them as they rarely respond to emails. When are you thinking of doing a graduate program in France? I am guessing it won’t be for Fall 2012.

      • I have 2 more years till I finish my Bachelors, so it won’t be until Fall 2014. It’s really confusing because from what I understand that if you want to be at a good school in France to study Math, you should aim for what they call the grandes écoles. I can’t really find much information about them, but I’ll look more into it. Thank you for your time and keep us posted on how things go with you :-)

  2. For the Grandes Écoles, they usually have some money set aside, similar to U.S. grad schools. However, you usually have to go to France to take a “concours d’admission.” Let’s just say you’d be competing against international students from around the world with very few spots for admission. If you have the talent and brains, there is honestly nothing better you can do in terms of education in France. But these schools are really the top echelon of society, and it’s outside of the university system altogether (like the Sorbonne). Some common grandes écoles are Écoles Normales Supérieures (ENS).

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