Escape the rat race

Follow these 10 simple steps and you could be living your dream life across the channel. Karen Tait reports

Home is where the heart is

If you’re moving to France, finding a home will be up there at the top of your priorities. Whether you’ll be renting or buying a property, take time to think about what would suit you best.

Obviously location is a key consideration. You may already know exactly where you want to be or you could be open to all options. There are a lot. France is a big country with a huge variety of landscapes, climate and traditions. You can research areas in books, magazines and online, but nothing beats actually visiting. If possible, try to spend a decent amount of time in the area so you know what it’s like at different times of year and what it would be like to live there rather than spending a couple of weeks on holiday.

Also consider whether you want to be in the heart of a bustling city or perhaps a smaller but lively town, or enjoying the peace and quiet of a rural location. Villages vary from a small cluster of houses to somewhere with shops and restaurants, so there’s plenty of choice.

Obviously how you intend to live your life will influence your choice of location, especially if you’ll be running a business or looking for a particular kind of job.

Another consideration is access (airports, ferryports, train stations and road networks), especially if you intend returning regularly to the UK or will have lots of visitors, either friends and family or paying guests should you decide to run a B&B or g�tes.

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Choosing the property itself will obviously be a key part of the process. You might be buying something very different from anything you’ve previously lived in – perhaps you’re moving from a city to a country home, from a new place to an old property, or you might be buying loads more land than you’re used to – so clearly this is going to take time and lots of research.

Fortunately the French property buying system is strictly regulated and protective of the buyer. It does differ from the English process though so make sure you understand it before you sign any contracts. In France, a sale becomes legally binding much earlier (shortly after signing the compromis de vente agreement after the vendor has accepted your offer). Also bear in mind that the forced heirship system means you can’t just leave property to whoever you wish in your will, so you may want to seek professional advice. Now is the time to do it as it may be too late after you’ve bought a property.

Moving day

About a month before you leave the UK, contact utility companies, council tax department, phone and internet providers etc to let them know the date of your move and arrange for meters to be read. You can also ask the post office to forward your mail.

If you’ll be using a removals company, make sure they are properly insured and that you’ve received confirmation of date and price in writing. If your new address is down a narrow lane or tricky driveway, check the lorry will be able to access your property.

If possible, avoid moving on weekends, Mondays and bank holidays when lots of banks, shops and businesses are closed.

If you’re travelling with pets, you’ll need all relevant paperwork (export certificates, vaccination certificates, pet passport papers etc) with you. On ferries, it’s normal for dogs to be confined to your vehicle during the crossing.

Duty is not payable on used items such as furniture or vehicles imported for personal use provided that their VAT has been paid within the EU. However, all new goods brought into France for moving purposes should be declared to French Customs.

Paperwork and bureaucracy is like a religion in France, so make sure you take originals and plenty of photocopies of everything you’re ever likely to need, including birth and marriage certificates, driving licence etc.

One bit of paperwork you won’t need is a residence permit as they are not required for EU citizens (or those from the European Economic Area and Swiss, Monacan and Andorran nationals).

Money matters

You will need to open a bank account in France to pay bills, make mortgage payments and receive payments from pensions or from employers or clients. As many essential services such as gas and electricity require your French current account details as a financial guarantee, you might need an account before you actually move; you will need proof of your French address (e.g. a utilities or phone bill) as well as identification.

Depending on your level of fluency in French, you could choose one of the banks with English-speaking advisers. Some offer special packages for expats, so research the different options available.

Once you’ve moved to France you will be subject to French tax, including income tax, VAT, property taxes (d’habitation and fonci�re) and wealth tax. It may be advisable to seek professional advice before you move to ensure you end up in the most tax-efficient situation.

Those retiring to France should be aware that tax is generally paid in France on pension income, except for certain pensions, generally public service and government schemes, which remain subject to UK tax (but must still be declared on your French tax return). The UK state pension is taxed in France. Make sure you understand any implications for your pension before you move.

If you’ll be making regular money transfers between the UK and France, it is worth investigating the different currency exchange deals on offer too.

Working it out

If you plan on setting up or running your own business in France, makes sure you have a detailed business plan and know just how much you’ll need to survive. Most businesses make little or no money at the start so you’ll need a contingency fund, ideally sufficient for at least 18 months without earning anything.

Citizens of the EU, European Economic Area (EEA) countries, Switzerland, Monaco or Andorra do not need a permit to work in France. Nationals of all other countries will need a work permit.

If you’ll be job-seeking when you move, check whether your qualifications are transferrable to France and if certificates will need to be translated.

Jobseekers can register with the ANPE (Agence Nationale pour l’Emploi) and Ass�dic employment agencies. French CVs tend to be a page long and should be in French, along with the covering letter, if you’re applying to a French company.

Healthy and happy

The French healthcare system is one of the finest in the world, but before you leave the UK, find out if you are entitled to access it. Until you move you can use the EHIC (European Health Insurance Card), but once you’re living in France you will need to join the French system.

If you are in receipt of a UK state pension or employed in France, you and your family will be entitled to full coverage under the French social security system, the S�curit� Sociale, which will give you access to state healthcare. Retirees need to apply for an S1 form from the Department of Works and Pensions before they leave the UK.

Under the French system, you pay at the time of treatment and are reimbursed later by the public health insurance fund (Assurance Maladie). To claim back the full amount you need to be registered with a primary doctor (m�decin traitant).

Most doctors (m�decins conventionn�s) have signed an agreement with the French government that sets an upper limit on their fees. Other specialists (m�decins conventionn�s � honoraires libres) can charge higher fees.

Once you are in the system, i.e. registered with your local CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie) or RSI (R�gime Sociale des Ind�pendants for the self-employed), you receive a carte vitale, which you take with you to medical consultations and to collect prescriptions at the pharmacy. This contains your social security number and is used to track all the expenses that you incur in the French healthcare system.

Medicine and drugs are reimbursed at a rate of between 35-65%. Most people also take out a top-up private health insurance (mutuelle), which will reimburse most if not all of the medical fees not covered by the state.

Settling in

Being sensitive to the way things are done in France can be the key to being accepted by your new French friends, acquaintances and neighbours. The French tend to be more formal than British. For example, colleagues shake hands every morning and say bonjour, and you are expected to say bonjour and au revoir when entering or leaving a shop. You’re in France now so however frustrating it is to find that the local bricolage is closed for lunch, remember that the French commitment to lunchbreaks is probably one of the things that made you move there in the first place!

Unless you’re a hermit, you’ll want to mix with your new community. Always support local f�tes and events. Join in with activities, clubs or classes. Chat with your neighbours; why not invite them round for an ap�ro or English-style tea and cake?

No matter how well you integrate in France, you’re bound to be a little homesick at times; missing friends and family is inevitable. Keep this to a minimum by ensuring you stay in touch with those back home. It’s easier than ever now with email, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol software packages, such as Skype), webcams, social networking sites and so on.

When comparing phone and internet packages, choose one with a good deal for international calls, or you could pick a basic package and use Skype for calls back to the UK.

If fast broadband (or ADSL in France) is important to you, check it’s available in your area, and also bear in mind that mobile signals may be poor in some rural locations.

Learn the lingo

You’re moving to a different country with its own language – how can you expect to get the most out of your new life if you don’t even attempt to speak that language? Yes, it is difficult, but even the smallest efforts will be rewarded – French people will appreciate your attempts to speak their language and if they correct you, don’t be offended, they’re probably just trying to help.

There are so many ways to learn now, both before you leave the UK and once you’re living in France, from lessons, books, CDs and interactive DVDs, to simply listening to French radio and TV and reading the papers – so you’ve no excuse!

Animal instincts

The EU Pets Passport Scheme has been a real boon for pet-owners moving across the Channel. The passport contains an identification number and proof of current vaccinations. It is issued by a licensed vet after they have confirmed that the animal has been identified with a microchip in the neck or tattoo in the ear and that all rabies vaccinations are up to date. Pets without passports face six months of expensive quarantine.

If you will travel back to the UK at some point, you’ll need to arrange for your pets passports at least six months before leaving the UK.

Pets entering France from a non-EU country that has the same rabies controls need to show that the anti-rabies vaccinations are valid and up-to-date. Animals from non-complying countries need to have complete anti-rabies treatment.

Before you move, discuss with your vet any new diseases and parasites your pets may be exposed to in France, and the precautions you should take.

Make sure your pets can be identified in case they run away from their new home; dogs will need to be microchipped anyway, but use id tags too.

The Defra website has useful factsheets and a Pet Travel Scheme helpline (0870 241 1710) and the UK French Embassy website also has information on taking your pets to France.

A family affair

If you’re moving with children, you’ll need to think about their schooling, even if they’re still little. If you want international schools, these are mainly located in large cities and along the Riviera, so this will influence where you live.

Schooling in France is compulsory for all children from six to 16 years old, and state education is free of charge. Foreign children may enter the state system, but it helps if they have some knowledge of French first. All French schools follow a national curriculum.

Children can attend nursery school (�cole maternelle) from the age of three, great for working parents. Then there’s �cole primaire (primary school) from six to 11 years, coll�ge (middle school) from 11-15, and lyc�e (high school) from 15, where students take their baccalaur�at (equivalent to A-levels). Schoolchildren need insurance (assurance scolaire) for any activities outside the classroom.

To enrol your child at the local school, contact the service des �coles at your mairie (town hall); you’ll need birth certificate, proof of parents’ identity (e.g. passports), health records to show vaccinations, and proof of home address (e.g. utility bill).

Meeting other parents at the school gates is a great way to integrate so make sure you always make the effort to chat.

Families with children may also be eligible for tax-free benefits – a guide entitled Social Security in the European Union’ is available from the DSS Overseas Branch, which details the various benefits available in France.

Now you're motoring

You can use your UK (or any EU) driving licence to drive in France.

If you take your car with you, you will need to register it in France. This is not a simple process; it starts with the Notification of Permanent Export form, which you must send to the DVLA if you take your car out of the UK for more than 12 months, then you need to MOT your car in France if it is more than four years old. You must also prove that VAT was paid at the time of purchase, to avoid paying French duty. Next you have to apply for a certificate of conformity proving that the vehicle meets European standards. Finally you need to complete the demande de certificat d’immatriculation (vehicle registration request certificate). Once you have all the forms, you need to visit your local pr�fecture to complete the registration.

Or you could simply buy a left-hand-drive car in France (or in neighbouring countries where prices may be lower).

You’ll need a minimum of third-party car insurance in France. You should be able to transfer any non-claims bonus from your UK policy.

French drivers have a bad reputation, so bear this in mind and take extra care, at least until you know which rules are most likely to be broken.