Moving to France: A 10-Step Guide for CampusFrance Scholars

Theo van der Merwe, a former UCT student and current French government scholarship holder, arrived in Paris in August to start his first year at Sciences-Po as a Master’s student in International Development. Theo has compiled a step-by-step ‘How To’ guide, full of tips and personal trial and error, in order to help prospective students make a smooth landing in France.
CampusFrance, South Africa


Moving to another country for studies can seem overwhelming.  There are admin hurdles, friends and family to say goodbye to and often, a new language to learn.  However, as a CampusFrance scholar this should not detract from your excitement and the incredible opportunities before you as you prepare for your studies in France!  So, to try and make this transition as easy as possible, here are ten steps to follow upon arrival to help set yourself up in France. 

1. CROUS meeting 

This step applies only to those heading to Paris.  Due to the large volume of students who arrive in Paris for each academic year, you will only receive your accommodation upon arrival.  The system is, therefore, ‘first come first served’.  Whilst the idea of immigrating to a country without knowing where you will live is intimidating, there are some things you can do to increase your odds of getting an accommodation close to your university.  For my meeting, I was presented a choice of four options: a smaller room without a bathroom and further away, a very large (more expensive) studio and a smaller studio closer to my university – which was in fact in the very building where my meeting took place.  Given that Paris is a larger city, I based most of my choice on the distance of each accommodation to where I would need to be going each day.  To do this, my first recommendation is to simply ask your officer to check the distance (by foot, or by public transport) of each address from your university on their computer.  This was extremely useful for me in making my final decision.  If you can, download the app “citymapper” before, and ask if you can connect to their Wi-Fi if you’d like to check for yourself. Before your meeting, try to make a mental list of priorities regarding your accommodation: is having your own bathroom and kitchenette essential to you? Or would you rather live closer to where you will be studying in a more basic style room? What is your budget and price range? As you will need to make a decision on the spot, it’s best to come as prepared as possible with these issues in mind. 

 → Home insurance: 

Important: you will not be allowed to move into your room without home insurance.  I did not know this on arrival, so I had to purchase one online and on the spot with the help of my CROUS officer.  Whilst I am glad that he offered to help, I later found out that there were a number of banks who had special deals with my university and who offered home insurance for free, or for only one euro a year.  It is therefore worthwhile to check on this beforehand if possible. 

2. Getting to your residence

For those not heading to Paris, you will have your accommodation allocated to you before your arrival in France, so this is a relatively straightforward step.  Try to print out the directions via public transport from the airport you will be landing at to your residence before leaving to reduce any stress.  The public transport network might seem a little overwhelming at first, but it is usually fairly easy to navigate with well-marked signs all around.  In my case, the CROUS office where I went for my meeting and its residence which I moved into was directly on the RER B train line which ran from the airport! So I simply had to ride for 20 or so stops and get off. When you get to your room, take photos of the bed, cupboard etc. to take note of the general condition, in case anything looks broken/in need of repair.  In my case, everything was perfect besides a leaky sink, which my CROUS officer noted and fixed by a plumber by the next day.  

The view from my new room in a CROUS residence


3. Apply for the CAF

Once you have your accommodation settled, try to lodge an application for the Aide personnalisée au logement (APL) from the Caisse d'allocations familiales (CAF) as soon as possible.  This is a monthly support grant applicable to any student studying in France to help pay their rent.  If you are staying in a CROUS residence, you should be eligible to receive this grant.  If you have opted for private accommodation, this will depend on your landlord, as they will need to provide you with some paperwork for your application and not all landlords are willing to do this.  The amount you receive will vary on a number of factors and you will need to complete an online simulation which will ask a series of questions about your accommodation and circumstances.  The entire website and process (which includes some pretty complicated questions) is in French, so if you do not yet speak the language fluently it will be best to find a French-speaking person to help you. During the first week of university, the CAF also sent a number of representatives to assist students throughout the day in person, so try to ask your university if anything similar might be organized beforehand if you can’t find a French friend to help you. Try to do this as soon as possible, as the CAF can take months to process applications due to the high demand on the system. What is great, however, is that they will back-pay you from the date that you applied – so if you apply in August and only begin to receive your payments in November, you will receive all the payments you have been owed since the first month after application in one lump sum. 

4. Get a sim card 

After moving in and setting up your room, you should try as quickly as possible to get a phone contract up and running. In order to this, most service providers will require you to have a French bank account, which can be a little tricky as to do that you will usually need a French phone number (see step 5).  There are some ways to get around this, however. The mobile network ‘Free’ will allow you to sign up first with a non-French bank account, provided you update your account details for your French bank account at a later stage. Alternatively, you can buy temporary SIM cards from other service providers such as Orange until you have set up a French bank account with which you can then open a long-term mobile service contract (see step 5).  Often these providers will give a substantial monthly discount if you take a 12 month commitment – so be on the lookout for these.

5. Open a bank account 

Important: You will not be able to open a bank account without a French phone number, proof of accommodation and your passport.  It is therefore impossible to complete this step without first having completed step 2 and 3. If you do not speak French, try to get a friend who does to come along with you.  A few people I know who don’t speak it found branches where the staff were able to complete the entire process in English, so this is also possible. I chose my bank based on the fact that my university had a partnership with them, which meant that I got 100 Euros simply for signing up, along with a few other perks.  It is really worthwhile finding out if your university has anything similar! If the information is not available on your university website, try e-mailing your administrative office to check.  Something else worth noting is that you will probably not receive your debit card on the spot, as you would in many South African banks.  They will most likely send it to you by post, along with your pin code.  More generally, I would add that post is something that is relied on more in France than South Africa, so this is something you will need to get used to.  In my case, it took about a week to get my bank card, so try to remember this when planning your budget for the first few weeks on arrival.  


6. Apply for a transport pass ASAP 

If you live in a bigger city (or simply one where you know you will need to rely on public transport) try to apply for your transport pass as soon as possible.  If you are living in Paris, you will be able to apply for an Imagine-R pass. The Imagine-R card is a special discounted public transport deal for students, which is approximately half the usual price.  For Paris, it is €350 for an entire year of service.  This may sound like a lot, but it can be paid over eight monthly instalments, and works out to just under €1 a day – about the same price as one return first class train ticket in Cape Town.  It will allow you to use both buses and trains in your city (in the case of Paris, even extending quite far outside the main city ring to the palace of Versailles and Charles de Gaulle airport), so it is in fact a really good deal. You can apply for the Imagine-R pass online or via post.  I did mine online as it was more convenient for me and meant one less trip to the post office.  It took about 2 weeks to receive the pass, but it will likely only start working from the beginning of the following month – so be careful to factor this in to your transport budget in the beginning. 


Alternatively, you can look into paying for the Vélib – a bike rental service with stations all around the city. A once off payment of €30 for the year will allow you to use a bicycle from any station for 30 minutes (after this an additional fee will apply, see details here).  If you are under 25, there is a discount available.  Although it may take longer to get around, this can be a good, cheaper option if you live close to your university and don’t think that you will need to use the busses or trains too often.  Similar services exist in cities other than Paris (for example Vélov in Lyon) so be sure to check it out.

7. Send in your OFII forms

In order to stay in France, you will need to send in some documentation to the immigration office and attend a meeting with them.  All the required information to do this will be provided to you by the French consulate when you receive your student visa in South Africa before your departure.  You will receive the date of your appointment along with further instructions via e-mail about three weeks after mailing them the required documents.  I highly recommend you send the documentation via registered mail with a ‘recommandé avec accusé de récéption’ to ensure that nothing goes wrong/gets lost (a detailed description on how to do this can be found here). The meeting itself is not something to stress about – in my case I simply went in, gave them my proof of address and passport, and received my residency permit on the spot (this will be stuck by them into the passport). As long as you closely follow all the instructions provided to you, you should be fine. 

8. Explore!

Now that some of the bigger administrative hurdles are out of the way, take some time to explore your surroundings! For my first few days after getting to Paris, I gave myself a few hours each day to just wonder around the city.  As cliché as it may sound, getting lost in the streets of Paris with all its cobbled streets, churches and parks was a wonderful experience that left me with a dumbstruck smile on my face and sore feet every night before bed. Not only was it enjoyable, but it was also a really good way to get my bearings and begin to learn the general layout of where I’d be living and studying for the next two years! If you have a few days off before class begins I highly recommend you do the same - remember, you only get to explore a city for the first time once!

Wandering the bridges of the Seine during the last few weeks of Summer

9. Connect

This is a step that you can begin before even leaving your home town in South Africa.  For my university, I found a Facebook group online for all the incoming Master’s students for the 2017-2018 year.  This group quickly became very big and when everyone began to arrive in Paris, was soon to become the main way that everyone made plans to meet one another and go out together.  I highly recommend checking to see if your university has anything similar – particularly if you will arrive a few days before classes begin and don’t know anyone in your city (yet!).   Once classes begin, try to join some student organisations.  My university had a huge selection of these on offer spanning a vast range of topics, activities and sports – which I have found to be a great way to meet new people and deepen my involvement with the university community. 

10. Enjoy!

Now that all your major administrative duties are out of the way and you are settled in, it’s time to dive in to your new life and studies. Enjoy and make the most of it!