Last weekend I took some time off from blogging to travel from Utah to the French consulate in San Francisco to submit my long stay visa application for TAPIF. Being me, I was completely paranoid about forgetting something or messing up the paperwork requirements. My biggest fear was traveling over 700 miles from Salt Lake City to San Francisco and then figuring out that I had made some egregious error like forgetting my passport. Luckily, that did not happen.
One would think the process of getting a visa from the US to France would be pretty straightforward.
Jump through the hoops = Great visa appointment. Right?
Yes, overall my experience went smoothly, but there were definitely times when I felt like I came across hidden hoops at the last minute. I wouldn’t have found out about them just from reading the Consulate webpage. I only found out about them after reading Facebook posts from other language assistants who had already gone to their appointments.
I’m happy to jump through hoops, but it would be nice to know what all the right hoops are up front instead of going on a scavenger hunt to make sure I have all the right things. So with that in mind, here are some of my tips for anyone who’s looking to go to the French Consulate in San Francisco for TAPIF.
DISCLAIMER: I realize everyone’s visa situation is different (i.e. getting student visas instead of assistant visas or applying for visas for partners or dependents etc.) and that different consulates have different requirements. I was seeking the standard long stay visa for “lecteurs” and “assistants” from San Francisco. The one potential complication with my situation is that I’m planning on arriving in France a month before TAPIF starts to enroll in language classes at a university and leaving about 5 weeks after the program ends because I want to do some traveling.
UPDATE: I had my visa appointment on August 2nd, 2016 and received my approved visa for 11 months on August 8th, 2016. Thank you French bureaucracy!
Booking your appointment
1. Check the online booking system often and check it at 0:00AM (Midnight) France time (UTC+1).
Even the first step of trying to book an appointment with the consulate is notoriously difficult. For weeks I checked the website everyday at random times of the day and kept getting the message that there were no available appointments. Finally, I got a tip through the TAPIF network that many of the consulates release new appointment slots every day at 0:00AM French time. After two days of checking the website at 4:00PM MST, I was able to book an appointment! A quick Google search can help you with time conversions.
2. Try to book an appointment for early in the day.
I booked my appointment for 9:00AM, which is when the consulate opens. At first I did this because I had to travel back to Utah immediately after my appointment, but then I realized that the 9:00AM appointment was probably the best slot because the employees at the office would most likely be at their freshest and there was almost no chance of them being behind schedule.
The Required Documents
3. Bring MORE travel documents than are listed on the long stay visa webpage.
Section 5 of the long stay visa for assistants lists the required documents and materials for your appointment. You should definitely read through and bring all of those documents, but where I got hung up was on the even more specific requirements for the documents that are not directly listed on that page. I know! Why is that even a thing?? Here are some of the documents that might be a little less obvious.
*I’ve put asterisks by the specific documents that threw me for a loop.
- *Listed Requirement #3 – ID photo. That seems pretty standard, so I followed the photo requirements listed from the consulate page that I found here. BUT WAIT. The requirements I found listed on this page does not mention anything about personal appearance or glasses. It wasn’t until I saw the overall FAQ page for the consulate a few days later that I read that French ID photos do not allow glasses. Unfortunately, I had already gone to my local Walgreens and paid for 2 overpriced copies of passport sized photos with my glasses on. Fortunately, I figured out a way to print 6 copies of my passport photo for much cheaper and was able to re-do my photo for a whopping $0.31. I’ll cover DIY passport photos in a step-by-step tutorial in a separate blog post.
- Listed Requirement #6 – Plane Ticket Confirmation. The page says one-way tickets are ok if you’re planning on being in France for longer than 6 months, but I opted to buy a round-trip ticket from Salt Lake City to Paris because I was trying to make a case that I would need a visa that was valid for longer than the 7-month (October 1 – April 30) teaching contract that TAPIF gives you.
- Listed Requirement #7 – Self Addressed Envelope. At the end of your appointment, the visa officer is going to take your passport and all of your documents. If all goes well, you will get your passport mailed back to you with the proper visa attached in your passport. San Francisco requires that you get either a USPS or FEDEX envelope. I went with the USPS Priority Mail Flat Rate Envelope because it has a tracking number and is supposed to be delivered in 1-3 business days.
- Unlisted Additional Document #1 – Appointment Confirmation. The consulate will send you a PDF confirmation of your appointment time when you book your appointment AND a reminder a couple days before your appointment. It says in that email that you must bring in a printed copy of this document to be admitted into your appointment.
- *Unlisted Additional Document #2 – Travel Insurance. TAPIF does provide medical insurance while you are in France, but the TAPIF 2016-2017 Handbook mentions on page 23 that the insurance only covers you while you are in France. It does not cover you while you are traveling outside of France. At first I thought the TAPIF insurance would be enough for my visa application, but I later discovered on the consulate FAQ that the TAPIF insurance would not be comprehensive enough. Turns out you need a letter of confirmation from your insurance company that proves that you will be covered for at least $30,000-$35,000 in medical costs for the duration of your trip. Funny how the insurance requirement is not listed on either the long stay visa page or the general information page. After some research, I bought additional travel insurance through Allianz because they were able to meet the coverage requirements for my 9-month stay at a very affordable cost. I don’t actually know what the service will be like, but hopefully I won’t ever have to find out.
- Unlisted Additional Document #3 – Proof of Enrollment. Like I said earlier, I’m trying to go to France one month before TAPIF starts in order to enroll in language classes. Even though enrolling in language classes might qualify me for a student visa, I was told that the assistant visa should take precedence over student status. This makes sense because my primary reason for going to France is to teach. Taking classes is definitely just a fringe benefit. I was sure to print out my enrollment letter from my French language school with the dates of the semester (September-December). Again, I’m hoping to make a strong case for them to grant me a visa for 9 months.
- Miscellaneous Documents. These are the other documents that I brought with me just in case, but didn’t end up using. Who knows? You might need them depending on the visa officer. Proof of residency in the consulate jurisdiction (i.e. a utility bill with your name, a driver’s license, etc.). I brought three forms just in case. Print outs of page 23 (health insurance coverage) and pages 8-9 (explaining TAPIF participants do not need to pay a visa processing fee) of the TAPIF Handbook. Additional copies of everything listed on the main long stay visa page.
Day of the Appointment
4. BART into San Francisco.
This tip is probably fairly obvious for residents of Northern California, but as someone who had to travel from out of state to get to my appointment, I didn’t really think about the driving situation until some of my local friends pointed out that traffic sucks on weekday mornings. If you really want to there are a couple paid parking garages around the consulate, but also the Montgomery BART station is literally about 2 blocks away from the consulate.
For non-locals, BART has several stations outside of San Francisco that offer $3 daily parking. I went with this option. I checked the BART website for a station with parking options, parked my car, bought a ticket, and was in San Francisco in about 30 minutes.
5. Don’t bring large bags or luggage to your appointment.
I was not informed of this one until I was already in the city and I had a backpack with my camera and other travel gear. Most of the other people waiting just had their documents in a folder and maybe a small purse. I’m not sure how strict security is on this rule, but I didn’t want to test it. Luckily, my friend had come with me to my appointment and was able to hang out in the consulate lobby with my stuff.
There is one security officer in the main lobby of the building who lets you up the elevator and then another security officer at the actual visa office who will check your print confirmation and make you walk through a metal detector. So the less stuff you bring, the better.
6. Arrive Early.
Another pretty standard tip. I arrived to the city freakishly early, but that gave me time to stop by a Bay area favorite for coffee and re-read my documents. It was at this point I read the rule about large bags. Yay for being early and still having time to figure out a solution.
I arrived at the consulate around 8:45AM and was able to enter the building, but was not allow upstairs until 9:00AM. In the meantime, I got to chat with another friendly visa applicant who was going on a study abroad. It was nice to commiserate with someone while waiting.
7. It’s like a DMV appointment.
Once you’re in the office, there are signs telling you to silence your cellphone. You get told to sit in a row of chairs. You get called up to the window. You turn in your documents. You get your fingerprints taken and you’re pretty much done.
During my appointment I spoke in English because the visa officer started the conversation in English. I’m sure if you really wanted to, you could use French. My officer sorted through the documents I gave her. I clarified that I was going early and leaving late from the program and gave her the additional supporting documents with concrete dates (language school enrollment, round-trip ticket, and insurance letter). I saw her write down 11 months on my form (score!) and she stapled everything together.
She entered some information on her computer, printed a receipt (no charge for TAPIF visas), told me to watch the tracking information on my USPS envelope, and that I should receive my visa in about two weeks. All-in-all the whole thing took less than 15 minutes.
Now that I’m writing this blog, the experience doesn’t seem so bad, but in the days leading up to the appointment I was fairly stressed out. I should have known that bureaucracy is all about the minutia. I guess my biggest piece of advice is just to do the prep work early and be sure to read every page on the consulate website, even the ones that aren’t directly linked to the visa you’re applying for. Theoretically if you do all of that, you should be good to go!
Here’s to hoping I get approved for the 11 months and that my visa doesn’t get lost in the mail!