I often think people take for granted how much easier life can be when you are a citizen or permanent resident of the country in which you reside. I know I took it for granted when I did my undergraduate degree in my home state of Utah. Of course, there was registration and basic administrative paperwork to complete, but it was nothing in comparison to the steps I’ve had to take to get ready for moving to France for my master’s at Sciences Po.
I’m at the tail end of all the administrative steps necessary for the initial move, but I know that I will still have more to do once I land in France. I’m mentally preparing myself for the perpetual thrum of paperwork over the next few years. I definitely have a newfound respect and empathy for my father, who moved to the United States from Taiwan as an international student, and all the other migrants out there who move to other countries to pursue opportunities.
Luckily, I am no longer the same callowed teen that I was when I enrolled in my bachelor’s degree. I’m in my mid-twenties and feel much more equipped to handle this type of bureaucratic red tape. The experience of moving to France once before for TAPIF and several years of work in a profession that requires strong attention to detail and deadlines–shout out to my fellow grant writers out there–has trained me well for this administrative marathon.
That being said, when it came time to start the process of getting my long-stay visa for France, I still found the whole thing rather daunting. The application process has changed since I was last in France and I was also applying for a different type of visa. As you will see when I outline my experience, there were many steps to go through from start-to-finish and throughout the entire process I didn’t feel like I had a centralized resource or direct contact to ask for help if something went wrong.
While I was getting my application ready, I found blogs and Facebook groups to be extremely helpful resources. Getting first-hand accounts of other people’s experiences was beneficial because it prepared me for any potential pitfalls and errors. I thought I would share my experience in case it proves to be helpful for others.
I should preface this with the disclaimer that the visa process can be a rather individualized based on your specific situation. It’s not quite an exact science. I am not an immigration expert, nor am I constantly keeping up with changes in visa policies. This is just a summarized overview of my personal experience as an American applying for a French student visa in 2019.
Step 1: Gather Information About the Process
To be honest, I started the visa process even before I fully committed to Sciences Po. I found out that I was accepted to the school in December 2018 and didn’t commit to going until April. I started researching and gathering visa materials in February/March.
The first thing I did to prepare for getting my visa was to collect as much information as possible. I started with the information that my school provided for international students. The information provided by Sciences Po was rather generic. However, they did provide important information on the specific type of visa I should apply for, the visa de long séjour valant titre de séjour (VLS-TS), which allows for part-time working rights, renewal until I finish my degree, and some other benefits.
The next place that I focused my efforts was the Campus France website. Campus France is an online portal and resource for international students who want to study in France. Campus France has a ton of information about how to apply to other French universities that I won’t get into, but feel free to take a look if you’re interested. Sciences Po is considered a Grand École, so the admissions process is independent of Campus France.
However, to get my visa, I still needed to register with Campus France. I read almost every article I could find about the different types of visas, specifically the VLS-TS visa, and what I would need to do to get it and how to validate my visa once I get to France. The articles are not organized in an intuitive manner, so I spent a lot of time clicking from article to article and bookmarking links.
Finally another important website that I made sure to bookmark was the all important official website for visa applications to France. This is the website that I needed to file the official application form through, but it didn’t provide as much information as Campus France.
Step 2: Campus France
Like I said earlier, the Campus France website has plenty of resources, but it’s not really organized in an intuitive manner. The two most helpful articles I found were the following:
From these articles I learned that I needed to create an account with Études En France (EEF), upload my admissions materials, and pay a fee ($190) to Campus France to process my EEF application before I could even book an appointment to submit my visa application.
Step 3: Études En France
Études En France is yet another portal for handling university applications and student visa applications. I believe you can apply for French universities through this portal, but my school already sent me an admissions letter. I was able to go through the “student already accepted” process.
This consisted of uploading a bunch of supporting documents like my payment receipt for the Campus France fee, CV, passport scan, a short personal statement, and admissions letter. I was able to use almost all the same application materials I had originally used to apply to Sciences Po. Then I submitted my dossier.
I waited for Campus France to process my dossier.
This is when I ran into a little snag. I had uploaded my admissions letter to EEF, but they wouldn’t accept my original admissions letter because it didn’t have the exact start date of classes on the letter. It only had the semester, Autumn 2019 on it.
I ended up having to contact Sciences Po to ask for an early “certificate of enrollment.” Because academic registration for the school wasn’t until April, I wasn’t technically enrolled in the school yet. But, I had started the EEF process in March. Luckily, my school issued the certificate to me with the start date of August 23, 2019 without any problems.
Once I resolved that issue, I resubmitted my dossier and waited for a response from Campus France. My dossier was eventually validated and I was able to access an official attestation from EEF that I had completed their process. From there, I could move on to the next step.
Step 4: Visa Application Form
Next, I moved on to filling out the official visa application form visa the French visa website.
Yes, you got it. Another portal to sign into.
This form was fairly straightforward. However, in order to fill out this online form, I did have to settle a few concrete details about my move. This was probably the trickiest part in terms of timing. Over the period of a few weeks, I was following up on a lot of moving pieces, including researching flights, housing, and scholarship information.
I had to provide information and proof of the following:
- Arrival date to France–I booked my flight to Paris
- Address of where I was staying in France–My scholarship from Sciences Po came with a housing offer
- Financial Means–My scholarship from Sciences Po and my personal funds
- Previous Visas to France–I included information about my TAPIF visa
After quadruple checking everything, I submitted the form online. I saved a PDF version of the application form and received a receipt with bar code and a checklist of required documents to bring to my visa appointment. I saved a PDF version of that receipt as well.
At this point, you must think, wow, surely she is done with the application process. Nope, not done yet, but I do get to finally book my visa appointment!
Step 5: VFS Appointment System
Back when I got my TAPIF visa, I went directly to the French Consulate in San Francisco. Since 2016, the French Consulates and Embassy have stopped processing visa applications internally and have contracted out visa services to a third party company called VFS.
Booking the appointment through VFS requires signing into yet another portal, this time managed by VFS, not the French government. As a reminder, it is important to book your appointment early in case there is any trouble with your visa processing. However, it is also important not to book your appointment more than 90 days before your arrival.
- For example, the official start date of my classes as written on my certificate of enrollment is August 23, 2019. I’m planning on arriving in Paris on August 15, 2019. I booked my visa appointment for June 7, 2019.
Something I noticed about the VFS appointment system is that you don’t want to create your account too early. I submitted my visa application form to https://france-visas.gouv.fr/ on April 14, 2019 and got onto VFS to book an appointment for June, only to see that appointment slots can only be booked one month in advance. I ended up having to wait for the first week of May in order to book an appointment for the first week of June.
My previous advice from the TAPIF visa still applies. Book early in the day to avoid backlogs. I managed to pick a day and time that worked for me and forked over another fee ($30) for this step.
Step 6: Travel to VFS Processing Center
Finally! I’m nearing the end of the visa application process.
I’m one of those people who do not live near a VFS Global Center. So I did end up flying from Utah to San Francisco, which of course was an additional cost to an already pricey process. I managed to turn the trip into a mini-vacation and spent time with some family I have in the Bay Area.
When it finally came time for my appointment, I prepared all the materials on the checklist and then some. At the beginning of the process, I quickly realized that there was no way that I was going to be able to mentally keep track of the various documents, links, portals, and random pieces of information that I needed to get my visa. So I started keeping track of everything in a checklist that I made on an Excel spreadsheet.
My final document checklist for my visa appointment had 22 separate documents/items. This was a bit longer than the list that https://france-visas.gouv.fr/ provided because I didn’t want to miss anything.
Extra documents that I thought to include were:
- A copy of my old TAPIF visa
- College transcript/diploma
- Print out of the Sciences Po webpage that stated I needed a VLS-TS visa
- Print out of the EEF webpage showing that my dossier had been validated, in addition to the official attestation
- Campus France payment receipt
- Sciences Po Admission Letter
- Sciences Po Enrollment Certificate
I’m not sure if they needed all of these documents, but I did actually end up giving all of these extra documents to the VFS agent who was checking my documents.
When it came to the actual appointment, things went rather smoothly. It took me a while to find the actual building because it was located in a rather nondescript office building. The VFS agents were very strict about not letting people into the office more than 15 minutes ahead of their appointment time. I showed up at 9:40 for a 10:00 appointment and was asked to wait in the building lobby for 5 minutes before going back up to the office.
The VFS security officer checked my bag, gave me a number, and I sat in a DMV style room with various windows waiting for my turn. There were several other countries running visa services out of this office. France seemed to have the most service agents.
When my number was called, I walked up to the window. The VFS agent verified all of my documents and I surrendered my passport. I filled out a mailing form to have my passport sent back to Utah instead of retrieving it at the VFS center. I paid the $35 courrier fee and an additional $56 for the visa. The agent gave me my receipts and tracking information.
It should be noted that VFS San Francisco does not accept American Express.
Once that step was done, I was assigned another number to have my biometrics taken. I waited for about 20 minutes and had my fingerprints and pictures taken. And that was it. Including the wait time, the whole appointment was about an hour.
All I had left to do was get back to Utah and wait.
Step 7: Receive Visa
After my appointment, I had a lovely weekend with my family in the Bay Area. I was relieved that the mound of paperwork that I had been collecting for several months was finally out of my hands.
I didn’t spend too much time thinking about how long it would take for my visa to get back to me. Before I knew it, I received notification on June 17th that my visa had been processed and was on its way to me via overnight express mail. I received my passport with my newly minted visa in it on June 18th.
All in all, the visa process was rather labor intensive. It required a lot of double and triple checking of details. But things worked out in the end. Now I’m onto other fun administrative challenges, like registering for classes, packing, moving, setting up bank accounts, phone numbers, validating my visa, getting signed up for French health care, eventually renewing my visa, and more.
Let me know if this information is actually helpful or interesting. Otherwise, I’m going to go back to my more reflective and creative writings.