It turns out that when you land in another country halfway around the world where you’ve never lived and don’t speak the language, things can be a little confusing. We were especially ill-prepared, not having been to Paris before for more than a few days at a time and neither of us speaking more than a couple of words of French. When we landed, we had the address of our rental apartment and a few bags and that was about it. We’ve learned a few things since then that may be useful to anyone following in our footsteps.
Here is a survivor’s guide to the first 30 days on the ground in Paris.
French Bank Account
If you’re from the United States, it’s likely this is going to be the most confusing thing for you when you land and try to get a life together here. There are two major differences between bank accounts in Europe and in America — the “chip and pin” card and the RIB.
Let’s start with the “chip and pin” card. You know that credit or debit card that you have in your wallet? Well, it’s useless in about 20% of the places you’re going to try to spend money here. In another 30%, while it will technically work, it’s extremely confusing to the people trying to take it. You see, in Europe, they have “smart card” credit and debit cards. They have a little smart chip in them (a little goldish squarish technical looking chip on the left side of the card) and a pin code.
Everywhere you go, instead of swiping your card, you stick the card into a reader and type in your pin. Restaurants never physically take your card away, they bring a reader to your table and you insert your card, type in the pin and take the card back out. I don’t think I’ve had a single French person touch any of my credit cards once since landing here. The way Americans handle credit cards is comically insecure to the entire European continent.
I had a fun issue with this almost immediately after getting here. We landed in Paris on Monday morning. On Thursday evening, just a few days after touching down, I attended a meetup that GitHub was sponsoring by buying pizza, soda and beer. A few hours before starting, the organizer let me know that I would have to personally pay for the food on site. Normally this isn’t how it works, normally they would pay for it and GitHub would reimburse them, but these details weren’t worked out beforehand.
I knew this was potentially going to be a problem, because I’ve been to Europe before and I know about the chip cards and besides that I only had an Amex corporate card which not everyone takes. I figured I would probably have to put this on a personal card at best. Well, it turned out that they delivered €993.14 worth of food and low and behold, they only take chip cards. So I had to embarrassingly find someone there who could float $1300 personally and PayPal them the money. This was also done almost entirely in French. Good times.
This is just the worst situation I’ve encountered. Tons of places simply won’t take non-chip cards. The most frustrating is the Metro system — if you don’t have a chip card or cash, no trains or public transportation for you.
The next major difference between the US and French banking systems is the RIB. “RIB” stands for Relevé d’Identité Bancaire and is one of a few bank account numbers that are needed for bank transfers (basically a wire). For ongoing monthly payments, credit cards seem to be almost never used here. Instead, you give people your RIB sheet (like a weird little bank form that you print from your bank website) and they do bank transfers every month with these numbers.
It’s actually sort of an awesome system because you can look up individual people you’re paying this way and shut them down individually if you want to stop paying. With a credit card you would have to cancel the card in a scorched-earth sort of move to stop someone from charging who didn’t want to.
It’s important because there are a lot of important things that you cannot pay for without this form, which you cannot get without a French bank account. Some things we ran into fairly quickly were rent for the apartment, real SIM cards, co-working space rent, and gym memberships. Our utility costs happen to be either included or passed onto us by the landlord, otherwise I assume those would require a RIB too.
So, for the love of God, start getting a bank account the second you hit dry land. I tried getting an account before we got here, but essentially got nowhere with it. Everyone told me to just come in when I arrived in France.
About a week after landing, I finally got it together to email a bank. I contacted Crédit Agricole d’Ile-de-France through an English version online form on their website. I can highly recommend them. They contacted me back almost immediately after filling out the form (June 18th, while I was still in the US) and I got back to them 2.5 months later (Sep 1st, after we moved in) and they immediately helped me through everything.
You will have to bring:
A utility bill from your home address less than 3 months old (electricity, water)
Proof of income (payslip or Tax statement)
Your last 2 months bank statements from your main account
Now, since we just moved in and didn’t have a utility bill in our name, we instead had to bring in a utility bill in our landlord’s name, plus a copy of their passport and a letter saying we live at their address. Luckily our landlord had done this before and got us all the documents we needed within a few days. The other documents we already had copies of from our visa application process months earlier.
The guy that helped us, Kristopher, was a super English gentleman and could not have been kinder or more helpful. We had to go in person to their office which was over in the 12th district, but it wasn’t too bad. The process took about 45 minutes in a private office with Kristopher and we had the RIB that day and I went to pick up the chip cards from the same office a few days later. Then we went to a local branch, took out about $400 from our Chase account and deposited it into our new CA account to get it going.
My only real advice here would be to do this something like the day after you land rather than a week or two later. Actually, it’s best to do whenever you can get the residency documents from your landlord — maybe even let them know you’ll need these before you arrive so you could get this done on the first day.
Finally, I should cover how to get money into your account. You can certainly wire funds, which costs about $20 per wire I believe. Unfortunately for us, we hit a bit of a race condition here. We had already switched our phones to French pre-paid SIM cards (more on that in a bit), but we couldn’t add a wire recipient without SMS confirmation. I suppose we could have called them, but I really hate talking on the phone to banks so I sort of avoided it. It’s on my list of things to do.
What I’ve been doing in the meantime is using PayPal. I set up a new PayPal account linked to my French account and I send money from the American account to the French account and then deposit it. It doesn’t seem like a horrible exchange rate and if you fund it via the linked bank accounts the fees aren’t bad at all. It takes a few days, but it works. Also, be warned that if you try to send more than €2,500 you will get flagged and need to upload pictures of your passport and whatnot to PayPal so they know you’re not laundering money. I’ve actually hit a lot of really annoying things lately due to people wanting to make sure I’m not laundering money.
If you’re smarter than I am and still have your old SIM and can add your new French account as a wire recipient on your US bank account, I’ve been directed by my European friends to a site called TransferWise. They apparently have great rates for international bank transfers like this. One of my next goals is to get this working for me so I don’t have to keep doing this PayPal hack.
We’re going to be here for a while, so we definitely needed local phone plans. Not having data on your phone while trying to navigate around and find places gets frustrating really quickly. Using your American phone account to do so get expensive really quickly.
One of the very first things we did the day after we landed was walk over to an Orange shop and buy prepaid SIM cards. For those of you who are American and have no idea what a SIM card is, it’s a tiny little card that goes into the side of your phone that changes it’s carrier and phone number. Most Americans never change these but it’s fairly common in Europe to have a few of them and swap them out when you visit other countries — like have a German SIM and a UK SIM, etc.
You can pay about €5 for the card and €30 to fill it with a plan that lasts a few weeks and gives you 1Gb of data during that time. It takes a few minutes of waiting in line (I think it’s illegal to not wait for at least 20 minutes after entering a mobile phone shop here), but then you leave with a working phone. Many Americans may also not know if their phone is unlocked, meaning the phone allows you to change the SIM out at all. Most iPhones sold in the last few years have come unlocked, but you can also call your carrier and ask them to do so for you.
That lasted us for a week or two, though you need to be careful what you do with it. If you accidentally make an international call you can exhaust the credit really quickly and then you lose your data too. After a really long time I finally figured out how to recharge it. You can go to recharge.fr, click on the Orange carrier, choose the €5 or €10 plan, pay with PayPal and then text the confirmation number they give you (a 14 digit number) to 21224.
Jessica’s phone kept draining super quickly for some reason that we couldn’t figure out. For a while I had to recharge it almost every day, it was super annoying. My HTC One M8 only had to be recharged every week or so.
Eventually we wanted to get real SIM cards with plans. For one, the prepaid cards don’t let you connect to 4G, so the data is slower than it could be. For another, you don’t have a card on file with them so you can’t recharge very easily. It’s also almost impossible to figure out why you’re running out of credit. There are packages for €40/mo that give you 7Gb of data per month and 4G access. The catch is you need a RIB and proof of residency. Once we had our bank account, we went back into the Orange store and signed up for a year contract to get the better SIMs. Remember to make copies of the residency documents you took to the bank, because you’ll need them again here.
When you get here, it’s going to be tempting to Amazon things that you need to yourself, but the issue is that there are very few apartments where they can drop stuff off for you. Unless you’re home all the time, they’ll show up to your place and then drop off the package at a point relais or “relay point”. This could be a grocery store or a pharmacy or a laundromat. If you’re lucky, this will be a point that’s close to home. We ordered a couple of household items that we couldn’t find around town our first week and had 4 packages delivered to 4 different places, some of them a mile away. Not only do you have to go get them, but then you have to haul them back to your place. If you order something heavy, it’s up to you to walk it back to your place.
Also nobody that handles these relay points speaks English because why would a non-Frenchman be sending packages to themselves via relay points? This is not a super-touristy thing to do. The first one I did was pretty painful, I had no idea how to say why I was there and I didn’t have a drop slip with me that they usually leave in your mailbox. The important word here is “colis”, which is what they call this type of package. Just mutter something like “j’ai un colis ici” and hand them the slip and your passport and they can generally figure it out. If you don’t hand them your passport the first thing they’ll ask you is a phrase containing the word “identification” (say that in your head in a French accent) — this is a good word to learn how to listen for because it comes up a lot and it’s easy to continue making them think you know what they’re saying by handing them your passport.
I found out later that Amazon.fr will let you specifically chose a relay point when you check out. This ends up being a way better idea because you can choose one much closer to your place and you can get to know the process there a little better. You can also log into Amazon.fr (which is a totally separate site) with your normal Amazon.com account and pay for things in USD instead of taking the currency conversion hit, which is also nice. This can be really helpful for getting things together in the first few weeks.
The metro in Paris is fantastic. If you’re living in San Francisco, it’s almost hilarious how much better public transportation in Paris is compared to the city with the world’s worst public transportation system outside of LA.
The trains go everywhere, it’s simple and cheap to get tickets and the trains come basically every 2 minutes. I think the longest I’ve waited for a train in the month I’ve been here is probably 6 minutes and I’ve taken them pretty much every day. There are at least 4 major metro stops within a few blocks of our house.
We donated our car to KQED when we left San Francisco, and it’s been pretty amazing to have not needed a car at all in over a month. If we do need a car, Uber is also operating in San Francisco, and the accounts we already used still work fine. You can launch the app and get a car within a few minutes. Not only that, but since you can now put a destination in it helps with the language barrier in trying to inform your driver of where you’re going if they only speak French.
If you are in Paris for any amount of time over a week, you should definitely get a Navigo card. This is another thing that took me a bit of time to figure out. Paris has a RFID card that you can load up with credit and use to get onto the metro without having to buy tickets. You can load it up with either a week or a month, I believe. It’s actually a little confusing when you first get here because they have these recharge stations that don’t dispense tickets but can only recharge these Navigo cards, but they don’t dispense the Navigo cards themselves. In Tokyo, for example, you can get a card like this from a machine in the subway station (good ol’ Pasmo), but here you cannot.
To get a real Navigo card, you have to be a resident. However, I think fairly recently, they added a Découverte card, which you can just buy as a visitor. I believe you can get these at the manned booths at the train station, but those guys always seem a little pissed, so instead I went to a tobacco shop. You can find these shops every few blocks around Paris. They usually have a “tabac” sign and an RATP sign that’s fairly easy to identify. If you see one, just duck in and say anything resembling the word “Navigo” and they’ll know what you mean. I think it costs €5 for the card and you can normally charge it there with either one week or one month of use. I got cards for all three of us and it’s way easier than buying a hundred of the little one-way tickets. If you’re in Paris for even a week and are going to be using the Metro a lot, pick up one of these cards.
They also have this weird thing in Paris where any membership cards you get they want you to put your picture on. They don’t do it themselves, they give you a card with a sticky area on it and expect you to go to a photo booth, print out a picture and affix it yourself. The Navigo cards are like this and a year membership to the science museums we got for Jo was like this too. They have these booths in a number of the Metro stations and they also have one at the FNAC, the sort of Best Buy of Paris.
It’s important to understand that there isn’t really a thing here like American breakfast. It’s called “petit déjeuner” but it’s really just like a coffee and a croissant.
Just learn to not expect eggs and bacon and pancakes first thing in the morning because it’s almost certainly not going to happen unless you go to a toursity place that has “American” breakfast.
Basically the most important thing to learn here is to say “café crème” (kuh-fay khremm) which is basically a small latte. They are delicious and sitting at a table on the street watching people go by slowly sipping a latte is something that simply doesn’t get old.
Jusqu’à la Semaine Prochaine
That’s all of the weird “getting set up” logistical stuff I can think of that we went through that might save you some grief if you ever do something like this too.
Having been here for a month now, it’s incredibly satisfying to feel a little more like a native by whipping out my chip card to pay for groceries or Navigo to walk through the subway turnsiles with Josie. Even just walking around with visitors and using my data plan or being able to give out a local number to people I meet here so they can text me is really nice.
We’re really starting to feel at home, even in daily life.