The exchange experience is not only about getting to know a brand new culture, travelling, and generally having the best time of your life. It is also about dealing with the complexities of a different culture, the paperwork and the ways things are done in a different country. When I extended my health card back in Toronto for my stay in Paris, the lady at the counter remarked off-handedly that the French love their paperwork. It was almost a premonition to what was about to come.
As an exchange student, you will need to deal with the French bureaucracy in 3 major cases: student registration at Sciences Po, residence permit (for the Non-Europeans) and CAF (the French government’s housing subsidy). And that perception of a slow and cumbersome French bureaucracy? It is mostly true.
There isn’t really a way to escape the bureaucracy. But there are ways to make your life easier, and some things that I would have done differently were I to be given a second chance.
1. Be prepared and have contingency plans.
If you thought course registration at U of T was stressful, think again. All exchange students at Sciences Po register for courses at the same time. To give you the context, all third-year Sciences Po students either go on a full-year exchange or a full-year internship. That means there is a full year worth of exchange students coming to Sciences Po and choosing courses at the exact same moment. I managed to get 4 of my 5 desired courses, but there were many students who had empty schedules by the end of course registration. The key is to know that English courses fill up much more quickly than French ones, to try to enrol in the most interesting-sounding courses first, and to watch the course enrolment demo video very carefully in the days before.
2. Follow the instructions very very carefully.
Staying on the topic of course registration, people who were not able to enrol in their preferred courses can send a request to the administration. The course request procedure is very particular, and the steps have to be followed to the letter for your request to be processed in a timely matter. When the Sciences Po admin say to only send them the form once and not to contact them otherwise, they mean it. I know students who emailed and phoned and generally tried to reach the administration every other hour. They were often the ones who had their problems resolved later than others. Of course, no one likes that feeling of panic and helplessness, but it is important to keep in mind that Sciences Po (and Paris at large) has a very particular way in which certain things are carried out, and it is highly unlikely for them to change their ways upon your request.
In many other cases, such as for your residence permit (carte de sejour) or CAF, you may not be able to go to the different offices and hand in your documents personally. Many things have to be done through mail, and it is generally the case that French government branches will not process your file if you did not send in all your documents following their exact requirements.
3. Do everything as soon as you can.
For the Canadians and other non-Europeans out there, please do not wait until a few days before your visa expires to apply for your carte de sejour. You will end up like one of my friends who is now stuck in France during reading break because her visa has expired. Getting your carte de sejour (residence permit) is quite tedious. I will not go into detail here, but should anyone have any questions, feel free to ask. If you qualify for the housing subsidy from the French government (aka CAF), keep in mind that they do not subsidize your rent retroactively. That means if you apply for CAF in November, you will not be subsidized for the months of September and October.
4. Keep copies of all your documents, no matter how insignificant and irrelevant they may seem.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but the number of documents you will encounter throughout all the administrative processes inevitably means something will be missed. I had forgotten to save a copy of my online CAF application form, which was apparently needed for the paper part of the application. To my dismay there was no way to access the form after I exited the CAF website. It took the better part of an hour and a 40 cent per minute phone call to the CAF office for a staff member to agree to mail me a paper version of the form.
5. Expect yourself to be unprepared.
I had thought I would be prepared and made countless electronic and paper copies of all my important documents stashed in various compartments of my luggage. But during my carte de sejour application, I was told that the visa-sized photos I shelled out $19 for back in Canada did not conform to the standard glossiness for the permit (I did not even realize there were different levels of glossiness for photos). Luckily there was a photo-booth one floor up and I was able to have my photos taken for 5 euros (this says a lot for being over-prepared). But this did mean lining up again and re-submitting my documents for inspection.
6. Have patience, and a healthy dose of optimism.
I realize that things may seem a bit grim and tedious, but the way I found most effective to combat bureaucratic stress was to believe that things will work out. Deal with these necessary bureaucratic nightmares, but don’t lose sight of all the fun and excitement of the exchange experience. I remember copious amounts of Nutella and a dinner out with friends after a cold and miserable 8 hours spent trying to submit my titre de sejour application in person. And sometimes, French bureaucracy will work just right and pleasantly surprise you with their efficiency