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A PhD Student's Guide to Living in France

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

So you've chosen to do your PhD in France. Bravo! You may already know France, either from past holidays or through films, pictures, art, books. And here lies what can sometimes be a problem. Having experienced France as a tourist or as a Francophile back home is not quite the same as actually studying and living there. You may have your own ideas and pre-conceived opinions of France and of French people (hopefully positive!) and it may be difficult to approach your new adventure with fresh eyes as a doctoral student or 'doctorant' as it is said in French.

Student life ('la vie étudiante') is not that different from other European countries and further afield: there are halls of residence, canteens/student refectories, student parties, societies and student jobs. But the country itself is a fantastic resource for your research, with its art collections, landscape, worldwide experts, excellence in a number of skills and fantastic research facilities.

Settling in: What can your university do for you?

The idea of customer service in French higher education establishments is still a new concept. Universities being on the whole free/low cost to students and having welcomed French students from catchment areas (rather than through a competitive recruitment process) for years (ie: if as an undergrad you wanted to study law, you were meant to study in your closest university), the focus was mainly in teaching quality rather than other services.

The new reforms on higher education and increased autonomy (notably in generating their own income) have changed the mood and universities are increasingly recognising the value of student services to attract students, notably postgraduates. This was already fairly well established in Grandes Ecoles and private institutions. Arriving in a new country is always a challenge, but institutions will have student services adapted to new PhD students, from airport welcomes, to university accommodation service.

Visas and immigration

Visas are only required for students from outside the European Economic Area (EU countries + Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) with Switzerland having a special status. Two types of visas are available to PhD students: student visas and researcher visas. If you are going to France as part of a joint-PhD programme (or Erasmus Mundus programme), you may wish to check if a student visa is appropriate (depending on the duration of your stay in France). For more information, consult the Campus France visa information sheet in English.


This visa is for most international students coming to France (except for students from Algeria whose immigration procedure is subject to a special system). This visa is normally for one year and renewable for longer study programmes. Along with your visa, you will receive a 'demande d'attestation OFII' from the 'Office Français de l'Immigration et de l'Intégration' allowing you to go the local authorities ('prefecture') or the OFII satellite office in Paris to get your residence permit within 2 months of arrival. The cost is €58 which is a tax (so you will have to buy a special tax stamp which will be affixed to your resident permit). To obtain your visa, there are 3 different procedures:

  • For those in countries where Campus France have offices (procedure CEF), you basically open an online account on the Campus France and follow the procedure.
  • For international students already living in other European countries or in countries where Campus France does not have offices, the application process is done at your local French consulate or embassy.
  • If you are already in France (under a different visa system or are moving from Masters to Doctorate), speak to your institution or seek advice from the Préfecture.

All students have to demonstrate that you have an offer of admission from a French institution (or doctoral school), sufficient subsistence funds (equivalent to the French bursary levels of around €615/month) as well as the appropriate linguistic skills to succeed in their studies.

VLS-TS 'Scientifique-Chercheur'

This visa is for researchers and also for PhD students which are undertaking doctoral research as part of a Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la Recherche (CIFRE) (i.e. with a private sector partner) or other established frameworks. You will require a 'convention d'accueil' which is an administrative document laying out all the conditions of a PhD for PhD students who are in receipt of a salary (as opposed to a stipend from your home country for example). As for a student visa, you will then have to get a resident permit. The cost is €340. It is possible to get a resident permit for up to 4 years.

Working while your studying

All international students are allowed to work as long as they are registered with a French institution and have a student status as defined by the French social security authorities. The regulations limit student work to 964 hours per year (or 60% of the normal annual hours in France). However, if you are already salaried and working full-time on your PhD, you may find it hard to undertake a heavy part-time job schedule. Minimum salary in France is €9.40/hour before tax (around 20%). Students no longer have to apply for a work permit to undertake paid work during their studies (except for students from Algeria for whom the procedure is regulated by a different agreement).

International students can find part-time work opportunities within their own university, for example in the following roles: welcoming service, support for students with disabilities, tutoring, administrative support for student societies or sports associations.

Accommodation ('le logement')

Other than for student accommodation in your university or grande école, finding a place to stay from abroad can be difficult. You won't be able to see the accommodation, cannot be guaranteed of the standards of the accommodation, won't be able to sign the lease in person (a requirement in letting agencies) and you may find it difficult to get a guarantor currently residing in France (often a requirement in the private sector). This is why many students make temporary accommodation arrangements for the first few weeks after their arrival. Once on site, finding a place to stay (unless you have a university accommodation) is much easier.

There are several options for PhD students but each with their own procedure:

Les cités U (the equivalent of student residences)

Applications for student accommodation in public universities are managed by the Centre Régional des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires (CROUS). All students can apply for accommodation but priority is given to French Government bursary holders (which international students can apply to). You should apply as soon as possible and in parallel with any bursary application (also managed by CROUS). The application is online (although you will have to print the application and return it signed) and can be done up to April 15th of the academic year preceding your PhD start date. You do not need to have an offer of admission yet or to have completed your previous degree. While non-bursary holders are not prioritised, there are cancellations (or people who are unsuccessful in their previous degrees) throughout the year so it is worth trying. CROUS accommodation are a real economical option and some universities have the possibility of reserving rooms for international PhD students so ask the'service de l'hébergement' (the accommodation service of your university).

Individual rooms in halls of residence

You get a single room with shared facilities (bathroom, kitchen and study space). The price is around €200/month and the lease tends to be for 10 months (but there are possibilities to have a 12-month lease). This type of accommodation allows students to apply for the 'allocation de logement social' a means-based social accommodation allowance.

Student flats in residences

Studio, 1-bedroom ('T1') and 2-bedroom ('T2') flats are available (albeit in smaller quantities). Each has its own facilities and the average rent for a T1 is €400/month.

Student residences in Grandes Ecoles and private institutes

These Higher Education institutions tend to have their own student residences at the heart of their campus. Rooms/flats are often reserved for international students and depending on the type of accommodation, the rent is between €250-350. Information can be found on their website.

Private student accommodation

Private student residences can be found in most cities with a high concentration of students. Living standards tend to be high and a range of services (from cleaning to cafeterias and parking spaces) are on offer. These residences are situated close to university campuses and may welcome students from several institutions in their vicinity. Rents tend to be around €600-700 in Paris and €400-700 in other cities. You will have to pay a deposit (one month's rent) and will need a guarantor (who is resident in France) although you also hve the possibility of paying a year in advance. Some universities have systems in place for international students who may find it hard to find a guarantor so check with your accommodation service. It is possible to book accommodation while you are still in your home country but you may be asked to pay a higher deposit (equivalent to 2-month rent).

An organisation called La centrale, LoKaViZ is an online database of private accommodation exclusively for students. To access these rooms and flats, you will have to prove that you are registered at a university (or equivalent).

Private accommodation

This is the most flexible option in terms of lease but it requires a good knowledge of the city where you'll be studying and of French language (to be sure to understand the contractual requirements). If you go through an agency, you will have to pay a fee to the agency. If you choose this option, it is recommended that you do so once you have arrived. If you need help with the formalities, your university's accommodation service or your fellow PhD students can help you. Individual ads offering accommodation or rooms in shared flats can be found in the international student office (if your university has one) or at CROUS offices. Sharing flats with other students ('co-location') is a fairly new thing in France but it is gaining popularity as the availability of studio flats is limited. You may also benefit from an accommodation allowance but only if your name is on the lease.

Health Insurance

All students must have health insurance which is provided through universities. In 2012-13, the cost of this is €207 for the whole year. This gives you access to the French health system which is excellent. Note, however, that this public insurance does not cover the entire cost of healthcare. France has a system of 'mutuelles', an additional insurance covering additional costs (perhaps not for all dental care). If you wish to subscribe to a student 'mutuelle' you can do so when you register at your university. Medical checks and support throughout the academic year are also carried out by a dedicated university medical service.


Being the culinary heaven that it is, France is not a difficult place to eat well. Food is a national treasure and French cuisine is as varied as the regions that make up the whole of the country. Influences from Vietnam, North Africa (try the Tunisian patisseries!) and the bordering countries add to the range of delicacies to enjoy.

Universities themselves have student eateries, the most common being les 'Restos U' short for 'Restaurants Universitaires' or university canteens). In public universities, the prices are regulated and in 2012-2013, those with a student card can eat a 3-course lunch for €3.10! In the larger universities, these canteens are also open in the evenings and at the weekend. But outside of universities, you can eat a good lunch for around €6-7. Sandwicheries and bakeries can also offer a cheap range of food to eat on the go. Of course, prices can reach hundreds of euros for a dinner at some of the best-known French restaurants. If you are cooking yourself, there are many different ways of buying groceries, in supermarkets, small shops, butchers or open air markets (something to experience if you haven't been before).

Student societies and social life

There are many sports and student associations, not all of them formally hosted by universities (so you may need to do a bit of research if your interests are unusual) but you can find something to suit you in all areas: culture, sports, volunteering, scientific or artistic. This is a great way to meet other students (PhD or not) outside of your research team. Students benefit from discounted prices in most cultural and artistic establishments (as well as restaurants and other eateries) such as museums, cinemas, concerts, bookshops or festivals.

Student parties ('soirées étudiantes') are a real institution in France. Whether they are a small party in someone's flat or in a club, student parties are a great way to meet other students. Alcohol is likely to be served but the drinking culture is not as it can be in other countries. Often student parties are more about music and dancing. In general, having wine with your meal is perfectly acceptable, but drunken disorderly behaviour is frowned upon.

By law, all shops, restaurants and cultural institutions must close one day a week. This is most often on a Sunday (except for bakeries which tend to close on a Monday). There are numerous bank holidays in France and if these fall on a Thursday or Tuesday, it is quite common for many organisations to 'do the bridge' (faire le pont) and close from Thursday to Sunday or Saturday to Tuesday, respectively. So be aware of this, if you are planning to travel or if you need to go to your consulate, the town hall or your bank.


The currency in France is the Euro (€) which is the common currency of 17 out of the 27 member states of the European Union (which makes life much easier if you are in a border area or if you are travelling within continental Europe). International PhD students can apply for a bank account as non-residents given the duration of their studies. It may, however, be useful to ask your bank back home if they are part of a network of banking corporations which have branches in France. This may help when opening a new bank account or to transfer funds, even before you move to France. Payment cards such as Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted (although note that these are DEBIT cards, not CREDIT CARDS, the latter not being widely used in France). Card payments tend to be for amounts above €15.

Travelling around France

France is well-connected internationally with Paris Charles de-Gaulle being the biggest French airport. Travelling by plane can be a good option within France if you are planning to cover long distances (such as Nice-Paris or Toulouse-Paris). The train network is well-developed and thanks to its super-fast trains ('Trains à Grande Vitesse' - TGV), it is easy to travel in France (although, as for the métro which is a public company, be aware of strikes!). If you wish to drive, the road and motorway network is of excellent quality but note that motorways are not free and you will have to pay toll charges (which may double your travel cost by road). Secondary roads are free and a good way to see the more rural and natural parts of France.

In town, there are many different options to get around: buses, trams, métro (Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Toulouse and Paris) or bike (notably the public bikes called 'Vel-Lib' in Paris). Taxi prices are regulated at regional level but they remain fairly high and best reserved for exceptional cases. All genuine taxis have a meter. If a taxi doesn't have one, avoid it at all cost.

Post-study work

Students from member countries of the European Union may work in France without restriction after they graduate. If you needed a visa to study in France and studied to doctoral level, you can apply for a non-renewable temporary residency authorization 'autorisation provisoire de séjour' - APS) valid for 6 months beyond the date of expiration of the student's residence permit. An APS allows you to work at any job up to the limit of 60% of the official work week.

Students who obtain a job related to their academic program and with a salary equal or above 1.5 times of a salary paid at the national minimum wage can apply to switch from a student visa to a work visa. Including if you were on a researcher visa and have secured an academic post, as a researcher visa is only valid for a maximum period of 4 years.

For students who have secured a job outside of the area of their academic program, it is much more difficult to secure a work visa post-study as work visas are limited to a small number of employment in order to respond to skills shortages.

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