Hindsight is 20/20: Taking care of things back home before embarking on your French adventure

Now that you’ve been accepted to TAPIF and you have  your placement as well as have started on a packing list, you aren’t quite ready yet. There are many other things that you have to consider before you move to France. Many of these things are very important even for people who aren’t moving abroad to teach with TAPIF but are just moving abroad, regardless of their job.

I remember when I was preparing to move to France. All of these little things really overwhelmed me and stressed me out, mostly because I didn’t have anyone telling me that I should be worrying about taking care of them. They sort of just crept up on me. So, here is a list of other little bits and pieces that you should consider taking care of before you embark on your expat life.

1. Just to reiterate – have you located your passport? Is it valid at least 6 months after your planned return from France? Do you have two originals of your birth certificate? Do you have copies of all of your important documents: passport, visa (if you have it), OFII forms, contract, school/placement information, birth certificate, etc.?

I absolutely cannot stress enough how absolutely important your passport is. No passport = no visa. No passport = no exiting your home country. In addition to that, if your passport is not valid for at least 6 months after your planned return, then you may be denied a visa. Sorry guys, that’s just how the governments work.

Also, I have a list of important documents that you should pack and copy here.

2. Booking your flight

As I mentioned in some of my previous posts in this series, Hindsight is 20/20, you should start doing research on flights about 4-5 months before your planned departure. However, do not plan to buy any tickets until 3 months before your planned departure, because this is generally when flights will be at their cheapest.

I advise that you plan to get to your placement city at least one week before the start of your contract date, because you will want to leave room for finding an apartment (if you weren’t lucky enough to find one before arriving), getting settled, exploring your new city a bit, and adjusting to living in a foreign country. I ended up arriving a week and a day before my contract start date, and it ended up working out perfectly. However, I was also able to snag housing before arriving in France (curious to know how? check out my post on finding housing as an assistant). If you haven’t been able to find housing before your departure, don’t stress too much. I was one of the few lucky ones who had it all sorted before I left. Most assistants are ”homeless” when they first arrived. So, I promise that you will definitely not be the only one. So, if you don’t have housing before leaving, then I suggest giving yourself a week and a half before your contract start date or even two weeks if you are feeling a little anxious about it.

You must decide personally when you plan to arrive so that you can book your flights accordingly.

As for booking returns, this is up to personal choice. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, I did not book a return flight, just a one way. Though I technically ended up paying more in the long run than I would’ve with a return, I felt more comfortable with my choice because I wasn’t completely sure of when I wanted to leave France. It was better for me to book my return later when I was more sure of when I was planning on leaving France. However, if booking a return will make you more comfortable, then by all means, book a return.

Searching for flights:

There are many options when it comes to looking for flights and many ways in which you can do it. You might also want to consider traveling beforehand. This is what I did.

  • consider the websites you are browsing: Some great sites that I would advise you look at, at least for comparing are the following:
    • STA Travel – great website for comparing. You get discounts for being young and a student. I was no longer a student at the time of booking my flight, but I was still able to get a discount for being under 26 years old. I live by this website now, and this is where I ended up booking my flights from and to home.
    • Momondo – I would not advise buying from this site, as I found there were hidden fees, however, it is great for comparing.
    • Skyscanner – another great one for comparing.
    • Kayak/Opodo – a couple more for comparing, but again, I would advise against buying from these because I found there were hidden fees as well.
    • Then there is the website of the airlines themselves, however, be careful when you look because you can get a fantastic deal on the right day or be emptying out your bank account if you look the wrong day. I have learned that booking flights Tuesday afternoons about 3 months before your departure is when you can get the best deals.
  • consider not flying direct – Often times, unless you live in a major city like Boston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, etc., booking direct flights can actually be more expensive. Back home in the United States, I live in Indianapolis, Indiana. Though it is the capital of Indiana, it is quite small in comparison to other cities, and even though Indianapolis International Airport has international in the title, direct flights to Paris from Indianapolis were going to cost upwards of $2,000 one way. I just could not even consider that. So, I would advise you to consider flying to an East Coast city (if you live in a more inland State) or flying to a much larger inward city such as Minneapolis, Dallas, or Denver, if you live more towards the west, or to San Francisco or Los Angeles if you live on the West Coast. This is much why I think it’s best to start doing your research a month to two months in advance, just to get a feel for which route will be the cheapest.
  • consider booking your flights separately – If you book two flights together, it’s usually around the same price as one direct or slightly cheaper depending on where you are flying from. However, if you try booking three flights together, which I was going to try to do when I first started looking, it ended up being quite expensive. So, I decided to see what prices looked like if I separated out my flights.
  • consider booking with airlines where you can get cheap or even free baggage allowance – it just makes things easier/cheaper

Here’s what I ended up doing moving to France:

  1. I booked a one-way flight separately from Indianapolis to Boston with Southwest Airlines. It ended up only being about $109 because I opted out of the travel insurance and decided to book the non-refund flight (because let’s face it, I was not going to not go to France. I was going to make that flight). If you don’t feel comfortable booking the absolute cheapest, travel insurance with your flight isn’t too much more expensive. I chose to fly Southwest because they are fantastic for domestic flights. I also was able to get two checked bags free along with one carry-on and one hand baggage allowance. So, I got all of my bags free with my only $109 ticket. Also, because it was so cheap, I just booked it right on the airline’s website. Sidenote: Because I did book this flight separately, I did have to collect my bags and go back through security once I got to Boston. However, because I left myself an 8-hour layover, it ended up working out perfectly. So, if you do this, I suggest leaving yourself at the bare minimum 2 and a half hours before your next flight.
  2. I booked two flights together with Icelandair via STA travel and spent only about $320 for both flights. I flew from Boston to Reykjavik, Iceland (the capital), and then Reykjavik to Paris. Now, just a few things about Icelandair:
    1. You can book two flights on one ticket because Icelandair promotes tourism in Iceland. Iceland is a small country of only about 320,000 people, so they rely very heavily on tourism to sustain their economy. Because of this, Icelandair offers free stopovers to encourage people to spend a day or two or even seven in the country for no extra charge on their flights! How fantastic is that? So, I was able to book two flights with an 18- hour stopover so that I could take advantage and explore the capital for a day. Though I was quite exhausted, having planned overnight flights so that I wouldn’t have to book hostels (plane sleep is definitely not the best sleep), I am very glad that I decided to do that because I got to explore Iceland for a day!
    2. If you are flying from Canada/USA to a European city via Iceland, you can get up to two checked bags free with your tickets if you decide to fly with Icelandair. In addition to that, you also get one carry-on and one hand baggage allotment for free with your ticket. So, once again, I got all of my bags free, two flights, and a day to explore Iceland for only $320. If exploring Iceland doesn’t tickle your fancy, I would still suggest booking through Icelandair without a large stopover. There are many options. You can choose to have an hour and a half layover if leaving the airport doesn’t interest you, because in my opinion, their cheap flights and free baggage allowance was enough to win my favor.
    3. They push your luggage to your final destination (the majority of the time). I didn’t have to worry about collecting my luggage in Iceland because when I checked-in in Boston, they pushed both of my checked bags all the way through to Paris. So, even though I had an 18-hour layover in Reykjavik, I didn’t have to worry about collecting my bags and checking them again. It really made exploring Iceland so much more enticing, knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about all 4 of my bags, just two of them. As for your carry-on, there are luggage lockers in the city center bus station, which you will have to pass by since you have to take a bus from the airport to the city center. No problem.

So, all in all, I spent around $440 for three flights, a day to explore a different country, and 4 bags completely free on all three flights. Though that was only one-way, I say that it worked out pretty great. It is possible my friends. Don’t settle on the first thing you find when it comes to booking your flights. Explore your options.

3. Student Loans – chances are that you are either a student, a recent graduate, or a not-so recent graduate. If you are any of these three, chances are you might be paying on student loans. If you aren’t paying on student loans, then kudos to you. I’d love to know what that’s like.

Anyways, if you do have student loans, you have a few options.

  1. Chances are you can get them deferred – TAPIF prepares a special letter for anyone who has need explaining their position, their expected income, and how long they will be expected to have said position and income. With this letter, you can prove how much income you will be making and use it to send to your student loan lenders to get your student loans deferred if you so wish. Most lenders will allow you to defer your loans since we make so little. All you simply have to do is just email the person in charge of all TAPIF assistants, whomever that is (you should definitely know at this point. It’s the person who sent you your acceptance email), and ask for one. I asked for one and had it emailed to me the very same day. I’m sure it’s just a template that they fill out for each individual person. It’s super easy.
  2. Chances are that you can get reduced payments if you can’t get them deferred or don’t want to defer them. – Some lenders are very picky about their rules when it comes to deferment, so I advise that you research what the specifics are when it comes to your lenders. With my lenders (I have two), they are very specific, and I wasn’t able to get deferment. However, I was able to get my payments reduced even more than they already were with one of my lenders.
  3. Choose to pay what you have been paying – One of my lenders is private, so they are even more specific about deferment, and I wasn’t going to tackle getting lower payments because my payments are already low enough anyways. So, with my second lender, I decided to keep paying what I have been paying. No problem.

So, depending on what you choose to do, you may end up having to still pay for student loans, much like I have to. So, how do you do this? Though you have a few options, you could just pay with your home credit/debit card by leaving enough money in your home bank account for all your payments over the course of the time you’ll be gone. I would advise against this because that limits how much money you can take with you to France.

Instead, you can do what I chose to do, pay your payments using the money you earn. Because my payments are rather low, I pay them every month from the salary we earn. Yes, that can be scary because we already earn so little, however, there is a way to do it cheaply. I advise against paying with your French debit card because international fees and the exchange rate can really hurt you. Instead, I advise you to use transferwise.com, a website that allows you to create an account free and send money back and forth from your French bank account to your home account for almost nothing. I send an average of 120€ to my American account every month, and they usually charge me anywhere from 1€ to 3€. It’s really very cheap. It’s so cheap because the website uses the real market exchange rate and not the exchange rate that a bank would give you (which is usually more because the bank charges service fees to do the transfer, which makes it a lot more expensive). The money also arrives in a very timely manner, usually in 1 to 3 business days, unlike with banks, where the money can take up to a few weeks to arrive.

I do this every month to pay my student loans, and it works out perfectly every time. No problem.

4. Health Insurance/travel insurance – You will have health insurance here in France because you will be enrolled in the social security system here, le Sécu, but it takes a few months to kick in because you have to go through the immigration red tape before you can have access to it. I wasn’t fully enrolled until March. Yes, these things take time we all know, but you must know that they take even more time in France because that’s just how things work here. So, if you don’t feel comfortable being here in France for most of your contract without any insurance, you can do a few things. You can see if your current health insurance company has an international plan, or see if you’d like to invest in travel insurance for the duration of the first few months. There are many, many travel insurance companies out there, and you can even get travel insurance through the different airline companies. Just simply google ”travel insurance,” and you’ll be met with a variety of options.

I chose not to invest in travel insurance frankly because I could not afford it. I prayed that I wouldn’t get so sick that I would need insurance before le Sécu kicked in for me. I only got sick a couple of times, and it wasn’t so bad that I needed to see a doctor. So, I got lucky. That was a risk that I was willing to take to save a few hundred dollars. However, if you aren’t comfortable with taking that risk, then I would advise investing in travel/health insurance.

5. Bank stuff 

  1. Notifying your bank of your departure – This is highly important. You need to notify your bank that you will be living in France and that you will be traveling. If you don’t, your card(s) can be blocked if you try to purchase anything abroad, which could be a very big problem if you haven’t received your French bank card yet. Once you’ve opened your French bank account, it can take up to two weeks to receive your bank card, so you will have to rely on your home bank cards and money to survive.
  2. Applying for a credit card (if you don’t already have one) – If you are eligible to apply for a credit card, I advise doing so, not because I advise paying for everything by credit card but because I advise having one in cases of emergency. The last thing you need is being stranded in the middle of Eastern Europe having no money because you didn’t plan your budget well, had unexpected bills come through, or had unexpected mishaps. For example, while I was in Krakow, Poland at the end of my first two weeks of vacation, my friend and I were booked for a flight from Krakow to Paris the day before we were supposed to be back at work. Our flight got canceled literally two hours before it was supposed to leave. It was the end of our trip, we had very little money leftover from our trip, and we were kind of at a loss. There were also no flights going in/or out of Krakow that day. So, we had to use my credit card to get us on a train back to Prague, to catch a flight from Prague to Brussels that we were able to get on, and then catch a bus from Brussels to Paris. I also had to pay for another train from Paris to Laval since I had missed the one that I previously booked. It was a nightmare, but it was a nightmare made less so one because I had an emergency credit card. I have no idea how I would’ve made it back home if I didn’t have that credit card. Though I’m still paying it off, that’s what the credit card is there for, for emergencies such as those.

6. Doctor’s visits/medications – Even if you are perfectly healthy, I advise paying a visit to the doctor to check your vitals and to get the proper vaccinations (if you don’t by some random chance already have them all) before leaving the country. This is just wise in general to make sure everything is good before you embark on a minimum of 7-month adventure in another country, especially one where you aren’t familiar with how the whole doctor/medication thing works.

If you take medications for any reason at all, it’s also a good thing to visit your doctor just to make sure that your medications are at the right level as well as to look into getting an extension on your prescription if you have one. Most medications are available in France, however, you would have to go see a doctor that would then have to prescribe it to you. Though this is entirely possible, you can save much headache by getting an advancement. Firstly, because being straight with you, getting in to see any doctor is much of a challenge in France. Since 80% of healthcare is taken care of by the government, many doctors are already quite full and might refuse to see you.Secondly, they might even refer you to a specialist, which is just another addition to the overall hassle. Then, if you see the doctor before your Sécu goes through, you have to pay out of pocket for the visit and the medication. You will receive a form to get reimbursed both for the visit and the medication by the Sécu, but this reimbursement can take months to go through.

So, getting an advancement on your medication might be the easiest option. Though my insurance back home only paid for the first three months leaving me having to pay for the rest of the 6 months out of pocket, it was so much more worth it to me to just get the 9-month advancement than to try to tackle the French system. It might’ve been a different story if I were staying in France for more than 7 months. However, that wasn’t the case.

7. Cell phone plan in your home country – I greatly advise against paying for an international plan through your phone company back home because this can be ridiculously expensive and rather complicated.

If you are on contract, much like I am with Verizon, it is much easier to pay a small fee for the company to suspend your line. With Verizon, I was only able to suspend my plan for three months at a time, so I had to pay the fee three times. However, I believe paying to suspend it was only between $20 – $30, equaling between $60 – $90 for the entirety of my time in France, which is definitely much, much cheaper than paying for an international plan.

If you are not on a contract, then canceling your plan altogether is your best option because you are not tied into a contract already. Why pay money to keep it going if you don’t have to anyways?

Many companies will also allow you to unblock your phone so that you can use it abroad, which will save you some money from having to buy a brand-new phone in France. I did this with my iPhone 5c, and it’s worked out perfectly. I just popped in my French Sim card, and it works with no problems whatsoever.

 

So, as you can see, there are still many other things to take care of before you leave your home country. Moving to another country is not easy, so I hope that you didn’t come into this thinking so. However, I hoped that my advice has helped alleviate some stress and ignorance. I started this blog series so that other people don’t have to be as lost as I was when I was first starting this journey.

I hope all of this was helpful, and I wish you good luck!

 

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