It was almost one year ago, September 2nd in fact, that my best friend Erin and I were sitting in a coffee shop in Chicago and I said to her that I wanted to live abroad. It was just a hint of an idea, not even an idea - simply a dream. But I put it out in our conversation and then as time went by it grew into a really great idea. It's been the best thing I've ever done. More than just a ton of fun, it's been rewarding in so many ways. Feeling like a local in a city rather than just spending a quick vacation is such a different experience and opens up numerous opportunities.
If you're thinking about taking a long term trip to Paris (or another part of the world) I put together a few tips for you. Each person's experience and situation will always be different, but here are five things I think will be helpful:
1. Check the visa laws - before you start planning, be sure to check the laws regarding how long you're able to stay in the country as a tourist (non-student, non-employed.) For Paris, you are allowed to stay up to 90 days every six months. Meaning a three month long trip is the maximum you should plan to take. There is a visa de long sejour (long stay visa) that you need to apply for if you want to stay over those 90 days. However, looking at the requirements for approval are very specific. If you're unsure if you qualify as a tourist or need a visa, definitely check with an official.
I met quite a few people who were able to do extended stays in Paris on student Visas. They studied a variety of subjects and stayed for different periods of time. My favorite stories of course were when friends came as students, fell in love, and then stayed forever. That's the dream right?
2. Save, save, save - I'm sure it's no surprise when I say that Paris is expensive. I think that the cost of living is on par with other major cities in the US, but when you add in the exchange rate of the dollar - it sucks. It adds on an extra 30% to everything. For example, a latte will cost 4E which I think is reasonable for a $4 latte at home but when you add on the exchange rate it is really costing you $5.20. Plus a tip for your favorite barista. I saved like crazy before I left and was very lucky to have some big freelance projects in the Spring. That way I saved up enough to cover my living expenses for the whole three months.
One difference in a long term trip vs a vacation is that there are every day expenses that pop up since you are actually living there. Toilet paper, groceries, cleaning supplies, a new pillow… small every day things that add up. I had to learn fast not to spend money like I was on vacation - no going out to eat for every meal, no museum tickets every day. Plus you're going to want to have an emergency fund. For those I just need to have a quick trip to Venice kind of emergencies. You know.
3. Use long term housing - I got lucky by finding a perfect apartment on Airbnb. It was in the location I wanted and had plenty of space. The rate I paid each month for the space was about equivalent to what I would pay monthly for an apartment in Chicago. There are many world wide shared apartment sites like Airbnb to check out like VRBO or Home Away. You get to unpack your things, you have access to a kitchen, and feel like you're at home.
4. Know your neighborhood - I had visited Paris four times before deciding to spend a summer there, and I knew what neighborhoods I wanted to be in and definitely where I didn't. Ask friends who have lived there or traveled frequently for advice. Crowd source and post on Facebook for any tips. It's hard to try to find a new apartment at the last minute and always a pain to move locations, so spending time doing research will pay off.
5. Look into details on your cards - pull out that fine print for your credit, debit, or ATM cards. Many banks charge a fee for using international ATMs. This can add up faster than you can eat a macaron. I have Chase and they charge a fee of $5 plus 3% of the total amount of money I was withdrawing. Over three months, that can be a huge amount. A lot of credit cards will charge fees for international transactions as well. Know what the fees are for your cards + banks before you go and possibly look into opening a new account that will work for you (I found this article to be really helpful.)
Also an important note that in Paris you need proof of residence to open a bank account, like a lease or bills along with the long stay visa mentioned above. I've heard multiple stories from friends about being unable to get a lease or open utility accounts without a French bank account, so it's all a catch 22. Long story short… get the cards that will charge you minimal fees for international transactions.
One last thing I want to mention is that if you're planning on doing a long term stay on your own, I think you have to be ok with two things: 1) putting yourself out there to make new friends 2) having times of feeling alone. I think we all know how hard it is to make friends as adults. Social media (Instagram in particular) came in handy for meeting new friends but I pushed myself to reach out to people + always said yes when asked if I wanted to get together with someone new. On the flip side, even though I had visitors from home almost every week, there were days that I had nothing on my calendar. I'd eat meals or go to museums + parks by myself, surrounded by chatter that I couldn't understand. There are moments when you feel invisible. They pass, but they are there.
The hardest thing about my long term stay was knowing that I couldn't stay forever. The love affair had to end and you have to say goodbye to your friends + favorite parts of local life. Luckily there can always be an à bientôt (see you later) along with that au revoir.