As a former supposed illegal alien in Paris, this series on living in Paris illegally is in celebration of my recently conferred ‘resident’ status, complete with requisite ‘carte de sejour’ and all of the benefits and duties attached. It’s also an offering to the gods who kept me from getting deported for ducking the system during my time here. (Disclaimer: Neither I nor the good folks at Suite101.com consider this series to be an endorsement of illegal international border crossing. But good luck to y’all!)
We’re Everywhere! Long before I ever first set foot onto the cobblestones of France, someone said to me, “Don’t worry about your French, everyone there speaks English!” Now, having been here many years, and having surprised many lost Anglo-Saxon tourists with my perfect English skills, I know the truth. Paris is swarming with Anglophone expatriates. Many of these expats are legally here, more are not, and that makes it impossible to track the numbers of this transient population. I once read that the largest number of illegal immigrants in the United States are not from South of the Border or the far east, but Europe. It’s a lot easier to blend into the offspring of America’s largely European forefathers if you’re a European yourself.
Easy Hiding Likewise in France, Anglos of the thinner, quiet, and Caucasian persuasion can often go unnoticed. Either that or maybe we’re not as obvious to the French as the numerous African and Eastern European immigrants that the Parisians think of when the words sans papiers (literally, ‘without papers’) come to mind. Or maybe the French simply can’t catch the Anglos as easily. We can enter as tourists, and rarely are we subjected to the spot-checks in the Metro or on the streets. Keep out of trouble and you could hang out in Paris indefinitely. The three month limit (for Americans) can even be faked a bit if you go to another country for the day, but because they never seem to stamp passports anymore in Europe, you could probably slink by if they can’t prove you’ve been in the country that long.
They Say it Can’t Be Done Check out any of the discussions on the Paris-Anglophone or Think Paris web sites, and you’ll see a number of current and potential aliens looking for work, housing, and hints on how to stay without getting into trouble. Americans have a particularly hard time believing that there’s virtually no way that they can just turn up and start working, being neither European nor part of the Commonwealth. Just remember, one day someone might say there’s no way to get a one-year work permit, the next day you’ll find out about OMI’s Stage Professionnel. I recommend coming with some cash reserves, try sharing a flat, and talk to as many other expats as possible to get an idea of what your options are. You may want to have a short trial-period first, just to see if you can realistically survive.
The benefits to being illegal: no waiting in those long lines and paying large fees for the visa and carte de sejour, no taxes, and if you’re a fugitive from justice, a good way to hide (just pay those student loans-they certainly know where you are!). The downside to being illegal is that you have no medical coverage if something horrid happens (see Missy’s story), you may have difficulty getting a bank account or a cell phone (if you think you need one). Most of all, unless you like babysitting and teaching English, the job situation is pretty gloomy. Not that undeclared au noir jobs don’t exist, but they’re usually only tolerable on a short-term basis. Good for you if you’ve got your own connection to that posh job at the theatre. Most jobs, even legal, are found through connections (not in the FUSAC). But when you are an illegal alien, no matter how cozy you may get, don’t forget it.
Case 1: Missy, an American who did her Junior Year Abroad in Paris and ended up staying on another year. She shared a flat with her French boyfriend, and managed to snag one of those rare under-the-table jobs at an American bar. Then tragedy struck, Missy slips on the wet floor behind the bar and breaks an arm. At the hospital they figured out she had no papers, no insurance, and so they patched her up, and deported her without so much as letting her pack her things.
Case 2: Gina’s friend had been hiding out comfortably, working days as an au pair. Soon after buying a T.V. and ignoring the T.V. license requirement (we don’t have those in the States), the fisc, France’s IRS, sniff her out and have begun proceedings.
Case 3: Bob, an American musician, here illegally since the early 80’s, gets away with it for years until, once again, the fisc actually catch up. He got married in a hurry, and now is a fully legal member of society.
These stories aren’t meant to scare off potential aliens, just keep the paper trail down to a minimum, and be prepared if you get caught. Being a successful full-time illegal alien requires quick thinking, ingenuity, and a high threshold for pain (especially the kind associated with paying for any medication or doctor’s visits). Take your vitamins, stay healthy, and be prepared for the worst. Yes, they can kick you out. No, you won’t get back the hefty two-month deposit on your apartment if they do.
November 2019 Update
Originally written in November 1999, this article about being an illegal immigrant in Paris was VERY tongue-in-cheek (don’t forget a 24-year-old wrote it). Now it just sounds flippant to those who are really trying to establish their lives in France like I did (and I was really only “illegal” in the months between the expiration of my student visa and the arrival of my mariage visa…so although I know people who managed to do it for years, I was hardly the expert on the subject). I found out pretty quickly that unless you go to the American Hospital, it’s actually still cheaper to get sick in France without insurance than it is in the US with insurance. However with today’s technology it’s a lot harder to stay off authorities’ radar for long (especially the ones collecting taxes), so play it safe if you don’t want to get a one-way ticket home.
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris”