As you know if you've been following along for a while, I've been preparing to request French nationality. And since I still get questions about how it works, why I'd want to become French, and what happens to my American citizenship if I do become French, I thought I'd go through it all again here. Maybe it will help someone else who is considering doing the same.
First, let me say that everyone's situation is going to be different. There are all kinds of reasons foreigners living in France might want to take French nationality, and different rules apply depending on each case. For instance, the current rules about how long you must wait to apply for citizenship vary, depending on whether you are applying for naturalisation via marriage to a French citizen (you must be married for at least 4 years) versus all other cases (I think you must have lived here at least 5 years in most other cases). For married people, it used to be a much shorter wait time but in 2006 the government got a lot tougher on us immigrants in many ways, and upped the wait time to ensure that people are really married and not a mariage blanc, the French equivalent of a green-card marriage. So whatever I happen to describe here is primarily based on my own experiences and research; if you are planning to apply for French nationality, I strongly advise you to do your own homework and make sure you check the most current information, as things are changing constantly (this week alone, Hollande's government rescinded some stricter requirements Sarkozy put in place just this past January, including doing away with a history test and removing a requirement that candidates had to have a very hard-to-get CDI work contract!)
Here's your starting point for your research: Acquisition de la Nationalité Française, a government information site. It breaks down the requirements by marriage vs. naturalisation (the latter is where you've just lived here long enough and you decide you want citizenship but you're not married to anyone French). If you are living here in Paris, you can also get the necessary forms and list of required documents at the Préfecture de Paris web site; those living in Paris will need apply at this préfecture so you'll need this information to complete your dossier. (If you are living in another part of France, you should contact the nearest préfecture to ask what the requirements are and how you need to prepare and apply, and they should direct you.)
One of the newest requirements starting 2012 is that you must have French language skills at level B1 (that's low intermediate) or higher in order to qualify for nationality. So right at the start, if you do not already have a DELF diploma stating you have this level or above, you will need to take a standarized test called the TCF to determine your level and receive the official attestation that your préfecture will need to see in your dossier. Here is a link to a PDF file that explains it all and tells you how to find an institution that can test you. I'd recommend taking care of that ASAP, before you start accumulating the necessary documents; it may take weeks to get a test date and then the results will take 3-4 weeks to come back, and as some of your documents must be dated within 3 months of the date you submit your dossier, don't run the risk (as I did!) of not having the attestation back before your other documents expire. The attestation is valid for two full years so no problem with the 3-month thing.
Once you've got your French level ironed out, you can start organizing your papers. You will need certain papers from your home country: your birth certificate (the "long form" version) and a document or letter from an offiicial government source stating that you have no criminal record (the criminal record is relevant if you have not lived in France for at least 10 years). If you're applying via marriage and you were married in your home country, you need an official copy of that certificate also. All of these of these must be dated within 3 months of the date you send in the dossier. In the USA for the criminal background check, you need to get fingerprinted at your local police station on an official form and then send it in to the FBI; they're the ones who do the criminal background check at the federal level. If you aren't sure how to get official "long form" copies of your birth certificate, check with your home town, county seat, or look online at your country or state's official government web site. You can't just photocopy your original birth or marriage certificates; that's not good enough.
On my list of required documents, they did NOT mention requiring the birth/death/marriage/divorce certificates of my parents. However... they did want some of these same types of certificates of Georges' parents, mainly to provide proof that Georges was legally French when he married me. But I have read elsewhere that sometimes, an applicant for French nationality might be asked to provide their parents' birth certificates (and maybe also death certificates, but both my parents are living so I'm not sure about this). I decided that, since it takes such a long time to get all these papers taken care of long distance, I would bite the bullet and order copies of their birth certificates as well as my own. In NJ, I was able to do this via the Internet very easily via a service called VitalChek, and pay the required fees via credit card. I had them all mailed to my sister's address in NJ and she later forwarded them to me here in France.
But there's more to be done on the home front. Certain documents from abroad must have what is called an apostille: this is an special form or stamp that is internationally recognized and used to validate the authenticity of official documents being exchanged between countries that are part of the Hague Convention. My birth certificate was one of the documents where I also needed an apostille, and same for our marriage certificate; I decided to also request apostilles for my parents' birth certificates as well, just to be safe. (I did NOT need one for the criminal background check document.) In NJ, a separate department handles the apostilles from the department that issues the certificates. I had to leave my sister all the instructions, a pre-addressed envelope, and a check to cover the cost of the apostilles (what, you think the government's going to do all that for FREE? Not in MY home state, apparently; I paid roughly $200 for certificates, apostilles and "expedited" service that was never even provided but don't get me started about THAT fiasco). Once she received the certificates with their attached/stapled apostilles (whatever you do, DO NOT REMOVE THE STAPLES EVER, even if you're making photocopies for your own records, as the staple is part of what makes the apostille official), I had her fast-mail them to me in France via UPS so we could track the envelope properly.
Next, I had to get ALL four of those certificates, AND their apostilles, translated into French; same with the FBI letter. You have to use a state-approved translator here in France for this, because they not only translate the documents, they provide a special certification that the documents are authentic. Cost to get 3 birth certificates + apostilles and one letter translated, with a special next-business-day rush service fee of 100 euros? Total: 430 euros. I paid for the next-day option because I was really right on the 3-month deadline and I couldn't afford to take a chance at any more delays by this point.
Georges had to do a fair amount of running around too, collecting his family history documents (at least they didn't charge him any money for the copies here). His father was also a naturalized French citizen, born in Saint Petersbourg, Russia; his mother was born in the Lorraine region, but at the time she was born, it was part of Germany, so he needed proof that both of them were actually French so that he could in turn prove HE was French. He was born just outside of Paris but apparently that wasn't enough; he had to prove that one or both parents were French as well at the time of his birth. For a number of these documents, he was able to contact a central service in Nantes; for others, he contacted the local town hall. We messed up a bit on his documents; originally, months ago, when we started putting the file together, we both totally missed that he needed some of these, so we ended up scrambling at the end and it was a major source of stress. Lesson learned: do your homework and leave yourself plenty of time to get everything together. The French test will take a long time; your overseas documents will also take a long time; your French documents will take some time but much less, so tackle them in that order and do your best to get everything timed well.
As a married couple, we also had to provide evidence of our common and continuous married life, and proof that we have lived on French soil for at least 3 of the 4 years of our marriage (in certain cases a couple might be exempt from this but they'd have to prove they were living overseas as a result of some mandatory job situation or goverment posting, such as for diplomats or the military). So, another stack of documents to accumulate there. The basic documents are those sacrosanct utility bills in both your names to prove your address plus that you're living under the same roof (if you've moved, save copies from all your prior addresses, too), joint bank account statements, proof that you changed your legal name (for the woman) to your husband's name, pay stubs (to prove you have sufficient income as a couple). What constitutes "proof" can be one of those grey areas where there is the official list of what's required... and then there are the extra things you might be asked to provide. I've made it a habit since our marriage to save things like proof we took trips together as a couple or with the kids (like taking Le Garçon to Club Med in Turkey or to NJ, and even going to see Georges' sister or to visit his daughter in Lille). I saved the receipts from our wedding reception and our little two-night stay in a B&B for a mini-honeymoon, in case there was ever a challenge about our marriage being the real deal. (FYI don't get married in Vegas if you want your marriage to be taken seriously in cases where one of you is from a foreign country.) As yet, no one has ever asked me to provide these more unorthodox forms of proof of our common married life, but we've wanted to be prepared just in case because you simply never know.
I'm assuming, and have read on other expat blogs, that those who are applying for nationality without marriage have additional requirements placed on them, and most certainly this would include the ability to prove your financial viability. If you are employed, they'll want proof of that. Also proof of your savings and any investments. If you're retired or self-employed, they'll want proof of how you plan to support yourself so you're not a drain on the State. So get your financial ducks in a row. Note: there is no published guideline for how much money you "should" have. My guess is, whatever you think you need on an annual basis, you ought to have double that just to be safe. If anyone out there knows otherwise, let us know.
This may sound politically incorrect, but it is fairly clear to me that in France, decisions about who gets "in" as a naturalized French citizen sometimes has to do with your country of origin, and whether your country's customs and habits are potentially in conflict with those of France. My step-daughter, who is studing International Law, sent me an article about reasons some people are refused nationality, even if they're married to a Frenchie, and in recent years the reasons have ranged from lack of independent financial resources, i.e. the woman doesn't work outside the home (which may no longer be an issue now that they've done away with the requirement about that CDI work contract) to issues with how women are treated by their spouse to whether or not someone believes in polygamy (a big no-no in France). According to the information in this article, the cases cited where someone was turned down all involved people from African, Asian or Middle Eastern countries. As an American, I have been far less worried about being turned down as our two countries have been allies for hundreds of years and despite the tendency of each to poke fun at the other's politics and customs, as governments they mostly get along well. In other words, I don't think I'm someone who would be considered a "problem" candidate for French citizenship. I wish I could say that the decision-making is always fair and equitable, but I suspect it's not. The reality is, not everyone gets nationality, even if they have long-term residency and are otherwise model citizens. Our former cleaning woman and her husband, a Moroccan couple who own their own small business and have lived here for between 12-20 years and who have two children born in France, are now applying for citizenship. My guess is that they will have more questions asked, more documents required, and different standards applied than someone like me. I think they will probably be accepted based on what I know about them, but they'll have to work even harder for it. It's not fair, and I suspect this inequity occurs in the US and in other countries as well, but there it is.
Having said that, the new French government under Hollande has said that it wants to make it easier for worthy applicants to become French. So now seems like a good time to go for it, if you want to do it and you meet all the legal requirements.
Once you think you have all the necessary papers, including translations, apostilles, originals and/or photocopies (as indicated on the official list), you have to complete a declaration of your request (the prefecture will give this to you or you can download it online, see links above) to include in the dossier. Make sure you write everything in French on the declaration: i.e., don't write "USA", write "États-Unis". Georges also gave me a great suggestion, which was to type up a numbered list, in French, of every single document we were sending, in the order they appeared on the original list, and then I put a bright pink sticky note on each document with its number (don't write on the originals!) and the name of the document. The idea was to make it easier for the person reviewing the file to determine if anything important was missing. (Even with this, they still managed to temporarily misplace my French level attestation, until Georges called them up and nicely asked them to check again to see if they had it. And they did. Because I don't leave anything to chance. But calling them idiots and showing them you are frustrated is not the way to get off on the right foot with people who hold your future in the palm of their hand.) Once they receive your dossier, they will review it to see if all the required documents are there. You will then receive some sort of letter: either a letter telling you you're missing something, or a convocation letter with the date and time of your interview appointment. You don't get to choose this appointment, by the way: THEY are in the driver's seat and unless you have a good reason to call and request a change of date, you (and your spouse if you're applying via marriage) had better just plan to show up, no matter how inconvenient it may be. More on this appointment in the next installment.
As the previous paragraph indicates, if you are missing something (or they claim you didn't send it, even if you know damn well that you DID) they will send you a letter telling you, and giving you directions about how to send in the missing information. Here in Paris, we are instructed to MAIL everything, including the original dossier. I would have preferred to hand-deliver it, but this is not an option. In other parts of France, people have told me they were told to do the opposite. So, check with your préfecture and do whatever the hell they tell you do to. Remember, this is THEIR game, you have to play it THEIR way and suck it up if you don't like it. They aren't going to make it easy on you; that's the whole point! Do you want to be French badly enough that you are willing to put up with the red tape and civil servants with attitude? If you are, then you probably deserve to become French because the French are used to it.
By the way, if you're planning to do this crazy thing, applying for French citizenship, and you are able and willing to hire someone to help make life a whole lot easier, contact my friend Jenny Beaumont's husband Olivier Cappaert at Excuse My French; this is what he specializes in, and I think you'll be in excellent hands. He also helps people relocating here (or even leaving here) who need help coping with a wide variety of challenges of living in this wonderful, if sometimes frustrating, country. Wish I'd been in a position to hire him. Seriously. (And that funny cartoon? Borrowed from their web site and used with permission.)
Let me take a moment and address the "why" of all this. As in "Why would you want French citizenship, and what happens to your American citizenship?" These are fair questions, and should be seriously considered by anyone thinking of seeking dual nationality ANYWHERE. You shouldn't just want to be a citizen of a foreign country because it sounds like a cool thing to do. There are responsiblities that go with it as well as potential drawbacks.
The first thing to know is, not all countries permit their citizens to hold secondary nationality with another nation. So, whatever your country of origin and whatever the country where you plan to or do reside where you want nationality, check the laws on both ends so you are making an informed choice. If you want the new nationality but your home country won't permit it, that's a very serious decision to make: whether or not to renounce your original nationality. I can't tell you what to do. But as an American I have no reason to give up my citizenship, and can't even imagine a situation where I would do so; no, not even if I were one of those sleazy billionaires who give up citizenship to avoid paying taxes in America (that just really pisses me off. Hey, Rich Dudes, pay your freaking taxes and quit being greedy bitches about it!)
I'm fortunate, in that the United States does not have any specific laws forbidding a citizen to hold dual nationality. (This State Department bulletin explains the official policy.) France also does not prevent dual nationality. So, as long as I feel comfortable being able to say that I can adhere to and support the laws and values of both countries without conflict (and I can), then that's all that is necessary. The idea is, if I'm on US soil, I use my US citizenship to enter/leave the country and to take care of my affaires there. Same thing in France: I would use my French passport when traveling, and French law would (technically) supersede US law while I'm on French soil. Since in the case of France and the US, the overall laws and social values are actually quite similar (or, shall we say, similar enough that I personally have no moral or ethical dilemma), I don't foresee any difficulties in living my life while holding citizenship in two countries. Added bonus: with my French passport, I have automatic "European Union Citizenship" status as well, which means I can travel freely and I could even live and work in any EU country if I wanted to. Not that I do. But the travel part is kind of cool.
Do I really NEED to be French? Technically, no. I now have a 10-year carte de séjour (residency card) that is renewable, and as long as Georges and I aren't divorced I should have no issue getting it renewed. So I could stay in France my entire life as a legal long-term resident and not much would change about my daily life. However... since I WILL spend the rest of my life here, or so I anticipate (even if Georges were to pre-decease me, I think I would stay because I'd want to be near the kids and maybe -- someday -- grandkids, among other reasons), I would like NOT to have to go through that 10 year renewal process. It's just a hassle. I would like the peace of mind of knowing that, in the eyes of the French government, I belong here without question. If I have to pay taxes here on any income I earn, even if that income is from sources in the US or elsewhere outside of France, I want the right to vote. I also think it could be more convenient for Georges and I traveling together if we go on the same country's passport (except for whenever I come back to America; I can clear customs more quickly in the US citizen lines, but I now stick with Georges in the longer "furriners" lines).
And although it's not a good reason, there is that part of me that is still, on the inside, that little girl of 12 or 13 who thought that it would be so cool to be French. She never thought she would be, of course. The most she ever hoped for was to travel a lot to Paris and maybe even live there one day. But actually BEING French? Seemed just too incredible to be possible.
How wonderful that she was wrong about the "possible" part.
In Partie Deux of my Saga, I'll tell you what happened next after sending in my dossier and straightening out the issue of the (not really) missing language attestation: getting my convocation for my interview, preparing for said interview, and how it went!