Well, now that I'm officially FRENCH (still haven't quite adjusted to that fact - maybe the ceremony and a passport will make it seem real) I know some of you are wondering how it works and how I managed to achieve this minor miracle.
While I'm not in a position to advise anyone in an official capacity, because everyone's immigration situation is going to be different and because you shouldn't take my advice but should do your own research, here's my 20-point take on it anyway:
1. First, read THIS information provided by the French government. Don't forget to choose whether you intend to apply for nationality by virtue of being married to a French citizen, or that you need to go the other naturalization route. (Also, if you live outside of Paris, I recommend you contact your local Préfecture to get THEIR local rules and list of documents -- because it could be handled differently. I can only speak to what it was like to apply while living in Paris, and this was where I started.) Here's also some FAQ information.
2. While you're trying to figure all of THAT out, you will also need to get a certification of your French comprehension level. You can do these first two steps in parallel. This is a new legal requirement as of January 2012, and you need to have a B1 (low intermediate) level or higher, or there is no sense applying for nationality. If you don't already have a DELF diploma, you'll need to take a written and oral exam (this can take several weeks to schedule and there are several places you can go to get tested) and then you'll wait between 2-4 weeks to get the results. So, best to take care of this ASAP while you're working on preparing the rest of your dossier and collecting all your other documents, apostilles and translations. There are several testing organizations but this one, CIEP, seems to be the most well-known, and they're the ones that administered my test via the Sorbonne here in Paris. Specifically, the test YOU need for nationality is the TCF to aquire French Nationality. There are also some free practice tests on the TV5Monde web site, or you can even get books to prep you (I bought them but didn't really use them much.) Bonne chance et bon courage for your test.
3. Open a bottle of wine, and drink some, because this next part is going to get ugly.
4. You have to assemble all the required documentation. This will involve getting birth certificates, marriage/divorce certificates, and possibly even death certificates (for your parents or former spouses, if this applies) from your home country, AND if you're married to a Frenchie you need the same documents for him or her. FYI it is never going to be acceptable for you to simply photocopy your existing originals or copies of these official documents; you MUST get new official copies from your country of origin. For YOUR documents, some of them will have to be dated NO MORE THAN 3 MONTHS from when you submit your dossier, SO... it is a delicate high-wire balancing act, trying to coordinate all of this, especially from a distance. In my home state of New Jersey, I was able to order official copies online at the NJ State Department, then have them sent to my sister's home.
But that's not enough -- each document has to have an apostille which is like an international stamp that countries use to autheticate official documents. My sister had to mail the documents to another branch of my state government (I think it was Treasury but don't ask me why) along with a letter or form requesting the apostilles, and a check. Then they mailed everything back to her, and she put them in the overnight mail to me here. This took WEEKS and I even paid extra to expedite the process but it wasn't "expedited" at all, in my opinion. Get yourself really, REALLY organized for this because it's extremely important. It also costs money and you don't want to have to repeat the process if you run out of time in that 90-day window.
By the way, on the government's list for nationality by marriage, I did not see any requirement that I include MY parents' birth certficates, even though they wanted those of Georges' parents. (I think this may be on the other list for naturalization, though.) But I'd heard stories that these would be required, and rather than risk a delay later if I had to go back and get them, I ordered those at the same time I ordered my own. I figured better safe than sorry. Both my parents were born in the same state as me, so that was easy. In the U.S., children usually have the right to request a parent's birth certificate without getting that parent's permission. So if you can get this info, I recommend including it even if they haven't asked for it up front, because it takes so much time getting that stuff from overseas.
For your spouse's documents, he/she will have to request all new copies even if he/she already has those documents lying around the house somewhere, because of the 90-day thing. In my husband's case, getting copies of his birth certificate (which also lists his marriage/divorce info which is the French custom) was simple. Getting copies of some of his parents' documents was not so easy because his father was also an immigrant; he had to contact the central registry in Nantes.
I would imagine if either you or your spouse were adopted, you would want to get official copies of that documentation as well, especially if that has a bearing on being able to provide information on your parents.
You will also need proof that you have no criminal record in your country of origin. (I don't think there is a 90-day time requirement for this part but it stands to reason that a background check should be as recent as possible.) France does not want to knowingly import criminals; can we blame them? How you obtain this criminal records check will vary by country, but in the US you need to contact the FBI. But you won't need an Apostille for this document, and they will mail it directly to you in France. Start here with the FBI, my fellow Americans. However please note: you will need to get fingerprinted and I managed to do this at my local police station in NJ when I was home on a visit; if you're in France I am not sure how you could go about this. You may have to check with the US embassy in Paris, or perhaps the local préfecture would be willing to do it, but you would need some FBI form. Read all the info on the FBI site about this. And good luck.
5. Drink some more wine, because it's about to get worse.
6. Assuming that none of your documents are going to be in French (you lucky French Canadians can probably skip this step), you'll need to get ALL of them translated into French, and by a translator that is certified by the French government (here's the site with this official list of translators). The translator will do the translations of your documents AND the attached apostilles, and will then affix/staple their own official seal to each document so the French government will not have to question the validity of the translation. Whatever you do, DO NOT SEPARATE THE TRANSLATIONS AND CERTIFICATION FROM THE ORIGINALS; this invalidates the translator's certification. So when you're making photocopies or scanning your documents, be very careful not to loosen or remove those original staples. By the way, if you're getting close to that 90-day cut-off, you might have to pay the translator extra to expedite things. Cha-ching.
7. Pour another glass or two of wine so that you have it at the ready, because you're going to need it, but DON'T drink it until AFTER you do the next 2 steps.
8. Take the list off all the documents you'll need, and prepare to assemble your dossier. Put everything in the EXACT order in which it appears on the government's list (obviously, skip anything that doesn't apply in your situation). Make sure you have the required number of photocopies included, and I also recommend that you photocopy or scan every single page for your own records, in case they lose something (and they WILL). I also typed up a complete cover page with the exact list of documents I was sending, in the exact order they had listed them on their web site. Presumably this would make it easier for the person opening and processing the dossier to see that everything was in there. (This didn't stop them from misplacing something, by the way. But hope springs eternal.) Verify everything 4 or 5 times and have a friend or your spouse do the same.
9. You need to pay for your application (and by now you have probably spent around $500-1000 doing all of this anyway, between the language test, document fees, postage and translations -- but hey, isn't being French worth a few sous?) but you can't write a check or pay in cash, you need to go and buy one of those fiscal stamps -- les timbres fiscal (if you're living in France you should know what those are by now) for 55€. They used to sell them at some tabac shops in Paris but that seems to be getting harder to find, so I went to the Préfecture on the Ile de la Cité because they have a place there where you can buy them. Take the page from the web site with the instructions so you can show the cashier and he/she will know what type of stamp and for what amount. DO NOT MOISTEN AND AFFIX THIS STAMP TO YOUR DOCUMENTS. Put them in a plain white envelope for protection and write on the envelope what it is.
10. Drink your wine. Then sober up before the next step.
11. Are you sure you have everything? Are you POSITIVE? Check again. And then check again. Then, get an envelope. Put everything inside, neatly and in order. Go to the post office and send it to the address given to you by your Préfecture*. Ask the postal worker how best to send your document package overnight with a signed receipt ("recommandé"), so you'll have proof that it arrived. That way, if they claim they never received it (yes, really) you can at least prove that they DID.
*I'm told that in some parts of France, you don't mail the dossier, you would bring it in person. So just do what you're told by your local préfecture, they're the boss. In Paris, they won't accept hand-delivered dossiers, you MUST mail them. Voila.
12. Go home from the post office, have another glass of wine, and exhale. You have earned a small repose. But only a small one.
13. Because in "some" weeks ("some" = no one really knows how many, although for me it was very fast -- less than 10 days! -- for some unknown reason) you will get a letter from the Préfecture. This will either be a form telling you that (ahem) you neglected to include some precious document (which means either you really did neglect to include it, or more likely you sent it but they lost it; they will never admit to this), OR it will be a convocation inviting you to your first interview. If it's the latter, congratulations, this is a big step.
If they claim you are missing a document but you are positive you included it, you could try what we did when this happened to me (they claimed I never included the language certificate): call them (or if you live in a smaller town where you can go in person, go there) and calmly explain what the letter said. Explain -- without appearing to BLAME the Préfecture in any way! -- that you are quite certain the document was in the envelope, and respectfully ask if they wouldn't mind just checking again before you go to all the effort to track the document down again? They will sigh, act like it's a huge imposition, and go check your file... and then if you're lucky they will come back and tell you that, well, it appears it WAS there all the time but had somehow been "stuck" inside the envelope.
14. For your interview at the Préfecture, do bring copies of your entire dossier plus any other documents you can think of that will help additionally prove your marital status, residence status (utility bills and rent statements), education, employment (yours and your spouse's) or anything else they might potentially ask for as a surprise. I've heard of this happening although it didn't happen to me. Best be prepared.
Don't forget to bring your French spouse if you have one, because part of this interview will be to verify AGAIN that your marriage is legit, so they will ask all sorts of questions about that. Your spouse's presence is mandatory for this interview if you're applying for nationality by marriage.
Also be prepared to wait a long time no matter when your interview time was scheduled. If you are really lucky, like we were, you will end up being the last interviewee before the lunch hour and your appointed case worker will be hungry and eager to speed through the interview so she can go to lunch with her colleagues, who will be standing nearby tapping their feet and looking at their watches in their impatience to get a decent table at the local café.
Make sure you each (if you are married) know the full names, birthdates and places of birth of: your spouse, your spouse's parents, and your spouse's children. ALL of these came up in the two interviews I ended up having, although not all in the same interview. (See below for info on the second interview.) Georges accidentally gave my sister's name for my mother, and then it was clear he couldn't remember my mother's name, so he laughed and said "Everyone just calls her Nana for "Grandmother"!" and the case worker seemed to find this charming. Or else she was just really hungry and would have said anything to get us the hell out of there.
They will also ask you if you wish to change your first name to something more "French". Yes, I am totally serious about this. However, it is not required and if you say no then there is no penalty, but the idea is that some people may want to do this to help them "integrate" more into French society, if they have a very un-French-sounding first name, in theory to reduce the odds of any potential biases with employers, etc. So if you have a very un-French name, this might be something you would want to consider.
We were given a receipt saying my dossier had been officially submitted into the pipeline; and we were told that the next step was for the dossier to go to the Ministry of the Interior, and THEY would be making the decision (and probably doing more fact-checking). We were told there was a minimum one-year waiting period, so "don't call us, we'll call you" before that year was up; I've heard some people say it took more like 18 months, so I was really ready for anything.
We were also told there would be no need for another interview. This turned out not to be entirely true.
15. By now, do you need me to tell you to get some more wine? Order a case or two, while you're at it. A year is a long time to wait.
16. I mailed my dossier at the very end of September. My interview was in October. Just a couple of weeks later, in November, I got a letter from the Ministry of the Interior with another interview date, this time at their offices in the suburb of Neuilly. (So much for "no other interviews".) This time, NO spouse; I would be on my own. I also had to bring with me a CV or resumé, so Georges helped me prepare one in the French style (and in French, of course) since I did not already have one.
The problem was, the date they gave me was in December -- the last day I was to be in New Jersey after having spent Thanksgiving with my family! Luckily the letter provided a phone number in case I needed to reschedule. Unluckily, it took me hours to get through on that line. But eventually I did, explained the situation, and was given an alternate date which I accepted without hesitation. Remember, this is THEIR game and you have to play it their way, so don't be difficult.
I brought all my documents and copies again, not knowing exactly what would happen. I expected to be interviewed by the man whose name and signature was on the letter, the man I spoke to when rescheduling; instead, they sent what appeared to be a college intern. She did not have my file in front of her. All she had was a long questionnaire, and we sat in a room for about 90 minutes while she asked me questions that I had mostly been asked before or where the answers were already in my dossier. She did ask a few new questions though: they wanted to know if I had children of my own back in the States, and they wanted to know if I knew the ages, birthdays and places of birth of Georges' children. I was prepared for them to ask if I had kids; they are looking for people who want to emigrate and then bring over their entire families, which they're not too keen on most of the time.
Oddly enough, it wasn't until she closed up the pile of papers she had in front of her that she got around to asking me a bit more about how I came to be in France and how I met Georges. I gave her the short (but romantic) version of the story and she seemed genuinely enchanted. I walked out of there not feeling like there had been any red flags or any issues... but of course this is France and you never know what they can throw at you when you're not expecting it.
In the end, I think the main purpose of this second interview, solo, was to see if I answered questions consistently with what I had put in my file or what was asked of me in the first interview, plus a little additional checking about my language skills, how well I have already integrated into France, and what are my motivations for wanting to become French. For some reason once the interview got started, I felt very calm and it was a cakewalk compared to all of the earlier part of the process. Since they sent me to be interviewed by a college intern, I figured it was just routine and I had nothing to worry about.
17. After your interview(s), you will then basically do absolutely nothing for the rest of that year except wait. And drink wine. Because soon you will be French and you need to build up your wine tolerance to acceptable levels. Although there is no "wine-drinking test" as part of nationality... that I'm aware of. But it never hurts to be prepared.
18. If there is a problem or you need extra documents, I would assume you would be contacted about that. We were told there would be no surprise home visits, but that was surprising to me since I know some people have had them, but we never did, even during my first year here.
19. If a miracle happens, as it did for me, maybe you will get your "Congratulations, you're French" notification letter sooner than one year, but really you should absolutely not look for that to happen before the year is out. I think my early acceptance was a freak exception rather than the rule. Maybe the fonctionnaire who had my dossier just decided to clear his desk before his August holidays, because I sure got lucky and I have no explanation for it.
But barring any issues in your situation that might be seen as problematic, that letter WILL arrive in due course.
20. When it does, you should jump up and down, dance around the house, yell "I'm FRENCH" out the window, bise everyone within radius, and drink a lot of champagne. Then, read the letter and all attached documents carefully and follow all instructions to go to your ceremony where you will be given all your official papers, including your new FRENCH birth certificate (so you can then apply for your French passport and an optional national ID card).
But the minute you get that letter, you'll know you are already, permanently, wonderfully FRENCH. From now on, you give up the seemingly endless paper chase of constantly proving and reproving your right to be a resident here. And you can go back to drinking wine just for fun.