(getting a French Visa)
Posted 05 May 2022
This post is mainly aimed at providing some information to those in a similar position to me - Brits looking to get a visa to enable them to travel for more than 90 days in Europe post-Brexit. Anyone else probably won't find it a riveting read!
It certainly took a long time in coming down the tracks, having been looming since 2016, but at the start of 2021 the implementation of Brexit meant that "freedom of movement" (one of the fundamental benefits of EU membership) between the EU and UK came to an end. In my case, the primary impact was that a British passport became instantly rather less useful for travel around Europe - going from one day being a ticket to live in, work in, or visit 27 other countries without meaningful restriction - to being limited to visits only, for a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period. If I was planning to spend much time in Europe as part of my trip, this would be a problem.
With Brexit's implementation coinciding with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting restrictions on travel, there was only muted interest in (or information on) Brexit's immediate impact on the ability of Brits to travel in Europe for extended periods. Could one get a visa? Were there any loopholes available? What little information that was available was from the perspective of Brits owning second homes in France or Spain, or Brits looking to move to live together with their EU-based spouse. A frivolous long cycle tour was clearly not on the radar of the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement!
Having settled (more or less) on my plan of heading up through Scandinavia, and then wintering down in Southern Europe, I would most certainly need more than my allotted 90 days in Europe. I thought it was worth applying for a visa, if possible - keeping my fingers crossed to see what happened. On further research, this wasn't as possible as I'd hoped. Visas for the whole Schengen Area (the border-free zone encompassing most EU countries, and a few non-EU ones too) are only available for a maximum period of 90 days (not relevant for me as I could already visit for that amount of time - these are primarily for non-European nationals). For a longer period, the visitor is restricted to a "national visa" - i.e. one valid only for the requested country, not for the Schengen Area as a whole. Even then, many countries seemed not to offer this option, and instead expected the visitor to start the process of applying for residency.
Spain was a possibility, but their tourist visa was over €1'000. Ouch, especially as I wasn't confident that I'd actually get it!
France consistently looked the most appealing. They seemed to offer a 12-month visa for around €100. I could afford to take a chance on that. The country would also be my gateway into Europe (owing to the easy ferry connections from the UK), so seemed a feasible option. I would apply on the basis of a 12-month cycling trip around France only, but then rely on the lack of border controls beyond France to not be "rumbled" that I wasn't quite complying with the terms of my visa...
I figured that I could make it up to Nordkapp, back through the Baltic states, and down to Southern Europe all while remaining within the Schengen Area - so my hunch was that after entering France, my visa would not be checked again, so I would "de facto" be able to cycle where I pleased during those 12 months... We'll see if this pans out!
Steps in getting the visa:
Those applying from the UK must go via one of the "TLScontact" visa application centres. They handle the application - I had no direct contact with the embassy/consulate. I used the London centre
First, you need to complete the online application at France-Visas : link
This just enters your application into the system, and populates all your details into a PDF application form, which you can then print off
Next, you need to make an appointment at your chosen TLScontact centre : link
Appointment availability can be a bit thin on the ground for the near future, so try and plan ahead. For the long-stay visa (more than six months in France), you can't apply (i.e. have an appointment at the visa centre) more than three months ahead of travel
That's basically it for now, but closer to the time of your appointment you will need to start work on a whole sheaf of paperwork to present on the day...both the France-Visas and TLScontact websites have good pointers, but below are some comments from my side:
Print out everything, including the France-Visas form
Passport - bear in mind it may be with the consulate for a little while after your appointment, so don't plan any travel for a few weeks after your appointment as you may not have your passport back!
Passport photos - bring along a couple. They claimed that mine would be refused as the background wasn't white enough, but I insisted they submit the application anyway. Seems a pointless requirement, as the photo that appears on the visa is actually the one taken when you have your biometrics done!
"Promise not to exercise any professional activity in France" - I just wrote a little letter to this effect
Letter explaining your project - I wrote a brief letter explaining my plans. Tried to explain my accommodation plans here too, as the visa application process very much assumes you will be able to provide one address for your time in France!
"Proof of your socio-economic situation" - last three months' bank statements, which are likely used to check you have sufficient funds for the time you plan to spend in France. Detail, and prove, any other sources of funds (for example, I explained that I was expecting rental income from my house in England). I also presented my last three months of payslips, which the application centre loved, but which seemed rather pointless as I would be leaving the job to go cycling! This section may be a sticking point if you are hoping to do the trip on a bit of a shoestring and can only show limited resources
Private health insurance - for stays over six months, it is claimed that "travel" insurance or the EHIC/GHIC is not acceptable (although the application centre did ask to see my EHIC/GHIC, which I didn't actually have on me, so take it along anyway - although it wasn't a problem in the end). Following some research, I bought insurance through "Insubuy" - an American company. They have a specific offering for "Schengen Visa Insurance." It was no problem to buy cover for a year, and it can even be extended, so they might not even be a bad option for longer trips more generally. At my visa appointment, I presented the insurance certificate and a nice letter that you get which confirms that the cover meets the necessary requirements for a visa - however, it was commented that I did not have "proof of payment" for the insurance. So maybe best to also take the insurance invoice/receipt
Hopefully preparing your dossier of documents has kept you busy (I was glad things were quiet at work over this time!). Now it's time for your appointment at the visa centre. Expect to be there a while, and to queue for everything. Once you get past the metal detector, the first desk just does a basic check that you have the main documents (passport, France-Visas form etc). They then send you into the main area, to wait for your number to be called. Eventually, your number should appear on a screen - this tells you which counter to go to.
Now they will want to see everything. The fact that I had no actual accommodation plan seemed a bit of a problem (I had to put a dummy address on my France-Visas form, as you could not leave it blank). The TLScontact person was able to access my application and just remove the dummy accommodation details, and submit the application without any address, which we agreed as the solution. I got the impression that unless your application was completely deficient, you could always effectively insist on it being sent off to the consulate for their consideration, even if TLScontact claimed there was no hope.
There was then a final bit of waiting to go into a little booth and have biometrics taken - it was the photo taken here that showed up on the visa.
My appointment was on 7th February. That evening, I had an email confirming that my application had been sent to the consulate. The following evening (8th February), I had a message advising that the consulate were requesting additional information to help with my application:
Employer letter with status and salary (pointless as I would be leaving work, but anyway I got the company's HR people to send over a reference)
UK house rental agreement (as I was stating that I would be receiving funds from renting out my house - this had in fact already been submitted with my visa application, but I was happy to send it again!)
Cycling tour agenda in France and accommodation. This was more challenging, but I came up with a dummy itinerary stretching out to twelve months of cycling around France. I booked accommodation online for every few days (all cancellable/refundable)
Despite living in the 21st century, all the additional documents need to be printed out and posted off to the visa centre - no replying to their email!
I then heard nothing for what seemed like an age. You can log-in and check the application process on the TLScontact website, but if nothing's happening then you won't see any progress! Finally, on 7th March I had an email confirming my passport was back with TLScontact and could be collected from their centre - so, a month after my appointment. Hilariously, you only actually find out whether or not you have the visa when opening the envelope containing your passport!
When I applied, there was no option for your passport to be posted back to you - it was necessary to make another trip to the visa centre to collect it in person. Make sure you bring the necessary documents to collect it - photo ID and your "application checklist" which was handed to you during your appointment. Also check the hours that the collection office is open, I remember that they do close for lunch...
Thought I may as well give you a photo below of my visa - the fruit of my labours - is it worth it!
So far as I can tell, I have been issued with a "VLS-T" type visa. This allows a maximum stay of 12 months, although cannot be extended, and no formalities are needed after entering France.
On the day of entering France (which, perversely, actually happened in Dover) there was no problem at all. Upon seeing my visa, the immigration officer declared "this is fine for me" and stamped me in.