Friday, 2 January 2015

I Exist! and I have the Carte Vitale to prove it

When we moved to France in 2009 we were able to do so fairly easily because we are citizens of a fellow EU country (Britain) and thus are able to live and work in any EU country automatically. One of the things we did fairly quickly on arrival in France was to register as autoentrepreneurs. This business/tax category is for small scale self employed people, who either wish to stay small scale because they are part time or because they are testing a business idea and want to stay simple tax wise and inexpensive accounting wise. The reason we chose to do this was twofold. First, we genuinely did want to set up a business. The second was because it was the single simplest thing we could do to establish our eligibility for a Carte Vitale (French state healthcare card), giving us automatic and easy access to the excellent French state health care system.

As independent professionals (professions libérales) we were automatically affiliated to the social security administrators Régime Social des Indépendents (RSI). They work closely with an insurance company Réunion des Assureurs Maladie (RAM) and to be honest, I've never worked out quite where the division of labour is. We pay our social contributions to RSI, but it is RAM who reimburse us when we have a medical expense. RSI administers eligibility for the Carte Vitale and issues it. Or something...You've also got URSSAF and CPAM, and RSI and RAM are divisions of them. Or something...

 A sample Carte Vitale, courtesy of Wikipedia and Creative Commons.
We sent off our applications and copies of our identity documents.  They gave us temporary social security numbers and promptly asked for translations of our identity documents, which they are not supposed to do if dealing with citizens of an EU country who are born in an EU country, as Simon is. We didn't know this at the time and duly got translations of everything. These were sent off and eventually -- months later -- Simon suddenly received a form asking him to supply a passport style photo so they could issue his Carte Vitale. After another wait -- RSI take a remarkably long time to process documents always (think months...) -- his card arrived in the post. This meant that for visits to the doctor or dentist his card was put in the reader and our reimbursement of the fee turned up automatically in our bank account a few days later. The percentage of the point of use fee that is reimbursed varies depending on what the doctor charges and what the standard fee is. For an ordinary GP visit we pay the doctor €23 and are reimbursed €14 for example. For Simon's recent dental crown we were charged €280 for the final fitting of the crown and reimbursed €73.

Simon was clearly sorted, but there was no sign of a card for me. I emailed RSI. They said it was something RAM had to deal with. I emailed RAM. They said it was something RSI had to deal with, but not to worry -- in the meantime I could still claim my reimbursements by posting them a feuille de soin (care form) each time I paid a health care bill. Fine. That worked perfectly well and so I didn't pursue the matter.

Then I discovered, quite by accident, that anyone born outside the EU must have their birth certificate translated and apostilled (whatever that was...) I waited with interest to see how long it would take for RSI or RAM or whoever to inform me officially that I needed to do this. There was no incentive for me to take action because a) I was being reimbursed, and b) obtaining a birth certificate with apostille and official translation would be expensive.

Finally, in February 2014, a letter arrived telling me that INSEE (the national office for statistics) required that I do the apostille thing. Frustratingly I was in Australia at the time and the letter sat in France unopened until I got back. That meant I had to arrange the documents from afar. After getting in touch with RSI and the Australian Consulate to try to find out exactly what was required and how I went about aquiring it I went through the same process with the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the Australian State of Victoria and the Passport Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Melbourne, the capital of that State. RSI told me I had to get in touch with my embassy. The Consulate told me I needed to get in touch with Foreign Affairs. After a couple of email exchanges, each time getting a little more information but never enough for me to be absolutely clear about what I had to do or what the process was I emailed the last person who had emailed me from Foreign Affairs and expressed my frustration about how nobody seemed to know what the procedure was and that I wasn't willing to wing it because every step of the way costs money. That at last got me a sensible and helpful email from someone who did know what the procedure was.

I ordered my birth certificate online from the Registry Office of Victoria and paid the fee with my bank card. Victoria is the state I was born in and birth records are administered by the States in Australia. I already had a copy of my birth certificate, but that wouldn't do for INSEE/RSI as it was issued in 1988. They wanted one that was less than 3 months old. Then I downloaded a form requesting that my birth certificate be apostilled by the Passport Office in the same state, again paying the fee with my bank card. An apostille, I had discovered by now, is a sort of belts and braces stamp of authentication for documents of identity. You can't trust those foreign Johnnies, you know.

In order for the Registry Office to actually issue my birth certificate I had to prove my identity and send them copies (not originals) of 3 documents which showed my name, current address and date of birth, in English (or with translations if in French). The one to show current address was a bank statement from my UK bank. I had to request it specially, as the bank normally issues electronic statements, but it did save me the time and cost of a translation of, for example, a French bank statement. These documents had to be certified as true copies by either a public notary or a policeman, who had to stamp the copies with their official stamp and sign them. I made an appointment with the local notaire who happily made copies and stamped them. To my dismay, her offical stamp just says 'notaire', not 'notaire public'. My instructions stated that the stamp had to say 'notary public'. What to do!? In the end she laboriously hand wrote a long phrase on each copy stating that she was the state appointed notary and noted the relevant law reference. Fortunately the Registry Office were happy with that. To her credit she didn't charge me for her services (and was the only one in the whole process who didn't charge a fee).

I posted the documents off to the Registry Office with a covering letter asking them to forward the birth certificate to the Passport Office for the apostille. It took them about a month to issue the birth certificate and when they did I got an email from them asking where the form requesting the apostille was. I replied that I had sent it directly to the Passport Office. No one had told me that normally people send the apostille request form to the Registry Office along with the other documents and they then forward the whole lot to the Passport Office. Government departments that talk to one another -- wow! It had never occurred to me that one government agency would want to receive a form which had nothing to do with them and was to be processed by a different government agency.

After another few weeks wait the birth certificate with its big red raised apostille stamp on the back arrived in the post from the Passport Office. Now I had to get the birth certificate and apostille translated by an officially certified translator (Fr. traducteur assermenté). I basically chose one at random from the official translators website.

She turned out to be efficient and easy to deal with. I explained what I needed by email, she quoted me a price, I paid her €70 via PayPal, sent her scans of the birth certificate and she did the translation within a couple of days and sent it back to me both electronically and in the post.

Finally, I sent off the documents RSI had requested all those months ago. The pre-addressed return envelope they had helpfully provided was way too small so I used one of my own. After another month or so, my original documents came back in the post, with a chirpily worded post-it note attached saying 'Bonjour, here are your documents' and nothing more. No indication of whether they were acceptable or if I would be receiving a Carte Vitale any time soon. I waited another month. A letter arrived from RSI asking for a passport style photo and a copy of a piece of photo identification within 15 days. Wooohooo! That must mean they are going to issue a card! Interestingly, this was the only letter I received from them that was dated or included any sort of deadline. Form letters from French government agencies are often not dated.

Off I went to the photo booth at the supermarket and got the necessary photo then posted it and the requested identification to RSI (to a different address to where I had posted the birth certificate, by the way). At last, on the Monday after Christmas 2014, an envelope arrived from RSI and I could feel it had the coveted card in it!!

I've been paying my social contributions and taxes for nearly 5 years and it has taken all that time to get a Carte Vitale. I don't think it's a record though. A French friend who came back to France after living in Canada for a while, said it took her just as long to winkle a card out of the authorities. The Carte Vitale was introduced while she was in Canada, so although a French citizen she had never had a Carte Vitale when she arrived back. She said it was as though the authorities had never heard of such a thing, just didn't believe her and had no idea how to deal with her situation.
Au jardin hier: More cherry sucker grubbing. It was a beautiful day yesterday -- heavy frost but brilliant sunshine. The sun had some warmth too -- I had to take my coat off after about half an hour of work in the garden.
A la cuisine hier: Spicy Lentil, Tomato and Spinach soup from the freezer.
Veggie burgers, full of good veggie gear -- carrots, oats, nuts and seeds.


  1. I think my blood pressure went up
    just reading this. Guard that card
    with your life!
    Btw, I've had trouble getting
    comments to post since you got
    "robot." Will see if this works.

  2. Sheila: I can't work out how to switch the robot off. Sorry.

  3. Wishing you two a better 2015 than your 2014 was. Here's hoping you have health, happiness, and comfort.

    My, you are intrepid, and it paid off in the end, with a card to prove that you are vital.

  4. Carolyn: There were good bits to 2014 of course, notably getting to spend time with our friend Liselle in the first half of the year, but the second half was fairly unremittingly stressful.

  5. The further down I got in this post made me realise that the covetted "Rubber Brick" is a necessary requirement when dealing with any Gov't in any country.

    I used to have one...
    the joke shops had two versions...
    both in soft rubber, but looking very realistic.
    One with bits of metal inside to simulate something breaking...
    and one without...
    I chose the latter, as it was for slinging at politicians on the telly...
    it would have been just my luck for one of the bits of metal to poke through the rubber and crack the screen...
    but it was wonderful fun!

  6. Tim: I think that RSI couldn't quite work out what to do with someone whose background wasn't straightforward and all of the government agencies assumed one of the others had given me full guidelines, when in fact none of them did.

  7. Wow, what a lot of paperasse! We had nothing like the rigmarole, as EU citizens, but we were asked for translations of our birth and marriage certificates by CPAM. I didn't know it wasn't a legal requirement, but then it's not a legal requirement to change an EU driving license for a French one, and those nice Gendarmes keep asking us to do so. CPAM never returned our dossier, so if we need official translations again we will have to hope the translator kept electronic copies, or else pay all over again. CPAM has a representative every Thursday in a little office in Descartes, and he was ever so helpful, providing contact details for a local translator and a check list of things we needed to provide, including the passport photo. The Relais de Services Publics also represent CPAM, but they weren't in place when we did all this. It took CPAM about five months to process our dossier.
    When I needed to apply for a disabled parking permit, the "carte européenne de stationement" I went to the RSP with the dossier. The web site tells you exactly what you need to include. She checked it and sent it off to "la maison départementale des personnes handicapées" for us, including photo. About six weeks later I get a letter asking me to supply a photo, can't find where I put the others, get a new photo, send it off. The card arrived soon after - with the original photo on it. So if you need to go somewhere where it would be a great advantage to use an invalid parking place, take me with you, the card goes with the person, not the car! IKEA or similar springs to mind.
    Sorry to be so long winded!

  8. Pauline: Thanks -- I'll bear your service in mind :-)

  9. Oh. My. Heavens.

    All of this makes me happy I am married to a Frenchman! That said, when I applied for citizenship, I did need official translations of my parents' birth certificates, not just mine!

    It took me almost 2 years to get citizenship, even being "automatically qualified."

  10. Betty: The thing is, it takes all of these government agencies such a long time to process anything and you've never got any idea what's going on.


  11. “A few fly bites cannot stop a spirited horse.”
    ― Mark Twain
    Well done for persevering. What are you going to tackle next?

  12. P.S. Not that I'm calling you a horse.... ;o)

  13. WOW! Congratulations! guard it with your life :-)

  14. I never had to do the apostille thing for any birth certificates when we got our visas, the carte de séjour, the carte de résident, or the Carte Vitale. Who knows why? In fact, I translated Walt's and my birth certificates myself so that I didn't have to pay a sworn translator's fees. The translations were accepted. Maybe the difference is that the Loir-et-Cher is a more rural département than the Indre-et-Loire, so the rules are more flexible (à la tête du client). When you think that the authorities have to deal with documents in hundreds of languages from people coming from all over the world, it does make sense that they have to depend on controls like the apostille to eliminate counterfeits.

    Pauline, I thought you needed a French license to drive in France if you are a resident. Silly me...

  15. Gaynor: Neigh, of course not!

    Ant: I dread to think of the palaver if one loses the thing!

    Ken: This wasn't all processed locally, but I think it's sort of the reason. Certainly individual fonctionnaires have a lot of discretionary powers, and that can make a difference in one's experience.

    I don't understand why getting an apostille from a government agency that doesn't have access to the original records provides proof, nor why, if one could forge a birth certificate one couldn't forge an apostille.

    I think the rules used to be that you had to change your licence after 12 months of residency but that may have changed. Our UK licences expired the year we moved here, so we took the opportunity to change to French licences then. It's handy having French photo ID of this sort as we don't have Cartes d'identité and it saves carrying a passport around everywhere.

  16. When we moved to France we weren't eligible to join the French we had to get private health cover - which was super. Full cover for any and everything.

    When we became eligible we looked into not working we were not legally obliged to sign up ....the contact at that point was one poor woman who came for one afternoon a week to the local town. You could not make an appointment but had to take pot could not call her as she just had a mobile 'phone for her own use...and as our income varied from year to year she could not tell us how much we would be paying.
    So we stayed with our private insurer.

    There's a link here to people who are opting out of the system...

  17. Fly: We looked into private insurance a couple of times, but for us it was always more expensive than being in the state system. That's an interesting article, many thanks for the link. Those people are taking a hell of a risk though, given the size of the fine they could be up for. Also I don't think fragmenting the system by opting out like that really creates any social benefit -- just short term opportunistic savings. I wouldn't trust private insurers not to change the rules overnight in terms of what they will cover or how much the cover costs.

  18. The amazing thing about all this is that I, as an Australian residing in France, was automatically issued with a carte vitale when it came out (I can't remember when they first appeared) and asked for no extra documents, despite the fact that, as a profession libérale, I also depend on RSI/RAM.
    The difference between the two is that the RAM is a partner of the parent organism, RSI (Régime Social des Indépendants) which is the social security organism for freelancers. RAM isn't the only one you can choose.
    Just a reminder to all your readers that I am now an official French translator with a rubber stamp. I cannot "apostille" though as far as I know.

  19. Fraussie: I can't remember when the requirement to apostille non-EU birth certs was introduced. I did see a date somewhere.

    Can you translate in both directions? Or just French to English? I was quite surprised to see how many of the traducteurs assermentés are certified to translate in both directions.

  20. The translator in Rochecorbon who did our NY marriage certificate for us was a British woman married to a Frenchman. She said she translated in both directions but always had her husband read and correct her translations into French.

    As for the question about counterfeiting the apostille, I think that the layers of bureaucratic requirements are meant to discourage counterfeiters and frauds, just by making everything so complicated. Nothing is ever foolproof, however. I'm wondering whether I will need apostilles for my own and my parents' birth certificates when I apply for French citizenship. I'll find out and get them when I go to the US in April if they are required.

  21. Ken: Yes, that's the only benefit to the apostille that I can see.

  22. I am an Australian intending to retire to France next year. I have been told that I will not benefit from the five year residency rule which therefore disallows me from ever joining the health system, and I will have to always have private health insurance (expensive). Is this true?

  23. Tony: No idea I'm afraid. It's not easy for Australians to get real residency permission in the first place. Most Australians seem to do it by coming and going at intervals so they don't overstay their visas. Is that what you mean by not benefitting from the 5 year residency rule? Our situation is different to yours, so our experience isn't necessarily relevant to you. We have dual British/Australian citizenship and are not retired, so the rules for us are quite different. Sorry I can't be more help.

  24. All sworn translators can translate in both directions. The French government has never heard of the principle of translating into your mother tongue so I am allowed to translate from both French to English and English to French ... I had a German colleague whose combination was German/French/English in every direction. I used to translate for her from French to English and she would check, then stamp the translation.

  25. @Tony: in my case (American), I got a long-stay visa from the French consulate in San Francisco, and then a one-year carte de séjour when I arrived in France. I renewed that card five times before I requested a carte de résident (valid for 10 years). When I said that I had a retirement pension, there was no problem getting the resident's card. I signed up for the French national health insurance when I still had the 1-year carte de séjour. No problem. I paid into the system based on my worldwide revenue. It was much less than private insurance would have cost, with better coverage.

  26. Fraussie: Interesting. I had no idea that was the case. I will happily recommend you to anyone who asks.

    Ken: many thanks for providing Tony with a bit more info. One of the things we found was that if you looked on the relevant internet expat forums was that a lot of the information wasn't relevant to us, because we weren't retired.

    Tony: Speaking of forums, I suggest trying the Survive France forum. It seems to have a reasonably international membership of people in all situations. Someone there may be able to point you in the right direction.

  27. Ken, thank you very much for that information. That pretth much fits some other advice that I've come across on expat websites.
    I too wil, be applying for a long stay visa and then the one year carte de sejour. Did you initially need to show you had private health insurance? How long were you in France before you had the opportunity to sign up for national health insurance. Did you start paying social security contributions straightaway and if so did that entitle you to apply to join the national health system?

  28. Yes Susan, I have now joined SFN.