Moving to France – how to zap the culture shock

Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.

Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Heather, now, and in 2011 after her family's move to France

Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.

A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.

“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you’re either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it’s much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”

Take the pain out of your move to France. Plan your relocation with AGS Movers

It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family – you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”

Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It’s a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.

“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It’s totally different to the system in the UK.”

“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I’d been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”  

France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.

“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It’s hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it’s very efficient.”

Heather and her family just after their move to France.

But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.

“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental,” Heather says. “I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”

And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can’t speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you’d probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”

Zap that culture shock by planning your move to France with AGS Movers. Get a quote here

But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”

There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.

“At first you’re nervous before you go,” says Heather, “and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. This is awful. Everything’s so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don’t know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don’t want to go home because you can’t remember how it works in the country you came from.

“At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”

Make your relocation much less stressful by contacting AGS Movers

Member comments

  1. “The prescription will be fulfilled by a pharmacy and must be paid for; the little price stickers (vignettes) from each medicine should then be stuck on the Feuille de Soins, which is a reimbursement form for medical expenses. It’s all so gloriously complicated.” Not once you are in the system (Ameli). I haven’t had to do the sticker thing you describe for more than 20 years.
    And if you haven’t lived in the UK for 10 years you’ll be shocked by the petty-fogging bureaucracy that now exists. It’s (much) worse than France, because no matter the pleadings in your individual case, or the insanity of the demand, you will get zero flexibility. So change the record, change the stereotype, UK is now much more painfully bureaucratic.
    Vive la France!

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Moving house in Germany: 7 things you need to know about setting up utility contracts

If you’ve just moved into a new place in Germany, the first thing you’ll want to do is get your basic utilities like energy and Internet sorted. Here's what you should know.

A gas metre in a Berlin flat
A gas metre in a Berlin flat. Photo: DPA

There are about a million studies out there that have found moving is one of the most stressful life events out there – and even more stressful than divorce. For anyone who’s experienced moving in a foreign country, these stats won’t come as much of a surprise. 

To minimise stress after moving into your new pad, it’s a good time to think about your new energy, gas and internet contracts as soon as possible. The good news is that this part is no way near as hard as sorting through years of accumulated junk or having a panicked car-boot sale hours before the move. Nevertheless, there are a few things it can be helpful to know before you .

1. Not everything is privatised 

If you’re from a country where there are countless providers for gas, water, internet, and electricity, it may come as a surprise to find out that, in Germany, the water supply is still owned by the state. This means that, if you move around in the same locality, you’ll be using the same water supplier as before – although different suppliers are responsible for different districts. 

For the most part, energy and gas are owned and run by private entities, but in recent years a few city states – most notably Hamburg and Munich – have brought their power grids back into public hands. The idea of renationalising the energy supply is currently gaining ground in Germany, but so far, this has only been done on a local level, so in most cases you’ll still be dealing with private energy providers. 

With companies competing for customers, you can expect to find numerous bonuses for switching or staying with an existing energy providers, which can include money off your bill in the second year of a contract, or free gifts such as bikes an electronics. 

READ ALSO: The things you need to watch out for when you move house in Germany

According to Check24, two people currently using an average amount of electricity per year can currently expect to pay around €50 per month for their contract, and anywhere from €20-40 for their internet and landline. Gas for a two-person household, meanwhile, could set you back around €65 per month. 

Moving can be a stressful experience, but is perhaps more fun with a dog. Photo: DPA

2. You may need to give a lot of notice to cancel old contracts 

If you’ve opted for a long-term contract at your old apartment, you’ll likely have to observe a minimum notice period (or ‘Kündigungsfrist’) when you cancel it. For 24-month contracts with internet providers such as o2, this can be anywhere between four weeks and three months, after which time the contract will automatically renew for another 12 months.

Energy companies operate much the same way as internet providers. When you sign a contract with them, they usually stipulate a minimum contract period of 12-24 months. Once again, the notice period can be incredibly punishing for the disorganised, ranging from four weeks to three months before the end of your contract period. 

When signing up with a new provider, it’s a good idea to read the small print or ask a German-speaking friend to look over the T&Cs for you. If you’re not sure whether you’re going to be in your latest flat in the long-term, it could work out cheaper to opt for a slightly pricier, but much more flexible, rolling contract instead. 

3. A lot depends on your rental contract

Before you rush to a price-comparison website, it’s worth checking whether your landlord or letting agent has already taken charge of organising an energy or gas supplier. 

In many cases, your energy provider will be chosen by your landlord for the entire building, and you’ll receive a summary of utility costs at the end of each year. This document, which is known as a ‘Nebenkostenabrechnung’ (a summary of additional costs) can tell you whether you’ve overpaid and are in line for a refund (yes!), or whether you’ve used more energy than expected and will be paying more next year (uh, oh). 

In almost all cases, you’ll be expected to organise your internet and landline provider yourself, and in some, you’ll also need to take charge of organising your own energy. 

If you’ve just bought your own property, you may have the option to transfer the old tenant or owner’s contract over to your name. Most people, however, prefer to just start from scratch and scour around for the best deal. Which brings us to our next point…

In recent years, Germany has become a mecca for sustainable electricity, with 46% of the country’s energy coming from renewable sources in 2019. With a generous dose of state subsidies poured into this sector, choosing green energy – or Ökostrom – can also be an incredibly cost-effective option, generally costing the same or less than the environmentally unfriendly options.

If you look at the websites of eco-friendly energy providers such as NaturStrom, Greenpeace Energy or Entega, you can get an estimate of your annual costs and check out any bonuses you can get for switching, such as free bicycles, tablets or money off your next bill.

5. Getting set up is insanely simple

Unlike many aspects of German life, getting started with a new electricity, gas or internet provider is surprisingly simple. Much like in the UK or USA, price comparison sites can make it easy to get a good deal and find a new provider in minutes, with many expats using sites like or  

“I find changing electricity companies very easy and do it every year to get the best offer possible,” says Paul Bitmead, who lives near Hanover. “I use Check24, but there are other places to do it. Speaking German is, of course, an advantage and if – you are going to be here a while – a must.”

The process of signing up with an energy provider online takes about five minutes, and you’ll need to supply the company with some details, including your bank details and home address. They’ll also ask you for the number on your electricity meter (normally located in the hallway), so they can measure how much energy has been used previously, and how much you’ll need to pay in the future.

READ ALSO: Seven things you should know when looking for a flat in Berlin

6. Yes, there is such a thing as “default” energy

If you don’t take any steps to sign up with a new energy or gas provider after moving into a new house or cancelling an old contract, you won’t find yourself reading by candlelight – but you may find yourself saddled with a pretty hefty bill. 

In Germany, tenants or property owners who don’t sign up for gas or electricity contracts themselves are automatically put on a Grundversorgung, or “default” contract with a local provider – often at a much higher cost than they would otherwise pay. 

That’s exactly what happened to Alisa Le, an expat in Frankfurt who got stuck with a provider she couldn’t locate. “When my landlord cancelled the old contract, it reverted to the local de facto provider,” she said. “It was impossible to find out who that de facto was as well – and our new provider, when reaching out to that old provider, was told we were not with them. It was a whole mess for about two months.”  

7. As always, it pays to shop – and ask – around

Doing some research before signing up for your internet, gas and electricity contracts can really pay off in the long run – and not just financially.

While electricity in Germany tends to be highly reliable, internet speed and connectivity can fluctuate wildly across different regions and providers. With many providers insisting on a 12- or 24-month contract, this means you could get lumped with an unreliable connection for longer than you’d like.

For Martin Bruus Hansen, an expat who recently moved from South America to Frankfurt, Germany’s network coverage has been a constant disappointment. 

“With internet and phone coverage, let me tell you that there is better and faster connection in El Salvador than there is in Germany,” he said. “We have to restart our router several times weekly and sometimes our connection drops to 20% of our contracted speed.”

By asking your neighbours which providers they’ve had luck with – and which to avoid – you’re much more likely to find yourself with an internet provider that you’re happy to stick with in the long term. You’ll also avoid awkward home office moments like getting booted out of Zoom calls time and time again.