Attempting to move internationally during COVID

Make no mistake, COVID has totally upended the way we travel internationally — potentially forever. Moving abroad is never easy, even in the best of times, but the pandemic brought some additional anxiety and stress to a process that is already challenging, both logistically and emotionally.

There was one aspect of this whole process of moving abroad that hadn’t changed though, and that remained as (frustratingly) familiar as ever: applying for a French long-stay visa!

The process varies from country to country, but applying for a long stay visa almost always involves a massive amount of paperwork, a lot of prayers, and — more than likely, at least if you’re me — some crying. When we moved to Lyon in 2018, we were under the naive impression that the process would be difficult for Dani since she was applying as a non-traditional student in a language school and easy for me, since I was the one that, you know, actually had a job lined up. Needless to say, we were sorely mistaken — Dani’s morning appointment was over within twenty minutes, whereas mine involved a four-hour wait past my scheduled appointment time, only to be turned away because I did not have the right kind of work authorization paperwork. I had to re-do the entire process — including a second trip to Chicago — and cross my fingers that my passport came back in time before our flight.

What a pile of visa paperwork looks like!

Applying for a French long-stay visa during a pandemic

When we first decided in late spring that we wanted to return to France, we weren’t sure if it was even going to be possible because nearly all flights between the US and France had been grounded and the European borders closed. The French Embassy had quit issuing visas of any variety, and there was little indication as to when they would start accepting applications again. This uncertainty persisted until well into the summer, when finally, in August, the Embassy gave word that they would begin allowing visa appointments again, but only for students, language assistants, and — luckily for us — those applying for a passeport-talent. Once my work authorization paperwork came through in mid-October, we hurried up and booked a last-minute appointment in Chicago, hoping again that our passports would come back in time for our flight that was planned for Halloween (we had already rescheduled about five times).

We were lucky to even get an appointment in Chicago at all; there were so few appointments available because of how severely VFS Global had to limit their staff to comply with Chicago’s COVID-19 restrictions that it had never appeared before as on option on the visa appointment scheduling platform. Plus, Chicago is the only visa center for the entire Midwest, which means it’s almost always booked solid pretty much immediately. There was a slight snafu when the system gave Dani and I two separate appointment times (one morning, one later afternoon), despite the fact that we had applied as a family; thankfully “my” appointment was scheduled for first thing in the morning, so Dani came with me and we pretty-pleased the receptionist who allowed us both to go back together. This was a huge relief, as not only were we worried that our files would be sent separately (rather than together as they were meant to be), but there was also another woman with the same last name as Dani scheduled for a visa appointment at the very same time that afternoon! I shudder to think of the miscommunication that might have happened if the visa agents thought that Dani was applying as the spouse of this other woman.

At our hotel in Chicago, getting the last of our documents ready to print

Compared to our previous visa experiences, the waiting room was nearly empty — it was just the two of us and one other gentleman, whose appointment was ending just as ours began. There were less than a dozen people on the list for the day, a stark contrast to 2018, when there were at least a dozen people crammed together in a single room during my long afternoon of waiting. We had our temperatures checked upon entry, and wore masks for the duration of our appointments, except for a quick minute when we had to have our photographs taken for the biometrics procedure.

We dropped off our half-ton of paperwork and watched like hawks until we saw that our files were bound together into a single envelope that would later be sent to the Embassy in Washington, D.C. for further processing (for the low-low price of only $105 per person…not to mention the cost of an overnight trip to Chicago. WOOF). The turnaround time was going to be tight, but I knew from past experience (both mine and others’) that though it was uncommon, it was possible to get a visa in a week to ten days, if you could prove imminent departure — and we had included receipts for our flights. There was nothing left to do but to cross our fingers and wait.

Our appointment coincided with Dani’s birthday (lucky her) so we went for a beer on a patio the evening before our appointment

A wrench in the plan: France’s second confinement

About a week after we turned in our visa applications, the President of France announced a second nation-wide confinement in attempt to re-flatten the COVID curve after a worrying second wave. Borders would remain closed and travel restrictions within France would go into effect after the weekend of Halloween/la Toussaint, which is typically preceded by a two-week holiday period when children are off of school and families take time to travel. Immediately we began to worry that this new confinement would mean a denial of our visa applications, which meant that my new job was in jeopardy. I had to be in France to begin my new position, since I had signed a French contract. It was already clear at this point that we weren’t going to make our Halloween flight…but now we began to worry that we wouldn’t make it at all. That all of this would be for nothing, and that we’d have to begin the job hunt again, back at square one.

After several days of feverishly Googling the “small print” of this second confinement, we were relieved to find that it at least appeared as though some visas were still being issued, and that holders of a valid long-stay visa would still be allowed to enter France. However, our new departure date of November 12th was creeping closer, and still — no visas.

Nevertheless, we had to continue to plan as though we’d be able to leave on November 12th. Part of the travel restrictions to France include a mandatory COVID test within 72 hours of departure, so on November 9th, we took a chance and scheduled our COVID tests for the following afternoon. That day, as we drove to our appointments, we got the notification from FedEx that a package from the Embassy would be delivered to Dani’s parents’ house that afternoon, while we were in the middle of our COVID tests — our passports! Hopefully with visas inside.

Let me tell you, that 50-minute drive from our COVID testing site (don’t ask — rural Michigan problems) back home felt like an eternity as we tried not to worry too much about what we might find (or not) when we got there.

Would France let us in?

Once we arrived home, we nervously raced to open the packages that contained our passports. My hands shook as I flipped through the pages in search of my visa — and there it was! Thankfully, Dani had received one, too. They were accompanied by a small slip of paper with instructions that we were to ask for a multi-year carte de séjour (residence permit) within two months of our arrival in France.

Our relief was palpable but temporary, because there was one hurdle remaining: actually getting on the flight and entering the country. As you’re warned when applying for the visa, receipt of a visa does not actually guarantee entry into France — that’s up to the border agent. With only 48 hours to go until our flight, we had no time to do any more research or to contact any more authorities to verify that we’d be allowed in — we’d just have to fly into Paris and see!

We all know how that part of the story ends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our departure was without complication. I’ll have to save that story for next time!