France is not a top destination for those looking to retire abroad on a shoestring. But as long as your heart isn't set on living in a luxury apartment in a historic city center, you can find affordable living there. France offers beautiful scenery and plenty of activities to keep you entertained, whether you like to visit cultural sites, dine out, sip wine, read a book on the beach or go skiing. Here's what you need to know to create a lovely retirement in France.
Popular Retirement Destinations and Cost of Living
France is a large country where almost anyone can find their ideal climate, pace of life, amenities and activities. American expats in France often retire in one of the following areas.
Paris. It's not known for being cheap – Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world, in fact – but it may be a more affordable retirement destination than you think. That's because you can lower your housing costs by living outside the most popular neighborhoods; you won't need a car; public transport is cheap; and utilities and other basic expenses may cost less than you pay now.
For rent outside the city center, prices start at around $1,200 a month for a modest one-bedroom apartment. There's plenty to do and see in the city at little to no cost, from strolling around and admiring the architecture to relaxing in public parks, visiting a museum or taking in a free concert. You'll also be able to find many other expats to ease the sense of isolation you might experience while living abroad. Paris can be cold, gray and rainy, so it shouldn't be your top pick if you're after warm, sunny weather, but you will be able to enjoy four distinct seasons.
Bordeaux. For the next-best thing to Paris, consider this riverside town of about 240,000, sometimes called little Paris. It has a large, English-speaking expat community and a mild climate with warm summers, though you'll have to put up with rain in the winter. Bordeaux has numerous universities and a large student population, and it has long been home to various immigrant populations, including Spanish and Portuguese Jews, North Africans, the British, the Irish and the Dutch.
Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you can buy an apartment in the city center starting at about $160,000. Bordeaux is known for its wine and food, and its San Francisco-like climate – but with more sun – makes it easy to enjoy outdoor activities year-round.
Languedoc-Roussillon. This region in southwest France is another affordable alternative to Paris and one of France's less expensive expat destinations. A less-crowded area of small villages and towns, it has plenty of cultural activities, as well as outdoor activities that are made particularly enjoyable by the area's Mediterranean climate. You'll find British, German and Dutch expats here, as well as Americans. It's also a great area if you love wine.
If you want to buy a property, prices start at around $140,000 for an apartment, but in some areas you can get a small house for not much more; mid-size houses start around $280,000. Expect to spend at least $2,000 to $2,500 a month to get by here, including housing. The region's biggest city, Montpellier, is a mere three-and-a-half hours from Paris via high-speed train.
Aix-en-Provence. The capital of Provence, Aix is known for its natural beauty, arts scene, fountains, old stone cottages, universities and attendant large student population. Among its 150,000 or so people is an established expat population that can ease your transition to French living.
There are plenty of boutiques, cafes, restaurants and churches, and the city is near outdoor activities, wineries and olive-oil tasting rooms. The area is popular with tourists in the summer, and the Mediterranean climate is sunny, mild and cool year-round. Because of the universities, it would be easy to pick up side work as an English tutor if you'd like an income during retirement (but don't run afoul of your visa requirements if they prohibit working).
Aix is not the most budget-friendly city for retirees, and it's expensive to buy there – expect to pay at least $375,000 for a house – so renting might be your best bet. You can get around and out of town using the public bike system, buses, trains and car-sharing services.
Other popular expat destinations. Investigate Lyon, Dordogne, Brittany and the Côte d'Azur. There's no shortage of options, really.
To stay in France for longer than one year, you will need a carte de séjour, or residence permit. (You must obtain this document while still in the United States; you can't head to France as a tourist and apply for residency while you're there.) One of the biggest hurdles to obtaining residency is the paperwork – including your passport, numerous application forms and extra passport photos, proof of financial self-sufficiency, proof of international medical insurance and proof of where you will live in France.
You can apply at your nearest French consulate by mail, but may need to report in person at some point. Expect to wait at least one to two months after applying to get your visa.
All that work is just the first step toward getting your French residency card. You apply for the card after arriving in France, and then you must renew it annually. After three years, you can apply for a resident card that is valid for 10 years and renews automatically; it also allows you to work.
The Language Barrier
If you move to an expat community, you will encounter more people who speak English. But in general, the French are not known for speaking English. If you aren't already fluent, you'll want to make learning or improving your French a priority. In some areas, such as Lyon, being unable to speak French will be more isolating than in others. Regardless of where you live, however, learning French will simplify your daily life, smooth your transition into French society and give you a chance to develop friendships with locals.
You'll need to obtain an international health insurance policy as a requirement of getting your visa. Two companies expats have suggested are Bupa Global and the expat plan offered through the Association of American Residents Overseas.
The French healthcare system has been widely praised for its quality and low cost, and you can expect to pay less for both premiums and care in France than in the United States. A key difference is that you'll need to pay your bill at the time of service; you won't receive a balance bill in the mail several weeks after treatment as you often do in the United States. Also unlike in the U.S., pricing is transparent and available before you receive treatment.
To take advantage of France's heavily subsidized state-run healthcare rates, you'll need to be a legal resident paying into the French social security system. Most people pay through payroll deductions, but if you're retired and not working (not to mention that your visa may prohibit working), you can gain access by obtaining a form E121/S1 from the Department of Work and Pensions.
You'll still want a supplemental private insurance policy like those most French people carry, and you'll have to wait for reimbursement for services you want your public insurance to pay for. Be aware that the public system's financial viability, even in the short run, is questionable, and the government has started cutting back on what it covers.
Americans considering retiring in France should understand how the political and economic climate differ from that of the United States. France's Socialist Party has a major presence, unemployment is high – 10.5% as of August 2014 – and, while labor unions are getting weaker, the French like to go on strike, which periodically causes major inconveniences, such as widespread train or flight cancelations. The economy entered a recession in May 2013, its second in four years, and economic performance continues to struggle as of the fourth quarter of 2014.
The exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the euro is another drawback. At the time of publication, $1 was equivalent to €0.80 – and €1 was worth $1.25. Unless you can create the lifestyle you want with the dollar worth 80% of a euro, retiring in France may not be financially feasible. Also, exchange rates fluctuate, so your nest egg's value will constantly be changing. Over the last five years, the exchange rate has been as low as €0.66 to $1.00 and as high as €0.83 and these significantly different rates occurred within a just few months of each other. You should also be aware that there are financial implications of retiring abroad beyond how far your nest egg will stretch.
The Bottom Line
France is a large country, and its cities and towns have varying climates, lifestyles and costs of living. If France seems too expensive for you, there are other choices. See Plan Your Retirement Abroad, Retire Abroad: Cosmopolitan Cities or Retirement Abroad: 5 Unexpected Foreign Cities.