Trying to find housing even in the United States can be something of a trial, so arranging a living situation in a foreign country can seem downright impossible, especially if you’re trying to do it before you arrive.
The good news is that most program providers include housing in their cost, so you never have to worry about the hassle of finding your own. However, should you decide to go it alone, there are options, but be warned: it won’t be cheap, and unless you know someone in Paris, it is not an exaggeration to say that locating an apartment in that city really is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.
The CNOUS and CROUS
Like most things in France, universities and their housing departments are administered by a centralised organisation called CNOUS (Le Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires). This agency oversees everything from scholarships and grants to cafeterias to housing at France’s many public universities. Each major city with a university has a CNOUS presence called CROUS (Centre Régional).
Each CROUS maintains student housing complexes called Cités Universitaires or just Cités-U for short. For example, when I lived in Caen, I lived in the Tilleuls residence on the university campus. Another example is in Paris, where there is a stop on the RER Line B named Cité Universitaire.
Most residences administered by the CNOUS are reserved for students with French government grants, though it’s still your best option as a student for affordable housing since the rent is fixed between 120 EUR – 350 EUR per month, depending on the type of residence you live in.
It would be impossible to give an accurate portrayal of what a homestay is like since every family is different, but having been “adopted” by one when I lived in Normandie and having lived with another in Paris when I worked there, I can say that in my personal experience, host families can provide some of the most genuine, authentic experiences of French life.
It’s true that you will have to decide whether you want to live in such close quarters with strangers, but I still keep in touch with my host family from when I studied abroad four years ago, and I have found that host families can go from being complete strangers to becoming some of your most cherished friends in France.
I will never forget meeting my family in Caen for the first time and being invited to the birthday party of my host mom’s niece, complete with 15-20 people and me, the sole American. Being invited into a family is rare enough as it is, so to experience an extended family celebration was really special for the first time meeting them.
Then, in Paris two years later, I lived with the same family my friend lived with the year prior. It was a lot of fun making a Fourth of July dinner and then later, a full Thanksgiving dinner for them to share my American culture with them and thank them for taking me in during my time in France.
I would highly recommend a homestay if it’s available to you. Many people opt for something “safer” by sticking with fellow American students in a dorm or apartment, but if you really want a fully immersive experience, go with the homestay. You won’t regret it.
For Paris, check out Homestay-in-Paris.com.
Renting in France
This could be an entire blog post in itself, but suffice it to say, for the first time student in France, I would definitely not recommend trying to find your own property unless you have connections or friends. The inn is always full in Paris, though you might get lucky. Other cities will not be as difficult in terms of locating housing, but France is the queen of catch-22s, and trying to rent an apartment without a French bank account is… tricky to say the least, especially when opening a French bank account often requires a French address!
Should you decide to explore the world of French property for let, as a tenant (un locataire) you’ll usually apply through an agent (un agent immobilier). You can find properties in local newspapers or in estate agents’ windows in the downtown areas of most towns. Be prepared to provide documents ranging from bank statements to letters of reference to proof of employment to income tax returns.
For a more detailed guide on renting in France, take a look at this Expatica article on the subject.
Resize Your Expectations
Keep in mind that North America is a continent of wide-open spaces and frontiers, urban sprawl and endless wilderness. Everything here is bigger than in most other parts of the world– whether that’s cars or streets, food portions or the availability of utilities like electricity and water.
Generally speaking– and especially in crowded cities like Paris– no matter what type of housing you go with, your living space will be considerably smaller. As a student in Caen, I lived in a dorm room that was 9 square meters, a monk’s cell by comparison to my bedroom at home. When real estate is at a premium, you’ll adjust eventually, but for the first-time visitor to France, the sudden size-difference can be a bit claustrophobia-inducing.
Be prepared for shared bathrooms and kitchens, stairs instead of elevators, and radiators and open windows instead of centralised air conditioning and heating. That’s not to say that you’ll be living in second-rate conditions, but it is important to remember that most buildings in France are hundreds of years old, and therefore not built to modern codes or sensibilities.
Whatever your living arrangement, it’s important to keep an open mind and a sense of adventure. The very point of studying abroad is to experience something different from home and to come to appreciate how other people live. With the right attitude and a bit of diligence, you’ll soon be right at home in France.