What’s in a Name? – Identification and proof of address in France

What’s in a name?The importance of proving who you are and where you live in France


According to Shakespeare “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

When you arrive in France you will quickly realise the importance of what’s in a name and just how often you will need to prove who you are and where you live and if you cannot do this easily, believe me, everything will not come up smelling of roses!

Whether it be getting into the health system, importing and registering your car, setting up a business, applying for a carte de séjour/residence/nationality or just other general day today administration needs you will get used to these being the first two things on the list.

Coming from a country like the UK where if you don’t drive or travel out of the country you can go through your life without any formal identification it will be strange to find just how important this formality is here in France.

One of the first things to understand is that the French have a “Livret de Famille” where alltheir family history is recorded. It’s like having your birth, marriage, and divorce records and also information relating to your parents, spouse and your children all in one booklet. At a glance anyone in administration can find out all they need to know from reading the livret de famille. The livret can be obtained from the Town Hall (Mairie) and has no cost, however if you are not French or a French resident you can only get a livret de famille if you got married and had a child in France so for everyone else that means producing all the necessary documentation separately.

One of the other things to understand is the fact that women have to fill in all official forms using their maiden name or birth name. The reason for this, as with many laws in France, dates back centuries and says « No citizen can carry a surname or a first name other than the one on their birth certificate » An amendment in 1985 stated “Marriage has no effect on the names of the spouses who will continue to be known officially under the name that figures on their birth certificate.

However each spouse may choose to use in everyday life the name of their spouse either by substitution or by adding it to their birth name”. This can be done on official forms by adding the name you use on a daily basis under “nom d’usage”. As a foreigner who cannot produce a copy of a “livret de famille” you will almost always need to give them a copy of your birth and marriage certificates and if you have divorced and/or remarried, a copy of your divorce papers. The administration in question will then be able to trace back in an almost forensic manner what your name is today and how you got there!

I had one client who had been married and divorced three times and I ended up writing a separate page to accompany the dossier to try to clarify things. Also don’t be tempted to shred your divorce papers as another client did!

You will spend a great part of your time proving not only who you are but also where you live so the next step is to understand how the French want you to justify your domicile. You will need to produce a utility bill (water, gas, electricity, landline or mobile), tax bill (income or property/habitation tax), house insurance or a rent receipt less than 3 or 6 months old depending on what you are applying for. They will sometimes accept the deeds of the house or an attestation from your local town hall.

A word of warning – if you live as a couple, even if you are married, make sure both your names are on the bills/paperwork. If not, the person whose name figures will have to attestation writing that they lodge their partner/spouse free of charge at that address (attestation d’hébergement).

Also make sure that both your name(s) and address are spelt correctly on the bill and that your name is identical to the one on your passport and birth certificate otherwise the admin forensics will have a problem and are quite likely to refuse your dossier. Don’t be tempted to use a shortened version like Andy, Pete or Gill or to leave off your first name because you are always called by your second name.

Make sure you have registered for your client space on all utility providers and you will be able to download your latest bill or an attestation of domicile whenever necessary. If you live completely off grid you will need to send the deeds to your house or an attestation from the town hall.

If you live in someone’s house and do not have any utility bills in your name you will need them to provide an attestation to say you live there free of charge along with their proof of identity and a bill less than 3 or 6 months old in their name (attestation d’hébergement).

One of the most frustrating and incomprehensible requests you may come across is the need to produce a birth certificate that is less than 3 months old. I went through this recently for my divorce papers where my dossier was refused as the certificates I had ordered and paid for from the UK and then paid for the translation, were refused as they were more than 3 months old. The dossier was given to the courts in March 2019 and the certificates were dated October 26th 2018.

In a stoic British manner I tried to point out to the lawyer that the likelihood that my birth date would change was zero but I just received a Gallic shrug and a “that is the law” answer. I then had to reorder and pay for the express delivery of new certificates. However not contented with the shrug as an answer I decided to do some investigating myself. The reason for this law is because in France any changes in your life such as marriage, civil partnership, or wardship are mentioned in the margin of your original birth certificate and the Town Hall has 3 months to do this therefore, although the certificate itself lasts your whole life, you have to provide a copy less than 3 months old which will have given the authorities the proscribed time to make any necessary mentions. The fact that the UK and most other countries do not do this is obsolete as when in France you are governed by French law. Note to self; do not be too well prepared in advance when dealing with French paperwork.

My partner who is French needed to renew his passport and requested a copy of his birth certificate from the Town Hall where he was born and it arrived 3 days later free of charge. The ”Etat Civil “or civil registration which was established by François 1er in 1539 was kept by the Roman Catholic church until it became secular during the French revolution in 1792 and the records were moved to the Town Halls.

It is an integral to the French way of life and you will not be able to avoid it, so make your life as easy as possible by making sure you have followed these simple instructions and by being vigilant and asking for changes if your name or address is incorrect on a document or bill.