Paperwork and Logistics

Getting ourselves—Tony, Joy, and our dog Brighton—to Europe from the US was a bit of work. We think it’ll be worth it, but only because we’re planning to be here for most of the year.

We’re spending such a long time because we want to travel slowly, experiencing small towns and bigger cities for long enough to get a sense for different places. We love traveling and have a high tolerance for change. This way of living isn’t for everyone–hardly anyone we know would actually like to do something similar. However, for those who are interested, here’s what we needed in order to untether and travel to Europe. With the dog.

This boring blog post exists primarily so I can point people to it rather than repeat all these details in conversations. I’d rather talk about what we’re seeing and doing!

TaskEffort expended by one person
Get house ready to rent2 weeks
Figure out and rent car2 days
French Visa5 days
The dog4 days, mostly figuring it out
Getting to Europe: Time investment

Housing

We are planning to rely on Airbnb stays for much of our time. Without a kitchen, we’d need to eat out 100% of the time, which is expensive, unhealthful, and surprisingly tedious.

We are renting out our house in Ashland. Getting the house ready to rent, furnished, took moderate effort. We decided to rent it furnished rather than pack and move all our stuff, which would have been a huge undertaking. We rented a storage unit for our our car and our more valuable/breakable things (mostly art).

We are using a rental agency, so there really is nothing else for us to do. Yay!

Car(s)

Our own car is in a storage unit in Ashland. The battery will be dead when we return so we’ll show up with the ability to jump it and fill the tires. We were smart enough to back the car into the unit so we can jump it more easily when we get back.

We are “leasing” a car in Europe. Technically, we own it and will sell it back in 6 months. But it’s all pre-paid, including great insurance. The gimmick is that, because we are not Europeans, our purchase of a new car circumvents VAT and then a European will buy a lightly used car without paying VAT, either.

If we didn’t have the dog with us, we might not have bothered with a car. But it does enable a lot of flexibility.

Visa

Because we’re staying longer than 90 days, we needed a visa. And shoot, as long as we’re getting a visa, we’ll stay most of the year. Why not?

US citizens are allowed to spend half time (90 days out of 180) in the Schengen countries of western Europe without a visa. In 2017 we spent a lot of time in Europe and did what’s called the “Schengen dance” in and out of the UK and eastern Europe. This time, we just got a visa.

Most European countries have some way to get a visa for long term visitors. Research indicates that France has the easiest process, and really it was neither difficult nor ultra expensive. With our visa, we’re still subject to the 90-in-180 rule in terms of visiting other countries, but France counts as a home base, so it’s easy to “reset the counter.”

What we, as retirees, needed was:

  • Proof of financial independence (3 months of investment account statements)
  • Proof of health insurance. We acquired global health insurance for the year from Cigna. This zero-deductible insurance costs about half of our horrifically expensive Obamacare. If you’re eligible for Medicare this would be an added cost but it was a net gain for us. This was one piece of the visa process that wasn’t tremendously well documented. The visa folks had clear ideas about what the health insurance had to cover, but they did not communicate these requirements very well.
  • An address in France. We used the first Airbnb, where we’re staying 3 weeks. As far as I can tell, nothing was actually sent here; they just need an address.
  • Hotel reservations for the first 90 days. We had a month of real reservations and 60 days at a hotel which we cancelled after we arrived in the country. Shhh. Don’t tell!

Once the requirements were gathered and documented, applying for the visa was easy. We applied online, then made an in-person appointment at the consulate in San Francisco, where we handed over passports and documentation. They sent the packets to D.C. After a quick email exchange to clarify a few details, they fed-exed the passports back to us, with the new visa taking up an entire page. It’s not obvious why an in-person visit is required, other than “them’s the rules.”

As required, we printed out a fresh set of documentation (about half an inch thick) to carry with us upon entry at the Paris airport. The passport control officer spent literally one second glancing at my visa (two seconds on Tony’s), and never asked to see our documentation. All that prep work, and nothing. Unsatisfying.

Mail

Thank goodness for technology! We’ve subscribed to a mail service that accepts our physical mail and scans the outside of the envelopes, then opens and scans the contents of any item we specify. Our official address is some place in North Carolina. When we people ask where we’re from, we never quite know what to say. NC, where our mail goes? Oregon, where our house is? Many Europeans aren’t familiar with those states, so we’ve taken to saying “California.”

Getting the dog to France

Getting Brighton to France was on a par with getting our own visas, though considerably harder to figure out. We ended up hiring a service for $500 to hold our hands and provide advice. It was money well spent, though I don’t need to spend it the next time. (BTW, full service agencies charge about $3,500 to get your dog to Europe. And that’s one way!)

Here’s what we learned:

  • Brighton is too big to travel in the cabin, so we had a choice of checking him as baggage or cargo. Baggage is best as cargo requires more time in the crate and a visit to the cargo terminal.
  • Not every airline allows dogs in baggage on international flights. United, with which I have a lot of miles, does not. We booked on Air France and have no complaints.
  • Starting months before the trip, we familiarized Brighton with the crate by having him sleep in it. We also reminded him how to use a lick bottle for water.
  • The EU requires a current rabies vaccination certificate (signed in BLUE ink). They also require a health check within 10 days before arriving in Europe, and the vet has to fill out and sign a specific form. Here’s the tricky part: the certificate and form have to be sent (or hand delivered) to the USDA who stamps them and sends them back to you. The service that we hired handled this part by shipping a FedEx label to our vet, and having a contact near the USDA office in Sacramento who walked the paperwork over and FedExed it back to us.
  • The greatest stress for the dog is loading/unloading, so a nonstop flight is best. We chose nonstop SFO-ParisCDG. We checked in 3 hours before the flight and got Brighton out of the crate less than an hour after we landed. Brighton was crated for 15 hours, and was just fine.
  • In SFO, Brighton’s paperwork packet was examined for a minute or two by the baggage checkin agent. My theory is that the USDA stamping process confirms that the paperwork is in order, so the airline agent can be quick. We checked in our other bags, and then waited for a while for a guy with a trolley to take us to the special dog checkin booth. No, Brighton didn’t get to ride on the baggage belt!
  • Another little wait and then a TSA agent climbed halfway into the crate to examine it for bombs or whatever. He sealed the crate with four special TSA zip ties, and we waved goodbye.
  • In Paris CDG, we had all our documentation in hand, girding our loins for interrogation by a customs agent. Nope. We got our bags, then walked over to oversized baggage and waited 5 minutes while they fetched Brighton’s crate. We just walked out the nearest door (no customs at all). Luckily I was prepared for the zip ties and had my nail clippers at hand to quickly release the hound for an epic pee.

Once in France, we went to the trouble to get Brighton his European pet passport. This will make it easier to take him on trains and ferries in Europe. The process consisted of bringing him and his vaccination records to a local veterinarian.

We are having a great time on the French Riviera. The weather is pleasant, the views, sights, and food are wonderful. So far, all the administrative work required to get here is paying off.


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