Let’s be honest : setting yourself up as a freelancer in France is not for the faint of heart.
This guide will walk you through the steps you need to take.
Buckle up – at the end of this you’ll have a clear idea of what you’re in for, and that’s half the battle won !
The French reputation for mind-bending bureaucracy is well deserved and the Kafkaesque levels of form-filling and red-tape wrangling (paperasserie in French) are intimidating even to the locals.
But I – and thousands of other expat freelancers like me – are living proof that it can be done.
While at first it may seem as though you’re drowning in a sea of incomprehensible acronyms and mysterious organismes, there is a step-by-step path to follow.
And if you want to side-step it all, there’s an option for that too.
Step 1: Have the right to work as a freelancer
If you’re a citizen of the EU, you’re good to go.
And anyone who holds a visa (known as a carte de séjour here) that allows them to work a salaried position is also allowed to work as a freelancer.
For those who don’t fit these categories, there is a specific carte de séjour that gives you the right to work as a freelancer (but not in a salaried role), called carte de séjour "entrepreneur / profession libérale".
Getting this carte de séjour is an excellent strategy if you want to live and work in France but don’t have a sponsored salaried position.
It takes time and effort, but it is totally possible.
How? That’s for another article : you can read all about how to get your visa to work in France here.
But be aware that you need to have a well-thought-out business plan, including market need, client sourcing and financial projections.
Step 2: Choose your business structure
Here is where the complexity begins – but the good news is there is a clear and (relatively) simple path that has been set up specifically to make it easy for people to launch themselves as independent workers.
And if you want to side-step the paperasserie altogether, there’s an option for that too.
A business structure (or status) is simply how your business is set up.
There are two basic categories – sole trader or company.
Sole trader, or entreprise individuelle (EI), is by far the more straight-forward. It’s easy to set up, the financial obligations are simplified (so in theory you don’t need an accountant), and the tax and social charges are lighter.
A third option is portage salarial, a uniquely French arrangement whereby an umbrella company acts as a go-between, invoicing your clients, paying you a salary and taking care of all the associated administrative tasks.
Bye-bye bureaucracy blues! If your head is already spinning, this may be the option for you.
Entreprise individuelle & micro-entreprise
If you are just starting out and your business costs and level of investment is low, entreprise individuelle is likely the best structure to go for.
It’s time to introduce the concept of micro-entrepreneur. (You will also hear “auto-entrepreneur” which was its original name, now changed but confusingly still commonly used.)
EI is the sole-trader statut. Micro-entreprise is a simplified system for paying tax and social charges (known as a régime micro-social and micro-fiscal), which you can adopt as an EI.
Many new freelancers choose this option.
It’s important to know that there is a limit to the amount of money you can earn within the micro-entreprise regime.
For most freelancers (for example developers, designers, writers and translators) that limit is €72,500 per year; for the sale of goods or accommodation, it’s €176,200.
If you exceed this limit for two consecutive years, you’ll be obliged to adopt the tax status of regime réel, which imposes much more detailed accounting requirements.
If you think you’re likely to ultimately exceed the limit, it’s a good reason to consider choosing portage salarial – no limits apply if you adopt this model.
Limited company: EURL & SASU
For more complex businesses with a higher cost base, it might be worth considering a limited liability company – a EURL or SASU.
If you’re making a high initial investment or will have to hire employees in the future it’s possible one of these statuts would be more advantageous to you.
They have no restrictions on turnover, but there’s a greater weight of administration in set-up, reporting and costs.
You can read more about EURL and SASU in our dedicated articles.
If your appetite for plunging into French bureaucracy is low, this is perhaps the option for you.
Portage companies establish a three-way contract between you and your client, invoicing them for the work you do, collecting payment and “transforming” it into a monthly salary from which they pay your social charges and taxes.
You find your clients and set your fees, the portage takes care of the rest.
Under this model, to all intents and purposes, you are an employee (salarié) of the portage company. You don’t have to register yourself as a business or worry about what taxes and charges you need to pay – that’s all taken care of for you. And you have the same rights to chômage (unemployment) and retraite (retirement) as a “normal” employee.
An added benefit of portage salarial for expats is that you avoid the mental load and time drain of learning the French system’s complexities.
You have the comfort of knowing all your admin boxes are ticked, so you can devote your time to finding clients and earning money.
Learn more about portage salarial here !
Step 3: Register your business
Unless you opt for portage, your “open sesame” for French freelancing is your SIREN.
This a business ID number that you must quote on all invoices, income declarations and other documents.
To get it, you must officially declare your activity (or make a demande d’immatriculation) with the Centre de formalités des entreprises (CFE).
For freelancers in entreprise individuelle and micro-entreprise, this request can be made through the INPI website, the organisation that collects and distributes social security charges, who you will come to know very well as a micro-entrepreneur. (You’ll also get a SIRET, your SIREN with a few extra numbers tacked onto the end, which is a code for the geographical location of your business.)
After your request is processed (usually within a couple of weeks for an EI), your SIREN will be registered with the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (Insee), and you’ll be able to start lining up your first clients.
Be aware that if you opt for a company, the process is longer, more complicated and more expensive.
Step 4: Open a bank account for your business
A dedicated bank account is not compulsory to establish your EI. However, you are required to open one if your turnover exceeds €10,000 for two consecutive years or if you decide to start a company.
Note that the account must be dedicated to your professional activity, but it does not need to be a bank product called a “business” account.
It may simply be a standard current account – it just needs to be separate from your private expenses.
It’s an important distinction in a county where banks usually charge a monthly account-keeping fee for basic banking services.
A good option if you want to avoid doubling-up on fees is to go with an online bank for your second account with new (fee-free) players such as N26, or Boursorama.
Banking rules are different if you decide to set-up a limited company and you will have to open a business account.
Step 5: Understand social charges and income tax
If you come from a country where the single word “tax” covers the percentage of your earnings that you pay to the government, the French system may take some getting used to.
Here, there are two distinct elements: cotisations, or social charges, which are contributions to the social security system (health, unemployment, pension) and impôt, or income tax.
As a freelancer, you pay social charges to our friends at URSSAF, with a declaration of your earnings every trimester (in micro-entreprise you can opt for a monthly declaration).
You will have created an account with them when you registered your business, and every April, July, October and January you fill out a simple form to declare what you have earned.
Your payment is calculated, and you pay online.
If you are a micro-entreprise under the régime micro-social the calculation of your charges and income tax is pretty straightforward.
Social contributions are set at 22%, based on your earnings for that trimester – if you earn zero, you pay zero.
Whether this simplified option is right for you will depend on how much you earn, whether your business involves a high level of expenses, and what your living situation is (single, couple or family).
If there’s any complexity in your situation, it could be worth consulting an accountant (expert-comptable) to work through the different options.
If you go with portage salarial, your cotisations (around 45%) and income tax are automatically calculated, collected and itemised on your payslip each month.
The portage company does all the paperwork for you, so your relationship with URSSAF can remain agreeably distant.
Step 6: Understand your other tax obligations
There are a couple of other taxes you need to be aware of as a freelancer – meet CFE and TVA.
CFE: the Tax on Where You Work
The first is a kind of secret tax that sneaks up on many freelancers.
Contribution fonciere des entreprises (CFE) is paid to local authorities based on the value of the real estate you use to run the business (including your home if you work from home).
You are exempt from this for the first year of your activity, so it’s payable only from the second year – that’s one reason it sneaks up on you.
The other is that to pay it, you must first set up a professional account on the French tax website. (That’s as well as the personal account you must set up to declare your annual revenue – but that’s a subject for another article.)
No-one will ever tell you that you need to do this but once you have, you’ll be notified when your CFE is due and the amount owing will appear here (you're welcome) !
TVA: the Tax on Everything
Taxe sur la valeur ajoutée is the (usually) 20% added on to the purchase of (almost) all goods and services – including yours as a freelancer.
As a micro-entrepreneur you are exempt from charging TVA on your services, up to a certain limit of earnings.
Once you have invoiced more than €34,400 for the year you must start charging it, for the rest of the year from the month when you pass the limit.
If you earn between €34,400 and €36,500 for two years running, you’ll need to start charging it from the start of the following year.
Yes, this is a tricky one.
Because of course, you also need to declare what you’ve collected and pay it forward to the tax office.
Again, this is something that you don’t need to worry about if you work through portage salarial.
You’re ready to go!
Now you just need to find some clients!
The good news is that there are dozens of freelance platforms active in France that can make finding your first mission easier than you think.
Malt and Crème de la Crème are generalists covering all types of work, but there are also specialists like Freelance Informatique and Codeur.com for tech, Redacteur.com for writing and Traduc.com for translating.
There are loads of others, and there’s nothing to stop you signing up with multiple platforms to see what works best for you.
Apart from that, keep your LinkedIn updated, work your network and get yourself out there. Exciting opportunities await.