Advice from a three-time author on studying abroad and working legally in France.

FRANCE IS EXPENSIVE. If you’re going to be there for the long haul, you’re probably going to want to find some work, but you want to make sure you’ve got free time, too. If a regular part-time job is too inflexible or hard to come by, tutoring, babysitting, or other in-house jobs are a good option.

Below are four reasons why working under-the-table isn’t in anyone’s best interest and, later, three relatively simple ways to legally work in France as a freelancer, from being an entrepreneur to helping in a household to contracting your services to a small company.

In France, as in other countries, travail noir (working under the table) may seem like the easiest option.

1. You’re a risk to your employer.

People get into serious trouble for hiring undeclared workers. Messing with French employment law (such as hiring workers for travail noir can result in severe penalties for the employer. As the employee, you’d be considered the victim, and would survive unscathed (though you’d likely lose your job).

In recent presidential debates, candidates insisted on the seriousness of defrauding the social security system by not paying social charges on clandestine employees, and some French senators support even tougher penalties for such employers. Some potential clients may not be deterred from hiring you illegally but others may balk.

2. Legit contracts benefit French citizens.

French citizens get tax deductions for hiring declared personal employees. Currently, families in France can get a tax credit for hiring personnel to clean their house or babysit their children, which makes it advantageous for them to have proof that they hired you.

A family that pays an official babysitter 1000€ during the year may get up to 500€ back when they do their tax return, provided they give a receipt as proof of the amount they paid. Because they get 50% of the cost of your employment back from the tax office, families are inclined to pay slightly more to declare their babysitter or tutor, which in the end, benefits you as well.

3. Make it easier on yourself to obtain services.

You need payslips and official proof of income to do practically anything in France. Everyone requires payslips, so having a few invoices from your clients and statements from one of the auditing agencies for self-employed people can help prove your income. Without official proof of income, you’re going to have a lot of trouble being able to rent an apartment, get a cell phone contract, or even adopt a cat.

4. Take the benefit of forced savings.

If you don’t declare your income, you don’t get credit for retirement quarters. It may seem early to think about this now, but retirement benefits are based both on the amount of time you spent working and on the amount of money you made while you were working. By officially declaring your income, you are required to pay French social security charges which count towards your retirement.

Since France has a Social Security Totalization Agreement with the United States and most European countries, this means that you can use proof of your French income to get credit in your home country for that time you spent working in France. By declaring your income now, you get to count your income and retirement quarters later.

* * *

Once you’ve decided to work on the up-and-up in France, have legal permission to work, and plan on declaring any money you earn, there are three easy ways (and one hard way) to be self-employed in France.

Before 2008, the only way to be self-employed in France was to be a travailler indépendant, which requires collecting TVA (in most cases), detailed accounting, and paying punishingly high minimum social charges of around 45% of gross income. This status is rather complex, and you probably won’t be making that much money in just a few months, so it’s probably not a good choice for most self-employed foreigners. However, there are three fairly straightforward alternatives.

1. Work for yourself.

In 2008, France enacted the Loi de modernisation de l’économie to simplify the process of starting a small business in France. Under this system, a new status of “autoentrepreneurs” was created, and today, autoentrepreneurs can earn up to about 32,000€ annually for services rendered. They benefit from lower social taxes and use a simplified accounting method. Autoentrepreneurs also are exempt from collecting TVA.

In addition, they receive a SIREN number, which identifies them and their company (like an Employer Identification Number in the US), which they put on invoices to their clients. When they earn money, they declare their income quarterly online and receive a bill for medical insurance and retirement charges for about 21% of their earnings. In a quarter in which they earn no money, they do not pay.

If you’re in France and would like to become an autoentrepreneur, the process is very simple. All you need is a copy of your carte de séjour (CdS) in a PDF and your French social security number (if you have one). When you fill out the form online at lautoentrepreneur.fr, select the type of activity you want to do, fill in your personal information, and attach a copy of your CdS.

Students, French resident card holders, and individuals with a talents et compétences card are all eligible to be autoentrpreneurs, while those with “employee” cards are generally tied to their employer and cannot also be self-employed. One caveat: students cannot generally change their status and remain in France as autoentrepreneurs after they finish their studies, although there may be an exception for students who are in France for several years, declare their income, and earn sufficient income to support themselves.

2. Work for someone else.

If you’re not interested in being an autoentrepreneur but still want to make some money freelancing in France, there are two other popular (legal) ways to get paid. Families most often hire babysitters and tutors by paying them through a service called Chèque Emploi Service, a payment agency for household employees. To be eligible, you must be providing services only to individuals, who declare your income online and pay CESU, which deducts social charges from your salary and gives you a check. CESU also provides receipts at the end of the year to your employers, who receive the 50% tax credit for hiring you (as detailed above).

The advantages of CESU are numerous. While your contract is technically with the person who employs you, CESU provides a sort of protection by vetting your contract, making sure you’re paid at least minimum wage, ensuring that social charges are paid on your behalf, and issuing a payslip to show as proof of earnings. They also report your income to the French tax office.

How to get CESU: Your employer has to sign up for CESU by uploading a copy of your work contract, RIB, and other information onto the CESU website. Once they’ve set you up as an employee and assigned you a social security number if you don’t have one, you can log into the CESU website also to track your earnings.

3. Do consulting work.

If you want to freelance for small companies, small businesses with fewer than five employees can also use a special chèque emploi service, called toutes petites entreprise (CESTPE, for those who love acronyms as much as the French). It works exactly like CESU, except that it allows you to work for small companies, who deduct the entire amount of your wages on their corporate taxes. There’s also the Titre Emploi Entreprise Occasionnel (TEEO) for companies with more than five employees hiring someone for a temporary job or contract, and the Chèque Emploi Associatif, for non-profit groups.

How to get CESTEP: As mentioned, your potential employer has to have fewer than five employees and sign up on the website. Again, once your employer registers you, you can access your account and payslips on the site, and you’ll be paid as an employee of the company you work for via this service.