CAF, if you think you’re brave enough to tackle this rollercoaster of red-tape, will make your life a misery for at least a few months. But boy is it worth persevering with. I must have received over a thousand euros in total, which greatly helped me with the high living costs of Paris and my expensive pastry habits.
Get a move on
If you think you might be eligible for CAF, you’ll want to start the process as soon as humanly possible (before you are born would be ideal) to ensure that you receive some sort of compensation for your efforts before you reach retirement. You can start by applying on the CAF website, entering information such as your past earnings and current income. You’ll also need a plethora of different photocopies for the process such as a photocopy of your passport, your birth certificate and your student ID, to name a few. I had to elicit the help of my landlady with the online forms, which proved equally perplexing for her, although that may have also been due to the fact that she had lost her reading glasses. Anyway, you’ll probably also have to upload some documents via PDF as well, so make sure you are prepared. After filling out the seemingly endless application online, I clapped my hands together and audibly exclaimed ‘my work is done here’. Do not do this. My work was far from done here.
The paperwork will feel endless - but it's worth persevering with
Your next step is to get your landlord to fill out the ‘attestation de loyer’ part, another bureaucratic hurdle which may have you tearing your hair out (that is, if you have any left to tear out after the previous steps). Anyway, once you are satisfied that the online stages are complete, congratulations, you have levelled up and now get the chance to practice your fancy-schmanzy new red-tape vocabulary at a CAF branch itself!
This is undoubtedly the most fun part. Firstly, ensure that one of the branches is actually open, a lot of them tend to have sporadic opening hours at best and forget about trying to get this done on the weekend, they are all closed. Upon arrival, documents in tow, you’ll most likely be required to wait in a stifling hot cupboard-sized room full of discontented Parisians, all of whom eager to get their hands on some free money. Dress lightly, put some headphones in, close your eyes and imagine you are being lullabied by Serge Gainsbourg on a baguette-shaped cloud. Just remember you make sure to open them again, and actually speak to an employee there. Hand over your documents and hope for the best. If all goes to plan, they will give you a disconsolate nod, indicating for you their satisfaction that you have brought the correct documents and to leave the premises. But let’s be real, most likely they’ll ask you for more documents, or that something has been filled out incorrectly, yada yada.
You've been in the belly of the beast - almost there now
Now you play the waiting game. By now, you’ll have a numéro d’allocataire and a code confidentiel (try not to forget/lose the latter, as they’ll have to send another in the post, which is a faff) to log into the website, and you’ll be able to see where you stand in terms of receiving payments. To spice things up, I was frequently greeted with a mocking message stating that ‘le versement de vos prestations est interrompu’, without any sort of explanation as to why. Cue around 47 phone calls to CAF, pleading for some sort of clarification.
Ambiguity is definitely their strong point
They initially told me that the photocopies I had sent them were too dark and therefore null and void. OK, fine, I’ll re-do them. I sent them back again. This time they were too light. Hmm… they really don’t want to make this easy, do they?
An accurate(-ish) portrayal of how you'll be feeling
Eventually, they were satisfied (enough) with the tonal quality of my photocopies, and I was told that ‘votre dossier sera étudié prochainement’ – ambiguity is definitely their strong point. After averaging about a phone call a day with my new favourite phrase ‘je n’ai toujours rien reçu’, I logged onto my online banking one morning to discover that a whopping amount of money had been received from none other than the Caisse d’Allocation Familiales. I nearly spontaneously combusted, I was so happy. In my incredulity, I couldn’t resist telling my parents, brother, friends, acquaintances and acquaintances pets – look at me, look how clever I am, I got some money off the French government, just for being a student! Because ultimately, it is a non-reimbursable loan that will make your life infinitely more comfortable.
So to recap - apply online. Fill in forms, print them, and send to the relevant CAF office along with the documents they ask you to provide, complete with your landlord’s signature. Wait. Pray. Phone them. Pray again. Receive first payment 4-6 months later. Breathe a huge sigh of relief, and celebrate with a plate of snails (or champagne, your choice).