Category Archives: Safety and Security

Replacing An American Passport in Paris


Photo credit: Ann Mah

If your American passport’s been lost or stolen, take a deep breath.  Writer and Paris blogger Ann Mah has taken the guesswork out of the process with this informative post (originally posted on her site  Many thanks to Ann for allowing us to repost.  And be sure to check out Ann’s new book, Mastering the Art of French Eating which is getting rave reviews.  It’s the perfect gift for your favorite Francophile (including you.)  Did I mention the recipes?

by Ann Mah

After my passport was stolen a few weeks ago, I went to the U.S. Embassy in Paris to replace it. (Though my husband is a Foreign Service Officer, his assignment in Paris ended last year, and I visited as an ordinary American citizen.) A lot of people are intimidated by the American Embassy — and it is a bit of a fortress — so I thought I’d share a few tips to smooth your path in case you need to urgently replace your passport in Paris. Learn from my mistakes, friends!

After you discover the loss of your passport:

Report it to the French police. This will probably take hours, but it helps guard against passport fraud and/or identity theft. Also, I found the gendarmes extremely kind, sympathetic (and one of them was pretty cute).

Visit the U.S. Embassy in Paris website, specifically the page U.S. passport services and read the information carefully. I don’t recommend phoning the Embassy switchboard as the website is extremely helpful and offers all the information you need. Bottom line: if your passport was lost or stolen, you can apply for an emergency replacement in person, without an appointment, by showing up at the Consular Section of the US Embassy, Monday-Friday, 8.30 am sharp. (Note: The embassy is open during regular business hours, but closed on French and American holidays.)

What to bring to the embassy:

Bring your forms, completed in advance. Go to the U.S. passport services page. (Really, I cannot emphasize this enough.) It will tell you which documents you need and give links to the forms, which you can print and complete in advance. You can also fill out and print the forms on computers at the embassy, but the system there is not reliable (I had trouble printing, for example) and I got yelled at when I asked for help.

Bring your wallet. You will be charged for your new passport. They take Euros, US dollars, and credit cards, including American Express.

Bring lots of loose change — specifically one- or two-Euro coins. If you are applying for an emergency passport, you can take the photos at the embassy, but the photo booth only accepts change and on the day of my visit the change machine was out of service. Loose change is also handy in case you want to buy a snack or coffee from the vending machine.

Bring something to read to pass the time — a book or magazine. There will be a lot of waiting.

Note: If you are applying for a regular (not an emergency) replacement passport:

You cannot take your passport photos at the embassy. Instead, take them before your visit — I recommend the day before. Photo Madeleine — a five-minute walk from the embassy (41 rue Boissy d’Anglas, 8e) — shoots photos that meet the required regulations. Also, bring a pre-paid Colissimo envelope. The embassy will ask you for this so they can send your new passport back to you. You can buy the envelopes at the Concorde métro station. The embassy also sells them via vending machine, but they cost €25, the vending machine only takes change, and the change machine was out of service the day of my visit.

Your visit to U.S. Embassy Paris

Make sure to arrive at 8.30 am, or slightly earlier. You’ll wait in line to go through security. You cannot bring your cell phone, i-Pad, laptop, or any electronic equipment into the building, but you can check them at the guard hut. I also had to check my Kindle, which made me very sad as it was my only form of entertainment. Don’t bring a Kindle.

Be prepared to spend several hours at the embassy. I arrived at 8.30 am and didn’t leave until after 12 noon. The lines are long, especially on a Monday, when everyone who has lost their passport over the weekend applies for a new one. The good news is, I found my fellow passport theft victims to be extremely friendly and chatty and their stories of being robbed on trains and in markets were fascinating cautionary tales. I also thought the Embassy personnel was also very professional and polite (except for the woman who got testy with me about the printer).

Don’t expect to receive your passport immediately. If your flight is scheduled for the same day, change it to the next. I saw a woman in tears because she hadn’t changed her flight –even though she’d read the website, (which clearly states “we cannot guarantee that we can issue a passport in time for same-day travel”) she didn’t believe it. Believe it.

There is a clean bathroom.

If you have a question, ask a security guard. There are a few of them wandering around the waiting area. I found them all very friendly and helpful.

With any luck, your emergency passport will be ready the same (or next) day and you’ll be able to go home, a smarter traveler with a good story under your belt.


Fire Safety

Despite several highly publicized fires in the City of Light, it was only recently that French legislators passed a law mandating smoke detector installation. By January 2016 all living facilities in France are required to have smoke detectors (détecteur de fumée). Paris’s beauty makes it easy to forget that Haussmann didn’t have safety codes in mind when renovating the city. Nor did medieval architects consider how difficult it would be for a firetruck to race down a narrow, cobblestone street. Several hundred years later, despite the services of the city’s brave firefighters (les sapeurs-pompiers de Paris), many of Paris’s buildings remain not only fire hazards, but fire traps.

Whether you are moving to Paris permanently or relocating for the long term, it is important to check if where you’re staying is equipped with at least one smoke detector. When you’re planning a move and packing your suitcases, smoke detectors aren’t the first thing you think of, but they might be the most important thing you pack or buy on arrival. Paris brings to mind baguettes and bistros, not fires, but the reality is that such dangers can occur anytime, anywhere. Considering a fire breaks out every 2 minutes in France, a smoke detector is an essential purchase. For as little as 20€ you can make your space fire safe. Even though smoke detectors aren’t mandatory yet, they are relatively easy to find. Major home stores, local hardware shops, and even some bigger grocery chains sell smoke detectors. For a sure bet though, visit one of the stores listed below. These stores also sell everything you need for a quick and easy installation.

Mr. Bricolage  (Click here to see the store’s presentation on installing smoke detectors. The slides are in French, but a website like Google Translate can help you get the most important information from the presentation.)

166 Rue St Maur, 75011 Paris

21 Rue Ménilmontant, 75020 Paris


C C Les Arcades 1/3 rue de Caulaincourt, 75018 Paris Clichy

11 Cours de Vincennes, 75020 Paris

119 Avenue Flandre, 75019 Paris

BHV Rivoli

55 rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris

Personal Security: An Update

As big cities go, Paris is relatively safe.  That being said, it is a big city and you need to be aware of yourself and your belongings whenever you are out and about.   We’ve written about this before here and frankly, while it’s easy to become complacent, it’s important to keep your guard up.  

A couple of recent news items  make this imperative clear.   The International Herald Tribune reported this week  that aggravated robberies are up 40 percent in Paris’ public transportation system with iPhones and other smart phones being a particular target.   The article notes:  Often, phones are grabbed quickly out of a victim’s hands as the subway car doors are closing; robbers tend to work in small groups, so that a stolen phone can be quickly passed to someone else to prevent an easy chase by an outraged victim. 

Bottom line:  keep your phone in your zipped bag or your front pocket, unless you absolutely need to use it.

Another troubling development is the presence of bands of teenage girls (ages 12 to 16) who have been conscripted by a central European crime boss to pick pockets in the Paris Metro to the tune of 200 euros each per day.  The French police are hard at work trying to bust up this ring, both for the safety of the public and for the benefit of the teens themselves.   (You can read more about it here.) But in the mean time, be aware of groups of girls in hoodies and jeans, traveling in small groups, and often making a lot of noise and commotion to distract you, their mark.  These girls may look like your daughter or your sister, but don’t be fooled, they are professionals.  Be on the lookout especially in areas with high tourist traffic such as along line 1.  Keep your bag zipped and close to your body; if you are a man, carry your wallet in your front, rather than back, pocket.  Better yet, stay away from the doors as their modus operandi is to snatch and grab wallets, handing them off to a friend on the platform just as the doors close.

Look Both Ways Before You Cross the Street

Your mother did teach you to look both ways before you cross the street, right? She was right, particularly so in Paris where the drivers, while perhaps not as aggressive as in some other places in the world, all seem to be very determined to get where they’re going and fast. Waiting for the green light and the “walk” signal and looking both ways (even if you have the right of way) are probably the two smartest things any pedestrian can do.   If you think this seems absurdly simple, you are right.  Only given the number of near misses I have seen in Paris, I figured it was worthy of a post.

Be aware of a couple of the vagaries of Parisian traffic before stepping off the curb. First of all, just because the light is red in one direction doesn’t mean that the traffic coming from the other direction has a red light too.  When the sign says feux décalés, that means, for the purposes of keeping traffic flowing, the lights are staggered.  On an east-west street, for example, the traffic coming from the east may get a red light a full minute before the traffic coming from the west.   A pedestrian assuming that both directions will stop at the same time risks getting mowed down by a driver who has a green light.   The safest thing to do: wait for the walk sign.  It will not illuminate until both directions have red lights.

Some intersections are marked by a sign reading traversez en deux temps.  In such cases, there is usually an island in the middle of the road and two sets of traffic lights and walk signs.  Cross over to the island on the “walk” sign and then wait on the island until the second “walk” sign illuminates.

You should also pay careful attention to cars entering and exiting traffic circles.   Often the lights are placed so that traffic exiting a traffic circle must come to an abrupt stop just after exiting.  Visibility can be poor in these situations (for both driver and pedestrians) so it’s best to be double sure that the traffic coming off the circle has a red light before stepping off the curb.

Pedestrians should also look out for bicycles and motorcycles on the sidewalk.  Although technically these vehicles are prohibited from driving anywhere but the street, better safe than sorry.

In Case of Emergency

Forget 911.  One of the first things you should do when arriving in Paris is to make a list of phone numbers to use in case of emergency and post it by your phone.  If you only have a mobile phone,  post the list where you won’t lose it and everyone in your household can access it, for example, on your refrigerator.  Finally sit down with all members of your household and make sure they know the basics of what to do in an emergency.    As the old saw goes, better safe than sorry.

The key numbers are:

Pompiers (fire department):   18

SAMU (emergency medical services):  15

Police:  17

Poison Control:  01 40 05 48 48

Note:  112 is the Europe-wide number for emergencies.  While French authorities prefer that you use 18 and 15 while in France, you may want to put “112” in your mobile phone just in case you find yourself in need of urgent assistance while travelling somewhere else in Europe.

When telephoning for an emergency service, have the following information ready:

  • Your name and address, including your floor (étage) and door/gate entrance code
  • The patient’s name and age
  • The nature of illness or injury (what happened and when)
  • The patient’s present condition (for example, whether the patient is unconscious, vomiting, bleeding, confused)
  • Any other pertinent information (for example if patient is diabetic,  has a heart condition, takes blood thinner medication)

No matter what their level of French, every member of your family must learn how to say his or her name and address in French.  If you have to, write it out phonetically on your “in case of emergency” list.

Je m’appelle (My name is): 

J’habite à (I live at): Give street number, street name, arrondissement or town

Mon numero de telephone est (My phone number is):

Emergency Services Explained

Your first call in case of an emergency should always be to the pompiers (fire department).  Firefighters in Paris and other large towns in France are trained paramedics, fully prepared to address life-threatening situations.  Their emergency response times are generally under five minutes.   After triaging and analyzing an emergency, the pompiers may send their own ambulance or will alert SAMU or other medical professionals. 

SAMU (short for Service d’Aide Medicale d’Urgence) is a specialized public emergency service that works in close alliance with other emergency services as well as with the emergency and intensive care units of the public hospitals.  Its ambulances are manned by teams of trained medical personnel and equipped with miniature emergency rooms equipped with all the materials necessary to treat emergency situations at the scene, including cardiac and respiratory arrest.  In essence, they bring the emergency room to you.

SAMU is organized geographically into departments with a central telephone number for each area in France. Calls are answered under the direction of a physician on duty who decides, based on careful questioning of the caller, how to handle the call.  Each department has a pediatric team trained to treat severely ill or injured children.

 SAMU will almost always have someone available who can speak or at least understand English, usually the physician. If it is a life-threatening situation, the dispatcher will connect you to an emergency physician who will determine the appropriate level of care needed and can talk you through any emergency procedures that need to be accomplished while waiting for the emergency team to arrive on the scene.

If patients need to be hospitalized, they are usually taken to a public hospital.  Each SAMU center has a list (which is updated three times a day) of bed availability and locations of specialty teams in all public hospitals.   If a bed is available, patients can be transported directly to room or intensive care unit, bypassing the emergency department.

You can be taken to a private hospital upon request but you will need to know, in advance, where you want to go and if that institution is prepared to handle your situation.

Many Americans are used to using the emergency room for urgent care situations.  But the French system is different.   Emergency medicine is not a recognized specialty in France; instead ERs are manned by qualified doctors with various specialties who take turns staffing the service.  Moreover, not every hospital is equipped to handle all emergencies. It is best to check the services available at the hospital closest to your home.  If you do end up going to the emergency room, you will need to follow up with your personal physician afterwards.   Ask for a copy of your records before leaving the ER to bring to your doctor.

Rather than call the emergency room if say, your child wakes up in the middle of the night having difficulty breathing or with a raging high fever,  a better option is to call SOS Medicins at  SOS Medicins will send a physician to your home day or night.  Be prepared to describe over the phone your address, phone number, victim’s age and condition.  Doctors making home visits do not normally dispense medications, but will often administer injections on the spot if needed.  Prescriptions for medications can be filled out at your local pharmacie;  within each neighborhood, pharmacies coordinate so that one, called the pharmacie de garde,  is available after hours.  (The rotation list for which pharmacy serves as pharmacie de garde at which time is typically posted on the front door.)

Special thanks to Amanda Nagele and Anna Giulione for helping provide accurate information for this post.

Don’t Get Scammed: Tips for Protecting Yourself and Your Home

In an earlier article, we discussed how to protect yourself from pickpockets.  Today, guest author Sherry Steiner offers tips on how to avoid being a victim of scams, whether at major tourist attractions or in your home.

Tourist Trap Scams

When you’re a tourist or look like one, you’re likely to be a target for scammers.  You can avoid getting scammed if you are alert and are willing to “just say no.”

The ring scam.  Someone will pick up a gold-colored ring that seemingly fell near you and ask if it is yours.  They look inside the ring and declare that it is 24 carat gold (or something similar).   When you answer that it is not your ring, they will either offer to sell it to you “at a good price,” or begin telling you how poor they are and ask for money.  Just say no.  The ring is not real gold.  You don’t have to feel obligated to pay anything for it.

The English trap.  Another very common scam you will hear in tourist attractions is, “Do you speak English?”   When you answer “yes,” they will then tell you how many children they have and that they have no money to feed them.  Once they have your attention, they are pretty tenacious.  Be forewarned, shake your head “no” and keep moving.

The bracelet.  The “demonstration bracelet” is hard to miss at Sacre Coeur.  Young men will accost you and ask if they can weave a bracelet made of yarn on your wrist.  If you answer no, they will sometimes relentlessly pursue you until they receive a yes.  If you agree to the bracelet, they will begin weaving it on you and then when they are finished, they will ask for a sum of money for it.  When you try to take it off, if you choose not to keep it, it is impossible to do so without scissors.  So, either they will agree to cut it off, or demand payment for it.  They are very bold, so beware.

On the metro, women frequently walk around holding babies and asking for money as well.  They are harmless and do not pursue you very intently.

Residential Scams

Paris is home to many savvy cat burglars, groups of thieves who are on the lookout for apartments they can access easily and clean out within a matter of minutes.    Burglars on the prowl may pose as chimney sweepers or other types of workmen to gain access to your apartment and case its contents.   You can protect yourself by:

  • Never buzzing in or holding open the building door to a person you do not know.
  • Never answering the door to someone you do not know or did not expect.
  • Never giving your building door codes to someone you do not know or trust.
  • Never leaving your key under the mat or in a mailbox.
  •  Setting timers on your lights and radios, and drawing your drapes or shutters, when you depart for vacation.

When leaving your apartment, lock your door from the outside, by turning the key until it stops, usually two times, which will lock the bolts at the top and bottom of the door.  It is very difficult for your lock to be picked like this.    Simply shutting the door will not deter an experienced burglar.   It may take as little as 10 seconds to pick a lock that is not double bolted.

That being said, it is very easy to lock yourself out of your apartment by simply shutting the door, so someone else should have a copy of your key.   (Calling a locksmith can run into the thousands of euros.) If you are friendly with your neighbors and find them trustworthy, you can leave  them with an extra key.  Or, give one to your gardienne.  

Many apartment buildings in Paris undergo renovation and cleaning.  If you are in one, particularly with workers on scaffolding right outside your window, keep your shutters closed as often as possible.  It is very easy for them to peek into your windows and see what goodies you have.

Taking Precautions Against Pickpockets

by A. Letkemann

As big cities go, Paris is generally quite safe. But being the world’s number one tourist destination, there are plenty of pickpockets at work. Here are a few tips to avoid the misery and anxiety associated with losing your wallet or purse.

Be Prepared

The first rule of thumb is to carry only what you are willing to lose. Keep only the essentials : one credit/ATM card, one piece of photo identification, and no more than €40 -50.

Make a copy (front and back) of all your credit and bank cards, licenses, passports, carte de sejour and keep these in a safe pace at home. That way, if your wallet is stolen, you have all the numbers and contact information needed to cancel your cards.

Carry only purses or bags that zip. Carry your bag tightly under your arm and slightly in front of you. If you use a backpack, swing it around so that it is slightly in front of you as well. Put a rubber band around your wallet and put it in your front pocket which will make it difficult for someone to get it out without you knowing.

Be Aware

The three most likely places to get pick pocketed are close to the major tourist sites: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Champs-Elysées. In Paris, pickpockets work in groups. They are often young children, since it is extremely difficult for minors to go to jail here in France. They can be groups of young girls or boys and of all races.

The most popular tactic on the métro is the crush and grab. You will be swarmed by several people all trying to get on or off. While they are pushing you around, they are also picking your pockets. Another trick is to grab the bag of someone sitting right by the door and to hop off just as the doors are closing. To avoid being a victim, try to find a seat away from the doors. If you can’t sit, back yourself up against one of the sides. Try to minimize access to your pockets and purses.

On the street, pickpockets tend to use distraction techniques. Two or more people will approach you and ask for directions, try to sell you trinkets, or just crowd you. While you are occupied with one person, another is picking your pocket. Another technique is to have something thrown or spilled on you, like water or ice cream. Someone will approach you and offer to help clean you up. Another person then picks your pocket while you are distracted.

ATMs are also popular targets for pickpockets. Most of the ATMs in Paris are safe. Just make sure you use one that is well lit, at a reputable bank and not down some dark, deserted alley. If the ATM does not give your card back, go into the bank immediately! This is not normal and most likely the ATM has been tampered with by thieves. Don’t talk to anyone while you are using the ATM. Walk up, get your money and then get on your way. Recent tactics include people walking up and asking for directions while someone is using the ATM. While they are distracted, the crooks get the pin and card numbers and can then come back and empty your account. Also, put your hand over the pin pad while you are entering your code. That way, no one can see the numbers you enter. If the ATM appears to have been tampered with, do not use it.

When All Else Fails

If you do have your pocket picked, start yelling for the police immediately. Don’t chase down whoever it is that you think stole your wallet. Remember, these people work in groups. Your wallet was most likely handed off before you realized it was gone. If you chase down and grab the person you think is the culprit and they don’t have your wallet, you could get into trouble. Your best option is to find a police officer and make an immediate report.

Pickpockets target many of us because we stand out and look like we have money. Just be aware of your surroundings and your belongings at all times. If you know you are going to a particularly touristy spot, leave as much at home as you can.