In this modern age, posting letters and cards is less common than ever before, but it’s still very much a part of life in France – a nation renowned for its love of paperwork and bureaucracy!
Like all things in a new culture, there are some things to get used to when it comes to letter-writing French-style.
Typically, a letter will have your name and address in the top left hand side, and the date and addressee details aligned lower down to the right.
Unless you are writing to a personal friend, your letter should always use the formal conjugations of “vous” instead of “tu” – if you’re not sure what this is, you can check all French verb tables here: http://www.conjugaison.com/
The French word “cher” is the equivalent of the English “dear.” You can say “Cher Monsieur” for a man, or “Chère Madame” for a female addressee. If you are writing to more than one person, you can say “Chers Messieurs et Mesdames” – which means “Dear Sirs and Madams.”
You would not use first name terms unless writing to a friend. In a formal letter you should address the person by their name or official title. If you don’t know the name(s) of the recipients – use “Monsieur le Directeur” or “Madame la Directrice” or you are writing to a group, you could use “À qui de droit,” ie “To whom it may concern.”
The top section of a letter will look something like this:
Why use 2 words when at least 10 will do?! The French are a lot more formal when it comes to closing a letter. Typically for professional correspondence the English phrase “Yours sincerely” or “Yours faithfully” will be “Je vous prie d’agréer, Monsieur/Madame (or whichever title you used in the top of the letter) l’expression de mes salutations distinguées.”
That’s quite a mouthful – but it’s written all the time, so make a note and keep it handy!
Addresses and Envelopes
Yes, like letters, addressing an envelope has its own rules in France. For starters, addresses should not be any longer than six lines (seven for international), with no more than 38 characters per line, and CAPITAL LETTERS ARE USED – a lot.
The three core details of any French address are the recipient/addressee or “destinataire”, the street address, and the postcode + locality/town. These are the 3 lines that will be in every address. Additional information is often used to add special details or clarity to the delivery instructions.
On the envelope the address should be placed on the bottom right hand section in the following order – essential items are in bold
Line 1: Name, title, and other pleasantries
Line 2: Secondary address information (apartment number, etc.) optional
Line 3: Information regarding access (building name, entrance number/location, etc.) optional
Line 4: Street name and number
Line 5: Additional information for aiding in delivery (PO box, lieu-dit, etc.) optional
Line 6: Postal code and name of city or other applicable locality
Line 7: Country of destination—optional (only necessary for international mail)
A typical envelope will be written as below, note that almost all essential items, proper nouns surnames or business names are in CAPITALS, it is only the supplementary information in lower case. If the address is a business, the company name will be on Line 1 and the addressee moves to Line 2.
A French postal code is five digits consisting solely of numbers; no letters, no spaces, no hyphens (similar to a US ZIP Code). There are over 30,000 officially recognized postal codes in France and you will find them listed here: https://www.laposte.fr/particulier/outils/trouver-un-code-postal
A postal code is based on French “départements”—administrative subdivisions of a larger “région” (the equivalent of a county, to an English speaker).
The first two postal code numbers match the number of the département where you can find the destination city (ie 34 for anywhere in Hérault). The other three numbers in the code indicate which post office will actually handle the job of delivering the letter.
Most French postcodes end in a zero (exceptions include some major cities, overseas territories, and post office boxes).
What’s a CEDEX?
“CEDEX” is an abbreviation of Courrier d’Entreprise à Distribution EXceptionnelle (special business mail). This will apply to organisations which receive huge quantities of mail, and where an individualized postcode is given. Sometimes you will see CEDEX also with a number; which will apply in case a city has multiple post offices.
So to complicate things a little further, CEDEX addresses are addresses with their own postal code, usually with a PO Box as well ie:
The PO box number—preceded by the letters “BP” for “Boîte Postale”, will either take a line of its own, or precede the town, depending where the postbox is situated. The word “CEDEX” is added last, after the locality of the post office and town.
Another accepted abbreviation is shortening “Saint” and “Sainte” to “ST” and “STE” (also in capitals), respectively.
So having completed the mission of addressing your envelope correctly – you will then write your own address as the sender (“expediteur”) on the reverse over the sealed portion of the envelope, to show that it has not been opened or tampered with, like so:
Copy copy copy
Important tip – keep at least one copy of everything! With so much paperwork to be handled, it is not unheard of that correspondence or complete dossiers can disappear in the wonderland of a French administration center…
So how long should you keep your mail and copies? Any paperwork relating to income and tax should be kept safely for 10 years.
Posting the Letter
If it’s a regular letter, chances are you’ll be sending it via La Poste, which also provides banking services under the banner of La Banque Postale. La Poste provides all manner of financial services, as well as insurance, mobile phone contracts, mail forwarding (“faire suivre”), mail holding (“garde du courrier”) and a surprising number of community services such as checking on elderly relatives. La Poste is a national institution and almost as central to French daily life as la boulangerie!
Officially called Marianne stamps (“timbres Marianne”) French stamps are printed with the face of Marianne, the personification of the Republic of France. It is possible to send letters up to 20g with one stamp. Letters have a maximum thickness of 3 centimeters.
The red stamp (“timbre rouge”) is used for priority mail, generally delivered in France within one to two days. The green stamp (“timbre vert”) is for slightly slower service, generally two to three days. Green is a more eco-friendly alternative, and reportedly produces 15% less CO2 than first class. Both of these options are available for letters up to 3 kilograms, which would require eight stamps.
The gray stamp (Ecopli) is the most economical option, but letters are limited to 250 grams, or four stamps.
The purple stamp (“timbre violet”) is used for all international letters, whether inside Europe or beyond. All international mail is priority, as no economical option is available.
Below are the prices for a 20g stamp in 2020. La Poste has already announced that these prices will increase by 10% for 2021, so you may want to stock up now!
Rouge : € 1.16
Vert : € 0.97
Ecopli : € 0.95
Violet : € 1.40
Conveniently, you can also purchase packs of 10 preprinted red or green ‘stamped’ envelopes in post offices and supermarkets. Even more convenient if you have a printer, you can even personalize and print your own stamps at home without even having to go out! You will still need to drop the letter in the mailbox, however, as La Poste does not pick up from private residences.
Tracked mail and parcels
Adding “sticker suivi” for € 0.45 allows simple tracking of a letter sent in France. Express services like Chronopost and Colissimo (tracked parcels), allow tracking in France and internationally. Registered Letter with Receipt of Delivery (“Lettre Recommandée Avec Accusé de Réception (AR)”*) is a recorded delivery service for many countries within Europe and a confirmation receipt will be received by the sender, or confirmation of delivery can be obtained online. General delivery time is one to two days and you will need to fill out the required forms at the post office. When your letter is received, the recipient will sign for it and the signed receipt (“avis de réception”) will be returned to you through the mail. Pricing is dependent on the weight and value of the item you are sending, and insurance is optional.
*This is how we recommend that all official documents should be sent within France.
You’ve got mail?!
If you’re struggling with translation or need help writing or understanding an official letter, please contact us – we have a network of French and English speaking lawyers, accountants and notaires, and we’re here to help!
Dennelle is the President of Renestance and a bilingual American who’s lived in France since 2000. She loves so many things about France, its language, culture, geography, quality of life... that she started a business to help others realize their dreams of living in this incredible place.
All articles by: Dennelle Taylor Nizoux