I didn’t get my French health pass in time for my trip — here’s what happened

Sep 24, 2021

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After a year sans setting foot in Europe, I had big plans for a recent trip to France. Most of them, unsurprisingly, revolved around what I’d be eating — starting with every dried, cured and aged pork product I could get my hands on plus copious amounts of oysters.

I also planned to spend as much time as possible doing what I usually do in France — idling at cafes with friends in the presence of servers who never feel the urge to flip your table in a hurry.

But this time, as opposed to on my previous visits, I’d need a pass to partake.

Presenting a digital health pass as proof of vaccination is now required at restaurants, cafes and bars in France, and public places, including museums, cultural institutions and public transit. (TPG has kept up with the changing process and rules here.)

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Les Halles de Narbonne, France health pass
Guests at a restaurant at Les Halles de Narbonne prepare to show their health passes on their phones. (Photo by Terry Ward)

“Did you get a pass sanitaire?” a few French friends asked me when I told them I was coming for a visit, knowing how I love nothing more than lingering at a restaurant with them for a prix fixe meal that unfolds over many hours and bottles of wine.

So the first thing I did after booking my flight from Tampa to Montpelier for my recent trip on Sept. 12 was look into getting the digital French health pass, which I was beginning to think of as my literal meal ticket in the country.

On Sept. 8, four days before my trip, I clicked on the online application to have my CDC vaccination card (showing I’d had my two Pfizer shots) converted into the French health pass. You can only apply for the pass if you’re in France already or about to travel there, I’d read, so I figured I was in the clear.

The process is straightforward, taking you through several pages asking for your full name, date of birth and address where you plan to stay in France (with arrival and departure dates). You then upload a photo of your passport information page.

french pass sanitaire application
(Screenshot courtesy of demarches-simplifiees.fr)

I input my vaccination history, including the country where I got the shot(s), the date of my last injection, the name of the vaccine (it must be either Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca) and the number of doses administered.

Next, I uploaded a photo of the front of my vaccine card and a PDF of my airline ticket.

Then, voilà. I ticked a box to certify I provided accurate information and submitted the file.  A “Thank you!” page popped up and my stomach started rumbling.

french pass sanitaire application
(Screenshot courtesy of demarches-simplifiees.fr)

There was an additional box for “Commentaires” on the application where you can type in any additional information you want the issuing authorities to know about your submission. And looking back, I wish I’d typed up a little note that my arrival date to France was imminent and I hoped to have the pass by then. But I was trying not to be a pushy American.

In the end, I didn’t receive an email with the PCR code and my pass sanitaire before I left for my trip — nor did I receive it during my trip. I arrived back home on Sept. 20. And on Sept. 23, my dossier still showed “in progress” with a note that “files for this process are processed within 19 days” (in the beginning, it had said five days, then 11 days — the wait just keeps getting longer).

On Sept. 24, I finally received an email — and it was a rejection since my trip dates are now in the past:

“Dear Sir, Madam, Your stay in France having ended, we regret to inform you that we will not anwer your request. We invite you to repeat it during your next stay. We apologize for not being able to do your request on time . Best regards”

Screenshot courtesy of Terry Ward

A friend of mine from California also ran into the issue of not receiving his French health pass a few days before leaving on his trip. But he’d gone back into his online file to add a comment that he was on his way to France soon, he told me, and received the pass just before landing in Paris.

So how did things go for me, then, visiting France without the almighty pass sanitaire in hand?

In a word, deliciously.

I was asked to show my French health pass upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle and while boarding my connecting flight from Paris to Montpelier.

At the airport, I showed my CDC vaccination card and it was accepted, as I knew it would be — but that’s also what continued to unfold during the rest of my trip and cafe-hopping adventures in the South of France.

There was sometimes mild confusion at this paper I proffered instead of my phone when asked to show the pass, but my CDC vaccination card was never rejected anywhere.

I wasn’t required to show my pass sanitaire when renting a car from Budget at Montpelier’s airport, but when I checked into Chateau L’Hospitalet and Villa Soleilla, a wine resort near the Mediterranean Sea in Narbonne, I was asked to present it along with my passport.

During my week in the South of France, I visited several towns — including Narbonne, where you can enter the public market (Les Halles) without a pass sanitaire but must present it if you sit to eat at one of the bistro tables.

In the interior town of Rodez, where there are weekly manifestations against the mandated pass sanitaire, I was similarly asked to present it at every outdoor terrace or indoor restaurant I frequented.

pass sanitaire at a bar in Rodez, France
Patrons showing their pass sanitaire at a bar in Rodez, France, in mid-September 2021. (Photo by Terry Ward)

My friends would pull out their phones to show their PCR codes as I’d pull out my now-ragged piece of paper. And I’d get confused looks as to why I wasn’t presenting a digital pass. But nobody ever gave my vax card more than a passing glance before waving me in.

And once, when I started in with “I just arrived from the U.S. two days ago …” as an explanation of why I didn’t have the electronic pass yet, I was met with a joking, “Bienvenue, you’re lucky to be here!”

The French love of banter and teasing extends to the pass, it turns out, and I was told it’s actually against the law for establishments to ask for identification proving the pass you show is indeed yours.

That naturally begs the question of just how effective this whole process is — and I heard many stories of non-vaccinated people using screenshots of friend’s PCR codes on their phones to gain access to bars and restaurants in France. But that’s another story and not something I’d recommend trying as a visitor in someone’s country (or anyplace, for that matter).

Marseillan, France
Dining outside on fresh oysters at Tarbouriech Le St Barth in Marseillan, France. You’re required to show the health pass — even for outdoor dining. (Photo by Terry Ward)

The digital vaccine health pass is required for non-Europeans over the age of 18. Applicants must have received a vaccine that’s been approved by the European Medicines Agency. That includes Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer.

In France, you can also secure a 72-hour pass by providing a negative COVID-19 test.

TPG recommends consulting the U.S. Embassy in France and the French government’s COVID-19 hub for further updates to the digital health pass.

Bottom line

If, as happened to me, your French health pass doesn’t arrive in your inbox by the time you leave for France, don’t panic. It’s hard to apply what happened to me in 10 or so restaurants and bars in the South of France to the entire country. However, chances are your CDC vaccine card will serve you just as well. If you’ve had a prior COVID-19 infection, it doesn’t hurt to bring along a doctor’s letter with proof of recovery from it or any other backup you can provide. Bon appétit!

Featured photo by Terry Ward: server at Mamamouchi restaurant in Gruissan, France, checks the health passes of guests.

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