Police ID checks in France and foreign documents explained

Many visitors from the UK and US are unfamiliar with the concept of identity checks

French police in Marseille do an identity check on a young person wearing a face mask
Police can require that people identify themselves for several reasons that are unrelated to what the person is actually doing

French police have the power to stop people and ask them to identify themselves in a way that does not happen in the US or the UK. We review how this works and what you can be required to show. 

A French police check made international news in May after the arrest of Ian Thomas Cleary who was wanted in the US for allegedly sexually assaulting a student in Pennsylvania in 2013.

On scanning his identity documents during a routine check, the police saw that his name had been flagged by Interpol.

Cleary reportedly told police that he had been in France for “around three years”.

Read more: American on Interpol’s wanted list found during routine check in France 

While Cleary had potentially been deliberately lying low, it is still somewhat surprising that it took so long for him to be identified, given how widespread identity checks are in France.

Indeed, identification is now required for everything from opening a bank account, booking a train ticket to pitching a tent at a municipal campsite.

This is in addition to the powers that French police have to check individuals’ identities.

When can the French police ask for your identity?

It should be noted that the powers of the French police are by no means absolute: identity checks can only happen in four contexts:

  • Judicial identity checks - when the police are investigating a crime

  • Required identity checks - made after a written request by a state prosecutor

  • Administrative identity checks - made to ‘maintain order’ in a given area or context

  • Schengen identity checks - made within 20km of borders, including ports or airports

The vague definition of ‘administrative identity checks’ in particular has proved to be a headache for France’s Conseil constitutionnel, the country’s highest constitutional authority, which it deemed “incompatible with safeguarding individual freedom” in a 1993 ruling.

It added that in practice these checks must always be accompanied by a reason for the “particular circumstances motivating the check that justify the need to maintain order” (Ruling n° 93-323 DC du 5 août 1993, Loi relative aux contrôles et vérifications d'identité, law relating to police stops and identity checks).

In 2023, the Cour des comptes, the French audit office, counted a total of around 47 million identity checks, or 128,000 a day.

What do you have to show to police?

For French citizens, the usual document to show police is the carte d’identité, however, this is not required by law.

In fact, the law requires that they prove their identity par tous moyens, in any way.

In practice this means a French citizen can show any document that will satisfy the police, which could include a carte Vitale health card, passport, driving licence, birth certificate, etc. Otherwise, somebody else can vouch for their identity.

Non-French citizens must prove that they are in France legally, in addition to proving their identity.

This means that they must show their visas or residence cards to the police. In most cases this alone will meet both criteria of proving their identity and the legality of their stay in France.

People from most EU countries only need to show their ID cards, which also meet both criteria. Citizens of countries that do not have ID cards must show their passports. However, in practice, an EU driving licence should suffice.

Previously, Paris police have told Connexion staff that high-quality photocopies of ID documents would be accepted if people feel uncomfortable carrying around the original. 

However, this is a grey area and context sensitive. 

Officially, even smartphone photos or identity documents have no validity, unless they are validated copies saved in the official smartphone app - which at present still does not work for foreign identity cards, passports or residence cards.

Failure to comply with an identity check can result in police detention for up to four hours or up to 12 hours in the case of a Schengen identity check.