For many administrative procedures in France, you’ll need certified translations of certain official documents, and having those documents available in advance will save you a lot of trouble when it comes time to get your carte vitale or renew your carte de séjour. Fortunately, word on the street is that the government can no longer require you to have documents less than 3 months old (In case your birth changed in the last few months, you know?), but it may take some time for all officials to be made aware of the new policy. So, before you leave, make sure you know how to order a copy online or over the phone just in case.
In the Paris area, most translators charge €50 per page, and €10-15 for additional stamped copies of previously completed translations. Be aware that translators may charge extra fees if information on the original document changes. (Mine charged extra because I got a new copy of my original birth certificate, with the print date and the serial number altered). Rates may vary wildly in different cities, so contact several translators and shop around. Also make sure to contact them several weeks before you need the translation, to avoid rush fees.
Note that generally speaking, the translator must be ‘certified’ by the court in the region where you’re using the document, so you shouldn’t get anything translated before you are in France.
Here’s what you definitely need:
Birth certificate with an apostille
For health insurance, renewing your carte de séjour, and other administrative procedures (like getting married or PACSed, acquiring nationality, etc.), you’ll need an original birth certificate with an apostille, which is an official stamp affixed to the document, usually by the secretary of your state (in the US). Note that the US Embassy in France does NOT do apostilles, so this is something you’ll need to get when you pick up your birth certificate, usually for an extra fee.
After you get your birth certificate translated, keep the translation and make multiple copies (colour works, for the translator’s stamp!) so you don’t have to pay for additional copies. Most administrations will look at the original document, but only keep a copy of it.
Here’s what you may need:
Birth certificates for children and marriage certificates
If you have dependants or are married, you should also bring their birth certificates and a marriage certificate, which will enable you to apply for school and benefits from them and to get a visitor visa for your family members.
Criminal background check
You’ll probably only need this if you ultimately plan on applying for French naturalization or permanent residency (unlikely if you’re only here for 2 years of schooling), but be aware that the embassy could ask for it as part of the visa process. If they want it, be sure to bring a copy with you and have it translated for your préfecture appointments.
The US Embassy provides links to lists of certified translators who may be able to assist you. You can also get a list of translators certified in your region from the local Mairie.