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one has scientific visa starting 15 December 2017 on US passport

can he still enter France before that date?
thought is might be okay since he can still be a tourist for 3 months....

the visa is expired 2 month after it is made, therefore he can wait until the visa is ready to go to the prefecture for titre de sejour.
 

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You should not enter France on the scientific visa before the date of validity for the visa. It "may be" possible to enter early as a "tourist" - but you would have to leave France (on the tourist visa) and then re-enter to have the scientific visa validated on or after the date of validity of the visa.

Honestly, it would be safer to wait until the visa validity date (or ask when you are at the visa interview to see if the date of validity can be moved forward based on your travel plans).
Cheers,
Bev
 
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