On the WebMany of the French departmental archives have been digitizing their records and making them available online - generally at no cost for access. Quite a few have their birth, marriage and death records (actes d'etat civil) online, or at least the decennial indexes. Generally you should expect to find digital images of the original books, but no searchable database or index. This is no more work than viewing the same records on microfilm, however, and you can search from the comfort of home! Explore this list of Online French Genealogy Records for links, or check the Web site of the Archives Departmentales which holds the records for your ancestor's town. Do not expect to find records less than 100 years online, however.
Some genealogical societies and other organizations have published online indexes, transcriptions and abstracts taken from French civil registers. Genactes maintains a good list of links to many of these databases, organized by department. Subscription-based access to transcribed pre-1903 actes d'etat civil from a variety of genealogical societies and organizations is available through the French site Geneanet.org at Actes de naissance, de mariage et de décès. At this site you can search by surname across all departments and results generally provide enough information that you can determine whether a particular record is the one you seek before you pay to view the full record.
From the Family History LibraryOne of the best sources for civil records for researchers living outside of France is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. They have microfilmed civil registration records from about half of the departments in France up to 1870, and some departments up to 1890. You will generally find nothing microfilmed from the 1900s due to the 100 year privacy law. The Family History Library also has microfilm copies of the decennial indexes for almost every town in France. To determine if the Family History Library has microfilmed the registers for your town or village, just search for the town/village in the online Family History Library Catalog. If the microfilms exist, you can borrow them for a nominal fee and have them sent to your local Family History center (available in all 50 U.S. states and in countries around the world) for viewing. For more information on how to use Family History Centers for genealogy research, see Step by Step Guide to the Family History Library System.
At the Local MairieIf the Family History Library doesn't have the records you seek, then you'll have to obtain civil record copies from the local registrars' office (bureau de l'état civil) for your ancestor's town. This office, usually located in the town hall (mairie) will usually mail one or two birth, marriage, or death certificates at no charge. They are very busy, however, and are under no obligation to respond to your request. To help ensure a response, please request no more than two certificates at one time and include as much information as possible. It is also a good idea to include a donation for their time and expense. See How to Request French Genealogy Records by Mail for more information.
The local registrar's office is basically your only resource if you are searching for records which are less than 100 years old. These records are confidential and will only be sent to direct descendants. To support such cases you will need to provide birth certificates for yourself and each of the ancestors above you in a direct line to the individual for which you are requesting the record. It is also recommended that you provide a simple family tree diagram showing your relationship to the individual, which will help the registrar in checking that you have provided all of the necessary supporting documents.
If you plan to visit the Mairie in person, then call or write in advance to establish that they have the registers that you are looking for and to confirm their hours of operation. Be sure to bring along at least two forms of photo ID, including your passport if you live outside of France. If you will be searching for records of less than 100 years, be sure to bring along all necessary supporting documentation as described above.