Moving to Germany: Everything You Need to Know
If you had told me in 2001 that by 2014 I would have already spent nine years studying, traveling, working and living in the same country that my grandma had left 50 years earlier, I would’ve probably scoffed at the idea.
Yet, here I sit on my balcony in the center of the gorgeous German city of Leipzig, staring up into the huge sycamore tree that’s probably been growing in the courtyard below since before my German grandma moved to the United States in 1950. How did I move my life back to my family’s roots and 12,874 miles away from where I grew up near the Rocky Mountains? I took a deep breath and a couple of huge leaps.
I took Auto Mechanics instead of a foreign language in high school, but during my second year of university I became extremely interested in studying abroad. I could have studied somewhere like Australia or Ireland, but when my German grandma died in 2002, something inside me started whispering to go back to the roots and start digging before that missing information was buried too deep.
I had to complete six weeks of intensive German lessons before I could start in Berlin, but after that I loop-de-looped through two semesters, twelve European countries and more adventures than I could ever count. Whether you’re studying abroad or moving permanently, here are some things to consider:
Something I noticed very quickly when I came over to Germany in 2003 was how many people could and wanted to speak English with me. One of my first phrases in German ended up being “Es tut mir Leid, aber ich habe mein Englisch verlernt” (literally translated, “I’m sorry, but I’ve unlearned my English”). I was here to learn about the German language and culture, so I politely refused to help others improve their English.
After I competed the six weeks of intensive German lessons, I received a certificate that stated my proficiency level to show to the university (and years later, my first employers in Germany). I found that the more that I took ownership in learning the language and not relying solely on my German classes, the more it became a game to learn it; instead of making vocabulary lists, I decorated my bedroom, bathroom, mirrors and the insides of my cupboard doors with sticky notes that said things like “spoon = Löffel” and “to promise = versprechen.” I became fluent very quickly because I stopped speaking English for almost that entire year.
As a student, I lived in an international dorm for the first semester of university in Berlin, but after that I got to decide whether I wanted a private apartment (Privatwohnung) or a shared apartment (Wohngemeinschaft). Everyone highly recommend living with Germans in order to accelerate my integration and linguistic prowess.
Also, it’s handy to be able to share things, and I’m not talking about just the bills. Most apartments here are unfurnished, and by unfurnished I mean closets, cupboards, light fixtures and curtain rods! You could drop a few hundred Euros at IKEA, or you could check out www.ebaykleinanzeigen.de, which is similar to Craigslist.
I chose a bank which has lots of locations so I wouldn’t get charged for using other banks to withdraw cash, seeing as Europe loves cash a lot more than America does. Checks are not used here, so you’ll need a bank account to make and receive money transfers. I do almost all of my banking online, but if I ever need to go to the bank for help with anything, it’s always an option. There’s usually a fee for maintaining the account (3-5 Euros a month), but some banks have special offers that drop this charge.
Telephone + Internet
In addition to my cell phone, I decided to get a landline with a flat rate for calling the US. For €40 a month I have wireless internet and as many hours of heart-to-heart with my friends and family at home as I desire.
In Germany, health insurance is mandatory. Extra bonus: it’s tax deductible.
Making Phone Calls in German
If you have to make a call in German (or any other language, for that matter) and you’ve never before spoken with the person who’s going to answer the phone, my tip is to always let the person know that you’re a foreigner (which isn’t always painfully obvious at the beginning of a conversation).
I do this by saying, “Ich bin Amerikanerin und mein Deutsch ist noch nicht perfekt” (“I’m American and my German isn’t perfect yet”). This paves the way for the rest of the conversation and the other person is much more likely to be more patient and understanding with me.
When I moved here indefinitely in 2006, I entered the country on a tourist’s visa, which was valid for three months, but as soon as that ran out I had to go down to the local Residents’ Registration Office (Einwohnermeldeamt) and inform them of when I’d arrived and what my current address was; you’re also required to do this within two weeks of moving to a new house or apartment.
They wanted to see proof of my (German) health insurance and financial stability, such as a bank statement showing that I had enough start-up capital to cover about €600 a month of expenses until my income started rolling in. Since I moved over here with pretty much no money at all, my German boyfriend’s parents provided copies of their bank statements and wrote a letter claiming financial responsibility for me until I got on my feet.
In order to begin legally teaching English as a freelancer, I needed a work visa. In order to have the work visa issued, I had to show the Foreigners’ Registration Office (Ausländerbehörde) my work contracts from at least two different companies.
Anyone not from Germany or the European Union is going to have the pleasure (I say this very sarcastically) of many close encounters with the Foreigners’ Registration Office, and depending on your personal work situation, they’ll tell you what other papers you’ll be required to turn in before you can legally work in Germany.
I pay them in Germany and report my annual income to the States. I fill in IRS Forms 1040 and 2555 (Foreign Earned Income) myself, but I have a handsome tax advisor deal with my German taxes. His services are also tax-deductible.
The German Federal Retirement System
Depending on what you do professionally, you might be required to pay in to the German Federal Retirement System, so contact the Deutsche Rentenversicherung and find out. Don’t get stuck with a €9,000 back-payment after four years of working (like I did).
As much of a shock that this was when I got that letter, I’m now happy that I’m already saving for retirement and that the money will be paid out when I’m 65, regardless of where in the world I’m living at that time–and who knows where in the world that might be.
For more information, check out www.howtogermany.com.
Moving to Germany: Everything You Need to Know