This is part II of our mini series about making it in Germany. There’s nothing better than hearing all about moving to Germany from someone who has already done it. Avoid all the mistakes Bartlomiej made when he was trying to find a place to live in Berlin and how to get the most important piece of paper from the Bürgeramt and what to do about your visa situation.
Berlin it is!
After all of the stresses and obstacles involved in getting ourselves enrolled in a graduate program in Germany, it was very satisfying to finally step off the train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
My wife and I had made a brief stop in Warsaw along the way to visit my family. We were full of nervousness, anticipation, excitement, and my grandmother’s cooking.
We thought we were fairly well-prepared to get ourselves set up in our new city. With two weeks of cheap accommodations booked and a decent knowledge of German, we were quite confident that things would go smoothly.
Unfortunately, we weren’t entirely right about that. Based on our experiences in Berlin, I would like to offer a few tips on moving to Germany that I wish I could send back in time to myself.
Keep in mind that things might be slightly different (and possibly easier) depending on what city you end up in.
Most important: Finding an apartment or official residence
I’m including this one first because, honestly, almost everything else revolves around finding a place to live. Getting anything accomplished (getting a bank account, setting up internet, getting a job etc.) is next to impossible without it.
Registration system in Germany
This is because of the registration system in Germany. When you move into a place, you are required to go to a district office and register your address with the government. This usually has to be done within two weeks.
When you go through this process, you will be given arguably the single most important piece of paper you will ever receive during your stay in Germany: the fabled Anmeldungbescheinigung (registration certificate). This is your key to a normal life.
No registration, no nothing
Without this magic piece of paper, you can’t open a bank account or get a tax number; both very important if you plan on working. We ended up having some difficulties with our apartment search (more on that in a moment), and not being to register really ended up making things quite tough at the beginning.
The best way to go about things is to sort this out before you move. If you are staying with a friend or family, make sure they will let you register yourself where they live. If you plan on getting temporary accommodation like we did, ask whoever is renting to you if registering with them is possible (it wasn’t for us). Some hotels and hostels will also allow this, so make sure you ask around.
Also, make sure you are able to put your name on the mailbox! There are no apartment numbers in Germany, so that is the only way to actually receive any of the important stuff that will be sent to you.
Finding an apartment can be ridiculously difficult (at least in Berlin)
While I’m not sure what the situation is like in the rest of the country, Berlin is a popular place these days. That means living space has grown a bit scarce and rent has gone up over the past few years. It’s still a very affordable city, but it’s likely to take some serious legwork to find an apartment. We went to some viewings where 30 or 40 people showed up to look at the place.
Aside from Berlin’s popularity, there were a few other reasons the apartment hunt was so difficult. For one, German landlords are extremely specific about what documents they expect from a prospective tenant. Generally, you need a SCHUFA (credit report) and your last three income statements to even have a shot at most places. If you are new to the country and a student, you are unlikely to have any of that and you will not be able to compete with the hordes of other people who also show up to a viewing.
Avoiding the main websites
Based on a whole lot of trial and error, I would say my best advice would be to avoid the main apartment hunting websites such as www.immobilienscout24.de, or www.immowelt.de if you don’t have loads of money or a job already lined up. Most of the apartments on this site are posted by real estate companies and they are generally not interested in your plight. A lot of these places are also completely unfurnished. By that, I mean oftentimes there is not even a kitchen sink or cupboard to be found in the place.
Finding sublets and flat shares in Berlin
If you are a student or you don’t have work lined up, your best bet is probably www.wg-gesucht.de. There is a much greater variety of living situations to choose from there, including sublets, flat-shares, taking over someone else’s contract as a Nachmieter, or renting their place temporarily while they are away as a Zwischenmieter.
We found the sublet we are currently living in on this site. This is also where you go to find places that are furnished, or to find apartments where the current tenant is moving and willing to sell off the furniture that’s in there at a decent price. Another great option is www.ebay-kleinanzeigen.de.
Be aware of scams
Stay away from Craigslist unless you have a lot of time on your hands. While it’s possible to find something good, most of the apartment listings on there are scams. They will offer to “hold” the place for you if you give them money, or make up an excuse about having to be out of town and offering to mail you the keys when they get the money.
That being said, we did find our first temporary accommodations on Craigslist (14 Euros a night!). We really should have booked for longer. Instead, we ended up bouncing around the city before settling into a cheap and interesting hostel for about a month.
On the bright side, we did get to see a lot of Berlin as we dragged our suitcases from place to place.
Get your phone set up right away
Surprisingly, this part actually isn’t all that difficult. Having a phone early on really helps with the apartment search, and being able to use maps will help you get around the city to go look at places while you learn to find your way around. Yes, I’ve already gone back to the apartment search thing. It’s really that important.
If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can buy a SIM card at various grocery stores, drug stores, or phone shops.
Prepaid card from Congster
Your choice really depends on your needs. I went with a prepaid card from Congstar because they reportedly have the best data network. They can be found at any Rossman’s drugstore. It currently costs me around 14 Euros a month for 100 texts, 100 minutes, and 500 MB of data with a double internet speed option.
The other reason I picked Congstar is because I found out that their registration process would work well for someone who doesn’t have a permanent address yet.
Registering your SIM card
Each SIM card has to be registered online before it can be activated, and requires a German address. Some companies will actually check to make sure you live there by sending you something in the mail to reply to or else they cut off your service. The cards from Lidl and Aldi have that issue as far as I know. I was able to use my temporary address when registering with Congstar and I did not have a problem.
Your bank account in Germany
Another really good reason to have a functioning smartphone is that it could allow you to potentially get around the bank account problem by using an online bank like N26.
They are fully online (no brick and mortar locations) and you access your account through their phone app. You don’t need proof of registration to open an account with them, but you do need an address for them to send your card to.
Their accounts are also quite a good deal and come with a debit Mastercard that works very well internationally (no fees!). I continue to use my N26 account now, even having opened one up with Deutsche Bank as well.
Immigration and registration appointments
Again, this might be more of a Berlin issue, but I assume it also applies to any other major city in Germany.
Getting an appointment at the Bürgeramt
In order to register your address, you need to visit a registration office (Bürgeramt).
At some offices, you have to make an appointment online (check the Bürgeramt website for your city). Unfortunately, competition for time slots is quite fierce and I ended up sitting in front of my laptop refreshing the calendar page repeatedly until I got an error page politely asking me to calm down.
People are always cancelling appointments and slots open and are gobbled up again in the blink of an eye. Sometimes when you load up the page you will find that there is no available appointment for three or four months anywhere in the city.
The good news is that simply booking an appointment is enough to satisfy the two week time limit that you have to register after moving to a certain city, even if that appointment is months away. The bad news is that you really need that magic piece of paper.
I’ve heard many stories during my time in Berlin about the dreaded registration office. Some of them have adopted a strict appointment-only system. Others allow walk-ins, but there are tales of people showing up at 7 a.m. before it opens to stand in line in the hopes of getting a spot.
We were very tired after our move, so we slept in until 10 a.m. and casually strolled over to the Rathaus Spandau registration office thinking we had no hope. After a short wait in line, and being asked whether we live in Spandau (we do), we got a number, saw another surprisingly friendly bureaucrat, and walked out of there with our registration papers in hand about 30 minutes later.
Your results will likely vary wildly depending on which office you go to and in which city. It’s possible they were only taking Spandau residents without appointment at ours. You are not actually required to go to the registration office in your area, so my best suggestion is to do some research and find out which one in your city is you’re most likely to have some success at.
Getting a visa for Germany
The appointment situation for the immigration office is even worse. While I’m an EU citizen and don’t need any extra paperwork to live there, my wife is from the U.S. and needs an EU spouse residence permit. Her tourist visa was running out so we didn’t have the time to wait around three months for her appointment.
Immigration also gives out a certain number of walk-in appointments each day, but there are certain days that are appointment only. Check the website of your local office to find that out. If you do plan on going without an appointment, especially in Berlin, it’s going to suck.
We showed up around 7 a.m. (two hours before opening) and there were already people in line. By the time it opened, there was quite a crowd gathered behind us and all hell broke loose. Luckily we didn’t get too lost in the sea of people and we managed to nudge our way into a free walk-in spot.
We were questioned by a surly bureaucrat (I call her the gatekeeper) before we were issued a number to go see a much friendlier young guy who did his best to help us out. It turns out that an EU citizen wanting to get a permit for their spouse needs to have proof of income of at least 400 Euros a month. Although that is a pretty small amount, I hadn’t found a job yet. He did give my wife a 6-month permit with full working rights and we immediately made an appointment in order to avoid the early morning line-up again. We didn’t quite get what we came for, but we left the place feeling like we had been treated fairly.
Start learning German as soon as possible
Some of the experiences I described in this article were frustrating and difficult. That was with some knowledge of German. I can’t imagine
how much more difficult things would have been if we had zero German skills. Plenty of people manage it, but getting at least somewhat familiar with the language as soon as possible will be a great help.
Not every German speaks English
Just don’t expect every German you meet to be able to speak English; especially some of the older bureaucrats. I had this idea in my head that a lot more people here speak English and would often try it out unsuccessfully (because I’m lazy) before switching to German.
Better job opportunities speaking German
Beyond that, learning the language will greatly increase your job opportunities. Even basic German will open up a lot of doors for you. There are job possibilities available for English speakers (mostly tech startups and language schools), but having some German under your belt will give you a lot more options.
No matter what method works for you best, I suggest you start learning before you arrive. Get a phone app, take a class, find a language exchange partner or buy some books. It will make your life a lot easier!
It all sounds scarier than it actually ended up being. Just be sure to organise a few things beforehand. Hopefully this article helps you with this.
I’m wondering how it was like when you first moved to Germany? Did you also move to Berlin? Or are you still in the early stages of your big big move to Germany? Share your experiences and knowledge in the comments, we would love to hear from you!