How to Start Your New Life in Germany
Last updated: 16 April 2020 / by Sam Williams
A note about COVID-19: This guide is based on the general rules, but there may be some temporary restrictions in place due to the presence of the COVID-19 virus. Please contact your local German embassy for the latest information. You can find a list of global German embassies here. We are keeping the situation under close review and will update our guidance as necessary.
Germany is one of the most attractive countries in the world to move to. A strong economy, low rates of unemployment and a good healthcare system are just some of the benefits of living in Germany.
If you are thinking about moving to Germany, you will need to start preparing in advance to ensure everything goes smoothly.
Do I Need to Speak German?
The idea of learning a foreign language may be daunting, especially if it’s been a few years since you were last at school! Speaking German will help you integrate into your new life much more easily, and will open up more options for employment.
However, it is entirely possible to get by in Germany without speaking German, depending on the type of work you plan to do. If you don’t speak the language, certain transactions will be more difficult and where you live will play a part too.
You’re more likely to be able to cope without being fluent in German if you live in large cities where there is a large expat community.
It’s recommended to start to learn German. You can just take it slowly and even if you just learn some key phrases at first, you’ll find it makes your life much easier.
Best Places to Live in Germany
If you already have a job when you head to Germany, your location will already be decided. However, if you have the option to choose for yourself, there are many beautiful places to choose from.
German has vibrant and bustling cities but also stunning landscapes and gorgeous rural areas. Where you choose depends on what you’re looking from in your new life, and how much traveling you’re prepared to do.
Each of the cities has its own character, so it’s vital to pick the one that suits you. Berlin is one of the most popular, with a large expat community and many English speaking services available.
Other cities such as Düsseldorf and Nuremberg aren’t as well-known but offer a unique combination of cultural diversity and heritage with modern amenities. Outside the main cities, speaking German is more important as there are fewer English-speaking areas.
Doing Your Research
Choosing where you plan on living isn’t just a matter of sticking a pin in a map and seeing where it lands! Although you might like the look of a particular area in Germany, there’s more to consider if you are going to make it your home.
Тhe cost of living can vary significantly between locations, and this may be a major contributory factor. For example, the same type of property in Frankfurt could be over 60% more expensive than in Dresden.
The availability of work should also be considered. If you plan on working in an industry that is dependent on tourism, moving to a quieter area with fewer visitors will narrow your options.
Checking the facts about Germany in advance and planning to move to the area which offers the best fit with your lifestyle is vital for success.
Do I Need a Visa?
Germany is part of the EU and in the Schengen Zone. Anyone traveling to Germany from the EU, EEA or Switzerland can enter without the need for a visa. They also have the right to work or study in Germany without restriction.
Outside of the EU, different rules apply depending on the country you’re arriving from.
Germany offers a visa waiver for some countries, which means nationals can visit for up to three months without obtaining a visa. If your home country doesn’t have a visa waiver, or you want to work, study or stay in Germany for longer than three months, you’ll need to apply for a visa.
There are many different types of visa and your residency permit will be linked to the purpose stated on your visa. It’s therefore essential to be clear about your primary goal for traveling, to avoid later misunderstandings.
Giving a misleading reason for travel on your visa could mean you are asked to leave Germany and return home.
Finding a Job Before You Travel
You may be moving with your job, and if that’s the case, you’ll already have work waiting for you on arrival. However, if you don’t yet have a job, waiting to start searching until after you arrive may not be the best idea.
Although it is easier to search while you’re in Germany, it’s preferable to have a job lined up. If you’re traveling from outside the EU, you may even find that you can’t get a visa until you can show that you will be working.
There are online portals that can help you to apply for jobs in Germany, no matter where you are. This can also be an invaluable way to check the job market in the areas you are thinking of moving to.
Preparing your CV the German Way (Lebenslauf)
You may need to apply for a number of jobs before you are successful, so you’ll need to learn what German employers expect to see. Germans famously love structure and regulation, so if you go for a freestyle CV, you may find your application makes a direct trip to the bin!
There is a certain way that German CVs are laid out, with the focus on factual information and brevity. If your CV deviates from the expected norm, a recruiter may not have the patience to wade through the unfamiliar format.
You’ll need a cover letter, plus your CV in the right format, coupled with supporting information, presented correctly. You can find more information about German CVs and what to do here.
Getting Your Qualifications Recognized
To work in some fields, qualifications are necessary. You may already have equivalent skills in your home country, but to be accepted as valid in Germany, they must be formally checked and recognized.
In other fields, having qualifications recognized is not legally essential but could be beneficial for your career. If a German employer can see that you are educated to a higher standard, you may be considered for more senior positions.
Another good reason to get your qualification recognized is for your visa application. If you are from a third country and want to enter Germany for the purpose of employment, you may not get approved unless you are educated to a certain standard. Exceptions are made for specific industries, such as IT, but it’s still a beneficial exercise.
Finding a Place to Live
In Germany, it’s not uncommon to rent your home rather than buy a property, so there’s a massive and active market. If you’re arriving in Germany, this is a major plus as it means you’ll have lots of choices.
Unfurnished apartments are the most common in Germany, but make sure you check what’s included. Unfurnished typically means VERY unfurnished: there may be no light fittings, carpets or appliances in the kitchen.
It is also possible to get furnished apartments, but they aren’t as common. A third choice is a flat share; this is more economical and a great way to make new friends.
What you choose depends on how long you plan on staying and whether you expect to be moving around. Transporting lots of furniture regularly would be a major headache!
Understand The Renting Jargon
If you’ve already browsed through a few property adverts, you may be scratching your head in confusion at what you’ve seen. It’s common for adverts to use abbreviations which look like a secret code to those who aren’t familiar with the wording!
Knowing the German words will help somewhat, such as “zimmer” meaning room.
You can find a full list of the codes to help you understand the adverts more quickly. Still, you should also know how Germans count rooms in a house. A four-room (vier zimmer – 4zi) house might sound relatively small, but it’s probably bigger than you think.
This is because in Germany, the bathroom, entrance hall and kitchen aren’t included in the room count. Therefore, a vier zimmer house is likely to have a kitchen, entrance hall, bathroom, two bedrooms, living room and dining room, making it much bigger than you may have anticipated!
Best Sites to Try
No matter what type of property you would like to rent, you’ll find there are many online property portals to help. Social media can also be useful, especially for flat shares, as some people advertise on there to avoid agency fees.
In Germany, the fees applicable to the person who instructed the agency. Therefore if you are just browsing through active listings of available property, you won’t be liable.
There are many sites you can check for property to rent in Germany, and you can find some of the most common ones here.
No SCHUFA? There is a Solution
SCHUFA is something that can cause new arrivals some problems.
A SCHUFA record is only generated when you first register for residency and at the start, it will be blank. As you carry out financial transactions, you will gradually build up a score, but when you first arrive, it won’t be much use in proving your creditworthiness. This can make it challenging to secure a tenancy as landlords may be reluctant to take the risk.
An alternative is to opt for a furnished apartment at the start. These are usually known as “warm rent” as all your utilities and other expenses are included in one monthly sum. “Cold rent” typically applies to unfurnished apartments and means you have to pay your own utility costs.
Warm rent isn’t the cheapest option, and often includes a premium to cover the risk. Even if you don’t have SCHUFA you should be able to find furnished accommodation with a short-term contract. Once this lease expires, your SCHUFA should have improved enough for you to get an unfurnished lease.
Another option is a flatshare; although some may prefer a SCHUFA, it’s normally possible to get offered a lease even if your SCHUFA is blank.
Home contents insurance is vital for living in a furnished accommodation or else you could end up with a bill running into thousands of euros in the event of any damage.
German Rental Contracts
German rental contracts are firmly in favor of the tenant; landlords don’t have a lot of rights in Germany.
Once you are living in a property, a landlord is only allowed to terminate your lease under very selective conditions, providing you are paying your rent on time. Even if your landlord claims one of these conditions, such as carrying out work to convert the property, you can challenge this in court if you don’t believe they are truthful.
For this reason, many people can rent their homes in Germany for a long time. This provides more stability and can help your rented accommodation really feel like your own home.
Rental contracts for unfurnished apartments are typically issued with no expiry date and any rent increases must be specified in the terms, with only a few exceptions.
Before offering a rental contract, your prospective landlord will want to check your credentials very carefully. This will usually include sight of your SCHUFA, your German credit check score. A letter from your employer and references from previous landlords will also improve your chances of success.
Insurance Culture in Germany
You may already be familiar with insurance products, but until you live in Germany, you won’t appreciate just how important they are! Germans have a love affair with insurance and most people have many different types of cover.
However, even if this strong connection with insurance is a new concept, it doesn’t take long to start to appreciate why it’s so important. No matter what happens in Germany, if you’ve taken out insurance, you will be protected from financial loss.
Some of the types of insurance you’ll find are:
You may be familiar with some of these already. When you’re in Germany, it’s common to have all of the above where it applies to your personal circumstances (such as owning a dog).
Residents’ Registration (Anmeldung)
Every resident in Germany needs to be registered; this includes both nationals and those who have moved to Germany from another country. Your registration needs to be updated every time you move, and also if you leave Germany.
The registration process is carried out in person at your local town hall, the bürgeramt. You can usually find an online booking system for the registration appointment, which is known as the anmeldung.
You only have 14 days to complete your anmeldung or you could be fined. However, the waiting times for a bürgeramt appointment can be lengthy, sometimes running into months. It is possible to get a quicker slot if you call the bürgeramt as they reserve a handful of same-day appointments.
Completing your anmeldung isn’t just a matter of civic duty; it will also trigger a number of different processes. Your SCHUFA record is created after your anmeldung, and your tax ID will also be automatically generated.
When you complete your registration, you will be given a certificate. This certificate is often requested by landlords and is needed to open a bank account.
Read more: Guide: Residence Registration in Germany, aka the Anmeldung
Understanding German Healthcare and Insurance
Healthcare in Germany is a combination of public and private healthcare, depending on your circumstances and earnings. Everyone contributes to the system, with the amount directly linked to your income.
If you earn below a certain amount, you qualify for public healthcare and cannot opt-out to receive private healthcare instead. Once your earnings are above a certain level, you can either choose to remain in the public healthcare system or opt to switch to the private healthcare system instead.
In general, the standard of healthcare provided by both the public and private healthcare system is excellent.
Private Liability Insurance – Do I Need It?
Private liability insurance is something that is considered to be vital in Germany, even though it’s not legally enforced.
The law does expect anyone who causes damage or injury to compensate the other party for distress and loss. This is enforced quite robustly in Germany, which is why it is considered essential to have personal liability insurance.
This type of cover protects you from having to pay costs for any damage or injury that you caused accidentally. It includes both direct and indirect costs, both of which you would be liable for under German law.
Imagine a scenario where you tripped and accidentally dropped a glass of water on a laptop. You would have to pay for the laptop to be replaced or repaired.
However, if that laptop also contained a valuable file which was vital for a contract, you would also be liable to cover the losses in the contract. This is known as an indirect loss.
As this example shows, it is very easy for costs to rapidly mount up, running into many thousands of euros, if not more.
Personal liability insurance covers these costs and protects you from becoming bankrupt following a simple trip.
Open Your German Bank Account
It’s almost impossible to navigate modern life without a bank account. In Germany, you will have the choice of a number of different banks. Picking a bank can seem difficult but look for features that are important to you, such as English-speaking customer service and online accessibility.
You will need to provide proof of your ID and address to open an account. In some cases, this can be done electronically by using a webcam. In other cases, you will need to visit either a post office or your local branch to complete the process. One of the documents you will be asked for is your SCHUFA. If you are new to Germany, a blank SCHUFA record means you could be turned down for a standard bank account.
There are alternatives, such as an account with N26. They are an online bank but provide all the services you need, even if you don’t have a SCHUFA score. Even with a good SCHUFA score, N26 is a popular choice with ex-pats as it offers services in English and dedicated accounts for freelancers.
Read more: How to Open a Bank Account in Germany
Do I Need a German Driving License?
You can only hold one EU driving license at any time, so if you’ve arrived from elsewhere in the EU, you can continue driving on your existing license until it expires. It can be changed for a German license if you want, but there’s no legal requirement.
If you’ve traveled from outside the EU, the rules depend on which country you got your license in. Germany has a reciprocal agreement with many countries, which means you can continue to drive for up to six months in Germany on your existing license. After this time, you will be required to apply to convert to a German license. Quite often, this is possible with no further testing.
The countries that don’t have a reciprocal agreement with Germany will need to apply for a German driving license as soon as they arrive. They may also have to have lessons and/or sit a test to be granted a license.
Starting Your New Life
Once you have organized all your essentials, and you have your home, you can start to explore what’s around you and begin to settle down. You might have lots more on your to-do list, as your new life in Germany begins in earnest.
Integration Courses and Learning German
Learning German isn’t absolutely vital, but your life will be so much easier if you speak at least some of the language. Although English is spoken by many, it’s not used everywhere and many services are only offered in German.
Being able to exchange basic pleasantries or ask for essentials in German is much easier to learn than you think, and could make a big difference. For those who are working, being able to converse in German will help immeasurably.
Many language schools in Germany cater to those who are new to the German language. With courses geared explicitly towards integration in German life, you can quickly learn phrases that will be of practical use. You can take this learning as far as you want.
If you hope to become fluent in the German language, there are many courses which will support you the whole way.
Germany for Children: Schools and Kindergartens
Children in Germany must spend a minimum of nine years in education, which typically begins at 6 years of age. You cannot choose to home-school in Germany.
There are plenty of schools in the towns and cities in Germany, typically around three within walking distance of your home. Schools are not ranked or given a rating which is accessible by the public. There is the general expectations that all schools will be of a high standard, and this is usually the case.
Commuting, Travel and Public Transport
Although you might initially be planning on driving when you get to Germany, it’s worth considering other alternatives. There is an excellent public transport system in Germany which is clean, punctual and safe. You can even travel with your pets on public transport, although you will have to purchase a ticket.
If you’re not planning on traveling long distances regularly, you might want to consider skipping the car and opting for a combination of bike and public transport, especially in the cities.
Read more: Public Transport, Bikes and Cars in Germany
The German Tax System
No-one wants to pay taxes, but they’re an essential responsibility for everyone. When you register your address in Germany, a tax ID will be automatically generated. Your employer will use this to ensure that the correct amount of tax is deducted. Those who are self-employed will need to register with their local tax office to get an additional reference which will enable them to complete a tax return.
If you are employed, you don’t need to complete a tax return unless you believe you have overpaid tax. Many Germans choose to complete a tax return as it’s an efficient way to check you are paying the correct level of contributions.
Read more: German Tax System – Brief Guide
German Public Holidays and Important Dates
In Germany, there are national and regional public holidays, and you’ll need to know about both. Shops and services might be shut or close early on these days, or there may be local celebrations. Unlike elsewhere, if a public holiday falls on a weekend, it’s not automatically transferred to a weekday. That means the impact of these days may be more in some years than others.
In addition to the public holidays, there are other days which are important in Germany. This includes the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the National Day of Mourning. The latter remember all victims of war, and in some provinces, dancing and musical events are prohibited on the day.
Internet, Mobile and TV
Standard German TV is all in German language and probably won’t have your favorite shows.
Having cable or satellite provides much more choice as well as including English-speaking TV. This is a cost that’s not typically included in your monthly rental and will need to be agreed separately.
If you’re in an apartment, your landlord may already have a dish installed, so joining an existing account may be possible. If you’re renting a home, you will have to organize your own dish to be installed, but don’t forget to ask your landlord for permission.
Having a mobile phone is essential in Germany as it means you can be easily reached for job offers, as well as being able to talk to family back home. Both contract and pay-as-you-go are available, but don’t forget to check the operator’s coverage in your area.