Emigrating to Germany is an utterly bewildering process, made much more so by the fact that you are constantly receiving important documents dense with words you can’t read! It’s full of confusing mail, contradictory instructions, and procedures that you can’t possibly follow properly.
So sit down, strap in, and hold on to your Lederhosen, because we’re going for a ride!
NOTE This article describes my perspective doing this as an American. Obviously, if you’re a European citizen, the process is going to be a hell of a lot easier. If you’re not from a former British colony, it might be a bit more difficult ;)
Note: None of this should be construed as legal advice. You should get an immigration lawyer or relocation agent, especially if you do not have an employer who is handling the paperwork for you. It will be ENTIRELY in German, and pretty impossible to parse without help.
How to get a German work visa
If you’ve read my about page, you might remember that I moved to Germany on a month’s notice with absolute minimal preparation — but I did have something which few people do have before heading abroad: a contract.
Here, I’ll advocate that it’s easier for you to come to Germany and plan to stay on the standard three-month Schengen visa that is offered to US citizens, and apply for jobs shortly before, and while you are here. This is based on my experience spending a lot of time on the other side of the table with my current employer — reading resumés, trying to weed out the casual candidates, considering the costs if the whole thing doesn’t pan out. It’s a lot more compelling if a candidate can say, “I’m here, I’m ready, I can start tomorrow.”
That said, it’s not impossible to secure a job before moving over. But you will have an uphill battle convincing your employer that you’re that much more valuable than a local candidate.
At all of these steps, it is highly valuable to have a German-speaker with you, if you do not speak German. You might think that Europeans all speak English, plus a smattering of French — you’d be wrong. Many of the older Germans in these bureaucratic positions learned Russian in school, not English. So don’t expect a word of English.
Step 0. Fly to Europe (and bring your documents)
It is much easier to land a job when you’re on the ground, and not a remote candidate. Local candidates are highly preferred, especially because you don’t have to pay them relocation costs. Of course, it’s possible (and advisable) to negotiate this as part of your salary.
Supplies you need to emigrate to Germany
- University diploma (not your transcript)
- Someone who reads German
- Scanner/photocopier to create and duplicate aaaaall your paperwork
- An enormous binder, to categorize and store all your new documents
- Passport-format photo, which can be taken at a photoautomat
Step 1. Get a contract
There are certain prerequisites for the kind of contract that qualifies you to work in Germany as a foreigner on a typical, working visa.
First, you need to make at least 38,688 euros per year if you are applying for a technical job. If you’re applying to a non-technical position in a German startup, your salary needs to be higher (over 46,000 euros, before taxes).
Second, your contract should be for more than one year (ideally, it’s an indefinite contract with no specific renewal date). If you get a contract without an end date, you can avoid going to the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigner’s Authority) on a yearly basis, for example.
Starting as a freelancer - is it worth it?
Your employer may want to hire you on as a contracter for the first month or two of your contract, so that you can start earlier. This is because there are less hoops to just through to do a short term contract. But of course, there are a couple of caveats here:
- Do NOT show a freelancing contract to the foreigners office, as they will assume you’re here short term, and will not want to grant you residency. Even if you end up with two contracts, just show them the permanent one.
- As a contractor, you are paid the full sum of the agreed amount. This means, it’s up to you to figure out your taxes on this amount and pay it at a later date.
- A freelancer contract itself is NOT sufficient for residency. If you’re looking to freelance, you have to apply for a special type of visa, known as an “artist” visa, which is different than what I have.
One of the interesting reasons that it’s not considered sufficient to have a freelancing contract and seek residency is because Germany is looking out for you. The general conception by the government is that people hiring freelancers are looking to skimp on paying their fair share of healthcare, social insurance, etc., thus preying on unsuspecting foreigners who just want a slice of the German dream.
My personal advice would be against starting as a freelancer just to work for an extra month while you’re doing the bureaucratic nonsense. If you can afford it, just take the time to adjust to daily life and get your bearings. Take an intensive German class or go flat-hunting full-time. Besides, it’s not a good sign if a company is desperately trying to get you to start working right away and cannot possibly survive a month without you.
However, if you do decide to start as a freelancer, or are generally looking for that process, read my post about how to get a German freelance visa for details based on my experience doing as a permanent resident.
Step 2. Prepare for the transition period
Make sure you bring enough money with you to survive without pay for at least two months. In Europe, paychecks are issued exclusively by direct deposit on a monthly basis. Even if you start in the beginning of the month, you could be waiting until the end of the next month for your first paycheck, depending on bureaucracy.
Also be aware that a typical bank transfer is a) expensive b) very slow. Traditional banks charge on both sides of the exchange, including a flat fee and a percentage fee. The transfer itself also takes nearly a week, depending on which day you initiate it.
One option is to open a Bank of America account before you leave, because they have a deal with Deutsche Bank for free transfers between accounts. If you can stomach how evil BoA is, it’s a good option. And you’re going to need to large sums of money to pay for your apartment’s security deposit.
Step 3. Fly to Europe, if you haven’t yet, and bring your documents
Save documents regarding the flight, as you can probably write the cost off of your US taxes as a work expense if your future employer isn’t paying for it.
Once you’re on the ground, you need to do some things, in a specific order:
- Find a flat
- Register your address
- Get a bank account
- Get health insurance
- Get a tax number
- Finally – apply for residency
At each of these steps, you will obtain or request a document which is critical in filing your application for residency. Read on for details about how to complete each of these steps!
Step 4. Find a flat
There are a ton of resources for finding flats in Germany. You have a couple of main choices:
Option 1. Join a flatshare
It may come as a surprise if you’re a post-graduate American, but a lot of people well past university still have roommates. In German, it’s called a Wohngemeinschaft (WG, for short). You can save a lot of money on rent, utilities, and furniture by joining an existing flat. Often, flatshares will post online that they have a room available, and do interviews for potential roommates. Often, an apartment intended for flatsharing is specifically laid out to have lots of individual rooms and spacious common areas.
A flatshare is a good choice if you’re worried about meeting people, really want to immerse yourself in the German language, or are looking to live in a nice flat you couldn’t afford on your own.
Option 2. Rent a furnished flat
Furnished flats are not widely available per se, and will typically run 200 euros or so higher than an unfurnished flat. However, if you consider how much money you would have to spend to furnish a flat, the savings may not make up for it (you’ll need your own sofa, bed, tables, washer — it adds up to quite a sum, even if you’re being frugal). Sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to live somewhere where all the niceties are already supplied.
A furnished flat is a good idea if you’re not sure how long you’ll stay in the city, and don’t want the hassle of moving a ton of stuff or accumulating possessions. It also immediately ups the quality of life when you’re not cooking every meal out of your one and only piece of IKEA cookware.
Option 3. Rent a non-furnished flat
Non-furnished flats are a mixed bag — they can come in a wide variety of states: with or without a kitchen, definitely missing light fixtures, you’ll have to install your own curtain rods. Hardware stores like OBI, Bauhaus, and Hellweg will be your new weekened destinations — or you’ll do it like me and live without a dinner table for 8 months after realizing that any nice dinner table is upwards of 400 euros.
A non-furnished flat is good for the minimalist (or someone with a lot of savings to burn) who plans to be in the country for at least a few years.
Websites to check out:
Legal tips for the German flat-rental process
It is your legal right to pay your deposit in three, equal installments for the first three months of your tenancy. German security deposits are 3x the base rent, so if your rent is 600 EUR per month before “extra costs” that get added, your security deposit will be 1,800 EUR. Landlords will understand that the exchange feeds are also unfavorable.
You are no longer obligated to pay a comission to the real estate agent if the landlord has listed the property through an agent. Believe it or not, the renter used to pay the comission to the real estate agent.
Don’t pay any extra money out of pocket to secure a flat. It’s probably just the landlord trying to make a quick buck by implying that the flat is highly sought-after. You will find one!
Do an intense inspection of the flat before you sign any documents which denote the damage. Don’t be embarrassed of taking pictures. You don’t want to rely on the kindness of the landlord when you’re moving out and a huge crack is discovered in a bathroom tile, that you’ve never noticed. Often, contracts will charge something insane like 20 EUR per cracked tile to replace them.
Ask a native speaker to read very carefully over your rental contract. These are often full of “gotchas”, and you should absolutely ask to have it changed if you are not comfortable with it. Some gems from my current contract: my landlord may buy any furniture from me that I’ve put in the flat, if he likes it, and I’m not allowed to feed pigeons on the balcony.
Get that document!
At the end of it all, you’re going to make an appointment to visit a flat, look at it carefully, and ask if you can have it. When it’s all said and done, you’ll have your first ever German document.
Obtain document: Get a Mietvertrag (Rental contract), which is signed and dated by both yourself and your landlord.
Step 5. Register your address at the Bürgeramt
What would be a terrifying governmental overreach is completely normal in Germany: informing the city that you’ve moved in. Welcome to Europe.
Absolutely arrange for an appointment online, and block out the better part of the day because you’ll probably have to wait. The paperwork you need to fill out is available online, and you should print it and fill it out before you arrive. Otherwise, they will definitely be grumpy with you.
Bring your rental contract (which they might not even check) as well as your passport.
What literally happens is that you fill out this paper by hand, and then the person at the desk types it into a system. They print it out, put a fancy stamp on it, and give you a copy. This copy is called an Anmeldungsbestätigung.
In Berlin, there are numerous Bürgeramt throughout the city, and you can make an appointment at the one closest to you. In smaller cities, there’s probably just one. You’ll be easily able to find it in google maps with a simple search.
Obtain document: Get an Anmeldungsbestätigung(schein) (Registration confirmation [sheet]).
Step 6. Open a German bank account
You can use the online banking service, Number 26, to open the bank account by video call from their mobile app in under 8 minutes. Have your passport handy. Unlike other German banks, their online banking is available in English.
Obtain document: You don’t get a specific document, but you’ll need the routing numbers so your German employer can direct deposit your paycheck!
Step 7. Sign up for health insurance
You have two main choices: public or private. “Public” insurance is partly subsidized by the government, but will still cost you a pretty penny (far more than if you got health insurance from your employer in the US as a single person, for example). But it’s still cheaper than private insurance – which, if you switch to it, you can never switch back to public insurance again. Germans often complain that privately-insured people have better access to doctors and other preferential treatment. I’ve only ever had public insurance and it works very well incomparison to the US health system, even if costing a much larger percent of my income.
Bring your work contract, so your health insurance provider knows who to hook up with, as well as all your identification documents and a passport-format photo.
Obtain document: Eventually, you will get a shiny insurance card in the mail with your picture on it. But what you need for your residency application is actually a special letter from the insurance company, stating when you began to have insurance with them.
Step 8. Get a Steuernummer (Tax ID)
This is largely equivalent to the American social security number. Once you’ve paid enough taxes in Germany, you’re eligible for some money once you retire. Chances are you won’t be working long enough to get anything significant, but I don’t think it’s possible to opt out.
At the Finanzamt, you will get a very special number on a very special piece of paper which you must never throw away. Share this number with your employer, so they know where to send half your paycheck.
TIP Presuming you’re not religious, make sure you OPT OUT of the church tax. This tax can amount to a few hundred euros a month, silently deducted from your income unless you put it to a stop.
Step 9. Getting the work visa
The funny thing is, you go through all these steps, and you basically assume that they’re going to give you a job. If you have all the correct paperwork, it’s highly unlikely they will deny you.
- Original passport, and a copy.
- Original employment contract, and a copy.
- Original rental contract, and a copy.
- Original registration at the buergeramt, and a copy.
- A passport format photograph, which can be taken at an automat.
- A letter from your health insurance, stating that you are insured. The card itself is not sufficient.
- The form provided by the Auslaenderbehorde itself.
Also bring your German debit card, because you’ll need to use it in a funny automat that takes over 100 EUR from you for the pleasure of dealing with German bureaucracy.
Wait 5 weeks, and you should receive a shiny residency card in the mail. This card has awesome benefits, like visiting a ton of museums for free in Paris, and being able to re-enter Germany.
Step 10. Changing jobs
In an ideal world, you moved to Germany, found the perfect job, and you are so totally satisfied with it that you never have to change jobs and one day you own the place! However, especially in the startup scene, it’s increasingly rare for people to spend more than 2-3 years in the same position. Changing jobs in Germany isn’t dramatic, but you have to know some unspoken rules to do it without a hitch.
The trial period
In Germany, both you and your employer are entitled to a “no questions asked” trial period of at least three months from the beginning of your contract, during which you can quit, or be fired, without notice. It’s not uncommon that this period is longer — my most recent contract had a six-month trial period.
This is theoretically designed to benefit both parties: You as the employee can decide if it’s a good fit for you, and the employer can decide if you’re a good fit for the company. It’s also possible for your employer to extend this time period, and tell you to shape up or you’ll lose your job at the end of it.
This is yet another reason why it’s advantageous to interview in Germany, rather than remotely. Your potential employer doesn’t have to worry about whether all the money it spends flying you out will go to waste. Unlike a big, well-established corporation, startups aren’t made of money, or are at least really good at pretending they’re not made of money.
In the event that you’re in Germany and you don’t find your dream job, it isn’t the end of the world if you take a job out of convenience. You are entitled to leave at any point during your trial period. Perhaps the biggest deterrant to this is the process of changing jobs, which is a pain in the arsch.
The process of changing employers in Germany
When I changed jobs about a year and a half ago, I did it totally wrong. The Frau at the Amt was pissed at me for doing things totally out of order, and whenever I told her a fact about my situation, she would tell me, “Nein, das hast du nicht." (No, you did not). So sassy!
Get a new contract. You do have a certain amount of time which can exist in between contracts, and it’s typical practice for employees to take some time off in between jobs. So don’t stress out about this aspect of changing jobs, just as long as you have all the proper paperwork (basically, you need to do all these steps again).
If your employer has started you on a temporary freelance contract, do not share this with the Auslanderbehorde. They don’t need to know about this, as it’s handled by the City’s work department.
If your job involves moving to a new city, do not inform them if you have already started living primarily in that new city. So long as they haven’t approved your new job, you aren’t allowed to transfer your primary residency. Just let them feel that way.
Go. with. a. German. native. If anything does go wrong (as it did with me), it’s an absolute nightmare to try to rectify things as someone who isn’t a native speaker. The vocabulary that the government workers employ is so formal and obscure, you won’t encounter it unless you are reading a translation of War and Peace in German.
Your new life
Moving abroad marks a huuuuge change! It takes a long time to adapt and start to feel like you’re really in your element – especially with the foreign language aspect. But in the end, the new friends, relationships, and experiences could never happen if you stay home :)
Feel free to ask questions in the comments, though the disclaimer stands: I can’t offer legal advice, and it’s up to you to independently verify the info I’ve shared before putting to the test. Good luck!