6 top tips for international students coming to Germany
Tempted by the lack of tuition fees, world-class higher education, stunning scenery and high quality of life, more and more international students are coming to study in Germany. Especially if this is the first time you’ve lived abroad, the start of term as an international student can be a nervy time. Here are six tips to help you settle into student life in Germany as quickly as possible.
1. Prepare yourself for a lot of paperwork
If you needed a visa to come to Germany in the first place, you’ve probably already discovered that the federal republic has a penchant for paperwork. From opening a blocked bank account to getting your qualifications officially recognised, there’s a lot you need to sort out in advance of coming to Germany.
Once you arrive, there’s even more admin that needs to be taken care of, from registering with your municipality to enrolling at your university and opening a bank account. You’ll find that lots of steps depend on other steps being completed first - for instance, you need health insurance (see below) before you can enrol, and you need to register before you can get health insurance, so make sure you work through the process methodically.
If you ever run into issues, the International Office at your university should be able to help you.
2. Try to sort your accommodation in advance
Finding somewhere to live is one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of moving to a new country. Since you’d much rather be focusing on your studies than flitting from flat-viewing to flat-viewing, you ideally want to get your student housing sorted before you arrive in Germany.
Students in Germany have a few options when it comes to accommodation: student halls of residence, private apartments and shared flats (a Wohngemeinschaft or WG). By far the majority live in shared housing - but competition for all three is tough, so it pays to start your search well in advance.
Especially if you are looking for a shared room in a flat, lots of WGs prefer to meet in person before choosing a new roommate. In this case, it can be an idea to sort out somewhere to live for a month or two (perhaps a hostel or a long-term let on Airbnb), to give you a base in Germany to start your house search from. Germans often sublet their homes when they go on holiday or longer trips, so this can be a good way to find a temporary home to start with.
3. Get health insurance
Before you are allowed to enrol at your university, you need to show proof that you are covered by some sort of health insurance. Sorting this should therefore be one of your first priorities when you know you’re coming to study in Germany. You may be able to use your foreign health insurance policy in Germany, or otherwise you’ll be required to take out student health insurance in Germany.
4. Support yourself with a job or a grant
Germany has a high standard of living, and while things like food and public transportation might seem cheap, depending on where you come from, other things - like housing - can quickly get quite expensive, especially if you’re living in one of the bigger German cities.
Plenty of students will need to find some means of supporting themselves financially. If you have a temporary residence permit to study in Germany, you are permitted to work up to 120 days (or 240 half days) per year, while EU students can work up to 20 hours per week in a midi- or mini-job (any more than this and you have to contribute to social security).
You should be able to find a job that fits around your studies. The best place to start your search would be your university careers centre, which may offer listings of student-friendly jobs.
Alternatively, you could see if you’re eligible for one of the many grants and scholarships offered to international students in Germany. If you’ve lived in Germany prior to starting your studies, you may also be entitled to claim BAföG, a kind of state funding for students.
5. Get familiar with akademische Viertelstunde, Scheinstudium and Akademisches Klopfen
Studying at a German university involves lots of quirks that might be unfamiliar to you as an international student. One thing that often throws people off at first is the “akademische Viertelstunde” - the practice of putting the timetabled start of a lecture 15 minutes before it actually starts, and the end 15 minutes after it actually ends. The idea is to allow everyone to get to and from classes in time. These classes should usually be listed with the abbreviation “c.t.” in your timetable; classes that start at the allotted time should be marked as “s.t.”. You’ll get used to it eventually!
At the end of a lecture (and perhaps in the middle, if the lecturer has made some really fascinating points!), you might see German students knocking on their desks, rather than clapping. “Academic knocking” (Akademisches Klopfen) is a tradition so old that no one is really sure why it’s done, although one suggestion is that it leaves your other hand free for taking notes.
One final quirk that will take some getting used to is German students’ laid-back attitude to class attendance - which is a stark contrast to the stereotypes about German punctuality! If you don’t show up to class, no one is going to care, or even notice. If you want to pass your exams, it’s down to you to put the time in.
On the flip side, however, you could embrace the very German attitude to studying and simply float through university at your own pace. You might finish your thesis one day, but then again, maybe not. It’s not unheard of for students to enrol for semester after semester and not attend a single class - after all, there’s no tuition fees, and with your semester fees you also get a six-month travel pass.
6. Try to learn some German
More and more universities in Germany are offering courses for international students in English, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that English is enough to get by in this country. Not only will it help with making friends and broadening your horizons, but picking up some of the local language will greatly ease your interactions with authorities, where staff can’t be depended upon to speak English.
Many German universities offer intensive German courses - either for free as part of their module options or as an evening class. This can be a very cost-effective way of learning. You could also choose to join a private German course in your free time.