Living in Germany as a foreigner: The ultimate guide
If you’re flirting with the idea of moving to Germany, then you’ve come to the right place. Like any country, living in Germany as a foreigner can have its pros and cons. It’s not all cheap beer and good work holidays, sometimes it is Berliner Schnauze and mind-boggling bureaucracy. Here’s the reality of life in Germany laid bare…
Living in Germany: The lowdown
Living in Germany as a foreigner could perhaps be summarised by the epithet, “There are lots of strict rules, but if you follow them you can live quite freely”. An example to illustrate this experience is the way that public transport works in Germany.
Public transport in Germany is relatively affordable, efficient and generally works on a trust basis, i.e. if you use transportation you will rarely have your ticket checked and there are no barriers at stations. However, if you are unlucky enough to get caught on the day your transport ticket runs out, or you forgot it at home, you are unlikely to get sympathy from unamused controllers and will be issued a hefty fine. This kind of give-and-take applies to many aspects of German society.
What is Germany like?
That depends who you ask! Broadly speaking, Germany is a peaceful country where life is pretty stable and the geographical landscape offers high mountains, large, great lakes and rivers, sprawling forests and white and windy beaches. Germans love spending time outdoors and doing activities, so you can expect a lot of that when you arrive.
Living in Germany as a foreigner
Your experience of living in Germany as a foreigner will vary greatly depending on where you live and how: for instance if you're in full-time work, if you are studying, if you're a full-time parent / caregiver, or something else.
Your experience will also depend on with whom you spend your time. You may be moving to Germany for love and will immerse yourself in the language, you may make friends with a large group of international people and only speak German intermittently, or you might be moving to a smaller city or town for a job and find yourself surrounded by only German speakers. In any case, your personal scenario will greatly shape your experience in Germany as a foreigner and how much you feel inclined to call this place home.
How at home you feel in Germany may also fluctuate over the course of your time there, but if there is one surefire way to feel like you are a part of German society, it is to take an active interest in what is going on around you. Think about what awakens your curiosity in your own culture, and find out more about how things work in the federal republic.
Do you need to know German to live in Germany?
Short answer: yes. When considering moving to Germany, many people expect German society to be similar to that of its northern European neighbours when it comes to attitudes towards English. When people arrive they are met with a very different story.
Unlike in the Netherlands or Denmark, where English is used in many settings, German is still very much the language of German bureaucracy and society. While you may hear English spoken by the younger generations in larger cities, you can expect to need German in any formal interaction, such as at the Bürgeramt, the doctor or with staff on public transport.
Learning German can be frustrating because it is a language with complicated grammar rules, but it is necessary if you want to get the most out of your time in Germany and you want to make life easier for yourself in the long run.
In the short term, it is best to practice a little bit of German before you make the move. Forget about the details of grammar for a bit, focus first on making yourself understood and learning vocabulary that will be helpful when you arrive. If you choose to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible, you will gradually train your ear and pick up lots in a short period. Who knows, you might even start to enjoy it!
Pros and cons of living in Germany
Germany has been called, variously, one of the best countries in the world for higher education, “tech-phobic and unfriendly”, the seventh-happiest country in the world and the hardest country to start a new life as an expat. In short, the reviews are in, it's a mixed bag and we’re here to take a look at the sweet and the sour in equal measure.
Reasons to move to Germany
First, the good stuff. “Why should I move to Germany”, you ask? Here are some benefits of living in Germany:
Quality of life
In the past five years, Germany has usually ranked somewhere in the teens to as high as third place in quality of life rankings, which normally consider factors like purchasing power, pollution, the ratio of house prices to incomes, cost of living, safety, healthcare, traffic commute time and climate.
Germany has no fewer than 2.055 cities, which house around 77 percent of the country’s population of 83,2 million people. While these cities are often considered some of the best places to live in the world, international people often comment that while working life is good in Germany, socialising has its shortcomings. But zooming out, the quality of life in Germany is generally pretty good.
Cost of living
Over the past few years, the cost of living in Germany has changed quite a bit and things are starting to get more expensive. That said, this is the case for most countries in Europe, and compared to its EU neighbours, the cost of living in Germany sits somewhere in the middle, with Denmark being the most expensive country and Bulgaria the cheapest.
While rents have exploded in Germany, many activities, such as a trip to the swimming pool, a visit to a restaurant or a journey on public transport, are affordable. Germany also has good access to free public services such as libraries and lots of nice spaces to spend time outside, like play parks or lakes and beaches.
Holidays and time off work
People work a lot in Germany, but they also take holidays and time off very seriously. Full-time employees in Germany are entitled to a statutory minimum of 20 days of paid holiday per year, based on a five-day working week, or 25, based on a six-day working week.
Additionally, there are nine public holidays in all federal states, and each state has a few more localised ones. The state with the most public holidays is Bavaria, where you can count on 13 rest days per year. The other federal states have between 10 and 12 days per year.
If you have to work on one of these public holidays, you will receive 125 percent more pay for that day and if you don’t you can expect a truly relaxing time, where all the shops are closed and people take the opportunity to go on a day trip, go to a cafe or a museum.
According to 2021 statistics, 53 percent of people in Germany rent their homes rather than own them, the highest percentage of all the EU member states. While finding a place to live in Germany is hard, you can benefit from the country’s extensive tenants’ rights, especially when you have a contract under your own name.
Legally, your landlord cannot increase your rent within the first 12 months of your tenancy, or by more than 20 percent over a three-year period. Some landlords, therefore, charge “stepped rent” (Staffelmiete), that increases gradually over time. A schedule for any rent increases will be included in your tenancy agreement. It is worth noting that, if your landlord charges you stepped rent, additional rent increases are not permitted.
That said, many landlords find loopholes or charge illegally high rent to people who might not be aware that they are paying too much. For that reason, and many more, it is always advisable to join your local tenants’ association (Mieterverein), for a low monthly fee they will give you free legal advice if you come into any problems while renting.
Maternity leave, parental leave and Elterngeld
If you’re at the age where you thinking of starting a family, Germany is a good place to get settled, at least until you have to look for a midwife or a space at a Kita - those are hard to come by these days.
Maternity leave is 14 weeks in Germany, for those from the US that will seem very generous, but for those from Bulgaria (they get 84 weeks paid leave), it will seem a bit stingey. What Germany should be credited for, however, is parental leave or “Elternzeit”.
Elternzeit is a legal entitlement to time off work, given to both parents. Parents are free to decide how much parental leave they wish to take. It can be taken anytime between your child’s birth and their third birthday or saved up, for up to 24 months of parental leave to use at any point between your child’s second and seventh birthdays, as long as your employer gives permission.
You and your partner can take parental leave simultaneously or separately, and while taking parental leave, you can also claim the parental allowance (Elterngeld), to mitigate your loss of earnings.
A never-ending nightlife
Germany loves a party. Across the world, Berlin is known for its anything-goes nightlife, and during summer in the capital, it is possible to find a party no matter what the day of the week or time.
While Berlin is the crown jewel when it comes to the German nightlife scene, there is a good night out to be found all across the country. With relatively relaxed rules about licencing and a penchant for a DIY atmosphere, the German dancing scene can quickly whip up a good time.
That said, getting into a club in Germany can be a little on the pricier side, but you will be able to stay there until your body says, “Please, I'm begging you, it's time for food and sleep”. And if you aren’t up for such a physically demanding night out, Germany’s bustling bars and restaurants - which often stay open until the wee hours - are a great alternative.
Cons of living in Germany
And for balance, onto the sour. Here are some disadvantages of living in Germany:
This is another that will burst your efficient Deutschland bubble; bureaucracy is extremely slow in Germany and almost everything is printed out on paper. Worker shortages in the public sector mean that the situation is pretty dire. The head of Berlin’s Foreigners’ Office (Ausländerbehörde), which you will have to visit to get a residence permit if you are a non-EU citizen, has admitted that the office is “nigh dysfunctional” due to a dearth of staff.
This sluggish speed happens across the board when it comes to administrative procedures. Many people wait years to have their application for a German passport accepted, and according to a documentary by ZDFinfo, while the digitisation of student loan applications in Germany was lauded a few years back, administrative employees still spend an average of four hours each day printing out the applications they received by email. Yes, that is correct.
Difficult to find somewhere to live
Without beating about the bush, Germany is in its worst housing crisis in 20 years. With an ageing population, Germany desperately needs more people to come and work in the country, but in the past few years, it hasn’t done so well at thinking about where all these people are going to live.
Rising rents in all major cities and increasing construction costs mean that it is very hard to find affordable, long-term accommodation in Germany. If you are planning to move to one of the big cities or their surrounding areas, it is best to find short-term accommodation or sublet for when you arrive, which you can use as a base while you look for something more permanent.
The lack of spontaneous socialising
In many countries across the world, it is considered fairly normal, if not welcomed, to drop by your friends’ houses spontaneously, perhaps stay for a cup of tea or even dinner. This is not so much the case in Germany.
The German word “verabredet” says it all. While to be verabredet is similar to the English terms “to be socially engaged”, “to have plans” or “to have an appointment”, the ubiquity of the all-inclusive term tells us something about approaches to socialising in Germany. Most socialising usually requires making plans weeks, if not months, in advance, likely making a booking and sticking to the plans.
Healthcare costs, bedside manner and waiting for appointments
Depending on which country you come from the quality of healthcare in Germany could be listed as a pro or a con. In Germany, everyone is legally obliged to pay for statutory or private healthcare coverage. Since you must earn over 66.600 euros per year (in 2023) to opt for private health insurance, most people are covered by statutory health insurance.
Statutory insurance companies all charge the same basic rate of 14,6% of your gross salary. This contribution is split equally between you and your employer (7,3% each) and topped up with government subsidies. Freelancers, however, must foot the bill themselves. For some people, this may seem like a lot, and for others, it will seem like excellent care.
Another thing to mention is that while healthcare is relatively affordable in Germany, on top of their insurance, patients have to pay for most prescriptions, including contraception. And since the German healthcare system is stretched for staff, it can often take weeks to get a doctor’s appointment and take months to be referred to a specialist. Once you get in the doctor’s office, let's just say they aren’t known for their bedside manner and tend to prescribe lots of tea drinking.
Internet connection is bad and don’t expect help when it's down
While it is true that Germany is a technological powerhouse, that applies to way back when cars and hoovers were wowing everyone rather than the age of the internet. They still make better hoovers and washing machines than everyone else, but they’ve not exactly grabbed the internet by the horns.
Internet coverage in Germany is among the worst in the EU, only every fifth household in Germany is lucky enough to have a fibre-optic connection. And when it comes to eastern Germany, only 40 percent of households have a broadband internet connection. The situation is so bad that the German Economic Institute has claimed that poor connectivity is damaging the country’s economy.
This brings us to another, related con, since customer service is infamously poor in Germany, you can expect little help when it comes to solving your internet problems. So when you've been listening to a crackly rendition of Bach while on hold for 45 minutes, remember, "Der Kunde ist König aber Deutschland ist eine Republik" (The customer is king but Germany is a republic).
Is it worth moving to Germany?
That’s a big question! Whatever your reflections after reading this long list, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!
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