Moving to Germany: A guide for expats

12.07.16
4 minute read
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With its excellent standard of living and thriving economy, it’s no surprise that Germany is such a popular destination for U.S. expats looking to work and live elsewhere in Europe. From party-loving Berlin to wealthy Munich, thousands of expats are making the German way of life their own.

Quick Facts About Germany

  • Population: 80.2 million
  • Most popular cities for expats: Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt
  • Currency: Euro
  • Official language: German
  • Main industries: Automotive; IT; Science & Technology; Engineering; Energy & Environmental Technology; Construction; Pharmaceutical & Chemicals

What visas and paperwork do I need?

If you are from the EU or the UK, there are no restrictions on those citizens living and working in Germany. When you arrive and have a place to stay you will have to go through the “Anmeldung” process (register) at your local Bürgeramt (Citizen Registration Office). Without your Anmeldebestätigung (registration paper) you won’t be able to open a bank account, get a tax number or acquire health insurance. You are supposed to register within a few weeks of moving to the country.

However, if you're from the U.S. or outside of the EU, paperwork and visas will be a bit trickier. If you're looking to get a job or work visa in Germany, you may have some luck.

What's the cost of living?

This varies dramatically depending on where you're planning on living. From the cities most popular with expats, Munich is the most expensive, followed by Frankfurt. Although Berlin has cheaper rent than Hamburg or Düsseldorf, it was recently rated as more expensive for expats than either of those two cities. The Local (an English language German paper) has an interesting article with more information.

Many English speaking expats from other major countries generally find Germany to be very reasonable - especially in terms of accommodation. Number-crunching website Numbeo drills down into the detail of everyday cost of living, and you can filter by city to get a useful view of the specific places you are interested in.

How can I set up my finances?

There are very few reciprocal arrangements between German high street banks, so be careful who you decide to bank with as you'll probably be charged to use another bank’s ATM. Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank are the biggest banks and have branches in most towns. You'll need your registration papers in order to open an account - and many current accounts apply a monthly charge.

Once you've opened your German account, register with TransferWise in order to transfer money between your U.S. and German accounts without having to pay hefty bank fees.

How do I find and get work?

Germany has a strong and vibrant economy, with an unemployment rate of only 4.7% (as of July 2015). Industry is healthy, especially in the IT, science and technology and engineering sectors, and there are many multinational companies who employ American expats.

Some offices in the major cities, especially in Berlin (the “multi-kulti” city, as it's known in Germany due to its international population), are English speaking, but as a general rule you'll need to speak German in order to earn a decent salary. It's less of a necessity in some shortage industries such as IT however, and there are of course English-speaking opportunities in tourism and TEFL.

How do I find somewhere to live?

Unlike the U.S., Germany is a nation of renters, with one of the lowest rates of homeownership in the developed world. Only 41% of the population own their own home, and the figure is even lower in the cities. The law is very much on the side of the tenants as well - and, as German people stay in one apartment for a very long time, this means that landlords are unsurprisingly cautious about who they rent to. This can make life difficult for a U.S. expat with no credit or rental history in the country.

It's possible that you'll need to go through a Makler, or rental agent, who will take around two months deposit as payment for their services. You'll also need to pay around three months cold rent (the rent without monthly bills which are paid directly as part of your “warm” rent) as a deposit on your apartment. Like the U.S., most flats are unfurnished (you pay extra for a furnished flat) - to the extent that you often need to get appliances for your own kitchen.

What is the German education and school system like?

The German school system is very different than in America. Children attend Kindergarten until the age of six, at which point they start Grundschule. At secondary age, children are split into different types of school, depending on academic achievement - and the different routes they take at this point can hugely influence their options later in life. Education is highly prized in Germany. The country boasts a highly educated workforce with a large proportion of people holding a Masters level degree - and a very high (to outside eyes) proportion of PhDs.

What about German healthcare?

Germany’s healthcare system is well-funded, of a high standard and very efficient. Health insurance is compulsory. If you're working then your insurance will be paid directly from your salary (half from your pay and half by your employer). If you're unemployed and claiming benefits, then the state pays it for you. Freelancers and business owners pay their own.

Other Useful Resources For Expats In Germany

Before moving abroad, take a look at our handy time-sensitive checklist to remind yourself of everything you need to do to get organised.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

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