10 Frustrating Aspects of Life in Germany for Newcomers
1. Banks Close For Lunch
I know, crazy isn’t it? How does anyone other than the unemployed, old age pensioners and stay-at-home parents get anything done?! It does make me wonder how normal working Germans dealt with their banks before the age of internet banking. This sadly is a general theme of life in Germany for newcomers to get used to. The customer is not king. Also think again if you’re planning to pop into the bank on a Saturday morning. It will be closed. On the positive side, there are lots of extremely competent German internet banking sites. Another plus is that their customer service if you need to call them is actually located in Germany and is usually extremely helpful and competent.
2. Cash Is Still (Usually) King
Only VERY RECENTLY did major supermarkets Aldi and Lidl start accepting credit cards. Ikea still doesn’t. The vast majority of restaurants don’t. Ticket machines for local public transport in most cities don’t. Encouragingly, there are, slowly but surely, some restaurants and specialist shops who understand that giving a customer the option will increase the chances of him returning. It costs around 2-3% to accept credit cards, depending on merchant and provider. Why would any establishment knowingly and deliberately refuse to offer the option? Especially multinational corporations. What are their Chief Marketing Officers thinking? It is completely beyond the grasp of the way a savvy business or commerce person should think. If a business owner had, say, a moral issue with the credit card company charges being subsidised by non-CC paying customers, then charge a 1€ surcharge or % fee and be transparent about it. Give your customer choice and you will increase your revenue. Easy.
Anyway, rant over. The reason for this is that debt and credit are still dirty words here, which can make life in Germany for newcomers somewhat of a challenge. From the experiences of hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic of the early 1920s, living within your means is deeply ingrained into German society. A credit card is still seen as a debt vehicle rather than a convenient way of paying for stuff. In fact, most credit cards issued by German banks are just glorified debit cards which are automatically paid off at the end of each calendar month.
3. Pedestrians And Road Traffic Both Simultaneously Have Green
This was a completely alien concept to me and almost resulted in me running over some poor, unsuspecting pedestrians. Now, whereas numbers 1 and 2 are completely incomprehensible to me, this one is really just an inconvenience that takes a bit of getting used to! So you’re a motorist about to turn right. The lights have just turned to green and you proceed, completely unaware that the pedestrian crossing in the street you are just about to turn right into also has green, and thus, the pedestrians crossing the street have right of way over you as the driver of a vehicle. In the UK, if pedestrians have green, then no traffic also has green simultaneously. On the positive side, this means the red cycle is shorter and you won’t get stuck as long at red lights, whether as a pedestrian or a motorist. The downside is that it definitely takes a while to get used to this, especially for us Brits who are at the same time also mastering changing gear with the “wrong hand” and driving on the other side of the road.
4. Home Internet Connection Often Takes Several Weeks
It took me about 4 weeks. My colleagues and peers who had lived here for a while were astonished at how quick I had been connected. This kind of goes back to the point of poor service being much more readily tolerated by German customers. It is here also influenced by Deutsche Telekom still owning and operating the phone network. Deutsche Telekom is the former state telecommunications monopoly. What this means in practical terms is that any third party provider has to arrange, i.e. rent, a landline connection through Deutsche Telekom before they can connect your broadband. Your phone provider will bill you all of this on one invoice, so you will not have to transact with Telekom. On the plus side, depending on where you have come from and where in Germany you are living, the Internet connection here will probably be considerably quicker than back home. Fibre-optic broadband is available in most major urban areas.
5. No Health Insurance, No Payslip!
Germany has a public health insurance system which everyone is entitled to join. However, this is not a universal provider like the NHS is in the UK. There are several “public” insurance companies (Gesetzliche Krankenkassen), each slightly different in their offerings, which you have to formally join. I remember on my first day in my new job when I moved to Germany, my HR department asked me if I had already sorted out my health insurance. “What?”, I said. “Don’t you just deduct it from my salary?”. Apparently not. I then received a list of around 20 possible public insurance companies which I could choose from. There is also the option of private insurance if you earn over €54,900 gross per year (2015). The pros and cons of public vs. private insurance are too diverse and dependent upon the individual’s circumstances to cover in this post. The moral of the story is, do your research and use comparison websites such as CHECK 24.
The frustrating thing is, your employer can’t pay you until you have health insurance because the way the system works, the employer and employee both contribute to the cost. Practically speaking, what this means is that from your first day, you have about 2-3 weeks to get this sorted before your company HR process your first month’s payslip. Which, when you don’t have the faintest clue how the system works, can be more than a bit daunting! This topic will be explained in more detail in my upcoming e-book.
6. Landlords Demand 3 Months’ Rent As Deposit
Yes, that’s right folks. If you’re lucky you may get away with 2 or 2.5 but in most cases your landlord will want you to stump up 3 months’ rent as a deposit, making life in Germany for newcomers an expensive prospect at the very beginning. Not only that, but you will almost certainly have to buy light fittings, curtain rails and white goods too. Unfurnished literally means that. Including the KITCHEN! Although this is usually negotiable for smaller apartments and can often be purchased from the previous tenant for convenience. Let’s face it: How many tenants would want to take their existing kitchen to a new apartment, knowing that it probably won’t fit? In major cities and university towns, it is much more common to find apartments with existing kitchens because landlords know they are usually easier to rent and can command a small premium for the convenience.
7. Your First Winter Will Be Tough
This may sound obvious but if you have moved to Germany just before the onset of Winter, it will feel especially tough. Life in Germany is wonderful in the Summer. The whole place comes to life and there is literally a festival every weekend in some or other town in your vicinity. Winter is harsh though. People just seem to hibernate and come out again at the end of March. It’s dark when you leave to commute to work and it’s dark when you get home. If you haven’t made many contacts yet, don’t despair. Spring will be along soon enough. Get down to the Alps and learn to ski to keep yourself busy!
8. Everything is Closed on Sundays
Apart from cafes, bars, restaurants, bakeries, petrol stations and small kiosks. So, if you actually need to buy something useful, for example the carton of milk you forgot was empty and now are facing the start of a day with no cup of tea….you’re going to have to wait until Monday morning until the supermarket opens. Any shopping facilities in train stations are exempt from this law but there is rarely anything resembling a well-stocked supermarket, with one or two exceptions (Leipzig has a shopping mall directly in the main station).
This law does have its positives and I can see why it is there to encourage people to “do something” with their Sunday instead of walking around shops. I can’t help thinking though that by allowing just supermarkets…not the whole city centre or shopping mall…to open for 3 or 4 hours on a Sunday morning would boost the economy whilst not inconveniencing anybody who wants to spend Sunday with their family. Until this utopian moment when common sense triumphs over big government, you’ll have to spend that nice sunny Saturday doing your shopping, safe in the knowledge that rain is forecast the next day when you planned to go hiking or on a bike tour. Or you could just go to the pub….which is open.
9. Tradesmen Are Not As Flexible
Certainly my experience has been that skilled tradesmen are pretty difficult to get hold of and it will probably take a couple of weeks before you can get an appointment. It’s probably a lot different out in the countryside and in smaller towns but in large, metropolitan areas there seems to be more work than there are tradesmen. In practical terms, this means higher prices and longer waits to get things done, especially if you just want something simple fixed. The “I’ll just pop round tomorrow after lunch mate and do that quickly before my next job” kind of attitude doesn’t really exist. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer “one man with a van type” businesses. Just don’t expect that light fitting, intercom, thermostat and the like to be installed within a couple of days. Oh, and you’ll probably have a heart attack when you receive the invoice!
10. Evergreen Contracts Are The Norm
What is an Evergreen Contract, I hear you ask? It’s a contract which automatically renews unless you cancel it and thus is firmly in the vendor’s favour. Worse still, often in the small print you are bound by legalese which only allows you to terminate the contract once per year! It is extremely rare for the customer to have the right to terminate at any time for convenience. This is a concept which is completely alien to most English speaking countries but is perfectly normal in Germany (and Austria & Switzerland). At first I thought it was a scam because my first experience of it was with a small gym in the city where I live. Then I noticed it on my car insurance, Bahn Card, mobile phone contract and so on. There is one easy way around this (other than crossing it out of the contract before you sign, which may work with a smallish business but almost certainly won’t with Deutsche Bahn or Vodafone!). When you receive your confirmation of the contract you have just signed, immediately send them a termination notice. Legally they then can’t debit you for a contract renewal the following year that you unsuspectingly signed up for. Make sure you also receive an acknowledgement email or letter confirming the non-renewal.
If you have lived in Germany for a while, or have recently arrived and have experienced other challenges to your new life over here which didn’t make my Top 10, I would love to know what they are. Please comment and share your experiences!