Germany may be famed for efficiency, but when it comes to bureaucracy, this couldn’t be further from the truth!
With that in mind, let’s tackle the basics of the dreaded bureaucracy, and arm you as best we can against this monumental pile of administrative hassle…
Life in Germany for Newbie Expats: The Dreaded Bureaucracy
A word of warning: German bureaucrats in city hall or government departments don’t speak English. Not because they don’t want to, but because by law, Amtssprache (official civic language) is Deutsch.
If you have complex issues you need to solve, take a German speaker along with you. If you don’t need an expert and just need somebody who speaks the language to help translate for you, then Facebook Groups are a great place to look.
The list below is in rough chronological order (first to last) of when you need to tackle it. You should, however, try to do all of this during your first 100 days of your new life in Germany, if at all possible!
Anmeldung should be the very first thing you should do upon moving into your new place. It’s a legal requirement to register your address within 14 days of moving into your new accommodation.
This is done at your local Bürgerbüro / Bürgeramt – rough translation: residents’ office. In some areas, this may still be referred to as the Einwohnermeldeamt. In Bavaria, this is known as the Kreisverwaltungsrat or KWR for short.
You’ll need your registration certificate (Meldebescheinigung) from this process, along with your ID, to deal with pretty much all other aspects of officialdom, so make this your first task!
Registering is fairly simple if you’re an EU citizen, and shouldn’t take much over half an hour. If you’re non-EU, you’ll have to visit the Ausländerbehörde (administrative office for foreigners) in your place of residence as well. They are also the office that deals with all things visa and residence permit related.
Either way, you’ll need to have your passport and proof of your new address with you.
Note that you still need to register, even if you’re living with a friend or family member who is already resident. The same goes for if you’re subletting.
You don’t need to register, however, if you’re staying in official tourist accommodation like a serviced apartment or an Airbnb for the very short-term.
For a hassle-free experience I would highly recommend MyGermanExpert. They offer forms translated into English and instructions on how to complete them, and their service is free. This service from them is now available for all German cities.
Beware of Church Tax!
The Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as Jewish denominations, are still legally empowered to collect taxes from their members.
This tax is administered by the Finanzamt, which in turn takes a small administration fee from the sums collected. Payment is collected through the standard pay-as-you-earn income tax model.
Don’t be too concerned though, because you can opt out of church tax. You do so during registration (Anmeldung), where it is crucial that you do not declare your religious denomination.
If you missed this step at registration, you can still opt out at a later date by rescinding your denomination. Be warned though that this will require another trip to whichever office you visited for your Anmeldung, and will also require a fair amount of additional admin legwork.
You’ll need to bring along your passport, and marriage certificate if you have one. There’s usually a fee involved, too. Though the exact details of this process can vary between regions, there’s usually a fee of around €30.
At the end of the process, you’ll receive an official piece of paper declaring your exit from the church (Kirchenaustritt). Be sure to keep hold of this as proof.
Germany operates on an insurance-based system.
Health insurance is obligatory, and Germany’s social system pays health insurance contributions for those who can’t afford to pay, or who don’t have a working spouse in the case of married couples.
Medical professionals work for private, for-profit companies. There are a myriad of health insurance providers (Krankenkassen) as well as private health insurers (Privater Krankenversicherer, or PKV for short). To a newbie, the German healthcare system is confusing beyond belief.
For anyone who is familiar with the British NHS and the US healthcare system, a very simple comparison is that the German system tries, with varying degrees of success, to take the best from both of these very extreme models of healthcare provision.
Your payroll department at work won’t be able to pay you without details of your insurance scheme. This is because your employer is obliged to pay contributions towards your statutory healthcare costs. This one catches expats out all the time because it’s one of the most complex topics to tackle. Nonetheless, it requires action as one of the first things you must accomplish upon securing a job.
If you choose public insurance, the total payment is calculated as 14.6% of your gross monthly salary. Your employer will contribute half of this, and the other half is paid directly from your salary into the public insurance company.
If you’re self employed, it’s your choice whether to opt out and take a private health insurance policy, or pay into the public health system.
For employees, however, opting out and going private is only available to those earning a gross salary of over €60,750 per annum (2019). Private insurance premiums are based on risk, as opposed to the public system which is funded by a percentage of your salary.
Public health insurance will cover all your basic requirements, but doesn’t cover non-essential medical requirements like dental care, cosmetic surgery or physiotherapy. It may come at a price, but in general the quality of healthcare in Germany is extremely high.
Choosing between the various public health insurance can seem like a bewildering and mind-boggling induction into life in Germany. We’ve selected two of them here which we recommend thanks to their expat-friendly – i.e. English – sign-up process and correspondence.
Opening a German Bank Account
In Germany, a regular current account (or checking account in American English) is known as a Girokonto. To open an account, you’ll usually need your passport and proof of address. Some banks will also request proof of regular income.
If you’re having issues proving your address or employment status, you may want to consider online banking or one of the new wave of app-based banks. The most well-known and popular with foreigners is N26, especially because their App interface is also in English.
Due to restrictive opening hours (lunchtime closing…are you serious?!), there is no advantage of branch-based banking in Germany, especially for anyone who works regular office hours.
Online and app-based banks will need to verify your identity either via a video call where you scan your passport or ID card, or by verifying your identity at a local post office.
More in-depth detail on German bank accounts here!
The Rundfunkbeitrag: Germany’s Most Hated “Tax”
The Rundfunkbeitrag is essentially a license fee for public service broadcasting. It covers the cost of producing radio, television and online content from a number of publicly-funded bodies.
It’s proved very controversial, because this fee is absolutely compulsory, regardless of whether you consume any of the content it goes towards producing. At least in the UK, you can choose not to own a TV and opt out of the license fee. Life in Germany unfortunately doesn’t allow for this flexibility.
Sadly, the quality of German public service programming is poor. Other than using it as a great tool for learning German, TV in Germany is otherwise pretty dreadful.
You will receive a payment notice for this shortly after you do your Anmeldung. The administrative body behind this has access to records of all individuals who register their address in Germany, so they know who you are and where you live. The Rundfunkbeitrag costs €17.50 per month, per household. Non-payment leads to warnings, late fees, bailiffs, and all sorts of other hassles, so this is really not one to take a stand over, even if you disagree with having to pay.
Also be sure to de-register (Abmelden) before you leave Germany. I know someone who lived here, moved home, then returned to Germany 3 years later. Because she never de-registered, they came after her for 3 years’ worth of back payments!
Choosing a SIM card
Another quirk of German bureaucracy is that you need proof of address to buy a SIM card (that Meldebescheinigung really comes in handy…). But you can always ask a friend to buy one on your behalf if that’s a big obstacle for you.
There are 3 networks in Germany: T-Mobile, Vodafone and O2. All third-party resellers rent their airtime from one of these three. T-Mobile has the best overall coverage and O2 the worst. However, O2 does have the fastest data speeds and also by far the cheapest plans.
German mobile phone plans are generally more expensive than other EU countries, especially when it comes to data bundles. Compared to the US and Canada though you’ll find them cheap!
Contracts are usually for a minimum of 24 months with very little flexibility, so prepaid month-to-month plans are definitely highly recommended, even if that means paying a little more.
For best value for money and ease of signing up, we recommend winSIM which runs off the O2 network, or if you require better network coverage nationwide then go for Freenet, which runs off the Vodafone network.
Personal Liability Insurance
It’s very straightforward in Germany to sue for minor accidental damages caused by one individual unto another. Furthermore, many Germans have legal insurance, making it relatively easy to sue someone at will without the risk of being put off by prohibitively high legal costs.
That’s why it’s highly recommended to take out personal liability insurance. It costs less than €40 per year and through our partners at Coya, you can get full cover in a few minutes, with the entire application process in English.
An example of why this insurance is important:
You’re at a house party and you accidentally spill coffee or red wine onto your host’s expensive Persian rug. The host isn’t happy and (as is fairly typical, and not at all considered rude in Germany) demands you compensate him/her for the cleaning bill.
Your liability insurance would cover the cost, or worse still, the cost of a new rug if the stains can’t be removed.
Registering with a Doctor
It’s not a necessity to register with a German doctor, but it is highly advisable, especially if you want the reassurance of a medical professional who knows your medical history.
If you go to see a specialist or are admitted to hospital, the first question you will usually be asked is who is your Hausarzt (General Practitioner, or GP).
Some GP surgeries require an appointment to be made in advance, whereas others have a “walk-in” policy but these can mean long waits in busy urban areas. Most GP surgeries are open Monday to Friday but close for at least one afternoon a week (usually Wednesdays).
You will need to present your health insurance card to the receptionist. This is credit-card sized and contains a chip with your details on it. If you’re seeing the doctor for the first time, you may have to fill out a questionnaire detailing your medical history.
Publicly insured patients won’t receive a bill directly. This is instead invoiced to your insurance company. You’ll also have to pay a fee of €10 for your first doctor’s visit every quarter, which is usually payable in cash.
On the other hand, privately insured patients are expected to settle their bills directly with the surgery and then submit the invoice to your insurance company to be reimbursed.
Home Contents Insurance for your Apartment
I have to admit it took me almost a year to sort this out! But it needn’t. It’s a good job I didn’t have much that was valuable in my apartment at the time.
Hausratsversicherung is definitely recommended as something to arrange soon after you move in, especially if you live in a less affluent area of a major city, and definitely if you live on the ground floor (which is more susceptible to break-ins).
You can now get home contents insurance which can be cancelled with a month’s notice, and with all of the sign-up process in English, 100% online through our partners at Coya. Back in the day when I arranged mine, this was unheard of!
Obtaining a German Driving License
Regardless of where you’re from, the basic application process to change your license to a German one is much the same:
For non-EU citizens, your license is valid during the first 6 months of your residence in Germany, although some countries may require an international driving permit as well. After 6 months, to continue driving legally you’ll need to visit your local driving license office, or Führerscheinstelle in German, to get a German license.
Be advised that before you go, you’ll need to have a quite a few things ready to bring with you, some of which might be surprising. Here’s a list of the essentials:
- One photograph, 35 x 45mm.
- A valid driving license from your country of origin.
- A certified German translation of that licence.
- Your passport (or ID card if you’re from the EU).
- Proof of how long you’ve had your current license (if this isn’t on the licence itself).
- Recent proof that you’ve had your vision tested.
- Proof that you’ve completed a first aid course.
- Confirmation of your registration as a resident of Germany (Anmeldung).
- A base fee of EUR 40.
The exact details of the application process will differ, depending on your country of origin.
Even if you’re using a valid foreign license, be aware that you’ll still be subject to German licensing checks and regulations when it comes to things like speeding tickets, license suspensions and withdrawals. In case of serious penalties, you may be required to re-apply for a new German driving license via the official channels.
Once you’ve gathered the required materials and made your application you should expect to wait at least three to six weeks for your license to arrive.
Now we’ve navigated the gauntlet of German bureaucracy, it’s time for the final hurdle: Learning German.
And in case you were wondering, YES, you DO need to, despite some of the rubbish spouted to the contrary by some bloggers, YouTubers and comments in Facebook Groups.
Between Apps, Podcasts, and YouTube creators, there’s a wealth of resources out there for absolutely free that will get you speaking German to a decent, basic standard without having to spend much money.
To step up a notch and go for personal 1-on-1 tuition, the tutoring marketplace italki is a fantastic place to start. If you’re serious and want to get certified, then Lingoda is your cheapest, most flexible option and is 100% online (they’re a German company, too!)
Our YouTube channel has videos which walk through all these options.
Both of the above are cheaper and, in my opinion, much more effective than classes at your local adult education centre (Volkshochschule in German). These typically cost around €100 – €150 per semester.
The quality of the courses tend to be more dependent on your fellow attendees and their willingness to learn (welfare claimants who don’t speak German are sent onto these courses to give them the language skills to find work), rather than the standard of teaching.
So, there you have it!
Everything you need to get done during your first few months in Germany. If there’s anything you think is also a must-have that we’ve not included, we’d love to hear your suggestions.
If you’re looking for some more professional (virtual) support with your relocation and settling in, then we’re ready and able to help you with your move and guide you through some of the administrative headaches of relocating to a new country.
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