Just landed in Germany, or about to make the move and are wondering what lies in wait for you when you get there?
We’ve put together 9 things which are common frustrations of life in Germany for newcomers.
Now, before we start, there are loads of things about Germany that are GREAT. In fact, we’ve covered 15 of our favourites here.
Life isn’t all roses though, and some things in Germany are done differently to your home country.
Being prepared for these means you’re less likely to be overwhelmed or bewildered, and your path to establishing your new life in Germany should contain a few less nasty surprises!
Check out our FREE E-BOOK for a more practical list of things you’ll need to cover or consider when moving to Germany.
9 Frustrating Aspects of Life in Germany for Newcomers
1. The love of “snail mail”
I know, crazy isn’t it?
In the year 2020, most correspondence you will have with your health insurance, employer, utilities provider, other insurance companies, local municipality, your apartment block’s management company (Hausverwaltung) and many more will still be via the traditional letter, sent in the post.
While disruptive startups are making inroads into digitising a number of these, notably banking and insurance, most of the others remain resolutely old school.
Now, there is certainly more opportunity to perform certain tasks via email or online these days than there was when I moved to Germany in 2006, but nonetheless, you should still expect to receive a LOT of letters.
Having an address you can receive post at is absolutely vital if you’re going to be living in temporary accommodation for the first couple of months.
Also, ensure that sure your name is clearly visible on your letterbox when you move into your first apartment.
2. Cash Culture
Germany has been very slow to embrace payment by debit and credit card.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, this has started to accelerate the change but nonetheless, a LOT of small businesses in Germany are still cash only, especially in the gastronomy sector.
Large businesses such as supermarkets, department stores, DIY stores and Deutsche Bahn now all accept major credit cards. Some of them were notable however in not doing so just 5 years ago.
If you’ve spent time in Scandinavia where cash is hardly used at all, it can seem very backwards if you’re out for dinner in Berlin and find yourself having to walk 10 blocks to find a cash machine when you realise it’s cash only.
There are 2 issues here: Firstly, Germany’s banking system was developed using different technology and didn’t run off the international standard (Belgium and The Netherlands also developed their own too). Secondly, Germans are generally slower to embrace change and are usually not considered to be early adopters of new technology.
Again, this is starting to change with the increasing popularity of fintech app-based banks such as N26.
If you’re looking to get some background on why Germans are so stubbornly resistant to moving away from reliance on cash, we cover this in our article about German frugality and cash culture.
3. Planning and Rigidity
Germans are generally very organised people and like to plan both their professional and social lives. Spontaneity isn’t really a thing.
Adapt and get used to it. You’ll find it frustrating at first though, for sure!
This can manifest itself in a number of different frustrations:
- Insistence on following inefficient processes. Germans love their forms and paperwork!
- A different attitude to customer service, where the German way is more around following a process rather than being adaptable and flexible to satisfy the customer’s wants.
- Being expected to commit to social events (especially birthdays) often months in advance. If you’re like me and don’t like to plan your social calendar too far ahead, this will feel stifling at first.
- Having to plan in advance to get appointments to do fairly trivial things that probably in your home country you’d just turn up and expect to accomplish on demand. For example, seeing someone at your bank, taking your bike to be fixed.
Punctuality is also another trait where the Germans are resolute and they consider lateness to be disrespectful.
Both of these are covered in more detail in our article about planning and punctuality.
4. Home Internet speeds are slow and connection takes 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 (the former state telecommunications monopoly) still owning and operating the phone network.
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.
Germans and foreigners alike often bemoan the speed of home internet connections too. It’s certainly true that Germany tends to lag behind other European nations, and developed countries in general, with their home broadband speeds.
Luckily though, mobile internet prices have dropped considerably in Germany in recent years. They’re now at similar prices to the rest of Europe. Before, they used to be considerably more expensive.
We’ve got you covered on the different German SIM and data packages here, so you can be up and running online without having to wait for a home broadband connection.
5. Health insurance: You need it immediately and it’s VERY confusing
Germany has one of the best health systems in the world.
The downside for newcomers is that the system is highly confusing, and has a baffling array of choices.
Health insurance in Germany is essentially an insurance-based system which is backed by the government, ensuring that everybody is entitled to coverage at a reasonable cost.
To add to the complexity, individuals may opt out and take private healthcare if they earn above €62,550 per year gross (in 2020). Freelancers and the self-employed are also able to do so.
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?”.
I then received a list of around 20 possible public insurance companies which I could choose from.
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 at work, you have about 2-3 weeks to get this sorted before your company HR process your first month’s payslip. When you don’t have the faintest clue how the system works, this can be more than a bit daunting!
We recommend you read up on how the German healthcare system works before moving, so as you’re somewhat prepared.
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 painful for newcomers at the very beginning.
Not only that, but you will almost certainly need to save some money to buy light fittings, curtain rails and white goods too. Unfurnished apartments in Germany literally mean exactly that.
Including the KITCHEN!
Although this is usually negotiable for smaller apartments and can often be purchased from the previous tenant.
In major cities and university towns, it is becoming more common to find apartments with existing kitchens because landlords know they are usually easier to rent.
Our article on tips for apartment search covers a whole raft of other considerations to have in mind when you commence your housing search, especially in larger cities where compromise is the word.
There are also financial products (loans) available specifically designed to help cover this deposit to the landlord. However, with no credit history in Germany, as a newcomer these unfortunately won’t be available to you.
Forewarned is forearmed!
7. Your first winter will be tough
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.
If you happen to find yourself as a newbie expat in Germany arriving in the depths of winter, it’s important to meet people and make friends, to get socialising during the dark winter months.
Spring will be along soon enough. Get down to the Alps and learn to ski or snowboard to keep yourself sane!
8. Sunday closing
Most things are closed in Germany on Sundays. That includes supermarkets, banks, DIY stores, car showrooms and most other shops.
Highly annoying when you realise you’ve got no milk for your tea or coffee when you wake up and stumble out of bed on Sunday morning and go to male your hot beverage of choice!
Cafes, bars, restaurants, bakeries, petrol stations and small kiosks are allowed to open.
Also, shopping facilities in train stations are exempt from this law. There is rarely anything resembling a well-stocked supermarket though, with one or two exceptions (Leipzig has a large shopping mall directly in the main train 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 any employees who wants to spend Sunday with their family.
Interestingly, most Germans seem to support this law and be in favour of maintaining the status quo. Sunday closing also leads nicely on to the laws around quiet time, which can also be baffling to newbie expats.
You could always just go to the pub….which is open.
9. Automatic renewal of contracts
Service contracts in Germany automatically renew, unless you proactively write to them and cancel it.
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. At first I thought it was a scam – my first experience of it was with a small gym in the city where I lived. Then I noticed it on my car insurance, Bahn Card, mobile phone contract and so on.
There is one easy way around this. When you receive your confirmation of the contract you have just signed, immediately send them a termination notice.
Make sure you also receive an acknowledgement email or letter confirming the non-renewal, otherwise you could be on the hook for automatic renewal, despite having sent a cancellation.