Taking the plunge, crossing the pond and moving to Germany from the US is a huge decision. It takes a ton of research, paperwork, and financial planning, and even after the most thorough preparation, it’s still never 100% certain that it’ll be the right move for you.
In the face of the mountain of bureaucratic work you need to do, it’s easy to forget about the social aspect of emigration. What is the culture like? Will you like it there? What do you need to know?
We’re here to help coach you through any of the government forms, financial planning, and immigration related matters you need, in order to successfully make the one-way journey to the land of beer and bratwurst.
But the one thing we can’t do is decide whether Germany is right for you.
We think Germany is pretty darn cool, but you can only get so much from endless googling. From safety to school systems to learning German, there is a ton of information out there, and finding a starting point is hard.
Moving to Germany from the US: Is it right for me?
This site is run by a tea drinking Englishman, who considers football to be a sport where, you know, you actually kick the ball, and don’t stop every 10 seconds for a group cuddle.
So, I thought it better to ask Donnie, a US author with strong ties to Germany, to help put this little guide together!
We’ve put together all of our personal experience, client stories, and need-to-know facts to give you a sense of what it’s like for an American moving to Germany and how living there compares to the US.
Violent crime is a part of daily life in the United States. School shootings, robberies, muggings, and other crime saturate the news, and many Americans report that they feel unsafe even in their own neighborhoods.
Germany, in many ways, is the exact opposite. The smallest crimes sometimes make national news because they are so rare, and Germany has far less crime overall than the U.S. For instance, the U.S. has six times more murders per capita than Germany does, and 80% more Germans feel safe walking alone at night than Americans do.
Like anywhere on Earth, Germany has its crime, but this is mostly concentrated in large cities like Berlin and Frankfurt, and even on the whole, these cities are also very safe. Public transit is widely used by rich and poor alike and is generally safe at all hours, though basic safety practices are still encouraged, especially for lone women walking or using local public transport at night.
Germans are remarkably nonviolent drinkers, and fights and aggressions in these cases are extremely rare.
Possibly the most noticeable crime in Germany is the theft of bicycles and damage to cars parked on public streets, but if you’re moving to Germany from the US and you live in a large city, this should be nothing new. Buy a good lock and an inexpensive bike, and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
One thing about Germany strikes you right away after living in the States: the superb public transit system. Public transit in rural areas in Germany can be even more reliable than some major U.S. cities, the only exceptions being megacities like New York. Buses, subways, and trains are easily accessible in the vast majority of the country, and the prices are very reasonable.
Commuting to work is a simple task, and longer journeys have very smooth transfers.
Bike paths are everywhere, especially in university cities, and many of them are set aside from major traffic arteries, so biking feels a lot safer too. If you’re in any kind of city, it’s incredibly easy to get around without owning a car.
Driving, on the other hand, is a different story. Gas is much more expensive than it is in the U.S., even compared to cities like L.A. As of the date of this article, the average price of a gallon gas in Germany clocks in at a whopping $5.81.
Although the average price of a car in Germany is lower than in the U.S., once you factor in all the costs associated with purchasing, maintaining, and operating the vehicle, driving in Germany quickly becomes very expensive.
Getting a driver’s license will put you out anywhere between a small admin fee and €2500, depending on where you live and whether or not your state’s license has full or partial reciprocity. German laws around vehicles and roadways are much more strict than in the U.S.—many Germans comment with wonder on the “junk cars” that are allowed to operate on American streets.
You are required to install winter tires in the Winter, summer tires in the Summer, and have your vehicle inspected at a licensed facility (TÜV) every two years. German minimum liability insurance standards are much higher, and much more expensive. Driving isn’t considered a necessity in the majority of the country, so Germans tend to view it as more of a luxury, and this is definitely reflected in the cost.
Traffic jams are a common occurrence on German highways, but unlike the stop-and-go traffic jams of major U.S. cities, the German “Stau” can mean total standstill traffic for up to an hour at a time. Normally there are alternative routes you can take if you find yourself stuck, due to the extensive and very efficient roadway system.
Luckily, public transit options for traveling between cities are so comprehensive that you shouldn’t need to rely on clear roadways to get to work on time.
We would be remiss if we didn’t address the often overstated German Autobahn system. While it is true that sections of the Autobahn are not speed restricted, these sections don’t often last very long and ever-present construction projects routinely get in the way.
In the western part of the country, the Autobahn system has been allowed to deteriorate a bit while those in the former East Germany were improved to increase accessibility to the West.
One thing is true throughout the country—speed traps are everywhere. German radio stations regularly read incoming reports of speed traps and German drivers diligently warn each other by flashing their brights.
Cost of Living
The German economy is incredibly balanced when it comes to the cost of living. While non-essential services like cell phone service and internet can be more expensive than in the U.S., as an American moving to Germany you’re going to find rent prices, groceries, and restaurants to be much cheaper.
The average rent in Germany is an unbelievable 34% lower than it is in the U.S. If you’re coming from a city like San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles, your rent will likely be only a third of what you’re used to paying. For the price of a modest one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, you can have a luxury penthouse in Berlin. If you’re moving from San Francisco or Los Angeles, you can expect to cut your rent prices by at least 50%.
While home ownership is considered a mark of success in the U.S., and most people end up eventually buying a house, this is not the case in Germany. About 50% of Germans own their home, compared to almost 65% percent of Americans. Square foot for square foot, it costs twice as much to buy a home in Germany than in the U.S.
In addition to the massive reduction in rent costs, food and groceries are also significantly less expensive than in the U.S. Restaurant tabs are surprisingly low, and beer and other alcohol is about half the price as you’re used to paying.
Tipping culture is also different in Germany, where tipping is a convenience for the customer and not an expected duty. If your bill is €18.40, you might hand the waiter a €20 bill and say “keep the change.” There isn’t a standard expectation of a certain percentage, and you can pay the exact amount of the bill if you like, without feeling bad about it.
Certain other services, however, can be more expensive in Germany than in the US. Mobile service can be pretty expensive with a traditional carrier, but there are literally hundreds of SIM card providers who rent airtime from the major networks, and a data plan with unlimited domestic calls can cost as little as $10.
WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are very popular and serve well as phone replacements, but we encourage at least purchasing a simple prepaid plan for your phone so you can have a German phone number when you need one.
Gym memberships, clothing, and other expenses in Germany tend to be about the same or a little more expensive than in the U.S. We’ve found that the most noticeable difference in this category is in the price of clothing, where German sales taxes hit hard on the material goods.
Lastly, while Germany is slowly catching up with the U.S. as far as accepting bank and credit cards in shops and restaurants, there are still quite a few places that only take cash, and ATM fees can be pretty high.
All in all, the cost of living in Germany is significantly less than in the U.S. when comparing major cities, and is roughly the same when comparing smaller towns. Even those few things that are more expensive are quickly balanced out by the huge reductions in the cost of basic necessities.
We’ve covered German healthcare extensively across the site, so we won’t drill down into the detail here.
The most important thing to point out is that the healthcare system in Germany is wildly different than in the U.S. With the recent Affordable Care Act, Americans are now required to maintain some kind of health insurance, or they are responsible for paying a tax penalty.
This is not the case in Germany, where anyone living in the country is mandated to have valid health insurance. There are some stipulations for immigrants, depending on their status and visa type, and you may be responsible for purchasing private health insurance at full cost. Even if this is the case, health care costs are negligible compared to the costs in the States.
As a personal anecdote, I was once hospitalized in Frankfurt and was processed at the hospital as a self-pay patient, meaning I was responsible for the full cost of treatment. The ambulance ride, emergency room, treatment, and a two night stay in the hospital cost me a total of €700. The same hospital bill in the U.S. would have cost upwards of $10,000.
Even if you are completely uninsured, you can expect to pay comparable amounts in Germany to what your co-pays would be in the U.S.
That said, the German healthcare system is treated as a public service, and not as a private industry. This means that the standards we expect of hospitals and health care providers in the U.S. are far higher than the standards of German providers.
Doctors are of course educated in the same methods and practices, and the level of care given and received is the same as in the States, and in many cases better.
However, you shouldn’t expect to be waited on by a smiling, doting nurse, or to get stellar bedside manner from your doctor. German doctors and nurses are there to do their job, which does not include bringing you hot chocolate.
While you are able, in most cases, to make appointments directly with a specialist just like with most American insurance plans, it can take a while to get an appointment. Primary care physicians, however, can normally see you same day—a pleasant change from the American norm—and a referral to a specialist from your PCP can get you an earlier appointment.