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, they 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.
The only other downside for an American moving to Germany is the sheer complexity of the system you’re faced with as a newbie expat. American healthcare can be a nightmare to navigate, but the German system is a completely different beast and you will need to relearn everything you know about how your health insurance works.
Not to worry—we’ve got you covered here.
Family Life / Raising Kids
Germany pays you to have kids. That’s right—they actually pay you when you have children (and they pay your kids, too).
One of the flagship policies of Merkel’s government has been making it less of a financial burden for couples to raise kids, and as of July 1st, 2019, anyone who lives in Germany with their child(ren) can receive €204 for their first and second kids, €210 for their third, and €235 for each additional child.
As the parent, you’ll receive this benefit until your youngest child turns 18. Even then, the state will continue to pay this benefit (called “Kindergeld”) to your child directly under certain conditions to a maximum age of 25.
“Kindergarten” (which is German preschool, and not the first grade of public school like American kindergarten) is also heavily subsidised, meaning that childcare is substantially cheaper than in the U.S. Part of this is that every family has the right to a place at a state-run kindergarten. The system is chronically overburdened in the larger cities, but for most people who know the system and get on the waiting list early, it’s possible.
The German school system has a reputation for being overly utilitarian. Traditionally, all children go to the same school (the “Grundschule”) until the 4th grade, when based on their academic ability, they are streamed into a 3-tier system: They will either enter the “Hauptschule,” and finish at the 9th grade, the “Realschule,” and finish at the 10th grade, or the “Gymnasium,” where they will typically continue to university studies or higher education after the 13th grade.
There is a new kind of school that is rapidly gaining popularity called the “IGS” or “Integrierte Gesamtschule.” In this kind of school, all students attend the same school and classes, but then graduate at the level they feel is appropriate for them. These schools are much more akin to American high schools.
You can expect that your children will have far less homework (if any at all) and much more free time to play, participate in social/athletic/church activities, and spend time at home. This is true all the way through the university level—Germans don’t overload their kids with schoolwork to the point of having nervous breakdowns.
Once your children get into their teens, the obvious financial advantage of raising them in Germany is that there are no university tuition fees. There are some complex exceptions that can apply, but in most cases university just costs a couple hundred euro per semester as an admin fee.
Especially for families whose kids are likely to aspire to go into higher education, there are some pretty good incentives to make the move!
When talking about German bureaucracy, we’ll cover administrative bureaucracy dealing with any arm of state or local government.
German bureaucracy can be incredibly frustrating, especially after being used to dealing with get-in-get-out American public institutions. The frustrations tend to stem from two traits inherent to the German mentality:
- A deeply ingrained respect for rules and the following of said rules to the letter, often with little or no flexibility
- Suspicion of and resistance to any modernization of existing processes
It has to be acknowledged that bureaucrats working for the German state or local government have very little wiggle room when it comes to bending the rules for a specific case, so it’s (usually) not them being belligerent.
Be hard on the process, not the person!
How can this affect you in practice?
When dealing with administrative bureaucracy, everything is still on paper and requires in-person appointments at a set time. The end-to-end process when it comes to accomplishing anything is not very efficient, and you can forget about getting anything done online. Be prepared to make stamps and envelopes a standing item on your shopping list.
Like the U.S., German federal states act as individual governments, so you will mostly need to deal at the state or municipal level, and not the national level.
Jobs & Career
There is one uncomfortable truth about moving to Germany: Unless you’re moving to Berlin, it is absolutely necessary to learn German as quickly as possible in order to integrate into German life and to have viable employment opportunities.
Professional jobs are hard to find in English unless:
- You hold an advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degree
- Your job must be done by a native English speaker (such as English teacher, translator, interpreter, or other language specialist)
- Your job doesn’t bring you into regular contact with clients or vendors, or with any colleague who may not speak English
Even if you can speak German, if you aren’t moving to Germany with your current employer, it can be challenging to find a full-time, salaried position as a foreigner.
The good news though is that if you do receive a job offer, it’s a relatively straightforward (albeit bureaucratic) process to get a residence permit to legally work in Germany. You should be prepared to spend at least three to six months looking for a job.
Once you are employed, there are many benefits to German work culture. Work-life balance in Germany is highly valued, and we don’t mean the “work-life balance” advertised by tech companies.
We mean that in Germany, working hours are working hours, and off hours are off hours. It’s extremely frowned upon to mix the two. Germans typically work a 35-40 hour week,. Do not send any business correspondence over the weekend—no one is going to answer you, and it is considered rude to send emails and messages outside of working hours or when somebody is on vacation.
The downside of this is that German workplaces can sometimes feel a bit stiff. It may take you a while to get used to the working environment. After-work drinks and team nights out are not really a thing unless you’re in the media and tech industries. You don’t typically encounter as many gregarious or charismatic managers and team leaders as you do in the U.S.
Another important consideration is that German office policies and employment laws are incredibly strict. Even if you are a salaried employee, you are required to have a doctor’s note to take even a single sick day (but the doctor will normally write you off sick for at least a week). Make sure you ask about the policies up front when you start a new job, especially when it comes to attendance.
Starting off as a freelancer or self-employed can be tough in Germany compared to the U.S., mainly due to the high burden of health insurance costs if you don’t have an employer to pay their 50% contribution.
However, if you already have an established business and an existing pipeline of clients, then it’s an incredibly easy way to get a residence permit in Germany with a ready-made means to make a good living.
It’s remarkably easy in terms of the actual stipulated requirements in the law. The only real hurdle is dealing with some of the inconsistencies which crop up when dealing with old-school German bureaucracy at municipal level.
Germany’s tax code also enables many expenses to be deducted legitimately as the cost of running your business.
There’s no way to gloss over this. The amount of tax and social security contributions you’ll have to pay in Germany will feel pretty brutal when compared to tax rates in the U.S. Based on $100,000 of income, in Germany you will pay about 45% of your income in taxes and social social security contributions, compared to just 26% in the States (33% if you live in California).
Additionally, your IRA and other savings accounts could also be taxed, resulting in even more costs come tax time.
So, let’s break it down:
If you’re a family with kids, then there are a lot of additional benefits that your taxes provide. See the family life / raising kids section for more details of how kindergarten is heavily subsidised and how the childcare benefit works.
If you’re sick or unemployed, and you’ve paid into the German system, you will be 100% taken care of, as opposed to the meagre unemployment and short term disability insurance in the States, which barely covers expenses at a mere 40% of your salary.
If you’re married and one person in the relationship is a much higher earner than the other partner, this also has fiscal benefits in the German system.
For singles, however, I’m afraid you’re at a disadvantage in the way that Germany taxes its residents. The best advice would be to do your homework before you enter into salary discussions with potential employers.
Recreation & Free Time
With an average of 24 vacation days and 10 paid holidays a year, Germans are huge fans of recreation, and use their time off to the fullest extent.
In towns and cities there will usually be several different festivals throughout the year, and especially in summer. Add to this the traditional Christmas market that many municipalities also put on, and it seems there’s always something to look forward to!
For Americans, Germany can seem as if there’s not a single square inch of untouched land in the whole country. For the most part, that’s true, but there is plenty of natural space to hike, bike, kayak, canoe, and be just as outdoorsy as you were in the Rockies. What’s better is that these spots are hidden everywhere just outside the bounds of most cities, and are easily accessible, even by public transport.
Germans have a few quirks, however, that it’s important to address if you’re moving to Germany from the US.
For starters, Germans take their vacationing very seriously and if you live in a smaller city or town, it can feel like the whole place shuts down during summer months when everyone leaves. The phenomenon isn’t as bad as in France or Italy, but it’s still noticeable.
Germans have an almost religious fervor for the “Ruhezeit,” the quiet hours. The laws (yes—the laws) regarding quiet times have gotten much more relaxed in recent years, but there is still an expectation that nights and Sundays are to be kept quiet.
This means no vacuuming, ping pong playing, music jamming, washing machine running, showering, trumpeteering, stampeding, or heated whispering allowed.
It’s also prohibited by Federal German law for shops other than catering businesses and convenience stores to open on Sundays, which can feel both inconvenient as well as being unnecessary meddling by the state.
Earlier, we briefly touched on the necessity of learning German for employment purposes, but it goes much further than that. If you’re moving to Berlin, and have no interest in learning German, sure, you can get by, but then what’s the point of moving abroad?
You need to learn German. Yes, you are American and the thought of learning another language is enough to make you turn tail and head straight back to Wisconsin. Yes, you have been informed that everyone in Germany speaks English. One fact still stands, and you will never truly get around it until you learn German: it’s rude not to speak it.
People will expect you to speak German. In social settings, Germans are very accommodating and welcoming to non-German speakers, especially Brits and Americans (because they like to practice their English), but German speakers will still speak German with each other and won’t think to translate it all for you.
This privilege doesn’t extend to communication in more traditional companies, with the bureaucracy, and when dealing with utilities and service providers—you will need good knowledge of German to deal with these entities without a translator.
You can definitely get by without speaking German in a social setting, and if all your friends are expats and your job is in English, then surviving without learning German is possible.
That said, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it if you intend to live in Germany for more than just a couple of years.
About the Author
Donnie Schultz is a linguist and author based in New York City. He did an exchange year in Germany in high school, and since then has traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Germany, visiting friends and family and working as an interpreter.