moving to germany: frequently asked questions

Blogging is a contradictory sport: simultaneously solitary—me, typing alone at my computer—and yet so social—with comments and e-mails coming in from the interesting folks—you—on the other side of this screen. A lot of aspiring expats have sent me questions about how I ended up in Germany over my blogging years, and today I figured that the time had come to put my answers out there in an easy-to-reach place. If five of you bothered asking, then I bet at least ten of you would be interested to know. At least.

These are the top four questions that readers have asked. If any more occur to you, feel free to ask them in the comments, and I will add my answers to the post.

How did you end up in Germany?

This is where I would normally link to my au pair chronicles, which talk about my decision to quit my 9-5 job in publishing to take a job au pairing (ie nannying) for a family in Frankfurt Germany in detail. But I’ve currently got the whole thing down as I’m planning on finishing it (woot!) and republishing the whole thing as a weekly serial throughout the time when I’m going to be trying to figure out the whole “taking care of a baby” thing. So I guess I’m not getting out of explaining it again this time…

The story goes something like this: I graduate college with a degree in English literature. Two weeks after graduation I start my first full-time desk job. Said full-time desk job makes me fucking nuts. A year later—after breaking down in tears in a windowless grey meeting room over a pile of proofs—I decide to look for work abroad. I would have gone anywhere, so I started by looking at a lot of rather serious, scary jobs that I, in retrospect, am glad I didn’t get. On a whim I registered with an au pair placement agency and in two weeks I had an offer to live in Frankfurt with a family of seven. I accepted, quit my job, helped my mom move to a new house, and flew to Germany with a one-way ticket. (Despite the one-way ticket, I was expecting to come back after my year au pairing at the time, no plans of staying forever and ever then. I just didn’t want to have to commit to an exact date.)

Which makes the short, short answer to that question: completely by accident. I had never considering nannying before, and though I enjoyed the babysitting that I did occasionally, I wasn’t that into children. I just wanted a job that would allow me to be abroad and explore Europe. Au pairing was what fell into my lap, so an au pair I became. A German family responded to my application, so I moved to Germany. Au pairing turned out to be a huge pain in the ass, but it also was incredibly interesting and got me free trips to both Dubai and Cyprus, so in the end it was a pretty good score.

By the end of that first year I’d started to feel at home in Frankfurt, so I decided to stay and teach English.

How much money did it cost you to get there?

Because of the au pair job—which included room, board, health insurance, and visa organization—I didn’t have a lot of initial costs. I already had a passport, so I bought an adapter for my laptop (probably about 20 bucks) and a plane ticket (about 400 dollars I think).

After my year au pairing I went back to the US to travel for a few months, then returned to get my own life in Germany started. I stayed at my then-boyfriend’s apartment while looking for my own place and needed about 1000 euro (I think, my memory for detail on this one is a bit foggy) for the deposit on my apartment, as well as money (something between 300 and 400 dollars I reckon) to get me through that first month of apartment and job hunting.

How did you get a visa?

My very first visa—made out to “can stay and au pair for one year”—was incredibly easy. My host mother drove me around to all the necessary offices, filled out the forms, and paid the fees. American citizens—of which I am one—are allowed to stay in Germany for three months on a tourist visa, so I didn’t even need to do anything before arriving. I had my official one-year au pairing visa in my passport by November (I arrived in September).

My second visa was a bit more trying—I applied on the basis of having work as a freelance English teacher. If you’re considering doing the same, here’s what you’ll need (or what I needed in 2005): letters from your employers estimating how much money you will make working for them each month, proof of a bank account, a rental agreement (proving that you have a place to live and informing them of your rent costs), and proof of health insurance. If you only have one employer, you might still get through, but it is a really good idea to have at least two when applying for this type of visa (as otherwise the German government would prefer that the company hire you for real and pay into things like social health care and retirement funds for you). Many of my colleagues at inlingua, my main employer at the time, had only one employer and were given visas for six months. I had two and was immediately given a visa for three years.

Problems I encountered: the people at the Frankfurt aliens office are incredibly unfriendly and a lot of health insurance companies and banks don’t want to do business with you unless you already have a visa. Can’t get a visa without a bank account, can’t get a bank account without a visa. (Sparkasse, to name names, wouldn’t give me an account without one, but Dresdner, now Commerz did without blinking.) Which later became, can’t get health insurance without a visa, can’t get a visa without health insurance. (In this case I managed to convince the insurance agent that this was fucking ridiculous and to sell me a policy anyway.) Can’t get an apartment without a visa? Well, there I didn’t have a problem. My landlord was a frail old man used to renting to students, and he didn’t ask me any visa questions.

My advice to anyone trying to do this themselves is to get themselves down to the appropriate Amt and to ask for an application. Could be that requirements have changed since I went through the process, and it could be that each state has different hoops for you to jump through. Oh, and they really like it if you can speak German. (Bring someone with you to translate if you can’t speak German and can find a buddy willing to help. This will make them like you more.)

My third visa, as many of you have already read, is a “married to a German person” visa. That required a a good deal of paperwork (that then had to be expensively translated), but involved dealing with the very friendly Mainz aliens office instead of the “go home foreigners” aliens office in Frankfurt. So I might actually consider it the easier of the three. That visa is for three years, and if we are still married at the end of those three years, I’ll get a “stay in Germany forever” visa and can finally kiss the whole visa process goodbye.

Did you learn German before you went? Or did you learn it as you went along?

Before I moved to Germany I had already taken nine years of German classes (took it in high school and minored in it in college) under my belt. And yet I learned more German in my first six months here than in those nine years put together. So I’d say it was a little bit of both. During my first year here I also took some refresher courses at the Volkshochschule (VHS). Otherwise it was all trial by fire and practice, practice, practice.

If any of you have other questions about getting set up as an expat (or if I didn’t explain something in enough detail), leave ’em in the comments, and I’ll add them to this post.

0 Comments on “moving to germany: frequently asked questions

  1. I remember queueing for more than half a day in Frankfurt for a residence permit. That was dare I say it, in the mid 60s! I was at the time an au pair.

  2. Anni: Damn a half day! Wow. They do have really long lines there, even now, though I think the longest I waited was an hour. And once you get the forms turned in they give you an appointment, so at least you don’t have to stand in line every single time. After my experiences in Mainz I’m wondering why anyone would want to go through that process in a big city. Of course it never occurred to me how much easier it could be in a smaller town…

  3. soooo during the first 6 months when you arrived in Germany – I imagine a lot of the deeper conversations you took part in were a lot of smiling and nodding but not understanding?

    just wondering when you kind of ‘broke on through to the other side’ and if there was a catalyst that made a big improvement, or if the improvements were just gradual in your fluency?

  4. Peter: Hmm, that’s a hard question to answer. I understood quite a lot when I first arrived, but I missed quite a lot too. And I feel like you only really notice how much you were missing once you’ve passed into another level with your skills. I think day-to-day stuff I was fine with then as far as listening comprehension went, but I couldn’t, for example, follow your average movie too well.

    I never really went for the smile and nod thing, which probably helped my language aquisition in the long run. I just kept asking what the hell X or Y meant until I got it most of the time.

    There was no moment when I felt like I’d broken through. Even now there are days when I speak really poorly all of a sudden (like when I’m dead tired or just generally brain dead) and there are days when I’m all like SHABAM I’m awesome at this. There are days when people don’t even notice that I have an accent sometimes (it often only rears its ugly head at the umlauts) and there are days when it is immediately painfully obvious.

    But I’d say that I, for example, notice a marked improvement when I converse with someone after reading something in German for a few hours, whereas if I have just spent a few hours reading a book in English I may stumble for a bit before getting back into the flow. That is actually one of my biggest issues—switching back and forth smoothly between the two languages. But the funny thing is that I get just as tongue tied when trying to switch back into English as I do trying to switch back into German these days. I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or not, but it is kind of weird and funny to find yourself stumbling in your own language.

    It’s funny, during those first six months I dated this guy, and I got really frustrated because I felt like I couldn’t talk to him about anything interesting because of my German skills. But one day I tried writing out what I might want to say in a conversation about, say, literature, and I found out I could do it pretty decently without a problem. That’s when I realized that we didn’t talk about anything interesting because he had rocks for brains, and I broke up with him. Kind of funny to think about now.

  5. I just bought plane tickets – I will be spending christmas this year in Germany. My wife and I have friends in Mainz we’ll be spending some time with, maybe we’ll see you at a Christmas market or two 🙂

  6. Pingback: teaching english in germany: frequently asked questions | click clack gorilla

  7. So when is the best time to go to have the best shot at these different types of schools: small scale, tutoring type (v) big franchise (v) public/private schools?

    I have read that late summer is the best time for the punlic schools, but don’t you need to meet certain, more exclusive requirements? (i.e. a degree in education?)


  8. I was in the US Army in the late 60s. I speak German and French (albeit now haltingly) but would love to teach in Germany and am presently commencing that way. What is the best venue for achieving that goal? Have read your earlier blogs but wondering for perhaps later insight. 🙂
    Btw, love your earlier blog. Such fun, up front and imaginative. Hope you, hubby and now grade school age youngun’ still in good ordnung. Recht vielen dank!
    Moi – Aus Seattle

  9. Hi. Trying to move to Germany this summer and also to teach freelance. One big question: Do you HAVE TO have the job contract before you start the paperwork? Because I don’t expect to find anything until after I am already in the country for about a month. I don’t completely understand all the paperwork yet but it looks like you need the job contract before you start anything. How long did your paperwork take to finalize the visa? I know it has been a long time but any info will be helpful. thanks

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