Moving anywhere is a challenge. Even a short move across town can be problematic. An international move presents additional complications, but a little preparation will mean fewer hitches. Even if you are fortunate enough to be using the services of a relocation agent, you should be aware of the following ten factors to consider when moving to Germany.
1. Get Oriented
By “get oriented” I mean get to know the culture, the language, and the place where you’ll be living. This may seem obvious, but I am constantly amazed by how many new expats fail to do this. You’re moving to a new country with a culture and a language very different from what you’re used to. Don’t arrive in German-speaking Europe without at least some basic preparation. This is what our German Way site is all about! You’ll find all sorts of help here, and here are a few tips on what you need to learn:
- Do some research on the town or city where you plan to live and work. See our City Guides for larger German cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden or Munich, but you should also do an online search (in English and German) to get detailed information on the cost of living, schools and education, public transport, etc.
- How’s your German? Yes, many Germans speak English, but, believe it or not, the primary language in Germany is German. Don’t arrive as a typical monolingual American! At least learn a few polite phrases and some basic German before you land in Germany. The more German you know, the better off you’ll be.
- If you have children, where will they be attending school? Public, private, or international? (Germany has compulsory school attendance laws and does not allow homeschooling!) This decision should not wait until after you arrive. Start your research now.
2. Passports and Visas
Sure, you know you need a passport and a residence visa for stays in Germany over 90 days. But make sure that your passport and those for all family members are valid not only for the length of your assignment in Germany, but also for at least four months beyond that time. If someone’s passport will expire too early, they need to get a new one before departing for Germany or any other country in Europe.
You are not allowed to work in Germany without a valid work visa. US and Canadian citizens are allowed to remain in Germany for 90 days without a visa (but aren’t allowed to have a job). You can apply for a residence/work visa after arriving in Germany, but do that well before your 90 days expire. Sometimes your German employer will help with this, but in the end it’s your responsibility. For more information on obtaining a visa see this page: Getting a Residence Permit for Germany.
In order to obtain a residence visa for Germany, whether you’re working or not, you need to have health insurance that is valid in Germany. Your North American health insurance, including Medicare, is usually not valid in Germany, and you’ll need to get a policy with a German insurance company or through your employer. Also see item 9 below concerning doctors and prescriptions.
NOTE: The external web links on this page imply no endorsement of, nor any commercial relationship with the sites we link to. Such links are provided for your convenience only.
3. Housing – Old and New
Will you sell your existing home or lease/rent it out? Will you live in temporary quarters in Germany, or will you buy or rent a place before you arrive? Do you know the cost of housing in Germany? (We mentioned “cost of living” in item 1.) Generally, it costs more in Germany for the same amount of housing space you had in the US or Canada, especially in the larger cities. You may have to downsize or settle for less ritzy accommodations in order to stay within budget. It helps if your employer also provides a housing allowance, but make sure it’s realistic for Germany.
The standard real estate rule of three – location, location, location – applies in Germany just as much as, or more than in North America. German communities also have poor, good, better, and best neighborhoods. Do you you know which ones are which in your new location? A good real estate agent/broker can help with this, but few German real estate agents (Makler) are as service oriented as those in the US. Although you can find RE/MAX, Century 21 and other global agencies in Germany, they don’t necessarily operate the same way that similar firms in North America do.
Whether you are buying or renting, the legal aspects of purchasing or leasing real property in Germany are quite different from those in North America. For instance, you have to use a German notary (Notar, not the same as a US notary public), and payment of the broker’s fee varies by locality. It may be paid either by the buyer or the seller, or split between both. The fee is normally about six percent plus VAT (sales tax), but can be as high as seven or eight percent. For rentals or leases the fee is normally two months’ rent plus VAT. Real estate transactions in Germany are subject to a transfer tax (Grunderwerbssteuer) of 3.5 percent of the purchase price. – Also see: House and Home.
4. Shipping Household Goods and a Car
Will you ship your household goods to Germany or not? (And who’s paying the bill for that? You or your employer?) This is a very important decision, and you need to know some vital facts relevant to importing household goods into Germany or any other European country. The Federal Republic of Germany has specific laws and regulations regarding the importation of household goods, including cars. To avoid paying duties on your goods you need to meet certain criteria and prove that:
- You have actually given up your residence abroad (documentation showing the termination of your lease/employment, sale of your residential home or a statement by your employer that you have been transferred to Germany).
- You are establishing a new residence in Germany (lease agreement, correspondence with your employer in Germany, proof of German police registration/Anmeldung).
- You have been residing outside Germany for at least 12 consecutive months (some exceptions are possible).
For more information on these requirements, see the germany.info website from the German Embassy in Washington, DC.
Finding a furnished apartment or house in Germany can be difficult. Most homes and apartments are sold unfurnished, often without even a kitchen or kitchen appliances. You need to decide if the cost of shipping your household furnishings to Germany will be cheaper than buying furniture and appliances in Germany. It is possible to rent furniture in larger German cities.
It is usually better to buy 220-volt appliances (oven range, refrigerator, dish washer, TV, etc.) in Germany, rather than try to make 110-volt American appliances work in Germany. A normal North American television set will not work in Germany, even with a voltage converter. Battery-powered devices such as laptop computers, iPads, and mobile phones will work fine, but you may need a plug adapter. (For more see Electrical Facts and Radio and TV in Germany.)
Will you even need a car in Germany? If you’re moving to a large city like Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, or Munich, it is easy to get around on public transport, and Germany’s excellent rail and airline network can take you farther afield. Even medium-sized towns have good public transportation.
If you do decide to ship your US vehicle to Germany, be prepared to convert it to German and EU standards. (Headlights, emmission controls, and other items may require alteration.) For information on the procedures for vehicle conversions you can contact your nearest TÜV location (Technical Inspection Organization) in Germany: TÜV Nord | TÜV Süd.
Do You Like to Bake and Cook?
If you’re the chef in the family, you need to be aware that recipes and ingredient measurements in Germany and Europe differ from North America. Not only do you have to deal with metric measure, but flour, sugar, and other recipe ingredients are usually measured by weight (grams) rather than volume (milliliters). (And the flour is a bit different as well!) Bring your measuring cups along for US recipes, but you’ll want to get a kitchen scale for German recipes. Other factors: Oven temperatures are in Celsius rather than Fahrenheit degrees. You may also want to learn the German equivalents for things like baking powder (Backpulver), cilantro (Koriander) and hard-to-find items such as brown sugar and Crisco.
5. Bank Accounts, Utilities, Mail Forwarding, and Subscriptions
Don’t wait until the last minute to take care of the business of permanently or temporarily closing down your utilities, bank accounts, subscriptions, etc. Where will your mail be forwarded? (Family, friends, or to your new German address?) If you don’t do it already, convert all of your credit card and other monthly payments to online.
If possible, set up a German bank account before your move. Modern online banking means this is easier than it once was. Consider keeping at least one US bank account active, in addition to your new German bank account. You can use both via online banking. For more about German banking and international money transfers, see our Money and Banking and International Money Transfers pages.
You’ll need a German bank account in order to get a chip-and-PIN debit card that works in stores in Germany. Germans use cash and direct debit cards much more than North Americans. Credit card use is far lower than in the US and Canada. For instance, you can’t just assume that any restaurant or shop will accept credit cards. And leave your checkbook at home. Germans don’t use checks. (See this blog post: Put Away Your Checkbook.)
6. Microchips and Bringing Pets to Germany
Yes, you can bring your furry friends to Germany, but there are rules for importing dogs and cats (and ferrets). They must have a microchip certifying they are rabies-free. All the details are on our Taking Dogs and Cats to Germany page. Also be aware that Germans (and Europeans in general) are particular about the behavior and training of dogs. Unlike in North America, your dog must be able to travel on public transportation or even visit a restaurant without fuss, and be trained not to bark at the wrong times, or jump up on people. Like children, canines in Germany are supposed to be seen but not heard. Your typical untrained, barbarian US or Canadian dog is not acceptable in Germany. Certain “aggressive” dog breeds, including pit bulls and some other so-called Kampfhunde (“fighting dogs”), are not allowed in Germany at all.
7. Driving in Germany
Do you really need a car? In Germany that is actually a sane question! But this is also the land of the autobahn! If you choose to have a car in Germany, can you drive it legally? Expats living in Germany for a year or less can drive with their US or Canadian license, but after that you need to have a German driver’s license. Even if you plan to only rent a car occasionally, German rental cars (Mietwagen) are usually stick-shift. An automatic will cost you more. Unlike most Americans these days, Germans learn to drive with a clutch and a manual gear shift. In Germany student drivers have to attend a Fahrschule (driving school). Mom and dad can’t teach the kids how to drive.
If you’re Canadian or lucky enough to come from a US state that has full reciprocity with Germany, you don’t have to take any tests to get your German license. Eleven US states have partial reciprocity (written test only). But no matter how you get your German license, it’s a good idea to make sure you know the rules of the road in Germany. There are some important differences, including no passing on the right.
8. Get Your German Utilities Set Up
Compared to North America, it can take a bit longer to get your phone and internet (often the same thing these days) installed in Germany. Will your cell phone work in Europe? You’ll need to set up your GSM mobile phone with a German provider (O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone, etc.). A normal Verizon cell phone won’t work in Europe, but an AT&T or T-Mobile mobile phone will (but it has to be unlocked). See our cell phones in Europe and iPhone in Germany pages for the details.
As in the US, it’s possible to get your TV, internet, and phone in a bundle. Most Germans view television via cable or satellite. It is also possible to get international channels in English (CNN, BBC, Sky, etc.), but that costs extra. Whether or not you have cable or satellite, every German household has to pay a radio-TV-internet fee known as the Rundfunkbeitrag.
If you’re renting, you may not have to worry about water, electricity or gas, but if your rent is “kalt” (Kaltmiete, “cold rent”), you have to pay for your utilities. Warmmiete (“warm rent”) means your utilities are included in your rental payment. However, you need to verify such matters before you sign a German rental or lease agreement. Who pays for water, power and gas?
WARNING: Cancelling a German subscription or sales contract can be a problem. Unlike in the US, there are time limits; you can’t just stop paying and expect to have your subscription cancelled. Subscriptions will automatically renew if not cancelled in advance. German law favors the provider over the subscriber. Read the fine print! (Or get someone to do that for you.)
9. Doctors and Prescription Meds
You should take along a 90-day supply of any prescription medicines you or family members require. A German pharmacy (Apotheke) will not fill a US or Canadian prescription without first getting it converted to a German version. As soon as possible you should find a local physician (not all speak English!) you can turn to for medical prescriptions and your family’s medical needs. Be aware that some US medicines with a similar or exact same name in Germany are not always the same drug. See Medicines and Prescriptions in Germany for more on this topic.
You can’t even buy aspirin or cold medicine in Germany without going to a pharmacy. Non-prescription drugs that are sold “over the counter” in US grocery stores are only available at an Apotheke, and you have to ask the pharmacist for them.
10. Book Your Flight Well in Advance
As soon as you are certain about your international move, book a flight for you and your family. The sooner you do this, the better. Airlines charge more for flights booked only a short time before departure. You can save money by planning ahead. If possible, also allow enough lead time in Germany to get settled before your actual work assignment begins. – See our Air Travel page for more about German/European airports and air travel tips.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- For Expats in German-speaking Europe
- Expat Checklist 1 – Tips for expats and would-be expats (before you go)
- The German Way Expat Blog – For expats by expats
- A Different Type of Renting – Germans have a different attitude about renting compared to Anglo-Americans.
- Dealing with Damage when moving
- Don’t Be Stuffy – Avoiding mold in your German residence
- Electrical Appliances: That Old Chestnut – Expat advice on electrical appliances
- From Bundesland to Bundesland – Moving within Germany
- International Schools: Going Local or Not – Deciding on which school your expat kids should attend
- The German School System – From Kita to Uni