Moving To Berlin Guide: Tips From Someone Who’s Done It Twice
Some might consider me a pro, as I’ve moved to Berlin, not once but twice. I moved here in June 2011 and after a short 18 month stint, returned to Toronto where I stayed for two years. During that time, my heart ached for Berlin and soon found myself at home here once more.
Since then, I’ve written a lot about living in Berlin on topics like how to find a job, furnish your flat, learn German, make friends, and more. But I’ve never put it all together into one comprehensive guide. It’s been on my “to do” list for years – so when I was approached by ottonova to talk about the advantages of their private health insurance, we decided to collaborate on this very detailed, step by step, moving to Berlin guide. We hope that these tips will help you settle seamlessly into your new Berlin life.
Moving To Berlin Guide: Tips From Someone Who’s Done It Twice
We know, this is a waaaaay long post, but there’s an abundance of things to think about when you’re planning your move to the German capital, and an even longer list of things to do once you’ve moved to Berlin. Use this handy table of contents to save time and head directly to the parts that apply to you:
- Sign-up For Health Insurance
- Choose A Neighborhood To Live
- Find A Flat
- Register Your New Address
- Open Up A Bank Account
- Ensure You’ve Received Your Tax ID
- Get A Transit Pass
- Find A Mobile Phone Provider
- Get On The Internet
- Get Your Child Into A Kita
- Select An Electricity Provider
- Purchase All Of The Insurances
- Get Your Driver’s License
- Pay The TV Fee (Rundfunkbeitrag)
- Hire A German Accountant
- Get A Doctor & A Dentist
- Make Friends
- Hit The Gym
- Search For A Hair Stylist
We know there’s a fuzzy line between some of these items, but these are things that you can start doing well before you come to Germany and continue doing once you’re here. For the purposes of this moving to Berlin guide, items aren’t listed in chronological order or order of importance.
Recommended reading: The Cost Of Living In Berlin (Personal Details From a Local) – Many wonder what is the cost of living in Berlin? I reveal average personal expenses for things like rent, electricity, phone plans, & more.
You’ve moved to Germany, so you should probably learn German right? But you’ve heard that everyone speaks English and you’re confused about whether or not it’s worth the effort. Should you learn German when you come to Berlin? The answer is a clear and resounding yes!
It’s a myth that everyone speaks English (no matter what bloggers or Youtubers tell you). Unless you live in an impenetrable bubble, you’re going to encounter people who can’t or won’t speak English. If you call up a customer service line, it’s likely you won’t be able to reach an English-speaking agent. If you go to a place like the Ausländerbehörde or the Bürgeramt, the employees are required by law to speak with you only in German. If you go to restaurants, it’s possible that the menu will only be in German and the waiting staff may not know English either. While startups and other companies looking to acquire skilled technology or marketing professionals might be lax on language requirements, most companies will require that you speak German in the workplace.
While Berlin is becoming more international and the country more welcoming to skilled workers, English as the spoken language in the workplace is not as commonplace as you may think. So why not learn the language of the country you’ve come to call home?
Recommended reading: Our guide to learning German in Berlin where we recommend different language schools and other methods of learning German.
Our pro tip? Get a head start and begin mastering the language even before you move here. Use a company like Chatterbug – a new way to help you master language skills through adaptive courses and one-on-one video sessions with native speakers from around the world. With Chatterbug you’ll have access to over 1,000 learning exercises, a digital classroom, and a record of your progress.”
Finding a job in Berlin is easy for some – if you’re German, don’t need a visa because you’re from the EU, speak German fluently, are willing to work at a startup, and have career experience in tech, design, or marketing, getting a job won’t be that tough. For those people, it’s as easy as signing the contract and starting the job. Some companies even go out of their way to recruit talent from around the globe as they’re that desperate to get new UX designers, software engineers, or content writers in-house. On the other hand, finding a job in Berlin can be difficult for others – those who are from outside of the EU and need a visa, don’t speak German, lack a university degree or relevant professional experience, are searching for work in a field that’s not in demand, and more.
I know people who’ve worked as chemical engineers in their home countries – well educated, smart people who would happily take a job in a German company. Yet, coming without a local education could mean that their associated degrees won’t be recognized. If they can’t speak German fluently, some companies won’t even take a look at their CV. People of color have also reported difficulties navigating the German job market. No one likes to acknowledge this, but it needs to be said as it’s an unfortunate factor in some people’s ability to secure employment in Germany.
As mentioned earlier in the post, Germany has made it law to welcome highly skilled migrants from abroad and Berlin in particular has a unique mix and high population of job seekers, refugees, students, IT workers, and creatives. With time, diligence, perseverance, and a dollop of good luck, finding a job in Berlin is not only possible, but likely.
I would like to think of myself a master of finding a job in Berlin! Since my move back to Berlin four and a half years ago, I’ve worked at four different companies. The startup world is a tumultuous and I kept finding myself at companies who were either going out of business or drastically downsizing their workforce. Thankfully, I’ve been at a stable company for two years now and in order to help others wrote about how to find a job in Berlin. It’s now one of my blog’s most popular posts!
For our moving to Berlin guide, this is one of the most important things to do as anyone from outside of the EU needs a visa to live and work in Germany. Here are some of the different visas you can consider:
- Tourist Visa – Depending on your passport, people can visit Germany and stay up to three months. You can use the time to look for a job and/or apply for a more permanent visa. Know that you are legally not allowed to work during this time.
- Working Holiday Visa/Youth Mobility Visa – Young people from a select group of countries like Canada and Australia aged 35 and under can come to Germany for up to a year to live, study, or work. Bonus is that you can usually renew for at least one more year. Unfortunately, Americans are not eligible for this visa. Find out more.
- Freelancer Visa – You can get a freelance visa if you’re able to prove that you have a steady and recurring income, as well as meet some other basic requirements including health insurance. I have friends who work independently as graphics designers, writers, photographers, and more. Your client base doesn’t even have to be located in Germany! Note, the authorities usually require that your income come from a varied number of sources and having local offers of work looks favorable. Visas usually expire after 2-3 years and you’ll be required to renew it before expiration. Find out more.
- Job Seeker Visa – Seasoned professionals can apply for a job seeker visa enabling them to stay in Germany for up to six months. This visa isn’t just given to anyone – it’s specifically for skilled workers who have experience in fields that are in-demand within the German job market. As with the tourist visa, it’s illegal to start work on this visa. Find out more.
- Residence Permit (For Work) – If you’ve received an offer and signed a contract for a permanent position, your employer will usually help you through the process of obtaining a residence permit. This will permit you to live in Germany and work only for the listed company and the position specified. If you lose your job, you would need to apply for a new visa. These visas tend to expire after two – three years as well. Start the renewal process well before your visa expires. Find out more.
- Residence Permit (For Learning German) – If you would like to stay in Germany specifically for learning German, you can apply for a residence permit that lasts up to one year. The requirements for this one are steep – you’ll need health insurance, a minimum of €8,316 in a German bank account (Sperrkonto), proof of residence in Berlin, and enrollment in an intensive language course for 18 hours a week (evening & weekend courses do not count.) Find out more.
- Residence Permit (For Studying) – Germany encourages students from around the world to come here and complete their post secondary education. Like the residence permit for learning German, the requirements are much the same, you’ll need health insurance, €8,640 in a special German bank account (Sperrkonto), proof of residence in Berlin, and enrollment at a German university. Find out more.
- Blue Card – Certain qualified professionals can also apply for a Blue Card. It’s like a work permit but is more geared to skilled workers (i.e. software engineers) earning more than €53,600 annually (gross). Exceptions are made for those working for a profession where there’s a labor shortage and then you only need to earn €41,808 annually. Getting one of these visas is like winning the lottery – the path to permanent residency is not only easier but shortened. You can apply for permanent residency after 21 consecutive months of employment and knowledge of some basic German. Blue cards typically last around four years. Find out more.
- Residence Permit (For Spouses and Children) – Not all of us move to Berlin alone. Some people bring their spouse and children along for the adventure. This visa is also available for people married to a German or EU citizen or have a child with a German or EU citizen. Find out more.
Applying for a visa or permit on your own, with the help of an employer, or even with the help of a professional can be a stressful experience for the best of us. Filling out forms, collecting the necessary paperwork, getting signatures is only the start of it all.
Depending on which visa or permit you’re applying for, you may need to make an appointment at the foreigner’s office (Ausländerbehörde) on your own. Start by searching for an appointment online. As these appointments in Berlin are very hard to come, we recommend booking as far ahead as possible – quite literally months ahead. For example, at time of writing this post in mid-May 2019, the next available appointment was the end of August 2019. Locals recommend looking for an available appointment early in the morning when the system is refreshed with the latest cancellations. You can also show up to the foreigner’s office without an appointment and get in a queue. Some people arrive at 4 am! You may queue and still not get an appointment, needing to return the next day.
When you finally go to your appointment at the foreigner’s office in Berlin, the case worker is unlikely to speak to you in English or another language. Sometimes they do, but don’t expect this to be the case. If your German is not that great, bring along a German speaking friend or hire someone. This will help avoid misunderstandings or miscommunications and (hopefully) make your appointment successful.
To make things even easier, hire someone to help you through the process from start to finish. You can hire a Berlin-based immigration lawyer, or you can use services like Red Tape Translation or Expath.
One final word of caution about doing research for your visa – while it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions in Facebook groups, find answers in blogs like mine, or even information from local Youtubers, it’s important to always go to the source of truth. I’ve seen a lot of bad and even contradicting advice doled out on all of these mediums. Take anything you read or hear with a measure of skepticism, then double and then triple check the facts. Getting a visa is often a time-critical situation and the last thing you want to do is to mess up the process. That’s why we’ve taken care to list the berlin.de websites for each of the visas listed above. Failing these websites, let the professionals help you. If you take anything from this article, let this be your most important takeaway.
The reason for us writing this moving to Berlin guide is because of our friends at ottonova, a private German health insurance company and the very first one that’s completely digital. They’re here with us to help take the mystery out of healthcare for newly arrived expats.
The German healthcare system is one of the best ones out there and everyone in the country contributes (with some minor exceptions for those employed for example). That said, anyone who moves to Germany must also have health insurance as it’s a legal requirement. While many expats love nothing more than to complain about the high costs of healthcare or claim that it doesn’t offer much, consider that you’re covered for some medical prescriptions, doctor’s visits, operations, hospital stays, unemployment, sick days, and more. Your family is covered under your insurance as well, at no additional cost. There are also plenty of miscellaneous services covered like basic dental (more extensive dental services can be purchased for an extra premium), massages, and even yoga classes.
The vast majority of people in Germany are covered by public health insurance, a statutory insurance where providers are legally bound to insure everyone regardless of their health, age, employment status etc. You can choose from any number of public health insurance providers, such as TK or AOK. If you have a permanent position or a mini-job, your employer will pay half of your total contribution, leaving you to pay the rest – equaling around 14.6 % of your gross income. Insurance companies also usually charge another premium on tip of this, at around 1.1% on average.
Other people also opt to go with private insurance, also called voluntary insurance. If your income exceeds €57,600 per annum, you can apply to become a member of a private health insurance company to receive even better services than you would under statutory insurance. Many freelancers, even those with a lower annual income, are also accepted by private health insurance companies. The improved level of services and lower monthly fees are especially appealing for young expats who might not be staying in Germany for the long term. If you think there’s a chance you’ll stay in Germany long term (i.e. the rest of your life), be aware that premiums can rise over time and become more costly than public insurance.
This is where ottonova private health insurance comes into play for expats in Germany. They are a fully digital company with an app that allows you to get recommendations for doctors, book appointments, track all of your documents in a centralized place, take video calls from German doctors, and more. You can even sign-up online and not bother sending in any paperwork, almost unheard of in Germany. They also offer 24/7 customer service in English, quick reimbursement on your healthcare expenses (also via the app), and personalized concierge services.
Find out more about about ottonova, the first digital health insurance in Germany.
As you’re looking for a flat, you’ll need to think about just where in Berlin you want to live. There are many things to consider when choosing a neighborhood such as proximity to public transit, noise levels, convenient access to basic amenities like supermarkets, Apothekes, and post offices, how expensive the rent will be, and more.
In East Berlin, you can choose from these main areas:
- Prenzlauer Berg – A very beautiful area filled with dreamy Altbaus and tree lined cobblestoned streets. It’s full of bars and restaurants, yet also has its quiet streets. It’s an area loved by families and English-speaking expats. However, it’s one of the most expensive areas in the city and is now unaffordable for most of us.
- Mitte – Some parts of Mitte are beautiful, but it’s an expensive place best suited for tourists. Most apartments lean towards clean and modern. It’s gentrified and expensive, with many residential buildings have more holidays flats than local residents.
- Friedrichshain – Some streets in Friedrichshain are very nice and filled with lovely Altbaus, but unless you want to live in the middle of a big noisy block party filled with drunk tourists and locals, avoid living too close to Boxhagener Platz or Revalerstr (i.e. close to the Urban Spree and RAW-Gelände). It tends to be an area favored by people in their early 20s.
- Lichtenberg – This area has an unfairly bad rap. It’s located outside of the Ring and although it has several good transit connections, several parts are not that pretty, filled with row after row of tall Soviet-style Plattenbaus and a lot of industrial and commercial properties. However, the rents in this neighborhood are much cheaper than the rest of Berlin and as transit is so good, you can be in most other parts of the city in less than 30 minutes. The area surrounding the Lichtenberg S-Bahn is quite nice, as is Rummelsburg and Nöldnerplatz.
West Berlin includes these main areas:
- Kreuzberg – It’s gritty in the sense that it’s filled with street art, home to Myfest celebrations, and there’s tons of cheap places to grab a Döner. Some areas along the canal are really beautiful. It’s party central, filled with tons of cool bars, decent restaurants, and clubs. But it’s just another expensive and gentrified area that caters more to expats and tourists than locals. Most of the area’s residents have either been priced out or will soon be priced out.
- Schöneberg – It’s a decent area filled many peaceful residential streets and not completely gentrified. Nicer parts can be found close to Kleistpark and Akazienstraße.
- Charlottenburg & Wilmersdorf – Some parts of the area are nice (and also very fancy), especially around Savignyplatz and Kurfürstendamm. There’s a lot of great restaurants and bars in the area that don’t tend to get a lot of attention. Avoid living close to the Zoo, but definitely head there to hang out at Monkey Bar or the rooftop bar at Motel One Upper West.
- Neukölln – A cool area that’s becoming more Kreuzberg like by the day. It’s packed with restaurants, bars, and clubs, but is sadly getting more expensive and crowded. Nicer spots to live are near the canal and Richardplatz/Rixdorf. Some areas are actually also quiet, but you have search them out. A good place to live if you’re lucky enough to find an affordable apartment.
- Wedding – Wedding has been getting nicer over the years and it’s another area that hasn’t been completely transformed by gentrification. While craft beer breweries and tech hubs are popping up, you can find affordable housing here. Some areas are still not that nice, so choose wisely when you embark on your Berlin flat hunt.
- Moabit & Tiergarten – Moabit is another area that’s just starting to gentrify, so as with Wedding, rents are also affordable here. There is plenty of green space, nice Altbaus, and a quiet vibe. Living close to Potsdamer Platz is not advisable as it’s very busy and commercial, but there are some nice, albeit expensive rental flats to be found around Gleisdreieck (and hello BRLO!).
Truth be told, finding a flat will probably be the single most difficult thing after you move to Berlin. The competition for getting a flat is high and much to the dismay of locals, the rents are going up each year. Unless you’re prepared to shell out a lot of dough, scoring a flat with the amenities you like in a desirable neighborhood is probably going to take you a long time – somewhere around one to several months.
When searching for a flat in Berlin, consider the local perspective. While you may come from a notoriously expensive city like New York and find Berlin “cheap” – know that cheap is a fairly subjective term. When you close a contract on a new place for an exorbitant amount of rent, you contribute to making that the new norm across the city’s rental landscape. Luckily, drastic plans are underway to try and help everyone involved (fingers crossed some of those measures come through). Use this rent calculator to determine if the rent being asked for is fair. Be sure to join the Berliner Mieterverien as well, the local tenants association who can give legal advice and help resolve any disputes with landlords.
So, what do you do while you’re looking for that perfect flat? Live in a shared flat, take out a temporary sublet, or pay way too much to live in a “co-living” space. If you can, avoid renting an Airbnb or other holiday flats. Use websites like WG-Gesucht.de, search Facebook groups like Temporary Flat Rentals In Berlin, and classifieds eBay Kleinanzeigen to find listings. For even more help, check out these Facebook groups. If you have friends here already, don’t be hesitant to tap into your existing network.
Recommended reading: If you’re moving around a lot, consider this article – Tips For Moving House In Berlin
For something more long term, you can still use the above websites, but also try Immowelt, Immobilien Scout, and Immonet. One tip for success is scouring the sites daily and responding very quickly to new listings. You can also setup email alerts to get notified whenever new ones are posted. Another success tip is be relentlessly persistent – for example, a colleague of mine spent hours sending out hundreds of emails out daily. Another tip is to have all of the relevant paperwork together when you go to viewings (SCHUFA, bank account, bank statements, copy of your passport etc.). Another option to increase your chances of scoring a Berlin flat is to be willing to go outside of the Ring – you’d be surprised how many lovely areas are outside of the city center. Not only this, the chance of finding a reasonably priced flat goes way up. I live in Lichtenberg and some of my favorite areas of Berlin can be reached within 20-30 minutes on transit. My cold rent is for a 55 square meter apartment is way lower than many of my friends living in the hot spots like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg.
Some other things to help you with your Berlin flat search? Make yourself familiar with how apartments are advertised here and adjust your expectations – a one room apartment in Germany is not a one-bedroom apartment as it is in the US or Canada. Apartments often come without kitchen appliances and even cabinets, which is shocking for some newcomers. As it the amount of money you need to budget for a kitchen purchase. Know the difference between warm and cold rent. Find out what’s included in your rental contract, what you need to pay monthly, and what bills you might get at the end of the year. Lastly, watch out for scams as they are rampant. For example, a landlord is legally not allowed to ask you to pay for more than three months’ rent. Never pay a deposit without seeing a place and signing a lease.
Searching for a flat in Berlin is a daunting for the best of us and it may even feel hopeless at times. It’s not uncommon for people to move around a lot during their first months here because of limited term sublets or brief forays at holiday flats leaving you feeling perpetually unsettled. You can go to a viewing and find hundreds of others waiting in line and the likelihood of you scoring a flat over all of them will not be high. If you’re a foreigner – especially a person of color, you could be passed over time and time again. Same as if they see you are still on probation with a company or a freelancer with a meagre income. It’s tough but stay as positive as possible and keep it up. At some point, you’ll find something.
If you want help with your Berlin flat search process, consider hiring a realtor. They’ll do all of the work for you – the only downside is their fees are quite high. Considering that you’re going to need up to a three-month deposit, assume moving fees, and possibly buying an entire new kitchen, it’s a lot of extra money to dole out.
We could go on more and more about flat hunting in Berlin, but we’ll save that for another post. In the meantime, we hope that we’ve provided enough basic tips and information to get your started.
Once you’ve moved into your new room or flat, you’ll need to register your new address at any Bürgeramt in Berlin. You have up to 14 days after moving in to complete the process.
Bring valid identification (your passport or work permit will be sufficient), your previous Anmeldung (if applicable), your new lease, this form filled out and signed by your landlord, and this form filled out by you. If you don’t want to start paying church taxes, be sure to not tick off your specific religion when filling out your form, as it can start getting quite costly.
It used to be difficult to score an appointment at a Bürgeramt but according to locals this is no longer the case. You can reserve a spot online or call this hotline at at (030) 90 24 99 0 (open weekdays from 7:00 am – 8:00 pm) to speak with a human and have someone help you set up an appointment within one to two weeks. If you have free time and don’t mind waiting for one to several hours, you can also show up to some Bürgeramts and get seen on the same day. Note, this doesn’t always work with the more busy Bürgeramts (i.e. Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg), so journeying to an outlying area of Berlin (Marzahn or Lichtenberg) will increase your chances of getting an appointment.
Pro tip? Find out what forms of payment the specific Bürgeramt will accept and come prepared accordingly. Some only accept cash, others only EC card.
One of the most critical things you need to do after you’ve moved to Berlin is to open up a bank account. You’ll need an account as soon as possible in order to pay your rent, receive your salary, signup for a mobile phone plan, and more. A standard checking account, called a Girokonto, is what most people start our with.
Opening up a bank account in Berlin can be more difficult than you think as banks are often not as open to foreigners as they could be and at times, even go so far as to refuse your request to do business with them. However, if you come armed with your passport, Anmeldung, visa papers, employment contract, and recent bank statements from home, you shouldn’t have any problem getting an account.
Some of the big banks in Germany include Sparkasse, Postbank, Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, and Volksbank. Know that bank employees often don’t speak English and may require you to make an appointment for a later date when an English speaking employee is available. Whenever possible, always try to use an ATM (Geldautomat) linked to your German bank account as the processing fees are unusually high in Germany if you use another’s banks ATM. You can pay upwards of €5 for a single transaction. One of the things I like about being a customer of Sparkasse is they have ATMs and branches all around Berlin. Most bank accounts will have a low monthly fee associated with them as well. For example, I pay €3 per month for my basic account with Sparkasse.
More modern banks without physical offices and way more sophisticated tech include N26, DKB, and ING. In particular, N26 offers an easy signup process, will let you open an account without having an address registered, and employs English-speaking customer service staff. Many of my colleagues and friends are big fans of the company.
Most banks will also offer the possibility of opening a savings account (Sparbuch), running an overdraft (Disposition Kredit), getting a credit card, and other loans like a Mietkautionskonto which will cover your deposit costs for renting a new apartment.
If you need to transfer money from your bank account in your home country to your German bank account, consider using Transferwise. Their fees are quite cheap and the transfers are usually done within 1-2 business days. For more information, see Essential Tools An Expat in Germany Can’t Live Without.
✅ Ensure You’ve Received Your Tax ID
Other items for our moving to Berlin guide? After you’ve registered your address at the Bürgeramt, the Federal Central Tax Office (Finanzamt) will send your tax ID visa post. This tax identification number (Identifikationsnummer) is an 11-digit number that will serve as your tax ID for the duration of your time in Germany. It typically arrives within a couple of weeks. It’s something your employer will ask for when you start work.
Your identification number may also be referred to as a Steueridentifikationsnummer or Steuer-ID. Note – this is different than getting a tax number (Steuernummer) that’s needed to work as a freelancer.
✅ Get A Transit Pass
While walking or cycling is our most highly recommended form of moving around, Berlin’s an expansive city spanning almost 900 square kilometers. This makes the (mostly) efficient public transportation system the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to get to different areas. So you’re going to need a transit pass to move around Berlin.
If you’re infrequent user, buying a ticket in a station, onboard a vehicle, or via the BVG app is sufficient. If you’re a heavy user like me (commuting from Lichtenburg to Schöneberg and back each day for work), buying a monthly or annual pass will save you a lot of money. An annual pass for the AB zone will cost you about €64 per month. If you’re unable to commit to purchasing an annual pass because you travel out of the city or country a lot, you can purchase a monthly pass for the AB zone for €81 per month.
View the 2019 BVG fare prices.
✅ Find A Mobile Phone Provider
One perk of moving to Berlin is that you can get a cheap mobile phone plan from a number of different providers. To get started, make sure you’ve registered your address at a Bürgeramt. You won’t be able to get a plan or contract without having done this. Your phone will also need to be unlocked in order to work with your new German telephone number. Next, choose between having a prepaid plan or a contract. Regardless of which option you choose, you will also be required to buy a new SIM card.
For those (like me) who are averse to long term contracts with telecom companies, prepaid plans are the obvious choice. Popular mobile phone plans in Germany include Aldi Talk, Blau, Congstar Prepaid, Lidl Connect, Edeka Mobile, Otelo, and Tchibo Mobile. I personally use Aldi Talk and spend €14.99 monthly for 6 GB of data.
If you’re open to a contract with a bigger company, especially worthwhile if you’re looking to purchase a new phone or get another service like home internet, consider Vodafone, T-Mobile, O2, 1&1, and Base. Note – most of these German telecoms will lock you into a minimum one-year contract that will require around three month’s notice should you wish to terminate.
One cool thing about getting a new German phone number is that under most providers, you no longer have to pay roaming fees when you’re travelling within the European Union (EU)! Just don’t forget to turn off roaming when you visit countries like Switzerland who are not in the EU.
✅ Get On The Internet
Continuing with our moving to Berlin guide – you’re also going to need to get online and for that you need to get an internet connection. For some unfathomable reason, getting an internet connection installed in your new Berlin flat might be one of the more difficult things to get once you move here. It’s a process that’s going to require an extreme amount of patience and perseverance on your part. First, you have to wait for your modem to arrive by mail and then later, for a technician to do their thing in your building. This is where it can get really challenging – you or your landlord have to be there to let them in, sometimes the technicians don’t show up and you have to arrange for a new appointment, and other times the setup fails for technical reasons. I’ve known some people who’ve waited up to three months to have their internet installed.
Even worse, once you finally get online, you won’t find top notch high speeds either. The infrastructure is dated and most Internet connections are slow in Germany. There are even dead areas in some parts of Berlin!
Most internet packages will run you around €20 – €40 per month and on average be around 16 megabits per second. It’s not fabulous, but if Netflix works, what more do you need? Most telecoms will also charge you a one-time setup fee.
Some of the main providers in Berlin include 1&1, PYUR, o2, Vodafone, and Deutsche Telekom. You can also look for special offers on Check24. Know that not all providers cover all areas of Berlin. For example, my entire block of buildings is serviced by a single provider (PYUR) and I’m stuck with them whether I like it or not.
✅ Get Your Child Into A Kita
Not everyone arrives in Berlin single and ready to mingle. Many expats start a new life in Berlin alongside their children.
If your kids are not yet of school age (usually under six years old) and you need someone to take care of your children while you work, you will likely want to put them into daycare, otherwise known as Kita (short for Kindertagesstätte). The good news is that kitas in Berlin are fully funded by the state and you’ll only need to pay expenses for food, language instruction, and other special activities. This tends never be more than €100 per month, way more affordable than what full-time daycare tends to cost abroad in places like Canada. Parents are also allowed to opt out of these costs.
Some basic guidelines about kitas – children under one year can attend kita for 4-5 hours per day. These half days (halbtags) can be a blessing to any new mother who needs to get back to work. You will need to prove this to receive the care and can be easily done by showing work contracts. Kids over one year old are eligible to receive 5 – 7 hours of free care per day (teilzeit) and kids over 3 are entitled to 7 – 9 hours per day (ganztags). You can also get more hours if both parents need to work fulltime.
Now time for the bad news, it’s notoriously difficult to find a kita for your children in Berlin. Many kitas have waiting lists of one year or more! Start your search using this directory of Kitas on Berlin.de, Kita.de, and Kita Suche. Next, start contacting and visiting kitas in your neighborhood or somewhere close to your work. The wider you’re able to expand your search radius, the greater your chances of finding a kita with an opening for your child. Like searching for an apartment, you need to be persistent and keep on with this process until you start getting responses. When you start getting appointments, ask lots of questions, and don’t feel forced to sign a contract. Later, you can make an informed decision which kita is best for your family.
Note – all kitas will need a Kitagutschein from you, a voucher that enables your kid to free daycare. You will need to apply for this beforehand at your Jugendamt.
When your child starts kita, they will spend anywhere from two to five weeks going through an adjustment phase, known as Eingewohnung. At the start, you will need to stay there with your child and then slowly begin to leave the kita for short periods of time until your child has become fully adjusted to you not being them.
Note, you are not required to put your child into daycare. It’s simply a very convenient option for families living in Berlin. Many families also opt to hire au pairs or Tagesmutters.
✅ Select An Electricity Provider
Unless the cost of electricity is included in the cost of your rent (normal for holiday and other types of serviced flats), you’ll need to select an electricity provider in Berlin.
Shop around and compare the costs of electricity providers in Berlin by taking a look on websites like Check24, VERIVOX, and Preisvergleich. They consolidate all the latest offerings from the numerous electricity companies and present you with the best offers. As the market is so competitive, many electricity providers even provide signup and loyalty bonuses as an incentive. Some offer long term price guarantees as well. Be careful and do your research, as some German electricity companies have gone bankrupt and taken their customers’ money with them.
Signing up is pretty straightforward and you’ll have yourself a sweet deal on your electricity in no time. Know that most companies will run a credit check on you and if you’ve had any bad financial experiences here, your application will be rejected. You need to have a clean SCHUFA record! If they turn you down, fear not as there’s always companies like Vattenfall, who by law aren’t allowed to reject you. However, Vattenfall tends to be expensive, so look elsewhere as you can literally save hundreds of euros per year. Most electricity companies will also request the current meter reading – if you don’t have access to your meter, contact your Hausmeister for that information.
When you move into your new flat, you may notice that the electricity is already switched on. When the previous tenants move out of a flat in Germany, they don’t automatically turn off the electricity. Although this gives you a grace period, don’t take it for granted that the free light will last forever. Signup with a provider and get a contract right away. They’ll then charge you for your past consumption based on your move in date.
Your initial monthly fee is typically calculated based on the electricity consumption habits of the previous tenant. When I moved into my current flat, Vattenfall charged me just over €50 per month. However, at the end of the year, my monthly fee was reduced to €25 per month because I used way less electricity than the last tenant (who seemed to have used a crazy amount of energy!). Bonus is that I also received a €150 refund. You can expect your monthly fee to be adjusted yearly based on your consumption over the previous year. I’ve stayed at €25 for the past two years.
✅ Purchase All Of The Insurances
Another (not so fun) part of our moving to Berlin guide is insurance. Germans are super big fans of having insurance. Outside of health insurance, many people opt to have a number of other types of insurance like home insurance, life insurance, personal liability insurance, legal insurance, accident insurance, and more. Best of all, the cost of insurance in Germany is usually pretty affordable.
Here are some of the main types of insurance you should think about after you move to Berlin:
- Home Insurance (Hausratversicherung) – this form of insurance covers any items you own in your flat from your big screen TV, to laptop, furniture, rare book collection etc. in the event of theft, fire, or water damage. Note that Hausratversicherung doesn’t cover damages to your home itself like roofs, balconies, walls, floors, etc.
- Life Insurance (Lebensversicherung) – a typical insurance that pays out money to your loved ones in the event of your death.
- Personal Liability Insurance (Haftpflichtversicherung) – everyone in Germany has this insurance – well almost everyone with 85% of residents having personal liability insurance. If you tell a German person you don’t have it, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy, and they’ll be right. Personal liability covers your liability in the event of an accident. For example, you could on your way to work via the S-Bahn and you spill your morning coffee on someone’s laptop, not only damaging their laptop but also preventing them from working and making a living. Perhaps you’re riding your bike and crash into another cyclist, damaging their bicycle. In either of those cases, you would be held liable for the costs of replacing a laptop, the person’s lost wages, and fixing their bicycle. Failing to have this insurance could end up costing you a whole lot of money, so be sure to purchase personal liability insurance after you’ve moved to Berlin.
- Legal Insurance (Rechtsschutzversicherung) – legal insurance covers any legal costs you would assume if you sue someone (like your employer or landlord) or if someone sues you. It covers your lawyer’s fees, court fees, and even the legal costs of the opposing side should you lose your battle. Note that it doesn’t cover damages to be paid if you lose your court case.
- Accident Insurance (Unfallversicherung) – accident insurance that will be paid out should you become severely injured or handicapped after a serious accident.
Believe it or not, there are many more types of insurance available in Germany and these are just some! What type of insurance you need is up to you, it all depends on your situation, how much risk your willing to assume, and more. I personally have accident insurance, personal liability insurance, and home insurance with Berliner Sparkasse. Other insurance companies like Coya, getsafe, Haftpflichthelden, Allianz, and DA Direkt are recommended to get started. Use sites like Check24 to compare costs and find deals or even better, hire an insurance broker to help you through the process.
✅ Get Your Driver’s License
Whether you don’t have your driver’s license yet or you need to transfer your driver’s license from your home country, the process of getting a German driver’s license takes some serious time and money.
If you already have a driver’s license from another country within the EU, you can continue using it until it’s expiration. If you have a driver’s licence from somewhere else in the world, you’re allowed to use it for up to six months after your arrival in Germany. At some point though, you’ll need to get a German driver’s licence and depending on where you’re from, you can convert it and not have to complete all the steps outlined below.
To qualify for a driver’s license, you need to be 18 years old (or 17 years old if accompanied by a guardian). Most people get a category B driver’s license (Personenkraftwagen, also known as PKW), which will enable you to drive both automatic and manual cars.
Next is making an appointment to apply for a driver’s license at the local office, the Berlin Fahrerlaubnisbehörde. Whether you’re applying for the first time or converting your license, it will take around 4 – 6 weeks for your application to be processed. Things you’ll need for the application include photo ID, a first-aid course certificate, vision test certificate, cash (between €35 – €48), registration in a local driving school, and more. Get more detailed information for first time applicants and those converting their license.
After your application is processed, you will need to pass the German driver’s license tests. First up is completing a written test within 12 months of submitting your application and after that, is completing a practical test within 12 months of passing your theoretical exam. You can usually take both tests in English. The written test is comprised of 30 questions, drawn from a pool of 1000. The failure rate for this test is astoundingly high – we advise to study hard to ensure you don’t have to pay and go through the process more than once. The practical test involves around one hour with an instructor who’ll ask you questions about how your car works, followed by a normal driver’s test that will have you driving through the city doing things like parallel parking and then speeding along the Autobahn doing things like properly changing lanes.
After you have done both tests, you will be awarded with a temporary license. Then you can pick up your real license at the Farherlaubnisbehörde. Note, they don’t allow you to make appointments there and the lineups can be long.
Budget anywhere from €1000 – €2000 to cover the entire process from start to finish, including lessons, the exams, and other miscellaneous fees.
✅ Pay The TV Fee (Rundfunkbeitrag)
Not long after you’ve registered your address, you’ll get a letter in the mail asking you to start paying for public broadcasting fees.
This Rundfunkbeitrag (or GEZ fee as it’s locally known) is a tax that all households in Germany must pay regardless of whether or not you own a TV or radio, whether or not you know German, or how long you plan to stay. The cash they collect is used to finance the production and broadcasting of content by public channels – think NPR or PBS in America or CBC in Canada.
Let’s not waste time debating the value of this fee or whether or not you should have to pay – kindly spare us the rants in the local Facebook groups where people complain about it ad nauseam. Consider it a cost of living in Germany and pay up. After all, it’s not that much at €17.50 monthly (usually billed in quarterly installments). Register with the ARD ZDF Deutschlandradio Beitragservice (a joint organization of public broadcasting institutions and other public law affiliates). For a lowdown of the fee, read this PDF in English.
If you live in a WG (a shared flat with roommates) and someone else in your household is already paying, there’s no need for you to pay too. Just get in touch with the ARD ZDF Deutschlandradio Beitragservice to find out how you can avoid paying double. Exceptions are also made to people who are unemployed, live on a low income, have health issues or a form of disability, or are in Germany with asylum status.
There are many Germans who protest this fee and refuse to pay, but this isn’t recommended or it’s done at your own risk. Skipping out on payments is against the law. If you haven’t paid what’s owed, they’ll start sending warning letters and charging interest. With time, they can take stronger action including seizing your bank account.
If you’re leaving Germany permanently, be sure to not only de-register with the Bürgeramt, but directly with the ARD ZDF Deutschlandradio Beitragservice as well.
✅ Hire A German Accountant
Another key item for our moving to Berlin guide is to talk about how important an accountant can be in your life.
If you work in a permanent position, filing your taxes is something that you need to be in a rush to do. It’s also fairly easy to do so with user friendly online tools like SteuerGo and Wundertax available in English. You likely will not require the service of an accountant.
But if you work as a freelancer, you will likely need help navigating the complexities of the German tax system – one of the most complex tax laws in the world! Most Germans don’t understand the tax systems themselves and hire accountants to help them along the way. An accountant can assist with getting your Steuernummer for example – to apply for one you need to fill out an eight-page form called the “Fragebogen zur steuerlichen Erfassung”! They can also help you learn how to create invoices, how to deduct expenses, when to start charging VAT, submit VAT payments to the Finanzamt, as well as filing your annual income taxes and in some cases, paying income taxes in advance. Hiring and then retaining an accountant in Berlin will make your life here easier. The costs of their services are usually high but are always well worth the expense.
✅ Get A Doctor & A Dentist
While ottonova can help you can any kind of doctor that you need in Berlin, there are other places to find them as well. Check any of the Berlin Facebook groups for firsthand recommendations. You can also find search for doctors close to where you live and work and who speak your language, be it English, Spanish, or even Chinese at aerzte-berlin.de, jameda, and Kassenärztliche Vereinigung Berlin.
My family doctor is in Prenzlauer Berg, die hausärzte, and I highly recommend them. You can even visit without an appointment (although the waiting time might be long) and the doctors all speak English if needed. As for dentists, I recommend Stefan Kerstinger’s practice (also located in Prenzlauer Berg). They are highly professional, not over-the-top expensive, speak English, and offer evening appointments.
✅ Make Friends
Many people find Berlin’s a lonely city and say it’s tough to make quality friends here due to the population being a rather transient one. People certainly do come and go, with some here on a limited work contract, others on a one year working holiday visa, some to earn their degree, and many, simply to “find themselves” (whatever that means). On the other hand, there’s also a massive number of us who are here for the long-term and like you, want to make friends.
Berlin’s an international city with people from the world over, all with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests. Almost everyone is looking to connect with others be it for someone to jog with in the mornings, have coffee with, meet for a playdate with your kids, and even partake in epic long nights of clubbing. With the massive number of meetups, Facebook groups, and other private communities that have sprung up on Slack, Whatsapp etc., it’s almost impossible not to meet new people and make one or more long term connections.
If you’re open to it, making friends in Berlin can be done rather easily. To meet people, we recommend doing things like take a language class, do volunteer work, join a meetup, and even go to a bar by yourself. There’s something to do each and every day in the city, plenty of people to do it with, and this is what makes Berlin an exciting place to make friends.
✅ Hit The Gym
Continuing with our moving to Berlin guide, let’s talk about gym memberships. Are you looking to get into shape and detox after all those nights out clubbing? You’ll be happy to know that costs for a membership here are much cheaper than they are in places like the US, Canada, or Australia. You can often find gyms offering contracts for as little as €10 – €20 a month!
You can also signup with companies like Urban Sports Club and Gympass (I’m signed up with them now). With their various monthly plans, you can access gyms, pools, and other facilities across the city. Some of the premium plans include classes and even massages. I often find my bliss at Baan-Nuad Thai Massage, as well as Vabali Spa.
✅ Search For A Hair Stylist
So who’s going to cut and colour your hair in Berlin? I’m very particular about who I let touch my hair – for either a cut or color. I admit to being spoiled by a very talented hair stylist in Toronto who I was a loyal client of for several years. Finding someone equal to her in Berlin was very difficult and I had one horrible experience after another. If you’re a man looking for a basic shave, trim, or cut, almost any place will do. Likewise, if you’re a woman with long locks that you don’t color often or only desire a basic haircut, any hair stylist will suffice. But if you’re looking for a more complex style and color – say balayage work, the process to find a stylist who will do right by you is tough. Some local ladies even go as far to fly to London for a weekend to get their hair done.
I’d also recommend Icono in Berlin. I frequent the one on Friedrichstr and see one of the senior hair stylists there. It’s pricey, but for me, worth the expense two to three times per year.
Have we missed anything with our moving to Berlin guide? Do you have any personal recommendations for doctors, dentists, or hair stylists for examples? Do you have any advice for fellow Berlin newbies. Drop a line in the comments below.
Good to Know
1) If you’re looking to explore Berlin, book a city tour.
2) Visiting Berlin? Look for hotels over on booking.com.
3) If hotels aren’t your style, book an Airbnb apartment. First time Airbnb users can use this link for a €34 travel credit.
4) If you’re thinking about road tripping through Germany, rent a car.
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*Disclosure – In order to help you cover all your bases on topics like health insurance then you settle into your new Berlin life, I collaborated with ottonova and Chatterbug. As always, any opinions expressed here are entirely my own.