Living in Europe had crossed my mind plenty of times before, but I always struck it down as soon as it did. Without a Master of Engineering or a Swedish husband, I assumed that the paperwork would make moving to Berlin impossible. But, I have to say, there’s nothing like shit hitting the fan to make a girl chase down her wildest dreams.
Moving to Germany isn’t the same for all passports or professions, but as a [US] American in a creative field, I found the process quite easy. Ready to pack your bags, get your German Freelance Visa, and relocate to the very wurst country on earth? I promise you that you’re in for the time of your life. Here are practicalities you should know when moving to Berlin.
The First Steps of Moving to Berlin
Step 1 | Make Your Appointments (… way ahead of time)
Some nationalities need a visa before travel, while other nationalities can convert their permit in-country. If you’re eligible to apply upon arrival, here are a few things to consider before even moving to Berlin.
Book your Appointments at the Buergeramt and Ausländerbehörde: Within 14 days of arrival, you’re supposed to register your place of residence. Book an appointment at the buergeramt (citizen’s office) as early as you can because these can be booked out for months at a time. Next, you’ll want to make an appointment for the ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s office) so you can change your status from a tourist visa to a freelancer, student, jobseeker etc. Your appointment at the Ausländerbehörde requires a lot of preparation before you turn up (details below, so book an appointment at the ausländerbehörde months in advance, but also allow yourself plenty of time to complete your anmeldung, set up your accounts, and find German clients.
Can’t make an appointment within 14 days or 3 months of arrival? The German government is well aware of the scheduling issues. If you can’t find an appointment, your best option is to get to the office early (around 5 am) and wait for one to open up. You can also check appointment times online at 8 am as that’s when the system refreshes. If these options fail, it’s quite common for people to overstay their tourist visa with proof of appointment. This can make leaving the country difficult, and I’m not sure how legal it is, so this should be your last resort!
Step 2 | Finding a Flat in Berlin
Berlin’s housing market is awfully competitive. Since 2004, rent prices have increased 115%. Even so, rents are far cheaper than other spots in Western Europe. A room in a flatshare starts around €400 while a private flat costs closer to €700+. Most of the city’s young and trendy (did I just make myself sound uncool?) choose to live in Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Friedrichshain, but Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, and Charlottenburg are probably the loveliest parts of town. Before securing your spot in a flat, spend some time wandering and see which Berlin neighborhood really stands out to you.
What is a Wohngemeinschaften (WG)? The easiest way to find a flat when moving to Berlin is by landing a WG (flatshare) and subletting the room under someone else’s lease. Berlin has ditched Craigslist in favor of WG-Gesucht and Facebook groups like WG-Zimmer & Whnungen Berlin or Flats in Berlin. Housing scams in Berlin are rampant, so read the descriptions, and be careful with too good to be true offers. If you’re desperate to find a place, apply to 5-10 good enough flats every day until you hear back. Make your subject line catchy and share some memorable details about yourself.
What about Private Flats? Finding a private flat is kind of a chicken and egg situation – you can’t get the required documents without an apartment but you can’t get an apartment without the documents. If you want a private place, be prepared to navigate some paperwork and to go to a lot of showings.
What the hell is Anmeldung? As noted above, Anmeldung is the residence registration required of everyone living in Germany. Within 14 days of arriving in Berlin, you’ll need to register your place of residence. After you’ve made your appointment, simply bring your passport, your lease, your completed registration, and confirmation of residence. Here’s some guidance on completing your anmeldung in English. Note: Germany charges residents a church tax. If you declare a religion on your anmeldung, you’ll pay an additional 8% tax.
Step 3 | Getting Around
Transportation in Berlin is kind of a dream. With incredible public transport and bike lanes everywhere, owning a car is wholly unnecessary.
Public Transport: Berlin has a U-Bahn, an S-Bahn, and busses that are all part of the same network. If you’re doing most of your travel within Zone AB, you can pick up a monthly pass for €81 (2017) that entitles you to unlimited, all-hours travel. Berlin doesn’t require you to scan your ticket with each ride like other major cities. Instead, you’ll flash your card to bus drivers or expect sporadic checks by undercover officers on the trains. Fines are up to €60 and quite embarrassing to get. Download the FahrInfo App for bus and train routes.
Biking: Berlin isn’t as highly esteemed as Copenhagen when it comes to bike culture, but with 344 biking routes, it’s still an amazing place to ride. Traffic is relatively relaxed and much of the city can be reached in just 15-20 minutes. To buy a bike in Berlin, use Facebook groups like Sell & Buy Your Bike Berlin or scout second-hand bikes at bike markets or weekend flea markets. There’s no need to get fancy when it comes to biking in Berlin — it will probably get stolen anyway.
Step 4 | Getting Connected
If you’re planning to move to Berlin long term (or short term for that matter) you should absolutely get a German SIM card. After you’ve unlocked your phone, you can choose between SIM cards that are pre-paid and on contract. The most popular provider is Aldi Talk, but most companies charge similar rates for minutes and data. You can buy a SIM card at grocery stores and phone stores around the city. Download WhatsApp to stay in touch.
Step 5 | Learning German in Berlin
Berlin is an international city so English is widely spoken. I’ll admit you CAN absolutely survive living in Berlin without speaking German, but there are two compelling reasons to learn: you’ll find a better job and you’ll get more from your experience. After a couple of shameful encounters at the grocery store (like setting off the store alarm over a pot of sour cream), I started taking classes. There are tons of language schools in Berlin, but I chose to study German in Friedrichshain at Speakeasy Berlin. Courses range from €115-€350 and it’s a completely worthwhile investment. I came out of the A1.1 course able to speak some basic German and ready for more classes in the winter. Do yourself a favor and at least get a foundation in German so you can pick up more on your own!
Step 6 | Finding the Fun in Berlin
You’d be challenged to find a cooler city to live in than Berlin. It sometimes seems like everyone in Berlin is fascinating, single, attractive, creative, and just a little bit crazy. There are dozens of events happening every day at all hours (truly ALL hours), and sifting through them can take time and effort. Most of the city’s best events are pop up, underground, or sporadically available, so unless you manage to find some extra in-the-know friends, you’ll have to do the research yourself.
Here are a few of my favorite resources for finding fun things to do in Berlin:
Facebook: A Facebook search for “events in Berlin” can yield hundreds of shows, food festivals, and gallery openings. Just tick that you’re “Interested”, and when the event comes up, Facebook will shoot you a reminder about what’s on for the weekend. You can also join in expat groups like Berlin Expats or interest groups like Artists in Berlin to read and participate in the conversation.
Resident Advisor: Check out Resident Advisor for upcoming shows if you’re into music
Index Berlin: Index Berlin is your spot for discovering art gallery openings or art shows by neighborhood.
Meetup: Meetup is the preferred choice of the lonely and new in town. There are groups offering anything from dining out, to board games, to salsa, so if you’re looking for something to do and friends to do it with, this is a good resource.
Eventbrite: Eventbrite is a great place to find cool events or workshops happening in Berlin.
Tinder & Bumble: Love them or hate them, dating apps are an awesome way to meet new people when you move to Berlin alone.
GetYourGuide: When you move to a new city, it’s easy to figure you’ll do all the things you’re supposed to do eventually. But if you want to be sure you learn a bit about the city’s history, get a grasp on the street art scene, or taste some of Berlin’s best currywurst, once you arrive by booking a tour on GetYourGuide
Step 7 | Setting Up your Accounts
If you’re planning to apply for a German Freelance Visa, there are a few things you need to take care of months ahead of time. You’ll need a small mountain of paperwork to apply, but first, you’ll want to take care of the simple things like getting a bank account and German health insurance.
Banking in Berlin: Setting up a bank account in Berlin used to be a lot tougher, but N26 has completely flipped the process. Registration can be completed from your phone in 8 minutes and includes video verification. You’ll receive a MasterCard that can be used at a huge network of partner ATMs, and deposits can be made by creating a voucher through the app and taking cash to partner locations (like grocery stores). Most every bill in Berlin is payable by direct deposit and requires an IBAN, so the sooner you set up your account, the better. Learn more about N26 in a post by How I Travel.
Health Insurance in Berlin: Adequate health insurance is a key requirement for your visa application. The definition of adequate, however, varies depending on who actually processes your paperwork. Consider a policy from a German company or with a German underwriter for the best chance of approval. There are tons of providers and strange caveats, so meet with a consultant or ask a company like Expath before committing to a two-year contract.
Step 8 | Getting a Job in Berlin
The tech and cultural scene in Berlin are booming, and there’s never really been a better time to move here for anyone moving to Berlin without a job. There are a handful of English speaking jobs which you can find on the appropriately named Facebook group English Speaking Jobs in Berlin, though learning German will greatly improve your chances of getting a job. Before applying for your permit, you’ll need to show letters of intent from two German clients.
So where do you actually find clients? The secret is joining a language school or coworking space. Finding a spot like betahaus, Factory, or Ahoy! to settle in will give you the chance to meet other businesses, get into freelancer events, and even make a few friends. While these letters don’t need to be formal contracts, you improve your chances by getting letters that specific and specify a pay rate and going concern. If you’re struggling to find work locally, Upwork and People Per Hour are good freelancer marketplaces to keep you afloat.
Step 9 | Getting your German Freelance Visa
Getting the German Freelance Visa isn’t inherently complicated, but it does require attention to detail (folders, folders, folders!). It also requires loads of paperwork. Most basically, you’ll need the following: an application form (Antrag auf Erteilung eines Aufenthaltstitels), proof of residence (anmeldung), your rental contract, health insurance, letters of intent from clients, recent bank statements with sufficient funds, a revenue forecast, a finance plan, a resumé, diplomas and certifications, letters of recommendation, a printed portfolio, a biometric photo, and 50-110€.
There are tons of dirty details on the actual application process I won’t go into here, but check out this article on How to Get the German Freelance Visa written by one of my pals. If you’re applying for another type of visa (ie. language learning, study prep visa) get in touch with Speakeasy Berlin for assistance.