Black, Gold, and Red Tape: Getting Started in Germany

Sorry for the lack of updates, but the past few weeks have been an bit of gnarly snarl. Like with any international move, there’s a lot of moving parts, bureaucratic processes, and exhaustive red tape. In my experience, however, the “moving parts” in this move to Germany have been less of a logical Domino effect (first you need > then you need), and more of an interlocking web of gears (consider it a cuckoo-clock of chaos).

Case in point? My “Moving to Germany as a non-EU citizen” flowchart, exhibit A:

Moving to DL is easy!

Guys, it’s EASY! Kein problem. All you need is one thing, which is ACTUALLY dependent on three other things you can’t get without something that is dependent on the first thing. Paperwork! Organization! …Efficiency?

Some rational Germans are occasionally willing to overlook certain requisites because they know the system is rigged. For example, I was able to apply for a bank account without first having the government proof of residence (Meldesheinigung) and only with my Wohnungsgeberbestätigung. Which is good, considering that I can’t get paid without it and now owe rent every month.

To be fair, this process is infinitely harder as an American. EU countries and other internationals can use their home banks’ IBAN number to start a number of these processes without first getting a German bank account. But U.S. bank accounts don’t have IBAN numbers, so to do transactions like transferring money or getting paid is impossible without costly fees or long processing times.

Lucky for me, I came to Germany with a network of friends who either a) fronted me money, b) let my hobo-self crash their rooms, c) served as translators, d) fed me chocolate, or e) all of the above’d me to sanity as I first figured out what was needed where and then proceeded to try and attain each of the yellow milestones above. (Editor’s note: some of these are still works in progress). Without them I’d probably be busking Madonna tunes on a corner besides a tent of Balikbayan boxes, trying to save up for a plane ticket back to SF. A few things I’ve learned so far?

  • Be as organized as possible. German culture appreciates the logical and organized. I gained brownie points with both the German Consulate in SF and Deutsche Bank for coming in with my stack of forms completely filled, neatly paperclipped, and pre-emptive photocopies of my visa and pertinent contracts. Redeem those brownie points to ask (politely) for exeptions to the rule: “Would it be possible to approve the account with only the letter from my landlord?”
  • Ask for help from German-speakers. A lot of my potential landlords didn’t speak English, and navigating appointment bookings, viewings, and paperwork was very stressful. When possible, I brought a native German-speaker to help translate. But for emails, I developed a template in German that asked the basic questions, told a little bit about me, and at the end, asked if it was possible to speak English.
  • Don’t assume your employer will have it figured out. When I last lived and worked abroad, my employer and hiring agency took care of all of the paperwork, embassy visits, and bribes (hey, it was Thailand) that were necessary to get started. And having worked for an immigration law firm in the States, I know that employers have a lot of legal resources available to help smooth the process. My new employer, (#blesstheirhearts) is not relying on any of those resources or providing the support I’d assumed on and counted on to get started. I’d hope others have a better infrastructure, but just in case, make sure you do your own research and know the process. For example, my HR contact here told me my entrance visa was all I need, “no further paperwork necessary.” Um…definitely not true.
  • Know the big picture, but focus on the baby steps. When you look at it from a distance, this whole process can seem wildly overwhelming—as if you’ll never get to the point where you’re a legal, working citizen who can go home at night and NOT have a dozen immigration-related tasks to focus on. So, take it one thing at a time, honing energy into the things you know you can accomplish. At the same time, keep the big picture in the back of your head—after all, you need to know where you’re going and you definitely don’t want to miss any deadlines.

All that said, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment and relief once you’ve certified what was previously uncertain. With the apartment at last taken care of, it feels like I actually live here. That means stepping through the next few processes with less of a stressed-out scowl and more of a fond eye-roll, followed by sighing the phrase, “Typical German.”