Ever since I started blogging about my expat life in Germany, I’ve gotten questions from readers asking for help. People wanted to know more about my decision to come here, about getting a job or a visa, and about learning the language. As I often get the same questions again and again, I’ve put together a few of the most frequently asked so that it is easier for you to find answers. If I haven’t touched upon something you’d love to know more about, leave your questions in the comments, and I will include them in future Q&A blog posts.
How did you end up in Germany?
The story goes something like this: I graduate college with a degree in English literature in the United States. Two weeks after graduation I start my first full-time desk job. Said full-time desk job makes me 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 not to be my dream career, 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 United States 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 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 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 was (and 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 over-crowded, bad-mood-bear Frankfurt office. 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 make this Q&A into a regular series.