Life Admin, Berlin style
You’ll hear a lot of horror stories about German bureaucracy and while, yes, almost everything entails going to an actual office and very few things can be done online, it’s not actually that bad if you know what you’re doing. Most of it can be done in one fell swoop if you have a few days to spend sorting your life out. And prepare to get acquainted with your printer. German bureaucracy is not a friend to the forest.
Registering your address — the Anmeldung
Everybody, including German and EU citizens, must register their residency — commonly known as the Anmeldung, though this just means registration – within a few weeks of arriving in the city. Don’t drag your heels on this one as you’ll need this all-important piece of paper in order to open a bank account, get a phone contract, rent a car, etc etc. You can register at any Bürgeramt (public citizens’ office) in the city so save yourself some time and make an appointment in advance. Otherwise, you’ll have to just rock up, take a number and queue.
- A printout of your appointment confirmation
- Passport / proof of ID
- Rental contract / confirmation letter from leaseholder (if subletting).
Getting a Visa
If you’re from outside of the EU, you’ll most likely need a visa to live in Germany on a long-term basis. That means taking a trip to the Ausländerbehörde or foreigners’ office. Most people in this boat sort out their initial visa in their country of origin before they get on a plane, but you’ll have to make an appointment for visa renewals before your initial paperwork expires.
- Proof of ID
- A printout of your appointment confirmation
- Any other documents requested by the Ausländerbehörde that support your application. This may include:
- Work contract
- Portfolio / proof of work completed
- Rental contract
- Bank statements / proof of income
Finding a flat in Berlin
Finding a place to rent in Berlin is getting harder than ever before and though you’ll hear apocryphal tales of 100m2 Altbau apartments for €200, those days are well and truly gone — if indeed they ever existed. That said, rent in Berlin is still a lot cheaper than in most modern capitals and flats are generally spacious and well-maintained. Unless you’re planning to sublet — which is definitely the easier option for new arrivals — you should also be prepared to move into completely bare apartments. And when I say bare, I don’t just mean no furniture. I mean no light fixtures, no kitchen appliances, and sometimes, not even a toilet. See our comprehensive guide to finding a flat for more details.
Opening a German bank account
Now that you have a flat and you’ve registered your address, you can set about doing all the other things that are required to be a person in the world. Even if you plan on using your existing bank account for your earnings, it’s a good idea to open a German one for your credit rating. It’s also handy for paying rent and bills and all that jazz. You can always open an online account with companies like N26, but if you’d prefer to have a local branch, there are plenty of banks to choose from. Bear in mind that most banks will charge you for using ATMs that don’t belong to their company, so it’s worth doing a little reconnaissance around your area to figure out what’s most convenient for you.
- Proof of address, i.e. your Anmeldung or Meldebescheinigung to give it its proper name.
- Proof of ID
Getting a phone contract
If you’re planning to stay in Berlin on a short- or even long-term basis, it might be worth your while just to get a pay-as-you-go phone. You can pick up these SIMs in pretty much any supermarket. I’ve heard good things about ALDI TALK.
If you’d prefer something more reliable, or want to negotiate for a flat-rate with your network provider, then registering for a bill phone is also an option. Remember that most phone contracts are for two years, and it may cost you to cancel it before that period expires. So, basically, make sure you absolutely want that bill phone. The main phone networks are O2, Vodafone and T-Mobile. It’s a good idea to drop into their store rather than try to negotiate a contract online. There are usually English-speaking sales representatives to give you a hand picking out your Handy.
- Proof of ID
- Proof of address
- Your bank details
Do you consider yourself a calm person? Well, prepare to have your forbearance tested by trying to get Internet installed in your flat. Getting Internet installed in a new apartment can take a long time, so if you have the option, try to start calling up Internet service providers well before your move-in date. It can take anywhere from two to six weeks before a technician will come to your flat to connect your modem so in the meantime, either make friends with your neighbours to filch their sweet sweet web access or get used to being in cafés a lot. The main service providers are O2, 1&1, Deutsche Telekom, and Vodafone. Depending on your building, you may not be able to access every provider, so you’ll have to check with each one whether or not they serve your address. Also depending on your building, there may be a preferred partner that’s already installed the main connections. If you opt for that provider, that might speed up your waiting time significantly. There is usually a one-time installation fee to pay for the technician, and the average monthly bill should set you back about €35.
Choosing health insurance
Health insurance in Germany is mandatory, and every resident must be covered. Most people — over 90% of residents — opt for public health insurance with one of the state insurance providers, namely DAK Gesundheit, Techniker Krankenkasse, AOK, Barmer GEK, BKK and KKH. These all provide quite a similar service, but it’s worth checking out their websites if you have specific needs or pre-existing conditions.
Once you become a member of one of these companies, you’ll be issued a health insurance card (Krankenversichertenkarte) which you’ll need to produce anytime you visit a doctor or dentist. If you’re employed more than half-time (20 hours) by any company, they will pay half of your contributions. This is a major incentive to get a job, as otherwise you could have to pay over €800 per month. It’s also another reason not to accept a freelance contract for full-time or almost full-time work. This is a way that some companies get out of paying healthcare contributions.
Private insurance is also an option but most people advise against it. Why? Basically because you have to be a Captain Moneybags to afford it! Private insurance requires you to earn over a certain wage bracket which excludes most people by default. If this isn’t an issue for you and you still want to consider it, there are over 40 separate private insurers, and the system works quite differently than the public system. With private insurance, you pay doctor’s fees straight away and then apply for reimbursement with your insurance company. Save yourself a few headaches and stick to the state system.
Choosing other insurance options
Most people who grow up in Germany have a mind-boggling array of insurance. There are insurance programmes for things that you probably never knew existed. Only health insurance (Krankenversicherung) is mandatory, but there are some that you should absolutely think about signing up for. Alternatively, you can do what I do, sign up for none of them and shock people at parties with your devil-may-care attitude! If you’re a more responsible person, here are some of the main ones:
This is basically personal liability insurance. This covers you in the event of an accident that sees you damaging someone else’s property, or causing them mild injury. It’s usually quite cheap and covers a lot of eventualities. Even the most laissez-faire German person will have this one.
This insurance covers your flat and everything within it in the event of fire, water damages, or theft. Some providers will include your bike in your Hausratversicherung so shop around for what you need.
This is glass insurance. Yes, really. While Hausratversicherung covers all the belongings in your flat, if you break a window or the oven door, you’re on your own.
This insurance will cover your legal fees if you get into a dispute with your landlord, a neighbour, or in some professional cases.
This is life insurance. If you have dependents and want to make sure they’re provided for if you pop your clogs, then this is worth thinking about.
This accident insurance will cover you in the event that you have an accident that permanently injures you or hampers your quality of life. If you work in a physical profession like construction, this is quite important to protect your livelihood.
If you’re planning on actually owning your own home, you’ll need this. It covers the physical structure of the building against any kind of damages that might happen. While Hausratversicherung covers your belongings, this covers the actual walls, floors and ceilings.
You most likely won’t need all of these insurances, but it’s definitely worth signing up for Haftpflichtversicherung, even if just to put your German friends at ease.
And finally, we come to everyone’s favourite topic: tax. When you register your address at the Bürgeramt for the first time, you will automatically be sent a unique 11-digit tax ID number (Identifikationsnummer) which you will need to provide to your employer. You’ll also need to reference this number in any communication you have with the tax office. However, if you’re an employee, you probably won’t have to talk to them at all.
Every single person in the country has a tax ID. If you want to freelance in Berlin, you’ll also need to apply to the Finanzamt (finance office) to obtain a tax number (Steuernummer). This is separate to your personal tax ID number and identifies you as a sole trader. It takes the format xx/xxx/xxxxx.
Paying tax as an employee:
As an employee, income tax (Lohnsteuer) will automatically be deducted from your gross salary. You will only be taxed on your income if, as a single person, you earn more than €9,000 per year. When you earn more than this amount, you will pay mandatory income tax. Taxation rates vary between 14% and 42% depending on how much you earn, your marital status, and whether or not you have dependents. It’s worth using a wage tax calculator to give yourself an idea of how much will be deducted from your earnings.
You will also pay a solidarity surcharge (Solidaritätszuschlag) which is 5.5% of your income tax. This tax helps to finance the costs of reunification and rebuilding former East Germany. On top of that, if you’re affiliated to a religious institution, you’ll have to pay church tax, or Kirchensteuer which in Berlin, is 9% of your income tax. If you’re not religious and don’t want to fund any institution, make sure to state that you have no religion (keine Religion) when you register your address. Otherwise, I have heard tales of assumptions being made based on your country of origin. When you’re initially registered to pay church tax, it’s really hard to get out of it so make sure you pay attention to this on day one.
As well as these taxes, your pension, health insurance, and unemployment insurance are also automatically deducted from your wages. This means that your payslip may look a little less healthy than you’d like, which can take some getting used to. In Germany, you really feel the benefit of your tax dollars, so that does soften the blow somewhat.
Paying tax as a freelancer:
If you’re a freelancer, you have to submit your own tax returns. If your German isn’t up to scratch — or honestly, even if it is — it’s really worth the investment to hire a tax advisor. Tax advisors charge a fixed fee set by the government that corresponds to your total annual earnings. Germany is nothing if not fair, and getting a tax advisor is totally worth the investment. You send them your bank statements, invoices, and outgoings every month, and they’ll take care of the rest. They also take on the liability if there’s a mistake in your tax declarations.
When you initially apply for your Steuernummer, you are required to estimate how much you will earn in the coming year. If you project that you’ll earn more than €17,500 per year, you’ll have to charge your clients 19% VAT on top of the cost of your invoice. You are then responsible for transferring this VAT to the Finanzamt on a monthly basis. Save yourself the hassle of remembering by setting up a direct debit. That way, you’ll always be paid up.
The good thing about being a freelancer is that you can claim a lot back on your tax payments, e.g. the price of a co-working space, the price of a new laptop, client lunches, etc. This is even more reason to hire a tax advisor. A good one will pay for themselves in how much you can claim back from taxes. Keep an eye on social media for English-speaking classes on how to file your tax returns. They’re tax-deductible and will explain the whole system in detail. Added bonus: you’ll meet other like-minded freelancer friends.
Those are the basics that you’ll need to get set up in Berlin. Watch this space for more nitty-gritty details very soon. In the meantime, good luck and godspeed!