Making it in Berlin: My journey toward becoming a Berliner

It would appear that the hustle and bustle of living in such a big, exciting city like Berlin has finally been enough to slow down my blogging. More than a month has passed since my last post, but that doesn't mean there hasn't been anything worth writing about. It's just been hard to find the time and inspiration to sit and write when it feels like there has just been so much to do and experience. 

However, I recently hit a very important milestone in my move to Berlin: I have finally received my Aufenthaltstitel (residence permit) as well as my working permissions. I am now free to take up gainful employment in Germany! It's been quite the journey since I arrived in Berlin in mid-September. Here is a breakdown of all of the major milestones I had to hit to make it to this point, as well as some tips that could prove helpful if you ever find yourself making a similar move. 

1) Finding an apartment

One of the first steps of moving to a new city is to try very hard not to be homeless. Unfortunately, I was not given much time between when I was offered the position and when I needed to move to Berlin, so I didn't have a chance to secure housing before making the move. For the sake of reduced stress, I decided to book a cheap-ish AirBnB for my first five nights in Berlin. I could have saved more money and stayed in a hostel, but since I had so much stuff with me and given the general stress of looking for an apartment, I decided it was worth it to me to stay somewhere quiet, private and secure. My host was an extremely nice young woman from Italy who was very welcoming and helpful.

So how exactly do you find an apartment in Berlin (or anywhere in Germany, really)? Most young people in Germany prefer to live in a Wohngemeinschaft, or WG, which is basically just a shared apartment. The most widely used site for finding a WG is, a fairly basic-looking site a la Craigslist where people post their listings for open WG slots. I spent countless hours trawling through the website, trying to find apartments that fit all my basic criteria: Under 450 euros a month, hopefully furnished, not terribly located, fairly normal-seeming roommates, and available for a reasonable amount of time. I considered both short-term sublets and long-term leases, and I can't even tell you how many e-mails I sent. Certainly more than 50. I received far fewer responses, and of those responses, even fewer continuous conversations. It's extremely easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed by the housing market in Berlin. There are a ton of options on WG-Gesucht, but there are still far more people trying to find an apartment than there are people offering, and the people offering tend to get inundated with dozens of inquiries, possible even closer to a hundred. 

You also have the option on WG-Gesucht to create an ad for yourself explaining what you're looking for, in hopes someone offering an apartment might stumble across your ad. I made one of those for myself as well, and I received one response that actually looked promising (the others did not seem legitimate to me). So in that first week of sending out e-mail blitzes, I ended up with three appointments to view apartments. One was a 2-person WG, one a 4-person WG and the other a 3-person WG (which I found out about through posting my own ad). The first one had a great location and the room was gorgeous, but I wasn't sure how I felt about living with a 36 year-old man, especially when he was the only other roommate. He wasn't unkind, I just wasn't sure that we really clicked. The second one was also a lovely apartment with a great location, but in that case I was one of 7 people they were interviewing for the apartment, so I was already uncertain if I was going to be cool enough for them. The third one was in a decidedly less sexy location than the first two, being further east, but the apartment itself was great and I enjoyed the roommates. 

In the end, I decided to go for the 3-person apartment with a less exciting location. In that case, I felt like the niceness of the apartment itself, coupled with the fully-furnished room, nice roommates and adorable cat, was enough to make it worth it. 

All in all, I was very lucky to be able to find an apartment within my first few days of moving to Berlin. The first big step to becoming a Berliner!

If you ever find yourself in the position of trying to track down housing in Berlin (or any other competitive housing market in Germany), here's what I think helped increase my number of responses:

  • Make an ad for yourself that explains more about you and why you're coming to Berlin. This can easily be sent along with any inquiries you send to people regarding an open apartment, and it is a great way for people to quickly learn more about you and to see that you are (hopefully) a nice, normal, interesting person. 
  • Include a link to your Facebook profile. Several people asked for this, so I just started including it in every email I sent out. It's a quick way for someone to verify you're a real person, and depending how strict your security settings are they may be able to get a cursory overview of who you really are. 
  • Make it clear why you are coming to Berlin, how you are supporting yourself and how long you are staying. Most people don't want to live with someone that is just bumming around, because bums often don't have money to pay rent. In my initial email to people, I told them that I was moving to Berlin because I had been offered employment there (meaning, I can afford to pay rent), and that the position was for at least a year. Some people prefer people who can stay longer, some only want someone who will be staying a few months, but by including that information early, you can save everyone a lot of time.
  • If possible, write in German. This one may not necessarily be true in Berlin, since there are plenty of non-Germans who live here as well as Germans who speak good English, but in my experience most ads were still in German, and all but one of my email conversations with people were in German. I think if I had only emailed people in English, my response rates would have been even lower.  

2) Register my address

Once you have an address in Germany, you need to make it official by registering with the city government. This important bureaucratic step often seems quite strange to Americans, since we have nothing like it. All residents of Germany are supposed to register their address within 14 days of moving in, regardless of if you are German, American, Russian, etc. I was used to this having been registered in Germany two other times before, but it soon became clear to me this simple task is completely different in Berlin. 

In my previous experiences, registering my address meant heading to a small office usually called the Stadtbüro or Bürgeramt or something of that nature. You walk in, tell a person at a desk that you'd like to Anmelden, and then wait to be seen. In my experiences it takes 10-20 minutes, and the whole process is usually quite painless. But since Berlin is a much bigger city, this simple bureaucratic process becomes a bit of a nightmare. You can make an appointment to register your address at one of the many Bürgerämter in the city, but the problem I found was that there were no appointments available in the coming month in the entire city of Berlin. This makes it rather hard to register your address within 14 days of moving. Well, whatever, I thought, I'll just go without an appointment and wait.

Not so fast, little Ausländer. You can't just show up when you feel like it without an appointment! 

I was lucky enough that my roommate volunteered to come with me to go register since he also had business at the Bürgeramt. So, we got up early-ish one morning headed out to his Bürgeramt of choice, which he said was usually less crowded and so we wouldn't have to wait as long. Except, when we got there, we found that this office had recently switched to being appointment-only, meaning there was no chance of being seen that day. At this point, it was already like 8:30 in the morning, and thus too late to try a different office -- it would likely already be too full with people at that time. So, we gave up for the day and vowed to try again a couple days later.

Hanging out at the Bürgeramt at 6:30 a.m. Good times.

Hanging out at the Bürgeramt at 6:30 a.m. Good times.

The next time, we were better prepared. We picked out where we were going and made sure we could go without an appointment. Then we headed out... at 6 in the morning. Yes, registering my address in Berlin without an appointment meant we needed to be there at 6:30 a.m., a full hour before Bürgeramt opened. Even arriving that early, there were already around 15 people standing in front of us, and plenty more people filled in behind us as the morning progressed. 

At 7:30 a.m., the doors to the Bürgeramt opened and people filed into the building in a mostly orderly fashion. We made our way to the machine, got our number, and then... we waited. Around 9:15, our number finally showed up and headed to the desk of our designated Sachbearbeiter. From there, the actual process of registering was quite simple. I handed over my form, answered a few questions, my roommate vouched that I was indeed living at his address, and boom, I received a shiny new Anmeldungsbestätigung (proof of registration) to add to my paperwork collection. 

3) Apply for a residence permit and working permissions

The next and final step was the one I was most nervous about, since my future in Berlin was riding on it: I needed to apply and be approved for a residence permit as well as working permissions. People often talk about applying for a visa in Germany, but in reality what you apply for is an Aufenthaltstitel (basically a residence permit) that includes stipulations about what you are and aren't allowed to do during the length of your stay (e.g., if you're a student you are limited in the hours you can work). 

I was a bit nervous, because getting approval to work in Germany as a non-EU citizen isn't exactly a simple task. As a member of the EU, Germany is obligated to preference EU citizens over non-EU citizens in hiring. So, a company that wants to hire an American has to prove that they need the American, and that there aren't sufficient EU citizens available who could do the same job. I was worried about a scenario in which the Powers that Be decided that there wasn't a strong enough case for hiring me over someone else from the EU. But that certainly didn't mean I wasn't going to try.

The process for applying for my Aufenthaltstitel was again a bit of a headache to deal with given Berlin's size and the number of foreigners living here. People who go to the Ausländerbehörde without an appointment will typically face long waiting times (possibly several hours), but getting an appointment in a timely fashion is nearly impossible. I made my appointment around mid-September, and the earliest I could be seen was October 20 -- more than a month out. This was a huge difference from my experiences in Marburg and Fulda, where an appointment is pretty much never necessary and I never had to wait longer than 30 minutes to be seen. 

When the day of my appointment rolled around, I showed up at the Ausländerbehörde about a half hour early, not sure what to expect. The system here is definitely much more confusing than in other cities simply because their offices are larger. There are essentially three main houses, and different floors in each house. Your country of origin determines where you need to go to be seen, unless you are a student (they all get lumped together). Once I found where I was supposed to be, I sat... and waited. My appointment was for 7:30 a.m. and I probably waited about 15 minutes past that to actually be seen. 

When my number came up on the screen, I headed back to the appropriate room. I explained why I was there, handed over my paperwork, waited as the woman made copies of relevant documents, and that was it. I was told that someone from the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (Federal Employment Agency) would review everything and make a decision. Naturally, when I asked how long that could take, I was given a non-answer -- "Hard to say. Sometimes it goes quickly, sometimes slowly." So I left feeling glad that I had finally done my part, but worried that there could be potentially weeks or even months of waiting ahead of me. 

Should you ever find yourself applying for working permissions in Germany, here is everything I needed when I went:

  • Generic application form for an Aufenthaltstitel (this is the same no matter what type of visa you are applying for)
  • Formular Antrag auf Erlaubnis einer Beschäftigung
  • Formular Stellenbeschreibung (with an attached letter that described my position in detail)
  • My university diploma, to prove my qualifications for the position (it's possible transcripts would have also sufficed, but a diploma simply looks more official to Germans I think)
  • Employment contract
  • Biometric passport photos
  • Passport
  • 20 euros

Strangely, they did not ask anything about my Anmeldungsbestätigung or my health insurance, both of which I was expecting and they tell you to bring with. Ah, the inconsistencies of German bureaucracy. 

Surprisingly, the whole process went quite quickly. About a week after my appointment, the employment agency contacted me to ask for some additional documents -- they wanted me to send them a copy of my CV and another copy of my diploma (not sure why they didn't receive the one the Ausländerbehörde made, but whatever). I sent those documents along, and then one week later I received an email from the Ausländerbehörde saying they had received approval for my residence permit/working permissions! I was a bit flabbergasted at how easy the whole thing was, but grateful nonetheless. 

Of course, this last leg still couldn't be easy. I went to the Ausländerbehörde the next week without an appointment, which meant I got there at 5:45 a.m. and waited until the offices opened at 7 a.m. When they did open, I was the second person to be seen, so in hindsight I probably didn't need to get there quite so early. But, imagine my delight when I finally got to speak with someone and they told me they couldn't help me that day because they were having computer problems. 

Obviously that didn't make me terribly happy, but this is Germany, after all -- nothing should ever be completely easy. Luckily they gave me an appointment time for a couple days later. I headed back later in the week, and when my number was called, everything took about 10 minutes. I handed over another passport photo, they printed out my Aufenthaltstitel and Arbeitsgenehmigung, affixed them to my passport pages, and I was good to go (well, after shelling out another 60 euros at the Kassenautomat downstairs to finalize everything). 


So what are my takeaways from this experience? Well, the old rule certainly applies -- nothing is ever straightforward in Germany, and you should always expect to fail the first time you attempt to do something. But so long as you have some patience, persistence and a good sense of humor, you can make it Berlin -- just expect to lose a bit of sleep in the process.