Note: Unless you have an urgent business reason to come to Germany (work contract, etc.) or a spouse or partner who is a German resident/EU citizen, German borders are currently closed due to COVID-19. Still, you can start planning your Germany move now, but check the websites of the German Federal Foreign Office and BMI before booking your flight!
Germany is an attractive place for highly-skilled immigrants, offering the kind of social system many foreigners can only dream of: universal (though not free) healthcare, a year of paid parental leave, tuition-free universities and much, much more!
If you’re thinking ‘Man, I’d love to live in Germany, but I wouldn’t even know how to get started,’ then look no further! Here is your step-by-step road map of how to get here.
About the author: I’m an American who left the US after George Bush II was re-elected. I moved to Berlin with no German, no job and no work permit — just savings and determination. In the last 14 years I’ve learned German, been through several dream jobs, started my own company, gotten permanent residency, and finally in 2017 I became a proud German citizen. And if I can do it, you can too!
Step One: Make Sure You Are Ready For a Long-Term Commitment
First, know that moving to Germany is not easy. The cold, hard reality is that Germany only wants you if you are a certain type of person — for most expats this means being a professional with a university degree and skills the German economy needs (like STEM and healthcare), or being a German language or university student. You’re also going to need significant savings, as it’ll take months after moving to get a residency permit, find an apartment and get settled in. Optimism, patience, grit and the love of a good challenge will not hurt.
And an important disclaimer: you won’t have access to some parts of Germany’s fabulous social system without hard work and time. You can’t just move to Germany and get on unemployment, health care is expensive, and if you’re working you can expect to pay a ton of taxes. But, if you contribute into the social system for several years, you’ll be able to reap the full rewards of the German system. And yes, expats do also have tuition-free access to university education (but don’t forget about living expenses!)
Step Two: Choose a Path and Create an Action Plan
Time to do some serious research — the first step is to determine for which reason you’re going to stay in Germany. This usually means getting a residence permit for working or studying.
If you want to work, will you try to get a full-time job as an employee of a company, or will you work freelance/self-employed? Is the job you currently do in demand in Germany? If so, and you have a degree and high salary, you may even qualify for a blue card work permit. If not, which other marketable skills could you use to find work?
What about German language skills? Many companies use English as an official language of the workplace, especially start-ups/tech companies. However, for more traditional industries (banking, insurance) or in smaller cities in Germany, German language skills may be essential. And for some professions (nurse/doctor, etc.) you’ll not only need to learn fluent German but also pass licensing exams and have your degree officially recognized in order to do your job in Germany.
The larger Catch-22 of working here is that in order to get any type of work permit in Germany, you’ll have to show there’s a German-based company willing to hire you (or potential clients wanting to use your freelance/self-employed services) before you can apply for the permit. But on the other hand, many companies may not want to talk to you without a work permit.
Note: It’s usually not possible to get a work permit to live in Germany and keep doing your US-based job, because Germany only grants permits when it directly benefits the local economy. It’s also usually not possible for US citizens to get a work permit for any type of casual work such as restaurant/café/bar, cleaning, moving, babysitting, etc. because to get a work permit you need to prove you’ve got specialized professional skills.
It is also next-to-impossible to find a job in Germany while you are still located abroad (unless you are a software engineer!). So, the best advice for this daunting situation is to come here in person to look for a job, so that you can use your networking skills, charm and persistence to help you.
Germany offers a special 6-month ‘job seeker’ permit for university grads that helps you buy yourself quite some time to find something that will get you a work permit. Although you can’t work while on the job seeker permit, once you find a job offer you can apply for your work permit directly from Germany, at the local immigration office (search ‘immigration office’ + the city you’ll be living in).
Want to be a student? Excellent — students in Germany get lots of perks like cheaper health insurance and bank accounts, reduced rates for public transportation, etc. You can come for 1 year to learn German, or stay longer as a university student or vocational trainee.
Getting a residence permit as a German language student is relatively straightforward as no educational requirements are in play — the main difficulty for most is having the required proof of funds, which in 2021 is currently €11,040 in Berlin (the amount may vary by region). This is the minimum amount Germany thinks you need to live here for a year, including costs for rent, health insurance, school fees and living expenses. In Berlin if you don’t have the funds, you can alternatively provide a notarized document that your parents will support you (plus their bank statements + last 6 months of their pay slips), or that a German citizen/Berlin resident will sponsor you (using an official process called the Verpflichtungserklärung).
As a language student you must be (and stay!) enrolled in an intensive language program of 18 hours of German classes per week. One downside is that you cannot work at all on this permit — either locally or working online for non-German companies. But you can use this year of learning German to figure out your game plan of how to stay longer, for example as a university student or on a work permit.
If you come to Germany as a university student, you’ll be able to work a bit on the side (120 days or 240 half-days). Here, one difficulty is in getting accepted to a German university program, as you will need fluent German for most programs. Here’s a good list of English language programs in Germany, along with some helpful tips on applying.
You’ll need precision timing to hit the window for application, acceptance and enrollment at the university, while still having enough time to apply for and get the residency permit in time for the semester to start. And just like the German language student permit, you’ll also need to prove you have enough money in the bank — in 2021 this is €10,032 in Berlin — or a parent or sponsor willing to cover your costs.
Did I mention university in Germany is tuition-free? That’s right, also for international students, you will only need to cover a small administrative fee of ca. €150–300 per semester, depending on the university. (You will still need money to cover your rent, food and other living expenses — that is what the €10,032 should cover.)
It is also possible to get a residence permit for vocational training/apprenticeship, although B1+ German language skills are usually necessary to be accepted into any type of vocational training program. If you’re interested in this route, I recommend coming first as a German language student to get your German skills up to speed — you can then use that year to find, apply for, and be accepted to a vocational training program, and stay longer.
Did You Know? We Offer German Classes For Absolute Beginners, Live or Streaming.
Of course, these are just the most likely routes expats can take to gain residency in Germany — dig around a bit and see if any other options match you. Once you know what you want to do here, you can put together a concrete action plan to make your move a reality.