There are multiple stages to moving to Berlin. Which ones you trigger first has a lot to do with your goals. If you just want to live here for a while, you can skip many of them. But since a huge, huge part of the benefits of living here come from integrating into the system, you should seriously consider it.
Benefits of living in Berlin as a peripatetic foreigner: housing still much cheaper than London, Paris, New York. Bars don’t have a closing time. Doner kebab for 3 euros.
Benefits of living in Berlin as a person whose hope is to become a citizen or permanent resident: incredible state or “public” healthcare plans much better value than private insurance, state pension, disability and long-term care plans, unemployment insurance, state-subsidized healthcare plan for artists, fantastic rent-control and tenants’ protection, 12-14 months parental leave and four weeks vacation for full-time employees, strong employment protections, the crazy concept of perfect credit as a default state.
I won’t lie to you: integrating into the system is a significant, front-loaded hassle.
But once you’re in, SO MANY of the things in your life that made you miserable in the US will be either gone or easier, cheaper and better. You just can’t imagine how much better things will be until you experience it. Unless you’re Canadian.
Let’s talk about the stage that I see the least discussion of outside of Germany: registration.
To reside in Berlin, rather than visit, you must be registered with your local burgeramt. You can do this without a visa, which is good, because you should do it within two weeks of moving into a new home. Whenever you move, you have to do it again, within two weeks. That’s right, you have register where you live with the German government. Sounds injudicious at best, huh? But it turns out that a) it’s the first stage of a cascade effect of integrating into the system that has many benefits and b) you have to do it. Just stop thinking about it and do it.
How? You go to the burgeramt. It’s like the neighborhood administration center.
Whether you have to go to the one in your neighborhood or any burgeramt in Berlin seems to be in flux; check (gag) Facebook* for the latest status. Whether you can make an appointment online or you have to go and wait for hours also seems to be in flux. Your burgeramt might be in a huge government building, or it might be a little office in a mall. Again, check Facebook. Bring your passport.
You’ll need your passport for everything you do in the beginning. And technically, as a foreigner, you’re supposed to carry your passport at all times.
I had a passport card made when I got my latest passport, and I carry that. But our bank, for example, finds it unacceptable. For registration you’ll need a form called Einzugsbestätigung des Wohnungsgebers from the person who is the primary lease-holder or owner of the place you’re staying. You should prolly bring your lease too.
Registration generates a German Identification number for foreigners, aka Tax Number. You will need this number for most things. Registration starts the clock for so much; you simply can’t truly live here until you do it.
When registering, you MUST record your religious or non-religious status. If you leave the Religion box blank, you will not be subject to the 8-9% Kirchensteuer or Church Tax. (You also won’t be able to get married in a church or take communion. Not kidding. This is all real.) There is also a place on the form to put “VD” or “Verschiedene”, which means godless heathen I guess?
Bring someone who speaks German to every amt you go to. “Everybody” speaks English in Berlin, if they work in a third-wave coffee shop.
Nobody speaks English at any of the -amts, unless you get really lucky. And even if they do speak English, they won’t speak it with you. Why? Because Germans are stern judges about their English skills; they don’t speak it as a first choice unless they speak it really well. Or they may be pissed about you and your kind driving up the rents, or they just don’t like speaking English. I like to ask, “May we speak English?” before I say anything in English. It’s a tip from some blog I read; it gets consistently good results.
Here is the insane part of bureaucracy in Germany: it has a totally different end goal than bureaucracy in the US.
Here, the goal is to provide services to people. That’s it. There’s no catch. The lady at the burgeramt or health insurance company may *seem* rude and obstructive, but she’s just concerned with following the exact process she’s supposed to. Because following the process is seen as an intrinsic, collective good. She doesn’t want to prevent you from getting services. She doesn’t want to make you go away so she can move on to the next person, make a quota of denied claims, or protect her job from your possible lawsuit.
If you show yourself to be unbothered by the fact that there is a process, and willing to follow the correct procedure, you’ll be working together to get what you need in no time. If you say you need this thing, and you didn’t know you did the wrong step first or you should have had an appointment, she will sigh heavily, roll her eyes, possibly actually yell at you, but she will help you. There’s no benefit to her in blocking you- in a social welfare state, it all works better when everybody gets their needs met.
Get off on the right foot by respecting the fact that you’re a guest in their country.
Indicate you respect its rules and its love of rules. Then they’ll consider breaking them for you. What? Yeah, Germans break their systemic rules all the time. They just want to know the reason.
*Facebook is so useful for expats that I had to open an account, after having deleted my US one a while back. The new one is under my legal name and is strictly for useful stuff; I hope to delete it soon.
*Note: I realize the joke of the drawing is in questionable taste. Once I thought of it I had to draw it, and I might have resisted posting it except it came out so well….