Germany is a country of many faces: from buzzing metropolises to quaint countryside towns; hearty meat feasts to vegan delights and thriving underground clubs to traditional beer gardens. With its fascinating history, rich culture and spectacular landscape, it’s no wonder it’s a consistently popular choice among exchange students. Navigate the maze of bureaucracy and get your head around those cultural faux-pas with our ultimate guide to Erasmus in Germany.
Getting a Room
If you’re going to be studying, chances are your host university will be able to organise some student accommodation for you through the local Studentenwerk. This is, of course, incredibly useful; trying to figure out a place to stay when you’re not in the country yet can be quite a nightmare. Rent prices are fair (you’ll probably be paying more for campus accommodation back home) but there are often limited rooms available, and it’s worth bearing in mind that your room might not be the most centrally located.
Finding a flat is recommendable: if you can, get yourself a furnished room and some German housemates – you’ll feel a lot more settled and have your German down in no time (it’s amazing how much everyday vocab you learn just cooking breakfast!)
Post in Facebook groups (something like ‘WG-Zimmer in [insert city name here]’) that you’re looking for a room, and check WG-Gesucht and similar sites regularly.
- Sometimes you can manage to arrange Skype chats with the people advertising, but your best bet is to figure out some short term accommodation (friends, hostels, Airbnb…) and look rigorously once you’re there.
- Get your head around this long list of terms and abbreviations.
- Be sure you contact plenty of people – the start of the semester is when you’ll be up against the most competition so try to get your foot in the door of as many places as possible.
- If the ad’s in German, it’s best to write back in German. People are usually very understanding if your language is a bit rusty, but it’s a good signal to them that you at least made the effort.
- Try and tell them a bit about yourself (what you’re doing, what you like etc etc) but don’t give them your entire life story, apartments in popular spots receive hundreds of messages.
Better yet, just spread the word! Write to anyone and everyone and let them know you’re on the lookout. Subletters are usually much happier going through connections, and often all it takes is one friend of a friend of a friend to put in a good word.
The First Week Formalities…
So you’ve got yourself a room. This is the point at which German bureaucracy raises its ugly head. If you want to live in Germany you’ll first have to progress along a rite of bureaucratic passage, completing one level of administration at a time. It can be a real headache, but once you’ve conquered it, you’ll feel like you can take on the world. First things first: Anmeldung.
By law, you need to tell Germany that you now officially reside here (in theory, within 2 weeks of your arrival). This requires paying a visit to the good old Bürgeramt (Citizens Registration Office), armed with your passport and rental contract. This is not a fun task: you might wait 20 minutes, you might wait 4 hours. Go into this prepared. Snacks, music and a good book should pull you through. It’s also a good idea to have this phrase down:
“Ich möchte mich bitte anmelden.”
The process itself is then surprisingly swift: just a quick scan, a few stamps and you’ve got your Meldebescheinigung! Look after this little certificate, it’s essentially the key to all German life – you’ll need it to open a bank account, get a job permit, register for health insurance, you name it.
You’ll have to re-register your new address each time you move (no, you can’t simply do this online, yes, you have to make your way back for another visit to the dreaded Bürgeramt), and de-register entirely (abmelden) at the end of the year.
Opening a Bank Account (Bankkonto)
Opening a bank account is also a surprisingly painless process – just roll up to your chosen bank with your passport, certificate of residence and student ID. A Girokonto (current account) shouldn’t come with any fees and you can use an EC card in most situations.
Withdrawing cash, on the other hand, can be a bit of an ordeal at times. You’ll be charged (sometimes as much as a rather cheeky 5 Euros) should you try to take money out from an ATM that doesn’t belong to your network. This is a frequent source of frustration. Especially as many places still don’t accept card payments. Sparkasse has a pretty dense network throughout Germany, while Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, HypoVereinsbank and Postbank are all part of the same Cash Group so their withdrawals are also free. Another great option is to open an account with an online bank like the DKB – it’s totally exempt from charges and you can withdraw from all across the world for free!
Sorting Health Insurance (Krankenversicherung)
The German healthcare system is fantastic. To have access to it, you’ll just need your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or E128 form (which you have as proof of coverage if you’re an EU citizen), so take that to the German health insurance company who’ll give a certificate of exemption.
Getting a SIM Card
A pay as you go sim card is really all you need when you’re doing an exchange, especially as most contracts in Germany rope you in for 24 months. You can pick up a sim from most supermarkets, kiosks and phone shops, so you can get a German number and on the grid pretty much as soon as you arrive. Aldi Talk and winSIM offer good packages with texts, calls and data for under 10 Euro each month. You can top up online super easily courtesy of Prelado which also saves you a lot of hassle.
Doing a Language Course (Sprachkurs)
If you’ve got a bit of time at the end of summer, it’s a good idea to move abroad a bit early and sign up to an intensive language course. Some schools offer combined language preparation and orientation courses which are really great, if not just for polishing off your language but also for meeting other Erasmus students and finding your feet before the start of uni. They’ll often organise little trips out of the city and a multitude of parties and meet-ups after class.
You could also look into doing a language course that runs over the course of the semester a couple of times each week. Local courses are generally pretty good value for money compared so it’s worth shopping around a bit and asking the uni for recommendations before splashing out on a Goethe course.
You could pop along to a weekly Stammtisch if you’re after something a bit more casual – it’s basically a regular get-together in a bar or restaurant for eating, drinking and German speaking. Many universities also have buddy schemes where Erasmus students get put in touch with a home student who can show them around a bit and help them find their feet. Not all buddies are going to gel but there’s certainly no harm in giving it a go and seeing if you click.
Enrolling at Uni (Immatrikulation)
You can’t just roll up to your first seminar. Your first point of call’s gonna be the student secretary. You’ll probably have to go by on a specific day, queue up and (in most cases) present an assortment of these things:
- passport photo
- a filled out Immatrikulation form
- confirmation of acceptance
- proof of German language competency
- proof of German health insurance
- payment for the semester’s registration
Then, fingers crossed you’ve got it all under control, you’ll receive a little, rather underwhelming, student ID card / slip. This is essentially the gate to all student life. Now you can attend classes, sit exams, go to the library etc.
Getting Your Tax ID Number (Steuernummer)
Thanks to the EU’s right to freedom of movement, you don’t need a work permit to get a job in Germany, Anmeldung is enough. The whole tax system can, however, be awkward to get your head around. The following may get rather dry, be warned.
First off, you’re going to need a tax ID number (Steuernummer) to declare in order for your employer to pay you. You can apply for this at your local Finanzamt (another highly pleasant bureaucratic experience…). You’ll need to take your passport and filled out form stating which tax bracket you fall into (this is most likely #1 but check first, there are 6 different brackets), whether you’ve got any dependents and if you’re going to pay church tax (don’t overlook that little Kirchensteuer tick box, there’s an 8-9% tax if you’re affiliated with a German church). There’s more info on this here.
If you don’t have a Steuernummer by the time of your first pay cheque, you’ll get taxed the maximum rate, which you often can’t claim back, so try to get this sorted as soon as possible.
Doing an Internship (Praktikum)
If you have the chance, doing an internship is a really great idea – you can get your German up to working speed, some experience on your CV and a bit of cash in your pocket. Your home uni is a good place to start, as departments often receive internship ads from companies that have had experience with students from your uni in the past. Also check out the jobs pages on LinkedIn and individual company’s sites and social media profiles.
Note: If you’re doing a “mandatory” internship as part of your studies you won’t be expected to pay tax. Your Erasmus coordinator will need to post you over an official document with a university stamp on university paper – a scanned version sent by email simply won’t cut it, it is Germany after all.
Finding a Mini-Job / Part-Time Work
EU students are basically on level pegging with German students when it comes to access to the job market. So it shouldn’t be too much of a struggle to find something part-time, though naturally a decent level of German will be a massive help. Jobruf is a nice portal for temp and part-time student jobs. You just fill out your profile, search by city and you’ll find a lovely collection of ads looking for everything from language tutors to catering assistants. Alternatively, it’s worth checking the uni notice boards and various Facebook groups to see what kind of things are going.
If you earn less than 8,130 Euros a year you’ll get back all your taxes at the end of the year, you just need to submit an income tax return to the authorities. And with a so-called Mini-Job (a.k.a. earning no more than 450 Euros each month) you don’t have to pay taxes at all!
Going to the Doctor
Asking for recommendations and checking online reviews is usually a good way to go about finding yourself a GP (Hausarzt). Then it’s just a matter of calling them up to make an appointment.
“Ich möchte bitte einen Termin ausmachen.”
Most GPs tend to have an open door policy, though specialists may have pretty long waiting lists.
Then you just show up a bit in advance of your appointment, remembering to bring along your certificate and EHIC card. If it’s your first time with this particular doctor you’ll likely need to fill out a form on your medical history and sign a document to confirm that you do actually live in Germany and are not just taking advantage of their health care. You might have to wait a fair while in busy practices so allow yourself an hour or two just in case. The average German doctor has exceptionally high standards though, and the waiting rooms can be shockingly beautiful – we’re talking chandeliers and grand pianos if you’re really lucky.
Afterwards the receptionist will hand over your various prescriptions (which you can pick up from any Apotheke), sick leave note or referral to a specialist (Facharzt) and potentially ask you to make a follow up appointment. You won’t need to pay to see the doctor, just for whatever medication you might need, which is generally quite reasonable. All in all, quite a smooth process!
On a related health note: Don’t bank on being able to get basic medication like painkillers and allergy tablets from your average drugstore. For these, you’ll also need to go to an Apotheke.
Germany has an extensive network of trains, buses and of course, the infamous Autobahn, making it very easy to get around. If you’re planning on hopping on the train regularly, you might want to look into getting a BahnCard – there are a few different options with varying reductions. Generally, however, buses are a great alternative. Shake any bus ill-feelings you might have; German coaches are cheap, reliable and an all-round pretty fantastic experience. Blablacar has a very active community of ride sharers so a ride between most major cities is usually pretty easy to organise. It’s also a cool way to meet some locals and a good excuse to chat a bit of German.
Germany makes for a really great base for exploration. Right in the middle of Europe, you’ve got Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands all on your doorstep. There are heaps of great cities just a couple of hours away, which make for an almost endless number of options for long weekend trips. Beside the odd exam, you’ll probably have something like 2 months of holiday between the winter and summer semesters, which is the perfect time to fit in some travels further afield.
Sundays can be bleak. This is essentially the apocalyptic day of the week when everything comes to a standstill. The degree of restriction varies across the country: in Berlin, you’ll find limitless brunch options and an open Späti (glorious 24/7 kiosks) on every other street corner, but in a more remote town in the Christian state of Bavaria, that’s when Sunday starvation is a real risk. Stock up in advance, and if you’re really in desperate need of a supermarket, you can usually make your way to the city’s Hauptbahnhof (though the fruit and veg aisles will most likely be pillaged come late afternoon).
Kleinanzeigen is just great. It’s basically an online marketplace where people buy and sell secondhand stuff. Whether you’re looking for a bike, or a bedside table, or a cat or actually almost anything you could possibly ever want, always just have a quick look on Kleinanzeigen.
If you’re still drowning under paperwork and tax numbers, tweet @GoEuro and we’ll try our best to clear things up! We’re based in Berlin, so we know the struggle..