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October 12, 2023
10
min read

Guide for Expats Living in Germany

Eli McGarvie
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🇩🇪 Country Facts:

Pop: 83,000,000

Avg. salary: €47,700

Capital: Berlin

Temp. Summer: 10 to 24°C

Temp. Winter: -5 to 5°C


There are many reasons why one would consider living in Germany. There are great job opportunities for skilled workers with relatively high-paying wages. You’ve also got some of the biggest tech hubs in Europe (Munich and Berlin) both with huge expat communities and a lot of money pouring in from around the world. The quality of life in Germany is fantastic. Germans put a lot of emphasis on work-life balance, there’s high job security, a robust social welfare system, and a very social society. 

But as any traveller knows, there is more to living in a country than what is seen on social media or written about by the local press. A foreigner, or an expat, is going to have a far different experience navigating life in Germany than the local citizen. So let’s break down life in Germany from the perspective of an expat. In this guide, we’ll discuss the social elements of living in Germany (and what other expats say), along with the actual day-to-day logistics so that you can have a realistic understanding of what it’s like to live in Germany. 

Language

Most popular languages Percentage
🇩🇪 German 94.17%
🇬🇧 English 31.93%
🇫🇷 French 8.81%
🇷🇺 Russian 7.64%
🇹🇷 Turkish 2.67%


Let’s start with the most obvious cultural barrier, language — is it a problem? Like most of Western European countries, Germans have very good English skills. One in two Germans are fluent in English (56%) — if you’re living in a major city like Berlin or Munich, that figure’s going to be closer to 90%. And, those that do speak English probably speak it better than you. 

Even though you can get by in most major cities without knowing a word of German, it’s still recommended that you learn the language. The main reason for this is that Germany can be very lonely as an expat. According to an InterNations survey, expats in Germany as some of the unhappiest in the world. This is due to local friendliness and finding friends. A lot of this comes down to the language barrier. You are going to have a much easier time finding friends and connecting with locals if you speak the language. 

Having German skills is especially important if you are thinking of moving to a town or small city. You will struggle to connect without those language skills and become isolated. The language barrier can also impact your housing and job opportunities. Landlords might not want to deal with a foreigner (with a weird last name), and employers generally preference bilingual candidates. So if you’re thinking of settling in Germany for a couple of years, strive to learn the language. 

In a city like Berlin, it’s a very different story since the city has the biggest expat/international community. The startup scene is very international — which means the office language is English. And because everyone is a foreigner, you can make friends and network super quick. In this case, German language skills are less important but still helpful when dealing with the German bureaucracy. 

Tips:

  • All the government and housing forms are written in German. Thankfully, there are plenty of online services and tools that can help you autofill forms and easily navigate the system. Allaboutberlin is a great starting place.

  • If you’ve landed a job in an English-speaking office, you’ll probably have access to free German classes. Learning through your company is great because you can incorporate classes into your workday and it’ll cost you nothing.

  • This is a stupid tip, but hopefully someone gives it a try. As English-speakers, if we wanted to be sure we weren’t understood, we’d use a lot of slang, humour, and innuendo to mask what we were saying to each other.

Housing

Rent per month Price
Apartment (1 bedroom) in City Centre 820.96 €
Apartment (1 bedroom) Outside of Centre 622.54 €
Apartment (3 bedrooms) in City Centre 1,527.17 €
Apartment (3 bedrooms) Outside of Centre 1,153.62 €


One of the first things you’ll want to do when you move to Germany is find a place to live. You cannot get your Government ID or tax number in Germany without having a registered address. So you need to sort out housing ASAP. Beware, there is a housing problem in most major cities, so plan for the process to be longer than usual. 

Ideally, you want a place lined up so that when you arrive in the country, you won’t have to worry about navigating the stress of the German housing market. You’re probably stressed out about starting a new job and meeting a bunch of new people — the last thing you want to be doing is viewing flats around the city where you’ll be queuing with 50 other people, half of who earn more than you and speak the language.

Personally, I think the best way to find long term housing is to first find a short term (flexible) option (with minimal stress), and then after a few months, leverage your network to find a better option. If you’re a single person, this is quite easy. There are two options, find a shared flat (with strangers) or if you have cash to spare, get yourself a furnished one-bedroom flat. 

There are a bunch of websites (see below) created for English-speaking people to find flat sharing and furnished flats. The downside is that you could end up living with literally anybody. But you can increase your chances of finding better quality flatmates but narrowing your search to specific locations and upping your budget. If you have a decent monthly income, furnished flats are a great option. The application process is pretty straightforward (like booking an Airbnb) and the house managers are usually very flexible. You can rent for three months at a time if you like. 

The downside is that a furnished apartment is going to cost a lot more than a regular apartment. You’ll probably be looking at an extra €300+ a month. But you should know, a lot of flats in Germany come completely unfurnished — that means no fridge, no oven, no kitchen! Plus, you’ll also have to deal with the utility companies and organise internet. Everything is going to be 10x harder because you’re in Germany. So it’s worth it to pay extra and offset these problems to a later date when you have more experienced.  

Websites for shared & furnished flats:

Phone number

While you can easily buy a SIM card and some credit from the corner store (Lycamobile) it’s not the most ideal option. Most of these numbers are recycled, so if you take a number, most likely you’ll have random people texting and messaging you on apps thinking you are the previous owner of the mobile phone. 

Better to get a prepaid plan. There’s Vodafone, 02 and a couple of other established mobile carriers that have shopfronts in almost every suburb. These are more expensive options, but they generally have plans that include multiple countries in Europe, which makes it convenient for travel. 

There are also some cheaper online options like Premiumsim and Simonmobile. If you just want a super cheap option with decent data, these are good. You can set up an account in a few minutes, and they’ll post a SIM out to you within a couple of days. You might have to pay extra to use phone data outside of Germany, so if you travel a lot maybe consider upgrading or a different option. 

Tips:

  • If you run out of data or have a foreign phone number and need to get access to the internet, you can find free Wi-Fi at most underground/train stations.

  • The message app of choice in Germany (and most of Europe) is WhatsApp.

Bank account

The second thing a person usually needs when they move to a new country is a local bank account. A bank account is a requirement if you're working in the country — you need it to receive salary, to pay bills, and as a form of ID.  

The best options for expats are the online digital banks like N26, Revolut, or Vivid Money. You can set up the bank account in less than an hour. Vivid Money is cool because you can invest and bank through the same account. You’ll need to provide the online bank with a passport, a work permit, a certificate of registration (usually a tenancy agreement is enough), and a wage statement (work contract). Get your German phone number before opening a bank account. That number is going to be used for security and to connect to your bank account. Most of your banking will be done through a mobile app which uses mobile authentication. 

I can’t think of one reason why you would go with a local bank like Deutsche Bank or Commerzbank. It’s a  headache you should just avoid. That being said, it’s not all sunshine and rose with the online banks. People have reported having their bank accounts closed for no reason at all. They can’t access their funds or pay bills, and usually the bank isn’t easy to deal with in this situation. This has been one major complaint with N26. It’s probably not going to happen to you, but just a reminder not to keep all your cash in one place. Get a good backup option like Wise

Transportation

Transportation Price
One-way Ticket (Local Transport) 3.00 €
Monthly Pass (Regular Price) 62.00 €
Taxi Start (Normal Tariff) 3.50 €
Taxi 1km (Normal Tariff) 2.00 €
Taxi 1 hour Waiting (Normal Tariff) 30.00 €
Flight from Berlin to London 30.00 € - 60.00 €


Public transport in Germany is great. In German cities, you have three options. The underground subway (called the U-Bahn), the over ground train (S-Bahn), or the bus. Most people prefer to live walking distance from a U-Bahn and S-Bahn station. From one of these stations you can generally get where you need to go in 20–40 minutes. Trains come every 5 - 10 minutes during peak hours, and maybe once or two an hour outside of that. 

It’s fairly cheap to travel on public transport. You’ll pay around €3.50 for a one way ticket — so if you are travelling to and from work, that’s around €7 a day. An unlimited monthly pass is around €90 (Berlin) — which is the cheapest option if you take more than 25 trips in a month (which you probably will). You can claim these public transport costs in your tax return. 

The underground and the S-Bahn operate on an honour system, so there are no barriers or checkpoints to get on the train. Because of this, a lot of newbies think they can save money by not buying a ticket. This is a mistake because there are a lot of undercover ticket collectors and a fine could cost you €60. During peak hours, these guys are everywhere, and it could happen at any time. In Berlin, the undercover ticket collectors are contractors that roam in gangs and are known to become quite aggressive (people have been roughed up). 

German cites are very bike-friendly, most people commute via public transport or bicycle. If your office is nearby to your flat, your quickest option will be to cycle. It’s also the best option for people living in those dead zones between stations (more than ten minutes from a station). It’s also common for people to take their bikes on the train or bus (extra ticket cost). 

For inter-city and international travel, there are three main options. You can fly, bus or take the railway. Flights are super cheap between European cities, if it’s a last minute flight you could be looking at around €80, but if you book well in advance you can easily get flights for around €20. Buses are usually the cheapest and most convenient option for national travel. For example, you can get a last minute Flixbus from Berlin to Hamburg for €20. 

Finally, there’s Deutsche Bahn (national railway) which is a more comfortable and faster way to travel across Germany (compared to Flixbus). But DB is usually double or triple the price of a bus. You can also take DB to neighbouring countries like Poland, France, Austria, and the Netherlands. 

Food & Drink

Restaurants Price
Meal, Inexpensive Restaurant 12.00 €
Meal for 2 People, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course 60.00 €
McMeal at McDonalds (or Equivalent Combo Meal) 9.00 €
Domestic Beer (0.5 liter draught) 4.00 €
Imported Beer (0.33 liter bottle) 3.55 €
Cappuccino (regular) 3.21 €
Coke/Pepsi (0.33 liter bottle) 2.65 €
Water (0.33 liter bottle) 2.36 €


The price of food in Germany is medium to high — It depends on where you are coming from, obviously. If you are coming from Australia or the US, the prices are slightly lower, if you are coming from Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa, it’s going to seem like you’re paying a lot more. 

German super supermarkets are great, there are a lot of options. The budget supermarkets are Netto & Penny, the average supermarkets are Edeka, Lidl and Aldi, then there is Rewe which I’ve put at the top. They usually have newer and bigger stores with self-checkouts. It’s recommended that you bring your own bags to the supermarket. 

Expats will be surprised that most shops and supermarkets are closed on Sunday. This is by law, as Sunday is recognised as the day of rest (Grundgesetz). So make sure you do your shopping on Saturday.

Germany doesn’t really have a crazy food culture like that of the US or Australia. The most popular foods options are probably Vietnamese, Turkish, and of course hamburgers. There’s also not a big emphasis on breakfast like in some other countries. A German breakfast is usually some bread or a pastry and coffee. 

Beer is a stable in the German diet, and thankfully it’s very cheap (same with wine and spirits). A 500ml bottle from the corner store will cost you about €2 while a pint in a bar might set you back €4. If you’re on a budget, you can use beer as a meal replacement (just kidding — beer is estrogenic). A cheap 750ml bottle of vodka is around €8 and a higher quality bottle will cost around €15-€20.

Wages and Taxes

The average salary in Germany is €47,700 while according to ECA Expat, middle manager Expats are reporting salaries of around $200,000 (€188,600). This figure includes extra benefits like free healthcare, housing and education. And a lot of expats will also receive relocation packages. 

When we strip back all the benefits, the actual salary is probably between €60,000 –  €80,000. While salaries are a lot lower than in the US, €60k is considered to be decent. The average tech salary is around €80,000 and these jobs are considered to be some of the highest paying in Germany. 

One immediate drawback to the social security and free healthcare is the high taxes. Most expats will be paying around 40% in taxes. It’s a shock at first, but eventually you get used to being robbed blind. The high taxes account for social security (welfare), free medical and your state pension fund. You’ll also have to pay a TV tax — a requirement even if you don’t have a TV…

The financial year in Germany is the calendar year (1st January - 31st December). Tax returns can be confusing if you don’t speak German, so it’s recommended that you file with company like TaxFix — they make the process super simple.  

Cost of Living

N26 have written a nice overview of the cost of living in Germany, so I’ll be summarising those finding here. Based on rental prices, the most expensive city in Germany is Munich, followed by Frankfurt and Berlin. The cheapest rents are found out in the countryside.  

We’ve already discussed the main contributors to the cost of living (rent, food & drink, and transportation) so let’s now look at the average cost across each major expense. 

Cost of Living Amount
Housing 923 €
Food & Drink 378 €
Clothing 93 €
Health and toiletries 107 €
Transportation 266 €
Leisure & Culture 239 €
Communication 67 €
Total 2,073 €


These averages from N26 will be on the high end for a single person because they are factoring in families. For a single person, you can get a decent share apartment or single bedroom apartment for €500-600. And that’s going to be the ⅓ of your living costs. Transportation cost seems too high for the inner city person who doesn’t have a car. A monthly bus/train pass is only €90 — so unless you are Ubering everywhere, you won’t be spending more than that. Leisure & culture has factored in holidays and vacation  — around €3,000 a year seems fair. 

According to the N26 data, people in Berlin generally have around €250 spare at the end of the month. In contrast, people living in the countryside have around €610 (three times the amount). 

Culture

Germany is a great place filled with awesome people who have made an amazing country. The culture, from a distance, might seem similar to the US or the United Kingdom, but don’t be fooled, it’s very different. It’s impossible to summarise an entire cultural in a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just list a few key differences you might want to keep in mind. 

🙈 Poor customer service: When we compare the customer service in English-speaking countries to Germany, there’s a big difference. In the United States or the UK, there is this golden rule that the customer is always right. That’s partly due to strong consumer laws and culture. Whereas in Germany, there aren't strong consumer laws, which means businesses don't really need to please the customer. There might be a lack of flexibiliy and the inability to bend the "rules." Germans are also quite direct, plus not everyone is super stoked about foreigners. All these factors can play into what would be percieved as bad customer service.

👮 Follow the rules: Germans like to follow the rules to the letter whereas some other cultures might see the rules as a little more flexible. So if you’re coming from a place that’s a little more flexible with the rules, you might need to reign it in, as Germans can get comfortable telling you off. The same goes for not paying your train tickets, if you get caught, playing the dumb tourist isn’t going to work.  

✈️ Lots of travelling: Germans love to travel. The younger generations are very well travelled and have usually spent some years abroad. They love to travel to new destinations. A lot of Germans will also escape for a week or two in the winter months. Winters can get quite cold and bleak, so you’ll naturally want to escape to some warmer climate (this is recommended). 

🍻 Lots of drinking: Drinking is a big part of the social scene in Germany. Drinks at the office or during the working week is typical and not frowned upon. A lot of the younger people will take beers in the park in the summer months. 

☀️ Park culture: The parks in Germany are amazing and a nice escape from apartment living. In the summer, or when the sun is out, the parks are crowded with people BBQing, playing sport, or having drinks. Parks are seen as these communal places to hang out with friends — kind of like going to the mall in the early 2000s. 

How safe is Germany?

Germany is generally considered to be a safe country. That being said, big cities have big city problems. In Berlin, for example, you should be very careful of where you put your belongings. People get robbed in bars and cafés all the time. If you have a handbag or backpack with you, always keep an eye on it. There are also certain districts and parks that can become sketchy at after certain times. Don’t get knifed.

There are big drug problems which feed into a larger homelessness problem. In Berlin and Hamburg, you’ll be constantly swarmed by homeless people asking for money (not as bad as Paris though). They are not usually dangerous, but there is a lot of theft and petty crime. No one really buys a fancy bicycle because it’ll stand out and get stolen. Gangs roam around with bolt cutters, snatching bikes and then reselling them on eBay. 

For females travelling solo, there are definitely a lot of places you’d want to avoid at night or make sure you are with a group of friends. After a certain time, it’s probably safer to get an Uber than take the subway. All the normal big city stuff — watch your drink, watch your belongings, and maybe don’t talk to strangers who are intoxicated on the street. 

Medical Care

Medical care in Germany is free for the necessary stuff like immunisations™, prescriptions, and dental checks. Your health problems outside these basic benefits are then covered by compulsory public health insurance (you’ll be asked to sign up for this by your employer). Your public health insurance will be deducted from your monthly wages (approx. €300/month). 

To go from public health insurance to private health insurance, you need to earn a minimum of €62,550. Everyone earning less than this amount must have public health insurance. You still access private health insurance, but are still obligated to pay the public premium. 

Finding work in Germany

At WeAreDevelopers, we help match tech professionals with German, Austrian, and Swiss companies. Open an online account in just minutes and browse through job opportunities from some of the best companies in Germany. If you’re still not sold on living in Germany, check out some of the other tech hubs in Europe, or you can read more about living in France, Switzerland and Austria. Good luck!

Guide for Expats Living in Germany

October 12, 2023
10
min read

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