Moving to any new location can be a challenge. Even a short move to a new apartment or house in the same town that you currently live in can be intimidating. Compared to this, an international move to Germany may seem enormously daunting.
However, some careful preparation can help you to avoid any serious hitches during your move. Even if you are fortunate enough to have a relocation agent to give you advice and help, it can still pay to plan ahead independently.
Here are ten of the most important concerns to consider when planning your move to Germany.
1. Orientate Yourself
Researching the culture, the language, and the local layout of the place where you’ll be living should be your first step before moving. It is amazing how many new expatiates fail to do so.
This is what our German Way website is all about! You’ll find more detailed help there as to how to adjust to living in Germany.
To start with, there are three major concerns you should keep in mind at all times during the first phase of moving – location, language, and education. While more general guides to Germany as a country may offer some useful tips, it is worth doing some research into the specific town or city where you plan to live and work.
Our City Guides can provide a range of information on the culture and amenities of many larger German cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden, and Munich. You should also search online (in English and German) to find more detailed information on the cost of living, schools and education, public transport, and many other things besides.
Regardless of where you’re going, you will be moving to a place that will be significantly different from what you’re used to. The biggest immediate difference you’ll notice will most likely be language. How’s your German?
Yes, many Germans can speak English. But please remember that the main language in Germany is, of course, German. Don’t arrive monolingual! If you know a few polite phrases and some basic German before you arrive in Germany, you’ll make a better impression. The more German that you learn beforehand, the easier it will be.
If you have children, where (and how) will they be attending school? Will they be educated via the public, private, or international school system?
This decision should not wait until after you arrive, as it may lead to disappointment or a breach of the law. It is worth remembering that Germany, unlike America, has strict compulsory school attendance laws. Home schooling is not allowed!
2. Passports and Visas
You probably already know that you will need both a valid passport and residence visa for any stay in Germany of over 90 days. US and Canadian citizens are allowed to remain in Germany for 90 days without a visa, but aren’t allowed to work during this time as a separate visa is required. A more permanent move will require some additional formal documents.
Please make sure that your passport (and those for all accompanying family members) will be valid not only for the length of your residency in Germany, but also for (at least) four months beyond the end of that period.
If any passport expires too early, the holder will need to get a replacement before departing from Germany (or any other country in Europe). This can prove difficult.
In order to obtain a residency visa, whether you’re working or not, you will need to have health insurance that is certified as valid for Germany. North American health insurance, including Medicare, will not usually be accepted. You’ll need to get a new policy with a German insurance company or through your employer. There is more information about this below, in the section “Doctors and Prescription Medication”.
You will not be allowed to work in Germany without a valid work visa. You can apply for a residence or work visa after your arrival in Germany, but it may be wise to do that well before you reach your 90 day time limit. Sometimes your German employer will help with this. But, ultimately, it’s your personal responsibility.
For more information on obtaining a visa please see the page Getting a Residence Permit for Germany.
3. Housing in Germany
Will you sell your existing home or will you lease or rent you while you are away? Will you live in temporary quarters in Germany, or will you buy (or rent) a place before you arrive? Do you know the cost of housing in Germany and the town that you plan to move to?
Generally, it costs more in Germany to buy or rent the same amount of floor space that you may be used to in the US or Canada. This is especially true within the larger cities. You may have to consider more modest accommodation. Some employers do provide funding for housing on sponsored moves. Nevertheless, make sure beforehand that it will realistically cover your planned expenses.
Property location is highly important in Germany, if not more so than in North America. German communities also have a variety of neighbourhoods that may differ vastly in quality. Do you know which ones are which in the place where you’re going to be living?
A good real estate agent or broker can help with this. However, few German real estate agents are as customer facing as those present in the US. You can find RE/MAX, Century 21, and other such global agencies in Germany. However, don’t expect them to operate in the same way as they would in North America.
Whether you are planning to buy or rent, the legal aspects of purchasing or leasing real property in Germany are quite different from those in North America. For instance, you will have to use a German notary or notar (which is not the same service as a US notary public). Payment of the broker’s fee also varies depending on where you are. It may be paid by either the buyer or the seller, or split between both.
The fee will normally be about 6% plus VAT (sales tax). However, it can be as high as seven or eight percent. For those planning to rent or lease, the fee is typically close to two months rent, with sales tax. Real estate transactions in Germany are also subject to a transfer tax (grunderwerbssteuer). This tax should be equivalent to 3.5% of the price agreed upon sale.
The page House and Home has more information on this.
4. Shipping Your Household Goods and Taking your Car to Germany
Will you be able to ship your household goods to Germany or not? If so, who will pay for that? You or your employer?
This is an important decision to make before your move. Finding a furnished apartment or house in Germany can be difficult. Most properties are sold as is, often without a fitted kitchen. Consider carefully if shipping your existing household furnishings to Germany will be cheaper than buying new furniture and appliances there. It is entirely possible to rent furniture in the larger German cities.
If you decide to take your goods with you, you will need to know some important facts about Germany’s import regulations.
The Federal Republic of Germany has specific laws and regulations regarding the importation of household goods, including cars. To avoid paying duties on your goods you need to meet certain criteria and prove that:
- You have actually given up your residence abroad. You should be able to provide formal documentation showing either the termination of your lease or gainful employment, the sale of your residential home, or a statement by your employer that you have been transferred to Germany.
- You are establishing residence in Germany. This can be verified through presenting a copy of your lease for your German residency, correspondence indicating that your employer is transferring you to Germany (if applicable) or taking you on as a new hire, and some proof indicating your German police registration, or Anmeldung.
- You have been residing outside of Germany for at least 12 consecutive months. Some exceptions to this rule exist for those in special circumstances.
For more information on these requirements, see the germany.info website from the German Embassy in Washington, DC and the article Moving to Germany: Tips for Your Overseas Move.
Even if you decide to import your own household furniture, it is usually better to buy 220-volt appliances (such as your oven range, refrigerator, dishwasher, or television) in Germany. It can be problematic to make 110-volt American appliances work using German specifications. An ordinary North American television set will not work in Germany, even with a voltage converter.
Battery-powered devices such as laptop computers, iPads, and mobile phones will usually work perfectly well. However, you may need a plug adapter to fit your existing hardware.
For more information, see the page Electrical Facts and Radio and TV in Germany.
5. Shipping your Household Goods and Car to Germany
Will you need a car in Germany? If you’re moving to a large city such as Berlin, it is often easier to get around on public transport. Even medium-sized towns have good public transportation. Germany also has an exemplary rail and airline network.
If you do decide to ship your vehicle to Germany from the US, be prepared to convert it for German and EU standards. Headlights, emission controls, and other peripheral items may require professional alteration.
For more information on German vehicle conversions contact your nearest TÜV (Technical Inspection Organization) provider
6. Managing your Existing Obligations
Don’t wait until the last minute to take care of permanently (or temporarily) cancelling your US utilities, bank accounts, subscriptions, or any other routine service you have at home, paid or unpaid.
Where will your mail be forwarded to? Will it be left with family, friends, or sent on to your new German address? If you haven’t done it already, try to convert all of your credit card and other monthly payments to an online system. This will help greatly when you are organising your finances.
If possible, set up a German bank account before you move. Online banking means that this is much easier to do than it once was. It is worth considering that you should keep at least one US bank account active, in addition to your new German bank account. You can manage both easily via online banking.
Predictably, a German administered bank account will be necessary if you are planning to use a Chip-and-PIN enabled debit card whilst in Germany. Credit card use is also typically far lower than in the US and Canada, and the use of cash and debit cards much higher. It should not be assumed that any restaurant or shop in Germany will automatically accept credit cards.
Checkbooks should be left at home, as Germans don’t use checks. For more information, see the blogpost Put Away Your Checkbook.
To learn more about German finance, please see our pages for Money and Banking and International Money Transfers.
7. Microchips and Bringing Pets to Germany
Yes, you can bring your furry friends to Germany. However, there are rules to comply with when importing dogs, cats, and ferrets.
All of these pets must have a microchip certifying that they are rabies-free. Certain breeds of dog are illegal to own or import due to concerns over aggression.
Some Germans also prefer well trained dogs. Unlike in North America, your dog must be trained to travel on public transportation and visit public places without fuss, not to bark at the wrong times, and not to jump up on people. Even if your dog is trained to US or Canadian expectations, it may not behave to an acceptable standard in Germany.
All the details are on our Taking Dogs and Cats to Germany page.
8. Driving in Germany
Do you really need a car? In Germany that is a reasonable question to ask. But Germany is also home to the autobahn!
It is worth checking whether you will, legally, be able to drive in Germany if you are coming from abroad. Expatriates that have been living in Germany for a year or less can drive legally with their US or Canadian license. However, after one year from entry you will need to obtain your own German license.
Most German rental cars (mietwagen) will have manual transmission. An automatic will cost you more to rent. Unlike most Americans these days, German motorists learn to drive with a clutch and a manual gear shift. In Germany student drivers have to attend a fahrschule (driving school), by law, before taking their test. Parents can’t teach their kids how to drive.
If you’re already driving and are Canadian or lucky enough to come from a US state that has full reciprocity with Germany, you don’t have to take any further tests to get your German driving license. Eleven US states have partial reciprocity, which means that you will have to take a short written test before you are awarded a German licence.
But no matter how you get your license, it’s a good idea to make sure you know the rules of the road. There are some important differences. For example, passing on the right is forbidden.
9. Getting your German Utilities set up
Will your cell phone work in Europe? You’ll need to set up your GSM mobile phone with a German provider such as O2, T-Mobile, or Vodafone. Verizon won’t work in Europe, but an AT&T or T-Mobile networked phone will. However, those phones will have to be unlocked beforehand. Please see our Cell Phones in Europe and iPhone in Germany pages for the details.
As in the US, it’s possible to get your TV, internet, and phone in the same bundle. Most Germans get their television via cable or satellite. It is also possible to get international channels in English (such as those offered by CNN, BBC, or Sky) but that will cost more on top of a standard package.
Whether or not you have cable or satellite, every German household has to pay a radio-TV-internet usage fee known as the rundfunkbeitrag. Compared to North America, it can also take a bit longer to get your home phone and internet telecoms package installed in Germany.
If you’re renting, you may not have to worry about paying directly for water, electricity or gas. However, if your rent is “kalt” (kaltmiete, “cold rent”), you have to pay for your utilities as you are only paying for your accommodation. Warmmiete (“warm rent”) means your utilities are included in your rental payment. You may need to check with your landlord as to which version of rent you are going to be paying before you sign a German rental or lease agreement.
Cancelling a German subscription or sales contract can also be problematic. German law tends to favor the provider over the subscriber.
Unlike in the US, there are typically time limits before cancellation is effective. Most media subscriptions will automatically renew for you if warning is not given well in advance. Remember to read (or have someone else read) the fine print!
10. Doctors and Prescription Medication
You should take a 90-day supply of any prescription medicines you or family members will require. A German pharmacy (apotheke) will not fulfil a US or Canadian prescription without first getting it converted for the German system.
The sale of drugs is more restricted than in the US. You can’t even buy aspirin or cold medicine in Germany without going to a pharmacy. Non-prescription drugs that are sold “over the counter” in US grocery stores are only available at an apotheke. You have to ask the pharmacist directly for them.
Please be aware that some US medicines with a similar or identical name in Germany do not always contain the same drug. See the page Medicines and Prescriptions in Germany for more on this topic.
You should also try to find a local physician that you can turn to for medical prescriptions and your family’s medical needs as soon as possible after arrival. Not all physicians will be able to speak to English!
Book your Flight well in Advance
As soon as you have confirmed your move to Germany, book a flight. The sooner that you do this, the better. Airlines will typically charge more for flights booked shortly before departure.
You can save some money by planning ahead. If possible, try to allow enough free time following the move to Germany to get settled in, before your work begins.
Please see our Air Travel page for more about German and European airports and for air travel tips.