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Start-up helps new Berliners slash red tape

Why waste time jumping through the hoops of German bureaucracy when you can pay someone else to take the hassle off your hands? A new Berlin company is offering to do just that - and it's got city officials fuming in the process.

Start-up helps new Berliners slash red tape
Hate waiting in line at the Bürgeramt? There's a company that lets you pay to get the perfect appointment. Photo: DPA.

Recent arrivals and long-time locals alike know the drill when moving house in Germany: sign up immediately at the Bürgeramt or Bürgerbüro registration office with your new address. If you don't you can't open a bank account or, most importantly for non-EU citizens, apply for a residence permit to stay in the country.

But even the process of just getting in the door to take this first step can prove frustrating and bureaucratic. Many registration offices require an appointment first, but finding one available online is often difficult and the alternative of waiting in line until one opens up can last hours.

You’re supposed to register a new Berlin address within two weeks of moving or face a fine, but when The Local last checked, there were no available appointments online for the next two months.

That’s where the website Bürgeramt Termine hopes to step in.

“We needed an appointment, but there wasn’t one for the next three months. We said ‘there has to be a solution to this’,” co-founder Mateus Kratz told The Local.

Kratz founded Bürgeramt Termine in June, the along with fellow Berlin start-up scenesters Martin Becker and Jörn Kamphuis – who also happens to be the winner of the 2013 Mr. Germany male beauty contest.

From left, co-founders Jörn Kamphuis, Martin Becker and Mateus Kratz. Photo: Bürgeramt Termine.

'People don't have 24 hours to do this'

To find an appointment with Bürgeramt Termine, simply fill out a form with your name, contact information, what area of Berlin you’d like to register in and whether you want to go in the morning or afternoon. You can sign up for three different services: getting an appointment to register your apartment, renewing your passport or getting an identification card.

The site’s algorithm then analyzes Bürgeramts’ calendars over 24 hours, searching for open time slots and cancellations so it can snatch up one that matches your needs.

Kratz explained that the algorithm basically functions as if it were an individual person, constantly refreshing the appointment page until a timeslot opens up. He emphasized that the site does not blanket book appointments and sell them on, but rather starts a search for individual users when they request one.

“This is something you could do yourself, or pay a secretary to do,” he told The Local. “But I know people don’t have 24 hours to do this.”

If you want an appointment within the next five days, you pay €25, while getting an appointment within two days costs €45.

Dozens of people wait in line outside the Berlin Bürgeramt in Neukölln. Photo: DPA.

Around 200 people have registered with the site over the past month, many of whom Kratz said need an appointment to get their passports renewed in a hurry so they can go on vacation.

“We have people writing to us saying they would pay even more because we made it possible for them to go on holiday,” he said.

Some have questioned whether it is fair that only people with enough money can afford to use the service. Kratz said he understood this point, but that they also intend to use the site as a way to get city officials to make changes to the frustrating registration process.

“We personally feel that it is morally fine what we are doing,” he said. “The idea is to get coverage so that things will change.

“What are officials doing if there is no pressure from the public? There is nothing happening. We see the only way to make something happen is to go out and make an alternative that people will talk about.”

And the website certainly has gotten the city to talk – and to try to shut it down.

Blocking site is 'not the right way'

The Berlin Department for Interior and Sport told The Local they were aware of a private website selling appointments for a price and they found it “unacceptable”, but they do not have sufficient ground to bring charges.

Instead, the department said it is taking steps to prevent the website from functioning properly.

“The chances of successful legal action are rather doubtful. Therefore efforts from here are focused on increasing technical measures to prevent the website’s algorithm,” an interior department spokesperson told The Local in an email.

“Appointment bookings occurring at certain intervals from conspicuous registrants will be reviewed and the corresponding bookings deleted. Name changes on appointments will lead to automatic cancellations and must then be booked again. We have also taken additional steps that we will not state publicly.”

The city department also said that it is “working intensively” to speed up processing of appointments.

Despite the city’s efforts to block the site and cause some shut-downs, Kratz said they are working to adapt it and have added an extra step for users to give personal authorization for them to book an appointment.

But as of Friday morning the site said it was temporarily not accepting further bookings.

He added that they have not been directly contacted by the city.

“Trying to get rid of us and block us is not the right way. They should be making things better for people,” he said. “We wouldn’t exist if everything was working fine.”

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EXPAT

Germany insists on these 8 things, even though they’re rubbish

We're not saying our home countries get everything right - not by a long way. But we just don't get why Germany is too stubborn to admit that all these things are a bit crap.

Germany insists on these 8 things, even though they're rubbish
Photo: DPA

1. Swapping a kitchen every time you change flat

You may well have heard the expression “taking everything but the kitchen sink.” Well in Germany, when you move house you often take that too, even if you're just letting.

If you are moving out of the flat, and find that the kitchen was actually put in by the previous tenant, but was never paid for by the landlord, then the kitchen is legally your responsibility.

That means that if the new tenant wants to bring their own kitchen (which is not uncommon) it is your job to deal with it, otherwise the landlord could charge you for the cost of removing it.

This can be particularly maddening for people moving far away who can’t exactly fill a suitcase with the dishwasher and the fridge. If you're not prepared you may end up selling perfectly good kitchen appliances for a fraction of what you bought them for.

It also means that, if you are arriving fresh in Germany, on top of all the furniture you expected to buy, you could end up forking out for an oven, a fridge, a sink and a dishwasher.

2. Having to pay a TV licence fee – even if you don’t own an idiot box

Nowadays few of us have a TV. Or at least you’re unlikely to buy one if you’ve just moved to Germany when you have Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the rest of the internet to choose from.

But for some reason every German household has to pay a TV and radio licence, regardless of whether you own one.

And it’s not exactly cheap. Each household has to pay €17.50 per month. And don’t expect to slip under the radar: the authorities will soon be in touch, and may even threaten to seize your car, even if you don’t have one of those either.

3. Dubbing our favourite movies

Since you're forced to pay all that money for public broadcasters, you'd hope for a pretty high standard.

German public broadcasting is actually the most expensive in the world, with 23 TV and 63 radio stations having an annual budget of around €8.4 billion, more than Britain's BBC, which provides a huge variety of original programming across television and radio.

Crime series Tatort is probably the most famous programme you'll get in Germany – it has been running continuously since 1970. German TV is obsessed with detective series, but apart form that and daily topical shows, you're left with little to choose from.

And when they do air a good blockbuster you'll discovering that it’s been dubbed. What’s wrong with subtitles? No one wants to watch James Bond when Daniel Craig has the voice of a bored German accountant.

4. Selling 20 types of pickle, but no Asian food

On first arriving in Deutschland, you are no doubt thrilled by the new supermarkets. Shopping abroad is always more exciting. But sadly, this novelty soon wears off.

Firstly, the layout in German shops is entirely illogical, and rarely well signed. If you want to buy some tortellini for dinner, you’ll have to go to the meat section for a mince filled one, and then find the vegetarian section for a cheese one.

And then there’s the sparse selection in general. If you’re satisfied with just eating central European food, you’ll survive just fine, but as soon as you want to stray into even the most basic oriental cuisine, you’ll be trekking off to an Asian market.

And don’t get started on the alcohol. Yes, it’s cheap, but in many supermarkets, if you want a bottle of hard liquor, you have to inform them at the till. The attendant will then go all the way to the locked alcohol aisle cabinet, locate your bottle and return to the till, meaning that the now lengthy queue behind you will make you regret you even contemplated a bottle of whisky.

5. Making you stare at your poo before you flush it

The very German lay-and-display toilet. Photo: Lexlexlex / Wikimedia Commons

Let's not beat about the bush. German bathrooms are terrible. It’s not their hygiene or their size, but their appliances.

Showers are often in baths and are attached to the wall in such a way that you have to perform a squat to get your hair wet.

Then there’s the lack of extractor fans. This means that unless you open the window (which is not recommended in December), the bathroom fills with steam, and sticks forever to the walls. So you have the choice between the arctic cold, or the humidity of a rain forest.

But worst of all are the toilets you find across much of Germany, aptly nicknamed “lay-and-display” loos by fed-up expats. These are the bizarre ones with a collecting shelf in the bowl. There’s no need to explain why you won’t like these unless you have an interest in scatological science.

6. Being super relaxed about fire

This is a more serious point. There is no federal law about smoke alarms, so each state has had to introduce them separately. In the summer of 2016, Berlin, Brandenburg and Saxony were the last states to implement such laws.

But it’s not that simple. In Berlin all new-builds must have one from 2017, but the law for existing buildings doesn't come into effect until 2021. Home owners in Bavaria still have until the end of 2017 to install them.

So, although Germany is finally bringing in laws, you probably won't have a smoke alarm if you live in the capital for another four years. Who would have thought it would take so long to install a life-saving and oh-so-small thing?

7. Interrogating you before you buy cold medicine

Almost everything is in a room at the back and not easy to get your hands on. Photo: DPA

In Germany, Apotheken (pharmacies) are on almost every street, but they do not have a great selection of over-the-counter medicine, and often interrogate you as to whether you really need it before charging you sky-high prices.

Yes, that’s because pharmacists have five years of training and know their stuff, but if you just want an aspirin does it have to be such a faff?

And then there’s the problem that pharmacies aren’t open on a Sunday. That would be fine if you were able to buy medicine elsewhere, but if you suddenly get a migraine on a Sunday, you’re really going to struggle to find anything to help.

8. Not replacing public holidays if they fall on a weekend

In most European countries, if Christmas falls on a Sunday, you'll get Tuesday off as compensation. But not in Germany. Here, if the public holiday falls on the weekend that's just bad luck. And strangely, polling shows that most Germans think this is the way it should be.

And while we're on the topic of public holidays, why does Bavaria get 13, while Berlin only gets nine? They get the sun, the mountains, Oktoberfest and more holidays? That's not right!

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