When I first moved to Berlin, I was like many a Millennial 20-something and didn’t have much of a plan.
My three-month automatic tourist visa was soon expiring and my enchantment with Berlin still had not worn off, but I still didn’t have a job, nor did I have any clue how to confront the intimidating Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Office, and really this should be the first German word you learn, if you haven’t already).
Luckily, three years and three different kinds of visa later, I think I’ve pretty much got the whole deal sorted out.
First: The basics
Americans get three months automatically as a 'tourist visa', so you can come and stay for the entire span of that time without doing any paperwork. If you want to stay longer though, there are a number of options.
Before you even get to the Ausländerbehörde though, you’ll have to register your address at your neighbourhood Bürgeramt, Einwohnermeldeamt, or Kreisverwaltungsreferat to get a certificate, or Anmeldung. This can be a hassle in and of itself, but if you don’t yet have a job, at least you have free time on your hands to get there early and wait for hours if you can’t get an appointment ahead of time (this may also be the case at the Ausländerbehörde).
If you haven't been able to get an Anmeldung (which may also prove necessary when opening a bank account or even registering for German classes), you can also walk into the foreigners office with your lease and a letter from your landlord.
The most important things that the Ausländerbehörde will be looking for are that you have proper health insurance coverage in Germany and a way to support yourself. Usually some form of traveller’s insurance with a German firm will at least temporarily appease the bureaucrats (they might give you a temporary permit and tell you to come back again with better insurance if it’s not sufficient).
And a letter (even if it’s in English) from a parent or partner, saying that they will financially support you, along with their bank statements and proof of income, should fulfil the whole proof of financial stability thing.
But then you have to know what kind of permit to apply for:
This is for people with at least a bachelor's degree at a university recognized in Germany (basically all accredited American universities), who want to look for a job. It lasts for just six months, but at least it buys you some time to figure things out further.
Make sure to have an original certificate of your degree(s) as well as a copy to submit, and it doesn’t hurt to throw in any other qualifications that you might have under your belt. The rule of thumb for German bureaucrats: the more paperwork, the better.
Another option is a permit to study German. This is for up to one year and you must be enrolled in 'intensive classes' of at least 18 hours a week.
You’ll of course have to show proof of enrolling in a course.
If you’re looking for an option that will also offer some form of financial support or professional experience, you might consider one of the following options:
1. Au pair visa
An young man working as an au pair in Bielefeld. Photo: DPA.
If you like taking care of kids, working as an au pair for up to a year is an option worth considering. You’ll first need to find a host family, which you can do through sites like Au Pair World, or Au Pair Care Germany, as well as a number of others.
It’s also possible to get a permit for even an unpaid internship, though no income will mean showing proof that you have another means of support, as previously mentioned.
Check out The Local’s jobs page, as well as BerlinStartupJobs.com, XpatJobs.de or one of the Jobs In Network sites for English-language listings.
If you can't find a job, why not work for yourself? Another type of permit is the self-employed or freelance permit. But this does require a bit more paperwork. You'll need at least two freelance 'job offers' (I submitted short, not-legally-binding letters from people who said they'd be interested in hiring me) in the field that you want to freelance in.
What kind of work you'll be permitted to do depends on what these letters say. So for a hot minute I was a freelance 'editor, journalist, and English tutor', according to my permit.
But the Ausländerbehörde won't buy any old job: You also should have some sort of qualification (I used a certificate from a journalism exchange programme) and references backing up that you have previously done this kind of work.
If you're an artist and have some interest lined up in your work, this permit applies to you, and some people may use it flexibly: like being a freelance musician and using that to teach little kids music theory.
One final important term: Fiktionsbescheinigung
If you don’t yet have all the paperwork you need and your tourist visa is about to run out - don’t panic. Take everything you do have to the Ausländerbehörde and if it’s not quite enough, ask about a Fiktionsbescheinigung - literally fictional certificate.
When I first applied, I was still somehow missing one vital piece of paper, so they gave me this temporary permit which also entailed an extension of time since I was just days away from that three-month mark.
This might all seem very overwhelming, but it’s really not. There are more than 100,000 Americans who have somehow found a way to live in Germany, and so can you.