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Everything you need to know as an American moving to Germany

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Everything you need to know as an American moving to Germany
An American soldier in Germany during World Cup 2014. Photo: DPA
16:50 CEST+02:00
Thinking of making the big move across the pond to Deutschland? From getting a work visa to the differences in work culture, here’s our comprehensive guide to the basics you’ll need to know.

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The number of immigrants from countries outside Europe who’ve moved to Germany in recent years has risen sharply, according to the Federal Institute for Population Research (BiB), and Americans are no exception.

In the past ten years, 324,000 Americans have packed their bags and made the move to Germany, coming in second place only to Syrians - Germany’s largest group of immigrants outside the EU.  

If you do decide to stuff your life into a suitcase and fly over, you’ll be joining the nearly 260,000 other Americans who have registered here as residents.

In the majority of Germany’s 16 federal states, Americans form the largest group of foreigners whose native language is English, the latest Destatis figures from December 2016 show.

Where Americans in Germany live

If you’re keen on moving to areas heavily populated by Americans, it might be useful to note that Bavaria takes the lead as the state with the most people from the US (50,880), followed by North Rhine-Westphalia (39,790), Baden-Württemberg (39,060) and Berlin (36,060).

A strong presence of American nationals exists in the Rhineland-Palatine city of Kaiserslautern and its surrounding area. The Kaiserslautern Military Community, home to around 54,000 people, including military service members, is the largest American armed forces community outside of the US.

An American election party in Kaiserslautern. Photo: DPA

Here American culture has been heavily adopted in society; menus in restaurants are often both in English and in German and employees in shops are frequently bilingual.

SEE ALSO: Who are Germany’s foreign population and where do they live?

There are further US military communities in the southwest of the country, such as in Darmstadt, Wiesbaden and Stuttgart.

On the other end of the spectrum, the German states with the fewest number of American residents are Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, Saxony Anhalt and Saarland. Less than 2,000 people from America live in each of these states.

How to understand Germany geographically through the US

Now that you have an idea of where fellow 'Muricans live across the Bundesrepublik, you might be happy to know it’s possible to understand the country geographically in a tongue and cheek sort of way.

Berlin, for instance, can be compared to both New York City and Portland, Oregon. Home to citizens from at least 200 different countries, Berlin is the most multicultural city in Germany. And like Portland, it’s known for its microbreweries and coffeehouses, meaning it exudes a similar hipster vibe as the German capital.

Meanwhile Bavaria, a more conservative and wealthy state located in the south, has a thing or two in common with the American state of Texas.  

Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, the state where the fewest foreigners live (69,000, less than 1,000 of whom are native English speakers), is comparable to Mississippi or Alabama - also states where few foreign-born people live.  

Peanut butter in a German grocery store. Photo: DPA

Getting a work visa

And now on to a more serious topic when it comes to moving to Germany: residence permits and work visas.

Much like people from other countries, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Israel, people from the US may enter Germany automatically for up to 90 days and, if they so choose, apply for a work visa during this time.

If you intend on staying in Germany for more than 90 days and you’d rather apply for a residence permit prior to flying in, you may do so in-person at the German Embassy in Washington or at a German Consulate in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York or San Francisco.

On its website, German Missions in the US states that in order to get this work visa, you have to schedule an appointment at your respective consulate online. It’d be wise as well to allow adequate time for your application to be processed, as this can take from one to three months.

Still in many ways, it is easier to apply for a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel) upon arrival in Germany at your local foreigner's office (Ausländerbehörde). One little open secret is that, once you have scheduled an appointment, you have until the date of the appointment to remain in Germany.

Here’s another one of our useful guides which outlines the easiest visas to get as an American already living in Deutschland. For instance, if applying for a residence permit as a job seeker, you’ll need to provide a detailed letter of motivation explaining how you plan on securing a job. Or, if you’re a highly qualified candidate with a contract from a German employer in hand, you can apply for a Blue Card. 

READ ALSO: The easiest visa to get for your first year in Germany (if you’re young)

The key cultural differences between America and Germany

If you’ve never visited Germany before, it might be useful to have a head's up of the differences, particularly in terms of culture, with your native country and your soon-to-be adopted country.

As you might already have heard, Germans are rather direct and comparatively prefer less small talk. When the American journalists here at The Local go back home on vacation, they say a noticeable difference is not only that people in the US are louder, friendlier and more open, they’re also bolder.

In a similar vein, the challenge of making friends in Germany is something expat surveys have been pointing out for years now. Though each expat will have a different experience, Americans might find it hard to settle due to a perceived unfriendliness among the Teutons.

Germany is moreover far less patriotic than many other countries, including America. Needless to say, a lot of this has to do with its role during the Second World War.

To put it in context, some Germans say they feel embarrassed when Germans wave the national flag during World Cup season - arguably the only time they are socially allowed to be somewhat patriotic. Germany’s just not a flag-waving country.

Bavarians watching a World Cup game in 2014. Photo: DPA

Teutonic culture further differs from that in the US in its openness to nudity. Here it’s common to go to saunas sans clothing or towels, people casually undress in changing rooms, nude beaches abound, the list goes on.

Work culture in Germany

“Punctuality is very important whether the event is social or business,” the US Embassy writes on the living and working in Germany section of its website.

If you know you’ll be late for a meeting, for instance, the US Embassy advises that you let your colleagues know “preferably before the time you were expected.”

This adherence to punctuality reflects the German attitude to rules in general. For instance, don’t jaywalk unless you want someone to berate you in public for disregarding the red traffic light.

And while the US doesn’t guarantee its workers paid vacation, Germany couldn’t be more opposite in that more than half of German employees take 30 days’ leave per year.

Whereas you might be used to eating lunch at your desk as a worker in the US, this wouldn’t really fly in a typical German office where it’s common to take a full hour’s break.

To further illustrate how seriously Germans take work-life balance, for upwards of two weeks around the Christmas period many businesses come to a standstill as most employees take their annual leave during this time.

Another thing: Germans like to make a clear distinction between home and work, meaning that if they can avoid hanging out with their colleagues in the evening, they will. Germans also love their previous Feierabend (literally celebration evening) every night of the work week. When they leave the office, their work day is done, and the revered relaxation time begins. 

5 key miscellaneous differences to make note of

To round off our guide to moving to Germany, here is a random list of points you’ll definitely need to know before you up sticks. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

1. Tipping in restaurants

Contrary to the States where it’s common nowadays to tip servers anywhere from 15 to 20 percent in restaurants, this isn’t really a thing in ‘Schland. You should still tip, though. A general rule of thumb is to round up to a flat figure. This usually ends up working out to around 5 to 10 percent.

We’re warning you now: don’t leave your tip on the table. In the German hospitality industry, tips are sorted when you pay your bill in cash with your server. Adding tips via credit card isn’t common.

2. Have cash on hand

The topic of tipping brings us to another major difference: unlike the US, Germany is still very much a cash society. You’d be wise to have cash on hand with you on a night out; some bars and restaurants in Berlin for instance have signs outside warning customers that they only take cash.

3. Shops are closed on Sundays

Germany has some of the strictest laws for shop opening hours in Europe. Unless you live in a big city or close to a main train station, the majority of stores are closed nationwide on Sundays as Germans continue to observe the day as a Ruhetag (day of rest).

SEE ALSO: Why are shops in Germany closed on Sundays?

4. You’ll still need to file American taxes

As another one of our premium articles outlines, if you’re an American abroad you are not exempt from filing your taxes back home.

5. Exchanging your driving licence for a German one

The state where your American licence is from will determine whether or not you need to complete a driving test if, in future, you’d like to get your hands on a German driving licence.

People with licences from New York, California, and Hawaii, for instance, must complete both a practical and a theoretical driving test. But people with licences from states such as Florida, District of Columbia and Tennessee only need to complete a theoretical test.

Meanwhile US citizens from 28 states, including Michigan, Texas and Washington, can exchange their licence for a German one without having to complete any exams.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about German driving licences

You're not in a food desert: American food in Deutschland 

You’ll be happy to know that when it comes to finding comfort food from back home in Germany, there are lots of options.

KaDeWe department store in Berlin carries numerous American products. Photo: Infinite Ache/Flickr

Grocery stores typically stock hot dog and hamburger buns, macaroni and cheese as well as popular American cereal brands and varieties. Some big supermarket chains even have sections completely devoted to American food.

US fast food giants like McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and Taco Bell are dotted all across the country. However, you might find it difficult to get authentic Mexican food outside of the metropolises like Berlin.

And contrary to popular belief, it’s rather easy to be a vegetarian here. Even in the most rural German towns, options for vegetarians and even vegans are available.

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