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Everything you need to know as an American moving to Germany

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.

Everything you need to know as an American moving to Germany
An American soldier in Germany during World Cup 2014. Photo: DPA

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Germany has long been a destination for immigrants and expatriates alike in search of new opportunities, a fresh start, or maybe even an entirely new life. Germany is second only to America in the number of people yearning to repatriate, according to the German Federal Institute for Population Research.

Out of the 83.1 people currently living in Germany, approximately 11.2 million are foreigners.

“Schland” also holds a unique place in the hearts of many Americans. While perhaps traditionally imagined to be a vacation destination rife with opportunities to down dizzying amounts of beer and chow down on large pretzels, it is also a home to many Americans.

According to December 2019 estimates by Destatis, the federal statistics agency, 121,645 Americans currently reside in Germany. 

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 2019 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 U.S. 

According to the 2019 Destatis report, Bavaria is home to 25,575 Americans. The city of Berlin is a close second with 21,575 registered Americans. The southern state of Baden-Würrtemburg comes in third with 17,480 registered US natives. 

A strong presence of American nationals exists in the Rhineland-Palatinate 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

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.

Looking to get an authentic German experience and avoid Americans abroad? States with the fewest American residents are Saarland, with only 800 Americans, Thuringia with 685, and Saxony-Anhalt with a meager 520.

If you are yearning for an immersive language experience with little contact to fellow compatriots, maybe these states are right for you!

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?

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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For members


What you need to know about Germany’s points-based immigration plans

Germany wants to make it easier for non-EU citizens to enter the country to help combat the shortage of skilled workers with the so-called "opportunity card". Here’s what you need to know.

What you need to know about Germany's points-based immigration plans

As The Local has been reporting, Germany is currently facing a huge gap in its labour force, with the Labour Ministry predicting a shortfall of 240,000 skilled workers by 2026.

This week, Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil presented the initial details of a new points-based immigration system, which is designed to make it easier for people to come to Germany to work. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German industries ‘most affected’ by skilled worker shortage

The new Chancenkarte (“opportunity card”) presented by the SPD politician is broadly similar to the Canadian points system, and will offer foreign nationals the chance to come to Germany to look for work even without a job offer, as long as they fulfil at least three of the following criteria:

1) A university degree or professional qualification

2) Professional experience of at least three years

3) Language skill or previous residence in Germany

4) Aged under 35 

Holders of this opportunity card would then have one year to look for a job and would have to finance themselves during that period. 

According to the Labour Minister, the German government will set a yearly quota for the number of people who will be able to come to Germany with an opportunity card, based on the needs of the labour market.

“It is about qualified immigration, about a non-bureaucratic procedure,” Heil told WDR radio. “That is why it is important that those who have received the opportunity card can make a living when they are here.”

Speaking about the proposals, Professor Panu Poutvaara, Director of the ifo Center for International Institutional Comparisons and Migration Research told the Local: “I welcome the government proposal. Germany needs more workers at different skill levels. What is important is that this should complement the current opportunities to come to Germany also from outside the European Union with an existing job offer, not replace these. I assume that the proposal is meant only to extend the current options, but the precise proposal is not yet circulated.”


According to a survey by the Munich-based Ifo Institute, the vast majority of companies in Germany are currently struggling with the issue of a shortage of skilled workers. The survey showed that 87 percent are facing worker shortages and more than a third of respondents see it as a threat to competitiveness. 

“The shortage of qualified employees, and meanwhile of employees in general, is the third threat to Germany as a business location, alongside shortages of raw materials and energy,” Rainer Kirchdörfer, CEO of the Family Business Foundation told die Welt. 

Changes to immigration and citizenship laws ‘high priority’

The proposed measure is part of a package of reforms to immigration law which will be presented later in autumn.

The government also wants to make it easier for people to hold multiple nationalities and make naturalisation of foreigners easier. In future, naturalisation will be possible after five years instead of eight years currently, and as little as three years in cases where people are deemed to have integrated particularly well.

“We need more immigration,” Heil told Bild am Sonntag. “To this end, the traffic light will present a modern immigration law in autumn. We are introducing an opportunity card with a transparent points system so that people our country needs can come to us more easily.”

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

A spokesperson from the Interior Ministry recently told The Local that the changes are a “high priority” but they could take time. 

They said: “The modernisation of citizenship law agreed in the coalition agreement of the governing parties is a high priority for the federal government. There are also plans to make dual and multiple citizenships generally possible.

“The careful preparation and implementation of this important reform project is underway, but will take some time because fundamental amendments to the Citizenship Act must be prepared for this purpose.”