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Overnight queues and complex rules: What Germany's immigration offices are really like

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Overnight queues and complex rules: What Germany's immigration offices are really like
A sign at the Berlin Ausländerbehörde. Photo: DPA
09:39 CEST+02:00
From extreme queues to inconsistent rules, the Ausländerbehörde is unavoidable for many internationals in Germany. Those who have experienced Germany's immigration offices tell us what it's really like.

Most internationals living in Germany who come from outside the EU have to visit the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner registration office/authorities) at least once. And everyone has their own story about it.

Click here to read Part II in our series - an exclusive interview with the director of Berlin's Ausländerbehörde.

Given the continued influx of migrants into Germany – and plans by some authorities to improve the immigration experience – we wanted to get a better idea of how our readers had navigated German bureaucracy in order to stay in the country. 

Judging by the responses to our callout, visiting the Ausländerbehörde in Germany can be a carefree walk in the park or a painful experience – and everywhere in between.

Explained: How to get a Blue Card in Germany

A number of internationals we interviewed complained about waiting times and inexperienced staff, while others said they were pleasantly surprised by the experience.  

We also spoke with Engelhard Mazanke, the Chief of the Berlin Ausländerbehörde, to discuss some of our readers' concerns and get an idea of the future direction of the busiest immigration office in the country.

Mazanke told The Local that he was aware of some people's concerns. He said that the Berlin Ausländerbehörde planned on adding more employees in the coming calendar year, as well as a number of other changes to make the experience more "welcoming". 

Our full interview will Mazanke will be published this week.
 
Paperwork, preparation and patience

Dealing with government bureaucracy is never easy or fun no matter where you live. While it may be hard to name a country where people look forward to getting their documents stamped or applying for certain permissions, the process can be particularly hard in Germany.

Read: What not to do when freelancing in Germany

The country’s passion for paperwork and relish for rules can mean multiple visits and/or straight-out refusals. But if you’ve managed to tick the right boxes — and showed up on time — the experience can be a breeze.

While the majority of people we spoke to eventually secured their visas, on many occasions it was not without a significant wait or other complications.

In several instances people had been given contradictory information or were told to comply with requirements which were not officially listed.

German chancellor Angela Merkel visits the Berlin Ausländerbehörde. Image: DPA

Beamter says “no”

The majority of people we contacted didn’t have positive experiences at the Ausländerbehörde.

Some of this came from a lack of resources in the face of significant immigration increases, while others come from the complexity of German immigration rules. 

Angus McGruther, an actor originally from Sydney, told us that his experience in Berlin almost cost him a spot on Germany’s beloved Lindenstraße drama series. 

“I had a role in the show, but as I was on the freelance visa, I had to go through the whole process of applying for a special visa as an employee”, he said. 

“I went in to the Ausländerbehörde and they said it can up to three to six weeks.

“I told them the part was in 10 days and they said ‘We don’t have any control – you’ll just have to wait.'"

After his agent made a call to the Federal Office for Employment (Bundesagentur für Arbeit), he went to the Ausländerbehörde to pick up the visa. 

After explaining the situation to security, he was refused entry to the building for not having an appointment. 

“I told them I don’t have an appointment but I’ve been told that my application’s been approved and that I just need to pick up the sticker and put it in my passport,” he said. 

“They said ‘if you don’t have an appointment, come tomorrow at 10am’.”

After several phone calls the Ausländerbehörde and the Federal Employment Agency, McGruther was able to get in touch with the responsible officer — and gain entry to the building. 

“Then she calls my mobile while I’m standing outside in the freezing cold, saying ‘Mr McGruther can you come up please?’.”

“I’ve never been so happy to be in the Ausländerbehörde.”

'My biggest nightmare'

We mentioned the three Ps above — paperwork, preparation and patience — but there's one P-word to remember which is perhaps even more important: punctuality. 

Ricky Simpson, from the United States, reached out to us via email to tell us his Ausländerbehörde visit was the “biggest nightmare since he arrived in Germany”. 

“Each year as I renew my visa, I have a problem,” he said. 

Simpson learned the importance of that P-word and was later punished for a lack of punctuality. 

“This year, I came for an appointment to pick up my Aufenthaltstitel (residence permit). Just the card. I was three minutes late to this appointment, ironically due to the Deutsche Bahn, and was then forced to make a new appointment.”

Waits for new appointments can take up to three months, although some of our respondents have had success by checking for new appointments daily. 

The dreaded early morning queue - made sweeter with a schnitzel 

If you don't have an appointment, there's still the option to go during Sprechzeiten (consultation or visiting hours).

This however is not as easy as it sounds. Usually it involves lining up several hours before the office opens. 

In Berlin, people start collecting around 1am in preparation of a 7am open, bringing cushions and coffee to make the wait manageable. Once the clock strikes 7am, the gates swing open, with hopefuls running to their respective offices. 

A line at the Frankfurt Ausländerbehörde. Image: DPA

Australian Cate Lawrence said that after lining up at 4am to get a spot, she had her wallet stolen in the queue, including, ironically, her visa. 

Depending on the office, applicants will line up to collect one of a limited amount of paper numbers from the machine - if there’s a machine at all. 

Norwegian Maja Vestad accompanied her Australian partner Georgi on one such visit. After joining the queue at 1am, they waited until 4:30pm to receive the visa. 

“We were amongst the first to line up and the last to be seen. They really should change the queue system,” she told The Local. 

“They put all the passports in the middle and then pick at random.”

After a fifteen-and-a-half-hour wait, they celebrated in one of the more German ways possible at a nearby restaurant. 

“There’s also a restaurant that has a pretty sweet gorgonzola schnitzel, which is a really nice way to end a long, horrible day”. 

Sprechen Sie deutsch?

Another one of the common complaints is the lack of linguistic flexibility when it comes to visiting the foreign office. While the level of English among Germans is generally quite high, it’s still recommended to take a translator wherever possible. 

Reader Elizabeth Packham got in touch with us to tell her about her experience when applying for a visa to work as an au pair. She declined to tell us which Ausländerbehörde she applied at, although she said she was surprised to hear that speaking German was a mandatory requirement in contradiction of official government advice. 

“My host mama started the paperwork process to get my work visa, I tagged along in case they had any questions she couldn’t answer,” she said. 

“The agent we ended up working with had the biggest chip on his shoulder about something, because he threatened to deport me because I didn’t speak any German. Neither my host mom nor I had any idea this was a ‘requirement’. 

“He told us I had two weeks to become at least A1 German proficient or I’d be sent home… But we did it and I was able to speak my way through an interview 2 weeks later. We were both so grateful after that was all over with and we never had to visit the office ever again!

“It scared the absolute crap out of me and my poor host mom.”

The German Government expressly says that speaking German is not a requirement for an au pair visa. Indeed, host families are to contribute a monthly fee for language lessons – highlighting the inconsistency of ‘requirements’ and the sometimes arbitrary nature of the decision-making process. 

READ: How to become an au pair in Germany 

'We were informing staff how it works'

Anton Pluschke, an Australian who works in animal nutrition, told The Local that the demands made were frequently inconsistent and contradictory to the official requirements when he applied in Cologne. 

“In Cologne, depending on who you spoke to, you heard a very different story,” he said. 

“We’d go online to prepare for the appointment as much as possible, but when faced with the actual questions the information didn’t always align with what we’d read. That trend continued pretty much through every different appointment.

“In Berlin (the case worker) told me I needed to have private health insurance – we had to tell her that actually no, that’s optional.  We were informing her how it works.”

Tim R, also from Australia, had a similar experience at the Ausländerbehörde in Stuttgart. When applying for the Working Holiday Visa - a reciprocal arrangement between the Australian and German governments - Tim was told during his appointment that no such visa exists. 

“The lady at the Ausländerbehörde told me flatly that Germany doesn’t have a Working Holiday Visa – that it doesn’t exist (and) she’d never heard of it,” he said. 

“I told her that it's on the German government website -- but she didn't want to hear it. She then told me that if I wanted to stay in Germany, I would need to get an employer to sponsor me for a working visa.

“So I found one, and they filled out all the forms and we jumped through all the hoops for the working visa. Then, after all that, I got an email from the ABH inviting me for a conversation in their office. 

“So I went, paperwork in hand, with a work sponsor ready, and as soon as I arrived the lady there said, "also, Ihre Working Holiday Visa ist jetzt bereit (your Working Holiday Visa is ready now).”

'Always a great experience'

While we got a lot of critical responses, some of the other respondents indicated that people would be much less willing to report a positive experience than a negative one. 

Several people took the time to get back to us to say their experiences with the Ausländerbehörde were largely positive.  

Alex Kindl wrote on Facebook “Always had a great experience! Always get what I need and friendly staff! (sic)” 

American Rosy Moreno told The Local that she’d heard bad things about the experience, but was pleasantly surprised when she visited the office to ask for advice at the Berlin office after losing her job. 

“I keep hearing the word bureaucratic a lot, but I’ve found things to be relatively easy. There’s help — as long as I ask for it in the right way, I think that’s the main thing,” she said. 

“I think your attitude makes a big difference - probably more so that what kind of passport I have.

“I think you need to be respectful… if I was just there asking for things with an attitude, then I would not want to help me.”

Part two of our investigation, detailing our interview with Ausländerbehörde boss Engelhard Mazanke, will be published this week.

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Peter Mahaffey - 15 May 2019 14:21
Its clear that some people had good experiences. Its also ALWAYS important, anywhere in the world, to treat state officials with civility and respect, if only because so often their pay is much lower than yours. This aside, would it be too confrontational for The Local to print the names of the offices where people had either good or bad experiences?
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