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‘Language is a huge barrier’: What it’s like for internationals working in Germany

The German government says it’s desperate to attract foreign talent to replenish its ageing workforce. But what's it really like to work here? Our readers weigh in.

'Language is a huge barrier': What it's like for internationals working in Germany
Photo: Depositphotos/Rawpixel

Lots of opportunities, strong workers' rights and fair rules: these were some of the positives about working in Germany, according to our readers. But they also flagged up problems, including the language barrier, discrimination and too much bureaucracy.

Overall, just under half (47 percent) of respondents to our survey said Germany was a “good” country for international workers. Around the same amount of people said it was an “average” country for foreign talent, while just 5 percent described it as “bad”.

In the first part of our investigation into what it's like for internationals working in Germany, we gathered their experiences. In future articles we will focus on racism and discrimination in the workplace, as well as what the government can do to attract more foreign talent. 

SEE ALSO: The Local Jobs – English-language jobs in Germany

SEE ALSO: 10 ways to optimize your application for the German job market

Good work-life balance and workers' rights

So what are the plus points of working in Germany as a non-German? In the country that has a word for the down time after work is finished – Feierabend – it's perhaps unsurprising that so many internationals said they were impressed by the work-life balance culture.

Although it's not the case in every workplace, in Germany it's more likely that you'll clock off when you're supposed to, while working late and on weekends without a valid reason is frowned upon.

Majid, a software engineer originally from Pakistan and now living in Frankfurt, praised this culture of taking free time seriously, calling it “really good”.

Majid added that Germany’s welfare system and the rights of workers was also a plus point. The health care system is “one of the best world”, he said, employees are “not expected to work overtime” and that “taking holidays is mandatory”.

Salman, a GIS analyst in Essen, agreed that there was a “good balance” between work and leisure time. He also praised the “strong contacts, well educated colleagues” and the “clean offices”.

Teaching is one profession that has a shortage of staff in Germany. Photo: DPA

Another respondent said the pay is “good” and there are lots of vacation days.

Patent attorney Ami in Munich praised the welcoming culture in firms and the “technical knowledge” of Germans. She also commended the work-life-balance.

Antoinette, a teacher in Taunusstein in Hesse said: “The level of benefits is outstanding compared to the states. While my actual salary is significantly lower, the health benefits are incredible”

Meanwhile, Dawn, who is also teacher, in Zwickau, Saxony, said Germany was good for families with children.

Lots of opportunities

With unemployment at a record low since reunification, companies in Europe's biggest economy have been complaining that a chronic shortage in workers is threatening growth.

There are vacancies in a several areas, including sectors involving mathematics, computing, natural sciences, technology and teaching, according to authorities.

Readers pointed out that the “wide range” of opportunities in different work fields was very positive for people looking for a new life in Germany.

Panshul, a senior software engineer in Munich, said “companies with international cultures” were the most attractive to foreigners.

Software developer Diar from Kosovo, who now lives in Berlin, said there are “a lot of companies which means a lot of opportunities”.

Majid in Frankfurt also said he had learned about “new technologies and new skills” since taking up his post in the Hesse city.

Fair rules – but too much paperwork

Panshul also praised the “fair employment rules” and “clear defined rules for residence permits”.

Grant, who lives in Munich but is originally from Australia and works in marketing management, agreed.

“The EU Blue Card is surprisingly easy to obtain and is a really generous programme,” he said.

However, one of the major issues facing international workers was the stress associated with applications for these residence permits or visas.

SEE ALSO: EXPLAINED – How to get a Blue Card to live and work in Germany

Majid, for example, said government offices, especially the Ausländerbehörde (the immigration authority) “are a nightmare for foreigners”.

In fact, let's face it: it wouldn’t be Germany without a net of bureaucracy at every turn.

And excessive paperwork was another point that got the thumbs down from internationals who got in touch with The Local. 

Project manager Silviu in Munich described the Bundesrepublik as a bit behind the times.

He said it’s “extremely bureaucratic and 20th century old-school considering that fax and post is the main way of communication”.

Silviu also lamented the notoriously slow Internet connection in Germany. 

Pharmacist Nuha in Frankfurt said: “I came to Germany looking forward to seeing the German innovation and engineering. I was disappointed with the old fashion bureaucratic and slow system I was faced with.”

IT consultant Utkarsh added that Germany is not as far ahead in technology and innovation “as it seems on the outside”.

SEE ALSO: Six golden rules for creating the ideal German cover letter and resume

Photo: Depositphotos/William87

Cultural differences

Differences in culture was another point that some internationals said they had noticed. Antoinette said it can be “difficult” to overcome some of them in the workplace.

SEE ALSO: Everything you need to know about becoming a freelancer in Germany

“Having worked in a German Kita for the past seven years, I’ve learned that German coworkers tend to want to be right when challenged by a more experienced higher educated outsider,” she said. “There is a singular mentality here in Germany: if it’s right for me, it’s right.”

Zubair, a software developer who’s from India and lives in Hanover, however, praised the stereotypical German trait of “directness”, and the “very good social structure”.

Germany 'not English friendly enough'

A common theme touched upon by readers was language. Although the number of English speakers was praised, many said Germany should think about being more flexible when it comes to different languages.

Some readers said to attract more international workers, offering services in a range of languages would be a way Germany could do this.

Panshul in Munich, said there is “no official support for multiple languages in services like telephone helplines, bank services, school services” and offices such as the Finanzamt.

Photo: Depositphotos/Syda_productions

Ami in Munich added: “German is hard to learn and to use as a working language.”

Controller Irwan, who’s from Indonesia and lives in Herzogenaurach near Nuremberg, added that Germany is “not English friendly enough”.

Meanwhile, internationals said it can be tricky to secure a job in an English speaking office environment.  

“Usually firms expect you to be fluent in both Deutsch and English,” Grant in Munich said.

Julian, a managing director in North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), said the language is a “huge barrier for many foreigners”.

Although consultant Kapil in Düsseldorf said the quality of life in Germany is “incredible”, he added: “Unfortunately, generally the country holds on to, almost adamantly, its language and is very difficult for one to integrate without it.”

One reader added that “outside the big city bubble, German is a must”.

SEE ALSO: What and where the best and worst paid jobs in Germany?

It depends on where you move

Germany is a complex, federal country made up of 16 states.  Even within the states there are variations on the types of jobs and opportunities available.

Readers told us that where people choose to move can really make a difference to their working life.

Project manager Silviu, originally from Romania, said Munich is a “great hub for pharma, automotive and tech”.

“It's very international” and there are “work opportunities everywhere,” he said.

Grant in Munich added: “In some cities there's really great support for foreign professionals – for example in Hamburg there's a government Welcome Centre who help you with any administration matters, in English, free of charge.  

“Also, many of the international firms have English as the workplace language which makes settling in easier.”

Photo: Depositphotos/TarasMalyarevich

Respondents said that job-seekers should not only focus on the popular destinations.

Alan, a Canadian software developer in Hanover, said there were “lots of big cities with international companies to work in”.

But Grant added that “because of Germany's infamous decentralization, some of the best roles are in places that nobody wants to live”.

SEE ALSO: 'Historic day' as Germany takes steps forward in relaxing rules for foreign workers

Meanwhile, another reader based in Munich said Germany is a good place if you work in STEM professions (that is science, technology, engineering and  maths), but added: “Outside STEM professions, people are really old fashioned and unable to speak English or reluctant to speak English.”

Practical difficulties

Of course, coming to work in Germany means actually moving to the country. That can bring with it a whole host of difficulties, from sorting out visas to finding an apartment, setting up your phone and internet, making friends and all the rest.

Respondents to our survey highlighted that trying to get an apartment in some parts of Germany is extremely difficult, especially where prices are increasing quickly.

Raman, a digital analytics and implementation manager in Munich said renting an apartment in the southern Bavarian capital is “really difficult and expensive”. 

Look out for our follow-up articles about racism and discrimination in the workplace, and what Germany can do to attract more international talent.

Member comments

  1. As much as I love Germany and my German friends, I found that when it comes to finding a job, age discrimination is rampant (although, of course, well covered up under very polite, but completely uninformative rejection letters), even for people with plenty of qualifications (e.g., multiple graduate degrees) and experience , both technical and international, and in high-in-demand technology areas. This seems true to me especially in comparison to the UK (at least before Brexit) and the US. This is perhaps a consequence of all the protections that the law offers in Germany to employees (meaning: people who are already employed) and the fact that older people may have a right to more benefits or are expected (especially by HR – confirmed by people in this area in Germany) to have higher demands and expectations.
    To me this also reflects a much more rigid system, where anything is supposed to proceed in a rather straight, ideal way and anything that deviates from it is either looked at with suspicion or discarded.
    Then there is the issue of hierarchy (also a symptom of that rigidity), whereby there is a strong sense of entitlement and power at the top, or at least a lot of deference is paid to and probably expected by people at the higher levels (including the right to better office furniture worth thousands of euros: yes, experienced that!), whether it is justified or not by their performance. While of course some level of that is also present in the other countries that I mentioned, I found it to be much less so in the US.
    It is all a bit disheartening, because how is Germany going to attract the best, experienced, international talent by putting up this kind of less visible, but rather powerful barriers?

  2. Addendum:
    I was referring to age discrimination in hiring. And… if you have a good job in the US, have no visa issues there, are middle aged, even if you are a EU citizen and thinking of returning to Europe: hold onto that job, do not expect finding a job will be easy in Germany, despite it being often mentioned as the leading economy on the continent, despite your experience. Unless you have been explicitly head-hunted for a position there, or you have a really impressive roster of C-suite executives among your German friends who can really help you and get beyond the obvious HR barriers that you will find on your way!

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For members


7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.