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Your complete guide to visiting Germany’s immigration offices

Whether it's your first or 15th meeting, visiting the foreigner's office can be challenging experience. While we can’t guarantee you a visa, these tips should make your visit run a bit more smoothly.

Your complete guide to visiting Germany's immigration offices
The entrance to Berlin's Ausländerbehörde. Photo: DPA

Over the past weeks we’ve been speaking extensively to internationals in Germany as well as representatives from the German foreigners office to get a better idea of the German immigration experience.  

Part I of our investigation discussed internationals' experiences coming to Germany, while Part II was a discussion of our exclusive interview with Berlin immigration office boss Engelhard Mazanke. 

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

Part II: 'We are continually trying to improve': Inside Germany's largest immigration office

During the course of this investigation we’ve unearthed some tips and tricks for visiting the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office) in Germany. 

From understanding the appointment system to appreciating the true importance of punctuality, these tips should give you a better indication of how to manage your application process for a visa, also known as an Aufenthaltstitel, or residency permit valid for a year or more.

A pile of Aufenthaltstitel, which give permission to stay in Germany for a fixed amount of time. Photo: DPA

Appointments

First things first, going with an appointment is 1,000 times better than going without. The main reason for this is that, obviously, your wait will be shorter. 

While it may be purely the result of anecdotal research, the Beamte (case workers) tend to be much nicer to applicants with appointments, as they have longer to prepare for your visit and had a chance to read some of your documents.

READ: Germany's future depends on immigration and integration – Merkel

Getting an appointment however is where things tend to get tough. As we told you previously in our discussion with Berlin Ausländerbehörde boss Engelhard Mazanke, the wait for an appointment can take up to three months. In fact, in most cases it’s not just that it ‘can’ take three months – more that it ‘will’. 

When booking an appointment online, the best approach is to keep an eye out – and refresh your screen (just like if you were buying concert tickets). Appointments can come up as a result of cancellation, while the office slowly releases new appointments regularly, meaning that a day which appeared full yesterday may be open today.

Going without an appointment 

While appointments are infinitely better, they will not always be possible, such as in the case of those applying for a student visa. Fortunately, the Ausländerbehörde is required to keep Sprechzeiten – consultation times – so that those without an appointment may visit. 

There will usually be a number of days per week which have designated consultation hours. In bigger cities however, this is a little more difficult than it sounds. 

Given that there are only a limited amount of spots each day, people will begin lining up outside the centres before they open – sometimes as early as 1am

Along with sneaker collectors or ticket scalpers, frequent visitors to the Ausländerbehörde will know that the queues can’t really be avoided – particularly if your case is pressing. 

In that sense, the only tips we can give are to bring warm drinks and food (the options at that hour are likely to be limited), as well as a cushion, maybe some playing cards – and some friends. We’d also recommend you go during summer, although you might not have a lot of control over that. 

German: A little goes a long way

For some English speakers in Germany, it’s continually perplexing that unofficial interactions with Germans will often result in long-winded conversations in admirable English, but attempts to do so in an official capacity will often be met with a swift and firm ‘nein’. 

There are a number of reasons for this. There is a definite reluctance among official government representatives or officers to provide advice in English as they may make a mistake in English which could have legal implications. This is something that repeats itself in formal interactions often in Germany. 

In addition, some Beamte simply don’t speak English particularly well – but as we’ve reported on previously, this is something authorities are seeking to improve. 

In either case, it’s important to remember that you are indeed in another country where another language is spoken, so simply expecting all government staff to speak your own language is naive at best and arrogant at worst. 

If you don’t speak any German, try and at least come armed with a small arsenal of German words: please (bitte schön), thank you (danke schön), hello (hallo) and good day (guten Tag).

These will go a long way to show that you’ve actually thought a little about the country you plan on living in – and a long way towards actually living there. 

A number of our respondents also indicated that going with moderate German is better than going with a translator, particularly if you’ve been in the country for a number of years. Like the above point, it shows that you’re at least trying to learn the language. 

A paper trail

German bureaucracy loves paperwork. If you’ve got a claim to make, you’ll need paper evidence to back it up. 

Although it will depend on the type of visa you’re applying for, the most important documents to bring are your passport, Meldebescheinigung (certificate of Anmeldung, or registration) and evidence that you pay health insurance in Germany. If you don’t have these, it’s likely you won’t get seen.

You can get an Anmeldung through your local Bürgeramt, or citizens' registration office. Photo: DPA

If you have a private insurance, make sure that it is accepted by the Ausländerbehörde, as some forms of private insurance, especially those located outside of Germany, are not.

Other documents that are incredibly valuable are offers from potential employers (freelance, of which at least two should be based in Germany) or contacts from a specific employer. The parchment certifying your university or other qualifications will also be hugely important, as will evidence of financial stability (i.e. a bank statement showing your balance). 

The documents that you should bring will be specified ahead of the meeting. It’s important to bring all of these documents to each meeting – yes, even if you’ve shown them plenty of time before. 

Punctuality

As we highlighted in our story on Ausländerbehörde experiences, even being three minutes late might result in having your appointment cancelled, forcing you to reschedule months into the future.  

It might seem like a no brainer – be on time for your visa meeting – but the importance of punctuality in formal settings in Germany cannot be overstated. While you might be expected to wait hours after your appointment time to see someone – and then be told to wait in the hall for hours more while your application is being considered – your obligation to be punctual is non-negotiable. 

Germans consider a lack of punctuality not just to be a sign of disorganization or perhaps a consequence of stress surrounding your meeting, but a direct and intended indication that your time is more valuable than theirs. 

Don’t fight it. Don’t try and understand it. Just be on time. 

A good attitude

From refugee status to residence permits, the stakes will always be high for those charged with making visa decisions. This can add an extra degree of tension to what is an already tense experience. 

Your best weapon against this is simply to bring a good attitude. As one of our sources, Rosy Moreno, said when discussing her experience, a polite and friendly attitude was incredibly important – both to make the meetings go smoothly and for her own sanity. 

“I think your attitude makes a big difference – probably more so that what kind of passport I have,” she said. 

“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.”

So, am I German yet?

Again, as we said earlier, nothing here will guarantee you receive whichever permission you’re seeking – this is not a legal advice column!

However, understanding some of the aspects listed above should however make the experience a little more bearable.

 

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VISAS

What is the EU’s ‘single permit’ for third-country nationals and can I get one?

In 2020, 2.7 million non-EU citizens were issued a so-called "single permit" to both reside and work in the EU. But what is the single permit, how does it work and what could change in the future?

What is the EU's 'single permit' for third-country nationals and can I get one?

Among the recent proposals made by the European Commission to simplify the procedures for the entry and residence of non-EU nationals in the European Union, there is the reform of the ‘single permit’.

In 2020, 2.7 million non-EU citizens were issued a ‘single permit’ to both reside and work in the EU, according to the European statistics agency Eurostat. Five countries together issued 75% of the total, with France topping the list (940,000 permits issued), followed by Italy (345,000), Germany (302,000), Spain (275,000) and Portugal (170,000).

Seven in 10 single permits were granted for family and employment reasons (34 and 36 percent respectively) and just less than 10 percent for education purposes.

But what is this permit and how does it work?

What is the EU single permit?

The EU single permit is an administrative act that grants non-EU citizens both a work and residence permit for an EU member state with a single application.

It was designed to simplify access for people moving to the EU for work. It also aims to ensure that permit holders are treated equally to the citizens of the country where they live when it comes to working conditions, education and training, recognition of qualifications, freedom of association, tax benefits, access to goods and services, including housing and advice services.

Equal conditions also concern social security, including the portability of pension benefits. This means that non-EU citizens or their survivors who reside in a non-EU country and derive rights from single permit holders are entitled to receive pensions for old age, invalidity and death in the same way as EU citizens.

The single permit directive applies in 25 of the 27 EU countries, as Ireland and Denmark have opted out of all EU laws affecting ‘third country nationals’.

Who can apply for a single permit?

The directive covers non-EU nationals who apply to reside in an EU country for work or who are already resident in the EU for other purposes but have the right to access the labour market (for instance, students or family members of a citizen of the country of application).

As a general rule, these rules do not apply to long-term residents or non-EU family members of EU citizens who exercise the free movement rights or have free movement rights in the EU under separate laws, as their rights are already covered by separate laws.

It also does not apply to posted workers, seasonal workers, intra-corporate transferees, beneficiaries of temporary protection, refugees, self-employed workers and seafarers or people working on board of EU ships, as they are not considered part of the labour market of the EU country where they are based.

Each country can determine whether the application should be made by the non-EU national or the employer or either of them.

Applications from the individual are required for the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden. For Bulgaria and Italy it is the employer who has to apply, while applications are accepted from either the recipient or the employer for Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

How long does it take to process the application?

The EU directive says the competent authority must decide on the application within 4 months from the date it was lodged. Only in exceptional circumstances the deadline can be longer.

Where no decision is taken within the time limit, national law determines the outcome. In some EU countries (including France, Italy and Spain) this is a tacit rejection while in others it is a tacit approval.

If the application is incomplete, the authority should notify the applicant in writing specifying which additional information is needed, and the time count should be suspended until these are received.

In case of rejection, the authority must provide the reasons and there is a possibility to appeal.

How does it work in practice?

Although the intention of the directive was to simplify the procedure and guarantee more rights, things always get complicated when it’s 25 countries turning rules into reality.

A 2019 report of the European Commission on how this law was working in practice showed that the directive “failed to address some of the issues it proposed to solve”.

The Commission had received several complaints and launched legal action against some member states.

Complaints concerned in particular excessive processing times by the relevant authorities, too high fees, problems with the recognition of qualifications and the lack of equal treatment in several areas, especially social security.

Only 13 countries allowed the transfer of pensions to non-EU countries. In France, invalidity and death pensions are not exportable to non-EU states. Problems were identified also in Bulgaria, the Netherlands and Slovenia.

In Italy single permit holders were excluded from certain types of family benefits and it was the EU Court of Justice that ruled, in September 2021, that single permit holders are entitled to a childbirth and maternity allowances as provided by Italian laws. The EU Court also rules that Italy and the Netherlands were charging too high fees.

Sweden restricts social security benefits for people living in the country for less than one year and takes too long to process single permit applications, according to the report.

Generally the report found that authorities were not providing sufficient information to the pubic about the permit and associated rights.

What will change?

As part of a package of measures to make working and moving in the EU country easier for non-EU nationals announced at the end of April, the European Commission has proposed some changes to improve the situation.

The Commission has suggested shortening the deadline for member states to issue a decision ensuring that the 4 month limit covers the issuing of visas and the labour market test (to prove there are no suitable candidates in the local market).

Under the proposal, fees should be proportionate and candidates should be able to submit the application both in the member state of destination and from a third country.

In addition, permit holders should be able to change employer during the permit’s validity, and the permit should not be withdrawn in case of unemployment for at least 3 months. These measures should reduce vulnerability to labour exploitation, the Commission says.

The Commission also suggests member states should introduce penalties against employers who do no respect equality principles especially with regard to working conditions, freedom of association and affiliation and access to social security benefits.

These proposals have to be approved by the European Parliament and Council and can be modified before becoming law.

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