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LIVING IN GERMANY

12 ways to improve your life in Germany without even trying

A new year doesn't have to be all about grand plans and life-changing resolutions. With these 12 steps, you can make a big difference to the quality of your life in Germany without even trying.

Cross-country skiers
Ski tourers climb against the backdrop of the Alps on their way to the Brauneck summit. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Tobias Hase

New Year’s resolutions are all well and good, but sometimes the best laid plans can be hard to stick to once spring rolls around. So instead of overhauling your entire life, why not try making these simple changes which could make a surprising difference to your life in Germany? 

1. Get a bike 

Sure, if you live at the top of a mountain in the Bavarian Alps, this one may not be that appealing, but almost anywhere else in Germany it makes total sense to cycle. With extensive cycle-path systems, German cities are renowned for being well-equipped for cyclists – and if you live in Berlin, you get the added bonus of living in one of the flattest places around.

If you’ve been relying on buses and trains to get you from A to B, you’ll probably be surprised at how efficient it can be to cycle around the city instead. Say goodbye to packed-out trains, missed connections, and endless scrolling. Say hello to feeling like a superhuman and getting your daily workout done while commuting to work. 

READ ALSO: Riding the Radweg: A guide to touring Germany by bike

2. Ask questions 

This is such a simple one, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Living in a foreign country can get confusing and overwhelming – especially if you happen to have chosen one with as many rules and regulations as Germany. Give yourself a break and remember it’s okay not to know everything. Nobody will mind if you ask, and often there’s nothing a local will enjoy more than giving you the lowdown on everything you may have unwittingly been getting wrong. (I believe this is what’s known as “German small talk”.) 

Showing curiosity is also a great way to get the insider scoop on the best places to go in your city or quirky German customs. The more you learn, the more at home you’ll feel, so ask away. And if you can’t find an actual local to answer your questions, ask The Local instead! 

3. Meet the neighbours

Boiler broken in sub-zero temperatures again? Fallen ill while living alone? Council refusing to empty the bins again because they are “too full”? (Yes, this is an actual thing.) 

Knowing the neighbours can be a life-saver in situations like this. Especially in the time of Covid, creating a small community in the building where you live is a great way to ensure there’s someone there to look out for you if you need it. But even in non-Covid times, a fluent German speaker who understands the rules and is on your side is one of the best ways to reduce stress in your life. 

Elderly lady and neighbour

An elderly lady in Essen recieves a delivery of groceries from a neighbour during the pandemic. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roland Weihrauch

So next time you meet one of the other building-dwellers at the postbox or out in the Hof, why not say hello and ask how they are? After a few conversations, you could even set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate complaints to the landlord and borrowing eggs / DIY stuff / Covid tests. Trust me, after building good relationships with your neighbours you may wonder what you ever did without them. 

4. Stay informed 

Since you’re reading The Local right now, chances are you’re already pretty well-informed, so we may be preaching to the converted here. But keeping on top of current affairs over your morning coffee at the end of your working day is a great way to feel more integrated in German society and stay on the right side of the ever-changing Covid rules. 

Even better, you’ll finally have something to yabber about with your German work colleagues at your next Feierabendbier (after work drinks). 

5. Spend time outdoors

Germans are absolutely crazy about the great outdoors, and it’s no wonder: whether it’s the sprawling lakes of Brandenburg, the soaring peaks of Bavaria or the rolling hills of Hesse, Germany has a breathtakingly beautiful natural landscape. 

Snow covered mountains

A car drives through the snow-covered Ore Mountains in Saxony. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

Numerous poets, painters and thinkers have taken inspiration from these scenes and concluded that nature is good for the soul. But did you also know that two hours a week in nature is strongly linked to good physical health and wellbeing as well? The benefits improve the more time you spend in the great outdoors, but it doesn’t matter whether you get your dose of nature in one go or several small bites, so just getting out for 20 minutes a day could do the trick. 

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

6. Find German things you like

Are German grammar books making you want to move to Spain instead? We don’t blame you. The good news is, pouring over endless textbooks may not even be the most effective way to learn German. A better method is what’s known as immersion learning, which is exactly what it sounds like and is how we learn languages as children.

Now, nothing is going to beat speaking and listening with a real native speaker, but the next best thing is finding German culture you enjoy and diving right in. Whether it’s trashy TV, cheesy pop music or point-and-click adventure games, there are no “guilty pleasures” here. If anyone asks, you’re improving your German. 

READ ALSO:

7. Visit a sauna

If the long, hard winters are getting you down, a trip to the sauna could be just the thing you need to rejuvenate yourself. It’s a great way to escape the cold for a few hours and sweat out all those toxins you guzzled over Christmas, while also embracing the German attitude of not really caring if anyone sees you naked.

In the month of punishment diets and guilt over piling on the pounds, a little bit of Freikörperkultur (FKK – free body culture or naturism) could be just the thing you need to feel comfortable in your own skin again.  

8. Switch banks

With eye-watering ATM charges and punitive account fees, banks in Germany can be the complete opposite of consumer-friendly. But studies suggest we’re more likely to get divorced from our partner than switch banks in our lifetime – probably because it’s perceived as difficult.

This is a shame, because the process has become incredibly simple in recent years, and many banks offer attractive bonuses to try and lure new customers. 

Cash machine

A customer makes a withdrawal at an ATM. Cash withdrawal fees can be a major downside of many German bank accounts. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Benjamin Nolte

If you’re stuck with a bank that charges you to use most ATMs, ING-Diba and DKB could be a cheaper route. Alternatively, the mobile bank N26 is designed to be easy and bureaucracy-free for foreigners, but there are plenty of options to explore. 

9. Try something new 

From sampling local food to trying your hand at ice dipping, living in a foreign country is a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.

Who knows? You may find your new favourite dish or a hobby you never knew you would love – and at the very least, you could make some new friends.

10. Eat seasonally 

In our modern, globalised world, it’s easy to get out of step with the seasons and find ourselves stuck in a rut with our eating habits. One of the great things about Germany is how much of a big deal people make about seasonal produce – just visit any local restaurant during Spargelzeit if you don’t believe me.

By trying to stick to local, seasonal produce, you not only help the environment but you also support your local community. And there’s something lovely about feeling in touch with the changing seasons and having an excuse to switch up your diet and experiment with new dishes every few months. 

You can find calendars telling you what fruit and veg is in season on this incredibly helpful website (in German). 

11. Wear practical clothes

There’s a reason Germans are generally known as practical dressers rather than fashionistas: having an active lifestyle in unpredictable weather generally calls for practical clothes. Whether you’re out in the Ore Mountains in the pouring rain or running to meet a friend for coffee in the snow, there are some absolute wardrobe essentials you can’t do without if you live here. 

Practical clothing

A man walks with his dog in the snow and fog in Bavaria. Germans are well known for having practical clothes in every type of weather – and German dogs are no exception. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

This winter, think like a German and stock up on high-quality gloves, sturdy boots and a warm coat. As the Norwegians love to say (but it could just as well be a German phrase): “There’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothing.”

READ ALSO: Five German lifestyle habits you should think about adopting

12. Set reminders 

We’re sure it won’t come as a surprise to you that living in Germany involves a lot of bureaucracy on top of the general hectic pace of modern life. You may think you have the memory of Rain Man, but even he would struggle to remember all the tax deadlines, visa appointments and general admin that daily life in Germany can require. 

Our advice? Set reminders for key dates, appointments and deadlines on your phone. We’re not promising that you’ll complete avoid any angry bureaucratic letters of doom, but for the most part, it should help you keep on top of things. 

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LIVING IN AUSTRIA

Austria vs Germany: Which country is better to move to?

Thinking of a move to a German-speaking Europe but aren't sure about Germany or Austria? Here’s what you need to know.

Austria vs Germany: Which country is better to move to?

Both Austria and Germany are German-speaking countries with similar cultures and a high standard of living.

But in many ways, the similarities stop there and life in Austria can be very different to Germany (and vice versa) – depending on which part of the country you live in. 

So which of these two Central European countries are better to move to? Let’s find out.

Taxes

The tax systems in both Austria and Germany are complicated, so it will of course depend on your individual circumstances as to where you’d pay less tax. 

In Austria, the general income tax rates for 2022 are:

0 percent for up to €11,000 in earnings.

20 percent for €11,000 to €18,000.

32.5 percent for €18,000 to €31,000.

42 percent for €31,000 to €60,000.

48 percent for €60,000 to €90,000.

50 percent for €90,000 to €1,000,000.

55 percent for earnings above €1,000,000.

FOR MEMBERS: Explained: How to understand your payslip in Austria

While in Germany the tax rates for 2022 are:

0 percent for earnings up to €9,984.

14 to 42 percent for €9,985 to €58,596.

42 percent for €58,597–€277,825.

45 percent for €277,826 and above.

As you can see, it’s likely you will end up paying more income tax in Austria than in Germany – especially in the higher earnings brackets.

Then there are mandatory social security payments to consider, which cover healthcare, pension and unemployment insurance.

In Austria, both the employer and the employee are required to pay social insurance contributions. The amount will depend on income up to a ceiling amount of €62,640 per year or €5,220 per month.

In Germany, there is a similar system (both employer and employee pay) and the average total social insurance contribution for employees is around 20 to 22 percent of your annual salary.

In the case of self-employment, individuals in both Austria and Germany make payments directly to the social insurance provider.

How much you ultimately pay in taxes and social insurance will depend on how much you earn. In Austria you can expect to pay out around 30 percent of your gross earnings, while in Germany the amount is usually slightly higher, i.e. 36-38 percent. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about your German tax return

You could end up paying more in income tax in Austria. Photo: Firmbee / Pixabay

Visas

For people from non-EU countries that want to move to either Austria or Germany, a visa is required.

In Austria, there are three types of work permit to apply for: restricted (for one year), standard (two years) and unrestricted (for five years). What you can get will depend on your situation.

There are also student and graduate visas, as well as a start-up founder route, which requires a €50,000 investment in a company. 

Another investment-style visa in Austria is known as the Self-Employed Key Worker permit and involves investing €100,000 into the Austrian economy, as well as the creation of new jobs or technologies.

FOR MEMBERS: How to apply for a residency permit in Austria

In Germany, there are several visa routes including a job seeker permit for recent graduates of a recognised university, study permit, work visa, au pair visa, internship visa or a self-employment/freelance permit.

Like in Austria, there is also an investment route in Germany for people that want to set up a business in the country. There is no official minimum amount of investment but there is a recommendation that it should be at least €360,000.

In Germany, there is also the ability to apply for dual citizenship. The law currently allows EU citizens to take German citizenship without relinquishing their country of origin, but the government has pledged to overhaul the rules to allow all eligible foreigners to apply for dual citizenship in Germany.

In Austria, dual citizenship is only allowed in very few cases, so Germany comes out on top in this round.

Digital nomad friendly?

Unlike Italy, which recently announced the launch of a new digital nomad visa, there is no specific visa for digital nomads in either Austria or Germany.

However, Germany does have a freelance visa called Aufenthaltserlaubnis für selbständige Tätigkeit. It allows freelancers and self-employed people to live in Germany for up to three years, and costs €100 to apply. 

There are several different categories of self-employment, such as journalists or artists, but keep in mind that these do differ from state to state. 

Applicants also need proof of self-sustainability (income) and an address in Germany.

Austria, on the other hand, has the Self-Employed Key Worker visa (detailed above) but it requires a financial investment and is not really suitable for digital nomads, so Deutschland wins this one.

Cost of living

Both Austria and Germany are known for having a high cost of living.

However, Germany is significantly cheaper for some everyday items like bread and domestic beer. Germany is also cheaper than Austria when it comes to eating at restaurants, but is much more expensive for items like rent and petrol.

Here is a breakdown of some of the average living costs in both countries, according to Numbeo.

Austria

Rent (one-bedroom apartment, city centre): €723

Loaf of bread: €1.94

Domestic beer: €1.07

Utilities (monthly): €217

Petrol (1 litre): €1.71

Meal for two at mid-range restaurant: €55

READ MORE: Austria unveils €2 billion relief package to fight rising cost of living

Germany

Rent (one-bedroom apartment, city centre): €886

Loaf of bread: €1.63

Domestic beer: €0.57

Utilities (monthly): €234

Petrol (1 litre): €2.20

Meal for two at mid-range restaurant: €50

Please be aware that these average costs can increase in larger cities or popular tourist destinations, or decrease in more rural areas and smaller towns.

A customer wearing a face mask makes purchases at a German supermarket

The cost of living is cheaper in Germany for some items. Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

Lifestyle and culture

Life in Austria is very much influenced by the concept of Gemutlichkeit. In English, it means “comfort” or “cosy”, but in the context of Austrian culture it means “enjoying life”.

The benefits of this aspect of Austrian culture is that there is a healthy work/life balance in the country and people make an effort to spend time with friends and family. The downside is that there is sometimes a lack of urgency, especially with bureaucracy or official matters.

Austria is also a Catholic country, which is evident in some laws and customs, such as Sunday trading laws (most businesses are closed on Sundays) and a Church Tax.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s church tax and how do I avoid paying it?

But then there are other elements, like Vienna’s famous coffee house scene and the outdoors lifestyle that can be enjoyed in the mountains. The result is a culture that is rooted in tradition while also looking on the bright side of life.

Germany, by comparison, is a much bigger country with a more diverse culture, especially between regions like traditional Bavaria (which has a similar culture to Austria) and Berlin, which is home to a modern international population and a party-loving crowd. 

The differences in Germany can be pronounced. While it may be hard to communicate with someone in English in smaller towns of the former east of the country, ordering in German in some parts of Berlin will be met with a blank stare and a request to speak English. 

However, there are a few aspects of German culture that apply across the country. For example, people are generally punctual and hardworking, and they like to take care of each other and have fun.

There are a couple of false stereotypes about German culture too – most notably that the people are cold. The reality is that most Germans are friendly and welcoming, even if there is a tendency to be honest which can at first be difficult to get used to. 

When it comes to whether Austrian or German culture is better, it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want big cities and more professional opportunities, go to Germany. If you want a smaller country with interesting traditions, then Austria is the place to be.

Nature and landscapes

Germany might have the Bavarian Alps with the Zugspitze rising to 2,962 feet above sea level, but that’s nothing compared to Austria’s Grossglockner mountain which is 3,798 metres above sea level.

But Germany does have a coastline along its northern borders – something that land-locked Austria can’t compete with.

Germany’s coast is split between the Baltic Sea and the North Sea and stretches for over 3,700 km – including islands and bays. Just don’t expect Mediterranean vibes in northern Germany.

While temperatures can be warm in the spring and summer months, both the Baltic Sea and North Sea are cold waters. This doesn’t stop German holidaymakers though who flock to the white sand beaches and pretty islands along the country’s northern coastline every summer. 

So if you would like to live in a country with the possibility of one day living by the sea (without having to relocate elsewhere), then Germany is the place to go.

On the other hand, if the mountains are calling, then head to Austria where you can spend your days exploring the Alps.

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