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‘Nothing is easy’: How foreigners struggle to get settled in Germany

According to a recent study, internationals in Germany are massively underserved when it comes to essentials like housing, digital services and language provisions. Here's what our readers had to say about it.

Artist Omer Fast sits in a recreated Ausländerbehörde
Artist Omer Fast sits in a recreated Ausländerbehörde waiting room in the Gropiusbau as part of an art exhibition titled "Talking isn't always the answer". Photo: picture alliance / Ralf Hirschberger/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa | Ralf Hirschberger

Germany is a hugely popular destination for expats, who are often lured by the healthy jobs market, high salaries and decent quality of life. But while many internationals expect to turn up in a country that runs like clockwork, many are shocked to find that things aren’t quite how they imagined. 

It may be that Germany’s forward-thinking reputation isn’t borne out by its lagging digital services – or that language barriers make it impossible to break into German social circles. For most people who move to the Bundesrepublik, at least one aspect of settling in is hard. 

This was reflected in a recent survey by InterNations, in which Germany was ranked 42nd out of 52 countries as a destination for expats. Even though factors like a good work-life-balance were applauded, in the newly added Expat Essentials categories – which focuses on admin, housing, language and digitalisation – Germany was the worst-ranked country of all.

READ ALSO: Germany ranked as ‘worst country in the world’ for expat needs

When The Local conducted its own survey where almost 240 respondents replied over two days, many of these topics came up as bugbears for the international community. Asked whether it was tricky to settle into life in Germany, a whopping 86 percent said yes, while nine percent said no, and the remainder were unsure. 

Graph on expat experiences in Germany

Source: The Local

Here were the four major issues that foreigners have to grabble with when trying to settle in Germany. 

Language barrier 

By far the biggest issue for many internationals is the fact that they are thrown into the deep-end with interacting in German straight away. 

“I was lucky in many ways, because friends helped me,” said 53-year-old Ingrid, who’s based in Berlin. “I knew a little German, but it was hard to fill out forms. I would never have managed alone. No-one speaks English! Nothing available in English either, like forms or written information.”

For 28-year-old Tanvir Rahmen Ovi, who lives in Kiel, it was also hard to get support in English.

“I knew on the first day that I would not get help from anyone if I couldn’t speak German,” he said. “Almost everywhere I went, people refused to speak English.”

Tanvir told us he experienced a “scary” situation after mislaying his wallet on a bus and seeking help at the lost and found. “To my utter surprise, the man in charge of handling things refused to speak English and said, ‘This is Germany! No English,’ and yes, he said that in English. I wasn’t able to collect the wallet on that day. This story is just one out of many bad experiences I can share.”

Several people said they had negative experiences during their registration appointment at the Bürgeramt or when dealing with the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) largely due to the fact that few people were willing to speak English with them (or were unable to).

“I can understand other government offices where you need to speak German, which is fine, but at the Ausländerbehörde?”, said Thomas, 45, from Bonn. “Of course you will have people who don’t speak German coming to the Foreigner’s Office. I think its time to have younger English-speaking workers in such places.”

Leo, 42, who lives in Neusäß in Bavaria, said newcomers should get more English language support in Germany. 

“To be honest, I really think that Germany should ask foreigners to learn the language, perhaps even make it an obligation,” he said. “But it has to help at the beginning.”

READ ALSO: The pros and cons of living in Germany


Closely related to the language issues is the mountain of bureaucracy that foreigners have to climb – which many of our readers named as one of the hardest parts of settling into German life.

“Nothing is easy here,” said Siva from Königswinter. “Take anything and everything – it’s difficult in Germany.”

Nour in Seligenstadt described the bureaucracy as “crippling”, while Tom in Bonn said the level of paperwork he had had to deal with was “unbelievable”.

The major issue with Germany’s bureaucracy for many expats was the fact that so much administration work has to be done in person or even by post. Digitalisation – or the lack of it – came up time and time and again as one of the major headaches of living in Germany. 

Ausländerbehörde Berlin

The entrance to the Foreigner’s Office (Ausländerbehörde) in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Kay Nietfeld/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“The appointment system at the Ausländerbehörde is not at all organised,” said 22-year-old Yash Trivedi, who lives in Wildau. “They are still trying with the digitalisation but if you have any questions, they neither pick up the call nor answer any emails. You have to wait for months before your appointment and still everything relies on letter rather than getting all your official documents by email.”

Darmstadt resident Khan, 30, agreed that “most things should be done online” rather than at the various administrative buildings. 

“It is hard to get started because of slow and repetitive bureaucratic processes,” he said. 

READ ALSO: Fact check: Is Germany’s internet really that bad?

Finding a flat 

The other area where many foreigners struggle is Germany’s competitive housing market, with many saying they felt discriminated against because they have non-German names. 

“It’s extremely hard to find a flat and people usually take advantage of foreigners with extreme prices,” said 33-year-old Liliana, who lives in Munich.

“Finding a flat in Berlin currently is hard,” another respondent told us. “It’s a game of handling expectations: if you want to go further from the city centre, it’s a little easier. But then, life is harder for you if you can’t speak German.”

A housing co-op in Saxony

A housing co-op in Saxony. Foreigners say it’s hard to find a secure place to live in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Robert Michael

And it’s not only Berlin and Munich where the situation is tense: people all over the country, from Stuttgart to Rostock, complained of how difficult it was to secure a roof over their heads.

“Finding housing in Hamburg is extremely hard to impossible, if you don’t want to settle for suburbs,” 27-year-old Isabel told us. “I was lucky to find a place in the city, but there is a cost for that, and that is I don’t get to save much after paying the rent. I know at least five people who have been searching for months without any luck now. It is a battlefield.” 

Even more worryingly, a number of respondents spoke out about the discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities on the German housing market.   

“Flat finding in Berlin is traumatic, especially if you aren’t European or American,” 30-year-old Muzaffer told us. As a skilled employee with a decent salary, Muzaffar said he had had to apply for more than 500 flats before he managed to secure one. 

Düsseldorf resident Fawaz, 31, had a similar experience while flat-hunting.

“I’m an Arab expat and the second they see an Arabic name I don’t get apartments, not even interviews for apartments, even though I speak German and have a high paying job,” he said. “It’s really sad to be honest.”

READ ALSO: High costs, long queues and discrimination: What it’s like to rent in Germany

Difficulty of finding friends 

Beyond the day-to-day stresses of life admin and looking for flats, our readers told us that they struggled to find German friends and feel fully accepted in German society.

Some said they felt that Germans in general were “cold” and “unfriendly”, while others said they thought many locals were unwelcoming to foreigners.

“I have settled in fairly easily, since I already had a good grasp of German language,” said Richard Howard, 73, from Wiesbaden. “However, I have found it difficult to make friends and to connect with people. Germans can often appear distant, cold and rather arrogant, unwilling to engage. But to be fair they may be no worse in this respect than others, such as the Brits.” 

Man and dog in Frankfurt am Main

A man and his dog sit on a bench in Frankfurt am Main. Many foreigners say loneliness is an issue in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

Francesca, 31, who lives in Tübingen, said she had also found it hard to build up a social circle.

“Despite spending the last five years with the same female sports group, I could not make any German friends,” she said. “But I can’t say whether it’s an issue of those people against foreigners, a female issue, or just an issue of being Swabian.

“However, since I moved to Germany, I have always lived in the same (small) town, so my experience may not reflect reality. I plan to move to a different, bigger city in the future, and I hope things will improve.”

Thank you to everyone who took the time to fill out our survey. Keep a look out for upcoming features on what can be improved for foreigners in Germany, and the positive aspects of life in the Bundesrepublik. 

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For members


EXPLAINED: How can Brits visit or move to Germany post-Brexit?

Many Brits may be considering spending time in Germany or even moving for work or to study. Here's a look at the rules.

EXPLAINED: How can Brits visit or move to Germany post-Brexit?

The Brexit transition period ended on January 1st 2021, but it’s been a turbulent few years with Covid-related restrictions, which mean many people may not have travelled abroad since then. Here’s what you should know about the rules for travelling and moving to Germany post-Brexit. 

Can I visit Germany from the UK on holiday?

Absolutely. But you do have to stick to certain rules on how long you can stay in Germany (and other EU countries) without a visa.

“British citizens do not require a visa for the Schengen Member States, if the duration of their stay does not exceed 90 days within any 180-day period,” says the German Missions consular service in the UK. 

You can find a full explanation of the 90-day rule from our sister site, The Local France, HERE, along with the Schengen calculator that allows you to work out your allowance.

READ ALSO: Passport scans and €7 fees: What will change for EU travel in 2022 and 2023

Note that if you were living in Germany before January 1st 2021, different rules apply. People in this scenario should have received a residence permit – known as the Aufenthaltstitel-GB – from the German authorities, which proves their right to remain in Germany with the same rights as they had before Brexit. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: How can I re-enter Germany without my post-Brexit residence card?

Can I move to Germany from the UK after the Brexit transition period?

Yes. But if you are coming to Germany to live and work, you will need to apply for the right documents, like other so-called ‘third country nationals’. All foreigners from outside the EU who want to to stay in Germany for more than three months have to get a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel). 

As we touched on above, citizens from some countries (including the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Israel, New Zealand and Switzerland) are allowed entry into Germany without a visa and can apply for a residence permit while in the country. You can contact the Foreigners Office (Ausländerbehörde) in your area to find out how to get a residence permit.

You’ll need various official documents, such as a valid passport, proof of health insurance and proof that you can support yourself. You usually receive your residence permit as a sticker in your passport.

Passengers wait at Hamburg airport.

Passengers at Hamburg airport. Brits coming to Germany have more things to consider after Brexit. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Markus Scholz

Germany has a well-documented skilled worker shortage at the moment so there are work permit options to consider that may suit your circumstances. 

For the work visa for qualified professionals, for instance, your qualifications have to be either recognised in Germany or comparable to those from a German higher education facility. 

You may also be able to get an EU Blue Card. This residence permit is aimed at attracting and enabling highly qualified third-country nationals to live in the EU. 

It comes with benefits, including the right to to request and bring family members to the country, and shortcuts for applying for permanent residency. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

When applying for a Blue Card in Germany this year, you have to earn a minimum gross salary (before tax) of €56,400 – down from €56,800 in 2021. 

In so-called shortage occupations (Mangelberufe), where there is a high number of unfilled positions, the minimum gross salary is €43,992 – down from €44,304 in 2021.

Shortage occupations include employees in the sectors of mathematics, IT, natural sciences, engineering and medicine.

If you want to come to Germany from the UK to study then you also need to apply for a visa. For this you may need proof of acceptance to the university or higher education institution of your choice and possibly proof of your German language skills.

Check out the useful government website Make it in Germany for more detailed information, as well as the German Missions in the UK site, which has lots of info on travel after Brexit, and on visas.  

What else should I know?

The German government plans to reform the immigration system, although it’s not clear at this stage when this will happen. 

It will move to a points-based system, inspired by countries like Canada, where foreigners will have to score above a certain threshold of points to get a residence or work permit.

This scoring system will be set by the government, but it will include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account.

Keep an eye on The Local’s home page for updates on the changes to immigration laws. 

Have you moved to Germany – or are thinking about moving – after the Brexit transition period and want to share your experiences? Please get in touch by emailing [email protected]