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MOVING TO GERMANY

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

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

Bureaucracy 

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. 

Member comments

  1. It seemed easier to move here than most places I’ve lived in, in spite of my limited German, and far, far easier than the US. We were able to rent the first flat we applied for, well under our budget in a cute village. Our neighbours are the friendliest I’ve had in my life, and I’m almost 50. Perhaps the lesson here is to stay away from German cities, but I think that’s true wherever I’ve been in the world. Cities are crowded, unhelpful, and unfriendly, and I’ve also never been anywhere that didn’t discriminate, though some places are more subtle about it. But hey, if you know somewhere that is cheap, friendly, beautiful, non-discriminatory, non-sexist, helpful, multilingual, fully digitalised, with abundant jobs and housing…please do share, I will check it out. 😉

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VISAS

What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Germany?

People visiting Germany from a non-EU country are often subject to the 90-day rule, which states that they can only stay for 90 days out of 180. But how strictly is this rule enforced - and what happens if you end up overstaying?

What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Germany?

Most people who’ve come to Germany for short leisure trips should be aware of the so-called ’90-day rule’. 

The applies to citizens of non-EU countries that have a visa waiver agreement with the European Union, including people from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada, and – since Brexit – the United Kingdom. 

It also applies to people travelling in Germany on a Schengen Visa for tourism or business purposes. Though visa durations can vary depending on personal circumstances, the most common type of Schengen Visa issued allows people to stay in the free-travel area for up to 90 days out of 180. 

But while the rules may seem pretty clear-cut, it’s often not obvious what the consequences are for people who end up staying longer than they’re supposed to. Here’s a rundown of the current rules and how Germany applies them.

What exactly is the ’90-day rule’?

As we mentioned above, the 90-day rule dictates that people from certain non-EU countries can only stay in Schengen states for up to 90 days in every 180.

It applies to people visiting Germany for tourism, business or leisure activities from countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore, which have a visa waiver (i.e. visa-free travel) scheme in place. You can check if you’re eligible to enter Germany without a visa here.

The 90 days can be used all in one go or over the course of several different trips. However, the important thing to remember is that no more than 90 days should have been spent in Schengen within 180 days of first entering the travel zone. 

As an example, if you enter Germany on the 1st of January and leave on June 30th, you can’t return until at least September. You should also note that moving to another Schengen country like France or Italy after your 90 days is up won’t cut it: the rule applies to time spent in the EU, so you will need to leave the Bloc entirely. 

People from countries without a visa waiver scheme can generally apply for a 90-day Schengen Visa. This generally has similar conditions to the visa waiver programme for Austrians, Brits, etc., but you would need to apply for another visa in order to return after the 180 days is up. 

If you plan to work or study in Germany or want to stay longer than 90 days, you’ll need to apply for visa. Nationals of certain countries, including the US and the UK, can apply for a visa while already in Germany, while others will have to apply for this before they travel.

You can find more details on moving to Germany from a third country in the following articles:

What consequences are there for overstayers?

If you spend more than 90 days in the EU or Schengen zone without a visa or residency permit then you are officially an overstayer. And unlike the pre-EU days when passport control consisted of a man in a booth with a rubber stamp, scanning of all passports on entry/exit of the EU makes it pretty easy to spot overstayers.

This is set to become even more stringent when the EES scheme comes into effect next year – full details on that HERE

The EU lists a range of possible penalties although in practice some countries are stricter than others.

A police officer at border control in Germany

A police officer at border control in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Within the system, anyone who overstays can be subject to the following penalties:

Deportation – if you are found to have overstayed, countries are within their rights to either imprison you and deport you, or give you a certain number of days to leave. In practice, deportation is rare for people who aren’t working or claiming benefits: they are more likely to be advised of the situation and told to leave as soon as possible.

Fines – fines can be levied in addition to other penalties and vary according to country. In Germany, they will depend on a range of circumstances, such as how long your overstay, whether the overstay is deemed intentional and if you have any previous convictions. For cases that are deemed to be ‘administrative offences’ – i.e. overstaying out of negligence – a fine of up to €3,000 is possible. In criminal cases, courts can set fines on a case-by-case basis. They could decide to issue a fine based on the number of days you’ve overstayed (for example, €40 per day) but are also likely to consider any other aggravating or mitigating factors. 

Prison sentences – in extremely rare cases, people who overstay their visas in Germany can face up to a year in prison. However, this would generally involve aggravating factors like working for several months or committing another offence while in the country.

Entry ban – countries can impose a complete ban on re-entry, usually for three years although it can be longer. A complete ban is usually only put in place for people who have over-stayed for a significant amount of time.

READ ALSO: Does transit through Germany’s neighbours affect Brexit 90-day rule?

Difficulties returning to the Schengen area – even if you avoid all of the above penalties, the overstay alert on your passport will make it more difficult for you to return to the EU, and this applies to any EU or Schengen zone country, not just the one you over-stayed in. People who have this alert on their passport are likely to face extended checks at the border and may even be turned back. You will also likely encounter difficulties if you later apply for a visa or residency.

People who simply stay in an EU country without securing residency become undocumented immigrants and will not be able to access healthcare or social security provisions. If caught, they face deportation.

How is Germany enforcing the rules?

Compared to some other EU countries, Germany has a reputation for having especially strict immigration rules. Though they may not spot your overstay immediately while you’re still in the country, it’s likely to be picked up when you leave. 

This could have consequences for future visits or visa applications, or other consequences mentioned above. 

A woman passes through the automated passport control in EU

A woman passes through the automated passport control at Düsseldorf airport. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Federico Gambarini

How can I avoid overstaying in Germany?

One of the best ways to avoid an accidental overstay in Germany is to have a firm grip on the rules. It’s worth remembering, for example, that the date you arrive counts as the first day of your stay, even if your flight lands just before midnight. The same goes for the date you leave: anytime after midnight counts as the next day, even if it’s in the early hours of the morning. 

If you’re planning to make multiple short trips to Schengen in the 180 day period, you can use this handy calculator to work out how many more days you are allowed to stay. 

Of course, unforeseen circumstances can occur, such as sudden illness or other problems affecting your ability to return home. In these circumstances, you should contact your nearest Foreigners’ Office (Ausländerbehörde) as soon as possible to see what options are available to you. In some cases, they may allow you to extend your time in Germany without treating it as an illegal overstay. 

READ ALSO: REVEALED: EU plans digital-only Schengen visa application process

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