A friend recently wrote to ask me on behalf of her friend about moving to Germany. I’m not certain, but assume her friend is a passport-carrying US citizen. Since this situation is one about which I have first-hand experience, strong opinions, and relevant information for a general audience, naturally I wanted to share. Let’s go in that order.
I actually moved to Europe in 2015. The previous year, I flew over to backpack for 6 weeks, hitting 7 countries! As of summer 2017, I still live here but am moving back to the United States in a couple months. You could say my situation is special because, as a full-time university student, I had something of a free pass. However, I planned this as part of a permanent move to Europe. I made all the typical blunders and foolish assumptions, in the process gaining valuable knowledge from which others may benefit.
Let’s be clear at the outset. I do not enjoy my life here (Belgium) compared to where I was (western Oregon). On the other hand, I don’t attribute that entirely to the location and—this is important—I still want to live in Europe! I’m just not willing to do so at any cost or under the conditions in which I now find myself. I’m going to the east coast to do a PhD in mathematics. Then I would certainly consider jobs here and my previous attempt to move to Europe as a valuable learning experience.
Perhaps this friend who wants to move to Germany (let’s call her Zoe) is destined for a successful move to a new life that’s everything she’s dreamed of. (In any case, I’ll try to offer good advice and wish her well.) But for the sake of this post, let’s assume she is completely unprepared. It is my opinion that, as a first step, Zoe should not move to Europe! Germany is a fine choice but, for God’s sake, this isn’t the 18th century. One can purchase a round trip ticket to Europe from the United States for about two week’s wages. Plus, US citizens can stay in the Schengen Area (most countries in Europe) for a whopping 90 days with no other documentation than a passport and a return ticket home. That, in my strong opinion, is plenty of time to experience life in Europe and one’s prospective host country. In most cases however, 90 days is not enough time to decide if you would be sensible to move there. The simple reason for this is your lifestyle. Going for 90 days, likely during summer, you will be in tourist mode, i.e., you will have money and leisure time. You run the risk of completely missing the point: the locals you see are stuck in their daily grind with minimal power to improve their lives. The difference you don’t notice right away is that, just like the discouraged people you know living back at home, these locals benefit from a deep grasp of their surroundings and a network of reliable interpersonal connections. Zoe is not going to have that when she arrives with her suitcases and household goods. Instead, Zoe will spend two days in line at buildings across the city just to be told she doesn’t have the necessary documents to open a bank account. If you think I’m exaggerating, that is only the beginning. Well, you say, things will get better with a few friends and learning your way around the system. That is true. Things will get better over time… but will they ever be better than the comfort and opportunities you had before? Perhaps, if you’re fortunate. Will that happen in the first few years? For Americans, the answer is “probably not”. Will you ever be as connected and welcome as you were back at home? I doubt it very much.
You can make the most of a 90-day trip by immersing yourself. Rent an apartment. Get a part-time job. Stop speaking English. Try finding a bar or club that feels right. Try making friends in your neighborhood during winter. Spend a few days fighting the bureaucracy as you apply for work, visas, or social services. Try getting a date…
My friend Jon moved to Hamburg after many trips to Europe. He loves it. He met his German girlfriend while they were both traveling. Jon gave me some details about his experience getting a visa. Apparently, he was able to get a “freelance” visa three months after arriving. (Previously, he had to return home because of an expired travel visa.) Soon he’ll be teaching English at a well-known school. You can also try for a six-month “jobseeker” visa. Perhaps the easiest for someone like Zoe is a regular old student visa. That’s what I got before moving to Belgium. It’s relatively simple after you’re granted admission to a university. You just renew each year until you’re finished. Then you’re back in the same line as everyone else who wants a visa. On the other hand, being an international student does not guarantee you access to European society. Depending on the culture, you could be an absolute pariah who only has other international students for support. This is more or less the case where I live in Flanders.
Here is the process outlined by Jon for his visa.
- Get a portfolio together including certifications, diplomas, letters of recommendation and if possible letters of intended contracts here in Germany. Without the guarantee that you can get work here they probably won’t give you a visa, at least in Hamburg, Berlin seems easier since there are a lot of foreigners there.
- Have a place to live and register when you get to town. Need this contract for everything else.
- Get German health insurance. This will cost around 120 euros a month, and make sure it covers the minimums of what is required. The forms are on the local government websites. I had issues with this.
- Go to local foreigners office and apply for visa. They will need to see all your documents, passport photos, contracts etc, then you pay them 100 euros and they give you a case worker who will review your situation and see if your specialty is needed in the area.
- After a few trips back and forth, you may or may not have a visa. All of this would have been very very difficult without my girlfriend who is German and did all the talking. My caseworker knew very little English. Learn German before or get a friend to go with you.
We should notice that Jon has many things going for his application and you can expect these to be pretty standard across Europe. These show serious commitment and investment towards living in the country.
- local registration
- a permanent address (and I’m assuming a local phone number)
- nationally recognized health insurance
- organized, up-to-date documents
- a translator
- in-demand job qualifications (you’re not going to be a vagrant)
- proof of financial means (in this case, the employment contract)
- enough money for fees and living costs while you wait
Great work! Jon was able to show that he can be hired by a German business and contribute to society. Therefore, Jon gets a visa. This is only a preliminary step towards gaining a residence permit (like a green card in the US). A visa means you’re on borrowed time. Hopefully, you don’t have to renew very often. And we should note there are easier ways to get a residence permit, such as marrying a German citizen, obviously.
What I notice is that many Americans assume they can just go to Europe without language skills, without work, and expect to get a visa. Now, Jon is optimistic and offered to help Zoe if she moved to Hamburg. (He’s great.) As for me, having lived here for two years on a student visa, I would remind Zoe that language skills and job qualifications are the major limiting factors for employability anywhere in the world. A bartender who only speaks Portuguese can’t arrive in Boston and expect to find a job with a comfortable salary and vacation benefits. Yet you’d be surprised how many Americans show up in Europe with similar plans. And that is basically my point:
Location makes no difference unless you have the resources to enjoy life there.
This is the lesson I learned over the past two years. When you see others in your age group living in relative luxury, you realize that… poverty is isolating! Despite having a “plan” and speaking a common language in Flanders (English), I haven’t been able to make more than 7000 euro per year. I worked myself into the hospital (which is fine because doctors are cheap) but meanwhile a lot of life passed me by. The whole purpose of the move was to have a life here, not to be a slave. Nearly all of my time is spent in my tiny apartment or within a half-mile radius. My home and surrounding area in Oregon were so much better.
In retrospect, coming to Europe as a student for a year or two was a great way to learn more about the places and cultures that interest me—after the sub-90-day trip mentioned above. I would recommend both to Zoe before “moving” to Europe. If I come here again with the intention of staying, I will be well-equipped with the necessary skills and information to truly have a better life. Here are some of the blunders and foolish assumptions I made on this 2-year trial, from which you may benefit by trying to avoid them:
- Leave as much as humanly possible at home… or give it away. Valuables taken to Europe will only weigh you down and drain your bank account to move them again. Do this even if your plan to move seems rock solid to you right now. It’s better to ship once than two or more times.
- Don’t expect people to help you or care about your struggles, especially if you’re a single man.
- Don’t expect anyone care that you’re a foreigner. European cities are already crowded and immigration is a divisive issue. People (including potential mates) are more likely to see your foreignness as a liability and reason not to trust you, especially (and unfortunately) if you are not well-established in the area. Think about it. You’re more like a tourist to them.
- Save as much money as humanly possible. Even then, prepare yourself for a huge downgrade to your standard of living. Two-bedroom apartment with a garage and trees in the United States? You are trading that to live in a building as old as your grandmother in a grey neighborhood with people who never speak to each other. Which brings me to…
- Prepare yourself for Europeans. Outside of some university students and young professionals, the people you meet will generally seem aloof and unavailable. That is, much more so than you would expect from Americans, or Australians for that matter. There are good and bad reasons for this phenomenon, but that’s for another post. Of the countries I know, Germany and the UK tend to be more open and friendly.
- You are not going to see your family or friends and some of them may die. In this sense, it really does feel like the 18th century! You may be able to get there just fine, but once you start working and paying bills, you could find it hard to manage transatlantic travel just to sit at home for a couple weeks.
- Don’t expect things to fall into place unless you can afford to take a fall yourself. Normally, it’s hard to get established; sometimes things don’t work out. It’s wise to find an employer before you go. As we saw with Jon, finding that employer was crucial for being able to stay. You may be thinking now, “Who’s going to give me a job?” Well, it’s not going to get any easier when you’re behind on rent.
As the last item suggests, you’ll need demonstrable skills to get hired. Not only do those skills have to be in demand (like plumbing), your employer also needs to trust you enough to produce official documents saying they specifically want you. Regulations may even go so far as to obligate the employer to declare they are unable to find a citizen or permanent resident to hire at this time. Usually, that means you don’t have a chance unless you are highly skilled or have uncommon qualifications, such as being a native English speaker. Many people go overseas to teach English under contracts with education companies. (Beware. Some of the less savvy get scammed or otherwise taken advantage of.) Others work for American companies that have contracts or foreign offices in Europe. The latter, in my opinion, are ideal. Just do an internet search for multinational companies. Or look around for American businesses while you’re there. Being a student in Europe is also a good deal, although, as we have seen, you could be living very low. Graduate students experience the best treatment and may even have a free ride from their faculty (department). Obviously, search for programs taught in English unless you are shit-hot at the language of instruction because your classmates will often be bilingual from a young age.
We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this hypothetical Zoe who wants to move to Germany. I’ve been unfair because I don’t know anything about her/him yet. Hopefully, we saw something of ourselves in the caricature of an American who wants to move to Europe. Remember that LOTS of Americans want to move to Europe. Much fewer would or could do so sensibly. You’ll have much better chances for a satisfying life overseas after your first or second visit to the place. I’d like to thank Zoe for letting me get on a soapbox for my readers. Please alert me of any corrections that need to be made. I will try to keep this post up to date with the best information, although the published date will remain the same.
Special thanks to Jon Young :-)