Looking to move from the US to Germany? I might be a bit biased, but I think that’s a pretty great decision (considering I live in Germany right now!).
Germany has great social care, a decent job market, and amazing links across the rest of Europe and worldwide. That being said, there’s a lot of bureaucracy in Germany, so it’s not always clear how you should go about moving here.
Also, I highly recommend traveling to Germany and living there for a bit before making your decision, and you can do that for free with Trusted Housesitters. You can stay at someone’s house while they are away in exchange for watching their house or sometimes their pet.
It’s a great way to travel the world for free or test out a city in Germany without fully committing!
So, as someone who’s been there and done that, here’s my guide on how to move to Germany from the US. Are you ready? Okay, let’s get into it!
Before You Move To Germany from the US
In order to make your move as smooth as possible, you’re going to want to get started early and give yourself plenty of time to prepare before you make your big move.
If you come to Germany without the right paperwork or without enough money to survive out there, it’s going to be a huge waste of energy and airfare, so check out all the things you need to sort out before you travel to Germany.
Step 1: Check Your Eligibility & Know Your Visa Type
Before you do anything else, you need to make sure you’re actually eligible to move to Germany. US citizens do not have the same freedom of movement as countries within the European Union, so you have to hit certain criteria to move to Germany.
Keep in mind that you can enter Germany for 90 days on a Schengen visa, but if you want to stay further than that you’re going to have to meet one of the following eligibility criteria.
If you’re looking to study in Germany, you can apply for a specific student visa. There are two ways to live in Germany this way. You can either apply while you’re still in the US and use your admission letter to get a student visa.
Alternatively, you can try and get a student resident visa which you can get without an admission letter. If this is the case, you can find a school or university while you’re actually in Germany.
This is probably the most common way that people move from the US to Germany. If you can get a job in Germany that is willing to sponsor your visa and give you an official job offer, you can stay in the country.
It’s that simple. Make sure to ask about work permit sponsorship during your job interviews – not every company will do it, but the majority will – just ask!
Interestingly, Germany has completely separate work permits for freelancers and self-employed people. The freelancer permit is designed for those who have clients in Germany and are normally in a more creative field and usually more online and remote-focused.
Think graphic design, writing, marketing – that kind of thing.
Alternatively, the self-employed work permit is for those who have their own business, usually selling their services from an actual physical office or shop. This is more for consultants, architects, and small business owners.
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Don’t have a job lined up in Germany yet? There is a job seeker’s work permit that gives you six months to find a job in Germany. The caveat is that you need to have a degree or vocational training (like a trade) that your new job is going to match up. So, if you’re qualified but don’t have a job ready to go, you can apply for this permit and have six months to find a job that’ll sponsor a full work permit.
Heading to the arts and culture mecca of Berlin? Well, there’s a niche subsection of the freelancer work permit specially designed for artists heading to the German capital. If this is you, it might be easier to track through to a work permit rather than sitting in a larger freelancer pile of applications.
Au Pair Visa
If you’re between the ages of 18-26, can speak a basic level of German, and plan on looking after someone else’s kids, then you can apply for an au pair visa. It’s a classic work abroad job and you’ll be able to save money on accommodation and food as you’ll likely be living with your host family.
Step 2: Budget and Start Saving
Moving countries is not cheap. Honestly, Germany is not the cheapest country to live in by a long shot, but that’s mostly due to the number of socialized services across the nation. You pay more, but you get a lot more back.
When it comes to a good base amount to have is between €3,000-5,000 for all your start-up costs like housing deposits, paperwork, furniture, travel, etc. This obviously does not include your initial airfare. It’ll also vary based on where you’re living. For example, Berlin is going to be much more expensive than say, Dresden.
Work out the average cost of living for the town or city that you’re thinking of living in and then compare it with the average German salary for your job or industry. You can work out the affordability from there.
Step 3: Get Your Paperwork in Order
It wouldn’t be Germany without red tape and bureaucracy, so make sure you have your paperwork in order. This means things like bank statements, work contracts, proof of income, and anything that indicates your financial security are going to be needed.
If you’re self-employed, you’re going to need proof of income over the past couple of months as well as a comprehensive business plan and projected income given the climate and your field. You need to have all of this and you need to make sure it’s all accurate.
Get someone else to check it for you and make sure it makes sense, and most importantly, that nothing is missing. It’s always better to bring too much paperwork than too little.
Step 4: Prove Your Financial Means
If you’re a student, you’re going to have to set up a special blocked account and pay €861 every month into it to cover living expenses. These accounts work a lot like savings accounts so they don’t come with a debit card and there are fees that apply, but only run to about €5-10 a month.
It might sound like a random amount but this is the average amount that the German government has worked out to cover rent, food, bills, insurance, and other expenses that you’ll need during your study.
If you’re planning on moving to Germany from the US as a student, you might be eligible for a scholarship. Just because you’re an international student doesn’t mean you can’t have financial aid! Check out DAAD.de to see what you’re eligible for and how much you can save. Sometimes it’ll cover the full €861 and sometimes you’ll have to make up the difference, but every little bit helps when you’re moving across the world.
The best way to prove that you’re going to have the financial means to move and live in Germany is by using your pay stubs or work contracts. This way you can concretely show what you earn and how much you’re slated to earn moving forward.
As a student, you’re allowed to work 20 hours a week and you can reduce the €861 amount by showing your pay slips. It’s essentially saying that you’re financially secure and responsible enough to survive living in Germany.
Step 5: Get Sponsorship from a German resident
This isn’t actually necessary but if you can use a German resident – a friend or a family member – to serve as a guarantor and vouch for you, this might help prove your financial means.
You’ll normally have to get all their financial paperwork to make sure that they can help you out if the worst happens. They’re saying that you’re all good financially, but if not, they’ll look after you financially.
Similarly, if you’re a student and your parents are going to support you throughout your studies, you’ll need to submit proof of their earnings to your local embassy, in order to lower that €861 monthly amount.
Step 6: Get Health Insurance
With Germany having socialized medicine, when you need treatment, it’s not going to cost you an absolute fortune, but it is the law that every adult needs to have German health insurance. This needs to be in place before you arrive as you’re likely going to have to show proof of it to get residency.
Although it’s mandatory, there are a ton of options, and if you’re under 30, you might be eligible for public health insurance rather than private health insurance. The best thing to do is sit down and go through your options before signing up for anything.
You’re likely looking at between €100 and €200 a month for insurance, but it pays off in spades if anything does happen to you or a loved one.
Step 7: Learn German
If you want to fully experience the culture of living in Germany – and if you’re deciding to move there, you probably do – you need to learn some of the languages.
I highly recommend cheap one-on-one lessons on iTalki and Pimsleur together as a great language learning plan.
Of course, learning a language is much easier when you’re actually in the country as you take in a lot more through immersion, but you’re going to want to know at least the basics before you arrive.
Bureaucracy is difficult at the best of times but when you’re dealing with a language barrier or mistranslations, it can get frustrating really quickly.
Yes, a huge majority of Germans speak English, but if you’re likely to be dealing with forms in German and appointment booking systems that’ll need translating if you don’t know the language. You can minimize the hassle by getting on top of your language learning.
Also, it might be that your visa or work permit is contingent on you being able to demonstrate a basic level of German.
This was certainly the case with the spousal visa and is specially stipulated in the Au Pair visa, so check out the conditions of your permit and make sure you can meet it – they will require an A1 German test and they can get booked up pretty far in advance.
Step 8: Book Your Flights
Once all your pre-arrival paperwork and language skills are sorted out, it’s time to book your flights. Remember, if you have applied for a Schengen visa then you do not have to pay any entry fees or do any paperwork on arrival in Germany.
Sites like Skyscanner can help you find the best days and routes to fly to your new home. If you can be flexible with your dates then your bank balance is really going to thank you.
As a general rule of thumb, flying and booking midweek is cheaper than on weekends, and obviously, if you can, avoid any school holidays or major festivals.
What to Do Once You Arrive in Germany from the US
Okay so you’ve made it across the Atlantic and you’re in Germany. Immigration has been cleared and your paperwork has all been approved – it’s time to head out to your new home city or town and start your new life.
Step 9: Get a SIM Card
First things first, you’re going to want to get a SIM card. This might seem like a weird first move, but in order to book viewings for accommodation and generally set up work interviews, you’re going to need a German SIM card.
The reason I say SIM card and not a phone contract is that you actually need a German bank account before you can sign a phone contract. A German bank account requires an address, permits, and all sorts of other steps that we’ll go into later.
So, first things first, get a prepaid SIM card, you can get them from most corner shops, and come with varying amounts of data. Don’t be surprised when you need to show your ID to get one, it’s pretty common in Germany.
Step 10: Find Your Accommodation
Next up you need to find somewhere to live. If you’re not living in student accommodation or have family or friends already in Germany, you’ll probably stay in a hostel or Airbnb while you look.
You need to register your new address within 14 days of arriving in Germany, so you’re going to want to set up some viewings and appointments before you arrive if possible.
The following sites are great for finding places ranging from spare rooms to full accommodation:
Another great place to find places to live is through the expat forums and Facebook groups. They can help you with accommodation, bills, red tape, jobs, and tons of stuff. Sign up and benefit from their experiences!
This section is predominantly about renting a place in Germany as a lot of the time you’re going to want to get the lay of the land before committing to purchasing a property.
That being said, if you know the area and don’t want to waste money renting, there are no restrictions on US citizens buying property in Germany thanks to a mutual agreement between the two counties.
Check your location’s expat page for real estate agent recommendations.
You will need the following documents in order to rent a property in Germany, whether it’s the whole place or just a room:
- A copy of your passport
- The application form for the property
- Proof of financial means (see the list above)
- Credit record of Schufa if you’ve already rented in Germany. If you’re a first-time renter in Germany, you might have to get a co-signer or guarantor instead.
- Security deposit which will be around 3x monthly rent
To be honest this isn’t much different from renting in any other country and is pretty standard. You’ll need most of this to get into Germany in the first place, but just make sure you bring or make plenty of copies of each piece of paperwork.
Step 11: Register Your Address
Okay, so this is going to be your first taste of German bureaucracy. Immigration is pretty straightforward and standard if you’ve done your research because it’s the same all across the country.
Things like registering your address are done on a local council level, so expect a slower pace and some regional differences.
So you have 14 days from when you arrive in Germany or move in to register your address. If you need longer to find a place, your local registration office, which is called a Bergamot, will be able to help you out and advise on the next steps.
You need to set up an appointment first and once you’ve completed registering your new address, you’ll receive your German tax ID number in a couple of weeks.
After you receive this tax ID number, you can open up a German bank account, which will be super useful for utility bills, proof of address – all kinds of ID-based things.
When you go to your appointment remember to bring your passport, your renter’s contract or a letter from the landlord and the main tenant if you’re not on the lease but staying there, and your letter from the immigration office declaring that you have a valid reason to be in Germany in the first place.
Again, it’s worth making copies of all of these documents and keeping them somewhere secure.
Step 12: Apply for a Resident’s Permit
So, now you’ve registered your residence, you can now apply for your resident’s permit. Normally located in the district administration office of your town or city, you need to take your paperwork to the Foreigner’s Authority office. Here you’ll have your fingerprints taken and have to pay a fee of about €110 – it does vary based on your local office.
It’s a pretty extensive list of paperwork you need for your resident’s permit, so make sure you have it all before you head down to the office:
- Your passport
- An additional 2-3 German-sized passport photos
- Your address registration certificate that you’ve just secured
- Proof of financial means
- Proof of valid reason to be in Germany
- Proof of German health insurance
- Application form
This isn’t for everyone, but if your visa requires it, you’ll need to bring your proof of German ability. So this will be your A1 certificate or any other language certification that formally demonstrates your German ability.
It’s worth noting that German red tape means that you can’t register your address without proving that you’re a resident. You also need to have a registered address to get your resident’s permit. Seems like a classic catch-22 situation to me.
Realistically, every local Foreigner’s Authority realizes that this is not a straightforward situation so each one has its own way of getting around it. It may be worth asking your area’s expat group about the way around.
One way is to get your proof of a valid reason to be in the country paperwork from the resident’s office as a sort of half approval.
This way you can go and register your residence, get that stamp, and return to the resident’s office to get that resident’s permit! It may sound like a bit of a hassle, but hey, that’s German bureaucracy for you. You can’t fight it so you might as well embrace its quirky inefficiencies.
Step 13: Open a German Bank Account
With your German tax ID and your shiny new German resident’s permit at the ready, you can now open a German bank account. This is obviously super important for getting paid while working in Germany, getting benefits and social care, and being able to get an actual phone contract.
In order to open up your new German bank account, you need to bring the following paperwork with you:
- German Tax ID
- German residence permit
- Address certificate
I wasn’t kidding when I said that you’ll need plenty of copies!
The main banks in Germany are Deutsche Bank, Volksbank, Commerzbank, and Sparkasse. There are tons of different kinds of accounts with different purposes and fees, so look at what you’re going to be needing and make an informed decision.
For example, if you’re needing to send or receive money to and from the US, look at accounts with fewer international fees. Also, if you’re a student or young person under the age of 25, check out the specific bank accounts for that bracket. There are often fewer fees for overdrafts and special deals available.
Step 14: Get an Actual German Phone Number
Now that you have a German bank account and a German address, how about getting an actual phone number and contract? The main companies are Vodafone, Telekom, and O2 but if you want to sign up with the prepaid SIM that you purchased when you arrived that’s also an option.
Check out the fees for your prepaid versus a standard contract and all the data differences. Expect to spend around €30 a month, but obviously, this varies based on your provider, how much data you need, and any deals that might be on while you’re there.
Step 15: Pay any Extra German Fees!
Although visas, permits, and renter’s administrative fees have been outlined in this article, there are plenty of local fees and taxes that you need to be aware of. Check on your local expat forum for any city or local community taxes for the upkeep of the local area.
Although your main taxes will be taken out of your paycheck, you may need to actively pay some more locally. Best to check than be caught and hit out with a big bill at a later date.
Another mandatory fee comes in the form of a broadcasting fee. You’ll find these all over Europe and they pay for unbiased programming across TV and radio. It’s pretty inexpensive at €17.50 per household per month, and if you’re moving into a shared house then chances are that one of your new housemates is already paying it, or it’s shared between all the tenants.
Unlike places like the UK, it’s necessary even if you don’t watch German national broadcasting or even own a TV. If that’s you, it kind of sucks that you have to pay, but if you don’t, you will get fined and nobody wants that.
Ready to Leave the USA for Germany?!
So, moving across the world is rarely pain-free, but hopefully, with this guide, you’ll be more than prepared enough for your move to Germany from the US. Obviously, each region of Germany varies, as do some of the average costs.
I love living in Germany, there’s a great work/life balance, it’s much cheaper than when I was living in LA and the socialized infrastructure pays itself back time and time again. As I said, I might be biased, but if you’re thinking of moving to Germany from the US, I’d say 100% go for it!