Top 10 Challenges | Moving to Germany from the USA
THINKING OF MOVING TO GERMANY FROM THE USA?
You’re not alone!
Did you know Germany is home to the fourth-largest foreign American community, after Mexico, Canada & India?
There were 117,000 US citizens in Germany as of March 2021 – round about the population of Manchester, New Hampshire.
And these numbers are growing! In 2017 the German government recorded more Americans moving to Germany – 20,000 people that year – than Germans emigrating to the USA.
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY AMERICANS IN GERMANY?
Many Americans have ancestral roots in Germany and come seeking family reunification or to soak up their heritage. German-Americans make up the largest ancestry group in the US, making up 17% of the population and particularly in California and Texas.
Lots are moving to Germany for the free education. Around 10,000 American students were studying in German universities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s an increase of 25% from the early 2000s –probably due to Germany’s introduction of free higher education in 2014.
Did you know American students in Germany often pay under $250 a semester to study, sometimes with free additional free public transport passes thrown in?
In the US, tuition fees alone can be $20-30,000 a year. It was exactly tuition fees that made blogger Tom from Abroad American move to Germany for a master’s degree in 2015.
Many Americans also move to Germany from the USA for work. While knowing German is a key asset to finding work in Europe’s largest economy, there is demand for English-speaking Americans as university lecturers (particularly business schools), as English teachers and in English-speaking departments at German financial institutions or multinationals.
More than 30 German firms regularly make it on the Fortune Global 500 list, and include:
- Volkswagen (automotive)
- Daimler (automotive)
- Allianz (finance)
- BMW (automotive)
- Siemens (electronics)
- Bosch (electronics)
- Deutsche Telekom (telecommunications)
WHERE DO AMERICANS MOVING TO GERMANY GO TO LIVE?
It may surprise you that the largest concentrations of Americans in Germany are way outside the big cities.
The majority of Americans in Germany are military personnel and Department of Defense staff, making up around 50,000 of the foreign American population and living in the south and southwest of the country. US troops have been around since World War II and are there as part of the NATO alliance.
Did you know that Germany houses the second-most number of American military bases outside the US? There are 119 US military bases in Germany as of September 2021, just one below Japan’s 120.
US Army Europe is headquarted in Wiesbaden, close to Frankfurt in the southwest.
The remaining Americans in Germany live in the big cities of Berlin (20,000), Munich (7,000) and Hamburg (4,500).
Top 10 Challenges
Moving to Germany from the USA
Germany is an incredibly-rich country which holds the third-highest number of World Heritage Sites in the world. These include Roman ruins, breathtaking cathedrals and fairytale palaces like the Neuschwanstein Castle.
Germans also love bread and baked goods. There are some 35,000 traditional bakeries in the country and 3,200 official different kinds of bread – Germany even put bread on the World Intangible Heritage List in 2014.
Germany has Europe’s largest economy, but workers enjoy a shorter working work than in the US and an average of 30 days paid holiday days a year.
There are so many reasons to move to Germany for a year or for a lifetime. We’ve created this Top 10 list of challenges you’re going to face as Americans in Germany to make your trip as Wunderbar as can be.
If you’re looking to move to Germany with your family, you can click here for the MumAbroad Ultimate Guide to Moving to Germany with Your Kids.
Otherwise read our Top 10 Challenges when Moving to Germany from the USA below.
1. Getting a residence permit
Your US passport lets you stay in Germany for up to 90 days. Pass 90 days, and you’ll need a residence permit.
The German government says if you’ve got a job or want to start working straight away, get a work visa from a German embassy or consulate before leaving the USA. You can find a list of German consulates outside Washington DC here.
If you stay in Germany five years, and you’ve learnt a good grasp of German, you can apply for a permanent residence visit. Even if you’re not planning to stay that long, you’ll need some kind of standard residence visa:
- Work visas for qualified professionals – this lets you stay in Germany for four years, bring your family, and work as a professional, though you might need to get your qualifications officially confirmed
- EU Blue Card – this fast-tracks you to apply for permanent residency in just two years, but you’ll need higher education qualifications and a salary of at least €44,000
- Visa for jobseekers – this lets you stay in Germany and look for a job, so long as you can prove you have sufficient funds to cover your cost of living
- Visa for studying – this lets you study in Germany, but you may need to prove funds of €10,000 per year, a scholarship, or have a German family member officially invite you to stay with them
- Visa for self-employment – this lets you move to Germany and start a business, so long as you can show there’s demand for it and can finance its set up
You can find out more about confirming your residence once you’ve arrived on our Moving to Germany for Work page.
2. Moving your money
You’re going to need a German bank account if you’re moving to Germany. You need a German bank account if you’re receiving pay checks and paying the rent.
Germany is surprisingly still reliant on cash, with many shops not having card machines. So you’ll need a way to take out cash without paying high conversion costs.
For most bank you’re going to need your registration certificate (Anmeldebestätigung), which means you’ll need an address, which means you’ll need a place to live.
You can still open a German bank account without an address, through banking apps like N26. Some banks like bunq or Commerzbank don’t require that you’re even in Germany yet, but they can charge monthly fees or have withdrawal limits. So do your research!
3. Kiss your yard goodbye
While around 65% of US citizens own their own home, only around 50% of Germans can afford to do so.
Per square foot, it can cost twice as much to buy a home in Germany compared to the US.
If you’re thinking of moving to Germany from the USA for a short while, or want to try a few cities out, this isn’t such a bad thing. Renting can cost 30% less in Germany compared with the US.
Visit this online comparison from Numbeo where you can compare rental costs between American and German cities. For example, average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Berlin city centre is 1,200$ a month, compared to $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment in New York city centre. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the outskirts of Berlin is $790 a month, compared to 2,180$ in the outskirts of New York.
If you choose to rent, bear in mind that homes generally come unfurnished – and we mean really unfurnished, sometimes down to light fittings and the kitchen.
To learn more about the German concepts of Kaltmiete (cold rent) and Warmmiete (warm rent), please visit our Where to Live in Germany page.
One extra tip – most apartment blocks in Germany will print your name on mailboxes or buzzers. While for an American it may feel an invasion of privacy to show the street where you live, in Germany apartment blocks often don’t have numbers and your name is the only way a mailman will find you!
4. Filing your US taxes from abroad
US citizens are required to file expatriate tax returns with the federal government every year – regardless of where they reside in the world.
Along with typical tax returns for income, many are required to disclose assets held in foreign bank accounts as well.
When an American plans to stay in Germany beyond six months, they are considered a tax resident. Germany’s tax rates are higher compared to US taxes.
Taxation in Germany starts at €8,004 annually and rises according to the following rates:
- 0% – €8,130
- 14% – €8,131-€52,881
- 42% – €52,881-€250,730
- 45% – €250,731 +
An American living in Germany will likely pay a higher amount of tax to the German government, but they can subsequently save money on US taxes when they submit their IRS each year.
The German tax year runs from January 1 to December 31, simplifying matters for American expats in Germany.
Click here to read a guide to a complete guide to taxes in Germany for US expats written for MumAbroad by Taxes for Expats.
5. The price of gas
The cost of living in Germany, especially in its cities, will be surprisingly lower than the US.
According to online comparison site Numbeo, here’s a comparison of Berlin and New York:
- Inexpensive meal: New York ($20) Berlin ($12)
- Loaf of Fresh Bread: New York ($4) Berlin ($1,44)
- 1-bed apartment in city centre: New York ($3000) Berlin ($1200)
- 1-bed apartment in outskirts: New York ($2200) Berlin ($800)
But there are some areas where people moving to Germany from the USA will do a double-take – gas prices in particular.
At the time of writing, a gallon of gas in Germany costs $7.40 compared to $3.73 in the US.
That’s double the price. Which could be a shame for Americans waning to check out the famous German Autobahn, know for having sections without a speed limit for light vehicles, and travel to Germany’s European neighbours while you’re here.
This doesn’t have to be a negative, however, as single bus, tram, or metro trips in German cities usually cost no more than €2 ($2.30). Monthly travel passes in major German cities can cost between €60-90 ($70-100). In many cases, it’s the equivalent of a full tank of gas!
According to the German government, around 30% of all households in cities over 500,000 population use a bicycle as the sole means of transport. More than 80% of Germans use bicycles regularly, for trips under 15km. Meanwhile in the US, just 15% of Americans regularly use a bicycle.
Using a bicycle can be an amazing way to experience Germany, but it can make things like grocery shopping a challenge.
For long-distance travel, Germany has an extensive & effective railway system – with stations even in villages serviced by at least one train every two hours during the day. Germany is also connected by train to neighbouring European capitals with tickets as low as €30 for a one-way ticket from Berlin to Amsterdam (six to seven-hour trip).
If you’re planning on moving to Germany and buying a car, read our guide to obtaining a German driver’s licence here.
6. Go metric
It will be immediately obvious to many Americans thinking of moving to Germany that measurements are different. Germany, as in all European countries, uses the metric system of grams/kilograms, kilometres and degrees Celsius.
There are many unit conversion apps you can download, but this blogpost from Oh My God My Wife Is German explains that you’re going to end up making small talk with Germans about the weather, speeds and distances more often than you think.
These are the top tips:
- Think in thirds. Body temperature is around 37 °C (96.7 F). A third of that is around 12°C (54 F), which is a cool day. Two-thirds of that is around 24°C (75 F), at which point many Germans consider a day ‘hot’ and unpleasant.
- For miles to kilometers, it’s best to memories a few key speeds: typical neighbourhood road speed is 30kph or roughly 20mph. Typical street speed is 60kph or roughly 40mph. Typical highway speed is 110kph or roughly 70mph.
- From feet to meters: multiply by 3 and divide by 10 (e.g. 60 x 3 = 180 and 180 / 10 = 18).
- From pounds to kilograms: divide by 2 and subtract 10% (e.g. 120 / 2 = 60 and 60 – 10% = 54).
Measurements will be important when traveling, shopping and making small talk (even to Germans speaking English) so get a head start!
7. Germans aren’t rude – they’re practical
An InterNations survey found that half of expats found in difficult to make friends in German-speaking countries.
Forbes also ranked Germany as the 5th most unfriendly nation for tourists. (France came in 1st place, with the USA 7th.)
There exists a stereotype that Germans can appear cold and rude, when it never was the intention. Even if you’re not staying long enough to learn German fluently, you’ll still be interacting with German culture on a daily basis and knowing certain principles can greatly enhance your stay.
In this MumAbroad blogpost from German language school Deutschpartner, owner Kai Wachs says he spends a ‘great deal of time’ helping students understand how Germans communicate.
He said students felt Germans were ‘correcting’ them all the time, which may appear rude to Americans but in Germany is seen as a way to offer practical advice. Kai said not to take it personally as a foreigner, because Germans correct each other all the time too!
He added that explanations can be found for ‘most stereotypes’ – for example, in Germany being late is seen as wasting people’s time, and so understand criticism as being in the interest of saving everyone time for their hobbies or relaxation.
Friendships and day-to-day interactions with Germans are vital for your cultural adaptation. Taking time to understand situations of culture shock and miscommunication can turn a stressful stay into a blissful stay.
8. Sprechen sie Deutsch?
If you don’t know German and you’re thinking of moving to Germany for work, you can rest assured you can still find jobs and process contracts.
If you’re moving to Germany for love or for your spouse, as a rule you must have basic knowledge of German (usually B1) to apply for the relevant visa. If you’ve been in Germany for five years and want to get permanent residency, you’ll also need to pass a German test.
German isn’t obligatory if you’re moving to Germany from the USA to study, though you should check the university’s requirements in case.
If you do need German for work or visas, bear in mind that language is assessed according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
It defines the following levels of language competence:
- Levels A1 and A2: Basic knowledge of the German language.
- Levels B1 and B2: Learn German at an advanced level.
- Levels C1 and C2: German at the highest standard.
Germany ranks as the 8th-best country in Europe for English proficiency (outside the UK) with roughly 64% of the population have a grasp of English.
In this blogpost from Abroad American, an American expat says he did need to know German after moving as most people he encountered either spoke English or were happy to ‘practice’ their English.
Nevertheless, if you’re planning on staying for a long time or want to have a fascinating time, you’ll need to be able to hold at least basic conversations. The blogpost from Abroad American gives some great tips on learning German basics for free.
9. A tip off
Waiters and waitresses do not live off tips in Germany; they are paid a living wage. Germany’s federal minimum wage is currently €9.60 ($11.20) and substantially higher than the US federal minimum wage of $7.25.
A tip of 15% would be considered extremely generous and even unnecessary. If you’re not happy with the service, it is not necessary to leave a tip at all.
If you’re grabbing a coffee or visiting a cafe, it is not common to leave a tip. As this Culture Trip blog explains, it’s the same with taxis, hotels, parlos, salons, eateries, courier services, tours, food deliveries and supermarkets or grocery stores. Tipping at a supermarket would be seen as ridiculous in Germany, because you bag your own groceries and carry them out of the supermarket yourself.
When you ask for the bill in Germany, the waiter appears with your bill and a wallet or card machine. You’ll need to explain how much tip you want to leave by cash or by card, as it’s not common practice to leave a tip on the table. To ensure the tip goes to the waiter, you’ll need to pay them there and then.
10. Danger! High voltage
German electric mains operate at 220 volts. In the US, mains commonly use 120 volts.This can render many of your big and small appliances unusable in Germany. This means that lamps, blenders, slow cookers, food processors, waffle makers, toasters, teakettles and hairdryers would need a voltage converter as well as a plug adapter.
Only items that are dual voltage, like many cell phone chargers, will work in Germany (with a plug adapter).
But the problem isn’t just voltage – US wall sockets are 60hz whereas European are 50hz. So even with a voltage converter, motors can turn slower than designed and burn out.
For a more complete guide for electrical appliances, see the Household Items section from this in-depth post by Enjoy-Europe.com.
You should consider this when also thinking of what to bring with you. Air freight can be double ocean freight when moving to Germany from the USA.
MoveHub suggest a cost of $3,400-3,800 to ship the contents of a one-bedroom flat from New York to Berlin taking 12 to 18 days. Air Freight could move your belongings in 3 days, but would cost $6,500-7,300.
We hope you found these 10 Challenges when moving to Germany from the USA useful. Click here for the MumAbroad Ultimate Family Guide to Moving to Germany.