So You Want to Live in Berlin?
Berlin is, some would argue, the most exciting place to live in Europe right now. Looking for an emerging tech scene? What about techno and club music? A flourishing international and avant-garde art scene? The city is bursting with energy! While Berlin still has a relatively low cost of living compared to other European capitals, it’s hub as the center of everything hip and new won’t last forever. So get there soon to take advantage of the thriving cultural scene, while it’s still affordable. After visiting there recently and loving it, I reached out to an American expat, Wayne, who answered some of my questions about how to make the move and live in Berlin.
What made you decide to pack up and move to Berlin?
I was stationed in Berlin with the U.S Army from 1973 to 1975. I fell in love with Berlin then. My daughter wanted to be a foreign exchange student and while working on that process, she found a job opening for me in Berlin. So, my wife, daughter and I discussed it and we all decided to move to Berlin!
How was it different making this move with a family and in mid-career rather than in your 20’s?
We were much more secure in our reasons and rationale later in life. It was a conscious choice for all of us and we were up for the adventure. We have no regrets!
How did you convince your family?
I gave them the complete autonomy to decide if this move was for them. Each of us had a choice and it had to be unanimous, otherwise, we would not have moved and we would have pursued the Foreign Exchange option for our daughter.
How old is your daughter and what does she think about Berlin?
When we arrived, she was 16. She has recently decided to return to the USA. She is 18 now. She does miss Berlin and still talks of returning at some point.
What attracted you in the first place?
I knew Berlin from the 70’s. I was able to travel on both sides of the wall during that time. Berlin is one of the most unique cities in Europe. I still see the old Berlin from my earlier years here.
How did you make it happen?
I applied for a job and was made an offer which I accepted. I got a temporary residence visa before I left the USA. We sold all of our belongings. Stored personal items we did not want to get rid of with family. I came over first and secured a place to live. Then my wife and daughter followed. We all received 3 year residence visas once we arrived.
Do you absolutely need to speak German? Or can you muddle along with just English? Is that true for just Berlin / what about in the countryside?
You can muddle along but learning German is a definite asset to get through the Bureaucratic hurdles of registering your residence at the local Rathaus, registering with the Finance Office, transferring your drivers license etc. You can definitely miss out on things by not understanding the language. Outside the city varies especially between East and West since during the cold war years, in the west, English was the predominant second language. Where as in the east, Russian was the second language.
Did you do any research about living there before you went? If so, how did you find out about how to do it?
I used several websites : Guide to Living in Germany & Immobilien As you know, InterNations and Other Groups like Americans in Berlin can give insight and perspective. I also reached out to American Veterans that remained in Berlin. I am a Member of the VFW in Berlin
Would it be easy for a first time traveler to adjust to life there? Why or why not?
I think it is easy. If you do some research in advance if you plan to stay. Berlin is unique and overall a safe place. The public transportation system allows travel within the city as well as close cities outside Berlin. Rent is relatively cheaper in Berlin than elsewhere in large cities. I have been tour guide for friends and family that come over. We see the city but I take them out of Berlin as well.
How do people find accommodation?
One can pay for a location service (which is very expensive) or use websites like Immobilien. You can filter your search on location size, commission free, etc. There are short stay furnished apts. that can be reserved online. They can be expensive. There are many nice, low cost hotels. Booking.com is a good tool to find hotels based on budget.
Where are the best parts of Berlin to live located? (for young people / mid-career / hip, cheapest area nearest the tourist section, etc?)
Mitte (Wedding, Prenzlauerberg, Tiergarten) is younger but more expensive in rent. Charlottenburg, Kreuzberg are also cool areas but higher on the rent. Mixture of young, mid-career. Cheaper areas are the outer districts such as Spandau and the far east side. Regardless if you are on the outer areas, it is easy and quick to get around the city via the Bus, U-Bahn or S-Bahn.
What is great about living there? Why?
Berlin is unique from other German cities. There is a huge cultural scene, museums, music, Opera, theater, symphony. There are activities going year round. The lifestyle is slower and more laid back. The cultural diversity adds to the unique qualities. Food is cheap and high quality. It is about the quality of life and not the material gain.
What is difficult about living there? Why?
I would say for most, the first 3 months are the adjustment period. Trying to get settled in and getting all the necessities covered. Then you can start enjoying exploring the city. Once we settled, we enjoy our daily lives and share the adventure with our friends. It is really not difficult living here.
Was it easy to make friends with other expats / and the Germans?
We have a very large group of friends consisting of a mixture of Expats and Germans. We all get together regularly and even travel around Europe together. It is very easy to make friends here. It is about creating your own community and helping each other.
What’s it like to go to school there as an expat?
My daughter was in High School. It was John F. Kennedy high School. It is a German-American High School. She loved going to school there. The teachers are very interactive and supportive of the students.
How can you stay there if you only have a tourist visa? Or in other words can you go with a tourist visa and then are there any avenues to transition to a work / live visa?
If you are from the US, you can come for 90 days on the tourist visa. If you can get a work contract, you can apply for a residence visa. If you are a student, then the student visa option is available. My son and his girlfriend came over to visit and he went to a business that he works for in the US and they offered him a job on the spot. He did not expect this but is would be an option now if they decide to move here. Berlin also welcomes artists. There is a huge artist community.
Have you found it difficult / easy to find work? Can you find work without a work visa (under the table jobs)? If so, what is the best way to find work?
Well, I got a job here before I left the US. It can be difficult to work without a visa and since it all ties into your being able to rent an apartment as well. Some people do work off the grid so to speak but it is also for a very low income. If you have an advanced degree, an option would be to apply for the New Blue Card (see my blog on the EU Blue Card).
What would you say to someone thinking of moving to Berlin? Tips, advice, things you might do differently / the same?
Do your homework before moving. Reach out to online communities. There are those of us that try and help where we can. Be careful and do not try to rent a place online, sight unseen.
There are really nice hotels that are cheap to stay while securing a place to live. Some are cheap but so is the quality. There are temporary furnished apartments that can be rented as well. They vary in price depending on size.
What are the definite dos and don’ts when you live there? (social / cultural)
This is a funny thing about Berlin, Berliners stare at people. It is weird but they mean no harm. Maybe it is just curiosity. Open display of anger or threatening behavior is not common and can cause one some serious trouble.
Is Berlin safe? (can a woman be out alone late at night, etc.)
After we were here for a few months, my wife finally said, I realize what is so different here than in the US, I am not afraid to travel the city day or night alone. I feel safe here. If you look at school children in Berlin, you see the Elementary children traveling alone on the public transit system. The adults watch over all kids and there is a definite sense of safety here.
What websites have been most helpful for moving / living there / finding work / finding community?
Make it in Germany – how to live / work there
Housing – Finding housing
EU Blue Card – work visa
Berlin Information – Berlin guide in English
Exberliner – Berlin Guide in English
Expatica – Berlin Guide for Expats
Berlin Meetup Groups
VFW Post Berlin
Finally, would you do it again?
Without hesitation! I love my life here!
Comments, questions? – now it’s your turn