Last year, I spent 8 months in Berlin for an internship. I fell in love with the city, Germany and Europe, and thus vowed to return.
Moving from Montreal to Berlin requires a lot of paperwork, so after doing it twice in a row, I figured I could document the entire process so others could benefit from my experience. If you are only looking to live in Germany temporarily, I suggest that you start with my earlier article, From Montreal to Berlin. If you would like more guides about living in Germany, check out my other blog, All About Berlin. My superguide about moving to Berlin is much more detailed.
As a rule of thumb, countries don't let people in without a motive. Unless there are agreements in place, you can't move to a country without a job offer, savings or a place to live.
In most cases, the host country will ensure that you are filling a position you are uniquely qualified for. Depending on which visa you get, there might also be minimum salary requirements. This means they don't hand out work visas for unskilled labour, with the exception of the youth mobility visa and student visas.
In order to get a German work visa, you need a job offer from a sponsoring company. For the first few years, your visa will be tied to your employment, before you can apply for permanent residency or citizenship.
You can find more details about visa requirements on the German Consulate's website. There is also a goldmine of information on travel.gc.ca, including travel advisories, visa requirements and cultural information.
In my case, I went with a youth mobility visa for my internship, and for a regular work visa when I returned. In both cases, the entire process took about a month.
The checklist for the youth mobility visa should give you a good idea of which documents you are expected to produce. When I applied for a work visa the second time, the only extra document I needed was a copy of my degree, translated to English by a certified translator. For your proof of first housing, you can simply use a hotel reservation. However, you will need a real address to start working, because you can't get a tax ID without a fixed address, and you can't get paid without a tax ID.
You will likely have to make a trip to the German Consulate in Toronto or Vancouver, even if you live a thousand kilometres from there. Megabus is a cheap way to travel between cities.
Leaving Canada for good
Moving out of the country involves all of the regular headaches associated to an address changes, but that is not the end of it.
As a Québec citizen, there are a few important considerations to make before leaving Canada. If you leave the country for over 183 days, you are no longer covered by your health insurance, and travel insurance requires you to be covered by the RAMQ. You will need to ask for an exemption in order to be covered for the duration of your trip. If you leave Quebec indefinitely, then you must inform the RAMQ by contacting them.
If you must get travel insurance, I urge you to get quotes from multiple companies. For my 8 month internship, estimates varied from $500 to $1300. In the end, my university's health insurance offered free coverage, since it was a school-related trip.
In Germany, you are mandated by law to have health insurance (more on that later), so if you stay for 6 months or more, you will end up with coverage from the RAMQ, your travel insurance company and your German health insurance company.
There is an agreement between Canada and Germany so you do not pay taxes twice for your German income. You are unlikely to pay any Canadian taxes for your German income, but you still need to declare it if you are still a resident of Canada for tax purposes.
The Canadian Revenue Agency has a somewhat clear definition of what constitutes a Canadian resident for tax purposes on their website. You will find the more verbose legal definition here. Essentially, it says that you should not have significant ties to Canada (apartment, credit cards, material possessions).
Usually, changing your address in Canada is a fairly simple procedure. You can notify the Canadian government of your address changes by filling a simple form, and most provincial governments have similar procedures in place.
Make sure you notify your banks (including PayPal) and your schools about your address change. Although this is not as important, you will also need to update your address on various websites so they can work properly in Germany. Pretty much every application, music, book and video store has issues with using their service in another country. For instance, iTunes won't let you download your banking apps on the Canadian app store and Spotify won't let you log in until you update your country. Your PayPal account is tied to your country of origin.
Before you leave Canada, you must remember to shut down all of your services, including:
- Internet, cellphone and cable contracts
- Credit cards (see Taxes)
- Home, car and health insurance
The best way to do this is to look at your bank statements from the last few months.
Getting to Germany
You can save several hundred dollars by flying from a larger city. For instance, I have seen 3 different countries on my way to Montreal, and my tickets were still cheaper than a direct flight from Berlin. Likewise, flying from Toronto is much cheaper than flying from Montreal.
No matter where you fly from, use as many fare comparison sites as you can. I saved $200 on a flight that was not even listed on other sites, and the same flights were priced differently on separate websites.
If you are moving, you will probably bring more luggage, in which case a direct flight will save you a lot in luggage fees. In general, it will be cheaper to add extra luggage than to ship 30kg boxes to your German address.
Your first week as a German
Welcome to Germany! Now that you are on this side of the Atlantic, there is still a bit of work left for you. Although I recommend you do it yourself, I can vouch for Wilde Relocation if you want to alleviate your burden.
Finding a place to live
Finding a place to live is one of the hardest part of moving to Germany. Searching for a flat 6000km away when you don't speak the local language is nearly impossible. I strongly recommend you to find a temporary place, then look for a more comfortable place once you are there.
First, you need to learn a few terms. An apartment is called a flat in Europe, or a Wohnung in German. A furnished apartment is a Möbliert Wohnung. A shared living apartment is called a WG (vay-gay), an abbreviation for Wohngemeinschaft.
There are some cultural differences when it comes to renting in Germany. For instance, you should not take kitchen cabinets and light fixtures for granted as they are not necessarily included. This article has all the information you need.
I used Nestpick to find a furnished bedroom in Berlin. Their website is easy to navigate, their fees are low and their customer service is simply amazing. Alternatively, there are rental agencies that can help you find a place, but their fees amount to 1 or 2 months of rent. If you feel very courageous, you can also book a hostel for a week and hope you find a nice apartment before your sanity runs out.
To find a more permanent place to stay, I recommend ImmobilienScout24. It's very popular and amazingly well-designed, but it's mostly used by Marklers (real estate agents) and the competition can be pretty intense. I had far more luck with eBay Kleinanzeigen, since I dealt directly with the tenants. Craigslist is 90% scammers in Germany, but some of my colleagues had some success with it. I compiled a complete list of apartment search websites on All About Berlin.
If you are looking to share an apartment, then you should look on WG-Gesucht. You can also find local apartment listing groups on Facebook, as many of them are English-speaking. If you are not too familiar with your new city, you can use Mapnificient to find the best places to live.
In any case, be very wary of rental scams. Usually, scam ads have an uncannily low price, brochure quality photos and no phone number. The announcers will try to talk you into paying before you see the dwelling. As a rule of thumb, no keys, no money.
Before you visit an apartment, make sure to obtain a SCHUFA. This is the German equivalent to a credit check. It costs 25 euros and is valid for 6 months, but you can get one for free. Here are the locations that deliver SCHUFAs instantly. As a new Berliner, you might also want to bring a proof of income and your passport. Landlords usually ask for your last 3 pay slips, but my work contract sufficed.
Financially, you should have enough money to cover 4 months rent, since the deposit is usually 2-3 times the rent.
I have written a detailed article about finding your first flat in Berlin, as well as a guide to finding a furnished room in Berlin. It offers information specific to Berlin that I could not find elsewhere. I also wrote a long list of apartment search resources for All About Berlin.
In Germany, health insurance is mandatory, and not being insured is illegal. Your health insurance fees are taken directly from your salary by your employer.
Depending on your salary and age, public or private health insurance will make the most sense. You will need to carefully compare their policies and see which makes the most sense for you. Start with this introduction to public and private health insurance. Private insurance is said to give you better service, but is only available to eligible people (see the article below).
For more info, see An introduction to health insurance in Germany
Registration as a resident
Germans need to register themselves when they move in (Anmeldung) and when they move out (Abmeldung). This involves setting up an appointment with a local Einwohnermeldeamt for a 10 minute tête-à-tête with a German bureaucrat.
Getting an appointment is by far the hardest part of the process [update: not anymore! they hired more staff].
In Berlin, your appointment can be several months in the future. You can find a few tricks to get an earlier appointment on the Berlin subreddit, but expect a frustrating process in any case.
During your appointment, you will be asked about your religion. This is for the Kirchensteuer. It amounts to 8-9% of your income tax and it goes to your religious community. Only specific religious communities have to pay this tax, and officially leaving your church exempts you from it. You can find more details about it here.
On your way out, you need to fill an Abmeldung. Fortunately, you only need to send a letter to your the registration office you went to when you arrived. It is very important that you do it, because you can be forced to pay for health insurance while you weren't even in the country!
Bank accounts and finances
In order to open a bank account in Germany, you will need to be registered as a resident. This is what most sources say, but I was able to create an account at Commerzbank on the condition that I bring them my Meldebestätigung in the next 7 days. That was 9 months ago, and my account is still working, even though I never showed them anything. Later, I learned that some banks let you open an account without an official address.
I do not have specific bank recommendations, but make sure you can get English service online and at your local branch. I went with Commerzbank because they had a branch in my building, but I had a hard time getting help in English, and their fees were ridiculous. I wrote a detailed review of N26, after having an account with them for over a year. I also wrote a comparison of German banks for expats so you can pick the best one for your needs.
Keep in mind that almost everything in Germany is paid in cash. Aside from grocery stores and fast food chains, many places won't accept credit and debit cards. Cheques are also seldom used, since bank transfers are the norm for rent and other large payments.
If you want to bring your money over from Canada, I highly recommend TransferWise. It's nearly free, and it's far more pleasant than wire transfers. I've transferred several thousand dollars in both direction without any issues.
In Germany, your Canadian driver's license is valid for 6 months after taking up residence there, but you need to carry it with a certified translation or an international driver's license. In Québec, you can get an international driver's license for $25 without an appointment at any CAA Travel store or CAA driving school. All you need is a valid driver's licence and a passport picture.
Keep in mind that the legal driving age in Germany is 18 years old, while you can get one at 16 years old in most Canadian provinces. If you are under 18, you will not be able to drive in Germany.
Once you are in Germany, you can exchange your license for a German one without having to take the entire driving test. I have written an article that describes the process.
Cellphone and internet
Telecom in Europe is radically different from in Canada, so I think it deserves its own section.
Torrenting illegally in Germany is a very risky activity. There are ways to torrent movies in Germany, but it's still risky.
Just like in Canada, there is hardly a good internet service provider, but there are worse ones. Redditors can help you pick one of the better ones.
On the bright side, there is no internet censorship, and you can get a 10mbps line with no download limit for 10 euros a month.
Cellphone plans are much cheaper than in Canada. During my internship, I paid 10 euros a month for Vodafone's 750mb prepaid plan. It cost me 8 cent a minute to place a call, and 8 cent per SMS sent, but since everyone in Europe communicates using WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, that was hardly a problem.
If you are bringing over your Canadian cellphone, make sure it supports the bands offered by your European carrier. Otherwise, you might get signal, but no 3G or 4G.
App store accounts
Wait, what? Yes. App store accounts. You will need a German app store account to get your carrier's voicemail and cellphone usage apps, among others. If you use Android, you can create a second Google account in Germany and add it to your device (in Settings > Accounts). In the Play Store app, you can switch between your German and Canadian accounts depending on which app you want to download.
Buying alcohol, food and other things
It's legal in Germany to drink beer in the streets. You can buy beer bottles individually and consume them in a park, on your way to the club and even at the movie theatre. Germans don't sell beer by the pitcher, but it's already cheap. Usually, it's barely a euro more than water in restaurants. Beer bottles can be returned for a few cents, just like in Canada.
You will find German grocery stores very small compared to their Canadian counterparts. Germans make smaller, more frequent grocery trips, and usually have much smaller fridges. Some ingredients can be especially difficult to find in Germany, so I wrote an article to help you prepare Canadian recipes in Germany.
Aside from restaurants, everything is closed on Sundays. I've been caught several times with an empty pantry on a Sunday morning. Fortunately, there is plenty of good street food in Berlin, and some grocery stores remain open.
There are no Tim Hortons in Germany, but the plentiful bakeries and coffee shop offer far superior products. Likewise, you won't find a Canadian Tire here, but you have the amazing Décathlon for sports gear, and specialized shops for the rest. Luckily, Amazon is much better in Europe than it is in Canada.
For furniture, IKEA is still king. For electronics, you have Saturn, Media Markt and Conrad.
That is all I know about moving from Canada to Germany. If I missed something, feel free to email me your questions, and I will add the missing information to this article. Have a safe trip, und Willkommen in Deutschland!
Edit (2016-03-11): Added info about the SCHUFA, added eBay Kleinanzeigen to recommended websites
Edit (2017-04-10): Small corrections. Removed the part about GEMA.
Edit (2017-05-10): Linked to the article describing the driver license exchange process.
Edit (2017-10-04): Added links to All About Berlin