7 tips on how to make your life in Germany easier

When moving to a new country, we all like to research what people like and dislike about living there, what the first things we should do after arrival are, if there are any shortcuts which can help us with our integration, etc.

In the case of Germany, you find a lot of content which talks about the cultural shocks that a newcomer experiences when arriving in the country.

The problem is that all of these articles focus on how to react to all of the initial challenges during the first 1–3 months, but none delves into what to do next. It’s hard to find something like:

Now that I am more or less aware of my surroundings, is there anything else that I should know which could help save me a lot of problems later?

And the answer to that question is: Yes, for sure! If you’ve been living in Germany for 4–5 months, there’s still a lot to discover!

Let’s see how we can help save you a lot of a headaches, save you some money, and, above all, enjoy your life in Germany, which is a country that has a lot to offer:

1. Contract renewals

Beware of any contract that you sign in Germany, since it’s a common practice to automatically renew them.

No one will ask you for your permission and you won’t receive any email notifying you, since you usually agree to the automatic renewal when you sign the contract. It’s one of the clauses which you probably ignored. :)

The only way to stop the renewal from happening is if you proactively contact the entity with whom you signed the contract, and tell them that you want to cancel it. This should happen 2–3 months before the contract period ends, regardless of its duration.

Some of you might have already subscribed to a gym or a yearly public transportation card. Probably no-one told you, but these are some of the contracts which renew automatically. No-one says anything because they expect you to know that, even if you just arrived to the country.

McFIT is a gym chain that offers cheap subscriptions in exchange of 12-month contracts.

Basically, when signing any contract, even if it is only for 3 or 6 months, don’t forget to ask if the contract renews automatically and how the cancellation process works.

This might save you a lot of time from going back and forth, and hundreds, if not thousands of euros from a mid-term perspective.

2. Insurance

Germans love Versicherungen (insurance)! You’ll probably not be attracted to them as much as they are, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at some options. These two are interesting to newcomers:

  • Hausratversicherung - covers household goods, which might come in handy since you probably rented a place that didn’t even have a kitchen installed and, because of this situation, you had to buy all of the furniture. You’ll certainly find a lot of advocates for this insurance, trust me.
  • Rechtsschutzversicherung - covers small disputes and gives you access to legal advice. Providers like Advocard offer phone lines which you can use anytime you want. With their support, you won’t have to wonder any more about what your legal rights are.
Examples of what a Hausratversicherung can cover - fire, storms, burglary, hail, etc.

In general, insurance is really popular because it’s affordable, so there’s really not that much to lose. For instance, for the ones that I’ve mentioned, you can pay as little as 10 EUR per month.

Use websites such as Verivox, Check24 or Versicherungsvergleich to compare different providers and the types of insurance that they offer. Ask one of your friends to help you choose the best one for you.

3. Annual Tax Return

In Germany, it’s recommend that you do your Steuererklärung (tax return) annually, usually around April-May.

You will have to declare all of your income sources, even if they are foreign, to the Finantzam (Tax Office), so they can verify if you paid the right amount of taxes for that year.

Depending on the outcome of that evaluation, they might return a part of what you paid back to you. It can go from 200 EUR to 3000 EUR, it all depends on your unique situation.

You can do it online, with the help of a German-speaking friend, but I would suggest you do it through a Lohnsteuerhilfeverein, which is a type of association that provides assistance in income tax matters.

They charge a fixed amount per year to do the tax return for you, around 100–200 EUR, and they also can advise you on income and tax matters throughout the year, which might help you save some bucks, especially during your first few years in Germany.

Moreover, you will receive a lot of contradictory information about which expenses are deductible or not. Honestly, ignore all of the advice that you’ll receive, since what is considered deductible or not depends on a lot of factors, which most of your friends don’t know, unless they work in this field.

Just keep all of your receipts — clothes, courses, public transportation, household purchases, rentals, etc. — and when you do the tax return, present them to the Steuerberater (tax advisor) and he can tell you what is deductible or not. Until then, don’t throw anything away.

4. Nebenkostenabrechnung

Now let’s talk about the flat that you’ve rented. There is one particular aspect which is different in Germany than in most countries: the tenant is the one who pays the condo fees.

As an example, if they install cameras around the building or if they decide to plant new trees in the backyard, you will be the one paying for that, together with the other tenants.

If there’s someone cleaning the garage of your building, you know now who’s paying for these services.

These expenses are already included in the monthly nebenkosten (utilities), but sometimes what you pay per month is not enough to cover all of these expenses.

That is why you, as the tenant, will receive a bill any time up to 12 months after the end of the year specifying what you haven’t yet paid. This bill is the infamous Nebenkostenabrechnung.

In my case, I might pay between 600–1200 EUR for 2016, but I don’t know that since I also don’t know which expenses the condo had, even if I am the one funding them. Also, we’re still in July 2017 so I haven’t received the Nebenkostenabrechnung yet! :D

I’m not a fan of this system, since the monthly rent that the tenant agrees to pay doesn’t correspond to the total yearly rent that he will end up paying at the end, which is misleading in my view.

However, that’s how things work and you’ll have to adapt. If you want to know what to expect, ask your landlord how much the previous tenants paid on average.

5. Mieterverein

If you want to ensure that you’re not being ripped off by your landlord, you can apply to be a member of a Mieterverein, which is a type of association that represents the interests of the tenants and provides information on all tenancy issues.For instance, it’s very common for landlords to overcharge tenants when they send them the annual Nebenkostenabrechnung.

With the support of a Mieterverein, you can quickly clarify if your landlord is allowed to charge you certain expenses, and if he is, if he can actually can charge you that much.

The usual fee is around 100–120 EUR per year, but the association that I was able to join only charges 90 EUR.

Taking into account that the landlord can overcharge you by hundreds of euros each year, and that other unrelated complications might arise, as in any landlord-tenant relationship, it’s a membership which might be worth trying.

A different ad from a Mieterverein in Berlin.

Luckily, I never had the need to be part of any of these associations, since I always had great landlords, but it doesn’t mean that the same will happen to you.

As you can see, Germans love this type of yearly plan which gives you access to a multitude of services. Be smart and make the best use of them! :)

6. Bike locks

In a country like Germany, there is nothing better than riding a good bike.

However, from what you hear around you, it seems inevitable that someone will steal the bike that you just bought at some point in time.

For this reason, and taking into account that bikes in Germany are ridiculously expensive, you might be tempted to buy a cheap bike, of extremely bad quality. Anyway, all of them… they suck, right?

Well, there is an easy way to avoid this problem, which took me 2 stolen bikes to learn: Buy 2 good locks, each one made from a different material and with a different shape. That’s it.

These two will do the job: ABUS Fahrradschloss and Lock Steel O Chain 880.

The locks will be as expensive as some bikes that you see out there, but I guarantee you that they will keep it safe, since no thief will spend their time trying to break 2 locks when there are so many other “opportunities” around -> apologies for the selfishness.

To show you that this ‘strategy’ works, I leave my bike in Cologne HBF every single night, and every single weekend, and nothing happens to her (yep, it’s a she). And this is the most dangerous place in the city center to leave a bike.

This might sound like an irrelevant tip, but there’s nothing better than going to work with a good bike. If you have a safe place to park it at night, then don’t hesitate in spending 200–300 EUR on it.

There’s nothing easier than cutting a think lock.

If this purchase enables you to get to work without needing a monatskarte (public transportation card), you will have your bike paid in 3 months and, in my view, you will also improve your life quality considerably.

As an alternative, if you want to avoid this type of problems, you can always rent a bike. You’ll probably find a bike rental agency/ store close to your Hauptbahnhof (main station) that offers good value for money. Even Deutsche Bahn provides this type of services. ;)

7. Learn German… online

Why would you learn German online if you live in… Germany? Well, because it’s super-practical!

For most of us, it might be complicated to attend classes in a Sprachschule (Language School). Some of us work until late, others have families, or it might be too expensive to attend the courses that we really want to be part of.

Also, if you work in English or if your social circle is composed mostly of other foreigners, that will lower your chances to practice German on a daily basis.

That is why platforms such as Italki or Verbling can be really useful, since you can have individual classes with native German-speakers from as little as 12 EUR per lesson, and you can also find language partners with whom to do a Sprache-Tandem for free, where you teach your partner your native language, and he or she teaches you German in return.

In this particular case, I’m not the best example since my German skills still need massive improvement. However, if I’d have known about these platforms before, I am pretty sure that I would have had developed my German a lot quicker, due to their affordability and flexibility.

And that’s it, my fellow readers. Each country has its own characteristics, but the challenges which you will face in Germany shouldn’t overwhelm you, regardless of your country of origin.

If this is the first time that you’re living abroad, remember that your experience will depend uniquely on how you want to live it. That is why the tips that I gave you have the goal of helping you avoid unnecessary problems during the first 1–2 years, so that you can enjoy your time in Germany to its fullest.