Settling into life in Berlin: “Sprichst du Deutsch?”
Part 2 — Getting Settled In
The Continuation of Part 1 — Making the move to Berlin
- I’m considering living in Berlin or anywhere in Germany (and applicable to Europe), and I want to get an idea as to what I am getting myself into — Spoiler alert: A totally manageable adventure.
HEY! I’M NEW HERE
Ok, you’ve landed, and hopefully you’ve successfully made it to your accommodation to begin your new chapter as an expat.
Congratulations, and Welcome — the hardest part is behind you :)
The overwhelming feelings
First off, I want to prepare you. Everyone is different, I learnt something about myself in the early days of being an expat in Germany. I never have considered myself as overly emotional. Sure I have shed a tear or two at the airport before , but I couldn’t recall the last time I actually let go and ugly-cried… it happened in this first week. The sheer magnitude of what we had committed to came crashing down, I never had time in the hustle of preparing for moving to really consider what was happening. The excitement and adrenaline owned my body, and my mind was the passenger.
Now, fresh upon arriving, it hit home, and I found myself struck with a multitude of emotions that I wasn’t prepared for. I was grateful for my Dad, noticing that I was tearing up when leaving Cape Town International, he handed me his handkerchief. Which I found myself needing on a number of occasions. Why? Well I was the one being transferred for work; my family graciously accepting the challenge of being ripped from what they know, and at least initially not being in the comforts of work, creche etc. I felt incredibly guilty, and every-time I replayed the memories of saying goodbye to our family, it made me sad, and sorry that I had taken a daughter and grandchildren away from our extended family. This soon subsided, as we have a very supportive family, and my wife was great at reassuring me, that we were all in this together. I think she was relieved to see that I could be vulnerable too, as I was usually the steadfast and unemotional pillar.
Like I mentioned in Part 1, emigrating is not an academic process, you will learn things about yourself, and you will grow for it. I don’t know if you can be prepared, but perhaps pack in some handkerchiefs — you know, just-in-case.
Enter your Angel of Relocation
We were very fortunately paired with a Relocation Agent (Angel 😇), and I cannot recommend this enough in a country where you don’t have a command of the language. Germany in particular is about paperwork and process, this is how they are fabled as comprehensive and efficient, but it’s daunting as to how much you need to do in a short-space of time.
We were incredibly fortunate to be paired with Victoria Messer (of Expat Management)— who is a very organised and very experienced freelance relocation agent. She simplified everything, and explained in enough detail as to what/why/how things worked, without overwhelming us with information and words we couldn’t/wouldn’t understand. If you’re able to request a relocation agent, I would highly recommend it. If you can’t, I’d still recommend reaching out to Victoria, as there may be specific tasks that she can make a lot easier for you on a project basis (e.g. tax class change / drivers license application forms).
These are just some of the tasks you need to do to get the ball rolling upon arrival.
- City “Anmeldung” Appointment (translates to registration). Within 14 days of arrival, even if you’re staying at temporary accommodation, you need to register your address. This requires an appointment at your local Bürgeramt (Citizen office). We did this the day after we arrived, and again once we moved into our permanent apartment.
- Open a Bank Account. This requires an appointment (or it did pre-Corona). It’s not unusual to open a joint-account if you are married. Deutsche Bank has an English App — that was enough to sell it for us. N26 is an online-only bank, which is great for your own private accounts, or as your primary.
- Figure out which areas you like in your new city. Sure you can research this online, and if you’re going to live in Berlin, and as a young family, we would recommend Mitte / Prenzlauer Berg. But everyone is different, and we all have tastes, likes and dislikes. The only way you will get a real idea, is to visit the suburbs of interest. I’d recommend getting a weekly train/underground pass (e.g. Berlin’s Welcome Card) and see as much as possible early on so you can narrow your options down to favourites. In our case having visited Berlin prior, we had an idea, but still took advantage of a walking tour of an alternative area for us to compare.
- Begin looking for an apartment. Set your preferences on the various sites/apps e.g. Immobilienscout24 or Immowelt (there are loads). This is where a relocation agent is a necessity in our view. You generally won’t have time to miss-out on an apartment, as it is an extremely competitive market. Make sure the person writing the application on your behalf writes great “non-Google-translated” German. Have your details in order as to your prior renting/owning, contract details, and be ready for the viewing appointment. The actual viewing will unlikely be private, don’t be surprised if you are one of a number of people, perhaps even queuing to take turns looking at an apartment, and then making an application. You then await the owners decision (days thereafter, so don’t stop looking), which is based on the most suitable/risk-free applicant. All of this is made easier if you have an Agent assisting you making your case with the experience of how to structure this accordingly. To gauge just how much of a job this is — take a look at this article: How I beat the rental market with a Python Script. I also wrote a (far simpler) script in a bid to ease the process and avoid repeatedly seeing the same places we had ruled out over and again.
Top Top Tip when searching for/considering a house/apartment. A Zimmer = A room. So when you say I want a 3 bedroom, make sure you account for the lounge being counted as a room. 4 Zimmer = 3 Bed generally speaking.
If you go ahead and setup a contract with a relocation agent, insist on creating a WhatsApp (or similar) group, so you can share updates timelessly, and not have information deep within email conversations.
Money Money Money
What will I earn after Tax?
The best way to work this out is via a Netto Brutto Calculator — there are loads available, but this one does the job just fine.
What to take note of for accuracy in your estimation:
- The 6 Tax Classes of Germany [4: this class is also for married workers in a common household who both have a similar level of employment income]
- Church tax (Kirchensteuer) is paid by every registered member of a Christian or Jewish congregation. It is typically collected at source from your gross wage, along with income tax and social security contributions. Church tax is charged at 8–9% of your gross salary. REFERENCE
- Number of children as dependents.
- German State, Age
- Healthcare Public e.g. TK vs. Private will probably have an influence on Net take-home pay, for public the defaults are probably accurate enough for indication.
NOTE: The above is only for indication, if you are entertaining an offer — ask for a salary breakdown in your negotiation, rather ask before, than regret not after…
The Budget of Berlin — basic living costs
Coming from South Africa, there are few things more consuming in your mind than converting prices while shopping with an exchange rate (€1 = ZAR 17.20 when we arrived). It’s understandable, and even now 18+ months later, there are items I need to convert to equate value. It takes time, it’s normal. But when it comes to grocery shopping, you need to lose the habit or it will consume you for every decision. Items will be more expensive (in a South African’s case), but by no means unreasonable. The market caters for a very wide-variety of budgets — the rich vs not-so-rich can happily find sustenance to their budget from the same store, and as always, things are relative. Take a look for yourself…
Grocery stores in Germany (wikipedia’s list):
Marks and Spencer used to be in Germany, and that would be the closest to Woolworths in SA — but alas they are no longer here, and “pre-cut” butternut is not a thing here. Neither are Hot-Cross Buns over Easter, however recipes and ingredients are, and there is a lot of satisfaction in making them yourself. In fact the Facebook Group “South Africans in Germany” is full of recipes for local favourites, but with the German equivalent product e.g. Condensed Milk. Where there is a “lus” (Appetite)… there is a way :)
Using Numbeo will give you a reasonable idea of costs, but you can’t rely on it completely due to the sheer variety. When you’re here there are things you don’t pay for privately that you would in SA, there are offsets and contingencies that start making sense only when you earn in Euro’s. Numbeo EG. Berlin vs. Cape Town
A family budget - not necessarily ours:
- City Centre 4 Zimmer (3 Bedroom) Apartment ± €2200 (Warm, which means heating included) — note that this is highly variable depending on your tastes, central location, house vs apartment etc.
- Electricity ± €100
- Groceries ± €1000 — €1500 it really depends on your appetite and quality of food, if you prefer red meats which are more expensive.
- Internet ± €70 for 1000MB/s — via Vodafone Cable, there are deals that generally start very inexpensively in the first year, and more the 2nd then it levels out. Our first year was €30 — it’s a weird setup.
- Mobile phone contract ± €35 — via Vodafone, 16GB data plan, unlimited calls etc.
- Transport €65 in Berlin for a monthly BVG “AB zone” pass. If you have a young family they can travel free with you after-hours or on the weekend. A single trip costs €2.80 per person.
- Insurance — Life + 3rd party Liability + Household ± €50 (charged annually)
- TV License €18
- Gym can range from “normal” €15 up to €100 depending on the exclusivity of a health club
- Amazon Prime €8 — fast and free deliveries from Amazon, includes Prime video subscription
- Netflix ± €9 — if you’re on a shared account, there is no issue being in separate countries
- Sky DE or equivalent cable Tv ± €9 to €40 — depending on the package, there are usually deals with your internet. We don’t have it, but to expedite our German, it’s perhaps not a bad idea.
- Subscriptions, Subscriptions, read/watch/exercise all about! Audible | Apple Music | Spotify | YouTube Music | Peleton | Zwift are all around the seemingly magic numbers of €10 to €15 each depending on whether you have/need family plans or not.
Eating Out 🍔🍟🍕🌮🌯🥗🍜🍣🍱 — or in times of Corona “Eating IN” (Mitnahme)
One day, I’d love to write an article on my favourites restaurants in Berlin — for now I’ll settle with a couple of our favourite Burgers 🍔 for now.
- GrindHouse — the Entrecote Patty is next level
- Five Guys — USA USA
- Tommi’s Burger Joint — Icelandic Burgers, who knew!
- BurgerMeister — it’s not the best ever, but the bang for the buck is great value.
- Standard Pizza — OK, not really a burger, but worth the mention for being A-MA-ZING
For the now, thankfully we have WOLT & LIEFERANDO — who do an incredible job of delivering 🚚 great food to you, warm, upright and as close-to restaurant quality as possible (smart packaging). And some establishments are doing a great job of reinventing the experience e.g. Benedict’s Picnic in a Box. Or in the case of “The Bird” (mentioned below) did a delivery where the meat was pre-cooked, and you just needed to boil it to perfection…
Don’t just take my word for it — just look at some of the offerings via Berlin Food Stories — beware, don’t do this with an empty stomach!
As an appreciator of great BBQ’s — in South Africa, we call it a Braai 🔥 — I thought that some of the meals I had, could not be surpassed. However, some of the best meat dishes I have ever enjoyed, have been in Berlin. E.G. the famous “Filthy Pleasures Barbecue” (formerly known as “The Bird Barbecue”). I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is out there — and I am up for the challenge!!
Part 2 — Ends
Incase you missed it — Part 1 — Making the move to Berlin
Part 3 — Getting around Berlin, driving on the “wrong” side of the road & living with(out) German (published 25 April 2021)
I have Kids!… worthy of a Part all on it’s own :)
✍️ Jason Markotter 📈