Are you an American citizen married to — or about to marry — a German citizen? Do you wish to move to Germany and live there as a permanent resident? Then congratulations! You have no sense of fear whatsoever! Man, woman or transgender — you have great big balls. Seriously, like 25% of your body weight is pure testicle. (And for that, I salute you.)
Because I have already made the leap myself, people email me all the time and ask for advice on moving to Germany. In response, I have sent fragmented tips, pointers and oblong nuggets of information on the subject all across the internet. My advice has been scatterbrained at best, so with this blog post, I am hoping to mash all my thoughts together like a fat kid sitting on a ham sandwich.
Before I begin, however, I want you to bear in mind the following 3 facts:
- My wife is German. If you haven’t figured this out by now, you probably wore a helmet to grade school.
- My wife and I got married in the United States and then moved to Germany. My only experience with German weddings has been as an inebriated guest.
- We moved from the United States to Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony). Immigration protocols in Germany may vary from state to state.
That said, here we go! I hope you enjoy our tips for Americans on gaining permanent residency in Germany!
1.) Bring your American marriage certificate
Before you depart the United States on your way to Germany, make sure you bring a notarized copy — ideally 2 or 3 — of your official American marriage certificate. (Not the pretty one for framing on your wall. The real one.) It has to be notarized, meaning you take it to your state’s notary public office, where they stamp it with an apostille. I know that sounds like one of the 12 dudes who used to follow Jesus around and tell everyone how awesome he was, but it’s not; it’s an internationally recognized seal of certification, and Germans love it. They love it so much, they won’t accept your American marriage certificate without it.
2.) Get your American marriage certificate translated
Once you get to Germany, you have to have your American marriage certificate translated by a certified German translator. (And no, your spouse can’t translate it for you. That wouldn’t be painful enough.) After you have an officially translated certificate, you’ll need to take it to your local marriage department or courthouse. Once there, you’ll sign some paperwork and receive your German marriage certificate. This document is the key to attaining your initial, 3-year residency permit from the immigration office and getting signed up for everything else you’ll need, like health insurance and German language classes. (The next section is all about this infuriating process.)
SPECIAL NOTE: Figure out your legal name before you go to the marriage department, because the German government hates middle names. For example, my middle name became my “second first name,” and now appears on every legal document I receive. (Not a problem, really, but my middle name makes me sound like a dandy Englishman.) The marriage department is cool with hyphenated last names, but if you ever remove the hyphen, you can’t go back; it’s a one-way street. Also, they’re supposed to give you the option to keep your name exactly the way it appears in your home country, but they will make sure you understand doing so would really break their balls.
3.) Get your sweet ass to the immigration office
Do not wait to go to the immigration office (Ausländerbehörde); go there as soon as you have your German marriage certificate in hand. I say this because the people who work at the immigration office are all functionally retarded. I had to make 3 different appointments and wait in unbelievably long lines because they lost my paperwork after my first appointment. If you know someone who works there, I want you to email me their home address so I can show up at their door and open-hand slap them as hard as humanly possible. I want the neighbors next door to hear it. I want their kids to start crying and their dog to start barking. God damn I hate the immigration department.
Anyway, bring every piece of identification you have, along with your marriage certificate, passport photos and about €150 euros in cash. The cash is to pay for your 3-year residence permit, which is actually just an ID card, like your driver’s license. And remember to bring your German spouse with you, because the immigration office employees probably can’t speak English. (They can barely manage to dress themselves each morning.)
SPECIAL NOTE: Before they will give you the residency card, you will have to pass a little test. It’s a quick verbal exam to determine your ability to speak the German language at approximately A1 level. (A1 is for extreme beginners, but they want you to have some knowledge of the language so you can begin your German integration class. More on this later.) My test was exactly 5 questions long:
- What is your name? (Nailed this one.)
- Can you spell your name? (Blew this one.)
- Where do you come from? (Scraped by this one.)
- How old are you? (Nailed this one.)
- How did you get here this morning, e.g. subway, on foot, etc.? (Stumbled through this one like a drunken toddler.)
In short, I barely passed. I honestly don’t know what happens if you fail, but don’t stress about it; you’re married to a German. They can’t kick you out of the country unless you break some laws and do something super bad. Like, James Bond movie villain bad. And although it’s unfair, you will receive preferential treatment because you come from America. That’s just the way it is. Be glad you don’t come from some evil country where warmongering, corruption and greed run rampant (oh wait…).
4.) Sign up for German health insurance as soon as possible.
When I came to Germany, I was so concerned with playing by the rules I accidentally broke them. I stayed on American travel insurance for almost a year after my arrival, and that pissed the German insurance people right the hell off. They wanted me on the books, in the system, and paying my dividends from the word go.
I was penalized a little for this mistake, but in the end, it wasn’t a huge deal. The real hassle was trying to get my basic healthcare needs met. If your spouse is German and has a decent job, chances are you’re entitled to coverage already — you just have to sign up. You may qualify for the public health option, or you might need a private one, but either way, don’t wait; have your spouse inquire at work and figure out your benefits.
On a side note, Germany is not exactly the utopia of free health insurance and abundant healthcare we’ve been led to believe; there is a public option for people with lower incomes, but they wait longer for appointments and their prescription medications are limited to the basics. Yes, everyone is ‘theoretically’ covered, but you’ll find a world of difference between public and private insurance no matter the country in which you reside. If you have money, you’ll get doctor appointments sooner, enjoy preferential treatment overall, and have enough pharmaceutical options to kill a rock star. I’m sorry, but when it comes to healthcare, having money is the tits.
5.) Enroll in an integration course as soon as possible
Germany is a popular country for immigrants, and most of them are coming from countries closer than America, so language classes required by the German government fill up quickly. It was the beginning of September when I first arrived, and I was told the next integration class would begin after the first of the year. I returned in the second week of January only to find the class completely full. I had to wait until spring for the next one to begin, so please, do yourself a favor and sign up for your class immediately.
Now, assuming you’ve already attained that 3-year residency permit I mentioned, but you still suck at German, you’ll need to take exactly 3 integration classes: A1, A2 and B1. After you’re done, you’ll then take the B1 exam. It has several portions, including reading, writing, speaking and listening comprehension. It can seem really hard at first, but don’t worry; you’ll be prepared for it after all those hellish hours spent in the classroom. Also, you can find all sorts of sample B1 tests on the Goethe-Institut website (www.goethe.de) — so you know exactly what sorts of things you need to practice.
After you pass your B1 exam, you’ll probably have to take a month-long ‘orientation’ class afterward. This is where they teach you all about German politics, geography and history… as if you miraculously overlooked every single World War II movie and History Channel documentary ever made. Anyway, you’ll need to take another little test for this orientation course, but then you’re done! Once you’ve lived for a full 3 years in Germany with your initial residence permit, you’ll get a letter from the immigration department telling you to come in and update your visa status. You’ll bring your test certificates and maybe another document or two — along with some cash and a heroic amount of patience — and they’ll submit your application. After a few weeks, you’ll receive your permanent residence permit (though some states will simply extend your permit by 5 to 10 years, but still, you’re golden). They might actually give you your permanent residence permit right there at the appointment, but it depends how long you’ve been married to your German. (I think you need to have survived at least 5 years without killing each other.)
You can take all of the classes I mentioned at your local VHS (Volkshochschule), or anywhere else recognized by the immigration department. I believe your local VHS will be the cheapest option, but remember: Even in Germany, you get what you pay for. (This is a polite way of saying the VHS can be a hit-or-miss experience. Half of my teachers were awesome. The other half can lick my unholy scrotum. Consider looking for a ‘Bildungsverein’ — or virtually any other language school — if you value your sanity.)
6.) Don’t Panic.
I really hope this article helps you feel more prepared for your life in Germany. It can be a scary prospect for an American — I know — but one which will very likely turn out to be the best decision you’ve ever made.
Life in Germany rules; it is a beautiful country, safe, stable and full of wonderful people. However, if you still feel stressed about the big move, remember the following:
- You are married to a German citizen and you come from a so-called ‘respectable’ country. You’ll be allowed to stay no matter what anyone tells you.
- Most Germans speak some English. In a pinch, you can usually default to your native language. This is a huge advantage, and it’s totally unfair (but totally awesome).
- You are going to die someday. I know this is depressing, but it’s also liberating, because none of these little details really matter. Picture yourself on your deathbed, sucking in your last feeble breath before greeting the great void beyond; did it really matter if you filled out that one little immigration form in exactly the right way? Did the Germans throw you on a plane and deport your ass because you turned in that one document a day or two after the deadline? Were you separated from your beloved spouse for the rest of your life because you didn’t ace that stupid language test the first time? No. Lots of idiots have done this before you. You will be fine. Everything is going to work out beautifully.
“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Photo by Johan Larsson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/johanl/)