An Expat’s Guide to Getting an Engineering Job in Germany — Part 3

Luke Shaughnessy
6 min readDec 17, 2020

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Berlin JFK Public School

In this post, I’ll speak a little about getting permission to move to Germany to live and work. Immigration rules are devilishly complicated, and change often, and I am most certainly no expert on this complex subject. However, I still wanted to share my experiences so that you can understand what you can expect if you decide to work for a German company in Berlin!

So you’ve heard that Germany, and Berlin, in particular, is hungry for engineering talent and is willing to help relocate you from abroad to join one of the many local startup companies. Maybe you’ve decided that you need to let your home country cool its jets for a while, while you step out and get some international fresh air? How exactly does this work? Can any warm body just decide to pull up stakes a move to Germany for work? The bad news is, not really.

The first technical requirement is that you have a work history doing something that the German economy lacks. There are not that many types of professions like this that actually exist. The German educational system turns out a highly trained and capable workforce, but there are still some gaps. One option is the freelance visa that allows you to work independently for some time, as long as you can show that you are making enough money to not burden the system. Often highly regarded artists or writers or cultural pioneers are permitted to work this way. Generally, though, those not on the cultural avant-garde need to show some kind of resume that shows that you have demonstrated a valuable skill that is in short supply, like software engineering. If you hang drywall for a living, it’s unlikely that you’ll be eligible for the german professional visa.

Another thing you’ll need is a college degree from an accredited university. It’s better if you have a degree in engineering or “hard” science, but if you don’t, you can work around it. I have a psychology degree, for example. I was still able to get a visa for myself and my family, although it was a somewhat more limited visa than the coveted “blue card” that gives you more flexibility in which companies you can work for. The decisions about which universities and which degrees are best are rather opaque, but I have been told that the German government keeps databases of nearly every college and degree program that exists and publishes recommendations for awarding visas based upon shadowy and inscrutable algorithms.

My visa was valid for 3 years, and I was pretty much obligated to stay with the company I was hired by (though you can get around this by getting another job with a similar description and pay rate, and re-applying for a visa). After 3 years, I and my family had to renew our visas, but because we had been in the country for so long already, the terms of the renewed visa were much better. We now have 5 more years, with greater flexibility to choose jobs or companies. Also, if we want to, we are now eligible to apply for permanent residence which means we could stay as long as we want, as long as we can pass an intermediate German language and citizenship test. By the way, almost all of the visas allow for a family reunion permit, which means that you can bring your spouse and children with you.

The United States, perhaps surprisingly, does not have an official language. Germany, unsurprisingly, does have an official language, and it’s expected that all official processes will proceed in German. The good news is that you will not be expected to handle this on your own. Most companies here work with immigration experts who help you navigate the figurative and sometimes literal labyrinths of paperwork and official appointments. The woman I worked with was Israeli-born but commanded a powerful knowledge of both the German language and German regulations. She wielded this knowledge like an Asgardian hammer to bash our way through the bureaucracy, and in the end, we all had our shiny stamps and cards that gave us full admission to the generous European social network.

For jobs in Berlin (Coronavirus notwithstanding, obviously!) it takes about 3 months to process your paperwork. When this is completed, you will need to arrive in person to make your appointment with Auslanderbehorde, or the immigration office (this literally translates as “the Foreigners Authority” and is about as scary as it sounds!) We met with our guide in one of the bunker-like waiting rooms at the Auslanderbehorde complex in Berlin. We had already met with her to review that all of our paperwork and photographs were correct, and we had them neatly stacked in various folders and binders. (Be ready to dig out every birth certificate, diploma and ID you have ever had in your life). Our number came up and she escorted us to a door and knocked. In Germany, you always knock. It took about 15 minutes of rapid-fire german legalese, some electronic signatures, and then we were waved back out to wait some more. We got some coffee at the bakery next door because like knocking, there is always a bakery! Waiting around us were immigrants from all over the world, many were Flüchtlinge or asylum seekers. Germany is quite aware of its past transgressions against humanity and has in modern times become one of the most welcoming nations to foreign refugees in the EU. After about an hour we were called back in, and after knocking, were presented with our permits.

While we are not citizens and don’t get to vote, we are still granted almost all the benefits of an EU and german citizen. For example, 4–5 weeks of paid vacation per year are required, along with unlimited sick-leave. If you have a new baby, parents are allowed up to 12 months of at least partially paid parental leave. Kindergeld or child money is also paid to parents by the government to help with raising kids. My two kids net us 400 extra euros per month.

My children are eligible to go to free german public school, but this obviously means they would need to crash learn German, which is no easy task. There are also a number of English speaking private schools in Berlin, a British private school, and the John F. Kennedy American school, which is something of a cold war anomaly. It’s basically a traditional American-style elementary, middle, and high school dropped down in the middle of the quaint western suburb of Zehlendorf. Classes are held in English and German. American students have a preference to get into the school, but space is limited and there is a lottery system for getting accepted.

Germany has a mix of public and private health insurance options, which can be costly, but your employer pays half the premiums, and services are rendered on the spot without copays or out-of-pocket expenses. Public insurance is cheaper, but there are some doctors and clinics that don’t accept it. Sometimes there is a wait for specialist services like dermatologists that can be weeks long. However, emergency services are immediate and state-of-the-art, and in general health services are much cheaper than in the US, while being just as high-quality. The idea of getting a huge unexpected medical bill, or selling your house to pay for treatment is simply inconceivable to Germans.

On top of all this, one can get in a car and drive to France or Italy or Amsterdam without once interacting with a border guard, as the so-called Schengen region of Europe, with Germany as a member, serves as an open free-movement zone. Europe is densely packed with so many sights and places to explore it’s hard to imagine that you could ever run out.

In my next posts, I’ll talk about what it’s like to live and work in Berlin. I talk about some of the challenges, and some of the things that are truly great about living here. I’ll also talk a bit about the cost of living, apartments, transportation, doctors, and the joys of making your own spicy salsa!

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