Germany, you‘ll soon discover, is a very well-run country. But bureaucracy is a price for keeping a well-run operation. Your very first duty is to let the local authorities know where you live. This registration involves going to your local registry office (Meldestelle, Bürgerbüro or Einwohnermelderamt) or the local town hall (Rathaus) and filling out a form in which you provide your new address. It is a painless process that usually goes very quickly. Registration is required of all residents in a community. Failure to register within three months of moving will earn you a fine, the amount depending on how long you’ve been residing at the unregistered address. Moreover, everyone is required to register anew whenever they change address, unless that change only entails moving from one flat in a property to another.
Residency and Work Permits
Citizens of the EU, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, are permitted to work and live in Germany without a work or residence permit. Non-EU citizens normally need to first get a visa before travelling to Germany, and then must apply for a residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) at the local Aliens Office (Ausländerbehörde) in order to stay and work. As of 2011, the residence permit is a wallet-sized plastic card with a biometric photo. There are different types of residence permits: limited (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) or unlimited (Niederlassungserlaubnis). The local Aliens Office is the point of contact for matters related to residence permits.
In recent years, Germany has increased efforts to attract more international workers. There are simply not enough young Germans entering the workforce, and in some sectors, such as health care or engineering, there is an acute shortage of qualified staff. Recently, the German Federal government enacted a series of immigration laws designed to make it easier for highly-skilled workers to come to Germany. Thanks in part to these changes, the OECD recently praised Germany for having one of the lowest barriers to immigration for highly-skilled Labor. Here is an overview of the major changes:
All non-EU residents in Germany (including children and infants) must appear in person at the local Aliens Office to be issued their own residence permits. When you file your application, make sure you take all the required documents with you:
- Employment contract and a statement from your prospective employer saying the position could not be filled by a German or EU citizen.
- Photocopies of your qualifications/academic certificates
- At least one biometric color passport photograph
- Proof of health insurance
- Proof that you have the financial means to support yourself (usually the employment contract will suffice)
- Proof of housing (i.e., the rental contract).
Fees for registration range from € 60-250, and credit cards tend not to be accepted.
The entire process will likely take three to four months, and there will be long gaps during which you will not hear from your case worker. Your chances of obtaining work and residence permits are good if you are from Andorra, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Japan, Canada, Monaco, San Marino or the USA, because Germany has special bilateral agreements with these countries.
Recognition of qualifications
Certain professions in Germany are regulated, meaning that only those who hold a particular qualification are entitled to work in that occupation. This includes doctors and attorneys, as well as various trades and over 350 occupations. The Federal government has now funded several programs to make it easier for foreigners to have their qualifications recognized, allowing them to work in these regulated professions. Visit the website www.recognition-in-germany.de for more details. Another resource is the IHK Foreign Skills Approval (www.ihk-fosa.de) which is administered by the local chambers of commerce.
Germany does not require its foreign residents to register with their own national consulates, nor do most of the consulates. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea as there are advantages to being registered. Aside from helping out with any emergencies that might come up, the local consulates can serve as valuable resources for their citizens: for instance, they often maintain lists of lawyers and health-care providers.
When you sign up as a German taxpayer, you’ll see a line on the form asking for your religious affiliation. This is not a totally innocuous question. Germany, like many other European countries, does not have separation of church and state. In fact, the large established churches here receive support from the government, which in turn comes from taxes collected from all registered church members.
And the German clergy officially have the status of civil servant. So when you fill in a religion on this tax form, you’re granting the state permission to register you as a church member and subsequently impose a church tax (Kirchensteuer). This tax is currently levied as a 9% surcharge on your tax bill, meaning that you pay 9% of your income tax, not your income. The tax is automatically deducted from your salary and then given to the church of your choice. If you don’t want to participate in this church-funding scheme, simply check off “none” (keine) when you register with the Tax Office.
However, you should be aware that not being an official, tax-paying church member has its consequences. While no one is going to check to see if you pay the tax before letting you enter a religious service, not being a tax-paying church member will deny you certain privileges. Most churches will deny you baptisms, church weddings or funerals if you’re not a tax-paying member of that religion. This rule usually doesn’t apply to weddings if one of the future spouses is a tax-paying church member. If you are involved in one of the many international churches located in Germany, it would be best to check with the clergy to see whether they benefit from the church tax.