What's it like, living in Germany?

Germany lies at the heart of Europe, both geographically and economically. You can read more here.

The People

German people have a bad reputation for being unfriendly (not liking strangers) and having no sense of humour. Both of these criticisms are a little unfair and certainly not universally true. Like the French, if you speak their language, you will find them much more open and friendly. You will find the people very different in different parts of the country (and with different dialects). As for their sense of humour, some of my German friends have outstanding senses of humour (having said that, I do not find German comedy shows particularly funny, but that is probably because their sense of humour is different - for an explanation of those differences. see here). Often it is simply not possible to translate English jokes to German, nor vice versa: for example you cannot translate the English phrase "Working hard, or hardly working?" to German without losing the humour.

Germans can sometimes be very direct. There is none of the English-style understatement and use of euphemisms in German. In this book (in German) the author writes that "Germans are too honest to be polite and the English are too polite to be honest".

Cost of Living

The cost of living is fairly high, but not outrageously high like in Scandinavia. It depends on where you are comparing it to. You will probably find some things (like clothes and furniture) more expensive, but some things are cheaper (eating out at places like beer halls is cheaper, taxis are cheaper than some places, and you may find cars cheaper than where you come from).


In some parts of Germany, accommodation is in short supply, especially at the low end of the market; it varies hugely depending on where you live. Munich is very expensive, but Berlin is relatively cheap. Quality also varies hugely. Landlords are notorious in Germany for being unresponsive to complaints, and for always finding some excuse for keeping your security deposit, so if you find a good landlord it is worth sticking with them. The law prevents landlords from linking rent rises to the consumer price index, for residential properties, so contracts usually contain fixed rent increases for the first five years, after which they are fixed (unless the landlord renovates, for which he needs the tenant's permission). There are a host of terms and conditions, some of which depend on where you live (for example, in Munich you usually get no kitchen in an unfurnished apartment, and have to remove the one you put in when you move out; in some areas it is illegal to do laundry on a Sunday; pets may or may not be allowed, or permission might be needed; some apartment buildings have quiet times for sleeping and doing homework; my current contract requires me to redecorate every two years, and to treat the wooden floors in a specific way at the same frequency). People in rented accommodation usually move at the end of the month, because the contracts start and end then. For rented accommodation you usually have to pay two or three months rent as a security deposit (Kaution), maybe a commission (Provision) to the agency and a month's rent in advance (all this typically before you get the money back from your previous place, if you get anything back at all), so moving apartment has major cash-flow implications.


Germany has a good range of hotels, from expensive top of the range international brands to quaint family run places in the country. Outside of the cities, including hotels at autobahn service stops, prices can be quite reasonable. In or near certain cities there are times of year when hotel rooms can be very hard to find and extremely expensive. For example, Munich during the Oktoberfest (when a room normally costing €60 might cost €300 or more), Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Köln (Cologne) during their frequent exhibitions and fairs.

Public transport

Public transport is mostly good in Germany, both local and long distance. With local public transport, the trick to paying a good price is being able to work out which ticket will give you the best deal: a partner ticket, a group ticket, an all-day ticket, etc. With long-distance trains, it is always a good idea to reserve a seat. Also, even if only making one long-distance trip, it is probably worth getting a BahnCard (a discount card for the trains).

Germany really doesn't like Schwatzfaher (fare dodgers). There is a standard on-the-spot fine (€40 at the moment). Many types of ticket for local public transport need to be validated (stamped in a machine) before you board (underground train stations have machines before you go down to the platforms). On long-distance trains you can buy a ticket on the train, but you may get a better price buying it beforehand.

Driving and Roads

German roads are famous, and people even come to Germany just to drive on the Autobahns. Just be aware that not all Autobahns have no speed limits. Some have permanent speed limits, some have temporary speed limits (depending on traffic or weather) displayed on overhead gantries, and there are also permanent signs with speed limits (and other driving limitations) depending on road conditions (normally when the roads are wet). For vehicles registered in other countries, there are now fees for driving on Autobahns, which have to be paid in advance by purchasing a Vignette (the same as in Austria).

In order to fine you for speeding or other driving offences, the police need a photo showing your face (unless they catch you in the act). Motorcyclists are therefore normally immune, since their faces are usually covered by their helmets (crash helmets are mandatory in Germany). If your face cannot be identified, you need not pay, since the fine is for the driver, not the owner of the vehicle. If you receive a fine in the post, they should send you the photo; if not, ask for it.

New cars in Germany do not need a road safety test (a TÜV - in Britain an MOT) until they are three years old. After that, the TÜV is every 2 years. You cannot register a car in Germany unless you are registered as resident with the Federal government.

Most areas (in cities and even on country roads) have plenty of cycle paths (not quite as many as the Netherlands, but more than Britain and the USA). The police do sometimes stop cyclists for spot checks and you may be fined for not having lights (usually in day-time it is enough to have a fixture for mounting a light) or other safety violations.

If you are stopped by the police, there may be an on-the-spot fine (for motorists, cyclist and pedestrians). If you can't pay there and then, you can pay later, but it will cost more.

Germany gets some serious winter weather: the kind that would bring England to a complete stop. Germany carries on without major incident: there are trucks spreading salt and grit, and snowploughs clearing the roads. Most cars have winter tyres (but tyres with metal studs are not legal); it is not a legal requirement, but if you have an accident in winter without winter tyres, there will be a €10,000 excess to pay before your insurance will pay. Even pavements are kept clear: it is the legal responsibility of each building owner to clear snow from the pavement in front of their building.


In some parts of Germany, language can be an issue. In large cosmopolitan cities like Munich, Berlin, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, many people speak English, and often also Italian, Spanish or French (which other languages they speak varies in part depending on where in Germany you are). In such places you can get by without difficulty without any German. In the smaller towns, and in the countryside, you may find people who speak only German (or their local flavour of it). In parts of the country where there are (or were) American or British military bases, more people tend to speak English. TV and movies at the cinema are usually dubbed into German (which really ruins some comedy); there are very few TV shows in original language, but cinemas often show movies in the original language at certain times (check the listings).

There are significant differences in the German that people speak and write, from one part of Germany to another, to the extent that people from one region can have trouble understanding folk from another. In Bavaria there is Bayrisch (Bavarian), in the area around Stuttgart they speak Schwäbisch, in Saxony Sächsisch in the north various varieties of Plattdeutsch, and so on. Don't think that you will avoid this problem if you live in a big and cosmopolitan city: the people who come to your home to install or repair stuff may well not be able to speak Hochdeutsch (high-German). Beyond the borders of Germany it is even worse: on German TV, an interview with a "German speaker" from Switzerland will normally be subtitled.

Medical Services

Germany has a very good medical infrastructure, but not all doctors are good (true around the world). Many doctors have old-fashioned ideas about who is in charge of a patient's health, and tend to give orders rather than advice or recommendations. I was told by doctors that I needed to have two different procedures (operations) performed: one turned out to be unnecessary (made redundant by natural healing processes - not that they were planning to check before operating); the other was of questionable benefit, and was withdrawn from recommended practice a few months later. So, if you find a good doctor who treats you as a customer, and knows their medicine, stick with them; until then, shop around, and get second opinions. If you have medical insurance when you come to Germany, it will normally cover you for treatment costs in Germany. If you settle in Germany long-term, you will probably need to get a local medical insurance (a legal requirement coupled with paying German income tax - the same goes for pension schemes).

One thing to note is that if you are sick, and the doctor signs you off (gives you a sick note), then you are not allowed to go back to work until the sick note expires. If you do, you are not insured (for injury and liability). Doctors typically sign you off for a week, just for a cold; very different from the USA.

Dining Out

Dining out is, in most ways, excellent in Germany. There are some excellent up-market restaurants, and you are much less likely to need to reserve a table than in Britain. There are also the usual range of fast food places, including lots of kebab places. In addition there are a vast array of middle-priced eateries (including, but not limited to, beer halls). What is hard (impossible?) to find is good spicy food: Indian, Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese, etc. The problem is that Germans don't like (are not used to) spicy food, so restaurants adjust the spiciness to suit the market. Some places will ask you how spicy you want your food, but not all places do this. The only way we have managed to get good Mexican food in Germany is to cook it ourselves.

Virtually everywhere (except McDonald's, and beer gardens) has table service; even bars. It is normal to pay a tip when paying the bill (10%), and the waiter may get a bit huffy if you don't give one. A question that waiters ask when asked for the bill, and that often surprised newly arrived foreigners, is Zusammen oder Getrennt (together or apart): if you are with other people, the waiter can do separate bills for each person.

Beer is a big thing in Germany, and even McDonald's has beer, as do many kebab shops (even though they are typically run by Moslems).

If you are vegetarian, or even vegan, there are options when eating out in a big city. There are some purely vegetarian restaurants (maybe not as many as you might be used to back home), and many normal restaurants will have vegetarian options (often only one option). Vegan is more difficult to find.

One very civilised aspect of Germany is that you can take your own food to a beer garden; they are happy as long as you buy drinks from them. This does not go for tables with table service (usually distinguished by having a tablecloth).

There is something that annoys me greatly, which is normal in Germany. Salads are typically not cut well, or even at all. When I make a salad, it is all cut into bite-sized pieces so that it is easy to eat using just a fork. In Germany, you will typically find large lettuce leaves and whole tomatoes and radishes that need to be cut before you can get them into your mouth, but even so, the locals will eat them with just a fork; this requires a lot of skill and patience, twisting the fork so that you can persuade the salad into your mouth - this can be entertaining to watch, but is not so funny if you have to eat one yourself (e.g. if invited for dinner, and not given a knife). Even at the kindergarten where my girlfriend works, they serve the children salad for lunch that is not sliced, and give them just a fork (or sometimes a spoon instead!); kids (from 3 to 6 years old) do not usually have the manual dexterity for eating such a salad with only one piece of cutlery.

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping has become better in my time in Germany. Shops are open later than before (usually until 8pm). International food items are more widely available, and for the harder to find things there are often speciality shops (British and Asian stores, for example), and online shopping options. One thing to watch out for is the content of meat products: many things have pork in them (turkey paté where the second ingredient is pork), so if you have allergies or religious constraints on your diet, read the labels carefully. Bakeries can usually tell you what possible allergens (gluten, rye, etc.) their products contain, if you ask. There are also quite a few Bio (organic) shops, and big stores usually have a Bio section.


If you spend more than a couple of months in Germany, you are expected to register: There are two kinds of registration: with the Gemeinde (local council) and with the Federal government. You can register with the Gemeinde by post; you have to register each change of address as well. For Federal registration you need to go to the KVR (Kreisverwaltungsreferat - a very dehumanising experience): once there, you need to work out which department you need, get a numbered ticket, and wait until your number is displayed on a display panel. At the KVR you can usually do the Federal and Gemeinde registration together. On the Federal registration form (examples are available in multiple languages, but you must complete a German form) is a question about your religion. Be aware that if you enter a religion on the form, you will be charged church tax (8% or 9% depending on where in Germany) and it is very difficult to de-register for church tax later. The person who processes your form may tell you that you must enter a religion: this is not true - you need to insist.

Federal registration implies a number of things: an application for residence, a work permit (unless you are not working, and do not plan to work, in which case they will want evidence of financial means), and registration for German income tax (which is high). If you have another home outside of Germany, or travel a lot, so that you will not be resident for tax purposes in Germany, it is possible to register only with the Gemeinde (registration of your address) and not with the Federal government (but I recommend that you take legal advice before trying this): this has the benefit of avoiding double taxation issues (no-double-taxation agreements in effect mean that you pay tax in two or more tax jurisdictions, and claim one or more tax bills as a deduction against your primary tax bill - and eventually, when they get around to it and if they agree about where you spent most time, you will be refunded the tax you paid in the other tax jurisdictions - see here for more on this topic). The KVR will expect reams of paperwork when you register: a contract of employment is a minimum, proof of nationality is also a must; the rental contract for your apartment is a good idea; whatever else you take with you, they will almost certainly ask for something that you didn't take, including things they don't need and they have no legal right to. In recent years residence requirements have become tougher (except for EU citizens), and you may be required to pass an basic test of German language skills (don't worry, they give you time to learn German before you sit the test). For EU citizens (except if your country of citizenship has recently joined the EU, and is not yet qualified for the free-movement-of-labour provisions) they cannot refuse your application (although with bureaucrats, insisting on your rights is not always a good opening gambit). The other useful thing to know is, wherever you are a citizen, if you have been granted residence and a work permit in one EU country, you have a legal right (established by legal precedent) to get the same in any other EU country.

The Police

Germany has more police per head of population than any country except the Netherlands (one policeman for every 300 people - one of the reasons that German income tax is so high). You will see the police everywhere, and they are involved in a much wider range of enforcement of laws than you may be used to (unpaid tax, noise complaints, unapproved tree surgery, washing your car on the street, to name but a few). I often joke, and I am not the only one who says this, that in Germany everything is illegal unless there is a law explicitly making it legal.

It is illegal to cross a street when the pedestrian light is red (I have been chased down the street by the police for this), even at 4am on a quiet side-street. It is illegal to put bottles into the recycling bins on the street on Sundays or between 7pm and 7am; apparently it is also illegal to use recycling bins other than those in your area.

The Legal System

The whole legal system in Germany is rather bizarre. Many courts have no juries; just a panel of judges (a bit like a magistrates' court in England, but used for much more serious crimes). You should also be aware that proof of posting is considered proof of delivery, so it is no use claiming that you didn't receive a bill or fine. Germany has a system whereby you can be sent to prison for unpaid debts, whether unpaid tax, parking fines, or civil debt. There is a standard formula for how many days in prison for how much debt, after which the debt is considered closed. Of course, people prefer to get paid rather than put you in prison, and so will try quite hard to get any money owed before taking this option.

Income Tax

Income tax, and corporate tax, is generally high, and complex, in Germany. How it is administered varies from one region to another. Most people pay income tax on a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) basis, but if you are a freelancer you will be sent bills by post; in some regions you will be billed in arrears, but in others (like Munich) you may be asked to pay in advance based on an assessment of previous years' income (if your circumstances change, the bills will keep coming, and you will have to fight to get reassessed). When it comes to corporate tax, things are even more exciting: retrospective changes in tax rates and rules are possible (this doesn't happen too often).


TV licensing is administered by an organisation called the Beitragsservice von ARD, ZDF und Deutschlandradio (formerly the GEZ or Gebühreneinzugszentrale), and they will send you monthly bills. If you have a TV, you will have to pay; claiming that you only watch DVDs or other recorded material is no excuse. If you change address, they will find out your new address from the Gemeinde (there is no escape!).

TV programmes are in German: foreign programmes are dubbed into German (even though the TV signal standard supports multiple languages, you will generally not be able to watch your favourite American or British shows in original language, if they are shown at all). There are news channels available in English and other languages, but no movies or shows. Germany went completely digital few years ago (DVB-T).


Germany has good telecoms infrastructure. There is a good choice of mobile operators, including MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators, who do not have their own network, but instead overlay their service onto other operators' networks), Some specialise in flat-rate services. For Internet, there is DSL, fibre-optic to the home or office, and Internet over the TV cable; bandwidths are high; prices are OK (the cheapest option is Internet over the TV cable). VOIP (Voice Over IP) is widespread, with many companies offering packages with Internet and VOIP telephony together.


Dogs have to be registered in Germany (with the Gemeinde) and there is a tax (which varies from town to town). Fighting breeds pay higher taxes. You can also get your dog micro-chipped, which you will need to do to take it to other countries (and costs money). Many towns have local laws requiring you to keep your dog on a lead (leash) when in public; many people ignore this.

Public Nakedness

One thing that many foreigners find strange in Germany is the FKK (Freikörperkultur - Naturists). Some public swimming pools have separate areas for naked sunbathing. Some parks and natural swimming areas (lakes and rivers) have zones reserved for naked swimming and sunbathing; you don't need to be a member of any organisation or club to use these areas. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with this, and use these facilities myself (although I wouldn't go as far as the naked man of Frankfurt).


Officially, recycling is big in Germany. Systems vary depending on where you live, but most houses and apartment blocks have separate bins for some kinds of garbage (e.g. general refuse, paper, and compost). On the streets there are recycling bins for other recyclables (e.g. old clothes, glass, metal and plastic). There are many Wertstoffhöfe (literally, valuable material yards) where you can take other items, or things too big for the recycling bins on the street. Shops charge you a Pfand (deposit) when you buy drinks in cans or most types of plastic bottles, or beer in bottles, for which you can get a refund when you return the empties. In fact, however, most people in Germany are not very good at recycling: they have difficulty identifying what kind of material the garbage is, and thus don't know which bin to put it in; often they are just too lazy; and sometimes they simply misunderstand the labels and instructions. So far there are no fines for failing to recycle properly (no-one inspecting your garbage to make sure that you followed the rules); for a country with so many laws, with the police involved in everything, this is surprising, and may change soon.