Expat Life: Moving my Life and Jewelry Business to Germany

Life + Work in Progress

I’ve been in Germany since the middle of the summer, and have been slowly but surely familiarizing myself with the procedures for transferring my life and jewelry business. I’ll be honest, it’s pretty overwhelming!

Germany is well known for it’s thorough bureaucracy, but it was hard to put into perspective until we arrived. The business side of things felt quite a bit more daunting that it ever has in the United States, largely due to the language barrier. Even though I’ve moved my business within the States multiple times and even made the move towards incorporation in the last few years, nothing quite prepared me fully for the challenges of moving to a new country.

Getting Everything in Order

Due to all the travel over the summer, I knew that I wouldn’t really be able to conduct business as usual. We were living out of suitcases, and still are to some extent. We’re in a temporary apartment for at least eight months, potentially just over a year. I’ve been working with some clients in the US with existing inventory, but I don’t have my tools, materials, or a even studio to work in. Ordering on the online shop has been disabled, and has been replaced with the blog for the time being. I wanted to be cautious and take care of things behind the scenes before I even take my first euro here. For the record, I’m really glad I made that call! Not only did it give me a little time to take a much needed break after the craziness of the last six months, but it gave me a little time to familiarize myself with what we needed to do to move our lives, and eventually my business over here.

The General Guidelines: Moving My Life and Business to Germany

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than this, and each step could make its own separate (and lengthy) blog post. But for now, I’m going to try and keep it simple. Below is a little rundown of what steps I’ve taken and a little info about how it all went.

  • Get a bank account  – Cash is king here in Germany for daily life, but you really need a German bank account to take care of certain things like rent. You can’t pay rent with a debit card and they don’t accept or even use paper checks here. A German check is actually a transfer of funds drafted by a bank from one account to another. The deposit for an apartment, and subsequent rent payments are all done using this method. What makes getting a German bank account a little tricky? Many banks require a registered address prior to opening an account, and you can’t really do that until you have a place. Lots of expats get a little stuck in this holding pattern, but luckily we had some family connections that helped us navigate the process, so we were good to go on the next step.

    Cash is king, but you still need that bank account!
    Cash is king here in Germany, but you still need that bank account!
  • Find an apartment – We did a lot of research before we arrived, and noticed that things are set up a little differently here in Germany. First of all, home ownership doesn’t seem to be the same kind of “life goal” as it is in the US. We considered buying because Berlin is still fairly affordable (even though prices are rising quickly) as far as Germany goes, but we realized that we wanted to maintain our mobility and weren’t crazy about the prospect of property management. Aside from that, renting long-term can be insanely affordable compared to the US – and even other parts of Germany. There’s just not as much incentive to buy. Another plus for renting? Tenants rights are very strong, and once you secure an apartment, its yours as long as you pay your rent. It’s not uncommon to to find people that have been renting the same place for 20+ years. With that in mind, not only can you rent a permanent apartment, but because Berlin has such a large influx of newcomers, there are temporary furnished options available with shorter lease terms. This gives apartment hunters like us the flexibility to look for permanent places without needing our stuff right away. Since all of our worldly possessions are in storage, this was the best option for us. We managed to snap up a perfect spot in a neighborhood called Neukölln, which is home to basically every drool-worthy bar, restaurant and cafe I scouted on Instagram before we moved. Score! Meanwhile, the search is continuing for our permanent place.

    Rich architectural details of apartment exteriors in Kreutzberg.
  • Get Insured – I’m going to go out on a limb and just say that the surest sign of getting older is getting excited about affordable health care. Not gonna lie, this was a big one for us. We’re both young and healthy, but healthcare costs in the States are hard to ignore when it comes to quality of life. A week before leaving the states, I found out that using my insurance to cover a particular type of medicine actually cost me more than buying it without insurance. I thought the whole point was for it to save money? I was floored. After that whole debacle, we were hoping to finding something different here. They have public and private insurance, all with varying coverage and costs. They even have low cost options specifically for artists. Luckily we had some help when looking at the possible options, and choose a plan that fit our needs. In order to get coverage, we had to get checked out by a doctor and essentially be declared, “in good health.” With no appointment (a miracle in and of itself, coming from the US), we visited an English speaking doctor, went through a simple exam, and answered a few questions regarding our health. Since we’re both in good shape and health, it went pretty quickly.  Honestly, I’m still surprised you can just waltz into a doctors office anywhere and be done in under an hour.
  • Register our address  – This appointment had to be done in person, and made our residency in Berlin official. We made an appointment online, and made sure to arrive early (late arrivals are never seen), and with all the necessary paperwork. It was relatively quick and painless. We had a copy of our lease, and some paperwork signed by our landlord to indicate that we were indeed living at the noted address. If I remember correctly, we showed our passports, and marriage certificate. After this appointment, we were officially residents of Berlin, and eventually received a tax identification number for future use. I came to find out that the address registration is important if you want to sign up for any local services in the area. When I went to the library to check out some German books a couple weeks back, this was the first thing they asked for.
  • The Visa –  At this point we were able to get my visa. There was a lot of paperwork involved, but all in all my it wasn’t hard for me. As the spouse of an EU citizen, we figured things wouldn’t be that bad. But just to be thorough, my husband went and spoke with the German consulate before we came to ask what, if anything, we would need. To his surprise, he was told that they couldn’t help and that we’d “figure it out when we got there.” They wouldn’t clarify, but we found out after arriving that the US is a bit of a special case (at least for now) and I didn’t need any additional paperwork before arriving. Everything could be done during my 90-day tourist visa, which seemed to come as a surprise to everyone we encountered. Immigration definitely raised an eyebrow but eventually let us through, and the insurance company wanted copies of my visa paperwork. There was a lot of back and forth. It was definitely a relief to eventually realize we were okay, it would have been nice to have more specific information beforehand. In the end, I can’t complain too much and I’m glad it all got figured out. By the time we had my appointment I was ready! There was a short list of items needed for this step: prove we were married, had a current residence in Berlin, had insurance, and prove that my husband had a job and could earn a living. Check, check, check, check and check. Important note, my visa has no restrictions, which means I am now allowed to work and can proceed to the next step!

    Known as “Pass” here in Germany.
  • Register with the Finanzamt – I’m currently still waiting for something in the post to complete this step, but it’s essentially the first official step for me to relaunch my independent jewelry business in Germany. This step registers a business and provides tax info, and once it’s approved I’m ready to go! What makes this part tricky is that the form is in legal-ease German with no official translations available. In some places, you need to go down and apply in person, but at least it can be done online in Berlin. Lucky for me, I have my husband/translator by my side, and also a few other options to help. It’s quite thorough, and there is a lot of information that I don’t want to get wrong. Once this is taken care of, not only will my online shop be back up and running, but I can participate in local markets, and work with local shops. Another exciting prospect? Retail space is so much more affordable here than it is in the States. I really miss having a brick and mortar shop, and I’m looking into a space that can be made into a mixed use studio/retail shop instead of a home studio. I’ll keep you posted on this in the future!
  • Update my site – This step has been going on since before I got here, and includes some complicated official business regarding compliance with EU and German regulations along with more mundane updates like choosing new shipping partners. Turns out GDPR is an entirely separate set of regulations than what is needed to run a site in Germany. Similar to registering the business, I’ve found that finding information about this is also a challenge because there are no official English translations to refer to. It’s taken a while to find reputable sources, but once I did I began to and implement the additional changes required to have a site here. I’ll be frank – aside from a few things like friends and family  I haven’t missed the US a lot since I’ve been here (ok, maybe ice water and air conditioning). There was no way to know before we came, but the ease of running a business and website in the US is something I took for granted. Here, regulations apply to anyone with a site and e-commerce appears to have its own special set of rules. The excuse of, “Oh, I didn’t know,” isn’t acceptable here. Hefty fines can be accrued, and apparently there are lawyers here that exist solely to crawl the net to scout for infringements on the basis of unfair competition. This is not something to be taken lightly, and I’m doing my best to make sure I’m in compliance.
  • Find ways to practice German – This may be a little less “official” sounding than some of the previous items on my list, but I feel like it definitely belongs here. There’s no getting around it – it’s helpful to at least know. Even a little. Especially when it comes to meeting with immigration officials and other people of import who handle the bureaucratic side of things here in Germany. Nothing too complicated has come up, but I am able to generally converse and understand what’s going on. So far people seem to appreciate the effort. Otherwise, I’ve gotten the impression that one doesn’t really need to learn German in Berlin. In fact, I’ve met many that haven’t! Due to the international flair, English seems to be the language spoken for many businesses. It’s nice if you don’t intend to learn German, after all it’s a difficult language. Berlin seems to have a fairly transitory international crowd, and we’ve met a lot of English-speaking expats. It’s been great on one hand, but the downside for me? I don’t get to practice my German! I have a good basic understanding of grammar from university and can read and pronounce words well, but I was hoping for a bit more of an immersive experience after we got here.  Not the mention the fact that I was in desperate need of some regular practice and review to improve. I found that my comprehension was painfully limited until I went and got some books at the library. Now I try and practice a little every day, which has been a major help.

    A peek at my morning routine – studying + coffee.

Going through all the steps felt a little dizzying at times, but there’s ways to make the whole process a little easier for yourself. I’ve come to learn that everyone has a folder specifically for important paperwork needed when dealing with the bureaucracy, which makes a lot of sense. If you’re missing any paperwork at your appointment, you’ll have to set up a new appointment and do the whole thing over. Sometimes it can take weeks, even months! My saving grace? I’m pretty organized, and so far it’s gone over well here.

Hopefully I’ll be back to official work soon, and can get things moving before the holidays. I’ll be keeping you posted on progress as it moves forward.

Questions or Comments about Living in Berlin? Let me know!

If you’re curious about other specific topics, let me know in the comments below or contact me! I’m keeping a list and am hoping to touch on what people are most interested in for future blog posts.

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