Moving to Hamburg was never in my life plan. It was an unexpected twist that has proved to be one of the biggest challenges of my life. Naturally, like many expats who find themselves relocating to the city, I ended up setting up a whole new life in just a few months. I wanted to put together this guide to moving to Hamburg, because it's complicated, especially if you don't yet speak German. I was lucky to have a partner to translate, but for those who have to go it alone – I hope this guide will help you deal with any struggles and to not be put off. It may be a huge challenge to move to Germany, but it's definitely worth it.
Moving to Hamburg - What do you need to know?
Getting a visa
With Brexit looming over our heads, who knows if this information will change over the coming years. But UK citizens are currently allowed to work and live freely across Germany, and Europe without a visa. This is why it is a fantastic option for those looking to work abroad but not wanting to be too far from home. Other options for working abroad include the Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada which will accept UK citizens with a working holiday visa.
Research your options before making a decision and always look into the visa conditions. For instance, a working holiday visa in Australia requires you to complete 3 months of "farm work" in order to get a second year visa. Also remember that visa conditions and visa allowances will be different depending on what country you are from for any of my non-UK based readers. I know the restrictions on South American visas are much harsher. For those moving to Hamburg, if you are from the UK you are welcome to move over and find work. The main thing to remember is you have to register yourself as living in Germany. This will enable you to sign up for health insurance, get your tax number and any other necessary paperwork.
Germany is all about the bureaucracy so be ready to fill out a LOT of paperwork and for it to be a very slow process. Technically you are supposed to register yourself as living in Germany within two weeks of moving to Hamburg. But it's difficult to get an appointment and even when you do, you may face problems. I didn't register for two months, so don't worry too much if you go over the two week window. Anyone who lives in Germany for more than three months should be registered. It is fine to not register until you have a fixed address. You have to register yourself to a specific address, so until you have a home you will be unable to register.
Once you have a contract with your name on it, your landlord legally has to provide you with a proof of residence form called Wohnungsgeberbestätigung which you pass on during your appointment. Don't be caught out like I was - the agent of our landlord said she would not give it to be and instead she would send it to the office. She sent it to the wrong office which meant I went to my first appointment and was turned away! Legally she was supposed to give it directly to me, so don't be shy in asserting this right to your landlord or agent.
To register, book an appointment online here and make sure you have the following:
- Passport or identity card
- Signed residency statement from the main tenant or house owner
- Completed and signed registration form
- Birth certificates, marriage license or divorce decree (if applicable)
- Administration fee of 12 euros (cash or debit card)
Getting set up with a German bank account is important if you're starting work, but it might not be as easy as it sounds. I looked into bank accounts a lot when I was first planning on moving to Hamburg, but found there are a lot of conditions for setting up an account. For most you have to already be registered and have all the relevant paperwork. Others require you to be earning a certain amount per month. And some charge for the account and for some you even have limitations on withdrawals.
I personally needed an bank account that was easy to use. I'm not going to go through the pros and cons of each bank. But I will say that my research showed me that traditional banks in Germany are far more aimed at Germans. For those of us moving over to Germany with little, or no, German, we need a bank that is flexible, accessible online and deals in English in case any problems crop up.
Sign up with N26
I went with new online German bank, N26, which is based in Berlin but offers a whole new world of banking through the app. You can sign up for an account within 8 minutes using your phone and can have your card within a week. It's easy, simple and quick, plus I've heard the customer support is fantastic. For people from the UK, or English-speaking expats, it is a great option because everything is done in English and you can get a free basic current account and debit Mastercard, with up to 5 free withdrawals a month from any ATMs.
You can also request an overdraft, investment and premium accounts, plus you have access to saving accounts. You can even use Moneybeam to easily transfer money to friends and family by scanning another smartphone contact. I've had the account for a few months now and I honestly cannot recommend it enough. Everyone I work with is also using the app and raves about it.
Leaving the safety net of the NHS behind and entering a whole new system can be daunting. Especially when there are so many options available for health insurance providers in Germany. So let's keep it simple and explain that healthcare in Germany is paid for by your employer. Legally, everyone living in Germany has to have health insurance and your employer should be paying into it. Once you have registered, start looking at healthcare providers to research different plans and what they offer.
TK is a popular one for expats who move over, but I signed up with BIG because everything is done online rather than by post. For me, I just needed general healthcare cover, but if you have specific conditions or requirements, you may need more comprehensive cover. My advice is to do a lot of research and to also ask for advice in the expat Facebook groups which are really helpful. Once you have chosen a provider, go to their website and apply. Then they will send out your card - which you will need to take into work to be photo-copied.
Always such an important part of moving to Hamburg - finding the place that will be your new home. From the location and the building, to the neighbours and the rent, there is so much to take into account when you start searching. First of all, think about whether you are looking for an apartment, or a room in a shared flat/house. We chose to have a bigger apartment to ourselves and to live slightly south of the city. This meant a much cheaper rent (600 euros a month for a whole apartment) and more space because we didn't target the more popular and central areas.
In the city, we could be paying the same amount for a room in a shared apartment. However, if you are looking for a shared apartment, you may prefer to live somewhere more central and close to your work. Best advice, shop around a bit, get to know the different area. Don't just target the most popular, but go for the smaller, lesser-known neighbourhoods. There are lots of great websites you can look for rooms and apartments for short and long-term leases, see the list below:
When you start applying for rooms or apartments, make sure to be prepared. Send a friendly message and request a viewing, but there is a lot of competition and sometimes you may not hear anything back. It's best to apply for everything you see, even the maybes, and then narrow it down once you hear back. We had to put together a folder with a copy of both of our CVs, details of our pay and working background. Doing this really helped to secure us the apartment. It was really helpful because after lots of terrible viewings, the first one where he showed the folder was the apartment we got!
This one will definitely depend on your field, level of German and experience but I know it can be a worry for those moving abroad to not know how quickly they will find work. I had a lot of money saved before moving to Hamburg and this was the best thing I could have done. It gave me peace of mind and assurance that I had a cushion of money and time to find a job I wanted and not the first one that came along.
As someone with a background as a journalist and freelance writer, I was keen to stay in the media and writing field, but perhaps to branch into more of a website and SEO focus. I was lucky enough to get my dream job within a month of looking and despite speaking no German, I also managed to get interviews for the first two jobs I applied for. I won't tell you what to do, because everyone is different and is aiming for different types of work, but I will tell you what worked well for me.
Top tips for job-hunting:
- Make sure your CV is up-to-date and includes your German contact details, and your level of German.
- Start looking at jobs before you move, but start applying once you are in Germany. It gives you an idea of what is available and means you are less likely to panic about not finding work.
- English-speaking? Don't worry if you don't speak German, use it to target companies as an English-speaker. There are a lot of international companies based in Hamburg who are big hirers of native English-speakers such as Statista, Savings United and various others. There are also a lot of German companies who need English-speakers to handle their UK markets.
- Lower your expectations. The cost of living and pay is much lower in Germany than in the UK and some moving over to Hamburg for instance can be quite disappointed by being forced to take a pay cut. When giving your pay expectations, be realistic, convert the amount into euros and then expect the employer to shave off a few thousand per year.
- Use websites such as Indeed, Xpat Jobs, Jobs In Hamburg, Expat Job Seeker, Immigrant Spirit to look for work.
- Struggling to find work? Make contacts through LinkedIn or even Facebook groups for expats which often share job advertisements. I actually found out about another job role I was interviewed for thanks for a Facebook group.
Language & Learning German
One of my biggest worries was whether I needed to be able to speak German to survive in Hamburg. Would it affect how well I settled in, made friends and found a job? Having now been through the process, I can say that you don't NEED to speak German in order to live in Hamburg. However, it will definitely help A LOT with getting to grips with the system, and the people.
It is probably one of the most German-speaking cities I have visited in the country. But there is also a large community of expats from all over the world and it is a very international city. For paperwork, tax, banking and the healthcare system, you will need to learn German or have a translator. There are lots of language schools, tutors and courses available to help you learn German. Why not check out my post on what it's really like to move to a country without speaking the language?
Understanding your pay slip
When it comes to tax in Germany, is that the system is very complicated but it works. Everything is on paper and you must keep all your pay slips/paperwork to claim a pension. German taxes are high and you will see a big dent in your pay. Be sure to ask a company what your gross and net pay will be before you accept a job. You may think a wage is okay ,but later be shocked to see how much you are left with after tax.
For understanding your pay slip, always feel free to check and ask your HR department. Mine have been lifesavers when it comes to translating. You may have certain tax sections on your pay slip called KV tax - this is health insurance. RV tax - this is your pension - and AV tax - which relates to the social security/benefits system. You should also watch out for the church tax. Being a religious country, Germany charges a tax for the church which is not compulsory. If you are non-religious, you may wish to stop paying this and can check on your pay slip.
Self-employment and tax returns
If you run your own side-hustle like a blog or work freelance on the side, you will need to follow the rules for self-employed individuals. You must inform your health insurance and register as self-employed alongside working and complete an income tax return. If you don't speak German, it may be worth getting an accountant to deal with it on your behalf. Germany taxes you for the whole year, so if you start working late, you may be eligible for a tax return. Keep all your paperwork in order and seek advice from the tax office or an accountant if you need help.
Building a support system
One of the most intimidating things about moving abroad is leaving behind the support of family and friends. I don't know what I would do without the friends and family I have found here since moving to Hamburg. Their support, and especially that of the expat community, has been invaluable. I personally have made a lot of friends through social media and thanks to this blog.
I've found amazing support through expat Facebook groups and Hamburg specific ones, those for travelling women, and also from Twitter and Instagram. I will leave links to groups/pages that I have found helpful below. I have also found a great support from the enormous expat team that I work with. Choose your work wisely, working for an international company means meeting new people daily. A lot of colleagues have also found this super helpful for finding accommodation and getting help with moving over here.
- Girl Gone International Hamburg
- Expats in Hamburg
- New In Hamburg
- Hamburg Bloggers Community
- Girls Love Travel
Anything to add to this guide? Leave a comment below with any advice for fellow expats. Have you moved abroad - would you consider it? Are you planning on moving to Germany?