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—> Guide for Moving to Berlin 2014

by Joseph PEARSON

(the author asserts his right to copyright, partly revised 12/2013)

This guide has proved immensely popular, much more than I ever expected. I have revised now the most important sections: esp. how neighbourhoods have changed, how much your monthly costs might be, and what property prices now stand at.  Some material (costs of mobile phones, etc.) have not changed significantly and have not been thoroughly revised. Please check on what might have changed in the red tape section: to my knowledge most of what is written remains the same (although you may wish to read the comments which nuance what I say below). If you are curious about the original 2009 guide and how thing have changed follow this internal link. 

photos below: a visit to see a Berlin apartment, with the competition! videos: because there’s a lot of information, and you might needs breaks along the way.

***This information is intended as a guide only, and not professional advice. Any information presented here must be checked. Although the author has done his best to make sure this material is accurate, he takes no responsibility for inaccuracies or errors.***


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Why Berlin?

By now it is a cliché to quote the Berlin mayor who famously said Berlin might be poor, but it is sexy. Things have also changed somewhat: Berlin is not quite as poor, it’s more expensive. But to my mind, it is still a wonderful place to live, that continues to have a non-conformist, open-minded attitude quite different from most European ‘museum’ cities. Berlin is still sexy, it’s just a lot of other people think so too.

Artists were originally lured to Berlin because, with a mountain of debt and a dismal housing market, it created conditions of economic failure necessary for artists to live cheaply and pursue their work. As cities like New York or Paris became unaffordable, writers, visual artists and musicians moved en masse to the old worker neighbourhoods of the East –filling these old Soviet-era blocks with studios, happenings and self-destructive hedonism. A friend who has taught visual art in New York for three decades watched the geography of the art scene move through her graduating seniors. In the eighties they moved to SoHo, in 1990 they were in the East Village, later they were living in Brooklyn. In the last years, every single student dedicated to pursuing a career in visual art moved to Berlin. They joined artists from all over the world and Germany’s own arts community.

Today, Berlin is full of artists, would-be artists, and those wishing to capitalise off Berlin’s image of cool: hoteliers, hostel owners, restauranteurs, tour guide companies, bike companies, the lot. Berlin is not undiscovered, and many come here pursuing an image of the city that touristic entrepreneurs are more than happy to market. Many criticise and influx of artists who enjoy a city which allows them to be conspicuously artistic rather than actually creating art. (Many argue that it’s precisely the plethora of entertainment here that makes it so difficult to stay productive: be warned!).  This is not entirely unpleasant, and the night life has certainly profited, but prices have also shot up.

While Berlin might now be more expensive than, say, Warsaw or Lisbon or Lvov, it still provides a much cheaper cost of living than, say, London, Paris, Rome and New York, and with world-class cultural offerings in a European country that is weathering the crisis much better than most.

The challenge that ex-patriot writers, artists, academics and others wishing to set up in this city is the nitty-gritty. What red tape is generally involved? Where should I live? How do I get established?

I have written countless emails to friends and acquaintances who are new to the city needing advice. I have brought together that advice in one place to simplify helping others as they set up in the heart of contemporary Europe’s creative scene.

I should warn you that I am very opinionated and that these judgments are rather influenced by my prejudices. Any details (esp. in the red-tape section) should be checked. I do my best to be correct, but take no responsibility for inaccuracies.

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Neighbourhoods

There was a time when, if you looked for the centre of Berlin, you would not find it. In fact, Berlin had two centres: the area around Zoo station in the West and the area around Stadtmitte in the East. The latter eventually exerted more influence, and pulled some former-Western neighbourhoods (such as Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Schöneberg) into its orbit. The Berlin most young people wish to experience is this new center and its closest surrounding hoods.

You may be perplexed by the number of desolately empty parts of town. You will turn a corner and the busy city you know disappears and you are in a broken-down lot, or tree-lined street that seems more like a provincial town than a capital. Berlin has a surface area ten times larger than Paris entre les murs, but its population is only a third larger. If silence and depopulation frighten you, then you must live in a Kiez.

A Kiez is an island of life in a sea of vacant post-Soviet blocks and industrial sites. These neighbourhoods are named usually for the principle street from which streets of restaurants, bars, supermarkets, everything you need… radiate. Hence: Graefekiez, Kollwitzkiez, Bergmannkiez… etc. Some Kieze are located quite close to one another, but between them one usually finds a real absence of city life. The character of the Kiez are radically individual, making Berlin a constellation of small villages.

A Kiez should not be confused with a Bezirk, or Borough. Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, etc., are all large administrative divisions which contain within them often extremely different Kiez. The Kiez in Kreuzberg for example have less in common with one another than parts of Kreuzberg do with parts of Mitte. It’s worth keeping this in mind when reading the following (opinionated) description of Berlin neighbourhoods.

EAST BERLIN:

Prenzlauer Berg  is the gentrified arty neighbourhood that everyone loves to hate because it is so damn nice. It is wealthy, it has old buildings that look like ‘old’ Europe. Yes, it is full of strollers (so many kids!), of yuppy bohemian couples, of swish cafés, organic food stores, yoga studios and white people whose parents have money but good political values. A lot of people moved here from Southern Germany in the last ten to fifteen years and the original residents are gone. But, as I said, it also has a gorgeous housing stock and it is well served by U.Bahn. Many complain however that prices have shot up and many cafés and restaurants now have prices on par with places like Paris or Rome, and the neighbourhood more or less dies in the evening. All this is true.  Apartments are also very expensive. My friends in Prenzlauer Berg spend a lot more per month than those in Neukölln, and this goes even for groceries. In recent times, the influx of tourism has had an influx on the real neighbourhood feel. The area around Kollwitz Platz and up and down Kastanienallee have been the greatest victims. Even formerly affordable and untouristy areas near Volkspark Friedrichshain in the East, and around the S-Bahn line in the North, have become expensive.

Mitte is by now not only completely gentrified, but also full of tourists. It was once known as the ‘first stop’ of internationals, drawn to the cool cafés and art galleries before they moved on to less expensive and more neighbourhoody digs elsewhere in the city––but increasingly, it’s too expensive and you’re more likely to start out your Berlin adventure in Friedrichshain. That said, Mitte continues to be one of the most urban and cosmopolitan parts of the city. The northern half of this neighbourhood, around Zionskirchplatz, was the best place in the city in which to live, until it was invaded by tourists. The area around Rosenthaler Platz is all new hotel building and currywurst fast food, and an object lesson in how tourism can take over a neighbourhood. There were once great restos, bars, performance spaces and food shops everywhere in Mitte, but these have been increasingly pushed out by establishments which thrive on the come and go of the tourist trade with resulting falling standards and expense, unless you try one of the many excellent new luxury restaurants (with Michelin stars) that have arrived or are in the know. This rise in tourism is especially the case the farther South you go (south of Torstraße), where it gets more touristy, and historic, and the grocery stores are very thin on the ground. The area around Hackesche Markt has many high-street brand stores mixed with funky shops selling upmarket souvenirs and boutique eyewear, with a few delis selling 7.50 EUR sandwiches thrown in. Once you get into the old monumental city, around Unter den Linden, and south of Friedrichstr., residential life totally disappears. Only the truly unlucky end up living in this neighbourhood that becomes completely dead at night. If one is decided on Mitte, which feels increasingly big city, and most familiar to a newcomer from New York, one should live north of the river, and preferably north of Torstraße. Esp. U and S Bahn stations: Bernauer Str., Naturkundemuseum., Nordbahnhof, Schwarzkopfstr. These are the areas in Mitte which are the least touristy but they have in the last couple years become very expensive as well.

Friedrichshain is rather industrial and hard on the eyes. A plan to ‘green’ the rather un-vegetated streets surrounding Simon Dach Straße will be welcome. But it’s full of young people, and the neighbourhood around Boxhagenerplatz is really a very funky place indeed, and connected by the U5, or by S-Bahn if you are prepared for a walk. That said, the square and Simon Dach Straße itself and Revaler Straße can be very loud and busy at night with a massive bar scene. You might love being able to slip into bed by just going upstairs, but you might not like still hearing the party in your bedroom. The answer is to look for an apartment farther East, towards Ostkreuz, where a new kiez has developed. Friedrichshain is slightly fashion conscious in its alternativeness… It’s is often the first choice of 20-somethings. There are also complaints about restaurant quality here, as if Berliners feel students don’t care how good their cuisine is. Many said ‘Friedrichshain is the neighbourhood that didn’t deliver’ because great hopes were pinned on it that it would become like Mitte. I appreciate that it didn’t. It’s still very much Berlin, it’s very young, yes, but it is increasingly attracting older people who can’t find an apartment in Kreuzberg.

WEST BERLIN:

Kreuzberg was originally a mix of family, eco-, arty, low-key, radical, bourgeois, gritty, international, Turkish, Punk… It has since been discovered and by now thoroughly gentrified. Apartments which, on the whole, used to cost approximately 1500 EUR per m2 now go for 4000 EUR, all in the matter of five years. It’s as expensive, or more expensive, to rent here as in Prenzlauer Berg. That said, Kreuzberg continues to exude a bourgeois bohemian air that many find both comfortable and not entirely conformist. And while tourists have discovered areas like the Wranglerkiez near Schlesisches Tor for its nightlife (en masse, to the ire of residents who have organised anti-tourist meetings), the areas around Schönleinstraße continue to be very neighbourhoody.

Although entirely in the West, it is divided into East and West sections. The Western side (Bergmannkiez) is beautiful, with many trees and Altbau (old buildings). It is expensive and has a slightly provincial, bourgeois feel to it, but with excellent restaurants and food shopping possibilities. Many Berliners feel, with some justification, that it’s altogether too pretty and calm, and why didn’t you just move to the ‘alternative’ neighbourhood of some West German city? U-Bahn connections are a little lousy along Bergmannstr. itself. The Graefekiez, which is a gentrified neighbourhood of gorgeous buildings south of the canal and north of Sudstern U-Bahn, and West of Schoenleinstr. U-Bahn is now more expensive than the Bergmannkiez. It’s close to an excellent Turkish market along the canal twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). The area around Oranienstraße is still the beating heart of Kreuzberg, and its mix of anti-establishment folk, great bars, and a large immigrant Turkish presence—although the developers are coming now in force in the areas north towards Mitte. Towards Görlitzer Park, and the Spree.,  there’s an increased tourist presence and budgeoning hostel and bar scene, where it melts with Friedrichshain across the river. For West Kreuzberg (the Bergmannkiez): U and S Bahn stations: East of Mehringdamm, between Platz der Luftbrücke and Gneisenaustr., Südstern, West of Schönleinstr. (the Graefekiez) below the canal but north of Urbanstr. For East Kreuzberg: U and S Bahn: Köttbusser Tor, Görlitzer Bahnhof (both quite punk and alternative), Schlesisches Tor (less so and more touristy). Finding an apartment to rent in Kreuzberg is by now very difficult and expensive.

Schoeneberg:  It is a leafy, very pleasant neighbourhood, although even here you’ll find it difficult to find an affordable Altbau or old building. Although, as one friend told me, it’s a neighbourhood with every kind of person: petit bourgeois, immigrant, young professionals, artists and senior citizens and alkies. What they share is they are generally older than in Kreuzberg or, certainly, Neukölln, but this is changing. And I’ve met many people from Schöneberg who often still rely on the subway to get to Kreuzberg to go out or talk about how living in Schöneberg is ‘just fine’ and what’s all the fuss about Kreuzberg? There are good subway connections (U7 and U2 lines). Around Nollendorfplatz is the traditionally gay neighbourhood of West Berlin, but most of the gay men here are slightly older (and many of the younger ones are in the East now). The southern part, near Akazienstraße, itself a lovely kiez, is very gentrified. There are nice places to live around U-Bahns Eisenacher Str., Kleistpark, and in the area south of Yorkstraße known as the ‘red island’. A very pretty, but very quiet, neighbourhood is located near S-Bahn Friedenau.

Charlottenburg / Zehlendorf / Grunewald: These are residential neighbourhoods that can be boring but with the pressure on housing farther East are becoming increasingly more populated with new Berliners. I used to think of them as expensive, Bourgeois, neighbourhoods full of old people. Have you seen “City of Men”? And I thought they were far far away from all the reasons one moves to Berlin… except to go bathing in the Schlachtensee. But as I spend more time in the city, I see that they have their charms. I could imagine living in a beautiful villa near a lake in Zehlendorf and going between the good grocery stores and the summer waters. If you have children and want something semi-suburban, residential, and ‘Western European’  and ‘safe’ in feel, you are looking at the right place.  And Charlottenburg has a bevy of good restaurants, beautiful old buildings and good transport links. That said, these are still expensive neighbourhoods, with older populations, and a more ‘staid’ feeling, apart from the area around Dahlem, where the Free University is located. But the students tend to live as far away as Friedrichshain, preferring an hour commute to living in this part of town.

Wedding: Wedding is ‘next’. It’s where many young new Berliners are moving. You can read more about this development here. Originally, a poor neighbourhood north of Mitte that is still mostly Turkish families, it also has an emerging arts scene and a particular neighbourhood vibe that’s rather unique. Beware it’s rather bleak architecturally. It’s convenient to Mitte. Rents are still relatively cheap too.

Neukölln: The northern parts of Neukölln have by now been thoroughly hipster-ified. It’s still  mixed with so-called ‘problem’ Berlin (although the ‘problems’ are quickly vanishing with the ‘problem’ of gentrification). This is a traditionally working class and immigrant neighbourhood that originally  filled with young artists looking for cheap digs. Now, it’s increasingly a ‘respectable’ and expensive place to live (rents here are often as expensive as in more bourgeois Schöneberg). It’s actually quite difficult to find an apartment in Neukölln now, and properties in the area between Hermannplatz and the canal are going for the same prices as those in Kreuzberg. Housing deals in this “Kreuzkölln” are a thing of the past, and there are fewer and fewer students here and more and more professionals. The area South of Hermannplatz and to the East of it is now on the up and up too. The funky little Lebanon on Sonnenallee with good falafel and shisha exists in cohabitation with some of Berlin’s best bars. The scene around Weserstraße in Kreuzkölln has been discovered and is by now very touristy, and this is moving South towards Boddinstraße and the Ring-bahn.  The area around Richardplatz (Rixdorf) has village architecture and immigrant families are being squeezed here too by gentrification. This gentrification has met organised, and sometimes scary, resistance in the area called the Schillerkiez where social dependents have been reported in the press to have organised ‘patrols’ to check the IDs and threaten newcomers.

Tiergarten: This is the neighbourhood north (Moabit) and south of the Tiergarten, or Central Park. Like Wedding, Moabit may well be ‘next’. Moabit is a green neighbourhood (near Turmstr. U-Bahn), with a good Altbau stock, mostly safe, and now has a couple funky bars, but with lousy transport links if you live too far north and not close to the S-Bahn. Some complain there’s not quite enough to do yet in the neighbourhood. South of the Tiergarten, and especially around Potsdamer Platz, is full of embassies and government buildings and corporate headquarters. It’s not a good place to live: there are no grocery stores, for example.

Unfair New York comparisons are often made for Berlin neighbourhoods. I don’t believe in mapping New York on Berlin, but it may help as an initial shorthand. But note, how things have changed! Mitte: SoHo. Prenzlauer Berg: West Village. Friedrichshain: Williamsburg. Kreuzberg: Park Slope. Schöneberg: Chelsea meets Astoria, if you can imagine that.

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Looking for an apartment

While there is a high vacancy rate in Berlin’s residential property, in very few of these apartments would you actually like to live. This makes long lines of visitors at group visits to desirable apartments a fact of life. Most people are looking at the same site: www.immobilienscout24.de You are much more likely to find a place if you ask around with friends.

Most rentals involve making an application to a Property Management group (the Hausverwaltung) that takes care of the building for the landlord. All your dealings will go through them. They will ask you for a dossier of information to apply to be principle tenant of an apartment. Many do not consider freelancers. You would do well to include as much evidence of financial stability and a steady paycheck as possible, and if you see a place you like, jump at it and fax the forms asap from the closest machine. Be prepared when renting to have enough money on hand for the deposit (usually a couple of months rent).

You would do well to find a short-term sublet through www.wg-gesucht.de and www.studenten-wg.de (Craig’s List is another option, but with ex-pat inflated prices) and then pit in, in order to find the right apartment where you are principle tenant. Sublets are comparatively quite easy to get, can be long-term, and are often quite cheap (people charge ‘old rents’). Flatshares (called WG or Wohngemeinschaften) are extremely popular, especially with students and young professionals, and also advertised on these sites. They are an excellent way to save money. You can usually find the right fit — in any case you will be interviewed for the room. In other cities, flatshares might be a sign of poverty, but here they are often preferred by professionals who like some company.

For buying apartments, Berlin is no longer quite the deal it was. It is still cheaper than many other European capitals, you might check out www.immobilienscout24.de
Most Germans rent, which makes the variety and quantity of places available to buy abysmal. Be also aware many people want to buy and are looking and can’t find the right place. Be prepared to pounce!  Note you have to pay an extra 10% in taxes and fees on top of the asking price. If you care about noise, you might look into a rooftop apartment (Dachgeschosswohnung) in a pre-war building if you can find one (these are very very popular and increasingly mythical). You will want close access to a U or S Bahn train, and to be in a Kiez. There are plenty of fleamarkets and IKEAs in Berlin for cheap furniture.

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Property Prices and Rents

Property prices in Berlin are no longer the good deal they once were. But one can still find an apartment in Berlin for half to two-thirds the costs of the average apartment in Paris—but this is no reason to be overcharged. Soon enough you will be thinking in Berlin prices… Apartments are priced ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ (not including utilities). For a 50 sq- meter apartment, one can add perhaps an extra €125 /month for utility fees in Kreuzberg. Cold costs per square metre are about the following in each neighbourhood (late 2011, on average, taken from what I saw on immobilienscout.de):

-Mitte: approx. €14 / sq meter (€700 for 50 sq meters per month)

-Prenzlauer Berg: €12 / sq meter (€600 for 50 sq meters per month)
-Kreuzberg: approx. €11 / sq meter (€550 per month for 50 sq meters)

-Friedrichshain: €10 / sq meter (€500 per month for 50 sq meters)
-Neukölln:  €10/ sq meter (€500 per month for 50 sq meters)

-Schöneberg: €10/ sq meter (€500 per month for 50 sq meters)

-Moabit: €8/ sq meter (€400 per month for 50 sq meters)

-Wedding: €7/ sq meter (€350 per month for 50 sq meters)

REMEMBER: To add to the above €125 warm costs, plus about €30 for electricity, plus about €30 phone/internet… approx. €200 more!

Rents are on the increase, and while these are average rents for people living in these neighbourhoods, expect to pay a little more for a new lease.

To buy, average costs according to Immobilienscout are about €4000 / sq meter in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, €3500 / sq meter in Kreuzberg, and in Friedrichshain, and closer to €2500 / square meter in north Neukölln. It’s no longer possible to buy an 80 sq meter apartment in Neukölln for €80 000 unless you go through a forced auction.

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Monthly Costs

You can no longer get along in Berlin without a lot of money. €1000 / month for everything is about the very minimum. But make sure you come with some kind of cushion for emergencies.

That would include monthly:
-Rent and utilities (warm)
(in a shared flat): €450
-A transit pass: €78 or get a bike
-Mobile phone/ Internet: €50
-Health insurance: depends, try to come on a European Medical Card
-€20/ day on food (eating cheaply at home) and going out
-€20 for a gym membership at McFit

A more normal modest budget is €1200-€1500 /month. At €2000 you are doing very well. It’s of course easy to spend much more.

You can keep down costs by:
-shopping for groceries at the Turkish supermarkets on Kottbusser Damm in Kreuzberg. They also have excellent fruit and veg. Shopping at Rewe, a German chain, is a lot more expensive and the produce is inferior.
-use a student card to get cheaper tickets to museums, the opera, concerts and cinema. Or get a Classic Card for classical concert tickets if you are under 30.
-you can drink beer in public in Germany. This isn’t as louche as it sounds! A favourite student activity is buying beer at a Getränkmarkt (a wholesale drinks shop. They are found all over. A beer costs under 1 Euro) and drinking on a bridge (such as Admiralbrücke in Kreuzberg) where there’s quite an indie scene.
-Drink beer or sekt at bars, not cocktails and liquor. Beer is always very cheap.
-Note that street food though not very healthy is very cheap: especially Currywurst and Doner (about €3, or less). Going out for a cheap sit-down meal and a beer usually costs about €15, although you can eat something semi-takeout for more like €7-10.
-Note that in many clubs and bars you will be charged a Pfand, or deposit on your glasses. This can get expensive, so bring your glasses back to collect your cash.
-For under €20 you can still have a great night out: drinking 2 bought beers in an industrial space with friends (€2), going for Falafel (€4), drinking a beer in a cool bar (€3), going to a great club (€5 at SO36 for example at the door, then €3 for a half litre of beautiful German Pilsner).
-You could on the other hand spend more than €1o0 for a great night out: aperitif at a terrace in Mitte (cocktail: €10), great seats at the opera or Berlin Philharmonic (€60; or else get cheap seats for €20), a great meal at a Michelin restaurant (three courses plus wine: €100; or just order a main à la carte and a glass of wine for €40), slip home to change and then another drink at a cool bar (€4), then clubbing at Berghain (was €10 entry, plus €3 per beer, €5-7 per cocktail).

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Safety, especially for Women

Berlin is still extremely safe, day and night, especially inside the circle S-bahn line. But it should be mentioned that, as a precaution, visible minorities might avoid some of the Eastern neighbourhoods outside that S-Bahn line: Hellersdorf, Marzahn, Lichtenberg. They have a reputation for being right-wing and have almost no ethnic diversity. The same goes for parts of the surrounding region of Brandenburg. While most women find Berlin extremely safe, day and night, some have been verbally harassed in outlying areas of Neukölln walking home alone at night. Riding a bike helps matters. Neighbourhoods like Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Schöneberg and Kreuzberg are generally worry free for women who feel like targets of unwanted male attention.

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Setting up Checklist (for EU citizens)

(unlike the rest of this guide, this material has not been thoroughly updated since 2009, and while most items appear not to have changed, please check if that is the case! Prices also still need revising in this section, unlike in the others)

**non-EU citizens, especially from the USA and Canada can set up permanently here, but it requires some leg work. check out: http://www.toytowngermany.com/lofi/index.php/f71.html

There are a few things EU citizens must do when they arrive if they intend to live in Berlin (if you are simply making a short-term stay of less than 90 in 180 days, then you will not want to go to the trouble). I mention which documents you need to bring to each place. Once you do all these things, the authorities should leave you quite alone (except for taxes)!

1. Register at the Burgeramt in your neighbourhood, to get an Anmeldung Bestätigung (or registration confirmation). You need this document as proof of your residence and to work. Ask the Burgeramt also for a Bescheinigung that attests to your right to free movement in Germany as an EU citizen, this free document can be sometimes useful.
-bring passport and proof of your health insurance (such as a European Health Insurance card). Often proof of emergency health coverage is all you need to start.

2. Bank account. You need the Anmeldung Bestätigung and Passport for this. I go to the Berliner Sparkasse, with locations and ATM’s everywhere. It is expensive to use other banks’ ATM’s in Germany.

3. Mobile phone. You need a bank account and Anmeldung Bestätigung to get one. I use the BLAU network and pay as you go, which is cheap and can be bought at Media Markt and Saturn (note you will want to set up automatic credit online so you don’t have to return to these stores every time you want credit). With BLAU calls are 9 cents a minute. Note BLAU does not always work well outside Germany. Another cheap option is Simyo. Better companies are: Vodaphone, T Mobile…You can buy an unblocked phone for about 20-30 Euros at Media Markt and Saturn (at Alexanderplatz). Phones can be unblocked for about €10 at shops on Sonnenallee in Neukölln.

4. If you are an EU citizen and have a foreign partner and you wish for that person (same sex or opposite sex) to be able to work and live in Germany, you both need to go to the Auslanderbehörder, or Foreigners’ Office. Fill out the application online, print it, bring two passport photos (must conform to German size regulations), your marriage certificate (or partnership certificate, even if it is from abroad), proof you both have health care, and that the primary applicant has enough funds to support the other. You both need the Anmeldung Bestätigung. Go early to the office (lines form up before it opens) and go directly on the EU section on the main floor.

5. Health Care: You will need proof of health care to register in Germany, and emergency health coverage will do the trick, usually for the first three months.

Eventually you will need German health care (which is excellent and also pays all your drugs and often lots of extras like dental). Your employer will arrange this and pay half of the premiums. You pay the full premiums if you are self employed (about 150-200 Euros /month if you pay both parts). Getting health care as a self-employed person is more of a headache, but I will explain what is involved in a moment.

You can get public health insurance (as opposed to private) if you have an employer or if you are an artist and apply for it through the Künstlersozialkasse… a long process for which I’d recommend an agent. If you are moving to Germany from within the EU, you can also choose to pay for public insurance, but it generally turns out to be more expensive than the private options unless you have pre-existing conditions that you declare.

Going private has the advantage of getting more services and being seen sooner by doctors and specialists (you tell them you have private insurance when you make an appointment). This option is actually cheaper than public insurance if you are freelance (but expect to pay a lot more if you have pre-existing conditions that they can prove. There are often minimum income levels required as well).

You can choose either an ex-pat plan or a German plan. Ex-pat plans are for people who want flexibility and will eventually return to their home countries and don’t need to be fully integrated into the German health care system. These plans are a lot cheaper than German plans because they do not expect to care for you in your old age. Allianz’s A la carte(costs under €100 a month usually.
You can contact Mike Woodiwiss (Tel: 02432-80365, e-mail: info@spectruminternational.eu ). Not everyone loves this plan, so please check online what people say. DKV has a Welcome to Germany. This one is for people staying temporarily in Germany up to 60 months. It covers most everything, and costs about €140 / month for a 30 year-old male. You generally pay for your services out of pocket and are reimbursed, unless you are in hospital where the plan deals directly with payments.

The normal German private insurance scheme is the long-term option. There are many companies. DKV is one (in German, but there are plenty of agents around Berlin you can talk to). I think it’s about €200 / month depending on age and sex. Try calling under “contact” and asking if they speak English. An even better private company is: Debeka Try calling.

6. If you work freelance, you will need to apply for a Tax Number and have this number before you start writing invoices (you need to provide an invoice for every job you do). Fill out a Fragebogen zur steuerlichen Erfassung (find one online by searching for it and “Berlin”) and send it to your nearest Finanzamt. You might want a Steuerberater (or tax advisor) to help you fill out this form and your declarations. You can write off a huge amount in Germany: many people use these advisors to sort out their business expenses (you can save restaurant receipts, for example, provided you discussed business and at least two people were there). Also be aware that if you make under about €17 000 a year then you can choose not to charge your clients VAT (you also avoid monthly forms about VAT to the tax office this way).

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Transport

Check out www.bvg.de, which is the public transport site. It has an indispensible journey planner that everyone uses when getting from A to B.

-Get a transit pass for the beautiful network of S-bahn and U-bahn subways (€78: with this Umwelt card another person can travel for free with you after 8pm and on weekends).

You can also buy a pass for your bike. If you will only travel after 10am, then you can get a cheaper pass.

-Train fares are on www.bahn.de
-Bicycle: the city gets around on bike, especially in Kreuzberg. You can get a used one here for about €50-€100 at a market (try the fleamarket at Boxhagenerplatz on Sundays), or a new one for 300-up Euros. A good place to buy a new one is: http://www.radlust.com/

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Learning German

Many ex-pats live successfully in Berlin with no German. However, it pays to learn the language. How good your course will be depends on your teacher. Good and bad teachers exist everywhere. The best teachers are in the universities. The cheapest German courses with good teachers are at the city community colleges (or Volkshochschule).

Humboldt University: has a very good summer university and courses for Erasmus students before each university term. Top-notch teaching.

Goethe Institute located in Mitte is the most famous language school. My experience is that the Goethe Institute is very expensive (more than €1000 a month for 4 hours of classes a day, or thereabouts) and that the teachers are no better than in many of the private language schools. They have the reputation for going very slowly… a tactic for you to take a huge number of classes. Also they teach very communicatively, with less grammar.

http://www.goethe.de/ins/de/ort/ber/deindex.htm

The Hartnackschule located in Schöneberg is a lot cheaper (was about €200 a month), but the teachers are hit or miss. A lot of people do it anyway because even if the teacher is bad, one doesn’t feel like one has lost a lot of money! It is easy to change out of a bad class into a good one. I was lucky and had a very good (but blind) instructress. You can usually sign up on the day and there’s always room. Courses start on the first day of each month.
http://www.hartnackschule-berlin.de/

The Volkshochschule has locations throughout the city and is the government-run program, that is subsidized with generally good teachers. It’s cheap at €100-130 for I think about six weeks. The problem is that one needs to sign up and take a placement test rather far in advance and introductory courses book out quickly. There are a lot of immigrants who generally really want to learn German.
http://www.berlin.de/ba-mitte/city-vhs/lehrangebot/intro/pb41/deutsch.html

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Staying Fit

Gyms come in two varieties: McFit and all the others. McFit is cheap (about €20 /month!). Ignore the name and bright yellow advertising. The machines are great; it’s very clean; I hardly ever have to wait for machines; there’s a huge amount of eye candy and there’s very little attitude (at least at my location in Prenzlauer Berg).

An example of a more expensive gym (about 80 Euros a month) is Holmes Place with a more upscale clientele and fabulous machines and a great sauna.

Berlin has lots of beautiful public swimming pools. The Neukölln monumental pool and the Mitte Bauhaus pool are fantastic. The Mitte pool also has a sauna complex. http://www.berlinerbaederbetriebe.de/
In the summer, the Badeschiff, an outdoor pool, floats in the Spree river. It has a great cocktail bar. In the winter, it turns into a sublime complex of saunas and heated pools that are open all night. They even have parties. http://www.arena-berlin.de/badeschiff.aspx

Berlin is made for long-distance runners and cyclists. The central park or Tiergarten is a great place to run, as are the banks up and down the Spree river.

My personal favourite outdoor activity in Berlin is going to a lake and swimming. You can take the S-bahn to Schlachtensee (25 minutes from Friedrichstraße on the S-1 inside the city limits) where there is an excellent restaurant and beer garden. The lake is great. I usually take my running shoes, run around it (about 4 km) and then go swimming. You can also take the train with your bike to Fürstenberg (1 hour) and bike (30 minutes) to Stechlinsee, a lake with remarkably pristine water.

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Media

The best online forum for expats in Germany is:
http://www.toytowngermany.com/
*In Berlin, you should subscribe to ZITTY or TIP for listings of what’s on.
http://www.tip-berlin.de/
http://www.zitty.de/
Ex-Berliner is the ex-pat magazine in English:
http://www.exberliner.com/

For Gay listings, look online at the comprehensive Disco Damaged in English:

http://discodamaged.typepad.com/discodamaged_berlin/

The German gay listings are:
http://www.siegessaeule.de/
http://www.blu.fm/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSzkhhrZH6Y

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Films and Books

Top ten favourite Berlin films:
1. Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927 film, silent. I saw it recently set with live electronic music. The original score is not as beep beep beep…)
2. A Foreign Affair (1948) with Marlene Dietrich. Set in occupied Berlin, set in the actual destroyed city.
3. One Two Three (1961). Billy Wilder comedy about a Coca Cola executive trying to sell his beverage to the Soviets.
4. Wings of Desire (1987). Wim Wenders story about angels who console Berliners. The first thirty minutes are genius, then you can watch something else.
5. Run Lola Run (1998). Enervating sprint through the reunited city. Lola has thirty minutes to obtain a large amount of cash.
6. Aimée and Jaguar (1999). War love story between two women, one Jewish and the other the wife of a Nazi.
7. Goodbye Lenin (2003). A woman goes into a coma before the wall comes down, she wakes and everything has changed.
8. The Bourne Supremacy (2004). Lots of Jason Bourne about Berlin.
9. The Lives of Others (2005). The Stasi invade and destroy the delicate lives of two artists.
10. Berlin Calling (2008). A predictable but enjoyable portrait of the excesses of a Berlin DJ.

And some useful books:

Berlin: Portrait of a City (€50). A great compendium of photographs and history. A big heavy but remarkable book.

Berlin: The Architecture Guide (by Haubrich) is useful.

For World War Two history and the interwar years, I would suggest: Inside Nazi Germany (by D. Peukert) for a social history; The Nazi Dictatorship by Ian Kershaw, or his biography of Hitler.

Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood. The classic ex-pat Berlin novel.

The Time Out guide is useful.