Thursday, July 26, 2007

Vacationing in Norway?

I am going to be out visiting my family in Norway for the next two weeks. So, I won't be updating this blog until then. 

If you are interested in visiting Norway, I would highly recommend it! It is a really beautiful country and nature lovers will want to come back often. Hotels are very expensive, though, as are restaurants. So, you might want to check into renting a cabin or bringing a tent and enjoying nature.

If you want to take a car or RV, then you can either drive through Denmark and Sweden or you can take a ship across. We will be driving to the northern tip of Denmark and taking a ColorLine ship across to Oslo. From there we will drive up to my uncle's cabin. We will probably eat tons of fish, since the fishing is so good there. But, you can also expect us to eat Fiskeboller and Lompe med Pølse.

Income tax calculations

If you would like to see an estimate of how much will be left over from your salary once you have paid all of your taxes, then try out this calculator from Spiegel.,1518,223811,00.html

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Health insurance for the whole family

Each parent will need to have their own insurance. It can be with the same company, but it doesn't have to be. It is fairly common for one person to have government insurance (Krankenkasse) and the other to have private insurance. However, private insurance is only allowed if you have an income above 47,700 Euros annually.

The children need to be covered by the same insurance company that covers the parent with the highest income. This potentially up until they are adults. If they start working, then they need their own insurance.

An interesting option in Germany is the "Zusatzversicherung" (extra insurance). Since the government insurance has a fixed type of coverage for all people, many people purchase Zusatzversicherung from a private insurance company. This way, you can get better service, reduce co-payments or have more types of services covered. For example, you may want to ensure that you always get a private room if you are hospitalized. Few, if any, of the Krankenkasses provide this. However, there are Zusatzversicherung packages that provide this.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Train strikes?

It looks like the locomotive drivers have postponed potential strikes until August 6th. If you want to stay up to date on the situation check out their website in German:

Immigration rights

It looks like immigration rights in Germany are being refined. It has been reported that the Federal Assembly has made stricter conditions around defining which family members may receive immigration rights and they have also are being much more strict in requiring people to participate in "integration courses".

I personally don't care for much of the tone around "integration". It would be wonderful to see the philosophy be structured around helping people become effective contributors to society and less of trying to "make them more like us".

Obviously, there is a need to reduce the number of people who are abusing the social support system. Yet, there are many, varying interests in this political issue and it is easy to cover up some of the personal biases against foreigners with new laws. I applaud politicians who see immigrants as an enrichment for Germany and who are focused on shaping the laws to reflect this attitude.

Really cheap travel

If you are new to Germany, you may not now about the cheap flights that you can find. You can find some truly amazing deals. If you check out the website, you can seach through all of the low price airlines at once. However, go to the airlines' own website to actually book. There are often rates there that aren't found on

We recently flew from Hamburg to Marseille for a long weekend on Ryanair. Two adults and two children round-trip ended up costing under 400 Euros. If we had waited one week longer to book, we could have gotten the tickets for half that price at the same airlines. You have to pay for each piece of luggage and the weight limits are VERY low. If you are overweight at the airport, it is expensive. But, they are somewhat flexible with the weight on carry-ons. So, travel light and try to survive on just carry-ons.

So, find out where your closest budgets airlines fly through and look at where the fly to. For example, I live in Hamburg and if we fly Ryanair, we fly through Lübeck, which is about an hour away by car. They do provide bus service from Hamburg, too. From Lübeck we can fly to: Marseille, Barcelona, Dublin, London, Milan, Florence and Stockholm.

Most loved vacation destination in Germany?

According to many, the baltic coastal area in Germany is the most loved vacation destination for Germans. It is a very beautiful area with lots of nature and some charming cities. It is also where you will find the sanddorn berries (picture above). These odd berries are extremely rich in vitamin C. There is a northern German tradition of using sanddorn syrup (sweetend with honey or sugar, since it is so-o-o-o-o sour otherwise) for breakfast in your oatmeal or yoghurt.

Timmendorfer Strand is relatively near Hamburg, offers upscale dining and Sunday shopping. The beaches covered with wicker beach chairs for rent can get very crowded during the school break period, though.

Others prefer destinations such as the island Rügen with its white cliffs and wonderful nature. The archipelago is simply charming for any boating.

Often couples or families will rent a house or apartment for a whole week (or two). This can be quite affordable and gives the opportunity to cook, rather than having to spend all your money on restaurants. Often you will be able to avoid the beach taxes if you have a rental. Just ask at the reception if they provide this.

More information in German can be found on the Deutsche Ostseeküste website.

What are your favorite vacation destinations?

Customs taxes

If you are receiving a package from outside of the EU, you need to be aware of potential customs taxes. It can be quite frustrating to receive a gift from someone in the states and the shipping and taxes end up costing more than the gift.

In the EU, packages from outside of the EU that have a total value (product value + partial shipping cost) over 45 Euros will have to pay taxes. This will equal about 19%. Often family members will send a package and mark it with a value of 30 Euros (+ shipping) to ensure that the receiver doesn't pay taxes. Beware, though, if you do mark something below its value that the customs folks may check inside the package to see if the written value is obviously stated too low.

I had a problem with a watch that I received as a gift in Los Angeles. Before I left, I took it back to the store and they said they couldn't replace it immediately, but they would ship me a new one. So, they shipped it to my address in Germany. When they did this, they left a price tag on it. The customs saw this and gave me a hefty bill for the taxes.

However, another time I had forgotten my camera in a hotel in Oslo, Norway. I called the hotel and they had found the camera and were willing to ship it to me. As Norway is out of the EU, this meant that the customs office would look at the package. When I went to down to pick up the package, I explained what happened. The person looked at me quite skeptical and then opened the package to see if the product was actually used. Fortunately, there were some pictures of me and my family on the digital camera that I could show him. Case solved and I didn't pay taxes. But, I did have to sign a form that held me responsible, just in case they later found out that I had been misleading them and they wanted to prosecute me.

Legal holidays

Depending on where you live in Germany, you will find that you have more or less legal holidays. Some are nationwide, but the majority of religious holidays are state specific. If you are looking on determining your city of residency, based on how much vacation you will get, then look for a city in Bavaria. Because of the heavy influence of the Catholic Church, you will find the most holidays there.

If you are looking for the most crazy holiday in Germany, then you will want to find a city that celebrates Fasching (or Karneval). The cities known for this holiday are Köln, Düsseldorf and Mainz. This is similar to the Carneval that one sees in Rio or Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There is a large parade where people are dressed in all kinds of great costumes. The German version adds interesting floats with political humor in them. From what I understand, the tradition was a way to celebrate the harvest. Just like in Mardi Gras, people in the floats toss all kinds of things out to the viewing public. The picture of the little boy in the devil's costume shows what most kids look like. The sit on their parents shoulders and hold out their hands, looking cute, in hopes that the people in the floats with toss them candy and stuffed animals.

To look up the legal holidays in your state, go to

Friday, July 20, 2007

Work and Residency Permit in Germany

There are varying rules as to who can get a work permit and for what duration in Germany. Obviously, citizens of EU countries don't have a problem, but Germany separates the rest of us into two categories "close friends" and "others". For those who are from countries that are currently considered to be close friends, Germany makes it easier to get a work permit and obviously also a residency permit.

If you are married to a German citizen, then you will most likely not have any problems getting a work and residency permit, although it may be a beaurocratic process.

Usually, the first residency permit is provided for a limited period (18 - 36 months) and then the applicant needs to reapply. If there aren't any outstanding financial obligations (e.g. unpaid taxes) or any crimes committed, then you can reapply. After 3 years of good behavior you can apply for an unrestricted residency permit. Then you won't need to reapply.

There are political discussions going that may change some of these basic rules. They seem to be fueled by three very different issues. Firstly, you see that there is a fear of foreigners who could be potential terrorists. Secondly, there is a huge need for talented workforce. Thirdly, there is a great amount of dissatisfaction by many residents from countries that aren't part of the close friends network. Many have been in Germany for years and even have children. Some of these children have become of voting age and are frustrated with their legal status. It is quite common to meet people who were born and raised in Germany, yet don't have German citizenship. They feel German, but carry another passport.

Humor: Deutsch für Dummies

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Organ donation

Being an organ donor in the US isn't a big deal. There it is typical that people sign a little card that is attached to the back of their driver's license. However, in Germany, it is quite uncommon for people to carry an organ donation card. This is due partially to people's misunderstanding of the issues and partially to low awareness of what they should do.

There is a good article on the topic at Lucid in Deutschland. Please read and fill out a donor card.

Buying Maternity Clothes in Germany

Christina G in her blog "An American Expat in Deutschland" wrote a helpful article for anyone who is looking for maternity clothes. My wife was 7 months pregnant when we came to Germany, so she had done most of her shopping the states. The rest of the blog articles are heavily centered around tracking her pregnancy, so you may also find other tidbits of interest. Enjoy.

German marriage license

So, you want to marry the person of your dreams in Germany and you want a German marriage license?

I got married in Germany and I really enjoyed it, but it is a lot of work to get the license. The Germans are very precise and they take their time. Once you get the stacks of documents together, you can expect a little back and forth discussions before it is all final and good. Typically, you need to plan at least 2 months for all of the paperwork. Talk to your local Standesamt to get the details.

Recognize that a wedding in a church has no official status in Germany. Only a wedding performed by the Standesamt counts. So, many Germans have two weddings. We did. Fortunately, the person from the Standesamt was very nice and they came to restaurant that we were using as a reception for the civil wedding. In a separate room there, they performed a very nice service for us. It was a bit odd having the church wedding the next day, since I was already married. But, when in Rome...

I did find some general information on that may also be helpful.

Meldepflicht (Requirement to register)

In German law, there are many "Meldepflichten". This means that residents are required by the state to register at various governmental agencies.

You will need to register at the local "Einwohnermeldeamt" when you move to a city or when you change your residence.

Civil status (Personenstand or Zivilstand)
You will need to register for births, marriages and death. If you die, this notification will need to be taken on by someone other than yourself. This is taken care of at the local "Standesamt". You will find that you will receive a "Familienbuch" (family buch), which you keep as a copy of the events in your family's life. For example, my shows who my wife is and when my kids were born.

If you have an infectious disease or serious food poisoning, that needs to be registered. You will probably be talking with a doctor if you fall in this category, but you should know that the sicknesses must be registered at the "Gesundheitsamt" (health services).

If you want to operate a business in Germany, it needs to be registered. I will have to do a series of articles on this topic, because it is quite large. But, if you are considering starting a business in Germany, you will want to have a lawyer (Rechtsanwalt) and a good accountant (Steuerberater) help you out. If you are employed then your employer will register with the proper authorities that you are employed.

Work related injury
Your employer is responsible for having work insurance. If you are self-employed, get insurance.

Most of your needs will be served at the Straßenverkehrsmat. That is where you will get your driver's license and where vehicles are registered. You will also need to have you car inspected regularly to ensure that it is in good enough condition to be driving on the streets. You will see stickers on your license plate that show when your TÜV Inspection has expired. You will then need to go to a local TÜV Inspection station and have your car certified. Some car dealerships and mechanics will offer to do this for you, too.

When you have a vehicle accident, this need to be registered with the police.

American Citizens Service Moves from Hamburg to Berlin

As of July 1, 2007, the American Citizen Services role of the U.S. Consulate General in Hamburg will be taken over by the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. ...

Is your German C1?

The Goethe Institut developed a testing system some years back to measure the level of competence in German. There is another parallel system used by the universities, which is supposedly also a good measure of competence, but I am less familiar with that.

Wherever you take German classes under the label Deutsch als Fremdsprache you will run into the competency levels set out by the Goethe Institut. You can see how they are laid out on their website (Goethe Insitut - Course levels).

I believe that mastery of a language is the most important part of feeling at home and that it will directly affect anyone's career. So, I would think that it would be in the best interest of the government to encourage foreigners to take as many courses as possible and become effective in German. However, that is not the philosophy, instead the focus is on getting people to a level where they can survive in the language, not excel. For example, the courses offered through the VHS only go through level C1 (the system goes to C2). I have gone though C1 and I would definitely not consider myself as having very good German grammar. Sure, I get along very well in conversation, but complex expressions and clean writing are out of my grasp.

I contrast this with my neighbor when I was a child. My neighbor moved to the US as a young adult from Germany. She took English courses at a local community college (similar to VHS, but more focused on general education). There she not only got to a level of strong competency, but she went beyond that. For years she worked as an executive secretary because her English was better than that of the majority of native speakers. That is what should be offered here in Germany.

I would like to see the state offer more language education and to go beyond the C2 level and give those who have the ambition the opportunity to succeed. There are further courses available to foreigners here, however they are only open to those who are pursuing a degree at a university. For foreigner, who is a professional, it is more important to get the language skills up that of their peers, rather than go after another degree.

Health Insurance explained (Krankenversicherung)

No, I am not going to explain how the health insurance system in Germany works. Why? Because, I am looking for tips as to where this is explained in a manner that is digestable.

I went to a few larger book stores recently, trying to find something to read on the subject. Obviously, I expected something like "Krankenversicherung für Dummies". But, fuggedaboudit.

I know that there is a difference between private insurance and public (Krankenkasse). With private insurance, doctors like to see you and with public insurance you can sometimes end up waiting quite a while.

Theoretically, everyone is insured in Germany. But, you still have to pay. I think. So, if you don't pay, do you lose your insurance? Even the public type?

I also believe that people above a certain income level are not eligible for public insurance. And, if you go to private insurance, then you have to stay with private insurance. You can never return. Is this like Hotel California?

Learning German

Perhaps the most action to take to feel at home in Germany is to feel a level of comfort with the language. 

When I first came to Germany, I took a 2 week intensive course at Berlitz. It was brutally exhausting, but very helpful. It was also a huge luxury that few can afford. Other options do exist, but this is a great fast-track means of building a basis in the language.

Fortunately for me, my wife is German and we started speaking German together shortly after coming to Germany. Then when I started working here I insisted on speaking German, although everyone spoke much better English than I spoke German. The first 3 months were hard. Every evening I would fall asleep early and my tongue felt like it was swollen. This kind of immersion got me up to speed quickly.

Then I started taking classes at the Volkshochschule in Hamburg ( The "Deutsch als Fremdsprache (DaF)" courses were very helpful. The courses are affordable and you really feel like you are making progress there. The teachers all take their jobs very seriously and really do a wonderful job. I believe that most larger cities in Germany have these schools.

Maneuvering through the complexities of life in Germany

I have lived in the US and Finland before. Now that I am living in Germany, I find that I really could have benefited (and still could) from a kind of guide book to daily needs. Who would know that you need to register in a city when you move? There certainly won't be a nice pamphlet that is handed to you when you enter Germany that lets you know that you need to also register your tv when you buy one.

Most of the people that I have met in Germany who moved here from other countries are very happy here. We just need a tool to help us get through the complexities. Hopefully, this blog will be a good starting point for just that.