Everything You Need to Know About Moving to Germany: Apartment Hunting & Opening a Bank Account

     So you want to move to Germany, but it's too short notice to get the EU Blue Card? (read about that here) What do you do? You have to go through the entangled mess of moving to Germany! Don't worry. You do NOT need the EU Blue Card to move to Germany. It just makes things a lot quicker/easier down the road.

     Germany is open to visit for up to 90 days so if you already have a job lined up, you should be able to settle down within that time. If you don't have a job offer yet, I strongly suggest looking for one before moving over as the process is hard enough as it is with a job.

So why do I say it's such a mess to move here? Because everything you need to get settled in is all linked together in a never-ending circle.
To get a bank account, you need a residence registered with the 'City Hall'
To register your new residence with the 'City Hall', you need an apartment (& to make an appointment which can be several weeks out).
To rent an apartment, you need a bank account (Germany doesn't take checks. Almost everything is set up as an auto-payment from your bank account)

So how did we make this work?

First things first, make the appointments you need to!

1. Stop by the bank you prefer and make an appointment to open an account. There are several large banks here. We chose the Deutsche Bank because A.Volksbank was incredibly rude to us on two separate occasions and B.Deutsche Bank was supposed to be quite accommodating for English speakers/popular choice for foreign students. These just happened to be the first two banks we saw. There are plenty of other options such as Sparkasse, which we have heard good things about. We just happened to see Deutsche Bank first and didn't really have much preference as we only needed a simple checkings account.

Depending on the time of the year, appointments can be several weeks out. We happened to move to a college town during a busy time so our bank appointment was 2.5 weeks out. It may also have been because we needed an English speaker. If the wait is shorter, just go ahead and make an appointment further out to leave you ample time to find an apartment as a registered address is required for all accounts. 2.5 weeks was just enough time for us to look for an apartment and register with the city. Which leads to...

2. Make an appointment with your city's Bürgerservice to register your address with the city. You will need a registered address to open up any kind of account (bank, phone/internet, electricity, etc) in the future. Once again, these appointments can be 1-2 weeks out. If the wait is shorter, just go ahead and make an appointment further out to leave you ample time to find an apartment. Registering your address is necessary because when you open up any services here, they require a form showing that your address is registered with the city (which you get during your appointment).

Now as you wait for these appointments to come up, let's find an apartment!

     I want to first specify that we moved to a small town called Jena so there wasn't as much help online for renting apartments to expats as you may find in the big cities like Berlin. Just 'Ebay'. Yup, that's right, I said Ebay. Apparently Ebay has a far better reputation here in Germany and many people use it to find apartments to rent! If you are moving to Berlin, this blog has a great post on finding an apartment there. Anyways, we didn't see many options lined up before coming to Germany so we decided to stay in an AirBnB while apartment hunting. Thus, we didn't have much time, and it was expensive to keep staying in an AirBnB/hotel so we felt finding an apartment was the first priority! We'd figure out later how to pay.

     Expat groups suggested that the fastest way to find an apartment is to find a real estate agent (some charge a fee, avoid this; as of 2015, the owner of the flat has to pay any agency fees when renting out a flat, not the other way around), and all of the listings on Ebay pointed to agents anyways so we figured that was true. We found out after going to a couple of real estate agents in town that we were looking in the wrong place. One agent was finally kind enough to tell us that we should be looking for specific rental agents (instead of going to agents that handle purchasing homes). He let us know that most of them were over the phone and only one had a physical location in town. Since we didn't speak German and couldn't get through the phone prompts, we chose to go to the one physical rental agent, Jena Wohnen!

     Thankfully they were very accommodating. Their English wasn't perfect, but it was enough to find us an apartment. We simply let them know what we were looking for, our budget, and that we had dogs. From that, they let us know we only have a few options, but they had somewhere in mind if we wanted to look. She said she was free the next day so we went to look at it first thing the next morning. Apparently, they only show you one apartment at a time. If you don't like the first one, then they'll look for another one instead of having a list of places for you to look at. Which makes me want to think they try to find you your best option the first time? Thankfully, we really liked the first apartment she showed us and snapped it up!

     The first one she showed us was a 57 sq meter apartment with 2 bedrooms (you have to specify bedrooms, Germans count the living room as one so technically we have a 3 room + KB - kitchen/bath). It was surprisingly roomy, more than enough for a couple with two dogs. We had heard of some horror stories of apartments not coming with toilets/furnished bathrooms, but that is rare nowadays, ours came with a full bathroom. FYI bathtubs seem to be the norm over showers though...

     But, it is definitely true that apartments do NOT come with equipped kitchens (I'll write about that later). You can find some newer, more modern apartments that now come with appliances (they're called something specific so you'll have to request), but obviously, your rent would be higher. The one we viewed (without an equipped kitchen) was only 500 Euros/mo including all utilities except electricity. Oh, it also came with a storage cellar (which seems to be a norm). It was 5min from the bus/8min from the train, the bus ride into the city center was only 15min, and the nearest grocery store was a 10min walk. That is about as good as you can get when you move from Atlanta! Rent in Atlanta can double that, won't include utilities, and we were a commuter state with horrible, horrible traffic. So, I liked it right away! (attached photos at the end of the post) My husband wanted to think about it for a night which was fine because our agent let us know we had till the end of the week to decide and what we'd need with the application (work contract, a recommendation letter from your previous landlord, pay history, and some insurance which I'll about write about later).

     My husband ended up agreeing that this was cheaper than we expected and the location was great so we decided to act quick and let her know the next day that we were interested. This is where things get interesting. She was happy that we liked the apartment and asked us if we brought all of the paperwork needed and a completed application. She just checked to make sure they were the right things and gave it back to us without even taking copies! Then she let us know what she'd decide on by the end of the week when the other 2 interested parties turn in their paperwork. We were very confused at this point. We asked her what that meant. She said that their process allows up to 3 interested parties to turn in applications for an apartment and then from there she decides who gets it. A little appalled, we asked her what factors played a part in her decision. She said it depended on our pay/reliability/work and who she felt necessary to have the apartment. She then let us know she would email us on a certain date with her decision. 

     If you're an American, you can see why this would leave us confused. It was such a different system. This kind of system would get you sued in the US for discrimination. We weren't mad, just extremely taken aback. My husband scratched his head and asked me if we were supposed to bribe our agent!!! I had a good laugh and let him know I hadn't seen anything of that sort online so probably not? We then figured it was fair game to email our agent with a sad story about how we really needed this apartment and without it, my husband couldn't start work without a registered address (which was true). We're not sure if the email affected the agent in anyway, but she decided to give us the apartment! You have no idea, we were pretty nervous because our AirBnB booking was just ending.

     We met up with her at the apartment to grab the keys where we thought we'd be signing the contract. She let us know there was no leasing period, it was month to month and to just give them a notice. She went over the apartment to make sure everything was working, how to read all of our meters, who to contact for what issues, how to throw things away, etc. Then she had us sign a form stating that she went over all of this and what numbers all of the meters started at. She was about to leave when we asked her, what about the down payment? We don't have a bank account yet, is that a problem? Don't we need to sign the contract? Then she casually told us, we could take care of all of that later. To stop by the office whenever we had time in the next couple of days. We were once again, taken aback! We couldn't believe she'd leave us the keys and let us move in before she got any payment information or a signed contract. We don't know if this is the German way or just the small town way! We had never felt more trusted before!

     So we started to move in and thankfully, our appointment for registering our address and bank account fell only a couple of days later and we were able to sign the contract and provide them with our bank information by the end of the week. If your rental agency is not as relaxed as ours was and your timing doesn't work out, my husband's boss had told him to register his workplace address with the city and from there open the bank account to acquire the apartment. Then you can change your address with the city later on. This option honestly doesn't seem foolproof so try and get your agency to be understanding about your expat situation.

     It was overall a pretty weird experience! But we're glad everything worked out. We did end up finding out later that having connections with the agencies gets you all of the best apartments/deals so we probably didn't get the best deal for the area, but I'd like to believe we didn't have many options due to the dogs anyways and it's still a great deal compared Atlanta!

     Here are some snaps my husband had taken before we moved in! They don't bother painting the walls nicely because I think Germans usually use wallpaper (or at least that's what our agent suggested).  They just simply rip off the previous tenant's wallpaper off for you so you can apply a new one. Also, if you're OCD, prepare for these old German buildings to be your worst nightmares because nothing is level here. That includes BOTH the walls and floor. Our AirBnB was the same. I am learning to cope with it!!! 😂 You'll have to wedge stuff underneath your furniture and deal with the fact that your bookshelves aren't perfectly flush against your walls.

>>>PART TWO>>>: The tangled web gets more tangled - Insurance, Anmeldung, Banks

*This is simply what I learned from my personal experiences/research. Please always make sure to consult with the proper authorities such as your rental agency and banks and take this post with a grain of salt.