Moving to Berlin

A few short weeks after graduation, while I was still traveling after a conference, I realized that I would be moving to Berlin to start a new job in machine translation. All of this happened so quickly– much quicker, I think, than I was mentally prepared for. But now the frenzy of bureaucracy is finally slowing down, and I’m looking forward to a trip home for the holidays. I’ll be starting work in January. In the meanwhile, I’ve been working on getting a visa and finding an apartment. I’ve also visited a few of the Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas markets). The one in Charlottenburg was by far the best, with tons of craft vendors and all the usual delicious street food you can expect (although the one in St. Wendel is still the best one I’ve been to).

Getting a Visa

Two years ago, I moved to Saarland to start my master’s in computational linguistics. Last time I was applying for a study permit, and the process was such a headache, that I had to make a flow chart for myself in order to understand everything I had to get done. This time I’m applying for a Blue Card for me and my husband, which allows both of us to work in Germany. The process is nearly the same, that is to say, just as annoyingly complicated.

The problem with the German system, is that it seems like there’s some sort of circular loop on the documents that you need to get a stay permit. For example, to start working, you need a visa. To get a visa, you need an apartment. To get an apartment you need funds. To have funds, you need a bank account with money in it. To open a bank account, you need to be registered at an apartment (you need an address). You also need to be working to have funds. Like I said, to start working you need a visa. It’s a headache that no one fully understands. In practical terms, the flow chart I created last year is still pretty accurate (replacing the school enrollment documents with a signed work contract instead).

The boss at my new company was under the optimistic impression that I could get all of the documents and appointments completed in around 2 weeks in November, and/or that we might be able to skip a step here or there. I was also being optimistic when I estimated that, with the backing of my company, we could get it done in around 4 weeks, before I left for the holidays at the end of December. In the end, it did take right around 4 weeks, so my optimism was not misplaced.

Unlike last time, when I had to figure all this stuff out mostly on my own, this time, my company helped me with filling out and collecting many of the documents, signing me and my husband up for national health insurance (this time with TK, but it’s similar to the AOK I had before), and they even came along with me to the appointments at the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office).

Finding an Apartment

The main task that was left to us was to find an apartment. There are a number of websites available, but I found Immobilien Scout to be the most useful in this task, whereas, if I was searching for a WG (shared flat), I would have probably looked on WG-gesucht, like I did last time in Saarland. Temporary places and shared housing can also be found on Facebook groups (e.g. this one), but you just have to be extra vigilant for bullshit. To apply for apartments, we needed a number of documents proving that we would be good renters, including:

  • A positive SCHUFA (German credit check). It costs around 30 euro to get from the official website, but there are some possible hidden fees on there. If you get it from Immobilien Scout, you get a premium account for a month which helps in the apartment search (just cancel it immediately), and you get an option to download and print a PDF immediately, which you don’t get from the official website.
  • A work contract or pay slips with your net income, which must be 3x the monthly net Kaltmiete (cold rent, which excludes heating/utilities).
  • A letter from your previous landlord stating that you don’t owe them any rent. We were able to use the receipts from our AirBnB, combined with a bank account statement instead (since our last landlord didn’t speak German or that much English). 
  • A Selbstauskunft (typical application form, which the landlords will provide you). 
  • Your passport for identification.

People say that Berlin is cheap, and maybe it is cheaper than cities like NY, Paris, London, SF, etc., but I think people underestimate how much costs have risen. The market is definitely not in favour of renters at the moment either. Basically, any apartment that is reasonably priced is besieged by 30 or more people (literally– there was one we visited, where there were 30 people there on that day alone). Berlin is also separated into different districts, which makes it quite difficult to figure out where to live. I don’t know the city that well, but it seems like Prenzlauer Berg and Charlottenburg have a lot of families, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain are nice for young professionals (and may be undergoing gentrification), and Neukölln is the more gritty immigrant/artists area. I’ve only been here a few weeks though, so I can’t talk too much about these and the other areas.

Another peculiarity of looking at apartments in Germany, is that many of them don’t come with kitchens. Essentially, renters tend to buy their own kitchen (such as at Ikea), and then move it around from apartment to apartment, so when a renter leaves, they often take their kitchen with them. Some may try to sell their kitchen (and other apartment “upgrades”) to the next owner, or at least to get the owner to accept the state of the apartment as it is (i.e. with the upgrades). They have to do this, because otherwise, they need to revert the apartment to the state it was in before they began renting it. We really didn’t want to deal with the hassle of buying and installing our own kitchen, so we only looked at apartments with an Einbauküche (built-in kitchen). 

We ended up looking at 20 apartments in the span of around five days, 15 of which we viewed in just three of the days. Our top choice of the ones we saw was apparently everyone’s top choice, because it got snatched up by someone who had probably already had the application in before we even went to the viewing. It makes sense, since this apartment was cheap, at around 800 euro Warmmiete (rent with heating costs), in a good location, and only missing a fridge.

Our second and third choices were both renovated apartments with a Kaltmiete (rent without heating/utilities) of around 1100 euro. One was in a fancy new sky-rise building, literally across the street from Ostbahnhof train station. There’s nothing in the direct neighbourhood except the stores in the station (which includes a nice Rewe grocery store), but getting to my work is incredibly fast. The other was a bit cheaper, and in a neighbourhood with schools and families, but far away from transport and grocery stores. The second choice had the closer location to my work and Rewe. Since I had to travel one hour on multiple transports each way last year,  I’ve gotten really fed up with commuting. We also liked the kitchen at the second place better, since it was much bigger and opened up to the living room, in a more typical American style (in Germany, many apartments have the kitchen in a separate small room). Although the second choice was missing a washing machine (which is also pretty typical here), we still decided to go for it based on the other factors. We signed the lease a week later, and another week after that, I am happy to say, that we have a place to rest our heads now!

Unfortunately, we failed to understand one more thing the second choice was missing– light fixtures. Yes, apparently light fixtures, like washing machines and kitchens, are considered “upgrades,” which don’t come pre-installed. Actually, we did notice that there were no lights in the apartment when we saw the place, but we figured that since it was a new building this was something that was still being worked on. We asked the person showing us the apartment about that, and she said “they will install that.” We assumed that meant that the building company would do this. It was only after we signed the lease that we realized we were wrong (and/or she said a small lie to get us to sign). We did try to install one of the easy-to-reach light fixtures ourselves at first, but we quickly realized we’d need a lot more tools and time to do the job properly. This is obviously rather infuriating. In the end, we decided to contact the Hausmeister, and ask them to come in to install lights. The cost of the light fixtures and the installation will probably total around 100 euro more. Obviously, this is infuriating. On top of that, we still need to buy the washing machine, all the furniture and all the stuff a livable place needs, that people tend to forget about (cleaning supplies, trash cans, kitchen supplies, etc.). Fortunately, I’e found that sleeping on a semi-firm mattress on the floor is actually my preferred sleeping situation in terms of comfort (we did it this way for 3.5 years in Portland too, and it was really the best sleep I’ve ever gotten), so at least my bed is cheap. But in the end, this is becoming a very expensive apartment.

To be honest, in retrospect, I think we might have done this whole move wrong. The better way might have been to rent a short term (1-3 months) place, and look for a more permanent place in the meanwhile. However, I’ve heard that Berliners themselves have been having trouble finding a good place, with some people spending even up to a year searching (at their leisure though). In addition, in order to get a work visa before the end of the year and be able to start working in January, we needed to have registered our apartment at the Bürgeramt (administrative citizen’s office). We could have done this with some temporary apartments, but felt it would be easier to be done with as much bureaucracy as possible early on. So I think we should be happy that we did find something suitable after all, and even managed to get our visas done before the holidays. (I actually have one more step left, where I have to renew my expiring passport, so I can get the final Blue Card, but I already have an appointment to do this set up.)

At the end of the day, what helped us the most in being able to make this sudden move was having liquid cash ready to be used. I’m not the biggest saver, and I tend to splurge on expensive things now and then, but I still try to keep a saving mindset when I can. I’ve also been lucky to have a lot of parental guidance and help over the years. These factors have allowed me to have a small bit of cash saved up for these situations. I know many other people would be in a much more difficult situation. I guess that’s partly why I feel a bit uncertain about our decision to go with a somewhat more expensive apartment– I don’t like cutting into that hard-earned cash that I have, for fear of not being as prepared in the future; in particular, in case things don’t work out here, and I just have to move again. Nevertheless, I hope that, in the end, it will pay off in sanity and a convenient living arrangement, leaving me to focus on improving my skills in my new job. Time will tell. 

Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II

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Part of the hiking (climbing) path to Cima Rocca.

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II <— You are here
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax

Stay Permit, part II

In Stay Permit, part I, I went to the post and paid a ton of money to send a bunch of documents to the immigration office. I received a receipt, on which was written the time of my appointment at the Questura (Immigration Office). In Rovereto, this office is located inside the police station. I arrived a little early for my appointment, which was meant to be at 9:34. Of course, just 1.5 hours into the morning, the whole system had already slowed down, and I wasn’t actually called in until around 10 minutes later.

Once again, the university had sent someone to help us talk to the office. I am so grateful for this, because my Italian is incredibly rudimentary, and the situation was stressful the way bureaucracy always is.

I had brought all of my documents, plus copies of them, i.e. the receipts from the post office, including the receipt for payment of the health insurance, my passport, my German stay permit, proof of funding, my lease, photos, and even some cash, just in case. In the end, they only asked for the postal receipts, my passport, my German stay permit, and the photos. They took my fingerprints, and I had to sign a paper with all my information. I looked over this paper very carefully and found a mistake in one of the dates, which they immediately corrected. It was very important to look over this information before signing it for this reason! After that, they gave me the same postal receipt back, this time with a very important “codice pratica” number handwritten on it which identifies my application.

Unfortunately, my German stay permit runs out in a couple weeks, which means that after it runs out, I am not allowed to travel outside of Italy and the US (my home country), until I receive the stay permit, and whenever I travel, I need to bring those postal receipts with me, in order to be able to legally re-enter Italy. I wish I had asked Germany to give me a stay permit for a little longer (apparently, some people were successful with this), but I didn’t know it was possible at the time.

The processing time on the stay permit is supposed to take 3-4 months, but there might be a possibility of expediting it, so we’ll see what happens. In terms of picking the thing up, since I didn’t have an Italian phone number to give them, I am going to have to check the status of my application on the Questura website (using that same code that was written on my receipt).

It sucks that I’m going to be unable to travel throughout Europe until I get the stay permit. Plus, I’m not 100% sure the legality of staying here without it, even with the receipts. I mean, the office lady said it was ok, but who knows how a different official may feel about it. The worst part of all of this is that after I receive it, we are going to have to go through the whole process with my husband, this time, without any translation help from the university (they don’t help at all with spouses). At that point, my husband will be the one confined to traveling around Italy/US. Long story short, it sounds like we won’t be able to travel together until something like April (but maybe my stay permit will get expedited and it won’t take as long as that).

Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I

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Alleyway in Malcesine.

Officialization TOC

  1. Officialization 1: WTF comes next in Italy?
  2. Officialization 2: Apartment
  3. Officialization 3: Internet
  4. Officialization 4: Stay Permit, part I <– You are here
  5. Officialization 5: Picking Courses
  6. Officialization 6: Stay Permit, part II
  7. Officialization 7: TV Tax
  8. Officialization 8: Stay Permit, part III
  9. Officialization 9: Residenzia
  10. Officialization 10: Health Insurance
  11. Officialization 11: Thesis Registration
  12. Officialization 12: Stay Permit, part IV
  13. Officialization 13: Going to the doctors

Stay Permit, part I

The Welcome Office at the University of Trento organized a giant officialization day for all of us foreign students, which included getting through enrollment, applying for health insurance, and sending off paperwork to apply for the student stay permit. The latter procedure is fairly complicated, so it was incredibly nice that they did this for us. I had to do things mostly on my own in Germany last year, and it was definitely harder.

Enrollment was way easier here than in Germany. The Welcome Office at University of Trento had set up an appointment for everyone to come enroll. We had to bring our passports, and that’s it. We came to the appointment, the lady there filled in some form on her computer with our basic information, and she printed out a paper that confirmed that we were enrolled. Then it took a couple of days for the websites to update with our status. That’s it.

The only trick now is that I have to pick up the student card that lets me use the Mensa over in Trento. Also, I have to sign up for sports separately, and I have to pick up a card for that from a different office in Trento. Finally, as a student, I can get a really cheap “free circulation” pass for the region, and I have to pick up a card for that also in yet another office in Trento. By the way, CS courses and language lessons are also in Trento. I’m starting to think I should have spent more time searching for accommodation in Trento.

In terms of health insurance, I had to already have health insurance that lasted until the end of my stay. Since my German health insurance is apparently running out, I used the one the LCT program provided me with for now. Italian national health insurance costs around 157 Euro per calendar year, even if you only use it the last 3 months, so I decided to just use the LCT program provided insurance until December. After that, I did pay for a year of the Italian one, because I just want to make sure that my pre-existing condition is covered. It’s cheap enough that I feel it is worth it. I’ll just have two insurances now.

Once you are enrolled and you have health insurance, you can apply for the student visa by post. For this you need:

  • A form that was provided to us by the Welcome Office, but I guess you can get it at Cinformi
  • Copies of each page of your passport, including the stamped pages at the back
  • A copy of the enrollment certificate from Uni Trento (or the invitation letter from Uni Trento or similar)
  • Copy of your health insurance policy with dates on when it is valid
  • Optionally, €149.77 to optionally sign up for the health insurance from January to December of next year
  • Copy of your lease if you have it (otherwise you bring it with you to your appointment later)
  • €16 for a revenue stamp, which you have to buy at a tabacchi (there’s one across the street from the Rovereto Post Office)

Once you have all of the above, you go to the post office, and send it all off in a massive envelope. The post office then gives you really important receipts for all of this. You need to make copies of these receipts and guard them with your life. The receipts tell you when your appointment is at the Questura (immigration office).

The Welcome Office helped us do all of this. They literally filled out the application form for us, they helped us make copies, they took us to buy the revenue stamp, they made an appointment for all of us at the post office, they gave us the massive envelope to send it all off in, and they were there with us when we paid and sent things off. This was really great.

What the Welcome Office doesn’t help with is doing all of this for my husband. He has to wait until my stay permit comes in, before he can get started. Since it will probably take at least 4 months for mine to come, he will probably have to leave Italy at the end of his 90-day Shengen Visa waiver expiration date, and come back.