The next instalment in the Expat Interview Series! I’ve reached out to expats in different countries to hear why people might choose to move abroad, and how they do it. If you want to know more about moving to a particular country this is the place. If you’re interested in taking part, or want to see a certain place featured let me know!
Berlin is one of my absolute favourite places! I even applied for a job their once (unsuccessfully unfortunately!). It has a fascinating history, a well established startup scene and a great cafe and food culture. When Hannah from Universal Jetsetters offered to share her experience of moving to Berlin and expat life in Berlin I jumped at the chance! I absolutely loved how Hannah and her husband chose to move to Berlin… read on to find out more!
Tell us about yourself
I grew up just a mile outside of Washington, DC in Bethesda, MD and I really started traveling when I studied abroad in Brussels my junior year of college. While traveling that semester, I met my future husband who’s British, so primarily my travels the next two years involved lots of back and forth trips across the ocean.
After I graduated, we got married and lived together in the Netherlands, then moved to Australia for a year and did tons of traveling around Asia and now we’ve settled in Berlin, Germany.
I think my favorite destination ever was probably New Zealand or Thailand—such beautiful countries!
What made you decide to move to Berlin?
After living in Australia for a year, my husband and I didn’t really have any plans on what we were going to do. Neither of us particularly wanted to live in our respective countries, so we said we would both start applying to jobs abroad and whoever got a job first, that’s where we’d move! My husband got one first in Berlin so we packed up and moved here! Shortly after I got an internship with an English-language magazine, so in the end it all worked out splendidly.
For me, living abroad is exciting for so many reasons. I love the fact that things are different and that every day is an adventure, so for us it just felt natural to be in another country rather than at home. Of course there are hard aspects to it as well, but living somewhere else you really realize how different other countries are—even ones that seem quite Western.
Tell me about the cost of living in Berlin.
Berlin is a funny case study on cost of living expenses because everyone thinks Berlin is insanely cheap, and it can be at times and it’s certainly cheaper than other capital cities, but it’s not quite as cheap as people think it is.
Eating out can still be very cheap here. There are tons of great holes in the wall and lots of drinking establishments that are run by families or just a group of friends, so Berlin does live up to its cheapness in that sense. There’s a bar my husband and I like called Hops & Barley and they brew everything in house and a pint costs €3. You can’t really get any cheaper than that!
When it comes to food in the grocery store, things are also a bit on the cheaper side. You can get a loaf of bread for as little as 85 cents and beer is… well, it’s really cheaper than water. From the grocery store, beer is sold at room temperature and you can buy them in crates, so you can get as many or as few as you want. A decent bottle of beer isn’t going to be more than 50 cents a bottle. If that’s not cheap, I don’t know what is!
The cost of transportation in Berlin is also really interesting because if you buy a monthly pass it’s actually fantastic value, but if you’re just visiting and buying lots of one journey tickets it’s going to be ridiculously poor value. If you’re moving here or planning on being here for any extended period of time, it’s a good idea to buy a monthly ticket. Berlin is divided up into three zones, A, B and C. A monthly ticket for AB is €81, and that will pretty much cover everything since there’s very little in C except for suburbs. If you do want to travel to the C zone, an extension ticket is only €1.60. If you’re visiting for a shorter amount of time, you should buy your tickets in bulk, such as a 10-journey ticket or even consider getting the welcome packet, which includes passes for 48 or 72 hours, but also includes entry into certain museums.
One thing to note about buying transport cards, you can only use credit card at an official BVG office (the name of the transport service) or at a DB (Deutsche Bahn) kiosk. Otherwise, you’ll need something called an EC card (that only exists in Germany) or cash.
If you’re planning on moving to Berlin, you’ll probably hear and read lots of people say that apartments here are ridiculously cheap. While this of course is subjective, the truth is that Berlin is no longer as cheap as it once was in terms of renting. Yes, it’s still just a fraction of the cost of other capital cities, but the truth is that rental prices have gone up in recent years and wages haven’t caught up with that. It’s very common here for people to sublease fully furnished apartments rather than renting one themselves on a yearly contract. It depends on where in the city you’re looking, but a standard one bedroom apartment (one year contract unfurnished) in a nice neighborhood with good transport links will probably cost you somewhere between €850-€1200. Of course that’s just an average and you’ll find things for cheaper and others that are far more expensive.
However, if you’re looking to sublease a place fully furnished this can sometimes be much better value. I rent a one bedroom, one study apartment, fully furnished and all utilities included about 15 minutes from the center for under €1000/month. This is exceptionally good value, but the downside to subleasing is that sometimes they’re not for as long as you want, but you may still save lots of money that way.
Overall, living in Berlin is definitely cheaper than other cities, but the takeaway is that it’s not as cheap as you might have expected based on other things you read.
How did you find the job seeking process?
To be honest, I found the job-seeking process pretty difficult. When I first moved here, I got an internship with an English-language magazine and that was fantastic. Unfortunately, many internships in Berlin are unpaid and this was one of them. The internship lasted three months and once I finished in June, I began freelancing for them, which does pay minimally.
I began applying to lots of full-time jobs in the sector I want to work in, but the truth is without being relatively fluent in German you are going to struggle to find work. Berlin is a funny city because in the center everyone will speak English, but really outside of that it’s still very common to find many people who don’t speak it at all. So without a pretty good knowledge of the language, you’re automatically thrown out of the job prospect pool.
My main source of income is freelancing with the magazine I interned for, as well as copywriting for GreatContent, an agency that has a branch here in Germany. I also do freelancing through other sites as well as blogging. Although this is great, I’m still hoping to find something a bit more long-term once my German improves!
Do you need a visa to live in Berlin?
If you’re an EU citizen you don’t need a visa to live in Berlin, however, if you’re from anywhere else you will. Since my husband is an EU citizen (for now at least, with Brexit no one knows what will happen in the future), I have a five-year residence permit. Other alternatives include sponsorship and freelance visas.
I have a friend living here from New York who’s on a freelance visa. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to get, but if you meet the necessary requirements there’s no reason why you will be turned down for it.
The other options is to apply for jobs here and have a company hire you and sponsor you to come over.
What’s the social scene like in Berlin? How easy is it to make friends?
Berlin is known as the hottest city in Europe right now and for good reason. It’s a city where bars are open all night every night and the partying never stops. There’s a saying here where you just say something is “so Berlin.” If something is “so Berlin” it means it’s just really “hip” and cool and hipster-y and all about the partying and the drinking. If I’m being honest, this isn’t really my scene! So you might be wondering why I even chose this city, but Berlin isn’t just all about that.
There are some really cool areas of the city, like Friedrichshain, which is a suburb known for its awesome restaurants and awesome bars. You’ll always find something open and you’ll always find something going on.
Outside of the night scene, on nice days you’ll see tons of people just hanging out in parks and walking around, which is always nice to be around.
Making friends can be a bit tough because of the language barrier, but I’ve found using meetup.com is immensely helpful. There are tons of groups here for Germans and internationals alike and people get together for coffee, to exercise, to attend lectures, go out, really anything. This is a great tool for meeting people.
People are very friendly in Berlin for the most part, but as I mentioned the biggest struggle is really the language barrier. If you aren’t very competent in German (like me), it can be hard to start conversations with people.
What’s the best thing about living in Berlin?
For me the best thing about living in Berlin is the cost of beer! Jokes. But that is a great benefit. For me I love the history behind the city. I live in the east and I live right across the road from the former Stasi headquarters and I just love how rich the history is here and how recent. I think it’s fascinating that a country that terrorized the world and was completely divided up until fairly recently has made such a comeback.
The city center is beautiful and the architecture is amazing and the museums are plentiful and some even free.
There’s always something going on here and it’s a huge city so whatever you’re looking for, you can find it.
What’s the hardest thing about living in Berlin?
I think the hardest thing for me personally about living in Berlin is the language barrier, and that can be true for really anywhere in Europe as an English-speaker. Berlin particularly can be difficult though, because once you get out of the center English isn’t really spoken at all so you do feel very isolated.
Especially here in the east of the city, the most common spoken second language is actually Russian, not English, because of the historical aspect to it. In a way, this is fascinating and really cool that you can still see history’s mark, but on the other hand it does make living quite difficult.
It does force you to practice German though, which is always good!
How is your new home different from your old one?
Since I lived in Australia before this and I’m from the US, I’ll answer this question about both of these places, especially since Australia and the US are quite similar places to begin with.
Things are done very differently in Germany. There’s no such thing as customer service. No one asks you if you’re finding everything ok, there are no pleases or thank yous and typically people are completely uninterested in small talk. This can be hard to get used to, but they’re not being rude, it’s just the culture.
Also, the stereotype that Germans love beer, sausages and pretzels is a stereotype for a reason. It is everywhere. There’s a bakery kiosk here called Ditsch (it’s very cheap and very tasty) and they sell sandwiches but instead of bread, they use a pretzel cut in half. No, that isn’t a joke!
Then there are, of course, the smaller things like going to a grocery store and finding completely different things. When we first moved here I wanted to do some baking and I was in the store searching for vanilla extract. I searched and searched and searched and couldn’t find it and I also didn’t know how to say vanilla extract in German so I didn’t bother asking. Eventually, I discovered that they don’t have vanilla extract, but instead use these sachets of vanilla sugar instead.
Finally, the biggest change that I really struggled to deal with was the fact that cards, especially credit cards, are used very very infrequently here. In the US and especially in Australia, nearly every single place accepts credit card, usually even American Express. It was totally normal to pay for a 50-cent charge with a card. However, in Berlin this couldn’t be further from the truth. Only really big chains will accept credit card, and most places that do accept card only accept an EC card, which is a special German card that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. If they do accept credit card, if you attempt to pay for anything under €20 with a card, you will probably get a weird look, a sigh like you’ve just made their day so difficult, and a very drawn out “fine”.
If we had just one day in Berlin what should we not miss?
If you have just one day in Berlin you should start your day in the center at Alexanderplatz where the TV Tower is. From there, it’s a straight shot down the road to the Brandenburg Gate and along the way you’ll pass all of the museums and the Berlin Cathedral, which is a beautiful site. Along this walk you can stop into any of the museums that take your interest.
Near Brandenburg gate you’ll find Tiergarten, the main park of the city, which is actually larger than Central Park, and the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is really called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and it’s very moving and definitely should be visited.
You should also book an appointment to go into the Budestag building. This is the government building, and is also right by Brandenburg Gate. It’s totally free of charge, but you do need to book a day and time beforehand and show up with your passport. Not only do you get amazing views, but seeing the government building inside is a pretty special experience—especially for political dorks like me.
Be sure to walk along the Spree (the river) because there are always markets going on there. To finish up your day, head to the suburb of Friedrichshain, which is where you’ll find East Side Gallery and many amazing and cheap restaurants and bars.
Can you share your best local/insider tip about where you live?
If you’re into Asian food then you have come to the right place. One thing that many locals don’t even know about is the huge open-air Asian kitchen that happens every weekend in Preußenpark. Asians from all over, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korea, Philippines, all meet up and cook authentic food and it almost always happens, regardless of weather. It’s cheap and it’s authentic and it can be great fun.
Another Asian food tip, there’s a restaurant in Friedrichshain called Mammam and it’s a small hole in the wall family-owned restaurant but it is dirt cheap and absolutely delicious.
If you could give one piece of advice to people looking to live in Berlin what would it be?
If you’re looking to live in Berlin, I would advise you to do some research ahead of time on jobs and apartments so you know what to expect when you get here as well as start learning the basics of German. When you deal with anything government related, like registering (which you must do when you move here) they 100% will not speak English to you, so knowing a few key words and phrases and immensely useful!
Have you ever thought about moving to Berlin?