Being an Expat in Hamburg: A Guide to Housing, Jobs, and German Culture
Moving to Hamburg can be an adventure, but it’s not without its challenges. German culture can take some getting used to, from the language to the paperwork involved in setting up your new life.
13 min read
Hamburg is one of Germany’s most popular cities for expats, and in fact, this port metropolis has long been defined by its international atmosphere. It’s famous for its floating Elbphilharmonie, the Reeperbahn, the “Planten un Blomen” botanic gardens and, of course, the fish market in St. Pauli. Plus, Germany’s second-largest city is home to lots of expats — not least thanks to the various companies and agencies based there. So, it’s no surprise that rents in this Hanseatic city are among Germany’s highest.
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It may not be known for its tropical weather or laid-back lifestyle, but make no mistake: There’s a lot to recommend about Hamburg (and Germany in general). Expats in Hamburg benefit from affordable education and a strong public healthcare system, not to mention some of the best job opportunities in all of Europe. Sure, mountains of paperwork and a tricky housing market can darken your mood faster than a German winter, but plenty of expats find Hamburg’s charms to be worth the extra effort.
With that in mind, let’s look at everything you need to know about being an expat in Hamburg.
The expat community in Hamburg
Hamburg is a popular city for expats, quite open and tolerant. On top of that, a healthy economy and job market are likely to make Hamburg even more attractive for expats in the coming years.
So, how many expats actually live in Hamburg? According to Toytown Deutschland , 8,900 of Hamburg’s residents are expats or foreign-born. That all adds up to a robust community of people to meet and interact with, and you should have no trouble finding bars and events that cater to the expat crowd. Toytown Germany is a good place to start, though most social-media platforms have groups and networks you can join that specifically cater to expats living in Hamburg. And don’t forget to explore all the sights of the Hanseatic city. The impressive Elbphilharmonie, affectionately dubbed “Elphi,” is in the modern HafenCity neighborhood, which, in turn, is located in the old Speicherstadt warehouse district. It’s a great place to spend a day, especially if you get lucky and the sun comes out. Along with top restaurants and shops, Hamburg is home to lots of great musicals and more than 100 museums. Its 2,500 or so bridges and canals simply ooze charm, while Hamburg’s seaport is the third-largest in Europe. And if you want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of this city and its two million inhabitants, just go for a cycle along the Elbe and relax in nature conservation areas such as Vier- und Marschlande, the Altes Land fruit-growing region, or Wittenbergen, a beach on the river.
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Housing for expats in Hamburg
The housing market in Germany works a bit differently for renters than what you might be used to. For one, Germany has an extraordinarily high rentership rate for a developed country. In other words, lots of people rent here and buying a home is less common.
Because you may be interested in either renting or buying, let’s look at some key facts about how both housing options work in Hamburg.
The basics of renting in Hamburg
The outsized demand for rental properties means that the market in Hamburg can be especially competitive for renters, and you may need to consider living in a neighborhood that isn’t your first choice. The good news is that typical rental contracts are renter-friendly, and often offer long-term security and even rent control.
Before signing a rental agreement in Hamburg, make sure you’ll be able to officially register the address where you intend to live. This process is called Anmeldung — the German word for registration — and every person who lives in Germany is required to do it. It’s not too difficult — once you have all your registration documentation in order, you can apply for an appointment at your local Bürgeramt, or civic office, in Hamburg. Appointments can be difficult to come by, but try to do it at soon as you’re able.
Feeling intimidated? Many expats living in Hamburg have navigated all this confusion before, and you’ll probably feel like a pro in a few years’ time. Until then, check out our tips on how to rent an apartment in Germany, which includes the most important terms and information you’ll need to know.
The basics of buying a home in Hamburg
As we mentioned above, buying is not as common in Hamburg as it might be in other cities and countries across Europe.
In general, owning a home in Germany is not heavily subsidized by the government. As the Brookings Institution notes, certain items such as mortgage interest can only be deducted from your income taxes if you rent a home, as opposed to occupying it yourself.
The average price per square meter for property in Hamburg is around €6,200 — certainly cheaper than in Munich or Frankfurt. Outer districts like Hausbruch, Wilhelmsburg, Billwerder, and Jenfeld are particularly affordable, at around €4,000 per square meter. The inner city is, of course, the most expensive spot, with prices shooting up to €9,250 per square meter. But even if you find a bargain, you need to think about financing costs and other expenses, alongside the property’s actual purchase price. These may include:
- Estate agent fees
- A property transfer tax (in Hamburg, this is 5.5% of the purchase price)
- A notary and land registration fee (usually up to 2% of the purchase price)
- Other fees and closing costs
The best places for expats to live in Hamburg
Some of the most popular and desirable neighborhoods in Hamburg include:
- St. Georg: If you’re a party animal or looking for an LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere, St. Georg is the right place for you. Plus, lots of expats live here and the area has real international flair.
- Hamburg Altona: Whether you’re after a great party scene or family-friendly surroundings, Hamburg Altona is just the ticket. This huge area encompasses an array of smaller neighborhoods, each with their own character.
- Neustadt: Neustadt is a popular district among young creatives from all around the globe, thanks to its Gängeviertel area, plethora of cafés, and array of cultural events.
- Sternschanze: Nowhere is more hip than Sternschanze — that’s probably the best way to describe this on-trend neighborhood. The Schanzenviertel is a particularly popular district where you’ll meet lots of students, expats, and artists.
- Hamburg Nord: If you’re moving to Hamburg with a family in tow, Hamburg Nord might be the best spot for you. The pace of life is a little more sedate and there are plenty of green spaces to enjoy.
Finding a job in Hamburg
We’re many decades removed from the Wirtschaftswunder (“economic miracle”) of the 1950s, but the German economy continues to hold strong relative to many other European countries. Burgeoning industries such as finance and tech make Hamburg an especially attractive place to look for work, and companies such as Otto, Edeka, Fielmann, Tchibo, Hapag Lloyd, or Beiersdorf that are headquartered in Hamburg and are among its top employers seem to always be looking for local talent.
The problem for some can be, well, becoming a local. If you’re a non-EU citizen looking to move to Hamburg for work, you’ll likely need to find a job and company to sponsor your resident permit or visa application. Ideally, you’ll do this before you move, though Germany does offer a job seeker visa that allows some skilled foreign nationals to stay in the country for a certain amount of time (usually six months) while they search for employment.
Of course, finding a job is only one part of the challenge in Hamburg. You will also probably want a job that pays well. So, what’s a good salary in Hamburg? According to ERI’s Global Salary Calculator, the average base salary in Hamburg is €50,546 per year, which works out to an average hourly rate of around €25. This is higher compared to the average base salary across the rest of Germany, which is €49,428 per year.
If you’re looking for a job in Hamburg, keep in mind that a place can seem more or less expensive depending on how much money you’re bringing in. If you can, you may want to negotiate a salary that matches or exceeds the average salary for Hamburg.
The cost of living in Hamburg
Living in a big city like Hamburg doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll save more money. People who live in Hamburg tend to earn higher salaries than their suburban or rural counterparts — but they also tend to pay more for essentials such as rent and food. Salaries are higher in Hamburg than in, say, Berlin, and as a result, the living expenses like rent, food and leisure activities, are higher. Some prices have also shot up due to current inflation levels. As a single person, you’ll spend an average of €1,972.91 a month in Hamburg, including rent. This makes the Hanseatic city more affordable than Munich, Frankfurt or Düsseldorf — but it’s still Germany’s sixth-most-expensive city. There are lots of budget-friendly activities in this port metropolis, though. Play foosball over a craft beer in Haus 73, browse the flea markets in Altona-Ottensen, look round the Zoological Museum for free, or head to the top of the Elbphilharmonie for a view of the city and its harbor. There’s also the stunning cherry blossom festival in May, while the “altonale” cultural festival runs for several weeks and is free to attend. And if you don’t have enough cash for dinner in a restaurant, you can still enjoy a delicious Fischbrötchen — a Hamburg seafood specialty.
Keep in mind that the cost of living in Hamburg includes not only essentials but also activities that let you really explore the local scene. If you’re looking for a quick way to balance your major expenses, check out our 50/30/20 calculator, which is designed to help you split your income among three major categories: basic necessities, disposable income, and savings/debts. Or, you could input your specific expenses into our monthly budget calculator to get a clearer picture of your monthly spend.
Healthcare in Hamburg
If you live or work in Hamburg or anywhere else in Germany, health insurance is mandatory. Most Germans and expats living in Germany opt for statutory health insurance, which is financed primarily through shared employee and employer salary contributions.
The monthly contribution is generally around 14.6% of the gross salary, although a cap applies for those who earn more than the maximum contribution amount. Since freelancers and other self-employed workers don’t have an employer to split the contribution with, they typically have to pay the full cost of their insurance.
You may also have the option to purchase private health insurance from a number of different companies, in which case your costs will vary depending on the type and quality of insurance you choose.
Check out our full guide on how to get health insurance in Germany, which includes everything an expat living in Hamburg needs to know.
Education in Hamburg
Here’s a bit of good news if you’re planning to study abroad in Hamburg as an expat — statutory tuition fees in Germany don’t exist! Whether you’re German, European, or from anywhere else in the world, you can study at most German public universities without paying tuition. (Of course, there can be exceptions.) Other small fees and costs may apply, but this makes Hamburg an extremely compelling place to live while studying.
This is especially true when you consider Germany’s stellar international reputation for education, which owes in part to renowned local universities such as:
- University of Hamburg: With almost 40,000 students, it’s one of Germany’s biggest universities and offers more than 170 courses. Its main building is located in the district of Rotherbaum.
- Hamburg University of Applied Sciences: The second-largest university in the city, Its main building is located near Berliner Tor in the popular district of St. Georg.
- Hamburg University of Technology: One of Germany’s youngest universities of technology, it’s located in the district of Harburg and is structured by research areas rather than faculties.
Getting around in Hamburg
As a major transportation hub, Hamburg is well-connected to the rest of Germany. This makes it an ideal jumping-off point for expats wanting to explore the country. Hamburg also boasts a modern network of trains, buses, and trams to get you around pretty much anywhere within city limits relatively quickly.
Whether you stay close to home or wander afar, transportation in Hamburg is quite affordable. Unveiled in 2023, the Deutschland-Ticket (D-Ticket) dramatically reduced the monthly cost of local transit in Hamburg and other cities across Germany. For only €49 per month, this ticket offers unlimited travel on local and regional public transportation. This can be a fantastic way to decrease the cost of living in Hamburg — as can buying a bicycle.
How you live and where you work will likely determine the best transportation option for you. In general, you can expect to pay more for transportation if you buy and own a car. As a major German city, Hamburg isn’t the easiest place to drive around, with lots of zoning restrictions and high fees for parking and traffic violations. If you need to travel long distances across the city for work or play, we generally recommend taking advantage of the Deutschland-Ticket. It’s popular for a reason!
Cultural differences in German and Hamburg
Hamburg is a big, multicultural city with lots of people living together in relative harmony — but that doesn’t mean German culture isn’t strong here.
Some expats have trouble adapting to the German way, which can seem extremely practical and “common sense” in some ways and random in others. For example, Germans are known for respecting rules, and crossing a street in Hamburg at a red light may get you a few stern looks. On the other hand, Germans are deeply superstitious about wishing someone “Happy Birthday” prior to that person’s actual birthday.
As expats everywhere will tell you, it may take some time to get used to the local way of doing things. Other things that expats find to be a bit jarring in Hamburg include:
- Moin aus Hamburch! Locals call Hamburg “Hamburch,” with a soft “ch” at the end of the word, and Moin is used as a greeting at any time of day — not just in the morning.
- Radler vs. Alsterwasser: If you want to drink a beer mixed with lemonade, you need to order an Alsterwasser — that’s the term in Hamburg for this beverage, known elsewhere as a “Radler.”
- Hanseatic cool: Hamburg natives are said to be cold and aloof. And given the city’s Schietwetter, or awful weather, that’s no surprise, with Hamburg often buffeted by wind and rain. Luckily, you can warm up with schnapps like Gin Sul or Helbing Kümmel.
- Franz for breakfast: Don’t worry, we’re not talking about a man called Franz! It’s shorthand for the popular “Franzbrötchen,” a kind of cinnamon roll. It goes without saying, of course, that you can also enjoy this sweet pastry with an afternoon coffee or at any other time of the day.
- The intensely fast pace at which Germans bag their groceries. Also, the fact that most Germans bring their own grocery bags every time they shop.
- The relatively complex trash-sorting system, which includes bins for paper recycling, plastic and metal recycling, glass recycling, and general waste.
- The German language, which can be difficult to learn but is worth the effort if you want to make friends with locals.
- German honesty, which can seem quite blunt and cold to an outsider. Once you get used to it, though, you may appreciate it and even learn to love it.
Managing your money as an expat in Hamburg
If you’re getting ready to move to Hamburg, you may have some stress about how to keep your saving habits up in a different city and country. The good news is that N26 has you covered. With our fully online bank account, you can set daily spending limits to help you stay on track with your budgeting goals and use Spaces to create sub-accounts for different needs.
Oh, and speaking of bank accounts, you’ll want to get on that. Check out our guide to how to open a bank account in Germany for a full rundown of the process.
Is Hamburg a good place for expats?
Hamburg is a great city for expats. Alongside great professional opportunities and high salaries, Hamburg boasts lots of sights to see, cultural activities, unique shops, and culinary delights. Plus, as Germany’s second-largest city, the port metropolis is also home to lots of other expats.
Where do expats live in Hamburg?
Expats in Hamburg live all over the place, but bigger concentrations of expats tend to live in international-friendly neighborhoods like St. Georg, the “Schanze,” Hamburg Altona, and Neustadt.
Can I live in Hamburg without speaking German?
You can certainly live in Hamburg without speaking or understanding German, but you won’t get a full experience of the local culture. You may also find basic tasks such as grocery shopping, filing your taxes, and getting around the city more challenging. With that said, many Germans in Hamburg have some knowledge of English and some public services are available in English, as well.
Is Germany (Hamburg) friendly to foreigners?
Germans tend to be quite friendly to foreigners. Even so, it’s a good idea to go out of your way to learn the language and respect the local customs. Germans who see you at least giving it a try will likely be impressed and warm up to you more quickly.
Can I live and work in Germany if I have an EU passport?
Yes, you can live and work in Germany if you are a citizen of another EU country
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