Being an Expat in Berlin: A Guide to Housing, Jobs, and German Culture
Moving to Berlin 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.
12 min read
With its central European location, sophisticated urban infrastructure, and generally high quality of life, Germany is a popular landing spot for expats considering a move abroad. Maybe a bit too popular, given the rising rents in Berlin and other major German cities. Being an expat in Berlin means joining a growing community of people from all over the world who have landed here, whether to soak in German culture or to reap the benefits of one of Europe’s strongest and most stable economies.
It may not be known for its tropical weather or laid-back lifestyle, but make no mistake: There’s a lot to recommend about Berlin (and Germany in general). Expats in Berlin 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 Berlin’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 Berlin.
The expat community in Berlin
Berlin is a popular city for expats, thanks to its world-famous clubs such as Berghain, Kater Blau, and Club der Visionäre. And in summer, you can experience plenty of amazing festivals including Lollapalooza and the Karneval der Kulturen. On top of that, a healthy economy and job market are likely to make Berlin even more attractive for expats in the coming years.
So, how many expats actually live in Berlin? As of December 2022, 24.3% of Berlin’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 Berlin.
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Housing for expats in Berlin
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 Berlin.
The basics of renting in Berlin
The outsized demand for rental properties means that the market in Berlin 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 Berlin, 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 Berlin. Appointments can be difficult to come by, but try to do it at soon as you’re able.
Feeling intimidated? Many expats living in Berlin 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.
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The basics of buying a home in Berlin
Why so low? 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.
With that said, there are many good reasons to consider investing in a home in Berlin. If you’re shopping around, be aware that the most expensive houses and flats are usually located in high-end neighborhoods such as Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf. You could limit your property search to less expensive areas such as Wartenberg and Falkenberg, but you may not enjoy the same convenience and quality of life.
Buying a home in Germany can be expensive, and this is certainly true in Berlin. When adding up your potential costs, you can’t simply think about the purchase price of the home. You also need to consider financing costs and the other costs you may need to pay when purchasing the home. These may include:
- Estate agent fees
- A property transfer tax (usually around 3–7% 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 Berlin
The most popular and desirable neighborhoods in Berlin include:
- Mitte: The center of Berlin offers art, culture, and lots of great parks such as Tiergarten and Monbijoupark. But if you want to live here, you’ll most likely need plenty of patience and deep pockets.
- Prenzlauer Berg: A central location, hip cafés, beautiful pre-war apartment buildings, and plenty of playgrounds: It’s no wonder this district is so popular for families with children. However, rents in Prenzlauer Berg are also quite high.
- Friedrichshain: This trendy quarter is right next to Prenzlauer Berg and offers many lovely parks, the East Side Gallery, and countless hip bars and clubs — including the notorious Berghain.
- Kreuzberg: The ultimate party district offers not only clubs and bars, but also tons of cafés, restaurants, green parks, and yoga studios.
- Neukölln: Today, this hip, multicultural neighborhood is particularly popular with students, artists, and creatives.
Finding a job in Berlin
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 Berlin an especially attractive place to look for work, and companies such as Get Your Guide, Zalando, and Edeka have their headquarters in Berlin and 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 Berlin 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 Berlin. You will also probably want a job that pays well. So, what’s a good salary in Berlin? According to ERI’s Global Salary Calculator, the average base salary in Berlin is €47,670 per year, which works out to an average hourly rate of €23. 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 Berlin, 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 Berlin.
The cost of living in Berlin
Living in a big city like Berlin doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll save more money. People who live in Berlin 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. As a single person, you should expect your monthly living expenses to be around €2,250. Gas and food in particular are comparatively more expensive in Berlin than in the rest of the country. This has also intensified with the current inflation rate. Fortunately, as an expat in Berlin you can have fun without spending a ton of money. For example, you can have a few bottles of beer from the Späti and a chilled day in the park instead of meeting your friends in an expensive cocktail bar.
Keep in mind that the cost of living in Berlin 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.
Budgeting made easy
Healthcare in Berlin
If you live or work in Berlin 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 Berlin needs to know.
Education in Berlin
Here’s a bit of good news if you’re planning to study abroad in Berlin 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. Other small fees and costs may apply, but this makes Berlin 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:
- The Free University of Berlin: One of the 20 largest universities in Germany, the FU’s main campus is located in the elegant neighborhood of Dahlem in the southwest of Berlin, between Zehlendorf and Steglitz.
- The Technical University of Berlin: One of the leading German technical universities, the TU is located in Charlottenburg, an incredibly green district of west Berlin.
- The Humboldt University of Berlin: The HU is the largest and oldest university in Berlin. Its unbeatable location on the Unter den Linden boulevard in Berlin’s Mitte district makes it something very special.
Getting around in Berlin
As a major transportation hub, Berlin is well-connected to the rest of Germany. This makes it an ideal jumping-off point for expats wanting to explore the country. Berlin 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 Berlin is quite affordable. Unveiled in 2023, the Deutschland-Ticket (D-Ticket) dramatically reduced the monthly cost of local transit in Berlin 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 Berlin — 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, Berlin 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 Berlin
Berlin 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 Berlin 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 Berlin include:
- Berlin doesn’t stand on ceremony. If you’re currently learning German, you can focus on the informal form of address, “du” instead of “Sie” — at least in Berlin.
- The infamous “Berliner Schnauze”: Don’t be surprised at the gruff tone of the capital. A hearty “wa” can replace “please and thank you” at the supermarket checkout.
- Berlin doesn’t have a historic old town center — it has several. Each neighborhood of Berlin has its own central places that locals flock to. Spots like Alexanderplatz and the Brandenburg Gate are mostly filled with tourists, not locals.
- 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 Berlin
If you’re getting ready to move to Berlin, 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 Berlin a good place for expats?
Berlin is a great city for expats. In addition to good job prospects and a lively party scene, Berlin also has a seemingly endless supply of art, culture, and leisure activities. The city is affordable and cosmopolitan, plus almost everyone speaks English.
Where do expats live in Berlin?
Expats in Berlin live all over the place, but bigger concentrations of expats tend to live in international-friendly neighborhoods like Kreuzberg and Neukölln.
Can I live in Berlin without speaking German?
You can certainly live in Berlin 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 Berlin have some knowledge of English and some public services are available in English, as well.
Is Germany 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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