My Challenges Obtaining a German Residence Permit: when I relocated from Japan to Germany five years ago, I had already lived abroad for several years and was well accustomed to the trials and tribulations of trying to set up a home as a foreigner. Germany tends to have a reputation for being rather mechanical and misanthropic when it comes to bureaucracy and government processes. Even though I was aware of its reputation, I didn’t expect how little I would actually be prepared for adjusting to life in Germany.
Left to My Own Devices: How My Company Didn’t Help Me Through the German Visa Process
In so many ways, the company I was working for when I moved to Berlin was instrumental in getting me settled. They sponsored my visa, gave me a one-time relocation budget, and offered me a two months’ stay at one of their flats in the city to get my residence permit sorted out and find a place to live long-term.
However, they didn’t end up having the experience and expertise to make my move less painful. The company didn’t offer to hire help from relocation consultants but did provide access to their human resources (HR) team to support foreign employees settling in Germany. All fairly recent additions to the company, the human resources team members were German nationals who could easily navigate the immigration processes in the German language. Unfortunately, they did not provide much of an overview of the process for foreigners like me who didn’t speak any German and had no idea about the steps that I had to follow to get settled in the country. I was given a brief outline of the steps to follow in a 30-minute briefing and was told to ask any questions that I had. Though I’m thankful for their support, the truth is that I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. I needed much more handholding than they were willing to offer and so I was largely left to my own devices, none the wiser.
One member of the HR team was assigned to accompany me to the Ausländerbehörde, or local immigration office, to act as a translator for me. This is absolutely essential as virtually no low-level government employees in Germany will be obligated to learn or speak other common languages such as English. When we entered the immigration office together in October, he sure came in handy because there is absolutely no way to navigate the process of filling out paperwork and speaking with the government officials without having a significant command of the German language.
Dealing With Stubborn German Bureaucracy Without Speaking German
The immigration office representative we spoke to was about as stereotypically uninterested and cranky as you might imagine. She went through the motions with about as much joy as one would take in scrubbing a tile floor. Luckily, all of my paperwork was in order and submitted for processing. She affixed a large piece of paper in my passport indicating that my residence permit was in process, then promptly closed my passport and handed it back to me. I started to turn around and leave when my gut told me to check the paper.
Sure enough, my name was horribly misspelled and several other personal details were wrong. I knew that, down the road, all it would take was one hothead passport control officer or another cranky immigration office representative to completely ruin my situation in Germany. I pointed out the mistakes and she gruffly went back to input the correct information and wasted another passport page in the process. After several tense minutes, I said goodbye to her with an expectation of receiving my residence permit card via postal mail around six weeks later.
Well, those six weeks came and went. Preoccupied with getting up to speed on my new job and the HR team with their hands full managing the immigration processes for dozens of other employees at the same time, I had assumed everything was proceeding as it should have been.
Going Home for the Holidays and Facing Self-Deportation
Fast forward a few months, I was looking forward to a trip back to the United States to see my family for Christmas. I packed my bags and went to the airport in mid-December. At this point, I had been in Germany for about 4 months, putting me well past the 90 day cutoff for the visa-free period.
I found myself standing in line at passport check-in Berlin’s since-replaced Tegel Airport with a few hundred other travelers making their way home for Christmas. Eventually, I got bored and flipped through my passport like many travelers do as they wait in the sterile border checkpoint line. For the first time, I realized that the provisional visa the immigration official had attached to my passport had a start date and an end date. The end date was right after Christmas and I wasn’t returning to Germany until January. I would be returning to Germany after my temporary visa had expired! I felt a chill roll down my spine and a tight knot form in my stomach.
I limply staggered forward, gripped by the fear that I was about to self-deport myself from Germany. As I walked those last few steps on German soil, my life was flashing before my eyes. The passport control officer saw my ticket, my passport, my provisional visa, all of it. He didn’t bat an eye. He saw someone going home for the holidays. For the purposes of his job, everything was perfectly in order. On the other side of the glass, I thought I had just lost everything. I was sure I wouldn’t be let back into Germany in a few weeks.
Once I passed through safely, I went into full panic mode. I sent some carefully worded emails to my boss, the HR team, and everyone I had spoken to along the way. They weren’t supposed to let this happen. They were supposed to be guiding me along.
Thankfully, I had a response within an hour from HR that everything would be okay. I could re-enter Germany on a new tourist visa and book another appointment at the same government office in January to extend the date of my provisional visa as I waited for my residence permit. I took in the news with a great wave of relief and tried to push the lingering fear to the back of my mind as I geared up for an attempt at a relaxing holiday with the family.
Returning to the Immigration Office: Confronting My Painful Visa Problem
When I eventually made it back to the immigration office for my second appointment with my HR helper, we were graced by the presence of that same cantankerous lady. Everything was in order, but she had a bone to pick first. She scolded me and my HR helper for several minutes, explaining that this was no fault of hers or the government’s, but completely of our own doing. In her telling, it was OUR fault that we did not follow up with the office after we hadn’t heard from them during those intervening six weeks. Despite the fact that the government had failed to process my paperwork in all that time, it had become our fault for not inquiring about it and pressing them for action. Basically, my case had been lost somewhere in the office and it was my job to fix it. Her solution: pay a fifty euro extension fee for my visa.
In disbelief, my HR helper companion finally jumped into action and let her have it. He told her that we did as instructed and that it was their responsibility to hold up their end of the bargain. In the moment, it truly felt like we were being extorted. He pushed back at her long enough that she eventually relented and explained that she will process the paperwork “just this one time.” Of course, it will only happen this one time! If it had been up to us, we would not have even needed this extension in the first place! Furious, we both realized that the situation was completely in her control and instead of throwing gasoline on the fire, we politely accepted.
We left that office with my residence permit fairly angry. I learned something important that day, however. It was an experience indicative of an overarching bureaucratic mentality in Germany: Nothing is ever someone else’s fault. Everything is always your fault in Germany, and so you have to take personal responsibility for everything. If a response doesn’t arrive, you have to take the initiative to follow up potentially dozens of times. If the follow-up doesn’t yield a response, you have to hire a lawyer. If the lawyer doesn’t find answers, it’s your job to start the process over again. Even if it’s somebody else’s fault, you’ll probably never get an apology. I encountered this mentality time and time again during my years in Germany, not only from the government but in my daily life as well.
Staying Optimistic: Identifying Mistakes and Moving Forward
While my residence permit was eventually granted, I wish I didn’t encounter the stress it took to get my life going in Germany. I know that my experience was probably much easier than what others have encountered. I’m still grateful for the HR employee that helped me in those tight situations. I thought I was doing everything right, but I put too much trust in both my company and the immigration office to handle everything for me.
One of those mistakes is that I should have politely declined visa assistance from my company and spent the money to work with an immigration lawyer. I would have been working with professionals from the get-go, helping me navigate that unforgiving territory in a foreign language with the careful guidance that only comes from experience and compassion. Rather than being left with an open invitation to ask any questions that I had about a process I did not understand at the time, they would have handled the process from start to finish. They would have vouched for me and followed up when things didn’t seem quite right.
In hindsight, I should have hired a relocation service to walk me through each step of obtaining my residence permit and accompany me to the appointments. If you’re considering a move abroad, check out our services and Expat Tools that will help you every step of the way to becoming an expat.
The second part of my retrospective on my trials and tribulations in moving to Berlin will be coming soon… Stay tuned!