Feeling Alien in Germany: Bureaucracy and the Thresholds of Belonging

The trash collectors in Berlin have an excellent sense of humor.

The trash collectors in Berlin have an excellent sense of humor.

Nothing makes you feel quite as alien and precarious as waiting in an immigration office, especially as you wait for a Beamter/in (clerk, officer) to make a decision about your future in Germany—based, it seems, primarily on their current mood and digestive health. And yet, one of my interviewees once claimed that she never felt more at home in Berlin than when she was at the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office), the Bürgeramt (citizen’s registration office), or the Finanzamt (finance and revenue office). And she has a point: when the process is successful, there is a sense of satisfaction and membership that you can get from interfacing with the behemoth that is German bureaucracy. But, as a foreigner in a foreign land, you remain at the mercy of this bureaucracy and the many people that work in it, and that sometimes means that your experience is far more alienating than welcoming.

Much of my research here on so-called “techno tourism” and music-related migration to Berlin has revealed the ways in which recently-arrived people manage to feel at home here, even before they have spent enough time to “integrate” culturally. But my recent experiences with Germany’s Ausländerbehörde has reminded me of how fragile this sense of being “at home” can be, particularly when you’re not a member of the European Community. Last month, I gave a paper at the American Anthropological Association (in San Francisco) about the affective dimensions of civic belonging in Berlin. That is, I described how many “Techno-Wahl-Berliner” (i.e., people who moved to the city for the electronic music scenes) reported developing an immediate sense of belonging to the city; but they developed this sense mostly by identifying with the “feel” or atmosphere of the city, even though they didn’t speak the language well, didn’t have German citizenship, didn’t have a stable home in the city, didn’t have a “normal” job, didn’t know that many “real” Berliners, etc. Sure, it’s lovely to be able to instantly feel at home in a foreign place, but feelings don’t get you a residency permit.

Last summer, I decided to apply for a freelance visa as a writer, since I didn’t have an academic job lined up for the fall. I looked into the various options available for getting a freelance visa, and then contacted the Ausländerbehörde to get more detailed information. After about a month of asking around, I discovered that most of the non-European writers I knew held visas as freelance artists. Since Berlin has been trying to encourage the development of a “creative city” (i.e., creative industry “clusters”), artists belong to a special category of applicants who are given a somewhat simpler, expedited immigration process: fewer supporting documents are needed, and the documents do not need to be sent to the Senatsverwaltung für Arbeit (Senate Department of Labor) for approval. The approval process can sometimes take three months when the Senatsverwaltung is involved, so having your case decided immediately by the clerk at the Ausländerbehörde is a real bonus.

So, I happily set off and collected the necessary letters of support, potential contract offers, proof of financial resources, etc. By late September, I headed into the Ausländerbehörde with my documents happily in hand, nearly giving myself frostbite as I stood in the queue from sunrise to ensure a decent chance of being seen that day (September is “back to school” season, which means unreasonably long lines for immigration). When I finally saw an immigration officer, he thought that I was applying for a different type of work visa (the one that you get automatically when you graduate from a German degree-granting program), and sent me home to get a “proof of graduation.”

After an email exchange with someone else at the Ausländerbehörde, I figured out that I could still apply for a simple artist’s visa, and so I made another attempt in early October. The officer with whom I had this email exchange explained that I could simply drop off my documents whenever and then wait to be contacted when a decision was made. But when I got there with my pile of documents, the clerk at the reception took my documents and then gave me a number and told me to wait. So, I cancelled my other plans for the afternoon and waited for another half-day in the waiting rooms of immigration purgatory. When I was finally seen by someone, it was a young, smiling, friendly officer who explained that everything was “in Ordnung” (in order), except for my health insurance, which was not at a high enough level of coverage to qualify for a work visa. She assured me that I would certainly receive a 1-year residency/work permit, but I just needed to go away and come back with sufficient health insurance. She gave me a temporary extension on my current student visa and then gave me an appointment in February to come back and submit the papers. As it happened, I already had an appointment reserved at the end of November, when my student visa was normally supposed to run out, so I asked her if I could just come back in late November. She said this was fine, which allowed me to avoid having to wait until well after my post-doc fellowship ran out to finally get permission to work. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that this other appointment in November would be with another random officer, for whom my case would be brand new. This would end up being a big problem.

In any case, I spent the rest of the month of October learning about the intricacies of Germany’s private-public health insurance system. There was clearly no way that I would be allowed into the public system at this point, so I had to go for private insurance. That involved numerous meetings with sales representatives from all of the private insurance companies, half of whom were not interested in insuring me as soon as they heard that I was a recent arrival to Germany, the other half of whom quoted exorbitantly-priced policy premiums. Finally, after going through an insurance broker that specializes in freelance immigrant workers, I got the necessary paperwork by mid-November. By then, I was on a 3-week tour to the USA, giving papers at academic conferences and living out of my suitcase. I printed out my insurance documents in some sort of “business lounge” in an airport somewhere.

In late November, finally, I came back to Berlin with the necessary papers in my hands. Jetlagged from two straight days of overnight travel (plus a 12-hour layover in the Toronto airport), I had just one night of fitful sleep before going off to the Ausländerbehörde again. I was nonetheless in good spirits, because I had the final piece of documentation I needed to get my visa. Once I met with the immigration officer, however, things took a turn for the worse. He took my new insurance documents and then told me to go back to the waiting room. Then, he called me back because he had “questions” about my application. My health insurance was OK now, but he didn’t understand why I was applying for a freelance visa when I could get a post-graduation work permit. I explained that I was not in a degree-granting program, and he still seemed confused. Then, an older woman officer from the next office wandered into the room and started attacking my supporting documents, questioning the veracity of pretty much every piece of paper I submitted. She even asked if the letter from my mother pledging financial support was worth anything at all, since “she could cut you off if she got mad at you.” This is, mind you, in a country where the Elternbürgschaft (parental guarantor) is a legally-recognized and very common document. I was sent back to the waiting room.

I finally get called back to the officer’s desk, where he tells me that this application doesn’t qualify for an artist’s visa. Instead, my dossier would be sent off to the Senatsverwaltung like a typical freelancer visa, and I would have to wait 3 months to find out if I could stay in Germany. In the meanwhile, I couldn’t work. At the same time, my income from my postdoctoral fellowship was going to run out a week later. And all of this in spite of the fact that I personally knew of several writers who have received freelance visas under the rubric of “artist.” Furthermore, the Künstlersozialkasse (a public health insurance scheme for artists) recognizes the categories of Schriftsteller (author/writer), Journalist, and Publizist (publicist, commentator) as artists eligible for insurance in their program.

So, I left the Ausländerbehörde with my plans for the immediate future suddenly thrown into confusion and frozen in limbo.

I got home and immediately contacted a friend in the local Green party, who put me in touch with the party’s representative for immigration and integration. I met with her the next day to talk over my case. In the meanwhile, I contacted all of the various people who had expected me to have a work permit by now and told them that things might have to wait until February. In one case, this threw a contract into question that could finance nearly half of my year’s living expenses in Berlin. At the same time, I had to move into a new apartment by the beginning of December, and I was dreading the prospects of trying to get a housing contract without even a work permit, let alone a concrete contract. I eventually found a sublet for December, but found out soon after moving in that the building was almost certainly not going to let me take over the lease afterwards, since the new property management company had plans to renovate all the units and rent them out at much higher rates.

About a week later, I got a friend of mine who has some training in financial consulting to help me fill out the additional paperwork that must be sent with my dossier to the Senatsverwaltung. A few days later, I sent off the documents to the immigration officer I had last seen, and in the email message I also reiterated my confusion at being refused an artist’s visa. And, just yesterday, I received an email from him, stating that he decided I couldn’t apply for an artists’s visa because, in one of my documents, I mentioned translation work as a potential form of supplementary income. Apparently, that was enough to derail the whole application process—not that this fine detail came up during my last visit to the Ausländerbehörde, in any case.

And this is where things stand at the moment. What’s striking about this story (aside from the usual foibles of bureaucratic tragicomedy) is how my sense of alienness increases the further I delve into the bureaucratic jungle. While I certainly don’t feel like an “echt Berliner” in most senses of the term, I’ve felt at home in this city for quite some time. But, as I get closer and closer to the fine-grained details of what it takes to live and stay and survive here, that sense of home becomes harder and harder to sustain. The legal and cultural chasm between me and the city now seems to pop up in everyday life: when I look at a “for rent” sign; when I read a job posting; when I go grocery shopping and debate whether to invest in spices and dry goods, since I might end up having to leave the country in a month or two; when I hang out with my friends from other parts of the European Union, who can move here on a whim; when friends check in with me and ask, “How are you?” and I don’t know what to say, because “good” is not an honest answer at the moment, but I’m loathe to burden them with yet another story of a stranded migrant in Berlin.


  1. Oh, no. This is incredibly frustrating to read, and no doubt infinitely more frustrating—not to say scary—to experience. The older lady at the Ausländerbehörde made my blood boil! And yet you recount it so calmly.

    Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help from overseas!

  2. Originally from the US, I have lived in Berlin for over 10 years. Now, my advantage is that I speak German fluently. However, this may not be necessary. Many native Berliners also have problems like those you mentioned. Berlin has two sides, the side that accepts you and is amazingly cool, the other side is a meat grinder and grinds Germans as well as foreigners who bring this city a lot of the culture that makes it so cool.

    When dealing with the Ämter, never give them a chance to dig! These are civil servants!, they live for the chance to find any little mistake you have made! It’s a system with very clear rules that they can and will use against you only if you let them. Always take a German speaking friend who knows the game. When they ask a question, don’t simply answer it, try to find out what they are getting at and why. They are trying to put you in a category, so try to be sure you get in the category you want to be in! If you direct the conversation properly they tire out and go along. In my experience, I have had them go along even though it was exactly correct! In England and in the US you can find a friendly gov’t official, who will very nicely direct you in the direction you want and need to go…the German officials, on the other hand, will let you drown in bullshit paperwork. Never let them guide you down a path you don’t want to go. First of all, state very directly what you want…be almost aggressive, not argumentative, but hold your ground. When they ask questions, do your best to sort out why this question is important! They are not asking to be kind, but rather to categorise you! Thwart that by ascertaining why, only then can you give your “proper” answer. Once you give them a reason to send you elsewhere, they will NEVER forget it, so don’t. Many of them are proud of knowing their system, so let them tell you about it, hell, even praise it as compared to the disorganisation in your country! Not too chatty, but enough to get them to give you a clue or two. If lucky, they just ask you what you are applying for and after you tell them, they tell you what is required, then your job is to convince them that you have all necessary paperwork for that. At this point, you have taken so much time, they want to believe you!

    There is indeed a very beauracratic system in place here in Berlin, however it is like a game, if you understand how to play it…it is rather simple. You know how to play the game in your home country and just need to learn the rules here. Just don’t let this weird system dissuade you from this otherwise wonderful city!!

  3. So what happened? This exact thing just happened to me today!? I’m so confused & annoyed because I have a job offer pending & now I have to wait 3 months & I don’t know what to do…

  4. Hey LM,
    just a note to say thanks for your thoughtful response to all of the meanness and arbitrariness of bureaucracy in deutschland. it is hard to explain to people how it feels to be stuck in the maze and i think you captured the feeling very well. i often say to friends back home that it´s ´like a kafka novel, but, no, really, it is´ but i think in the future i will just have them read this article 🙂
    anyway i just wrote an article for my yoga students (who are mostly migrants) about navigating healthcare in deutschland, and0 i linked to your article as an example of the disorientation and confusion that often goes along with being new here. you can see it here: http://englishyogaberlin.com/free-or-cheap-health-and-wellness-in-berlin/
    good luck tussling with the auslaenderbehoerde and hope you are having a nice time in berlin regardless!

    1. Thanks for the note, meg! In the end, I managed to get an academic post that allowed me to get the much simpler researcher’s visa, but the freelancer visa remains something on the horizon.

  5. I’m glad it all worked out in the end. I have a question, since I’m about to try to get an artist visa as a writer. Why did the bureaucrat think your health insurance was inadequate? Just to make sure I’m up to snuff. Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Helen,
      The short version of it was that the health insurance I had at the beginning was did not correspond precisely to the “nature and extent” (Art und Umfang) of what is offered by the basic public health insurance. At the time, I had an insurance policy (through Mawista Science) that was aimed at expat researchers who were living in Germany for a limited period of time, so my insurance policy had an end-date. Since basic German insurance is ongoing and has no pre-set end date, this was considered insufficient. When you inquire with specific insurance companies about coverage, tell them that you need insurance coverage that is equal to or better than the “gesetzliche Krankenversicherung” and tell them that you need it for a Künstlervisum. They should know what that is and be able to say if they can fulfill that. If they can, they should be able to fill out the Bescheinigung that you can find on the Ausländerbehörde website (Bescheinigung für die Erteilung/Verlängerung von Aufenthaltstiteln über einen Krankenversicherungsschutz).

      1. I just realized I have two more questions. I have heard and read that having a fine presentation of application materials is important. I’m imagining a binder with clear sheets holding documents. I’m also wondering if you presented an artistic statement/proposal of what you plan to do in Germany as part of your application. Thanks again! I think that’s it for questions. And again, I’m glad that things worked out and you are able to buy spices and dry goods with complete confidence.

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