Over the past weeks we’ve been speaking extensively to internationals in Germany as well as representatives from the German foreigners office to get a better idea of the German immigration experience.
Part I of our investigation discussed internationals' experiences coming to Germany, while Part II was a discussion of our exclusive interview with Berlin immigration office boss Engelhard Mazanke.
Part I: Overnight queues and complex rules: What Germany's immigration offices are really like
Part II: 'We are continually trying to improve': Inside Germany's largest immigration office
During the course of this investigation we’ve unearthed some tips and tricks for visiting the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office) in Germany.
From understanding the appointment system to appreciating the true importance of punctuality, these tips should give you a better indication of how to manage your application process for a visa, also known as an Aufenthaltstitel, or residency permit valid for a year or more.
A pile of Aufenthaltstitel, which give permission to stay in Germany for a fixed amount of time. Photo: DPA
First things first, going with an appointment is 1,000 times better than going without. The main reason for this is that, obviously, your wait will be shorter.
While it may be purely the result of anecdotal research, the Beamte (case workers) tend to be much nicer to applicants with appointments, as they have longer to prepare for your visit and had a chance to read some of your documents.
READ: Germany's future depends on immigration and integration - Merkel
Getting an appointment however is where things tend to get tough. As we told you previously in our discussion with Berlin Ausländerbehörde boss Engelhard Mazanke, the wait for an appointment can take up to three months. In fact, in most cases it’s not just that it ‘can’ take three months - more that it ‘will’.
When booking an appointment online, the best approach is to keep an eye out - and refresh your screen (just like if you were buying concert tickets). Appointments can come up as a result of cancellation, while the office slowly releases new appointments regularly, meaning that a day which appeared full yesterday may be open today.
Going without an appointment
While appointments are infinitely better, they will not always be possible, such as in the case of those applying for a student visa. Fortunately, the Ausländerbehörde is required to keep Sprechzeiten - consultation times - so that those without an appointment may visit.
There will usually be a number of days per week which have designated consultation hours. In bigger cities however, this is a little more difficult than it sounds.
Given that there are only a limited amount of spots each day, people will begin lining up outside the centres before they open - sometimes as early as 1am.
Along with sneaker collectors or ticket scalpers, frequent visitors to the Ausländerbehörde will know that the queues can’t really be avoided - particularly if your case is pressing.
In that sense, the only tips we can give are to bring warm drinks and food (the options at that hour are likely to be limited), as well as a cushion, maybe some playing cards - and some friends. We’d also recommend you go during summer, although you might not have a lot of control over that.
German: A little goes a long way
For some English speakers in Germany, it’s continually perplexing that unofficial interactions with Germans will often result in long-winded conversations in admirable English, but attempts to do so in an official capacity will often be met with a swift and firm ‘nein’.
There are a number of reasons for this. There is a definite reluctance among official government representatives or officers to provide advice in English as they may make a mistake in English which could have legal implications. This is something that repeats itself in formal interactions often in Germany.
In addition, some Beamte simply don’t speak English particularly well - but as we’ve reported on previously, this is something authorities are seeking to improve.
In either case, it’s important to remember that you are indeed in another country where another language is spoken, so simply expecting all government staff to speak your own language is naive at best and arrogant at worst.
If you don’t speak any German, try and at least come armed with a small arsenal of German words: please (bitte schön), thank you (danke schön), hello (hallo) and good day (guten Tag).
These will go a long way to show that you’ve actually thought a little about the country you plan on living in - and a long way towards actually living there.
A number of our respondents also indicated that going with moderate German is better than going with a translator, particularly if you’ve been in the country for a number of years. Like the above point, it shows that you’re at least trying to learn the language.
A paper trail
German bureaucracy loves paperwork. If you’ve got a claim to make, you’ll need paper evidence to back it up.
Although it will depend on the type of visa you’re applying for, the most important documents to bring are your passport, Meldebescheinigung (certificate of Anmeldung, or registration) and evidence that you pay health insurance in Germany. If you don’t have these, it’s likely you won’t get seen.
You can get an Anmeldung through your local Bürgeramt, or citizens' registration office. Photo: DPA
If you have a private insurance, make sure that it is accepted by the Ausländerbehörde, as some forms of private insurance, especially those located outside of Germany, are not.
Other documents that are incredibly valuable are offers from potential employers (freelance, of which at least two should be based in Germany) or contacts from a specific employer. The parchment certifying your university or other qualifications will also be hugely important, as will evidence of financial stability (i.e. a bank statement showing your balance).
The documents that you should bring will be specified ahead of the meeting. It’s important to bring all of these documents to each meeting - yes, even if you’ve shown them plenty of time before.
As we highlighted in our story on Ausländerbehörde experiences, even being three minutes late might result in having your appointment cancelled, forcing you to reschedule months into the future.
It might seem like a no brainer - be on time for your visa meeting - but the importance of punctuality in formal settings in Germany cannot be overstated. While you might be expected to wait hours after your appointment time to see someone - and then be told to wait in the hall for hours more while your application is being considered - your obligation to be punctual is non-negotiable.
Germans consider a lack of punctuality not just to be a sign of disorganization or perhaps a consequence of stress surrounding your meeting, but a direct and intended indication that your time is more valuable than theirs.
Don’t fight it. Don’t try and understand it. Just be on time.
A good attitude
From refugee status to residence permits, the stakes will always be high for those charged with making visa decisions. This can add an extra degree of tension to what is an already tense experience.
Your best weapon against this is simply to bring a good attitude. As one of our sources, Rosy Moreno, said when discussing her experience, a polite and friendly attitude was incredibly important - both to make the meetings go smoothly and for her own sanity.
“I think your attitude makes a big difference - probably more so that what kind of passport I have,” she said.
“I think you need to be respectful… if I was just there asking for things with an attitude, then I would not want to help me.”
So, am I German yet?
Again, as we said earlier, nothing here will guarantee you receive whichever permission you’re seeking - this is not a legal advice column!
However, understanding some of the aspects listed above should however make the experience a little more bearable.