I love Berlin! I know a ton of people — myself included — who visited Berlin in the spring or summer, fell in love with it, and decided to move here. The laid-back culture, the awesome art and music scene, the easy access to nature, the low (but, alas, rapidly increasing) cost of living.
Berlin’s changing a lot, but one thing it still has going for it is how easy it is to get a residence permit as an American freelancer. You hear a lot about how easy the magical “artist’s visa” is, and how it’s an awesome place to just come and live in Europe for a year or two.
That said, when you actually sit down to apply for a freelance visa, it’s fairly complicated. When I was going through the visa process, the lack of clear information (and abundance of conflicting misinformation!) caused me a huge amount of anxiety and stress. There are tons of ex-pat blogs with information, but I found they tend to gloss over a lot of important information and left me with tons of questions unanswered.
Over the last year, I’ve helped a number of friends go through the visa application process. As I’m about to move away from Berlin myself, I figured I’d take a moment to write out some of the things I’ve learned!
I’m not a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer, this is not legal advice. If you think you should talk to an immigration attorney, you probably should! I’ve run this draft by friends who’ve immigrated more recently, but I went through this process in spring 2018. It’s possible things have changed since then.
Also: I had a fairly easy time, but I’m coming from a place of extreme privilege. I’m a white-skinned American citizen, who at the time was presenting as a cis man. I have an engineering degree from a respected American school, and have both financial stability and a large professional network. I say all this to give a sense of where I’m coming from and in what ways my process might be easier than yours.
The “Artist Visa”
When people talk about coming to Berlin as a freelancer, they usually talk about two different visas, a “freelance visa” and an “artist’s visa”. Spoiler alert: they’re the same visa!
There is a single German visa for freelancers. Things are slighly different if you’re self-employed — e.g. you’re building your own company that sells a product rather than services — but I’m not going to talk about that here. For visa purposes, the German government mostly just cares that you’re working as a freelancer as opposed to a full-time salaried employee.
Officially, after you show up at the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners’ office) to apply, there’s a 6-8 week waiting period while they send your application off to a central office to be processed. However, there are certain classes of freelance work where your local Ausländerbehörde has the authority to give you a visa right then and there, if they think your application is cut-and-dry enough. A lot of in-demand professions meet this criteria (e.g. science/engineering work), but so does being an artist, hence it being known as the “artist’s visa”.
Again, you may want to speak to an immigration attorney, but if you’re someone who either is an artist or who works in tech (and to be totally blunt, I sort of assume most of the people who’ve found their way onto my blog fit into one or both of those buckets), there’s a high chance your work fits into a category that means you can get your visa the same day as your appointment.
What do I need to get a visa?
The Berlin government has a very helpful page outlining everything that you need to bring with you in order to get your visa. Let’s go over it, though, since there’s a lot that’s left unspoken.
If you’re not a freelancer, this article won’t help you :)
Main residence in Berlin
Here’s the first nasty catch-22 you’ll encounter in this process.
Within 15 days of moving to a new residence in Germany, you’re supposed to go to the Bürgeramt (civil office) and register that you live there. In order to do your Anmeldung, you’ll need a piece of paper from your landlord saying that you’re allowed to live there (the Wohnungsgeberbestätigung). This isn’t a problem if you have a formal signed lease in an apartment, or an above-the-board legal sublet, but it can be difficult to find someone who’s willing to rent to someone without a residence permit.
However, the German government won’t give you a residence permit without being able to prove you’ve done an Anmeldung! Whoops!
There are ways to get around this. Anmeldung is often not possible with many short-term sublets, but you might be able to get a friend to let you do an Anmeldung at their place. If you have the cash to spare, there are a number of rental companies (I’ve heard of Wunderflats, but can’t speak to their quality) that will charge you a lot of money for a short-term fully-furnished place where Anmeldung is possible.
Once you have a place, getting an Anmeldung is relatively simple. You make an appointment online, show up, hand them your documents (passport, Wohnungsgeberbestätigung, a one-page form), and they’ll hand you back a stamped Anmeldungsbestätigung proving you officially reside in Berlin.
First thing’s first: if you’re an American, you want to show up in Germany and THEN get your visa, rather than trying to get your visa in the US. If you’re American, your automatic EU tourist visa lets you stay in Europe for 90 total days out of a 180-day period.
Getting an actual visa appointment is, to be blunt, a pain in the ass. You want to get an appointment if you can; the alternative is showing up at probably 4 or 5 in the morning to wait in line.
There’s a website. You’ll go there, and there won’t be appointments available. Maybe you’ll find one five months out. If there’s nothing there, check back later. A day later, a few hours later. Appointments come and go very quickly.
If you can only get a visa appointment that’s more than 3 months out, don’t worry. If you’re an American in Germany on the automatic 90-day Schengen Area visa waiver mentioned above, leaving the Schengen Area pauses the timer, so you can take a trip outside the EU to buy yourself some time.
It’s also the case that if you have a visa appointment, you’re allowed to stay in Germany until that appointment, even if the visa you are here on would otherwise have expired. I’ve heard mixed reports about whether this is true for the automatic 90-day travel visa, though, so you may want to get professional advise if that appears to be your best bet. The other caveat is, if you’re in this liminal state, you’re not officially allowed to leave Germany. This might be a problem if you travel a lot (e.g. for work), so plan accordingly.
If you’re a non-German citizen hoping to go through a (non-asylum-seeking) formal visa/residency process, I hope you have one of these :)
Current biometric photo
Germany has specific requirements, so you probably want to get formal photos taken rather than just grabbing your own camera. I think I got mine taken at a small photo printing shop inside the Alexanderplatz train station. There are a handful of street photo booths that can produce valid biometric photos, and most stores like DM will also have machines or actual humans who will take valid photos for you. Most every Burgerämt also has a machine inside, although I probably wouldn’t recommend showing up to your appointment hoping you can take a photo then.
The application itself
It’s in German, but there are English translations available online. It’s pretty straight-forward.
The application does ask how long you’d like a visa for. You can apply for 1, 2, or 3 years. There’s generally no reason to not apply for three years. It’s exceedingly unlikely to actually get a 3-year visa, you’ll probably just 2 years. You might get 6 months or a 1 year if they’re not convinced you’ll be able to make a living. After your visa expires, you can apply for a renewal.
Financing Plan + Revenue Forecast
You’ll need to write a plan projecting how much money you’ll make and spend for your business over the course of your visa period.
This can be on the conservative end — the official government numbers in Berlin are something like needing 8,000€ per year to live. I’ve heard they like to see you spend some money on things like advertising, and showing projected income growth from year to year is probably good. This is another thing where I sort of winged it, and don’t really know what I’m talking about other than parroting advice others gave to me, but it worked out in my case.
I believe — but am not certain — you also need a German bank account. Pretty much every English-speaking foreigner I know uses N26. Rather than a traditional German bank, they’re an online-only startup. Crucially, they have two things going for them: you can do everything in English, and you can sign up for an account without an Anmeldung. (As a related aside, Transferwise is easily the cheapest + best way to move money into there from your foreign bank account).
Caveat: N26 has legendarily horrible customer service, and is backed by some pretty unethical investors like Peter Thiel. There are a few other competing “app banks” that aren’t any better on either front; if you don’t speak fluent German, you’re probably still best off with N26.
Letters of intent
The German government wants to see that you’ll have no trouble finding work from German companies. You need to provide at least 2 (ideally more) letters from German companies willing to hire you.
There’s a lot of misinformation here. I don’t know what’s necessary, but I can speak about what I provided.
I had two letters, both written in German, from friends and former colleagues in my industry saying they’d be willing to hire me. It was very clear that these were letters of intent rather than binding contracts (because, of course, I did not yet have the authorization to do freelance work in Germany), but they explicitly said they would like to hire me for X hours per week, for Y weeks, at $Z / hour if given the chance.
I’ve heard conflicting information about whether the Ausländerbehörde will follow up on your letters to confirm wheter you ended up working with those companies or not. Officially, these are non-binding letters of intent rather than legal contracts. While I didn’t ultimately end up working for the people who wrote me letters, nor did they ever hear from the Ausländerbehörde, your mileage may vary.
CV / Resume / other supporting documents
I left these in English. I also provided some press clippings and such about my work. I’ve heard these can be useful, but the person at my appointment didn’t look at them. One useful thing I did was go to the German governmental web site listing recognized accredited academic institutions, and print out information about the American schools I have degrees from.
When giving out freelance visas, the German government mostly cares that you’re not going to be a drain on the social system. A big part of that is showing that you have sufficient health care.
This is, sadly, another catch-22. In order to get proper German health care, you need to show proof of residency. But you can’t get residency without having German health care!
To back up a step: Germany has two types of health care, public and private. Most Germans are on a public health care plan. If you work a full-time job, your employer pays half of your premiums, and the total is based on your salary. Private insurance is generally more expensive, and it’s difficult to switch back to public once you’ve been on private. If you’re a full-time salaried employee, I believe you aren’t even allowed to sign up for private insurance unless you make over a minimum threshold, although this doesn’t apply to freelancers.
Apparently, if there is a German private health care provider that will insure you, I’ve heard there are ways you can get paperwork from them saying they’ve conditionally accepted you once you get residency status. I’m told Hallesches is the German private insurer that’s most likely to do this.
More common, though, is to sign up for temporary global travel insurance that happens to meet all of the requirements for German healthcare. There are a number of providers that provide plans basically meant for people exactly in your situation. I personally use aLC, but Mawista is also common.
All of this is necessary context to say: find a broker to work with. They’re free for you to use, they can take care of a lot of bureaucracy for you (e.g. they’ll email you the specific paperwork you need for your visa appointment). In my case, my broker also saved me a good chunk of money by helping me pick a plan that was both better and cheaper than I’d been planning on.
In Berlin, there are two brokers that were overwhelmingly recommended to me by Americans and other English-speaking non-German freelancers: Michael Woodiwiss at Spectrum Insurance, and Keith Tanner at CRCIE.
When you go to your visa appointment, it’s possible that the person who takes your appointment will grumble about your insurance, even though it technically meets the legal requirements. This is bullshit, but obviously telling them that to their face won’t help your case. If the visa officer makes you go home to sort things out before coming back for another appointment, you’ll be very glad to have a broker who’s used to dealing with this.
Also worth calling out: after you have your freelance visa, you may be tempted to switch to a “real” German plan, particularly if you’re planning on staying in Germany for the long-term. As an American freelancer with no history of EU health care, I found it very difficult to find any German health care providers, public or private, who would take me. Again, here’s where having a broker will help, but worth calling out.
If you consider yourself an artist, there is also a German social program for artists (the Kunstlersocialkasse, or KSK) that can help getting you public insurance, but applying for the KSK is its own large ordeal that I’m not going to get into.
Lease or Proof of Home Ownership / Rental Cost for Property / Proof of Main Residence in Berlin
Your Anmeldungsbestätigung should be sufficient. I didn’t need provide e.g. a signed lease.
The appointment itself
You’ll be given a time and a number. When you show up (give yourself time to navigate the Ausländerbehörde, it’s a maze), there’s no check-in. You just awkwardly sit in a waiting room and wait for your number to show up on the screen. It’ll tell you which room to go to, and you’re good to go.
I brought a friend who’s a native German-speaker. The person who took my appointment ended up speaking fluent English, but even they said that was a bit of an anomaly.
If you get your visa, you’ll have to pay a processing fee somewhere between 50 and 100 Euros. If I recall correctly, you can pay by cash or bank card, but not credit card, so come prepared.
…and Celebrate! 🎉
After all that, you can relax and enjoy living in Berlin!