Consisting of 16 states governed as a federal democracy, Germany sits at the centre of Europe and its influence on the region is keenly felt both economically and politically. Despite its turbulent twentieth-century history of wars and division, the recovery and growth of the country since the reunification of East and West Germany is remarkable, and residents today enjoy an extremely high standard of living.
With over 80% of the population regarding themselves as ethnically German and well over 90% German by nationality, Germany is less multicultural than some countries in Europe. However, freedom of movement within the EU has seen the country diversify and there are thriving international communities in and around the major cities. Germans are typically stereotyped as efficient, disciplined and organised – all of which have some basis in truth, although wit and irony are just as characteristically German.
A nation of keen travellers, ‘get up and get out’ is an excellent way to summarise the German approach to leisure time. Closer to home, activities including jogging, Nordic walking and cycling are popular with all generations, while younger Germans are increasingly attracted by extreme sports like kitesurfing. Winter sports are also a part of life, while football is the major spectator sport. Organised civic clubs and community groups remain an important part of life, and Germans also enjoy a huge number of festivals such as the famous Oktoberfest. For more information, consult the German National Tourist Board’s interactive map.
Food and drink
As the country that invented the hot dog and the hamburger, it would be easy to write off German cuisine as fast food. In truth, Germany has so many traditional specialities that it is difficult to categorise. Dishes such as Schnitzel and Spätzle come in a number of regional variations, while it’s believed that German butchers produce over 1,500 varieties of Wurst (sausages). Cafe culture is big in Germany, with afternoon coffee and cake a long-time tradition. Although beer is the most famous of German exports, the country has a growing reputation for producing quality wine too.
Although the official language is German, English is widely taught in schools and the majority of Germans are fairly comfortable speaking in English. With an increasing number of European migrants living in Germany, a number of other major European languages are also heard, and English is sometimes used as a common language in more cosmopolitan areas.
Accents and dialects
German is characterised by a range of different accents and dialects, some of which can be difficult to understand even for native German speakers. The major distinction is between so-called High German and Low German, although even these dialects still display vast regional differences.
Germany’s northern climate is temperate, with warm summers and fairly mild winters. As you travel further south and east the weather becomes more continental. Temperatures in summer can reach 35°C (95°F), but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule and the average is more like 20°C (68°F). Snowfall is relatively common in winter but is rarely heavy or prolonged, except in mountainous regions.
Safety and security
Germany is one of the safer countries in Europe, with serious crimes rates fairly low. Theft and verbal abuse are probably the most common criminal incidents. However, it is wise to take precautions such as not travelling alone at night and taking care around large crowds – particularly after festivals or sporting events where large amounts of alcohol are on offer. Germany does have something of a reputation for football hooliganism, but serious incidents remain rare.
The education system in Germany is maintained by the state authorities and so there are some regional variations. In most areas, primary and secondary school education is compulsory and children must attend from the ages of around 6 to 18. Unlike in many countries, state education in Germany is often considered to be of a higher standard than private education, so the majority of children attend publicly-funded schools. Although the entire German education system is accessible to expats, many choose a private school for their children on the basis of language or qualification choice.
The academic year in Germany runs from September to July. Most states have a summer holiday of around six weeks, as well as Easter, spring, autumn and Christmas breaks. If you are working in Germany, be aware that many schools only run classes in the mornings, so you may need to arrange afternoon childcare.
Germany has just under 400 higher education establishments, including some of the oldest and most respected institutions in the world. Although all have unique focuses and characters, they are usually considered one of three types:
- Traditional universities – which focus on academic subjects and research
- Universities of applied sciences – which tend to specialise in a particular subject and may take a more practical approach to teaching
- Arts colleges – which offer specialist training in the subjects like art or music
Universities in Germany are ranked annually by the Centre for Higher Education (CHE). To study at university, students must pass an exam known as the Abitar or hold an equivalent international qualification. Like German schools, higher education establishments welcome foreign students provided that they meet entry criteria. For more information, visit the German Academic Exchange Service website. For information relateing to PhDs in Germany see Studying in Germany.
Most German universities are publically funded and for undergraduate courses they charge either nominal fees or no tuition fees at all. Almost all the states have experimented with charging for university education, but most have now abolished these costs. Postgraduate courses or undergraduate courses at privately-owned institutions may be more expensive, but there are various grants and loan schemes to help students with the cost of their education.
German universities offer a diverse range of courses. Most are taught in German but an increasing number also run courses in English and other international languages. Compared to most countries, courses take a long time to complete, with an undergraduate degree typically taking at least four years and postgraduate qualifications at least another year or two. Often, courses can be tailored to the individual, which means that many students take even longer over their studies. The system has been criticised for preventing early entry to the job market and creating a shortage of experienced workers under the age of 30, but despite this Germany’s higher education sector remains one of the most respected in the world.
Research is considered vital to Germany’s continued development and growth and is well supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Funding for research is available from a variety of sources, and universities and private research centres remain keen to attract the brightest and best from all around the world.
Primary and secondary education
Primary school in Germany is called Grundschule, and covers the first four years of school life. The first day of Grundschule is a major rite of passage for youngsters, and schools traditionally welcome them with a bag of sweets called the Schultüte. After primary education is complete, there are four main types of secondary school:
- Gymnasium – a type of grammar school where students take academic subjects in preparation for university
- Realschule – a secondary school with more focus on preparing students to qualify for vocational professions
- Hauptschule – a school that is designed to give students practical working skills
- Gesamtschule – a comprehensive school which combines elements of Realschule and Hauptschule and offers a choice of qualifications at the end
The main preschool options in Germany are Kinderkrippen (for children of less than three years old) and Kindergarten (ages three to six). Attendance at these ages is voluntary, but waiting lists tend to be quite long. Depending on whether the preschool is state-run, privately-run or operated by a church or charity, parents may have to pay fees.
Despite the Euro zone problems, the German economy has remained relatively stable. Although the major metropolitan areas in Germany are more expensive than smaller towns and rural areas, compared to other major European destinations German cities are fairly cheap to live in. Western areas are usually more expensive than the east of the country, but as there are usually better job prospects in the west the difference is not keenly felt. Salaries are considered generous, particularly for skilled expats, and everyday costs like rent and groceries are comparatively low.
There are no restrictions on foreign nationals buying property in Germany. However, it can be difficult to get a mortgage and the taxes and charges associated with purchase, including property transfer tax, notary fees , registration fees and estate agent’s fees, are quite high. As a result, rental accommodation remains the most popular option for expats in Germany. Tenants enjoy considerable legal rights including rent caps and protection against eviction. However, the initial outlay for renting can be costly. As well as the deposit to your landlord, you may have to pay estate agent fees of up to three months’ rent plus tax. Initial rental periods may be up to two years, so unless you are sure you will remain in Germany long-term it may be worth considering a shared apartment or student accommodation as a shorter-term alternative.
Rental deposits are typically one to two months’ rent plus tax in Germany, although legally landlords can request up to three. However, the landlord is responsible for ensuring you receive due interest on this money, so many ask you to put the deposit in a joint account accessible to both parties.
Property owners in Germany must pay local taxes known as Grundsteuer. The rate is determined by the value of the property, but the actual charges vary between municipalities.
Utilities in Germany are normally charged by measured consumption. The cost of energy – and electricity in particular – is amongst the highest in Europe. The easiest option is to register with the local municipal supplier in your area, however in some regions it may be possible to find a cheaper alternative with a competitor if you use a price comparison website to find the best tariff. Telephone and internet provision is a more competitive sector and there are plenty of good deals around.
Germany operates a licensing model to help fund public free-to-air television and radio services. All households must pay a licence fee of around €200.00, although certain demographics are eligible for discounts. Paid satellite TV options are also available.
Healthcare and medical costs
Healthcare in Germany is of an excellent standard and waiting lists are very short. However, this comes at a cost and the law in Germany requires everyone to have some form of health insurance. State healthcare is funded through mandatory deductions from wages. Private insurance usually provides a better level of cover, but the law about who can move between state and private insurance is complex, so it may be best to take advice on your options. For more information, visit the Federal Ministry of Health website.
Germany has plenty of large chain shops and supermarkets, but smaller retailers remain popular and most towns still have several independent shops to choose from, although prices there can be significantly higher. Be aware that many German shops do not accept credit card payments. Shopping is extremely limited on Sundays, with almost no stores open. If you do need to buy something on a Sunday, the best place to go is usually the local railway station as convenience kiosks are usually open.
Most goods and services are subject to a value-added tax, which in Germany is referred to as Mehrwertsteuer or Umsatzsteuer. Prices in the shops are almost always quoted including the tax.
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – €565.11 (≈£452.77) per month
- Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – €416.82 (≈£333.96) per month
- Price of apartment in city centre – €3,071.21 (≈£2,460.66) per square metre
- Price of apartment outside city centre – €2,087.49 (≈£1,672.50) per square metre
- Loaf of bread – €1.36 (≈£1.09
- Milk (1 litre) – €0.74 (≈£0.59)
- Bottled water (1.5 litre) – €0.47 (≈£0.38)
- Draught beer (0.5 litre) – €3.00 (≈£2.40)
- Packet of cigarettes – €5.00 (≈£4.01)
- Petrol (1 litre) – €1.59 (≈£1.27)
- Cinema ticket – €9.00 (≈£7.21)
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed June 2014)
Budgeting and savings
There are several major price comparison websites that help consumers in Germany make informed decisions about purchases and financial issues. Most are easily accessible via search engine, however they tend to be German language only.
As per its international reputation, Germany’s autobahn network is well-maintained and does not charge tolls. However, its most famous feature – having no speed limit – is in fact only partially true. Many of the busier sections do have enforced speed controls, and a recommended limit of 130kph (≈80mph) is in place across the rest of the network. The limit on most other roads is 100kph (≈60mph), dropping to 50kph (≈30mph) in urban areas. Unlike in some countries, speed cameras may legally be hidden. In Germany, you drive on the right-hand side of the road.
Drivers who hold a valid licence from any EU country, as well as Iceland, Norway or Liechtenstein, may drive in Germany without time restrictions. If you hold another international licence, you can use it for between six months and a year, but then you must apply for a German licence and may have to take a written or practical test. When driving in Germany, you must have your licence, vehicle documents and insurance paperwork with you at all times. You are also required to carry a warning triangle and first aid kit. All passengers must wear seatbelts and children under the age of 13 must sit in the back of the car.
German taxis are typically cream-coloured sedan type vehicles with yellow signs on the top. They are available in all the main cities around any airport or public location. All are required to have a visibly displayed meter and the fares are regulated by local authorities, although rates vary between different jurisdictions. Be aware that drivers are allowed to charge extra for nights, weekends, credit card payments, carrying animals or transporting luggage.
Despite the developed transport infrastructure, buses remain the most common form of public transport in German cities. Services also run frequently in smaller towns, with only rural locations short of services. In larger cities, there are often several bus companies competing on similar routes to each other.
As a highly economical and relatively comfortable way to get around Germany and out into neighbouring European countries, coach services are popular with tourists and backpackers. However, for quicker journey times, the railways and air travel may be better options.
With over 40,000km (≈25,000miles) of track, the railway network in Germany is one of the most comprehensive in the world. The trains are modern, comfortable and usually punctual. The major operator is Deutsche Bahn. Although fares can be on the expensive side, the high-speed train services are the quickest way to travel and will take you to most of the major cities in Germany as well as several destinations beyond the German borders. Regular travellers can save money with a BahnCard or by taking advantage of advance fare offers.
Trams and light rail
Many German cities have tram systems, particularly in eastern regions. Most are fairly old systems now and are perhaps not the quickest way to travel, but they remain a popular choice with commuters who are looking to avoid traffic. Germany also has many light railway systems (S-Bahn) in operation in urban areas. These are not to be confused with the underground U-Bahn networks boasted by some of the larger cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt or Munich. For more information on services near you, check your city or state website.
Germany has a large number of commercial airports serving domestic and international destinations around the world. Frankfurt Airport is the main hub for the German flag carrier Lufthansa, and over a hundred airlines operate services through the airport to more than 250 destinations. Other major international airports include Munich, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Hamburg. As well as international flights, airlines operate regular domestic services between the major cities of Germany. Most are reachable in less than an hour, but time spent in the airports means that high-speed train services are often a more time-efficient way to travel.
Other ways to get around
Cycling is popular in Germany and in many cities there is a safe cycling infrastructure to encourage this eco-friendly form of transport. Sea transport is still important for freight, with large ports like Hamburg and Bremerhaven handling vast tonnage every week. A series of canals brings shipping inland and boat services on rivers, lakes and canals have become popular with tourists looking for a more relaxed way to see the country.
Despite the German reputation for efficiency and hard work, the average hours per worker per week are in fact lower than in many countries. German law allows a maximum of 48 hours per week – 8 hours per day from Monday to Saturday – although most businesses work 40 hours over a five-day week. Under certain circumstances, the working week may be extended to 60 hours. Working times are usually flexible, although regular breaks must be observed. Some companies restrict the number of hours employees can work, and if overtime is permitted it is usually compensated with additional time off.
Holiday entitlement in Germany is considered fairly generous, with full-time employees who work six days per week entitled to a minimum of 24 days of paid leave per year. Those who work five days are entitled to 20 days per year, while those on part-time hours receive pro-rated holiday allowances. Sick leave and maternity leave allowances are also comparatively generous. However, there may be restrictions on taking leave during the first six months of a new contract, so make sure you check with your employer.
The number of public holidays in Germany varies between states. There are nine nationally observed public holidays, while local holidays mean some states enjoy 13 days off.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Epiphany: 6th January (Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt only)
Good Friday: 30th March
Easter Monday: 2nd April
Labour Day: 1st May
Ascension Day: 10th May
Whit Monday: 21st May
Corpus Christi Day: 31st May (Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland only)
Assumption Day: 15th August (Bavaria and Saarland only)
German Unity Day: 3rd October
Reformation Day: 31st October (Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia only)
All Saints’ Day: 1st November (Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland only)
Christmas Day: 25th December
Boxing Day: 26th December
Visas and eligibility to work
Freedom of movement within the European Union means that the majority of EU citizens are permitted to enter Germany without additional documentation, but people from many non-member states will require an entry visa. You can check your eligibility to travel on the Federal Foreign Office website. To remain in Germany in the long term, non-EU citizens will also need a residence permit, which may be granted on a temporary or permanent basis. EU citizens no longer require this permit, but like everyone else they must register with their local residents’ registration office – usually located in the town or city hall. Although there are some restrictions on foreign workers in Germany, highly-qualified individuals may be eligible to apply under the Blue Card scheme.
In Germany the tax year runs from 1 January to 31 December. You will need to apply for a Taxpayer ID Number and your employer will then deduct income tax from your wages using the ELStAM system. The amount of tax you pay will depend on your income and residency status. You are usually considered a resident for tax purposes after 6 months of working in Germany. Non-residents are taxed on their German income only, but are not eligible for the tax free personal allowance afforded to residents.
Pension contributions are deducted from the wages of almost all workers in Germany as part of the social security system, which also covers health, nursing care, unemployment and accident insurance. The amount paid to each insurance fund is a fixed percentage of your total wage, although this is split between employee and employer contributions. Most foreign nationals will pay in the same as German citizens, but there are some exceptions. For example, foreign workers who are temporarily seconded to a German branch of their employer may be able to continue contributing to their pension fund at home while they are in Germany. For more information, visit the Deutsche Rentenversicherung website.
The German social security system is accessible to foreign nationals, with unemployment and incapacity support among the benefits that can be claimed. However, while some benefits are granted immediately, others are only available after a certain duration of residency. Visit the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs website to find out more.
Since 2006, the rights of disabled workers in Germany have been protected under the General Equal Treatment Act, which also prohibits discrimination against any person for reasons of ethnicity, gender, religion or ideology, age or sexual orientation. Employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled workers, in line with EU directives.
The German workplace is hierarchical, with job roles compartmentalised, rules and procedures imperative and decision-making typically top-down. At the boardroom level there may be a more committee-based approach to defining strategy, but once agreed it will be filtered through the organisation in a direct and authoritative manner. Communication channels are well-ordered, ensuring that every team member knows what is expected of them, although the system overall can be inflexible and therefore slow to change.
Despite their relatively short hours, Germans are hardworking and efficient. Managers usually have proficiency in the industry they work in, although a large part of their job is to delegate work to the most appropriate person. Staff and management are not usually familiar or close, but employees expect managers to look after them and communicate clearly to ensure the team succeeds. Germans are direct communicators and have a tendency to express opinions or criticise ideas openly. This can sometimes be perceived as aggressive or rude, but should not be taken personally.
People in Germany can appear extremely formal in business situations to begin with. Titles and surnames are generally the norm for initial introductions, so address people as Herr (Mr) or Frau (Mrs/Ms), or use their professional or academic titles. If you are communicating in German, use the formal ‘Sie’ pronoun rather than ‘Du’ until invited to do otherwise. It is usually advisable to keep communication direct and to the point, although humour can be appreciated when appropriate.
Germans value their privacy and most prefer to keep their public and private lives separate. Rapport is not considered essential for successful working relationships, just mutual understanding and common goals. This lack of intimacy can be perceived as cold or aloof, but in reality it is simply an extension of a characteristic directness and formality.
Business dress in Germany is typically understated, with most people dressing smartly for work. Traditional business suits remain commonplace, but more and more companies are taking a relaxed approach and some will allow business casual or even casual dress, so it’s best to check ahead of a meeting or when starting a new job.
When introductions are made the hierarchy is usually respected. The most senior people are introduced and greeted first, although everyone in the room should then be greeted in turn. A firm handshake is the norm, but greetings are usually brief and then it is straight on to business with minimal small talk. Business cards may be exchanged at any point and without ceremony.
In a culture that values efficiency and planning, it is important to respect people’s time. Punctuality is therefore imperative, so avoid being early or late as this will disrupt the plans of others. Meetings, appointments or conference calls should be booked well in advance and any changes to the schedule communicated clearly to all parties with as much notice as possible.
Business meetings in Germany are usually highly-structured and stick to the agreed agenda. Small talk is not common as most people want to get on with the matter at hand. Businesses in Germany place a heavy emphasis on planning, consultation and risk evaluation, so Germans will want to have written documentation confirming any proposals or plans before they make decisions. It is important to prepare thoroughly for meetings, especially if you are presenting an idea or concept – and always be ready for challenging questions. When meetings close, some Germans signal their approval by rapping their knuckles on the table.
In Germany, it’s usually best to avoid asking personal questions of your colleagues as many people find this uncomfortable. You should also remember that to some people German mannerisms can seem unfriendly, but this may not be the case at all so try not to take offence or react negatively.
Although German is the dominant language of the country, the majority of people in Germany have extremely good understanding of English and can speak the language fluently. Many are happy to conduct business in English, but it is always worth checking beforehand in case translation is required – particularly when contracts or official documents are involved.