Berlin, Germany Report of what it's like to live there - 08/25/23
Personal Experiences from Berlin, Germany
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
I've lived in Central Asia and Europe before.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Our home city is Fairfax, VA. Getting from Berlin to the WMA is harder and more expensive than you think. Recently (United) start running direct flights to the WMA (Dulles), but it's only seasonal and it's not a contract carrier. In our experience the Berlin airport, while nice and new, is not what you'd expect for a major European capital in terms of offerings and flights, perhaps in material part because Lufthansa continues to exert so much pressure in favor of Frankfurt as Germany's primary airport.
3. How long have you lived here?
A little over two years.
4. What years did you live here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Diplomatic mission (I work at the U.S. Embassy).
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Family embassy housing can be good, but the commute to the downtown chancery is somewhat long. It takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes depending upon whether you're driving, biking, or taking public transportation.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and produce plentiful and, as compared to other major European cities, cheap. Germans don't like chemicals so some household supplies will be hard to come by. You won't have a garbage disposal. This may make you a little crazy, but of course Germans think we're crazy to have them. Separating recyclables is its own recreational activity here.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Potent OTC medicines and robust cleaning supplies. Beyond that, the usual "American expat in Europe" bundle: chocolate chips, Bisquick, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
As a rule, food offerings are more diverse and of higher quality as you move from the edge of the city in toward the center. In the suburbs (where family Embassy housing is located) in-person dining centers on German/Biergarten and Italian options; delivery and takeout options are somewhat limited. There are one or two decent pizza delivery places, one particularly good Vietnamese place, and a lot of other assorted German and Italian options.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
For the most part, no, but be aware that wasps are plentiful in Berlin, and (by and large) killing them is forbidden. It's a common practice to put a coaster over your drink while dining outside, so as to keep wasps from dropping in.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch mail work great and can be picked up either downtown or at the consular annex, depending on what you choose. German mail and package delivery can be hit-or-miss (DHL and Hermes will often stick a "we attempted delivery" notification on your door though you were home and would have heard the bell, thus forcing you to pick your package up from a local center during relatively limited hours); set your default delivery preferences early when you arrive ("in the shed", "front door is always okay," etc) to help mitigate this.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Labor costs in Berlin are quite high as compared to other places you may be/have been posted, and this definitely impacts the availability and cost of all types of household help. It's not too challenging to find a housekeeper, but finding child care help has been a real struggle for many families we know. If you know in advance that you may need either live-in or part-time child care assistance, I would strongly suggest starting the search well before you arrive. This is doubly true if you have more than one child or a child with any sort of special needs.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are small but well-stocked gyms at both the Chancery and the annex, and they're free to use. There are other commercial options in the suburbs, as well as a few major chains catering to different categories of customer - Fitness First is like a Gold's, whereas Holmes Place and Aspria are like an Equinox. They're all fine, but - and I don't mean this unkindly, just descriptively - customer service is not a priority in Germany, and that extends to gyms.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit card use - once so rare in Germany - is at least much more common in Berlin since COVID. So long as you have a chip/touch-based credit card and maybe 50-100 euros with you at any time, you'll usually be fine. ATMs are plentiful downtown but not in the suburbs; most people I know who work at the Chancery get their cash at the Chancery ATM rather than at an ATM near where they live.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Can't say for sure as I'm an atheist. I've seen signs for English language Christian services of various types, but mostly downtown. There's a reasonably robust LDS community, but I believe the only English language temple is also downtown. Don't expect much in terms of Jewish life here, at least not catering to English-speaking and/or Reform/ Reform-like communities. If you're either a German speaker or Conservative / Orthodox (or both), you'll be fine.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Very little German is needed to get around downtown. In the suburbs and as you move away from central Berlin, English is less common. Many Germans speak English (and often speak it very well) but will (particularly in the 'burbs or outside Berlin) more or less refuse to speak it, not out of hostility, but (often) out of a genuine belief that their English is poor (it's not). Local language classes, at least in Berlin, are readily available (this is true generally, likely in part as a result of German immigration laws requiring all immigrants to learn at least basic German) but not always affordable - see my note on labor costs above.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. No two ways about it - there isn't a "German ADA" and it shows. Width of doorways, building access, easy access to toilets - none of that is reliably straightforward. One saving grace is that Berlin is a very flat city, so if you're on wheels (or pushing wheels) you won't have to struggle as much as you might in other cities. City buses are reasonably well-equipped for wheelchair (and stroller) users, but the U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems can be hit or miss.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. The public transportation system in Berlin is great by almost any measure. The yearly "environmental pass" is pricey up front but quickly pays its way if you commute via public transportation.
2. What kind of vehicle(s) including electric ones do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, infrastructure, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car or vehicles do you advise not to bring?
This will sound wild, but I wouldn't recommend bringing or buying a German car; there have been intermittent (but, in the aggregate, frequent) spates of German cars being stripped for parts, even in the suburbs. By contrast, no-one I know who brought a Honda, for example, has had any trouble. If you bring a car, bring a sturdy vehicle that can handle cobblestones and for which parts are readily available. I wouldn't recommend leasing - dealers are tremendously picky about the state of the car upon return and are known to charge thousands of euros for tiny scratches.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, and in the suburbs, I'd suggest Telekom. If your social sponsor can work with the Management Assistance Center (MAC) to set up your internet before you arrive you'll be in a much better position (and can bridge the first few days immediately with Lieferando, Rewe delivery, and Amazon.de).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I kept my American number and Google Fi service for the entirety of my time here and no issues. My only German number was my Embassy-issued phone. My partner bought a Lidl (grocery store) German SIM upon arrival, stuck it in a candy bar phone, and tops it up through an app.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Unknown as we don't have pets. I will say that, as with childcare, finding good pet sitters can be a challenge, or so I've heard.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
The spousal employment struggle is real, and the challenges faced by spouses in trying to obtain or bring over employment have resulted in at least two families that I know of shorting out of Berlin. If your spouse has a USG job, I've found the Embassy HR team to be tremendously supportive in navigating DETO agreements, but I would strongly suggest starting that process immediately upon assignment, especially if your spouse's agency isn't accustomed to sending people overseas. If your spouse works in the private sector, it seems to be much more of a challenge (not from the Embassy side but usually from the side of an employer that needs convincing that they won't have to pay German taxes on your spouse's salary). Start early and be prepared for this to be one of the hardest things about moving here.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots. Fewer if you don't speak any German, but still lots. In my experience Germans of all backgrounds tend to be very civic minded and very interested in volunteering. To this day the Berlin community response to the first wave of Ukrainian refugees in early 2022 remains one of the things that's most impressed me about Germany and the Germans.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Like any city, some parts of town are or can be unsafe at night.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care here is...okay. By and large German medicine is very "non-interventionist" and you'll have a hard time getting, say, prescription medications started by a German doctor. Likewise, getting an X-Ray can require some real effort, as German medicine is VERY radiation-phobic. Going to urgent care can involve long (3-6 hour) waiting times and can be a challenge to navigate without German. That said, the med unit at the Embassy is top-notch. Lean on them for help (and get with them early) and you and your family will be a-okay.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality vis-à-vis pollution: very good, I'd say. But air quality vis-à-vis pollen (of all types) can be rough. Figure out any necessary shots before you arrive and bring all the Benadryl / Claritin you might ever want *with you* and you'll be fine.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
SAD can be a real thing here. Hear me now, believe me later: plan on going somewhere sunny your first winter here. Just do it. Mallorca, Grand Canary, southern Spain, whatever. It doesn't need to be hot, but don't lose a winter to scoffing at Germans who all go to Mallorca every January. They do it for a reason.
More generally, if you suffer from ongoing or situational anxiety or depression, be sure to have a plan for therapy and/or meds before you arrive. See my note on German "non-interventionist medicine" above.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Pretty temperate. It hasn't gotten either too cold or too hot while I've been here. Don't expect snow in winter - that's what Bavaria is for.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are three primary options for the Embassy community. Each has its strengths and weaknesses; while we love ours (the smallest and least frequently picked option of the three) I'm reticent to say it's a good fit for everyone. Don't wait on the CLO to tell you what the differences are, especially since they tend to change and vary widely by age group. We don't use buses but school bussing (all commercial/private) has been a real sore point for parents lately.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
It depends so much on the school. I will say that navigating the younger ages / Kita with a special needs little one seems to have been really challenging here for at least two families that I know of.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
For school-aged kids, JFK is your best choice if what you need is after school care - nothing compares to JFK Hort. We don't have a Kita-aged child but the Kita process can be daunting - start early and lean on the Embassy for help here.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Sorta. If your kid likes soccer you're set. Other activities are, I would say, much less common. There's not culture of after school activities, gymnastics, swim, etc. quite the way there is back home - just be prepared for that. That said, swimming is taught in school, which is great.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
If you live in one of the consolidated Embassy neighborhoods in the suburbs, that community is (or can be) very tight. Otherwise the divided nature of the community (between the Chancery downtown and the annex in the suburbs), taken in tandem with the sheer size of the city, tends to cut against a super tight Embassy community. Expect a little closer-knit than London but much less close-knit than, say, Accra or Belgrade.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Biergartens, tennis clubs, running and biking groups, spontaneous hangouts in the Embassy neighborhood parks and playgrounds.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This city is great for all the no-kid couples I know, pretty great for families, and anywhere ranging from okay to terrific for singles.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
I mean this kindly, but (with important exceptions) most Germans you will encounter formed their friendships in elementary school aren't looking for new friends. This is less true as you get into more recent arrivals and Germans of what they call a "Migrationshintergrund" - but I would just be prepared for that. As with any post, be positive and kind, and you will find your people.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Hah! Yes, Berlin is a great city for LGBTQIA expats - possibly one of the best in the world. It's not just the clubbing scene, it's everything.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Anyone with any discernibly non-white heritage can expect anything ranging from micro aggressions to open racism on a daily if not weekly basis - less in Berlin than in some other parts of Germany, but it's there. Germans will frequently say that racism is "an American problem" but it's definitely a German problem too. That said, if you're amenable you can find really robust communities outside the Embassy community.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Kayaking in the Spreewald. It's far and away my most magical memory in Germany (and is a profoundly East German thing to do). The Long Night of Museums. The Grunewald. Formula E at Tempelhof. The zoo and Domäne Dahlem. Thaipark. Street festivals. Karl's strawberry farms. Christmas markets. The philharmonic. All the magical Berlin playgrounds. The Schöneberg city pool. Tropical Islands (don't judge me). There are many adventures to be had outside of Berlin and outside Germany, but I'm trying to name things here that are truly Berlin.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
See above. Be aware that, as cities go, Berlin is not particularly "well-indexed" on Google maps. There's a lot here that's not listed on Google maps or that is listed with incorrect hours. Be a hero and update Google maps entries.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Eh, maybe? Many, many people take a bus or drive to the Polish border for pottery shopping.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Green spaces, great playgrounds, great public transit, plentiful libraries.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It's dark in the winter. Darker than you expect, and there's no snow to brighten it. Sundays can also be surprisingly challenging since everything is closed. German bureaucracy is real; German efficiency, not so much. Prepare for these things and it will help you to enjoy all the other things. Germans, while not so friendly, are by and large principled and really value civic engagement. Don't miss opportunities for real, deep conversation by being too flip; Germans of all stripes LOVE to go real deep, real fast, and if you are too then conversation can be great fun.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Slow grocery-bagging. You gotta bag fast here. Also leave behind your expectations about mowing. Public parks don't get mowed or weed whacked very often - Berliners like to let nature do its thing. This contributes heavily to the insane allergy season here.
4. But don't forget your:
Bicycle, twinkle lights, portable fire pit, allergy and cold medication, and sense of adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
All the obvious ones: Goodbye Lenin, The Lives of Others, Run Lola Run, Wings of Desire, etc. More modern shows, too, like Babylon Berlin. If you can get into at least one long running German show before you arrive (Tatort, Dark, etc.) you'll never want for conversation with Germans. Pick at least one German soccer team and vaguely follow it, it makes things more fun.
6. Do you have any other comments?
It's a fascinating city with a lot of history. Living here is not as easy as you might expect (or hope) for a major European capital, but you can plan your way around most of the challenges if you start early. You'll probably never again live anywhere with as many great parks and playgrounds, so use them. Ratchet your friendliness expectations way, way down and then be pleasantly surprised now and then. It's a European capital but it's also a surreal alternate universe. Have a wonderful tour!