Germany Thus Far: 14 Months

November is about gone, and the new year is just around the corner. This month has been a wild ride. To be honest, I’m glad it’s almost over.

Around Konstanz

Several things happened this past month here in Konstanz. First, the weather has become quite gray and cold. Today, I was pleasantly surprised with some sunshine, but I know that the fog will descend again soon. November was when I started hating Konstanz’s winter last year as well.

On the other hand, the good thing about winter in Konstanz is that the Christmas market is going! Several weeks ago, the stalls were being built up. On Friday, I had my first trip there where I ate some delicious falafel from one of the food stands. (I have a falafel addiction….) I was also there again yesterday.

The second time around, I bought some waffles which were more like crepes to me. I think that it will be a long time before I get over the fact that waffles and pancakes in Germany are just not as fluffy as in the States.

Finally, after a wait that was more than the one month which the Immigration Office mentioned, I was told my residence permit arrived! Thankfully, I didn’t need an appointment like last year (if I had to get an appointment, it would have taken several more months). Instead, I could go to the Immigration Office’s Service Center and pick it up in about five minutes (after waiting 30 minutes in line).

In the Books

Studies are moving along this month. I gave one presentation in my Political Economy of Asylum Policy seminar, and it went well. Now I am preparing for midterms which are coming up in the next month. I also have several presentations coming up in January and February which I should prepare for in the meantime. Okay, let’s be real. I’m going to procrastinate.

Speaking Deutsch

As usual, my German is getting better. In fact, my German is almost getting too good. When I tell people that I’m in a B1-level course, they seem to think that means that I am conversational in German. Yes, I can talk about some things, but my confidence is shaky and my vocabulary is still growing. I guess I’d better watch some more ZDF (a “free” German television network financed by the government, which charges all residents of Germany).

Cheers!

Germany Thus Far: 13 Months

October: the month that we are supposed to be decorating for Halloween. Instead, you see Christmas-themed products in the stores already. Yes, even in Germany they put the Christmas stuff out way too early!

This past month was also my transition from the summer holiday to a new semester. As you may remember, Germany starts their semesters later than in the States.

Travel

This month my grand travel plans consisted of walking or biking to the uni. Not too exciting. However, one exciting trip I took across town was for my residence permit. You can find out more about that bureaucratic nightmare here. Still waiting to pick up my residence permit.

You could also say another travel-related item this month was exercising my right to vote abroad. I faithfully filled out the bubbles on my ballot and mailed it to my voting authority. Last week I received confirmation that my ballot was in the ballot box! I hope that any American citizen reading this already got out or will get out and vote today. I’m interested to see how the world reacts to the winner of the highest office in the land.

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Studies

On October 24, lectures for the winter semester started at the University of Konstanz. This is my third semester in the program. What this means is that it is the last that I will be taking a full load of lectures and seminars. In the final semester, I will largely be focused on my Master’s thesis.

This semester I’m especially looking forward to a seminar on asylum policy and another on welfare states, inequality, and redistribution. As I write this post, I’m actually taking a break from reading about party-voter linkages. Wow, that makes me feel nerdy to see those words on-screen…

German

I’m also starting a new German course this semester. I have reached a whole new level of achievement with my German because I am starting a B1-level course.

In just one year I have managed to learn a lot. During my A2/2 course last semester, I talked to a few students who said that they have been in Germany for two years already and were just finishing the A2/2 course. They had taken every course in order (A1/1, A1/2, A2/1, A2/2) in contrast to my skipping courses (I only had A1/2 and A2/2). This is not to say that German is easy for me. On the contrary, I find it quite the challenge.

Alright, October. That’s a wrap! Next time I write about October I will be done with uni. What a terrifying thought…

Cheers!

Staying: A Bureaucratic Story

My Residence Permit

Ladies and gentleman, let me tell you a tale. I once moved to Germany. The International Office of the university was extremely helpful. They had all of the paperwork that we needed together and reviewed it with us before we had our appointments at the Immigration Office. They also assisted us with registering with the city, which must be done within two weeks of becoming a  new resident of any town in Germany.

During orientation activities, representatives from two major health insurance companies as well as representatives from banks came to the university for us to sign up with. This is required in order to get a residence permit.

With all of the application materials in hand, I went to the Immigration Office where the International Office also had staff to help the process along. I handed over my papers, and dutifully allowed the immigration official to scan my fingerprints. Then, I was informed that I would be notified when my residence permit arrived from Berlin.

A month later, I went back to the office to retrieve my newly-minted residence permit. Finally, I was the proud owner of a little card that would allow me to stay in Europe longer than the three months allowed to tourists. I was happy and legally residing in Germany until…

That residence permit had to be renewed.

A Wild Goose Chase

Obtaining my first residence permit was made to be easy thanks to the amazing International Office at the University of Konstanz. Unfortunately, they do not have the same services for students renewing their residence permits.

I knew that I would need to schedule an appointment. The papers that the Immigration Office give you when you apply in the first place state, “Please apply for your new residence permit approximately 6 weeks before your current residence permit expires.”

I contacted them well over 2 months before my residence permit was due to expire. They responded back telling me that the next available appointment would be October 10. That was one day before my current residence permit expired.

Here’s a bit of advice to anyone seeking a meeting with the Immigration Authorities of Germany: Apply crazy early for an appointment. Due to the influx of refugees, the workload in Immigration Offices has increased. The problem is, Germany hasn’t hired enough employees to help manage the workload. Therefore, if you want a meeting, you should ask early or you will overstay your residence permit.

Anyway, meeting date and time in hand, I set about collecting the documents I needed. I tell you, I have never been on such a wild goose chase in my life. The documents needed for a residence permit renewal are:

  • Application for residence permit extension
  • Current passport
  • Current residence permit with sheet explaining work allowance
  • Current enrollment
  • Current health insurance
  • Proof of financial resources
  • Biometric passport photos
  • Fee (€80)

Let’s walk through these one at a time, shall we?

Application

The Verlängerungsantrag, or application for extension, can be found in your local Immigration Office. That’s the easy part. Once you take the thing home, you have to fill it out. You’ll be asked about your background, what you’re doing here, and all that good stuff.

There are a few things that you might want to know. First, when you are asked for your eye color, “hazel” is not an appropriate response. The Germans apparently do not have hazel eyes, so you’d better settle for writing “green.”

Second, when you are asked about the size of your accommodation, you should write at least 12 m². This is the minimum, because living with less is apparently inhumane for normal immigrants, although it is okay to stuff an entire family of refugees into one little room. Criticism of the handling of refugees aside, you really need to watch this one. Note that this is meters squared per person living in your flat.

Current Passport and Residence Permit

This one is the easiest. All you have to do is bring the documents that you already have. Just remember to check that your passport is still valid through the entire period for which you are requesting a new residence permit.

Current Enrollment

The Immatrikulationsbescheinigung is pretty easy to get if you know where to go. At the University of Konstanz, you just have to go to the Studierenden-Service-Zentrum (SSZ), or Student Service Center. Ask for an Immatrikulationsbescheinigung mit Bestätigung über das voraussichtliche Studienende. In English, that’s a certificate of matriculation including the expected completion date of your studies.

The document is just a quick printout stating that you are enrolled. At the bottom, the woman preparing my certificate made a stamp, wrote down the day next year that is the end of my studies officially (forever!), signed her initials, and then slapped an official university stamp on it. Done.

Current Health Insurance

If you live in Germany, you are required to have health insurance. My student health insurance is about €90 per month, which is reasonable considering it covers the doctor, emergency rooms, the dentist, and the optometrist. In case you’re wondering, I have not had to use it in the emergency room. (Knock on wood, please.)

What you need is a current Mitgliedsbescheinigung, or membership certificate. The little insurance card that they give you is not accepted. What I had to do was contact my health insurance and request one of these certificates, which is really just a letter saying I have coverage.

I accidentally ended up getting this twice. I contacted my health insurance representative, and he sent me one… in English. I thought that was not going to slide. To be safe, I went to the office and requested another one in person. This time, I made sure my certificate was in German.

Proof of Financial Resources

Oh, dear. This one might have made me crazy. I will try to give you the most condensed version of the story possible. First, you should know that students are required to finance the entire duration of their stay up front. What this means is that you need something that says you will not become broke, homeless, and starving while living in Germany.

One way to do this is to get a bunch of financial documents from your parents or another person willing to support you showing that they have enough money or income to do so. If you do this option, it has to be renewed every two years of your time in Germany. This is not really an option for me, so I took the alternative.

The alternative is having all of your money put into a blocked account which dispenses a monthly allowance. How much money, you ask? The required minimum amount goes up beginning January 2017. It will now be €720 per month, which adds up to €8,640 for a full year. To help take the edge off, you can subtract from that total with a work contract. I happen to have a student job at the university, so I combined savings in a blocked account and a work contract.

This is all very good in theory. Here’s how it actually went down. I go to get a new blocked account from my bank, and instead find out that they do not offer this service anymore. The International Office at the university tells me a few options, and I chose to go to Sparkasse to set up my blocked account. I filled out my Sperrvermerk Bescheinigung, or certificate for getting a blocked account, and headed over to the bank.

The fee to do set up this account is €50, which annoys me because last year it was free to do at Commerzbank. I guess this is okay since some banks charge as much as €100. I handed over my Sperrvermerk Bescheinigung and passport. After lots of waiting while the bank employee tapped around on her keyboard, I paid the fee and handed over the money that I needed to block. Then, I received the documents that I needed. Check… almost.

I found out some time ago that there has been an ongoing dispute between the Immigration Office of Konstanz and the International Office of the university. the Immigration Office doesn’t like to accept contracts for student jobs as part of the proof of finances.

A meeting was set between the International Office and Immigration Office to discuss this issue on the day after my appointment at the Immigration Office. This left me nervous, but I had to try using my contract since I didn’t have any more money.

Biometric Passport Photo

I thought passport photos would be easy. Wrong. The cheap photo booth that I used last year is unfortunately gone. I did some research and decided to try a local photography shop in town. After I found it in the winding streets of Old Town, the boy who was working was able to take my photo right away. I only had to wait ten minutes for the photos.

Simple enough in the end, but I have a word of caution yet again. Whenever you apply for a new permit, you must have photos that were recently taken. I did mine the week before my appointment.

Furthermore, the Immigration Office will say to bring one passport photo. What they really mean is that you need two. One photo should be pasted into the application where indicated; the other photo will be handed over during the appointment and attached to a different piece of paper.

Fee

The fee to renew a permit is €80. If, like me, you find yourself with a late appointment, then your residence permit will expire before you get the new one. In this case, you will need a Fiktionsbescheinigung, or temporary permit, which will last until you get a new permit. The cost for this is €20. Really, I ended up paying €100.

Day of Reckoning

All documents, photos, and fees in hand, I arrived at the Immigration Office at the appointed hour on the day of reckoning. When I was called in, I sat down and had a small exchange in German to explain that I preferred English, although I do understand some German. Redundant, I know.

One after another, I handed over my documents. When we got to the proof of finances bit, the immigration official informed me that the acceptance of my contract would depend on the outcome of the meeting happening on the following day. I would be contacted later with the decision.

I signed some documents which stated that I understood I will have to leave Germany when my residence permit expires. I signed some others for various things not worth mentioning here.

At some point, I noticed that the immigration official had a rather thick stack of papers clipped together with my name on the front of it. For a moment, I was really freaked out by how much information they had collected on me already after just a year. Then, I though about how much information the NSA probably has on me, and I wasn’t bothered by it so much anymore.

After shuffling more papers between us, I had my fingerprints scanned again. I guess they wanted to make sure that I hadn’t changed them in the past year. After this, the temporary permit was handed over in exchange for my hard-earned €100. My job was done. All I had to do was wait.

Confirmation

The meeting about the student job contracts was held the next day. Fortunately, it worked out in my favor. I was informed by the Immigration Office that my application was being accepted and sent to Berlin.

In the coming weeks, a shiny, new residence permit will make its way from Berlin to my little corner of Germany down on the border with Switzerland. After it arrives, I will be summoned back to the Immigration Office to receive it. Thus, this story is to be continued….

*This information is based on my experience as an American citizen applying for a student residence permit.