This is but a short list and will cover a broad range of topics, and some of them are, of course, people’s personal experiences and impressions and could prove different than yours. So, here it goes. The following were tried and tested by a number of people:
The German language
If you only speak English, you might not have problems at the university or with young Germans, but you will definitely have some difficulties in everyday big or small things! When dealing with German authorities, you will need a good knowledge of the German language, as not everybody speaks (or wants to speak!) English. And although shopping in the supermarket does not require a lot of talking, what do you do if you have a question or a complaint? I remember my first time at the hairdresser’s in Germany – how embarrassing! It had never crossed my mind before that I might need the word “parting” in German. Now I know it. Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that you too will go through a lot of these situations during your stay in Germany and they will prove more difficult and challenging than academic or professional ones. When you study German, do something about the small things too.
There are many things you need to do upon your arrival in Germany within a short period of time. Find someone who would help you with these things, and with your German, until you become proficient yourself!
Make sure you have more money on you when you first arrive in Germany, as there will be many unexpected expenses. I cannot tell you exactly what these will be, as they are different for everyone, but I can assure you that you will have them.
You can open an account with a German bank only if you have a residence permit extending for more than six months. If you are here for a short program, look for other possibilities of managing your money.
And speaking of banks: Before opening an account, see whether that particular bank has an arrangement with a bank from your country, otherwise you might not be able to have money transferred from and into your account between the two countries. If you do not find such a bank, think of other ways to manage your money.
There are also different conditions and charges, so check these with more than one bank first. Some banks offer checking accounts free of charge under certain conditions (for example age and monthly credit to your account). A good idea would be a bank which is a member of the so called Cash Group (five of the largest banks in Germany: Deutsche Bank, Postbank, Dresdner Bank, Commerzbank and HypoVereinsbank). One advantage is that if you have a checking account ( Girokonto) with one of these banks, you can withdraw money from any of the ATMs in either of these banks free of charge. And if your bank is not in the near when you need some cash, you will most probably find one of the others. But do remember that these are not the only banks, and that you can check some other smaller or local banks too.
Another very important thing has to do with the cost of your new apartment. Even if you pay your monthly rent as warm, i.e. including a contribution for the Nebenkosten (your additional costs such as costs of ownership, heating, electricity and water), it does not mean that you will cover all additional costs this way! Toward the end of the year, the actual consumption of heat and electricity will be measured and you will receive a bill for the rest the following year! This end bill can be somewhere from 30 euros to some hundred euros per apartment depending also on the number of tenants! So be careful how you use these resources and plan to have some more money available at the end of the year, and do not spend everything on Christmas gifts!
A good way to get around and to get some exercise at the same time is to have a bicycle. You will see that many students use bikes and it will also be cheaper. You can easily buy a used bike, and on some campuses, you even have technical assistance for your bike. When driving or walking you will see that there is often a bike lane along the pedestrian lane, which is marked and easily recognizable.
If you plan to visit other parts of Germany too, a good idea would be to get the so called BahnCard, an offer of the German Railway, by which you can save on long distances. There are three types of Bahn-Cards. Go to a DB railway station or the internet for more information. And since we are talking about moving around by train, you should know that if you buy your train tickets from ticket machines or online, they will be somewhat cheaper than at the desk. In both cases you can select the language (you can choose between German, English, French, Italian, and Turkish) and then only follow the instructions. At some bigger train stations you may even find Ticket Machine Guides who will gladly explain to you how everything works. Anyway, you should not find this too difficult.
Places to visit
Speaking of visiting, there are many musts when in Germany. You probably have your own list already. Here is a list of places that friends of mine and myself have visited and would recommend to you as well:
- Try first museums in your city (in some cities, like Bonn, when you register you will get a free pass for all museums in the city! Great!);
- Cologne and the Cathedral;
- the carnival in Cologne which is called the fifth season of the year (you will either love it or hate it!);
- Haribo in Bonn (if you love these gum bears you will enjoy your visit here);
- big cities like Berlin, Munich or Hamburg (and not only);
- a boat trip on the Rhine or the Mosel on a sunny summer day (you should also stop over in some picturesque small village with one of those old castles – perfect!);
- the Christmas market in your town with typical German bakery products, mulled wine and sausages (delicious!); and all other traditional festivities – it will be well worth your time.
From this list it is quite obvious that most of these places are in the western part of Germany, in North Rhine Westphalia, but you can ask your older colleagues what they think the musts are in the region where you will be studying.
Keeping in touch
Keeping in touch with people in Germany or back home is important, but how can you do that and still avoid high phone bills? Talk less maybe and use more messaging (SMS). If you want to call your home country, it is better to go to a so called “Call Shop” as they have much cheaper rates depending on the country you are calling. You can also use your landline but then choose a provider that offers cheaper rates and dial first the number of that provider and then the number you
want to call. Here you can find some of these providers: www.billiger-telefonieren.de. Before you get your own phone or cell, you can also use pay phones, which operate both by coins and prepaid phone cards.
Another convenient and much cheaper way to keep in touch is the internet. You might have free access to internet at your university. If you want to have it at home, you can find several internet providers in Germany.
I would advise you to have a calendar in which you mark all dates on which every one of your contracts in Germany will enter into force. These can be contracts for your apartment, for the phone or cell, for the internet, or some other contracts, subscriptions and memberships. Some of these contracts may not be time defined and have a termination notice, usually of three months in advance. You should be able to immediately see the beginning and end dates, because if you would like to terminate those contracts but miss this notice deadline, your contract will automatically be extended for the same period of time. You would not like to pay your phone bill in Germany while you may be back in your home country, would you?
Enjoying your time in Germany
Take advantage of everything your university and the municipality of your place of residence, or other private institutions are offering you. This can range from evening classes in different subjects to dance classes! These will be experiences that you will take back home with you and that will have shaped you. You can find some useful information here: studying-in-germany.org
If you are wondering what you could wear here, you do not have to worry about bringing along your old pair of jeans ... Most people wear casual dress most of the times.
A friend of mine said that when preparing to come to Germany one should not only take language and culture classes, but also “thrashology” classes. It is true that Germans are very environmentally conscious, especially when it comes to disposing of trash. If you are taking the trash out and your German neighbors are frowning at you, chances that you have skipped this class too! You have to sort your trash into recyclable, non-recyclable and biodegradable, and dispose of each of these into their own container. But this is not all – you still have paper and glass (sorted by color), and various things like furniture and home appliances you might want to throw away. Make sure you study for your “thrashology” exam too!
Did you know that someone’s trash can be another’s treasure? If you need an extra chair or bookshelf, do not immediately hurry to buy one. You can wait until people will take out their old and sometimes still in good condition furniture or appliances. You will get a trash calendar ( Sperrmüll-Kalender) with the dates when all kinds of trash can be taken out to be picked up.
Thanks to the previous points, it will always be a delight to take walks in the many clean parks and woods surrounding cities. Most cities have a wonderful architecture tastefully incorporated into nature. You can easily find an oasis in the middle of the city at lunch time! Unfortunately, I have to admit that in bigger cities, and especially in parts of those cities where a lot of foreigners live, things can look a little different.
If you come from a country where it is considered polite to address people in an indirect way, you might experience a culture shock in the beginning! If people are telling you in your face that you are wrong, do not get offended. Get used to it! Most people prefer a direct communication style. This can also mean that if people know they are right or know they have a certain right, they will openly argue, demand or complain about things. And sometimes, if you want to get your point across, you might have to learn to complain too.
You might also find different socializing rules than in your country. One thing worth remembering is invitations. Outings, visits, dinners and other socializing events are organized in advance and invitations are made. Now do not think about formal written invitations! Such an invitation can be made spontaneously during breaks, while on another socializing event, or on the phone.
Are Germans cold?
Sometimes you hear things like “Germans are cold, serious, or do not have a sense of humor”. Funny, I have actually met very few people like that! What you do have, for example, is a clearer distinction between private and social or professional spheres. At first, people just need to get to know you and feel comfortable around you. This is why, if you speak the language or are willing to improve it, barriers will start to melt down. Relationships are not immediately built, but they will be deeper and longer lasting.
Even if you are a woman struggling alone with your baggage at the airport or train station, men will not automatically volunteer to help (although older ones might). But if you kindly ask for a hand, they will be glad to give it to you. Remember – direct communication.
At the end of this tried and tested list, I would like to remind you once again that these are only some personal experiences and you should not generalize them. Please keep in mind that these are more people issues rather than country or nationality issues.
This article is an extract from Study in Germany - A comprehensive guide for foreign students. Click here to get a copy now.