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Country Facts about Germany

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What You Should Know about Living Costs and More in Germany

From the cost of living, driving, and taking public transportation to the country’s history, culture, and social etiquette, our useful guide will outline some key Germany facts you should know before relocating.

When relocating to Germany, there are several practicalities you will need to consider, including driving a car, using public transportation, and having access to healthcare. Throughout this guide, you will find everything you need to know about living in Germany. It outlines mandatory social security contributions, in addition to the prices of food and household goods.

Our guide also offers advice on importing vehicles — which are subject to both import tax and VAT — and obtaining a German driver’s license. You will also have access to other invaluable practical information such as emergency numbers and public holidays.

Practical Information

For the most part, German law enforcement has a good reputation. However, human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have criticized their police for a lack of disciplinary measures for officers accused of using excessive force on demonstrators or mistreating asylum seekers.

German Police

When you deal with the German police – as a witness, a victim, or a potential suspect – don’t be surprised if they don’t speak English or any other foreign languages.

Your embassy or consulate can recommend a lawyer and also send you an interpreter too. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to know your main embassy’s contact details. The diplomatic mission of your country will be able to assist you if you:

  • Need a list of local lawyers and interpreters
  • Want to contact a local doctor for medical treatment
  • Have to get in touch with your family and friends back home to tell them what has happened
  • Need to safely acquire money from relatives or friends
  • Have lost your passport / ID card
  • Need information on the local police and legal procedures

In other circumstances – for instance, in the case of unpaid hotel bills or hospital treatments – your embassy is not responsible for you.

The emergency number for the German police is 110. With 112, you can call the fire department or ambulance services.

Public Holidays in Germany

The regional differences with regard to public holidays are partly due to the two major Christian denominations in the country. While Southern Germany is mostly Catholic, the north is mainly Protestant. In Bavaria, for instance, Catholicism, with its many religious festivals, has always been of great importance. Today, Bavaria is also the federal state with the highest number of public holidays in Germany.

During summer in particular, plenty of local festivals take place – some on Germany’s public holidays, some during the peak tourism season.

Political Holidays in Germany

October 3rd – German Unity Day: Today, politicians and the German people celebrate October 3rd at the Brandenburg Gate, where the Berlin Wall used to separate East and West Berlin. Speeches, free concerts, and fireworks attract countless visitors every year.

May 1st – Labor Day: Nowadays, the celebrations on May 1st are a mixture of many traditions. One is the so-called Walpurgis Night, held on the highest peak of the Harz Mountain Range in the night from 30th April to 1st May.

As superstitious protection from witches and evil spirits, the participants light a bonfire and play the drums. Walpurgis Night has become increasingly popular in recent years. At many other places, there are religious processions of a distinctly Christian nature, e.g. Catholic festivals in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In other towns, you can see colorful maypoles with wreaths of twigs and flowers at village fairs.

However, as in many other countries, May 1st is a public holiday used to emphasize the importance of organized labor, welfare, and social democracy. In Germany’s major cities, left-wing labor unions hold annual rallies with thousands of attendants.

Cost of Living

In 2018, the Mercer Cost of Living Survey, which focuses on expatriates, showed that some German cities experienced the biggest increases in living costs. The average cost of living in Frankfurt and Berlin moved 49 spots up the list, to 68th and 71st respectively, while Munich moved up 41 places to 57th.

Despite this growth, no German city ranked among the 50 most expensive expat destinations worldwide. So, average living expenses everywhere in Germany are currently more affordable than life in, for example, Vienna, Milan, London, and Amsterdam.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) measures changes in the price of an average basket of goods and services. From 2014 to 2018, the CPI in Germany increased from 106 to 112.10 Index Points. In comparison, in the UK, the CPI in 2018 was only 106.7 and the average CPI in the European Union was 104.5. However, such data doesn’t consider regional or personal differences in income and living expenses.

In terms of the Cost of Living Index, you can see below how some German cities compare. The higher the city’s cost of living index, the more expensive it is to live there.

  1. Dusseldorf – 85.64
  2. Frankfurt – 84.17
  3. Hamburg – 81.65
  4. Munich – 80.21
  5. Bonn – 72
  6. Cologne – 71.51
  7. Berlin – 72.5
  8. Karlsruhe – 72.5
  9. Bremen – 67
  10. Leipzig – 66.6

(Data from Numbeo)

Income Differences

What about people with a lower than average expat salary? The necessary minimum expenditure for an individual has been the subject of heated political debate.

German legislation defined the basic cost of living in Germany as EUR 416 per month in 2018. This is the amount that long-term job-seekers and people on welfare receive to cover their everyday expenses. Housing costs are subsidized in addition to that; nonetheless, this sum mostly pays for bare necessities, like food.

If you look at residents with a regular income, the average household net-adjusted income amounted to EUR 33,652 per year in 2018. However, the top 20% of earners take home more than four times as much as the bottom 20%. Please note that this is the net income after taxes and social security deductions.

In the end, how much you spend will depend on your individual situation, particularly housing, the distance from home to work, and marital status. Singles often can’t share rental costs, and they don’t profit from supersize bargains that cover grocery prices. Moreover, married couples benefit from special tax cuts.

Household Budget

In Germany, an employee has to spend about 21% of their gross income on things like mandatory contributions to healthcare, unemployment funds, and the national pension plan. However, this percentage only applies to salaries under a certain cut-off limit, so the cost of living doesn’t necessarily increase for people with fairly high gross incomes.

Germans also pay quite a bit in income tax. However, a good tax consultant can help you find various tax cuts and benefits in the income tax system.

In 2010, people living in Germany spent their remaining income roughly as follows:

  • 30% on accommodation and utilities
  • 10.5% on groceries
  • 10.5% on transportation
  • 8% on leisure activities
  • 4% on the hospitality industry
  • 3% on clothing

The remainder includes miscellaneous smaller items of less than EUR 100 per month, such as personal grooming, pets, individual insurance policies, medication, etc.

In comparison with some other European countries, Germans spend less on food. This happens for two reasons. First, Germans can choose to go grocery shopping at many different small retail outlets and supermarkets. Secondly, Germans have a different attitude towards eating out than, for example, the Italians or the French. Eating out is considered a treat rather than a way of life, which explains the relatively low monthly expenditures at restaurants.

Typical Expenses

You should keep in mind that the VAT is relatively high in Germany, at 19%. For selected goods, such as dairy products or tickets for local public transportation, the VAT only amounts to 7%.

As far as the cost of daily necessities and small luxuries goes, you might pay the following in a larger city:

  • 1.00 EUR for four apples, one liter of long-life milk, or a tube of toothpaste
  • 1.50 EUR for a pound of pre-packaged bread
  • 1.50-3.00 EUR for a cup of coffee to go
  • 7.00-8.00 EUR for a movie ticket
  • 15.00-25.00 EUR for dinner at a standard restaurant (main course plus soft drinks)

Culture and Social Etiquette

In order to describe German customs and social interactions, intercultural consultants like comparing Germans to coconuts. Both have a hard exterior, which may take some time to crack, but are soft and sweet on the inside. Practically speaking, this means that German customs generally impose a certain formality when interacting with strangers and casual acquaintances. Just give them a little time.

German Customs and Etiquette: Proper Forms of Address

When you meet a German for the first time, polite German customs require you to be conservative. Make direct eye contact; shake hands firmly; use a formal greeting, such as “Guten Tag, Herr Schmidt” (“Good day, Herr Schmidt”), or “Guten Morgen, Frau Müller. Es freut mich, Sie kennen zu lernen.” (“Good morning, Ms Müller. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”).

German custom places emphasis on the correct form of address and a person’s title, particularly if you interact with business contacts, a person you have never met before, the elderly, and people entitled to your respect (e.g. your superiors in a business setting or an academic context). Make sure to use the polite way of addressing Germans at first (“Sie”). Also use Herr/Frau (Mr/Ms) + title + last name: for instance, Herr Doktor Meier.

First names and the casual form of address (“Du”) are reserved for friends, family, and younger people, like university students. However, when someone invites you to talk on a first-name basis, you should accept. In young or trendy businesses, though, most people will be on a first-name basis immediately.

German Customs and Etiquette: On the Phone

Politeness is also recommended when making phone calls in Germany. Don’t phone people at home late at night or early in the morning, or during lunch hours from 1.00 to 3.00 pm. Sunday is also a bad time to call anyone.

Always remember to say your full name when answering the phone (“Hallo, John Smith am Apparat.” – “Hello, this is John Smith speaking.”) When calling someone who is not a close friend of yours, treat the person on the other end of line with formal courtesy, even if it’s “only” the receptionist offering to forward your call. (“Guten Tag, hier ist John Smith. Könnte ich bitte mit Herrn Doktor Meier sprechen?” – “Good afternoon, this is John Smith speaking. Could I talk to Dr Meier, please?”).

Driving

The legal age for driving in Germany is 17 with supervision, and 18 unsupervised. However, there are a few more steps you have to go through before you can start driving independently:

  • You have to have at least 14 hours of theory classes with an approved driving school.
  • Legally, you don’t have to complete any practical driving lessons before getting your license.
  • You must pass a theory test and practical exam. Your instructor will decide when you’re ready.

Germany’s Famous Autobahn

When someone mentions driving in Germany, the car enthusiast automatically thinks of the famous Autobahn (the highway system in Germany). Even when you don’t zoom along the Autobahn, driving around the country can be a pleasure due to its modern roads. Germany features nearly 650,000 km of roadways, which are usually immaculately maintained.

This may result in many construction sites, especially along the Autobahn. These are usually well-marked, and detours are clearly signposted. These famous expressways are among the few in the world which have neither a speed limit nor a toll. Rest areas are well-equipped with bathrooms, restaurants, and service stations, and there are over 700 located along the Autobahn.

Considering the efficiency and popularity of the Autobahn among drivers and the central location of Germany in Europe into account, traffic jams are to be expected. The German broadcasting company has implemented a radio frequency that interrupts any program in order to announce recent traffic delays (Staumeldungen) on the Autobahn.

Take note that an Autobahn with an even number runs in an east-west direction, whilst one with an odd number runs from north to south.

Low Emission Zones (LEZ) and the General German Automobile Club (ADAC)

Germany attaches high importance to environmental protection and has introduced Low Emission Zones (LEZ) in almost all of its larger cities. Be careful about entering these zones if you’re not properly registered. To find out where these so-called Umweltzonen are, take a look at the map on the Federal Environmental Agency website.

You can get an appropriate environmental badge that allows you to drive in LEZ at the technical inspection agency (TÜV).

With more than twenty million members, the General German Automobile Club ADAC is the largest of its kind in Europe. If you plan on getting a driving license in Germany, it’s recommended to become a member. Note that you won’t need to get a German license if you already have one from an EU/EEA country. The ADAC offers the following services, among others:

  • Emergency roadside assistance
  • Car insurance and many car and driver services
  • National and international maps
  • Information on toll roads in and sale of toll stickers for neighboring countries

Road Accidents in Germany

In 2017, 583,208 people were involved in accidents on Germany’s roads, causing personal injury. Some 372,144 of those accidents involved cars, 86,460 involved bicycles, and 33,228 involved pedestrians.

If you’re in an accident, you must stay at the scene for at least 30 minutes. You are, however, not obliged to report accidents without injuries, to the police.

If there is no disagreement between the parties involved, it’s usually sufficient to exchange names, addresses, registration numbers, and insurance details.

Taking pictures of the scene and the damaged vehicles is a good idea. However, you should refuse to sign any document admitting your guilt at the scene of the accident. This can cause trouble with your insurance company.

If there are injuries, you’re obligated to offer help, provide first aid, secure the scene, and call an ambulance. If you feel incapable of administering first aid, we strongly recommend refreshing your knowledge before you start driving. The German Red Cross, for instance, offers first-aid courses.

Transportation

Public transportation in Germany’s bigger cities, such as Munich or Berlin, often consists of four different but interconnected systems. The U-Bahn (underground train) and S-Bahn (suburban express train) are usually, albeit not always, the fastest. While the former mostly covers the city center, the latter operates above ground and includes the outskirts for commuter traffic. These modes of public transport in Germany are usually supplemented by tramlines (Straßenbahn) and buses.

The tram is probably the oldest form of local public transport in Germany, dating back to the time of horse-drawn carriages.

Things to Keep in Mind

Entrances to underground stations are marked with blue and white signs, whereas the white letter “S” on a green background indicates an S-Bahn stop.

Usually, all lines converge at the city’s central train station (Hauptbahnhof), where you can change from local public transport to regional trains and long-distance services. In Germany, U-Bahn and S-Bahn doors are operated manually. Once they are closing, they will not open again.

In order to avoid accidents, you should pay attention to the driver’s announcement: Bitte zurückbleiben! (“Please take a few steps back!”). It means that the doors will soon shut.

Germany’s public transport system is often easily accessible to people with disabilities. Lots of underground stations have a lift for wheelchair users, passengers in mobility scooters, or parents with unwieldy baby strollers. If you’re reliant on public transport in Germany and want to know if stations near you are wheelchair-accessible, it makes sense to get in touch with your local public transport provider. They may be able to provide you with specific information or a specific network map.

Traveling by Bus

Buses are the most common type of public transport in Germany. Quite often, there’s a central bus station (Busbahnhof) next to or near the main train station, where all lines arrive and depart. Normally, bus stops are marked with a post carrying the yellow-and-green sign for Haltestelle (stop).

At night and on the weekends, most local transport companies offer so-called night buses (Nachtbusse or Nachtlinien). Some of them cover the hours between 1:00 and 5:00 when most trains, trams, and subways are not running.

Most small towns and rural areas only offer a regional bus system. Bus schedules may vary between regular to almost non-existent, especially on lines aimed at commuter traffic and children going to school in Germany. Such buses only run three or four times a day.

InterNations GO!
by InterNations GO!
05 February 2019
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