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An Expat's Guide to Living in Berlin

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Kayla Halmaghi
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Has living in Europe lived up to the dream? All of the reasons I thought I would love living in Europe have proven to be true.

My dream of moving abroad started after I spent two weeks in England and France when I was 14 years old. I fell in love with the lifestyle and ease of travel to so many amazing destinations in such close proximity. My teenage infatuation only grew stronger as I got older and I finally made the move abroad last year for a new job in Berlin!

There have certainly been challenging moments, but I remain committed to the dream by striving to appreciate every moment in my new environment - whether good or bad. The good ones remind me why I moved here and the not-so-good ones help me learn and grow! 

Why I Love Living in Berlin

I found my way to Berlin through a career in Human Resources. This doesn’t exactly align with the punk-rock culture and anti-establishment spirit that the city is known for. However, this kind of juxtaposition is what I love most about Berlin. Whatever you are looking for in life, you can find it here.

People may not say hello to you while you're grocery shopping like they do in my home country, but you can come to Berlin as you are and be accepted without judgment. 

I highly recommend Berlin as an expat city. It may lack some of the quintessential European charms of other cities like Paris, London, or those in Northern Italy, but it is an incredibly international city with a lot to offer. It is a melting pot of people from all over the world, which makes for a diverse and ever-evolving art, food, and music scene. There are seemingly endless options of things to do in Berlin.

If you can handle cold winters and don’t mind the hustle and bustle of a big city, Berlin might just win you over! 

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How I Got My Job in Berlin (and You Can, Too!)

I moved to Berlin from Detroit, USA in July of 2021 for my new job. I found my job through LinkedIn after spending about six months applying to jobs all over Europe.

I knew it would be challenging to find a job given that I am a non-EU citizen who requires visa sponsorship and only speaks English. Persistence was the key to successfully landing an offer. I also made a conscious effort earlier in my career to gain niche skills and experiences within my field to help my resume stand out.

If getting a corporate job in Europe is your goal, don’t give up! Apply to as many jobs as possible. It may take time to find a company that will value the unique skills and perspective that you bring to the table.

I also recommend focusing your job search on cities with large expat populations. This will increase your chances of finding a company that will sponsor your work visa and provide relocation support. 

How to Find Accommodation in Berlin

Housing in Berlin is relatively affordable, especially compared to other large European cities. While most won't consider it cheap, I would say it's affordable.

a woman standing on a bridge in Berlin smiling at the camera with a coffee in her hand
Soaking up the sights in Berlin, coffee in hand!

Choosing a Great Neighborhood

Mitte (the city center) can be pricey, but you can still find good value in many other parts of the city. Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain are attractive, popular neighborhoods that don’t come with such hefty house prices.

The German capital has great public transportation and easy-to-navigate bike lanes which makes it easy to experience the entire city regardless of which neighborhood you live in. Most areas of the city have protected bike lanes and separate traffic lights just for bikers. Even novice bikers like me can feel comfortable getting around the city safely on two wheels.

The easiest way to settle on a neighborhood you'll love is to rent an apartment or stay in a cool hotel to really be able to scout out the area. That way you can see what it's like day vs. night and on weekends vs. weekdays.

Navigating the Housing Process

It can be a time-consuming process to find housing in Berlin. There's a lot of competition for apartments here so unless you get lucky and find a great place quickly, the housing process will require some patience. If you're moving to Berlin on a sponsored work visa like me, the process can be a bit easier since your company can help guide you in where to look and what documents you'll need to sign a lease.

I suggest browsing a German real estate website for available leases, asking your co-workers, consulting Facebook groups, and doing what you can to get the word out there that you're looking for accommodation.

Many young professionals and other expats choose to live in shared housing, since these can be cheaper and easier to find. There's a few housing types you can choose from but if you're moving by yourself, opting to live in a shared house is a good option in Berlin and other cities in Germany.

an upclose image of the architecture of the city center in Berlin
The city center is wonderful but the most expensive area to live

The Documents You'll Need

As I said before, if you're living in Berlin due to work, your company should help you navigate this, but if you're here for another reason, like a freelance visa, you might be on your own.

In general, to sign a lease you'll need:

  • A German bank account
  • A credit report
  • A passport/ID
  • Proof of income
  • Potentially other documents depending on the landlord

It's common to pay 3 months rent as a security deposit. Some landlords will ask for less, but I'd be on the safe side and be prepared to pay the 3 months. You'll get this money back at the end of your contract so long as you leave the apartment in good condition.

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How to Make the Most of Expat Life in Berlin

Learn Basic German

Berlin is a very English-friendly city and most people speak it very well. While you don’t have to speak German to get by here, I do recommend trying to learn some common phrases, especially if you plan to visit other parts of the country where English may not be commonly spoken. While speaking German may not make or break your time living in Berlin, it will enhance it.

As someone who has only mastered one language (my native one), I am constantly humbled by and in awe of the abundance of people here who can seamlessly transition between multiple languages. Many people can speak three or four languages, which inspires me to continue to try learning German.

However, many locals have told me not to waste my time. They share the same sentiment as this cheeky shop window sign that I came across in central Berlin…

a sign written on a window saying, "Life in too short to learn German."
"Life is too short to learn German" sign in a shop window

Find a Few Dining Favorites

You can’t come to Berlin without trying a famous döner kebab. My favorite döner spot is Mustafas Gemüse Kebap, where you can always count on a line spanning the entire block. I assure you, it is worth the wait and five euros well spent.

If you want to splurge on a truly special meal, Cookies Cream offers inventive vegetarian food and fine dining in a swanky, yet eclectic atmosphere. You have to wander down an abandoned alley to find it. If you think you’re lost, keep going. You’re almost there. In true Berlin fashion, the entrance to this upscale dining establishment is just past the graffitied dumpster. 

Enjoy Your Weekends Shopping with a Coffee in Hand

With a vibrant shopping scene and plethora of amazing coffee, I usually spend my weekends bouncing around town between coffee shops and stores; exploring whatever else piques my interest along the way like galleries and parks.

Shopping in Berlin offers a bit of everything. You can thrift your way through second-hand shops and flea markets in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg or spend your whole paycheck on designer labels at KaDeWe. All with an oat latte in hand, of course!

My Favorite Coffee Spots:

Recommended Shopping:

Spend Plenty of Time Outside

The park culture in Berlin is incredible. The city has amazing parks and people here make the most of them all year round. I highly recommend checking out Sunday karaoke at Mauerpark. People from all over the world get up to sing their hearts out and whether they are good or not so good, the crowd is always amazingly supportive and cheerful. Be sure to bring some drinks and change for the tip jar. 

Soak Up the Culture at Museums

If you are a museum-lover like me, you will appreciate the abundant options in Berlin. I highly recommend checking out Museum Island, which is just as it sounds; an island filled with museums. If you don’t have time to go inside all of the museums, just strolling through the island to take in the beautiful architecture set against the Spree River is worth it.

As a city with such a dense history, there are ample opportunities to learn about Berlin’s past at museums and historical sites. Despite the painful emotions evoked by much of Berlin’s traumatic history, from World War I, World War II, and the Berlin Wall, the city places tremendous importance on educating people about these events so humankind can learn and grow from them.

Picture curtesy of Niki Nagy

How to Take Advantage of Your Central Location in Europe

The ease of travel throughout Europe is undoubtedly my favorite part of living in Berlin. Berlin serves as a great hub for exploration.

I recently booked a last minute weekend trip to Athens and paid 45 euros for a nonstop flight! If you want to be more conscious of your carbon footprint, you can opt to travel by train. Within just three hours of Berlin, you can get to some amazing destinations, choosing from other German cities or international European capitals and hot spots.

The German rail system is a comfortable, clean and consistent experience. The free wifi is a nice perk too. 

Best Day Trips from Berlin by Train 

  • Leipzig (1.5 hours) 
  • Dressau (1.5 hours) (Home of Bauhaus, which is a must-see for design lovers!) 
  • Schwerin Castle (2 hours)
  • Hamburg (2 hours)
  • Dresden (2.5 hours)
  • Lübeck (3 hours) 

Berlin is an amazing place that has something to offer everyone. It is an edgy city that can take some getting used to, but I am confident that whatever you are looking for in life, you can find it while living in Berlin.

With a highly diverse population, strong job market for English-speakers and a nice quality of life at a low cost, Berlin makes for a great expat destination! 

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