These pages are geared toward prospective foreigners at the Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam, but you may find parts of it useful. I live in Berlin, so there is a very strong bias toward Berlin in parts of this document.

Before arrival:

The most important thing to do is to get a German visa. This you will have to do even if you can enter the country as a tourist without a visa. Find the nearest German Embassy to you. You may try to call them, but normally this is futile. It is better to go to the embassy with all the necessary papers. What you will need: After collecting all these documents, go to the embassy. Their office hours are normally 9:00-11:30 every day (excluding local and german holydays). In practice they are a bit relaxed about it, sometimes they open 30 minutes late opening, etc. Be prepared to spend may be hours outside (take an umbrella, etc.). Go there early, as sometimes they have long lines and they don't let you in after 11:30 or so (they don't care if you were there at 6 in the morning).

If you managed to get inside, you have to get an application form for visa. Wuite often they have (only) the tourist visa application forms. THAT'S not what you need. You have to go to the window and ask for a residency permit application (I don't know the proper name, but this worked for me). Normally this is both in german and the local language. Fill out everything that you can while waiting in line. If you did everything right and the planets are aligned right, they will take all the papers (but not your passport), money, pictures, etc. and they will give you a receipt. They have to send all this back to Potsdam, and wait for an OK from the Potsdam office. They will promise 6-8 weeks, reality is more like 10 weeks, especially during the summer. It may be a good idea to ask the AIP to put some pressure on the officers in Germany.

After the 6-10 weeks waiting period, you should start calling the embassy. A phone with a redial button is very useful as 95% of the time they are busy, 4% of the time they don't pick up the phone so you will have about 100 tries before geting through. If they got the answer (and it's positive), you will have to go to the embassy again (with your passports), where they will issue the visas, probably in minutes. At this point you are ready to go to Germany.


These are rumors, opinions, urban legends, etc. They may or may not be true:

It is said that the whole process is not governed by law. It most certainly looks like it. My wife went to a german embassy about 6 times, out of which 5 times he was sent away for not having the right documentation. Once she was literally thrown out because she dared to ask very politely just what documents she needs. She was told that nobody has to go to germany and was thrown out. The question was not answered, of course. The sixth time the application was accepted without any problems. Every time she had the same set of documents. It is also said that they don't have to (and in fact don't) give a reason for the refusal of a visa. They just say no. I also saw two World Bank (high ranking) officials turned down for a german visa in Washington. They were given a reason: they had first class tickets and those tickets do not have a fixed return date.

Visa applications may be going through three different channels. The best channel is for those with a PhD and a job offer from a public research institution (best is a Max Planck Institute). This go through blindingly fast by german standards (1-2 months). Normal people (which I think includes students) go through the second channel. This takes quite often more than 6 months, sometimes more. Finally the 'problematic' people. This label is assigned by the officer who takes the application (who sometimes has no significant education, a low IQ and a deep roted hatred against everybody who is not german). It can be based on anything (race is quite often a strong factor, unfortunately, followed closely by nationality). This channel can take more than a year. As far as I can tell, the only difference between the channels is how long they don't touch the file. May be it's not so, but a beg anyone to explain why it took less than 2 months for me to get my visa (with a work permit) and my wife still does not have a visa (no work permit, no nothing, just the privilage to be with her housband) after 5 months.

My personal opinion that embassy workers who you encounter are by no means representative of the german people -- just the opposite. You just go through the montions -- once you are in Germany, everything will be different, even the offices that deal with foreigners (i.e. they will try everything to help you, as opposed to humiliate you).

It may not be necessary to have a visa. After geting desparate about the visa of my wife, we went to the appropriate office in germany (auslanderbehoerde) to figure out what has happened. We did not understand what was going on, but in a few hours they gave her a residency permit. She was here as a tourist (which she could do without a visa). Could someone explain what has happened, please?

Remember what Calvin&Hobbs said: It builds character.

Uppon arrival

Be prepared to spend a significant amount of time in offices in the first week of your stay in Germany. The important thing is to do things in the right order.

The first thing is to get a form that is needed to register you residence (in Germany everyone, including germans, have to register their residence with the authorities). Go to 'Hegelalle 6-9' in Potsdam. The office is in the tall building, straight ahead, slightly to the right. You have to go to the second floor, find the information office, and get a form. They are open Mo: 7:30-15, Tu: 8-18, We: 7:30-12, Th: 7:30-16, Fr: 7:30-12.

I have some help in filling out the form. n the first page, you have to get a stamp/signature from the AIP if you are living in the guest house (or a signature from the landlord, if you rent an apartment). You will have to go back to the same office with the completed form. There is a machine where you have to get a number (you need the top one). A board in the waiting room will show which office you have to go to (numbers go pretty fast). You will get one page of the form back, stamped, signed. You will not get the tax card at this point -- you will have to come back for it later.

The next step is the immigration office. They are in the 'Rathause', just around the corner. You will have to go to room 147, during business hours (Tu: 9-18, Th: 9-12, 13-16, Fr: 9-12). Take a number and go to the waiting room and wait for your number. You will have to fill out a form for every family member, and you will need a passport sized photograph for everyone. They will take your passports. You will have to go back, probably the next business day. You will (probably) have to pay DEM 100, too. I have some help with the form here.

When you get your passport back, with an 'Aufenhaltserlaubnis' in it, you are nearly done. You have to go back to the registration office, and get your 'Steuerkarte' (tax form). Take a number (top button), and wait. Eventualy (about an hour) they will call you. Show your passport, with the 'Aufenhaltserlaubnis' in it, the registration form that they stamped, etc. last time, and ask for the tax card ('Ich moechte eine Steuerkarte bitte'). They should give you a green paper, 'Lohnsteuerkarte 1999' (may be two, if they have it for next year). Check the class in it ('Steuerklasse') on the top right of the form. It should be:

(see the Income tax below to understand what these mean)

At this point you can congratulate yourself as you got through all the official paperwork.

Money, money, money...

Obviously you would like to know what your salary is going to be. Quite often they quote the pay grade only (e.g. BAT IIa -- typical pot-doc). Here is the process to translate it to numbers. First you have to figure out your 'brutto' salary. Check the Bundesangestelltentarifvertrag (BAT) table. You have to add three components. First the base salary (Grundvertuetung), which depends on age. For example BAT IIa is DEM 4523.89 between the age of 29-31. Next, you have to figure out the Ortszuschlag. You have to figure out what 'Stufe' you are in (Single, married, 1 child, etc. up to stufe-8, i.e. 6 kids) and what Ortszuschlag class (Tarifklasse) you are in. Just to make life complicated, Ortszuschlag class 'Ib' is BAT I and II, 'Ic' is BAT III through V/a and V/b, and 'II' is V/c through X. Now for a BAT IIa for a couple without kids, the Ortszuschlag is DEM 1204.93 (class Ib, zone 2). We are geting close. The last item is some extra money, the Allgemeine Zulage. I found a table, which is for East Germany (see below what this implies). Based on this table, For a BAT IIa this extra is 204.62. Add all these together, and determine your brutto salary: 4523.89+1204.93+204.62=5933.44.

This would be the correct number if we were talking about West Germany. In East the calculation is identical, but the brutto salary is only 86.5 percent (in 1999 -- this number is different for each year) of this number: 5933.44*0.865=5132.42. In reality it will be slightly different as the items are scaled down, which will introduce minor deviations (correct number for the above hypothetical case is 5133.14).

Next you have to convert this number to a 'netto' salary. Deductions:

Of course these numbers change a lot and probably I quote them wrong, but they are better than nothing. If you go through the math for the above example (30 years old, BAT IIa in the east with a wife), you will get somewhere around 3500 DEM/month. Every two years of age corresponds to about 200DEM, being single reduces the brutto salary by nearly 200 marks. Having kids adds abount 140 for each one. As the family status also affects the income tax, I can not really tell what the effect is on the netto salary. The age probably scales well.

Well, by now, you may have an idea how much money you are going to make. The next question is, how far will it go. The largest cost is the apartment. It can be anywhere between 600 and 1200 (including heating, utilities, monthly fee for phone service, etc.). If you are not single, you will be very close to the higher end. The next bigest budget item is food. We found that the two of us needs about DEM 30 per day (lunch, groceries, minor expenses, etc.). Transportation costs are also significant. We pay DEM 240/mo for a Berlin ABC pass. If you call a lot abroad, that can also add up to quite a bit (see below). A movie ticket costs between DEM 6-15 (depending on the day, time, etc.). Going out to a restaurant can be anywhere between DEM 20-40 per person (or more, if you go to a really fancy one). I do not know how much a car costs (including insurance, repairs, etc.). The gas price is quite high in Europe and the public transportation is very good and not too expensive. My current feeling is that one does not really save money by having a car and it is feasible to live a normal life without a car.


For a few more years Germany has German Marks (DEM) as its currency (they will switch to Euro, EUR) after. Commonly used banknotes are 10, 20, 50 and 100. You may run into others (5, 200, 500 and 1000, if I'mnot mistaken), but they are very rare. Coins are DEM 5, 2, 1, 0.50, 0.10, 0.05, 0.02, 0.01. In my experince the last three (1, 2 and 5 pfennings) are pretty much useles. Vending machines do not take it, for example. We just have a big jar where we throw them in and eventually will figure out how to unload them (other than a recycle bin).

As a currency that is to be converted eventually into Euro, DEM has a fixed exchange rate with respect to Euro and other such currencies. 1 DEM is close to a half Euro. The Euro is simmilar to the US Dollar in value, but the exchange rate is not fixed.


There is one thing you will notice very quickly in Germany: they do recycle. You are supposed (read should) collect household vaste separately. There were many iterations about what categories to use. I think the current system has 5 categories: paper (papier), glass (which is sometimes subdivided into white, brown and green), packaging (verpackung), bio (e.g. potato peels, etc.) and other (restmu"ll). The categories are self evident except the verpackung, which includes nearly all packaging materials, e.g. plastic, cans, bottle cups, aluminum folie, etc. There are also 'hazardous materials' you should dispose of differently, for example batteries.

This sounds great in theory, but in practice it's not so easy. Keep an eye one waste baskets that make your life easier (multiple compartments in a single trash bin).

On some bottles, you have to pay a deposit that you can get back if you return the bottle. How to say this nicely: This system is in the need of refinement. We tried to do this once (returning bottles). To a respected store (Meyer Beck). We spent about 10 minutes in front of a machine that rejected about 90 % of the bottles. For the 10 % of the bottles we got DEM 0.30. Than we had to walk 2 blocks and sneak into a house just to get rid of the remaining bottles. The machine did not take the bottles, even for DEM 0 and there was no glass recycle bin in sight. I don't know how the germans do it, but those few who did return bottles managed to convince the machine to take them all. May be they knew which ones the machine is willing to take. Anyway. Until someone tells me how exactly I'm supposed to do this, I will just go straight to the recycle bin and ignore the deposit on the bottles. We buy 1-2 bottles a week -- for us it's not worth the hassle.

Apartment hunting

The main source of apartments are three newspapers/magazines. They are: Zweite Handel Immobilien, Tages Spiegel and Berliner Morgenpost. The Saturday issues are definitly full of ads, may be other issues, too.

Ads are organized by area (look at a map to figure where those areas are). Within an area, they are separated by room number and sorted by area. For example a 2Zi. 63 qm apartment has two rooms (it's a one bedroom apartment by US definition), has a kitchen and a bathroom. The total size, including everything (bathroom, kitchen, hallway, even the balkony if present) is 63 square meter (1 qm is about 10.7 square feet).

Be aware that a typical 'unfurnished' apartment is truly unfurnished. You may find bare walls. No light fixtures or anything. No kitchen, fridge, etc. Literally nothing. To understand the price of the apartment is ever more confusing. There is the 'kalt' price, which includes the apartment only. There is heat and hot water cost on top of this. If this is included, they quote is as 'warm'. Be aware that the heat and hot water cost is always a (pessimistic) estimate so once a year they make adjustments (there is practically no 'heat and hot water included' option). I was told that normally they overestimate these costs so you get some money back. On top of this, there is the 'nebenkosten', which include additional costs of the apartment (garbage, cleaning, whatever) and can be a significant sum (hundreds per month). Sometimes this is included in the kalt/warm rent (miette), sometimes it is not. The final additional cost is electricity, which is never included in the rent. For us (two persons with a washing machine, but no heating or hot water) this is estimated to be around DEM 60 per month. If heating and/or hot water is electric, it will be much more. You have to add all these together (kalt miete, nebenkosten, heat, hot water, electricity) to get an estimate of the cost of an apartment.

The cost of moving in is high. Typically you have to put down a security deposit (Kaution), which is normally 3 months worth of the Kalt Miete. You should get this money back after you move out. Depending on who you are dealing with, you may have to pay a 'Provision', an agent fee, if you are dealing with an agent (look for 'Provisionfrei' ads). This in not refundable. Sometimes you can or have to buy some furniture from the previous tenant if it was bought by them and they don't want to take it. You will also have to have the apartment painted (and pay for it) when you move out. Contracts are initially for a fixed period of time (one year, for example). After this period, you can move out any time, if you give notice in advance (normally 3 months). They can also kick you out with the same provisions (after the initial fixed period and with advance notice). The rent increases over the years, which should be spelled out in the contract (like from 2002, the rent will be DEM NNN).

Ok. So you are either a genious or are totaly lost. You have to figure out what you need, where you need it, and what can you afford. In the first round, rule out apartments with a provision and those where they don't tell you the cost (quite often they 'forget' to tell what the nebenkosten is). Figure out what extra features you want. Some that may be important:

There are two ways to see the apartment. Either there is a bes. and a day and time, in which case you just go there, meet 10-20 other people, and look at the place, or you call the phone number given. Here is the help we used:

Guten Tag! Wir melden uns aus Ihre Anzeige in der Zeitung wegen der Wohnung ... strasse ... Ist die wohnung noch zu haben? Wann koennen wir uns die wohnung ansehen? Alternatively you can ask if they speak english (Sprechen Sie English), which works quite often. If you find something, you may have to send (fax) in an application. The most useful thing is your work contract to send in.

Online resources:


This may sound strange to you, but the german government wants to know where people live. This includes germans and foreigners. Therefore if you move, you have to notify the authorities (see registration above). Depending on the move, the procedure is different. If you stay withing the same 'Land' (e.g. Brandenburg), than I think you only need an 'Ummeldung' form. If you move between 'Lands' (as I did, from Brandenburg to Berlin), you need an 'abmeldung' (de-register) form that has to be signed by the landlord (and taken to in my case Potsdam) and an 'anmeldung' (registering) form signed by the new landlord. To further complicate things, forms are different for different lands. Try to stock up on forms so you don't end up going 20 times to the offices for forms (if you stay in the area, you should get the three Brandenburg forms, Abmeldung, Anmeldung and Ummeldung and the same three for Berlin, which is a different Land).

You should plan your move carefully as you will also have to notify all the businesses (bank, health insurance, etc.) and it will take time (may be weeks) for them to change your adress. As far as I can tell there is no mail forwarding service in Germany so you can easily end up loosing some mail (which hopefully will be returned to the sender).

You should also be aware that you may be entitled to moving cost reimbursement by law. I have a partial raw translation of the rules.

There is one more issue: the tax card. The office that issues the card for a given year is determined by your residence in September the previous year. If you are coming from abroad, and arrive after September, your first residence in Germany will determine the office. In my case, I arrived in October, 1999. My first residence (for two weeks) was in Potsdam. Than I moved to Berlin. In my case both the 1999 and 2000 tax card are issued in Potsdam. Only the 2001 card will be issued by Berlin -- if I will still live in Berlin in Sept. 2000. If you move in September, I don't know what are the rules.



Quite often electricity is on in the apartment. You still have to have the service transfered to you. Go to the apartment, find the electric (and gas) meter. Write down the number of the meter (there is a serial number and a BEWAG number, I think you need the later), and write down the current reading. With this information (plus rental contract, passports, bank information, etc.) go to the appropriate BEWAG office, where it will take about 2 minutes to get everything done. Based on basic information (how many people live there, if you have an electric stove, washing machine, etc.) they will produce a sharp estimate of how much electricity you are going to use. They will collect a fixed amount every 2 months and make adjustments based on the actual reading once a year. In our case the estimate was around DEM 120 (per 2 month) for 2 people, electric stove and washing machine (no electric heating). We found that the actual consumption is a bit lower, around DEM 45/month, but so far we did not try to fix this so I don't know if it's possible or not. If you want to keep track of this: electricity costs in Berlin between DEM 0.30 and 0.34 per kWh (the unit the meter measures) depending on the season. If your heating is electric, they have very different prices for that, especially if you consume electricity during the night (heat storing devices, for example). We opted for the automatic deduction method. I don't know if this is just accident or this is normal, but the took the first DEM 120 exactly 2 months after we signed up. It may be a coincidence, though.


In Potsdam, the electric company is EVP (Energieversorgung Potsdam GMBH). Here you have the choice of different plans. Currently there are three of them. You have to find the right balance between monthly fees and the cost of electricity. The first plan is local P-private, which currently costs DEM 7/month, and one kWh is DEM 0.285. The second is local P-family, which is DEM 11/month plus DEM 0.25/kWh. This is a better deal if you use about 114 kWh/mo or more. The third is the local P-family Plus, which is DEM 17/mo plus DEM 0.235/mo. Choose this if you use more than about 400 kWh. To complicate things even more, a two-year contract gives an extra DEM 0.01/kWh discount. I don't know (yet) how EVP works. Do you pay an estimate every 1-2 month and then adjust once a year or do they come every 1-2 months and read the meters? How much electricity are you going to use?

Public transportation

Potsdam/Berlin has an excellent public transportation system. You can get practically anywhere by bus/tram/train. To use the transportation system, you must have the proper ticket, which they may check. Geting caught will cost you DEM 60, and a lot of emberassment (i.e. don't do it). Fortunately you can buy the tickets on the vehicle or at the station (in the case of the S-Bahn). There are about 10 billion different tickets, which you will find quite confusing first. Basically, you have to decide three things:
  1. What kind of ticket you need. You can buy a single ticket, which is valid for two hours without any limit on number of transfers (i.e. you need one ticket to get from point A to point B). The next step is the daily ticket, which is valid for a given day (actually it's valid until 3AM the next day). Typically this costs the equivalent of two tickets, so if you are going somewhere and back, you can as well buy this. They also have weekly and monthly tickets/passes. The pricing is very progressive, so you should seriously consider buying the monthly pass if you expect to travel often. Note that Berlin monthly passes are for a given calendar month, while Potsdam has 4 week tickets that can start any day.
  2. What zones you are traveling through. Your ticket has to be valid for all the zones that your vehicle goes through. The Institute is in Potsdam zone B as well as Berlin zone C. If you are going to the city center of Potsdam (for example registration office, Rathause, etc.), you will go to Potsdam zone A (or stay in Berlin zone C). Therefore you will need a Potsdam AB ticket or a Berlin BC (there is no C zone only ticket). If you want to go to Berlin, you will need a Berlin BC or Berlin ABC ticket, depending where in Berlin you are going (most likely to zone A, so you will need an ABC ticket).
  3. Decide if you are entitled to any discount. As far as I know this includes students, children and elderly. There may be an exception for passes, where a couple traveling together may use a slightly more expensive pass (which is much cheaper than two regular passes). As far as I can tell, this 'couple' ticket has a lot of restrictions. If you are not entitled to any discount, you should probably use the 'regaltarif' tickets.

It is important to note that ticket vending machines on the bus and the tram only accept coins and you can not buy long term passes (e.g. monthly). The S-Bahn machines do accept banknotes (but they can only return DEM 30 or less and some do not take DEM 100 notes) and they do sell all tickets, including monthly passes. On Potsdam busses each button corresponds to two tickets, a blue and a green one. The default is the green. If you want to buy the blue ticket, you have to press the blue button in the lower right corner before making a selection. You can cancel by the 'C' button. You can also use the '+' button to buy more than one tickets (this is very useful if you have large notes and want to work around the DEM 30 limit at the S-Bahn station).

You should also stamp your tickets at the apropriate machines. These are all over, red boxes with a horizontal slot on them. Insert the ticket where it says 'Hier entwerten'. Only stamp the ticket once (even weekly ones).

Common places

Geting anywhere from the Institute involves taking bus No. 693 (or a long walk). You will most likely get off at the S-Bahn Babelsberg stop (either Altes Rathouse or Scholstrasse, doesn't really matter which one). On the way back, you have to take the same bus (693), but it takes a bit longer as the bus route is a loop in the neighbourhood. You have to get off at the Sternwarte stop, which is right after the final stop, N. Babelsberg (the bus continues without a long wait).

Once at the S-Bahn station, you have two choices. You can go to Berlin, using the S-Bahn (line 7 -- that's the only one that stops in Babelsberg), or you can go to Potsdam using tram No. 94.

If you are going to the TK (health insurance office), take bus No. 693 and transfer to 690 at (for example) S-Bahn Altes Rathouse. 690 will stop in front of the office.

To government offices, take tram 94. to Place der Einhart Su"d, and either walk to Hegel Allee (you can see a large gate at the end of the street) or take a bus for 2 stops (quite a few busses will turn left before that -- which ones go straight?).

To the main entrance of park Sansouci, use tram 94 to Adenauer Platz and walk.

Bus 690, which overlaps Bus 693 for a few stops around the S-Bahn Babelsberg will take you (slowly) to the Sterncenter, which is a medium sized shopping mall in Potsdam. The bus stops in front of the mall.

Most of the long distance bus lines (but not all!) stop at the ZOB (Zentral Omnibus Bahnhof), which is not the ZOO (one of the big train stations). Take any S-Bahn at Westkreuz that goes north. ZOB is the first stop (it's a 5 minute walk from there).

You can reach the Max Planck campus you can either take a regional bahn from Potsdam or bus 606 (NOT 606A!). Both are running at most twice an hour (off peak, week-ends only once, not at all at night). The train takes about 10 minutes, the bus around 30. From the Golm train station you have to cross the tracks on the foot bridge and follow the path to the Max Planck campus (about 10 minutes). The bus stops in front of the institute.

The Physics/Astronomy building of the University Potsdam is also reachable by bus 606. Which is the exact stop (it is around Neues Palais)?

It takes about 27 minutes to go to the Volkhochschule in Potsdam (the one on Dortu Strasse). Take bus 693 to 'S Babelsberg/ALtes Rathouse'. Take tram 94 to Dortustrasse and walk to the institute (it takes about 7 minutes on foot).


Trains are generally expensive, but if you are flexible, you can get to your destination very cheaply. Unfortunately, the Deutsche Bahn reorganized its web-page, and killed the english translations in the process (shame on them). Fortunately the overlooked the Train Search page, which is still available in english. This later page is very useful as it finds the best pricing for a trip (including the deeply discounted tickets -- see below) and you can specifically target the search to match the conditions of these tickets (time and train type limits). The domestic good deals are:


This ticket is valid for travels between 7PM and 2AM every day, and 2PM-2AM on Saturdays. The ticket is DEM 59 without ICE (the very fast train, which may or may not save time, depending on the destination) and DEM 69 with ICE. On Sundays, there is a DEM 15 surcharge, so the tickets are DEM 74 (without ICE) and DEM 84 (with ICE). This is a very good deal for really long haul trips, which could cost DEM 200-250 normally. First class tickets are also available for a higher price (DEM 99/109/114/124).


This ticket is valid for only week-ends (Saturday and Sunday), second class only and only for S-Bahn, Regional-Bahn and Regional Express and Stadt Express trains. The cost is DEM 40 for one day (from midnight until 3AM the next day) for a group of five people or less. The limitations on trains typically results in a factor of two in the duration of the trip, so this deal is very good for medium haul trips, but if you are desparate, you can travel cross country this way. It is not very convinient, but doable.


This is for those who travel a lot and can not take advantage of other deals. It costs DEM 260 per year for the 'head of household' and DEM 130 for additional family members. If you have this card, you pay half price for regular tickets (but not for the above mentioned tickets!). In other words, if you would spend DEM 520 a year on regular tickets (which is a bit more than 6 of the most expensive, Sunday+ICE guten-habend tickets), you can save money. Or to look at it differently: if you have at least two round trip, long haul travels a year, that you can not use the other discounted tickets for, it is probably worth. So far I saw no point buying it, but your mileage may vary.

International travel

There are (at least) five different ways to travel around Europe:

By air

This is quite often the most expensive way of travel. The reasons are again historical and geographical. Up until recently there were only national airlines (i.e. run by the states). They entered special agreements that made sure they make money off it. No airline could have a flight between two foreign countries (e.g. the german Lufthansa was not allowed to have a flight between Paris and Rome). There was also mandatory price fixing between the airlines (e.g. all airlines operating flights on a given route had charge the same for the flight). There was very little competition possible because of this, and it was mostly in the level of services. Compared to other regions, Europian air travel is quite luxurious (free alcohol, half decent food, etc. compared to a bag of peanuts and a coke on a SOuthWest flight). These anticompetitive rules were relaxed quite a bit, but by the time this happened, the landing slots were all gone at the major airports. So in theory it was possible to have competition, but in practice it was extremely hard. Europe is also small. Due to this aeroplanes can not work around the clock (who would take a flight from Rome to Paris at 4AM?). This also makes prices much higher (a plane standing on the ground is very expensive and someone has to pay for it). All this adds up to extremely high prices. Quite often it is cheaper to fly from Germany to the US than to France.

On the other hand, it is a positive experience. Also quite often you can find a not so expensive (still not cheap, though) seat on charter flights (i.e. planes rented by travel agencies for groups). Shop around for cheap fares.

A few differences: Lugage limits are very low. 20kg (about 45lb) total for checked (maximum two pieces) and a very low carry on limit (practically a small handbag). Normally you make a reservation quite early (to get a good price), but you don't have to buy it until about 2 weeks before the flight. Or you an cancel the reservation without consequence. It makes a lot of sense to make a reservation as early as possible (to lock in the good prices), even if you are not sure -- you have nothing to loose.


nternational trains are quite often not much cheaper than flying. On the other hand, sometimes they don't take much longer, especially door to door, either. In my opinion trains are much more comfortable than planes. They don't really enforce luggage restrictions, either. You don't (have to) check in your luggage, so the chance of loosing them is much lower (compared to my British Airways experience, where 9 out of 10 times my luggage was left behind, and sometimes it took them a week to find it). There are drawbacks, though. First of all you cross lots of countries. You have to figure out which way the train is going (it's quite often not obvious) and make sure you can enter those countries. Also think twice about overnight trains as you will be woken up at every border. There is also the problem with the border control/customs officers. In my personal experience the best treatment is at airports, followed closely by road border check-points. Train crossings are much worse. So faw my experience was quite good with german officers, but for example (in my personal experience) Swiss borders are horrible. Just the existense of such scum was unbelievable before to me. That they can be public servants is mind boggling.


This is probably the cheapest way to get around Europe. Try Berlin Linien Bus, Gulliver's or EuroLines. Traveling by bus has some of the problems that train travel has: Make sure you can enter the countries that the bus is traveling through. Quite a few busses travel overnight -- don't expect a good night sleep. An additional restriction is that you can not transport anything that the customs would be interested in (i.e. the bus is not going to wait for you to fill out the customs forms). You can take as many pieces of luggage as you wish, but they have to be lighter than 20kg each. Expect to pay some for each piece (On Gulliver's it was DEM 3/piece). 2 pieces may be free. Prices are fixed so the only reason to book early is to make sure the bus is not sold out. Buying a round-trip ticket saves you some money (not much) and a lot of headaches (not every company has offices in every country).

Hitch hiking

This is also a cheap and quite popular way of travel, especially for students. You can hitch hike on your own. In this case hve a large piece of paper (A4 is fine) and write the abreviation of your target on it and held it out (in Germany they typically use the codes used for license plates). Or you can use organized hitch hiking. In this case you call one of the companies (German Mitfahrer Borse, Hitchhiker, Citynetz, etc.) a few days before the trip. They try to find a ride for you. They charge around DEM 30 for arranging everything. You have to pay the driver, too. This contribution is, in theory, set by the company, but is not always honored by the driver (they ask 10-20 marks extra). You have to travel very light as the driver may fill up the car with his own stuff, barely leaving space for you, not to mention your belongings. In my opinion this is not worth as you end up paying nearly as much for the trip as a bus ticket and you have to put up with all the troubles of the driver and limited space.

Driving your own car

Definitly the most flexible way to go. Keep in mind that doing this alone may be more expensive than a bus, even if you only count the gas you use (which IS expensive). Going home for me is a 1000 km trip, which costs around DEM 100 each way by bus. A car would cost around DEM 120 just in gas (each way). Add the tolls, parking, etc. It all depends on the situation.


Recieving normal mail is easy. You have a mailbox and they put it there as long as it fits and does not require special handling (like signature, COD, etc.). Your mailbox is also used to deliver junk mail. If you object to this, you can put 'Keine Verbung' on your mailbox, in which case they will spare you. If someone sent a package, or something complicated, they will leave a note that they will try again at some point. Probably you will have to go to the appropriate post office to pick it up unless you have an infinite amount of time to waste.

For detailed and up to date information, check out the web site of the Deutsche Post. The information within this document may be incorrect, out of date or completely bogous. If you are going to mail something, it is probably the safest to take it to the post office (there is one at the Babelsberg S-Bahn station) and take it to the counter. It is quite usual to do this and you do not send that many mail anyway (as opposed to the US, where 10-30/month was the norm).

The price for postage depends on the weight and the size of the parcel/envelope/postcard. There are different rate classes (units are in mm or grams):

To determine the class, all parameters has to be within the limits (i.e. a letter can be classified as 'Kompakt' just because of the weight). Just to give an idea an A4 size paper folded twice (both directions) will be about 150L and 110H. The same folded into thirds will be about 230x120 (also 'standard').

Domestic prices are (if I read it correctly):

International mail within Europe (with a few exceptions and using the same size/weight definitions), using ground/air (whatever is faster): International (rest of the world) by Air Mail (LuftPost/Par Avion): International (rest of the world) by surface: These prices are for normal letters. Printed materials, books, mass mailings, junk mail, etc. are priced differently so with those, go to a post office. Please notify me if you find errors in these prices. If you think I should not put these prices on the web, tell me so and I will take it down.

There are also express mail options. Domestic starts around DEM 12.50 for letters, DEM 22 for packages (up to 5 kg). International starts around DEM 70 (EU countries, low weight limit) and goes through the roof with larger distances/weights.


Just to put things into perspective: Deutsche Telecom had a monopoly over telecommunication until recently, just like AT&T had in the US decades ago. Not surprisingly it resulted in the same outrageous pricing. This monopoly was finally taken away recently, and the results are showing -- but not everywhere.

I am not sure if it is a legal or de facto monopoly, but public phones are still run by DT and the pricing is still dishonest. Do not use public phones for iternational calls if you don't have to. If you have to, try to work around them. Being a few decades late has its advantages. Cheap prepaid calling cards are already available, but are a bit hard to find them. One place to get them is just accross from the Zoologoscher Garten (S-)Bahn Station. I haven't tried it yet, but the advertised international rates are about a factor of 15 (yes, that's fifteen) lower than the DT rates for public phones. Using public phones for local and domestic calls is not that bad (it is still bad, but on a much smaller scale). You will find very few phones (and a significant fraction of them broken) that takes coins. Prepaid cards are the norm. These are available everywhere (12 DEM each). There are a few phones that work with credit cards, but I have not been able to figure out the pricing scheme so I have not tried them (I never allow a company to charge as much as they seem to find appropriate to my credit card).

In the home service market, there is some competition and it shows. You can get service in a few days from DT (now called T-Net). Depending on some factors beyond your control, it may be possible to get connected for DEM 50 (you have to know the previous number and name of the subscriber). If you are out of luck, it will cost DEM 100. To arrange it, go to the Ernst-Reuter Pl. (1 stop on U-Bahn 2 from Zool. Gart.) -- or any T-Punkt office if you live somewhere else --, and follow the signs. You have to decide what sort of service you want: ISDN or analog. With ISDN you get more service (I think 3 phone numbers, some other features) for more money. ISDN service is about DEM 45/month, while analog is about DEM 25. Pricing is identical. Local calls are DEM 0.03 to 0.12 per minute, domestic long distance is about twice as expensive. International is depending on the country, but for example the US (or Hungary) is DEM 0.48 (or 0.39 -- see below) per minute. Per call pricing is not yet available, not even for local calls. Watch out as there are different plans available. Right now there is an 'Aktive Plus' plan, which costs DEM 9.90 per month, but cuts your local/domestic rates by about half and saves you a few pfenings on your international calls (with this plan, US/Hungary is DEM 0.39 right now).

If you want to use the competitors, you should still use DT -- as far as I know. There is (as far as I know) have any other long distance carrier than them. May be this will change soon, but right now the only option is to use special prefixes to use the networks of the competitors. I don't know how to find all of them, but here is a list of some:
CompanyPrefixweb site

I did not spend a lot of time comparing the services offered by these and other companies. My quick impression was that most of the competition takes place in the domestic long distance market, where depending the time of the day, different companies offer the best price (changes every hour). In the international market I noticed huge differences for the US and some EU countries, but for the rest of the world, they may even be more expensive than Deutsche Telekom. As I understand the system, you get billed through DT (with your regular phone bill). There is no need to sign up with them -- just dial the prefix. If you know of any company I missed, e-mail me with the company name, prefix and web-site, and I will add it to the list. If your message contains any marketing, spam, etc., I will delete the message without reading it.

Now back to DT pricing: Just to make life complicated, the pricing of phone calls is not too easy to understand. The first concept that you have to familiarize yourself is units. Instead of plainly stating that one minute costs X, they charge you for these time units. Both the price and the length of the unit varries, so either you are very good at arithmetics or you need a calculator to figure out the costs. Prices may also vary depending on when you call. Here is a table that was valid at one point in time for Deutsche Telekom (it probably changed since than):
Type of callTimeUnit length (sec) Unit price (pfennings)Equivalent price/min
localMo-Fr: 9-1890128
localMo-Fr: 5-9,18-21,Sa-Su:5-21150124.8
localMo-Su: 21-5240123
regionalMo-Fr: 9-18602424
regionalMo-Fr: 5-9,18-21,Sa-Su:5-21601212
regionalMo-Su: 21-56066
domesticMo-Fr: 9-18603636
domesticMo-Fr: 5-9,18-21,Sa-Su:5-21601212
domesticMo-Su: 21-56066
local w/Aktiv PlusMo-Fr: 9-186066
local w/Aktiv PlusMo-Fr: 18-9,Sa-Su:0-246033
domestic w/Aktiv PlusMo-Fr: 9-18601212
domestic w/Aktiv PlusMo-Fr: 18-9,Sa-Su:0-246066

For international calls, the numbers are given differently. They still have the concept of units, but prices are given for 60 second intervalls. For example a call during peak time costs DEM 0.84/min, but the unit is 8.6 seconds. This means that DT will charge about DEM 0.12 at the beginning of every 8.6 seconds. For a US call, they will charge DEM 0.48 (or 0.39) at the beginning of every minute.
CountryTimeUnit (sec)Price/min
AndorraMo-Su: 0-246048
BelgiumMo-Su: 0-246048
DenmarkMo-Su: 0-246048
FranceMo-Su: 0-246048
UKMo-Su: 0-246048
ItalyMo-Su: 0-246048
CanadaMo-Su: 0-246048
LiechtensteinMo-Su: 0-246048
LuxemburgMo-Su: 0-246048
MonacoMo-Su: 0-246048
NetherlandsMo-Su: 0-246048
Northern IrelandMo-Su: 0-246048
AustriaMo-Su: 0-246048
PolandMo-Su: 0-246048
SwitzerlandMo-Su: 0-246048
SpainMo-Su: 0-246048
Tscheck RepublicMo-Su: 0-246048
HungaryMo-Su: 0-246048
USAMo-Su: 0-246048
GreceMo-Fr: 8-208.684
GreceMo-Fr: 20-81072
GreceSa-Su: 0-241072
CroatiaMo-Su: 8-206.67108
CroatiaMo-Su: 20-87.596
SwedenMo-Fr: 8-187.596
SwedenMo-Fr: 18-81072
SwedenSa-Su: 0-241072
TurkeyMo-Fr: 8-208.684
TurkeyMo-Fr: 20-81072
TurkeySa-Su: 0-241072
ChileSa-Su: 0-243240
ChinaSa-Su: 0-242.31312
FinnlandMo-Fr: 8-187.596
FinnlandMo-Fr: 18-81072
FinnlandSa-Su: 0-241072
IndiaSa-Su: 0-242.31312
IsraelSa-Su: 0-246120
JapanSa-Su: 0-243.34216
MexicoSa-Su: 0-242.4300
Russia (western part)Sa-Su: 0-246120
Russia (eastern part)Sa-Su: 0-242.31312
SlovakiaMo-Fr: 8-187.596
SlovakiaMo-Fr: 18-81072
SlovakiaSa-Su: 0-241072
South AfricaSa-Su: 0-242.73264
Andorra w/AktivePlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Belgium w/AktivePlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Denmark w/AktivePlusMo-Su: 0-246019
France w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
UK w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Italy w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Canada w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Liechtenstein w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Luxemburg w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Monaco w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Netherland w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Austria w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Switzerland w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Spain w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Tscech Republic w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246039
Hungary w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246039
USA w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019
Vatikan w/AktivPlusMo-Su: 0-246019

Phone numbers

As you have probably noticed, Europe does not have a consistent phone number system. Area codes can consist of 1 to 3 digits, phone numbers can consist anywhere between 5 and 8 digits. This later is not even consistent within a city. To add to the confusion, the current customs about writing phone numbers are very confusing. To give an example, following the customs, I should give my office phone number as 03317499316. This is actually what you have to dial if you are in Germany, but not in Potsdam (i.e. it is a domestic long distance call). The first '0' marks a domestic long distance call. 331 is the area code of Potsdam. The rest (7499-316) is my local number. If you are in town and want to make a local call, you have to figure out where the area code ends and where the local number starts (good luck!). If you are calling from Australia, and you are clever enough to figure out that the country code of Germany is 49, you are still out of luck. You should also know that in Germany the leading zero is the domestic long distance prefix and should not be dialed when calling international. Logical?

What can I suggest? If you are given a phone number with a leading zero, try to guess how to break it up into area code and phone number. If you are calling from abroad, ommit the leading zero. If you are giving your phone number, I would suggest using a different standard: +49 (331) 7499-316. With this notation it is obvious that 49 is the country code, 331 is the area code and 7499-316 is the local phone number. Every half inteligent human being should be able to figure out which portion of the number is needed and what prefixes are needed. Just for reference: local calls are dialed directly (except if you need something to get an outside line in an office). Domestic calls are prefixed with a zero (followed by area code and number), while international calls are prefixed with two zeros.

Special phone numbers

I still don't know many of these. Some of these are (and probably the prices changed since than or I made some typos):
Area codeTimeUnit (sec)Unit priceEquivalent price/min
1640, 1641, ... 1649Mo-Fr: 8-18201236
1640, 1641, ... 1649Mo-Fr: 18-8, Sa-Su: 0-24301224
1682, 1683, ... 1691Mo-Fr: 8-18201236
1682, 1683, ... 1691Mo-Fr: 18-8, Sa-Su: 0-24301224
16951, 16952Mo-Su: 0-24512144
130, 800Mo-Su: 0-24N/A00
1901, 1902, 1903, 1905Mo-Su: 0-24612.1121
1904, 1906Mo-Su: 0-24912.180.67
1907, 1909Mo-Su: 0-24312.1242
1908Mo-Su: 0-24212.1363

Telephone hardware

This section only applies to analog service. I have no idea how ISDN is wired!

First of all: as far as I can tell all phone lines will work with either pulse or tone mode devices. I may be wrong. I think there are differences between pulse dialing standards and you may not be within the tolerances if using some odd device. It's more reliable and faster anyway.

The German telephone hardware is pretty sophisticated and in a sense is superior to some other systems. A typical wall outlet can accomodate three devices. Not all of them are identical and they are slightly different in shape so you can only plug the right device into the right place. The basic idea is that some devices have to be 'chained', for example a phone has to be connected to an answering machine, not directly to the phoneline. In Germany they take care of this in the wall outlet. If you just plug in a phone, it will be connected to the phone line. If you also plug in an answering machine (which has a different connector), it will be automatically between the phone line and your phone. As far as I can tell, there are two flavours of outlets. One has space for one answering machine type device (left connector) and two normal phones (middle and right connector) in parallel. The other has place for two answering machine type devices (e.g. an answering machine and a modem, the left connector is the first, the right is the second) and a phone (middle).

If for some reason you have to wire also, here is the way to do it. If you open the box, you will find six screws. The left two are for the incoming phone line. I don't think polarity matters. You can ignore the two middle ones (they are for the third wire of the phone, 'grounding' -- I don't think there is any devices that still uses them). The two right ones can be used to chain additional outlets if you want to. This way you can have an answering machine in the bedroom and the phone in the living room and they are still properly wired (i.e. the phone is after the machine, not parallel to it). If you start from scratch, you have to find the two incoming wires that carry your line. As your phone has a connector with only two leads, it is tedious, but straightforward. The wires are supposed to be color coded (green and brown, if I remember correctly), but in reality you will find all kind of wires.

Be safe! Phone wires can carry pretty high voltages (40-50 volts, if ringing), which is not deadly for the majority of the population. Don't assume you don't belong to the minority, who can be killed by a phone. Only touch metal (any, including pipes, radiators, etc.) with one hand if you have to (i.e. if you get zapped, don't do it through your heart). Alway wear insulated shoes, don't be in contact with walls, pipes, etc.

As far as I know, phone devices may have to be officially 'approved' by DT or some affiliates. All this in the name of reliability or something simmilar (I would like to know what can your 'non-standard' phone device do that normal interference, like a lightning strike can not). The implication is that phone devices are quite expensive. It is even more expensise if you buy it from Deutsche Telecom. Sometimes they try to force you to buy one claiming you are obliged to do so. This is a straight lie, as far as I can tell, but they may try it anyway. You may be obliged to use a Deutsche Telekom aproved device, but you don't have to buy it from them. If they insist, claim that you already have one DT approved phone (which has the magic sticker on it, certifying that it is DT conform). The cheapest phone that you can buy is around DEM 40 (as opposed to less than $10 phones I brought with me), etc. I had some success with using phone devices from the US, but it was not easy. I don't know what the ringer equivalent is that a german switchboard supports. In the US it was 5, while recent modern phones need about 0.2 or so. I don't think puting a few phones on the line can overload the switchboard. I would have a hard time imagining that germany is intentionaly using under engineered hardware. For an ordinary phone you can probably buy a TAE, type F to RJ-11 cable, which may work. There is no widely available TAE, type N to two RJ-11 cables that you need for US answering machines, modems, etc. I ended up making them, and it was quite painful. Here are the recipes:

Normal phones: Bring a phone cord with you (with two RJ-11 connectors) with you. Buy a TAE, type F connector. Cut the RJ-11 from one end of the cable. You will need the red end green wires, which are in the middle. The two outer wires, the black and yellow are not needed (they are sometimes used for the second phone line in the US). If the TAE connector is facing you, with the wire outlet away and down from you, you will have to use the two lower right leads of the connector. I don't think polarity matters. I did not find TAE connectors that are easy to work with, so it will be painful. I could install plugs ('Stecker') bought in A-Z Elctronics (close to Potsdamer Platz in Berlin) with a plier, while the ones sold in Bauhaus stores needed soldering and were much harder to work with (not to mention that they cost twice as much).

Modems, answering machines, etc.: You will need an RJ-11 cable, but it should be twice as long as the final cable will be. You will also need a TAE, type N connector. Cut the cable in half. You will need the two middle leads of both (red and green). If the TAE connector is facing you (wires away and down), the two lower leads on the right should be connected to one cable (this will go to the 'line' connector of your device), while the other cable should go to the two lower leds on the left (this should go to the 'phone' connector of your device). It will also be painful. You should carefully test it. Plug in a regular phone. Listen to the dial tone. Connect the new cable to the device and plug it in. The dial tone should be interrupted, but should continue after. If you did everything right.

Cordless phones: US cordless phones are prohibited as far as a know. This time, there is a valid reason for it. The older, cheaper versions use 47 MHz radio signals, which frequency is used for broadcasting TV signals. You can end up being heard on TV in the area. The more recent cordless phones are using 900 MHz radio signals. The problem here is that that frequency range is used by cellular phones in Europe (as opposed to the 800 MHz used in the US). I am not sure about the 1.9 GHz cordless phones that were just introduced recently. Probably they interfere with something, too.

cellular phones: As far as I know, there is very little chance that they work. They probably use different standards (even though a GSM network is just starting in the US) and different frequencies. There are rumours of phones that work both in Europe and the US, but they are not the 'free with a two year contract' type (around $500 and beyond).


To start with the most important: Germany has, for houshold use, 230V, 50Hz AC (industries sometimes use something else, which I'm not going to describe here). At one point in the past, parts of Europe was using 220V, others were using 240V. The tolerance of these voltages was quite high, so the new standard with 230V, but a much lower tolerance should be fine for devices designed for the older standards (i.e. an appliance designed for 220 or 240V should work fine). What you must be aware are some appliances made in/for the ex Soviet Union. (At least) parts of Russia uses a different electrical infrastructure (see below) and devices designed for that market are deadly in Germany. As a rule of thumb: if it's a large device with metal on the outside and the power plug does not have the ground prones, don't use it

As quite often you will need at least some electrical works in your apartment, I will provide some information that you may find useful. If you are just a little bit uneasy, inexpirienced, etc., hire a professional. 230V is deadly. Don't take risks.

In a normal installation, you have three wires: live, neutral and protective ground. Appliances use live and neutral when operating normally. Protective ground is what the name suggests: protecting you from electric shock by a broken appliance.

Neutral is at ground potential. Live is 230V AC effective (NOT peak!) relative to this. Ground is also at zero potential relative to ground, but it is not identical to neutral. Most notably you should not use neutral to fake a protective ground (no matter how big the temptation is)!

If (and that is a big if!) your home is wired properly, live (aka 'deadly') is the black wire, neutral is white or blue. The protective ground is green, green with yellow stripes or bare. You should not take this for granted. Quite often the colors are plain wrong. You can buy a special tool (cheap, few marks) that you can use to find at least the live wire. This looks like a small screw driver, but it has a small light on it that comes on of you touch a live wire with it (it is using your body and it's capacity with respect to earth). As for finding the neutral and ground, I have no idea. With a voltmeter, you can check if the wire is at ground potential, but I have no idea how to distinguish the two. The difference is that the ground should have a very low resistance (1-2 Ohms) to ground and should be able to carry a very large current (100+ amps), at least for a short time. Otherwise it is not really protecting. Even if you can somehow identify, you should make sure that the protective ground is working properly. I have no idea how to to it. I can tell how not to check it: Do not connect a live wire directly to it and see if the circuit breaker trips. Don't do this. You will have a great firework, and possibly start a fire somewhere (not in your home). What you can do is to send some current through it (e.g. connecting a 100W light bulb to the live and ground) and measure the voltage with respect to the neutral. If it is a few volts or more (or the light bulb is dim), your ground is definitly broken. If the opposite, it does not mean anything. There is no guarantee that, if it is needed, it will sustain 100+ amps.

It is also required that switches, circuit breakers, etc. cut the live wire (not the neutral). This is quite often true for circuit breakers, as they are quite often maintained by the electricity company, but never assume that a light switch will cut the live wire (come to my house, I can show you the opposite). Do not replace a light bulb without cuting electricity at the circuit breaker (or unpluging the lamp, if possible). Even if you think you cut electricity, make sure that there is no live wire, etc. (use the tool mentioned above). My apartment has about 30 fuses, and I still don't know what controls what. There is no 'main' circuit breaker.

A bit more about grounding: The main danger is that the electricity that should be 'inside' the device may, by malfunction, 'show up' on the outside of the device and you, by touching it. As you may be 'grounded' through walls, pipes, floor, etc., you may get zapped. Grounding appliances provides some protection against these accidents. There are two main approaches in this regard. There are devices that are sufficiently well insulated (sometimes refered to as 'double insulated') that the risk of an electric shock is negligible. These are typically small devices, and are not using the protective ground. Large appliances (e.g. a washer, fridge, etc.) on the other hand are 'grounded'. The idea here is that even though they have a metal frame, they should not be dangerous. Even if something goes wrong inside and the live wires get somehow in contact with the frame, the grounding will provide and easy path and trip the circuit breaker. In theory. In practice the ground has to be able to carry a very large current without melting, staring a fire, etc. for the non-zero time period that the circuit breaker needs to break the circuit.

A few words about russian (ex Soviet Union) appliances: At least parts of Russia uses a different approach. They use tranformers that isolate the power line in homes from the ground. This means that between a wire and a natural ground there is no galvanic connection, hence no risk of electric shock through a water pipe or wall. Accordingly, devices made for this market are not grounded (in fact they must not be grounded). These are deadly in the german system.

There is one thing that I could not find in Europe and I miss it. In the US they invented a special circuit breaker that not only looks for high currents, but also checks that the current in the live wire is identical to the current in the neutral. If not, it breaks the circuit. These are mostly used in wet environments (bathrooms, etc.), in fact I think they are mandatory to install. The idea is that if somehow you get into contact with the live wire while grounded (e.g. standing on a wet floor), some current will start to flow you (and eventually killing you). The special device detects this condition and breaks the circuit, saving your life. I have not seen this in Europe -- yet.

UPDATE: The device (in the US callef GFCI is indeed available in Germany. It is called Fehlerstrom-Schutzschulter or FI-Schulter in short form. Should be available in normal home improvement stores (Hornbauck was mentioned). It is basically a special circuit breaker that cuts power in 1/40 sec (or faster) if more than 5 mA's are 'missing'. Keep in mind though, that this is not absolute protection as the device can not detect you between the live and neutral. It can only detect currect between you and the ground. (Thanks to Steve Hamilton for the update).

In some houses you will find aluminum wires. At one point this seemed to be a great idea, but since than they realized that the savings in cost (it is much cheaper than copper wires) does not pay for the problems caused later. Some countries banned this type of wires, some not. The problems that you should be aware of: These are solid wires (as oposed to copper). As they become very rigid over the years, they will break very easily. This can be very annoying as it is very hard to locate where the wire broke (especially if it happened to the previous tenant) and even harder to replace. It is also a very bad idea to connect aluminum and copper wires without a connecting block (screws, etc.). I found quite often that aluminum wires are not marked, either. Have fun, but be very gentle...

You should also be aware of the plugs on appliances. In Germany they use one standard for plugs (industry has also something else, though, but this is probably not relevant for you). An appliance bought in Germany will work fine anywhere in the country (as opposed to the good old UK). Not obviously everywhere in Europe, though. If you plan to bring in/take out appliances, you may have to replace the power plug on them.

Radio and TV


Lets start with radio, because that is easy: There are four bands used by radio stations in Europe: Ultra Short Wave (around 88-107.5MHz -simmilar to FM in the US) frequency modulation and Middle Wave (about 500-1600 kHz -- simmilar to AM in the US) are the most commonly used. Radios from abroad will very likely work in these bands (even stereo). There is also Short Wave (10-50 m wavelength) and Long Wave (?), both amplitude modulation. These are mostly for really distance stations. Local programing is dominated by FM (and to some extend AM). A (not complete, not up to date) list of FM stations around Berlin is:

87.9Star FM
88.8Berlin 88 8
89.6Deutschland Radio Berlin
90.2BBC World Service
91.4Berliner Rundfunk 91.4
92.4Radio Kultur
92.6Offener Kanal Berlin
93.6Berlin Aktuell
94.6NDR 1
95.8Radio Eins
96.0Radio 3
96.3Radio 3
97.7Beutschland Radio Koln
98.2Radio Paradiso
98.8Kiss FM
99.1NDR 2
99.6Jam FM?
99.7Antenne Brandenburg
101.3Klassik Radio
103.4Radio Energy Berlin
106.0Stimme Russlands
107.5BB Radio Landeswelle


This is a big mess. At the time standards were worked out, they saw no need for a uniform TV standard in Europe (i.e. they did not plan for satellite broadcast and VCR's). Consequently, there are to many standards in Europe that are not compatible. One thing is common: 50 (half) frames per second (as opposed to the 60 of the NTSC standard), which is primarily matched to the power system (it makes designing TV electronics easier -- not a real issue any more). That's where the simmilarities stop. There are two main standards, PAL (used by most of Western Europe) and SECAM (used by France and the ex communist block -- but they started to switch over to PAL, albeit slowly). Both the color coding, number of lines and aspect ratios are slightly different. There are also differences in how the audio channel is broadcasted with the video signal. Stereo broadcasting is yet an other can of worms.

Selecting a TV is non trivial and the lack of proper documentation is annoying. What can be safely said is that a TV purchased in a country will work in that country. It may or may not work with other standards. Most notably SECAM support is completely lacking quite often, while true NTSC support is nearly non existant. The standards supported by the tuner of the TV may be different from the standards supported through the AV input (where you feed video and audio signals directly). Quite a few TV sets (especially modern ones) will to some extent support some other standards to some extent, even though officialy they don't do it. For example you may be able to feed NTSC through the AV input and get a black and white pictor with the aspect ratio slightly, but noticably off. TO satisfy the need for support for different standards, additional kludges were developed. Such a de facto (but never made official) standard is the PAL-60. This is a PAL color encoding with a frame rate of 60 (half) frames per second. This is needed for the 'NTSC Playback' VCR's as these videos can convert the NTSC color encoding to PAL, but can't change the frame rate. Hence you need a TV that can show an otherwise normal PAL signal at 60 Hz. There are TV's that support many standards, but these are not the low-end ones. Currently I'm keeping an eye on a Toshiba TV, which is not too expensive, not too big and probably supports NTSC (for me it is important).

It is also important to consider a streo TV. Apart from its own merits (better sound), there may be an advantage. Some channels (Eurosport and Arte comes to mind) broadcast (sometimes) two mono channels, typically in two different languages, instead of stereo. A stereo TV (may) support this so you may be able to listen to a program in a language that you understand.

VCR's are just as complicated. They never really tell you what standards are supported by the device. You may see 'NTSC Playback on PAL' on a device, but it is not at all obvious what they mean: Does it support all three tape speeds possible for NTSC tapes? What should the TV support (at least PAL-60, but what else is needed)? Can they record in NTSC? I just don't know. Worse: I don't know how to answer these question. Even worse: even if I knew what VCR to buy, I may not be able to buy it (forget mail order companies -- they don't have large selections, neither do electronics shops). Check back in a few months and see what I came up with (I want to buy a VCR that can do proper NTSC).

As far as I know, this is a german invention and I have not seen it anywhere else: 100 Hz TV. These machines use the same 50Hz (PAL :-) signals, but produce 100 (half) frames a second by digitizing the frames and interpolating between them. They look much better (and I don't get a headache after a few hours -- I see up to 70 Hz or so). They are not cheap, but if you have the money for it, think about it.

It is also important to mention teletext. This is very wide spread in Europe. Think about it as a poor man's World Wide Web. There is quite a bit of dead time in the TV standards (between frames), which is used to transmit a lot of information -- constantly. Typically stations transmit a few hundred (static) 'pages' (it takes quite a few seconds to cycle through them). You navigate by entering the page number (3 digit) and wait for the page to show up. Links are references to pages (you have to type them). They provide a very limited amount of information (program schedules, headline news, movie programs, etc.), but it is still a very useful service.

See the next section about frequencies, too!

TV channels

Hindsight is always 20/20 (in some places). Historically in Europe the available frequencies were considered a valuable asset (and a limited resource). When TV channels were assigned, they made a quite narrow lower frequency range available and a larger chunk at higher frequencies (which was considered less valuable). They left a quite large gap between the two. At that time it seemed to be a safe thing to do as these frequencies were enough to carry the few stations that were expected.

Than came satellite broadcasting and cable service. Probably for technical reasons, cable service wanted to use lowere frequencies (probably cheaper infrastructure costs). The low frequency bands were not enough to carry all the channels that suddenly became available. The solution was to expand into the gap between the low and high frequency bands. As these channels were not broadcasted, the governments were not really against this expansion. The hyperbands were born. Later they found out that the initially used 12 extra channels were not enough so now they have around 40 extra hyperband channels. Of course some TV sets were not able to use these channels and some citizens got hoosed big time. By now, the market more or less stabilized, but there are still older TV sets in the market that do not support these hyperband channels (or not all of them). In the Berlin area, CNN is quite often on one of these channels so be careful about the issue.

There are ordinary broadcast stations for which you only need an antenna. In the Berlin area these are ARD, ZDF (these are the ones you pay the subscription for), FAB, SAT-1, RTL, RTL-2, PRO-7, VOX, TVB, B1, n-TV. There are many ways to get more channels via satellite. The actual method depends on your building. Sometimes the whole building is automatically served by either a cable company (this is what I have), sometimes they have satellite dishes on the roof and a small 'cable service' (i.e. one set of receivers are shared by the whole house). Sometimes you have to buy your own receiver and dish and install it on your balcony (quite ugly, in my opinion). The frequency assigments may depend on the solution used in the building. I got a business card from some company which listed all the channels in the Berlin area. The list turned out to be nearly perfect in my case (I only had to add BBC). Here is this list:
NBC Super Channel7
Offener KanalS-8
Premiere (coded!)S-14
Super RTLS-25

Reading the channels are a bit tricky. Ordinary numbers correspond to frequencies assigned originally, which are in three distinct ranges (called VHF-I, VHF-III and UHF). The 'S-' channels are the later assigned ones (hyperbands). Up to S-12 were defined first, S-12 to S-40 came later. Have fun (and hope your TV will find them all -- not granted for older units).

TV/Radio subscription

This is a quite common phenomena is Europe: You have to subscribe to the public TV and radio channels. You pay around DEM 30/mo. (or around 10 if you only have a radio). This is done by filling out a form that is widely available (banks, post offices). You have to provide your bank account number and routing number and they will automatically take the money from your account. There is no choice here. Where you have a choice is the frequency and timing of payments. You can pay up front for a year, half year or 3 months. You can also (correction: beg them to take your money) in the middle of every three month period.

If you don't fill out the form, they will eventually find you. I'm not sure how, one alternative is the address registration office, the other is via the stores where you purchase a radio or TV (they may report this, even though it's probably illegal). If they find you, they will send you (first) a polite letter asking you to declare what you have. I was too busy in my first few months so this is what happened to me. I sent back the form they sent me and there were no negative consequences.

Foreigners are asking quite often why they should pay if they don't watch those channels (as they don't speak german). The answer is what you expect: because that's the law.

It is important to point out that the agency administering the subscriptions have no legal way to check if you have a TV or radio. They have no legal right to search your appartment. They may not even have a legal way to find where you live. Of course this does not prevent them from finding those who try to not to pay. They just hire people to break the law for them. They somehow create a list of those who do not have a TV or radio registered. Then they hand over the list to private companies to check on these people. These companies are very clever about trespassing in your home. They try to pretend to be agents for utility companies and such (no, in germany you can't shoot a trespasser -- as opposed to Texas). Once they gained access to your home, they report to the agency if you have some radio/TV. If they catch someone, they get some reward so they are very clever (as they are motivated). Using this illegally obtained information the agency will go after you (apparently there is no law in germany against tainted evidence). In my opinion it's just not worth to do it. DEM 30/mo. is not that much if it keeps criminals (especially criminals hired by the government) out of your home.


In Germany it is imperative to get a bank account as soon as possible. Your salary gets paid throgh your bank account (aka direct deposit) and you pay most of your bills, rent, etc. through your account.

I can offer little advice as to which one to choose. I am using the Commerzbank. I was motivated by the fact the both the tellers and officers (e.g. Marco Kluender) speak very good english. Bank offices can be found all over the country. They also offer on-line banking through their web site. As an added bonus, the website is in both english. Even the on-line banking can be done in english. As far as fees are concerned, I'm not sure. I think you pay DEM 12.50/month (taken automatically from your account), which includes a lot of things. For some services, you pay extra. As the AIP is also using Commerzbank, actually the same office, your salary will be on your account much faster as transfers between banks may take days.

If you choose my bank, the procedure is the following: Go to the bank (it's on the main road leading up to the institute). You will have to fill out a form (in German, but they will help you). Take your passport(s), work contract and address registration document with you. You will be given a small card with the account number (kontonummer) and bank code (Bankleitzahl). As far as I can tell, the account is activated immediatly. You should give these numbers to Frau Haase so the AIP can pay your salary! Be prepared that you will have to go to the bank personally to take out money for 2-3 weeks. After 1-1.5 weeks, you will get an Eurocard/Maestro card. This you can use for shopping. About an additional week later you will get the pin numbers for the cards. At that point you will (finally) be able to use the ATM machines to take money out. You should also register for 'Comline', which is the on-line banking service. You will probably get an envelop with lots of numbers in it. There is one PIN number that you need to access your account on-line. You can change it if you want over the web. You will also get a long list of TAN numbers. These are one-time passwords to initiate transactions. If you want to change something (like transfer money, etc.), you will have to use the first available TAN number for confirmation. After using it, you should cross that number out as it is only valid once. You have about 40 of these numbers, which should be enough for a long time. Be aware that seting up the on-line access takes about a week.

You pay most of your bill through transfers. To set this up, you will need the name, bank number and account number of the beneficiary (for example the landlord). You can specify how often the transaction should happen, on what date, when should it be discontinued, etc. The other method is mostly used by large companies (e.g. electricity bills). In that case you give your account number and bank number, and sign an authorization to take money from the account and they will take care of it.

One can argue the pros and cons of this system. It certainly is more convinient for the utility companies as they need very little stuff to deal with bill payments. For you it is more painful as you have to go to a bank in person during business hours. Doing it over the internet is much better -- if you can do it. You can also give permission to the companies to take the money from your account automatically -- if you trust them to that extent.

There are plenty of ATM machines so you should have no problem geting cash anywhere in Germany. You have to be careful though, as using foreign (i.e. not operated by your bank) ATM's can be quite expensive. Normally there should be an explanation on the machine that tells you how much the transaction will cost. If your bank is listed in the 'Kostenlos' category, it's free, otherwise the charge is spelled out. For Commerzbank, the ATM's of Deutsche Bank and Dredener Bank should be free, others cost extra. Always check the machine to make sure. The ATM machine will not give you any receipt of the transaction. It will not even show what your ballance is. I have no idea how you can keep track or your balance without internet banking.

There are also checks (Eurochecks). This originated in an era when the cost of using credit cards was prohibitively expensive due to the very high costs of the telecommunication infrastructure (which was controlled by state run monopolies at that time). People did not want to carry large amounts of cash, so the Eurocheck was born. The main difference between these and personal checks is that these checks will be paid by the issuing bank up to a certain limit (DEM 400, if I remember correctly). This makes it possible to pay with them (in shops, for example), as the shop does not have to trust you, but the bank standing behind the check. The Eurochecks are printed using safeguards to make it hard to counterfeit them. You can only use them if you have an Eurocard with you, containing your signature. As the bank has to honor them, even if there is not enough money on your account, you will only get a very limited supply of them (10 or so). You can use them anywhere in the EU. You write the amount in the local currency, but keep in mind the limit (there are slight variations between the countries). Sometimes you have to use multiple checks to pay for something. Of course all these extra features disappear between two ordinary persons, and a Eurocheck is just like a personal check. By now the need for these checks is declining, but in special cases they are still useful.

There is one more speciality in Europe with respect to 'credit cards'. In my opinion the bottom line was that banks wanted to offer something simmilar to credit cards, but they did not trust the customers well enough. They came up with a modified version of the credit card, the 'electronic credit card'. There are two of these, the Maestro (which as far as I can tell is a daughter of MasterCard) and the Visa Electron (which is probably run by the Visa network). If you look at these card, you will probably notice that they are 'flat', the owner's name and credit card number is not 'pressed' in the card, only printed on it. That pretty much implies the difference between these and true credit cards: you can not imprint them. You have to swipe these cards and print the credit card slip. Seems to be a trivial difference, but it is not. In the case of a 'true' card, within limits (I think around $400 or so) approval from the bank is NOT needed. The issuing bank will pay on a credit card slip, if the signature on it is genuine. Even if the customer is over the credit limit. With these 'light' credit cards, the transaction is not valid without the approval of the bank. This is to make sure that you can not go beyond your credit limit. This is not an issue in about 99% of the cases, but there are situations where you need a real credit card (e.g. middle of sticks places, where there is no phone connection so they can't call in to get an approval). There are also the 'customer not present' type transaction (ordering goods over the phone, internet, etc.), where these light credit cards are not always accepted. Even worse: it is not the type of the card that decides this, but the issuing bank. I have no experience yeat, but it may be possible that for example Amazon will accept a Maestro card from bank A, but reject a Maestro card from bank B.

I was also a bit misleading. A kept saying 'credit card', when I should not have done it. Most of the cards that you can easily get are not true credit cards -- most likely debit cards. To be precise about it:

This last construction is very convinient for the customer. It is also very good for the bank (as quite a few people can not resist spending more than they should -- and will pay a lot of interest over the years). This only works if only a small fraction of customers will disappear from the radar screen (canonic number is about 5%). Apparently European banks do not trust customers to this extent in general, so the default is a debit card. Or a secured credit card, where you have to have a separate account with the same bank. Whatever you deposit there (and 'lock' so you can't just withdraw it) is your credit line. One more problem: These constructions (Maestro and Visa Electron) are not really known outside Europe. Sometimes you may have a problem in other countries where they don't really know what these things are. You have to tell them that they should try them and it will work. In this respect the Visa Electron is a bit better as it does have the VISA logo on it (that holographic bird) so even an IQ 50 cashier will try it. The Maestro is a bit worse as there is no MasterCard logo on it (only a modified one). A cashier may not believe that the card works like a MasterCard. You may have to push them hard.

There is also the geldcard. In my opinion this idea was DOA due to the half assed way it was rolled out. This is a strickly off-line paperless payment system based on smart-cards. There is a small chip in (some) of the ATM cards that can store cash up to DEM 400 (if I remember correctly). You could have used this amount for small purchases -- if the number of terminals reached critical limit. It would have been a neat thing, but I have not seen a single shop where I could have used this method of payment but nothing else was available. Neither is it available for vending machines (I'd LOVE to have that option -- I'm sick of not having the right coins, coins being refused by the machine, etc.) in general. In my opinion right know this system is not working -- yet.

Income Tax

In short: Oh, my God!

I'm not sure that you have to file an income tax return every year. It may be possible that if you only had a single job and you are happy with the amount of tax witheld, you can do nothing. I just don't know. Here is what to do if you want to file a tax return and you want to do it on your own (as opposed to pay 100-200 DEM for a professional):

The first step is to get back your Lohnsteuerkarte from your employer. They hopefuly fill out the back of it by the middle of February. Next you should make a trip to the local FinanzAmt for the appropriate forms. In Potsdam, They are at Henning v. Tresckow Str. 2-8, which is just accross from the filmuseum. As far as I know this is the only place where you can get the forms (not libraries, post office, etc.). Even worse. You can only get them when they are open, which is 8-12:30 every week day and 14-17 on Tuesday. Oh, and they do not speak english. You definitly need the basic form (I think Steuererklaerung formular). The basic kit contains two basic forms (4 pages long), an anlage N (appendix N) and an instruction booklet. For a joint return, you should definitly get one more anlage N for the wife. If you have children, you should get an anlage 'kinder', too.

Now comes the fun part: filling out the forms (I want my 1040EZ back!). The first page of the form is quite straight forward (name, address, etc.). Look at this and this for some help. If there is nothing special, you should be only interested in line 33 and 40 (anlage N and anlage kinder) -- I may be wrong -- on page 2 (list of income categories).

Background info: Germany is the first country I encountered where they do not have tax brackets. They opted for a combination of a parabola and a line. Don't ask me why.

Your income tax is calculated the following way: The add up the family income (i.e. they combine the wife and housband). They substract the mandatory insurances (health, pension, possibly church -- I'm not sure about the later). This is your taxable income. For singles they substract around 13k (changes every year), for couples twice this much. They probably substract more for children. Than they either substract a standard deduction of DEM 2000 per earner (i.e. only if you work) or more if you can show more expenses (starting in 2001 commuting costs with public transportation will be possible to claim!). Whatever is left is fed into the magic formula which produces the tax. The income tax rate is a linear function of the income, starting around 25 percent and going up to around 45 percent at 120k. Beyond that it's constant. I will provide an actual calculation when I get back my 2000 tax return. This calculation is done by the tax office (finanzamt). It is a good idea to check it though. A watchdog organization found an extremely high rate of mistakes made by the office, which dominantly resulted in too much tax paid. When you get the calculation back, check if the deductions are correct and go to a book store and look up in a tax table if the tax calculated is correct.

Finally a few words about the 'steuerklasse' (tax class). These classes determine how much tax is withheld by the employer. Class-I assumes that you have uniform income throughout the year and you are single and calculates the income accordingly. Class-III assumes that you are married but your wife is not working (i.e. they include the ~13k deduction of your spouse). Class-V is for low income spouses. You only get the 2k standard deduction and they withhold the highest tax rate possible. I'm not sure about Class-II and IV. As you can figure out, as long as neither of you have two jobs, your witholding is at least as much as your income will be. In theory in Class-I and Class-III (with a non-working spouse) it is possible that the witholding is correct. In practice it does not happen except in very rare cases as your income in not constant (you get the extra bonus at the end of year) and the witholding calculation is done later in the year. For other cases (e.g. two income families) it is certain that too much is witheld. Therefore it is in your interest to file a tax return as soon as you can (unless you feel obliged to give interest free loans to the government). You have nothing to loose and you will very very likely get some money back (eventually -- probably few months).

Health care

Legally you are required to carry a helath insurance. Below a certain income level, you don't have a choice, you have to buy into the goverment insurance. Above a limit (around 6k/month if I remember correctly) you can choose a private insurance. If you do so, you will never be allowed to go back into the state insurance, even if your income decreases (i.e. you can opt out but can't opt in). It is also important to figure out what the private insurance covers and what is excluded (preexisting conditions, for example).

What do you get for it? The official claim is that 'everything that is necessary'. Not what you think is necessary but what a comitee decides is necessary. Basically you can choose any doctor you want (as long as (s)he agrees to take you -- they are not obliged). You will notice that the really good doctors will turn you down quite often with your state insurance. The reason is that the state pays significantly less (quite often a factor of two) than private insurances. Apart from this, you will get quite good health care. You will have to get used to the prussian health care approach: you surrender your body. You will not get practically any information from the doctor, (s)he will make the decisions for you. Even those that you should make. Live with it.

A different problem is that the government tries to enforce a quota on medications that a doctor can prescribe. This shit is about to hit the fan right now and it is impossible to tell what is going to happen. You will notice that doctors are geting eager to take on young, healthy patiens (as the quota does not depend on age and what they save on you can be used by elderly, sick patients). The other problem is that the helath care system is working with a limited budget while in practice an infinite amount can be spent on any thickness. The solution they came up with is that they do not pay for 'experimental' treatments. Of course this is defined by them. New treatments are included depending on the budget of the helth care system. This has they side effect that some doctors will push you towards these new treatments as in this case they set the price, not the government. If they try to talk you into some tratment that is not covered, get a second opinion from someone who is not motivated financially. These situations are extremely rare, but if it happens to you (happened to me), be very very careful.

Dental care is even more complicated. You insurance covers regular check-ups and normal fillings. It only covers crowns and other simmilar tratments partially. This later means that the dentist will provide an estimate which includes what needs to be done and how much it is going to cost. You take this to the insurance company which tells how much they think it should cost and how much they are going to contribute (half of it is typical). You take this back to the dentist, get the treatment and pay the difference. As expected the cost estimate you get from the dentist is more like a lower limit so in the and you will pay a bit more than 60 percent on average. Quite obviously dentists are motivqated to do the expensive and not 100 percent covered things. Notice the incredibly high number of crowns on german teeth. If they want you to have something like this, get a foreign second opinion. I did that and saved few hundred marks that way (paid DEM 80 for two fillings and 400 for the ticket instead of over 1000 for a complicated tripple crown/bridge). Of course you are free to believe that you get more for your money in Germany. The same way I believe the opposite.

Having a baby in Germany

You should start as early as you know you (or your significant other) is pregnant!

First, the pregnant mother should find a gynecologist (if she does not have one already). The doctor will monitor her for the better part of the pregnancy. The actual delivery place is completely unrelated to the choice of doctors (i.e. it's not the gynecologists who will do the delivery) -- unlike in some other countries. You will get a 'Mutterpass' that you should have with you. All medical tests, etc. are recorded in it so if you start labor 500km from home, the local doctor knows everything relevant about you.

Next you should start looking for a birth preparation course (Geburtsforbereitung). These typicaly run for 6 weeks, once a week, 2-3 hours each. Don't expect too much theory, you will only get 'in the right mood'. FInd one early and register as the places go fast. In my opinion it's best to do it in the 7-8th month (NOT in the 9th). Be prepered to pay ~150DEM as the insurance only partly covers it.

Also find a mid-wife (Hebamme) that will help you with the baby once at home. There are lists of mid-wifes in hospitals, many of them speak english (our does). They are paid by the health insurance company. They will also bring lots of things free (creams, etc.). Don't by too much cosmetics.

Next urgent thing is to decide WHERE you want to do the delivery. There are two choices: Hospitals and Birth Centers:

These are the main choices. It is also possible to do it in a doctor's office, at home, in an ambulance car, on the Berlin-Muenchen Autobahn on the 22nd Dec. in sub-zero temperatures, etc. I don't know what the financial implications are, though (i.e. what the insurance company pays). You should read on the internet / in books about pregnancy, labor, etc. No matter what a few germans think about them being different from the rest of the human beings, there is nothing specific to Germany here...

Before your due date, there are a few papers that you should get:

Administrative things after birth

The first step is to get a birth certificate (Geburtsurkunde). Many hospitals will do it for you (takes a few days). You can also get international birth certificates! You have to tell them how many copies you need. First certificate costs DEM 14, every additional costs 7. If you want both german and international, the first of both will be 14 DEM. You will also get three extra papers, for the Kindergeld, for the Erziehungsgeld and for the helth insurance company. DO NOT LOOSE THEM. They are worth a lot of money and they will not be replaced. If for some obscure reason the hospital is not doing it for you, you have to go to the Standesamt and spend a day there.

Next you can take care of the Kindergeld. Fill out the form, take the passport of both parents with you and the extra paper which came with the birth certificate (and has Kidergeld written on it). Go to the Arbeitsamt/Familienkasse. The Kindergeld is DEM 270/mo (154EUR) for the first, a bit more for additional kids and is until they are 18 years old or so (up to may be 27 if the kid is going to school). This is easy.

Go to the Lnadeseinwohnenamt with passports and a birth certificate. Take the sheet from the Erziehungsgeld pack with you. Register your kid and have the sheet stamped.

Go to the health insurance office (the mother should go, otherwise you will have to go twice). Take the sheet that came with the birth certificate and has Krankenkasse written on it. You will get Entbindungsgeld and/or Muttergeld. They will know what. It might be that muttergeld is only for those mothers that are employed. The entbindungsgeld is a one time 150DEM or so. Get a statement from the helth insurance company that states what they will pay. You will need it! They will also issue a health insurance card for the baby (she is also included in the family insurance without extra charge).

Go to the office handling the tax cards (this is typically NOT the finanzamt, i.e. tax office) with a birth certicifate. Have them change it (they should note the number of kids on it -- from next year it should be automatic).

Go to your employer with a birth certificate and the updated tax card.

Finally go to the Jugendamt and submit the Erziehungsgeld application. With whis form you need a native speaker as it is immensly complicated. Note that the mother is the applicant! Take with you:

It's good to have your wife with you as she will have to fill out yet another form (Erklarung), where she states that she gets no other social benefits, etc.

You are DONE!

Summary of financial impact of a baby

I don't know yet what time scale things happen on. I'm wating for Kindergeld, etc.

Additional things to do after you have your baby

Care for your baby, feed her, change diapers, etc. :-)

Find a pediatritian. Find one fast. In the hospital, you got a kinderpass (or what it's called). The first two standard examinations (U1 at birth and U2 around day-4) are hopefully done, but here comes U-3 at 4-6 weeks! This should be done by the pediatritian (the first two are typically done by the hospital). The pediatritian will also start the immunizations (and give you yet another thing to carry around).

Also look for kindergartens (at least in some regions) right after the birth! Some regions have extremely long waiting lists! Also investigate schools.

Traffic rules

Traffic laws are quite standards in Germany, there are only minor differences.

There are countries where you can turn right on a red light (after stopping and yielding). There are countries where you can't. Germany is in between. By default you can not, but quite often (especially in former East Germany) they put a (permanent) green right arrow right next to the red light. This means that you can turn on red (but only after stopping and yielding to oncoming traffic).

The right of way is not always explicit in intersections (as opposed to for example the US, where practically always someone has a yield or stop sign). In such intersections, you have to yield to cars on your right. You should also yield to a car in front of you if you are turning left if (s)he is going straight. You should yield to trams, even if they are on your right (and in practice, all the time as they have a lot of steel in them -- cemeteries have special areas for those who had the right of way :-).

There are very strict speed limits in cities, quite often not posted, in which case they default to 50 km/h (around 30 mph) if I remember correctly (CHECK THIS!). Outside the city there are also default speed limits, except on the 'autobahn'. There is no explicit speed limit on the autobahn (which by definition is marked by a blue sign, showing the two, divided directions and a bridge over them) -- unless there is one posted (and often ignored). There is a 'suggested' 130 km/h limit (about 80 mph) which is ignored.

Traffic light may be a bit strange to some people. There is a 'get ready' sign after the red but before the green: red and yellow together. The whole cycle is: Red (don't even thing about it), Red+Yellow (get ready, you are not supposed to start, but some people start rolling anyway), green (go) and yellow (only cross if you can't stop).

Outside the cities there is a keep right rule (not in the cities). You should be in the right lane except to pass. Not as insane as it sounds as even the largest highways are two lanes in each direction and the speed differences are high (some people go at 55 mph, others at 125, some even faster).

Police, ambulance, fire trucks, politicians, etc. have an absolute right of way. In theory only if the use both the blue flashing light and the sirens. In practice, especially at night, the try to be quiet so they only use the lights. Technically they don't have any privileges in this case, but they act as if they had so get out of their way if you can.

You should also be very careful about bicycles. Quite often they have the right of way, or act as if they had. They are very fast (by city standards) and very quiet.

It is a completely different story what germans do in practice. In cities they obey speed limits. Not so outside the cities, especially not on the autobahn, where anything goes. There is also a hierarchy of cars that must be observed. In other words don't even think about passing a Mercedes with a VW, even if the Mercedes is driving at 40 mph. Especially not on ordinary roads, where there is oncoming traffic. He will not let you pass, you may not be able to abort and will end up under an oncoming truck. On the autobahn you may try it, but what will probably happen is that he will pass you, cut you in and slam on the brake to teach you a lesson. Safe speed is determined by the car, not the driver in Germany so it is unthinkable for a lower class car to pass an aristocratic one.

Traffic lights are obeyed by cars and pedestrians. This later is also a german specialty. It is mostly foreigners that do jay walking -- and quite often got chewed out by locals (to them it seems to be a capital offense and they would probably shoot you on the spot if they could). Traffic lights are not always obeyed by busses (for them the yellow is too short and they have to get lots of passangers somewhere fast) so even if you have a green, keep an eye on busses. Traffic light, and traffic rules in general are completely ignored by bicycles. They run red lights, the go the wrong direction in a one way street, etc.

Flashing headlights mean that 'Get the f@ck out of my way', especially on the autobahn. It is most definitly not an indication that one gives up his right of way (as it is in some countries).


Driver's License

Your foreign driver's license is only valid for 6 months -- legally. The police will probably not be interested in this rule. Where this becomes really a problem is an accident. You insurance company may make an issue out of it.

If you are lucky, your foreign license will be good for a german one. This depends on the license and in the Land. I know quite a few people who moved (i.e. registered there) to the right Land for a few weeks to get a german license. Keep in mind that IF you get a german license, they will take your foreign one. It is a good idea to keep the german one, even after you leave the country as it never expires. It may be a good idea to 'loose' your foreign license before coming to Germany so you can surrender 'one' without a second thought.

The process depends on the country where your current license is issued. Mine if issued in Hungary, which is a straightforward case. Yours can be much more complicated. I had to do the following:

  1. Get an eye test. Any optician will do it as far as I know. Costed DEM 12 for me and took 5 minutes. Very minimal german is required: You have to read letters and they check your depth perception. They do not test color vision (at least they didn't for me).
  2. Get photographs. It is important to note that they require american style photos, i.e. sideways, your left ear showing. You have to explicitly tell them this as this is not the default and they don't know about the new rules. Should cost DEM 10-20 (any half decent photo shop will do it).
  3. Take a first aid course. It should cost DEM 40 or so and should take a whole saturday. It is offered by the Red Cross and the Malthesers. Ask someone to call. You should understand some german but not much. You will have to do CPR and look intelligent.
  4. Get an official translation of your license. Probably your embassy (or the apropriate one if your license is issued in a third country) will tell you who is doing it. I paid DEM 40 for it.
  5. Make copies of your license (doesn't have to be notarized).
  6. DEM 80-100 processing fee.
If you have all of these, take them to the nearest registration office. They should be able to handle it. Processing takes 1-2 month. When they are done, they will notify in mail. You have to go in, surrender your license and collect the new one. It is a mistery what happens to your old license. In the past they sent it to the apropriate consulate. They don't do it any more. My guess is that they just throw it out, but I will have to look into it. Probably you are better off claiming in your home country that you lost it and get a new one. Somebody should explain me the legalities of this proces...

It is a good idea to have a copy (even better, a replacement) of your license as your insurance rate will depend on how long you had the license. The one you get from the german goverment will not have this information. As far as I know you have 3 years to do this. After that you have to start from scratch, which is incredibly expensive.

Buying a car

Keep in mind that I have no first hand experience in this regard. All this information is based on second hand knowledge, and is probably plain wrong in some places.

The first big question is: do you want a new car or a used one. Obviously, buying a new car has its advantages. Warranty, choice of features, easier administration, etc. As a foreigner, you have to consider additional advantages. Do you want to take the car home after you finish here? If so, can you import an old car in your home country? On the down side, you have to keep in mind that a car looses 20-30 percent of its market value in the first minute. Of course if you are short on money (new cars in Germany are starting around 20-30 kDEM), you have no choice but to buy a used one. It is up to you.

Next choice is what sort of car you want to buy. I personally would not buy an american made model in Germany. They are not even close in reliability, in general to Japanese and German cars. In the US, this is offset by cheap after-market parts and cheaper mechanics. Not so in Europe. My personal belief is that the total cost of ownership is way too high for american made cars in Europe. At least in the 'normal' car categories. If you absolutely insist on having an SUV, minivan or a pick-up truck, a US car may be the only viable option. These categories were introduced in the Europian market recently and I'm not sure what the long term outlooks are. You should also keep in mind that speed limits in Europe, at least on high-ways, are much higher than they used to be in the US (typical is 75-85 MPH, but quite a few German 'Autobahns' do not have any speed limit). US cars are designed for 55-65 MPH, and they may not be as stable at these speeds. For example my 12 years old mazda was very stable at 80-90 MPH, but a brand new american made car (rental) started to do funny things (shake, wobble, etc.) at 80. You should also keep in mind that gas is about a factor of 2-3 more expensive than in the US, with slightly lower net salaries. In other words fuel efficiency is much more important here than in the US. US made cars are not too famous for fuel efficiency.

You are still left with German, Japan, other Europian and far eastern cars. I have no hard opinion yet. German cars are very realiable in general. Parts are easily accessible and not too expensive (compared to the US, where having a german car is a nightmare). Trained mechanics are widely available. Both after-market and 'used' (aka salvaged) parts are available. German cars are also designed for high speeds and with fuel efficiency in mind. They are probably not a bad idea.

There are additional factors to consider. I think there are taxes based on engine size, weight, emission, etc.

Lets assume you decided (more or less) what you want. I don't know what is the good method to buy a new car so I will concentrate on used ones. I also assume that you do not want to buy from the dealer, but that just personal preference: I believe that with a used car salesman you are going to get screwed, while in private transactions you have a chance. This is highly subjective, of course.

First thing is to find car candidates. Check out the web site of Zweite Hand -- Autohandel. Get a feel of what the prices are. Narrow you choice to a few categories based of your needs and resources. When you feel ready, buy the magazine and start calling them. Look for cars with recent safety inspection (TUV) and emission test (AU) so you have one less problem at the beginning.

If you found a car and you agreed on the price, you should buy it. This involves (beyond paying) filling out a contract (these are premade forms, I think three copies, privided by the seller). You should also get hold of the Fahrzeigbrief (how is it spelled?), which is a large, official looking paper, I think simmilar to the title in the US. There is also a fahrzeigschein (spelling?), which is simmilar to the registration certificate in the US -- a small piece of paper that you should carry with you all the time. I'm not sure who keeps this. In addition you will also need the safety inspection (TUV) and emmision test (AU) certificates. At this point you may be able to drive away with the car. There are some special rules about being able to drive the newly purchased car for a few days, but I am not sure what these are. May be you need insurance first, may be not.

Your next trip is to an insurance agents. Take all the papers with you and get an insurance. Liability insurance is mandatory, others (collision, comprehensive, etc.) are not, but they are not too expensive so keep an open mind. Your premium depends on your history so if you owned a car (abroad), bring documents showing that you caused no accidents. A friend of mine, with no accident history and a 'normal car' pays around 80-100/mo.

Your next trip is to the ??? office to register the car. Take all the papers (including the new one from the insurance company) with you. First you have to hand over all the papers. They will tell you how much to pay (DEM 100-200). You get a small chip-card, which you have to take to a machine and pay this amount, for which you get a receipt. Take this receipt to the shop next to the office and get a license plate. Take the plate back to the office, where you will get two stickers on the plate. Install the plates and you are nearly ready. You just have to get rid of the old plates properly, but I have no idea how to do it: give it back to the previous owner or hand it over in the office.

Probably it is a good idea to take a native with you for this trip.

Mobile phones

Motto: FUD (Fear, uncertainty, disinformation).

If you are thinking about getin a mobile phone (aka handy in Germany), there are lots of thinks that you should be aware. In essence you need two things, a mobile phone and a service, which manifests itself in the form of a small smart card (SIM). Neither is self evident.

The phone: There are at least 5 mobile phone standards that I'm aware of. I think currently in Germany there are two in use: GSM 900 (whcih they call 'D'-net) and GSM 1800 (which they call 'E'-net). I'm by no means an expert, but GSM is (more or less) a protocol used, while the number represents the approximate frequency used (in MHz). N.b. that neither of these are available in the US, where the older netwroks operate at around 800 MHz (not even GSM), while a newer, GSM based network is under construction which works at 1900 MHz. There are phones that support the GSM-900 only, dual standard machines (GSM 900 and 1800) and tripple standard (the two german standards and the new US standard). As far as I can tell, the technology used by the D- and E-netz (900 and 1800 MHz GSM) is the same. The main difference is the frequency and number of channels. The 1800MHz cells can be more closely placed and have more channels. On the other hand, the higher frequency penetrates buildings less. In practice this means in general that a 900MHz phone/network may fail due to saturation (very dense cities during busy time) while a 1800 MHz phone/net may fail in buildings, in rural areas, etc. Area coverage of 1800 MHz networks is worse than for 900MHz, especially in the country side (at least right now). As you expect the more support you get, the more you pay for the machine. The other issue that is not to emphasised is that when you buy a mobile phone, you normally can't do whatever you want with it. It is quite typical to get the phone with a so called SIM Lock. This means that the phone will only work with one provider. Even though this is the typical, sometimes you end up with a phone that does not even work with a different type of service from the same provider (i.e. new SIM card -- see below -- will be rejected by the unit). Avoid this later. The former (ordinary SIM Lock) is up to you, but make sure that you understand what you are geting into. As far as I know after a given period of time (2 years) you may ask for this lock to be removed (free) or pay around DEM 200 for prompt removal. Repeat: make sure you know what you are doing and get it in writing. Otherwise you take your machine back to your home country and you won't be able to use it at all. Of course for some models it is possible to crack this protection, but I don't know which models are easy to crack and what are the legal and practical consequences (may void warranty for example). There is also a used phone market. IMHO there are three problems with this: 1. You can not make sure the unit is not stollen. This is not just a moral issue as every phone has a serial number (they call it IMEI number) that is transmitted by the phone to the provider. A stollen unit can be black listed any moment. It can also be located with a precision of few times 10 meters so you may even be harassed by the police. 2. They may be SIM Locked and there is no way to check this that I'm aware of. It may have been cracked which may or may not have legal implications. 3. It is used. It may have hidden problems, but it most certainly will have a very weak battery (not cheap). All in all buying a used machine may be risky and may not be cheap in the end. Be careful.

The service: There are two main types of service. Pre-paid and post-paid. With a pre-paid service you pay some amount (DEM 25 and up), which you can use for calls. The claims are that there is no monthly fee for the sevice. How to say it without saying lie: FUD. All these pre-paid plans (unless I missed one) explain in the small script that the money on the account will expire after some time (this may be as short as 3 months or more than a year -- depends on the plan, the amount, etc.). In my dictionary this is a monthly fee (i.e. you pay some money just for having the phone). The other main restriction on these plans is that there is no or very limited roaming (i.e. using it outside the territory of the provider -- e.g. abroad). Also ask what happens if you use up all the money on your account: Will you be able to receive calls? With some plans the answer is yes, with others it's no. Ask explicitly. Also compare the per minute charges to the post-paid plans. Quite often pre-paid plans are more expensive. If you don't plan to call a lot (only receive calls) this may not be important. You may also not be listed with directory assistance. Ask explicityly if this is important for you. You may also loose your phone number if you don't 'refill' with money your acocunt for an extended period of time. In spite of all these disadvantages, there are benefits. The most important is cost control. I've met quite a few people who managed to produce first month bills beyond $500. You don't have this risk with a pre-paid option as you have to pay before using the service. It is also easier to get this service. They don't have to trust you to pay your bills. You also pay for the phone up front. The risk is much smaller for them. It may also be possible to have this service without ever identifying yourself (don't forget to pay in cash). Look for XtraCard, CallYa, Free&Easy, Loop at different prividers.

The other option is post-paid. There are quite a few plans offered by the providers. As a rule of thumb: The higher the monthly fee is, the more free minutes are included and the lowere the per minute charges are. You should figure out what your usage pattern is (consider a pre-paid option for a while and switch to post-paid after a few months). Quite often you have to sign a 1-2 year contract. Sometimes you can switch between plans during this period, sometimes you can't. Ask. The advantage of starting with a post-paid plan is that quite often you pay the startup costs (phone, etc.) in installments. Ooops, sorry. According to terms used by providers (see also FUD): if you sign a 1-2 year contract, you get a huge discount (sometimes even free phone). Of course with a post-paid plan they check if you can be trusted. I'm not sure what they need (appartment lease, pay stubs, work contract, etc.). As a foreigner you may be in trouble.

As far as I know, there are four providers in Germany: T-Mobil (aka D1, DeTe Mobil, T-D1) and Mannesmann Mobilfunk (aka D2) operating at 900 MHz and E-Plus and VIAG Interkom operating at 1800 MHz.

Roaming: Here is where the fun starts. You can easily end up outside the service area of your provider, but in a teritory where there are other providers that could in theory provide service for your phone. This is when roaming comes handy (for your handy :-). You may also need this if you are in theory in the service area of your provider, but for technical reasons you can't do that (e.g. back country). The idea is that the local prider will service your phone for a (sometimes hefty) surcharge which will eventually show up on your bill (if roaming is possible with the plan you have). There is a big catch. Unless you specify your preference (read the manual of your phone) the phone will pick the 'default' provider if more than one is available. As you can guess, in some countries the default provider pays extra concession fees to be the default, which will he gets back from you. Before going abroad, do your homework. Figure out who the providers are and what they charge. Program your phone accordingly (it is possible to set up your preferences for providers). Normally if someone calls you, they pay for it (so you don't worry about it). With roaming this is probably not true. The caller pays the regular price that (s)he would pay if you were in the country. You pay the difference. Ask your provider!

SMS: My interpretation is that this (Short Message System) is the merging of pagers into mobile phones. An SMS message can be up to 160 characters long and is delivered fast, but not in real time (just like good old text paging). You can send messages, too (but it's a pain to type them on an ordinary phone). The main catch is that there are lots of people trying to provide an easy (and free) way to send these messages. The providers shut these possibilities down very fast. They only want to see the methods that they can charge for (other mobil phone or e-mail to SMS gateways). See next paragraph.

Bells and whistles: There are billions of services (voice mail, call forwarding, conference calling, etc.). Ask someone who actually has a decent mobile phone. I don't (I have a Nokia 1611, which was designed about 200 years ago).

As far as I know the European Trade Comission (if I got the name right) is expected to act on SIM Locks (and hopefuly ban them) as anticompetitive. When this happens is a big question. They are not very fast historically.

As for actual prices: I collected some prices that were valid, as far as I can tell, in Aug. 2000 (of course I can make mistakes). There are different prices for different times of the day, typically day, night and week-end rates. There is (for post-paid service) a monthly fee. Sometimes there are differences between calls to a phone on the same network, calls to a landline and calls to a different network. Voice mail prices are also different.

I also show the pricing for the same or simmilar service for a company in Hungary (Pannon GSM) and in the USA (CellOne) for educational purposes. Prices are in DEM and for one minute. The 'unit' can be 10/10, which means that you pay for every (fractional) 10 seconds, while 60/1 means that you pay for the first minute no matter what (even if wrong number, voice mail, etc.), but you pay for every second after. The 3 numbers should be read as landline/other-mobile/internal-mobile.

First the pre-paid prices:

T-D1D2 E-PlusVIAGHungaryUSA
Day period7-207-207-208-188-18N/A
Voice mail day 0.590.39
Voice mail other0.390.39

As you can see there is very little difference between the companies in Germany and the service is way overpriced. I don't know the legal definition of price fixing so I will not call it that.

Next the post-paid (aka regular subscription prices), starting with the 'cheap' calling plan:

T-D1D2 E-PlusVIAGHungaryUSA
Monthly fee24.9524.9521.10
Day period7-177-178-18
Voice mail day 0.24
Voice mail other0.10
SMS 0.24

'medium' calling plan:

T-D1D2 E-PlusVIAGHungaryUSA
Monthly fee49.9549.9527.90
Day period7-207-208-18
Voice mail day 0.24
Voice mail other0.10
SMS 0.24

If you think it is going to get cheaper, think again. The German government followed the very enlighted british and french example and collected some extraorbitant amount of money for the next generation mobile phone licenses. Once I heard the numbers and it was something like DEM 1000/person (not subscriber!). Guess who is going to pay for it. I don't quite understand why don't they increase the tax rates a bit instead if they need more money. These indirect taxations are one of the stupidest things you can do, in my opinion.


E-mail always welcome

Dr. Gyula P. Szokoly
Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam
An der Sternwarte 16
14482 Potsdam
+49 (331) 7499-316