[dropcap]B[/dropcap]erlin’s been described as the city that’s always becoming and never being, and it’s certainly had a busy few decades. In the time since East and West Germany reunited in 1990, Berlin’s become a political powerhouse, an artistic hub and a nightlife mecca—and, most recently, one of Europe’s most vibrant tech and entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The city’s central location makes it a perfect jumping-off point if your company dreams of someday conquering Europe, and its high quality of life and relaxed atmosphere means you’ll have fun along the way. Silicon Valley may have more money, but David Bowie never had a San Francisco period.
Before you come
Germany is known for its bureaucracy, and it’s a reputation that’s well earned. To avoid running into stress once you’re in the country, you’ll want to check off a few boxes before you arrive. First, you’ll want to start looking for apartments. Places are scarce in some of Berlin’s trendier neighborhoods, but you’ll need a permanent address to get started on all your other paperwork—and you’ve got a lot of paperwork ahead of you. If you’re planning on staying in Germany long-term, you’ll need an address to register at one of Berlin’s Bürgerämter (municipal administrative offices) within two weeks of arriving. If you’re subletting or living with a friend, you can use that residence with your landlord’s written permission. (Pro tip: you can go to any Bürgeramt in the city, not just the one in your neighborhood; and you can often find an appointment much earlier if you’re willing to take a half-hour trip to one of the less frequented offices in the suburbs.) You’ll also want to make sure you have health insurance that meets German requirements. Whether you go with the public system or a private provider, you’ll need to show a current policy when you apply for your visa.
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If you’re coming from an English-speaking country, Germans in general—and Berliners in particular—may seem surprisingly… direct. Berliners are proud of their Berliner Schnauze, a mix of irreverence and bluntness that can come off as rude if you aren’t used to it. Bus drivers in Berlin have little patience for questions, and woe unto the pedestrian who unknowingly occupies a bike lane. But once you’ve adjusted, you may come to appreciate the German style of communication. Germans tend to be sincere in their friendships. They generally prefer straightforward conversation to small talk, and their plans are sacred, not tentative.
Berlin’s irreverence stems from its deep informality. You’ll find that a pair of jeans is appropriate attire in 90 percent of offices, and that many Friday afternoons end with a beer with your coworkers. Germans also take pride in their work-life balance, which includes a generous amount of vacation time. Chancellor Merkel herself is frequently spotted hiking during the holidays, which she’s entitled to as a government employee.
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Cost of living
Berlin’s unofficial motto is “arm aber sexy” (“poor but sexy”), and although the city has become more expensive recently, it’s still relatively cheap compared to other major European cities. Many Berliners live in shared flats, and you can usually find a room in one for no more than €600, including utilities. You’ll pay more for your own space, but there are still nice single-room apartments in popular neighborhoods for under €800. A meal in an average casual restaurant shouldn’t set you back more than €15, and you can get groceries for about €50 per week. A monthly travel pass that covers all public transportation within the city (though not some of the further-flung suburbs) will cost you about €80. Berlin also has a thriving bike culture if you’d prefer to cycle. All told, you can live quite comfortably on €1,200 per month, and downright decadently on €1,500 or more.
Keep in mind, though, that while German taxes aren’t as high as, say, Scandinavian taxes, you should expect to pay a significant portion of your income—up to 50 percent if you’re a high earner. And you’re legally obligated to have health insurance, which can add another €300 per month if you’re paying for yourself.
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Renting an apartment
Shared flats—called Wohngemeinschaften, or WG (pronounced “vay-gay” or “veh-geh”) for short—are popular in Berlin, and you’ll find many people well into their thirties who still live with roommates. You can often find a WG room for €300 to €600 per month. Rooms are listed on popular platforms like wg-gesucht.de or in Facebook groups such as Housing BERLIN or Wohnung und WG Berlin. You may have to go a dreaded “WG casting call,” however, to see if you’re a good fit. Be prepared for something a bit like a job interview, except you may be asked about your cleanliness, music tastes, and cooking skills.
If you’d prefer your own place, you have two options: Many Berliners live as Untermieter (subletters) with arrangements varying in formality—and legality. You can often find a good deal if you don’t mind moving again when your landlord needs the apartment back. The alternative is to rent or buy your own flat, but you might face a few hurdles if you’re not German. The local real estate market can be confusing and difficult to navigate for non-German speakers, and you’ll need to produce a Schufa, a kind of credit check, before most landlords will consider you—and that can be tricky without a domestic financial record. But don’t feel overwhelmed; there are many Berlin realtors who specialize in working with foreigners and who can help you find and be approved for your dream home.
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Finding a coworking space
Berlin has a thriving ecosystem of digital nomads, and there are clusters of coworking spaces in several parts of the city. St. Oberholz near Rosenthaler Platz in Mitte has become a hub of Berlin’s startup scene, and just one stop away in Prenzlauerberg is Factory Berlin, a coworking space and incubator. Kreuzberg is home to the Berlin branch of the renowned betahaus, and the Agora Collective is in Neukölln, the center of Berlin’s hipster artist and student scene. There are coffee shops all over the city, and reliable WiFi available nearly everywhere. Note, however, that many cafes don’t allow computers on weekends.
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Visas and work permits
If you’re not from the EU, you’ll need a permit to work or stay in the country at all for longer than ninety days. Fortunately, Germany has been taking steps to make its visa process more accessible, in part to foster the startup scene. And while it can be tedious, it isn’t that difficult. If you’re working for a company that’s willing to sponsor you (or moving to Germany to take a job you’ve been offered), you’ll need a contract or letter of intent from your employer specifying your start date. Freelancers need to produce a business plan showing your sources of income and your ability to support yourself, along with recommendations from clients attesting to your ability to find work. Ideally, you’ll also have offers from prospective clients in Germany. In addition, you’ll need to show proof of a current health insurance plan, a Meldung (registration of your living address), and an open bank account in Germany, along with any statements that show savings abroad. You can apply for a visa at a German consulate or embassy abroad, or at one of the Ausländerbehörden (foreigners registration offices) in Germany.
Starting a company
If you’re looking to work as a freelancer, starting a company is easy. Once you’ve got your freelance visa, simply visit the Finanzamt (tax office) and fill out a form for your tax number. One thing to keep in mind, though: if you plan to make over €17,500 per year as a freelancer, you must charge your clients Mehrwertsteuer (value-added tax) and pass it along to the government. Your tax adviser will help with this.
To found an LLC (called a “GmbH” in Germany), you just need to show a notarized agreement between the various shareholders and investment capital of €25,000. Then you can enter your company into the Handelsregister (commercial register).
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Founded in 2014 by Sissel Hansen, Startup Guide is a creative content and publishing company that produces guidebooks and tools to help entrepreneurs navigate and connect with different startup scenes across the globe. Startup Guide books are in 18 different cities in Europe and the Middle East, including Berlin, London, Tel Aviv, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Vienna, Lisbon and Paris. It also has two physical stores in Berlin and Lisbon to promote and sell products by startups.