Kati and I lived in Cologne, Germany in 2016/2017. Living abroad is an amazing experience. However, getting the official documents to live abroad can be a frustrating process. I’ve compiled all the information I wish I had had before starting the visa process in Germany.
This article is applicable for U.S. citizens who want to learn German while living abroad in Germany (for more than three months). These are the 11 steps I took in order to acquire a student visa. None of these steps, apart from securing a place to live (for the first five weeks), were completed prior to arriving in Germany. I’ve also included a few extra steps, for when you leave the country.
How to Get a German Visa in 11 Steps
Step #1: Arrive in Germany
As an American citizen, we can travel for free throughout the EU for up to three months. So, when you arrive, you have three months before needing your visa. However, it’s important to start this process as soon as possible, because some of these steps may take longer than expected.
Step #2: Secure a Place to Live
We used the website WG-Gesucht.De to apply for various available short-term and long-term subleases and rentals. We stayed in one apartment for five weeks, followed by another for three weeks, before securing a six-month rental. On the WG Gesucht (shared apartment search) platform, you can also create an ad letting people know what you’re looking for (time frame, cost, etc…). People will reach out to you, if there’s a match.
Step #3: Get a Signed Rental Contract: Mietvertrag
The Mietvertrag, rental contract, is created by whoever is subletting or leasing the apartment, or room to you. There are templates online that they can use. You need a signed rental agreement in order to officially register as a resident in a German city.
Step #4: Fill out a “Bestätigung vom Vermieter oder der Vermieterin” also called “Wohnungsgeberbescheinigung”
This document is a confirmation by the renter that you (the renter) have moved in. It needs to be signed and dated by the renter, or owner of the space. This form can be found online on German Citys’ official websites. Here’s an example of what it looks like.
Step #5: Register as a Resident at a Meldebehörde (registration office)
You need to register as a resident within two weeks of signing the rental contract.
From my experience, each district has its own Meldebehörde (registration office). Make sure to go to the right office at the right time. Hours of operation are usually restricted to certain days of the week (e.g. only open Mondays and Wednesdays) and certain times (only open 8:00 a.m. -12:00 p.m.).
When you arrive, get a waiting number. The numbers are dispensed by a machine, or by a person. Also bring a book, because you may have to wait up to two hours before it’s your turn.
You’ll need to present your rental contract, Bestätigung vom Vermieter oder der Vermieterin and passport to the officer.
They will receive an official document, an Anmeldebestätigung, stating that you’re registered. Note: If you move in Germany (even to a different apartment within the same city), you’ll need to re-register within two weeks of moving. And, when you leave Germany, you have to officially unregister, within one weeks prior to moving.
Step #6: Get a set of Passport Photos Taken
This is something you can do, while you’re still in the U.S. You’ll need passport photos for your visa application as well as getting a STA International Student ID (optional).
Step #7: Go to a STA Travel Agency and get an International Student ID
I wanted to take German language course at the Volkshochschule in Cologne. This was the cheapest option I could find. This school provides an additional student discount, if you present a STA International Student ID. They don’t accept your American college/university ID.
STA Travel Agencies are located throughout Germany, though there’s a higher concentration in urban areas. They need a passport photo and your current student ID from the college, or university you’re attending in order to give you their STA student ID. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and costs 12 EUR. The ID is valid for one year.
Step #8: Sign up for a German class
If you have prior experience in learning German, you usually have to take a small test, so you can be placed at the appropriate level. After taking the test, I signed up for the next available German A2-2 class at the Volkshochschule Köln.
I presented my international Student ID and paid in cash for the A2-2 level as well as the B1 and B2 classes. At this particular school, there’s no option to pay with a foreign credit card, or debit card (even if it’s a visa, or mastercard). Make copies of all the class receipts (you’ll need this for the visa).
Step #9: Open a German Bank Account and Print a Kontoauszug
When you apply for a student visa, you need to prove that you have enough funds to cover all your expenses while you’re living abroad. In 2017, you needed to show that you have 750 EUR per month. The money needs to be in Germany.
Here’s the tricky part. Depending which Ausländerbehörde (Aliens/Foreigners Department) visa officer you’re talking to, you’ll get different information on what type of bank account to open. This proved to be the most frustrating part about getting a visa.
To be safe, you should get a Sperrrkonto, which is a locked account. This is a specific bank account that limits your access to all of your money, so you don’t overspend. It only allows you to access 750 EUR (or whatever your monthly budget is) each month. From our research, the only bank that offers this type of account is Deutsche Bank. They charge 100 EUR (2017) to open this type of account. Annoying doesn’t begin to explain this.
I opened a student bank account with Sparkasse Bank. When I spoke with the visa officer, they only communicated that I needed to have enough funds (750 EUR per month, for as long as I was enrolled in a german language class) in a German bank account. Nothing else. When I went back to the Ausländerbehörde (Foreign/Aliens Office) to show them my bank account, they then told me I had the wrong type of account. Fortunately, there’s a work around. You can get a parent to sign a letter saying something to the effect: “In case my daughter/son needs monetary funds, I will support her/him…” When we presented this signed letter, there was still resistance. Luckily, it worked. I was able to keep my Sparkasse Student Account and get my visa.
For the purpose of getting your visa, you need a statement of bank account (Kontoauszug). This is something you can print if you have online banking. Otherwise, you can have a bank assistant help you do this.
Step #10: Get Insurance
You need insurance to cover you during your whole desired stay in Germany. I used Mavista Student, which worked out well. This cost me about $38 monthly. It even covered 8 physical therapy sessions. It doesn’t cover dental cleaning, or regular check-ups though.
Step #11: Go to Ausländerbehörde Office and Get your Visa
I went to the office three times before securing my visa. So, keep that in mind. You might have to go back.
Bring all these materials to the office:
- Extra Passport Photos
- Anmeldebestätigung, the document that proves you’re a resident (Step #5)
- Rental Agreement
- Proof of German Language Course (receipts)
- Proof of Insurance
- Kontoauszug, bank statement (Step #9)
Depending on the office and the system in place, you’ll either get a number from a machine, or submit your passport to secure a waiting spot. Once you have your number, get comfy.
The visa officer will present you with a paper application for your visa. As of 2017, you can’t acquire this online, only in person. You can present all the materials you have and inform them about your education objectives. If you have everything prepared, then you can fill out the application, and walk back-in and get it all processed.
Special note: Usually getting the actual visa can take a few weeks, even a few months. You would leave your passport with the visa clerk and retrieve it once you get your visa. Because, we were flying to Austria for the holidays, we made a case that I needed to keep my passport to fly. So, they glued (stickered) a “Aufenthaltstitel” in my passport, which could be processed immediately (only valid for 6 months). I don’t recommend this, because you have to come back to the office to re-extend your stay. Had I not needed my passport to fly out, I could have secured a year-long stay.
Step #12: Have a Blast Studying German and living in Germany!!!
Step #13: Leaving Germany: Getting an Extension
My visa ended the day my german class ended. My visa officer wasn’t very flexible. So, in order to buy myself some time to move and stay longer in the EU, I bought a plane ticket to Thailand. I brought the plane ticket to the Ausländerbehörde office and they gave me an official document that extended my stay until I flew out. That document is called a Fiktionsbescheinigung. That extension gave me three more months in the EU.
Step #14 Leaving Germany: Unregister
Remember to go back to the Meldebehörde (registration office) to unregister up to a week before leaving your apartment/room in Germany.
Have an unforgettable experience living in Deutschland! Here are some helpful travel guides to get you excited about exploring Germany.