Mastering German Bureaucracy 101.4: The Most Common Mistake Made by Newcomers

Every single person that comes to Germany for a visit, thinks very highly of this country. These people find absolutely everything amazing and whenever I dare to say something not so amazing about life here (and I have been around here for a while longer than them for sure), they try to shush me and tell me what to think instead and that is because all they know of this place is the touristic aspect and nothing else.

Berlin is a nice place in general. No doubt about that. It has its pretty and stunning sides that sometimes make me want to stay forever but let’s face it: Of course people here are nice to you and apparently speak nice English. Has it ever occurred to you that you are here as a tourist (for the most part) and given that, the German economy relies on you leaving some money here? Well, because this is how it actually works with tourism, you meet all of these friendly waiters and room servants and shop assistants and all of a sudden you feel like you found paradise where you think everybody loves you.

Again, I am not saying Germany is a bad place and my sort of rant is nothing personal since I don’t know you. I am just trying to encourage the naive ones among you to take off your pink glasses that most people put on while traveling. No, not everyone is going to love you here and sorry, no, not even if you are American or anything else. Besides, life is not always as sweet as it seems when you first get here despite all the possible advantages provided for you.

Thinking back of a conversation I just recently had with an Albanian friend of mine all I can say is this: If you really want to get to know a country, work in it (or study in it).

Now let’s assume you are past the tourism stage and have decided to study in a local university. Well done! Welcome to the club! The next thing you will have to deal with are bureaucratic things like visas and recognition of your documents and all that.

Here is where I want to introduce you to a very common mistake that almost every newcomer to Germany makes, and hope that you will read all of this so you will not make the same mistake for your own good:

NEVER go to a ministry or any other official department here thinking that you will actually be helped because in reality the people sitting there probably have less of a clue what’s going on than you do. It is up to you to get things sorted out. Not to the people at the desk. 

I had a conversation with a fellow student this morning who was totally annoyed because the person at the office (according to her) did not process her information correctly.

“I have no idea how to do things here. THEY are supposed to know that college prep in university is actually not exactly the same as being fully enrolled in a course of study. Not me”, she told me in the most innocent and at the same time most offended voice I have ever heard in my short lifetime.

Dear readers, if you are one of those people who think that the ministries and people who work for them are supposed to spot and correct your bureaucratic mistakes for you, let me tell you the shocking truth that they don’t. Maybe in Russia they do, but even though Russians, vodka and caviar are all over the place here, this is not Russia or any other country where things are done differently.

It does not matter whether you are of high social status or whether you are just a little girl who recently came here and has never lived in Western Europe before. In any case you have to get all the information you can get before you start dealing with people from the ministries so that they can’t mess with you because trust me, once they see they can, they will do so.

The (maybe not so shocking) truth about governmental institutions here is that most of these institutions actually have no idea what their responsibilities are in particular or they forget to update their websites for a long time and by then have forgotten about all of their other responsibilities, too. The people who work there in most cases are young individuals who have just finished some sort of vocational training and have no idea what they are doing, or they are middle aged persons who smoke and drink tea all day, waiting to finally retire at 63 instead of 67 as usually done, not caring about anyone or anything besides themselves. I mean, of course there are exceptions to this but in my experience they are so rare that I strongly believe my lines above are to a great extend justified.

A few weeks ago I went to get financial aid for students. I was called in and explained to the lady where I was enrolled and that I would like to apply for the BaföG, standing for Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz  or german law for support in education and training for those of you who are not fans of long german words. 🙂

“College prep…college prep…are we even responsible for that one?”, asked the woman at the desk and looked up at me, determined to get me out of the room as fast as possible.

Now look at that. I go here just so the person asks me what her job is? Really? Isn’t she supposed to know what her job is? Most of you would think so but here that’s not how it works.

“Yes, you are responsible for prep students”, I answered. “I was sent here by the head office in Charlottenburg.”

She thought for a minute, then nodded and started looking through the papers I gave her.

You see, based on what I hear from others, the average person would probably have just thought “not responsible? Well, I guess I don’t deserve anything then”, and gone home, being angry about how the person at the head office didn’t say anything or just being angry about the fact that no one is spoon-feeding him or her the information needed like it is done in other places around the world. However, what one really should do is to question anything said.

  • Before you start doing any bureaucratic stuff, it is best to do research.
  • Call the institutions directly before you have your appointment and ask what is required of you to bring or ask any other relevant questions. Chances are that the person at the phone knows a little something.
  • Ask fellow students or colleagues about how they got through the mess when they were dealing with the same thing as you. That is actually the most reliable source or all that I know.
  • You can also have a look at the office’s websites but let me warn you that in my experience some things that are listed on there, like specific services, are not up to date (like the fact that embassies don’t certify copies of documents) or things are missing. It may happen that even though on the website it said that all you need is a copy and the original of your report card, what it did not tell you was that you also need to bring your résumé and your passport.

Next time you are off to another bureaucratic quest, remember that it is all up to you and no one else will do things for you. But most importatly: Don’t let them intimidate you!!

With that, the best of luck! 🙂

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