Moving to Berlin – The Pros and Cons of Living in Berlin

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Interested in Moving to Berlin?

You’re not alone.

Over 50,000 people are moving to Berlin every year.

Moving to Berlin – The Pros and Cons of Living in Berlin

I’ve lived in Berlin for many years and got to know the city well.

Let’s take a look at the advantages of living in Berlin.

Berlin is Cosmopolitan

Berlin is Germany’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city. There’s loads going on in Berlin, with renovation and reconstruction still continuing as Berlin catches up with the rest of Western Europe since Germany was reunified way back in 1990.

Berlin also has a BIG expat population. Well over a third of the population of Berlin comes from outside Germany – and from all parts of the world.

Berlin is the city in Germany where foreigners tend to feel most at home. There are lots of young people here and a very large student population that comes to study in Berlin from all over.

Berlin is Relaxed and Easy-Going

Even though Berlin has a large population of around 3.5 million, it’s very spread out. Berlin’s geographical area is bigger than Paris or Greater London and the city is still a relatively easy-going place.

You don’t find the big city stress in Berlin like you do in London, Paris, or New York. Things are much more laid back.

Berlin has plenty of green space, forests, lakes and there’s a dense network of cycle paths and good public transport. Berlin even has sandy beaches which are very popular in summer and the city is one of Germany’s top yachting and sailing locations. Roughly half of all the yachts in Germany are said to be registered in Berlin.

Nor does Berlin have large volumes of commuters streaming into the city centre every morning from the suburbs and region around Berlin, unlike what is the norm in London or Paris.

This of course is a legacy of the Berlin Wall which surrounded West Berlin – it meant there wasn’t anywhere to commute from!

In fact the largely rural and sparsely populated surrounding region of Brandenburg around Berlin could hardly be more starkly contrasting to the heavily populated expensive commuter belt of London’s South East. The fringe areas of Berlin are more a case of the land where time stood still.

Berlin Has Great Nightlife

Yes, all the stories you’ve heard about Berlin are true.

Berlin does have a great nightlife – and pretty well anything goes. It’s also fairly inexpensive and egalitarian. There’s lots of space for clubs and a constant coming and going of venues – though some of this has been coming under threat from residents, most notoriously of all in Prenzlauer Berg. And rising rents are also now a problem for venues across the city.

On the music front techno still tends to dominate and the bars and clubs in Berlin stay open as long as they want with no official closing times. In fact some don’t even open until after midnight. There are even some, though I haven’t come across them, that are said not to even open their doors until 5 or 6am in the morning.

And it’s – almost – true that beer in Berlin is cheaper than water. At least in discount supermarkets where you can buy a can of beer for 30 cents or so, whilst a bottle of brand name mineral water can cost a Euro or more. Though prices in bars are rather higher, but still better value than London.

Hangovers are a feature of life in Berlin that you’ll have to get used to.

Berlin is Relatively Cheap

The cost of living is also lower in Berlin than in other large cities in Germany and elsewhere in the world.

Berlin apartments especially are much more affordable – although rents in Berlin are steadily increasing.

Berlin’s excellent public transport is also much cheaper than London’s – and more reliable.

Eating out in Berlin is also cheap, with lots of diversity on offer at affordable prices.

Plus there’s plenty of varied and mostly inexpensive night life to be found in the city as well.

Berlin is a Great Place to Study

If you want to study, then Berlin is a great place to move to. Berlin has three main universities, plus loads of other colleges.

Fees charged by colleges tend to be low, even for overseas students. Germany has a tradition of providing free university level education to anyone who has the entrance qualifications.

Bear in mind though whilst some of the classes may be held in English, you’ll need to have an acceptable level of fluency in German as a condition of enrollment for most programs.

Berlin Has a Dynamic Web Start-up Scene

Berlin has established itself as the world’s third biggest Web and e-commerce startup location after California’s Silicon Valley and London.

The IT sector has created many thousands of new jobs in the capital, with twenty or more top name Internet startup companies now based in Berlin. The important role played by the IT startup sector is now becoming recognized at last by the Berlin city government and the Federal government.

So if you have know-how and experience in the fields of programming, Web design, graphics etc, then there may be opportunities for you in Berlin.

Berlin Has a Non-Conformist Atmosphere

There’s a real sense of change and renewal which you can see and feel in Berlin. You could almost describe the whole city as a start-up.

Artists and creative people thrive in Berlin’s bohemian, non-conformist atmosphere. In fact, in many ways you could say Berlin is probably Germany’s most un-German city.

Berlin is famous for its “Berliner Luft”. This is the term given to the free cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city where it’s said that anything goes.

Berlin or West Berlin at least, was also traditionally the centre of West Germany’s alternative non-conformist scene in the 70s and 80s.

And in contrast to London, you do not find large numbers of people in office suits on the streets. Berlin does not even have a financial district. Germany’s financial centre is located over in Frankfurt (they’re welcome to it).

And last but not least….

Berlin is Unique

What other cities in the world can claim to have seen all the history that Berlin has gone through?

Capital of a notorious dictatorship that sought world domination. Followed by devastation through war. Then division into opposing hostile communist and capitalist halves. With an inpenetrable wall separating them for decades to prevent people escaping.

And then finally reunification into one single city once again and capital of a unified Germany.

Even two decades and more after reunification of the two halves of Berlin, you can still sense and notice the differences between the two former halves of capitalist and communist Berlin.

In what other city can you experience all that?

It’s all here in Berlin.

However, it’s not all pluses and advantages living in Berlin.

Berlin also has it’s downside and this can come as a surprise to many newcomers.

I don’t believe in sugar-coating or giving a one-sided impression of things like some people do.

Berlin IS a great and exciting city – but it’s not all pluses and advantages living in Berlin. Like everywhere else, Berlin also its disadvantages – and some of these can come as a surprise to newcomers.

So let’s do some straight talking about the biggest downsides to living in Berlin.

Berlin Has High Unemployment

Probably about the biggest drawback of all with Berlin is its weak economy.

This is something that surprises many people from abroad. Given Germany’s powerful economy, the capital Berlin must surely be a high pressure, dynamic place, bursting at the seams with opportunity?

Not so.

Germany’s situation with its capital city is unusual to say the least. Unlike other countries like the UK or France, the powerhouse of the national economy is not found in the capital, but rather over in the regions of Western Germany.

The reason for this is history. World War Two devastated Berlin and then divided the city into two. The eastern half (and which also contained most of the centre) became Communist East Berlin, whilst the Western capitalist part found itself cut off and surrounded by the hostile Eastern bloc territory of the GDR.

This put the dampers on Berlin’s economy and frightened off potential investors in Western Berlin. As a result, Germany’s postwar economy grew up over in the relative safety of West Germany with West Berlin left at a disadvantage.

Whilst this was good for Germany’s regions, it left the capital lagging behind even today. West Berlin was kept going largely through government subsidies.

For decades West Berlin was practically kept on permanent economic life-support by the West German government to try and keep it viable as a location and to maintain West Berlin as a showcase for western capitalism right in the face of the Eastern Bloc.

When the Berlin Wall opened up the subsidies enjoyed by West Berlin ended. And with the collapse of the Eastern communist bloc and their conversion to capitalism, there was, cynical as it sounds, also no more need to maintain West Berlin as a capitalist showcase any longer.

The result is high unemployment and a distinct lack of job opportunities. Unemployment in Berlin is on average twice the rate of many areas over in Western Germany.

Another problem is simply Berlin’s geographic location. The city is situated over in the north eastern end of Germany, far away from Western Germany’s prosperous West and South West which clusters along the Rhine Valley.

You Need To Speak German To Work in Berlin

Despite what some people might tell you, the fact is you’ll need to speak German to even be considered as a potential candidate for many jobs in Berlin.

I speak fluent German so this is not an issue for me, but the fact is that Berlin isn’t as accommodating of English speakers as for example the Netherlands or Belgium, where it’s possible to find a decent job without having to speak Dutch. Beyond simple tourist trade interaction, people in Berlin aren’t so willing to speak English all the time with newcomers.

There are some exceptions, such as the new Web start-up sector. But generally speaking, you’ll be placed at a disadvantage in the job market in Berlin if you don’t speak German.

Berliner Schnauze

What’s that you say?

While Berlin has its Berliner Luft, it comes in a fixed package with the famous (or infamous) “Berliner Schnauze” (pronounced “Schnautzer”). This means literally “Berlin Snout” and it’s the name given to the native Berliners blunt, direct and sometimes abrasive way of talking and replying to innocent questions.

Berliner Schnauze is maybe a bit like London Cockney or native New York City wit.

Ask a clever question in Berlin – and you will receive a smart-ass answer. It can be funny, especially when it’s someone else on the receiving end of a Berliner’s biting wit. But more often than not, Berliner Schnauze just grates.

In Berlin, you’ll have to take Berliner Schnauze in your stride if you’re going to survive living in the city long term.

Comfort yourself that if you do stick around long enough in Berlin and become fluent in German, you’ll eventually become skilled in dishing out your own Berliner Schnauze and give as good as you get.

Service in Berlin – or Service, What Service?

Service in Berlin – or the lack of it, takes some getting used to.

The saying goes that Berlin is a mix of East and West. It takes its prices from Western Europe – and its customer service culture from the old USSR.

Service throughout Germany often wouldn’t win any prizes.

But in Berlin the combination of standard German attitudes to service mixed with Berliner Schnauze can make for a dismal service experience.

This can seem quite bizarre to newcomers to Berlin, and especially for people coming from North America.

So you’ll just have to get used to the idea of rude waiters, indifferent shop assistants who don’t seem to want your custom, and brusque public officials, if you want to live in Berlin.

Rents in Berlin Are On The Up

Berlin is no longer as cheap as it once was – and it’s getting more expensive every year.

When I first moved to Berlin in the 1990s, my rent was just 200 DM a month. That’s 100 Euros, or about $120 USD. Those were the days.

Not any longer. Cheap housing is becoming a scarce commodity in the inner areas of Berlin as gentrification proceeds apace.

Despite all this, Berlin is still cheaper than London, New York or Paris. But the days of ridiculously low rents in Berlin are now well and truly over.

German Health Insurance is Costly – and Compulsory

Another big ticket item which comes as a shock to many newcomers is health insurance.

Particularly for Brits reared on the free NHS it can come as a shock to discover just how expensive health insurance is in a country that does not have a free health service. Like in Germany for example.

In Germany everyone is required by law to have German health insurance – and this is expensive. In fact for many it’s the biggest single living cost factor after rent.

And it has to be German health insurance, not insurance from overseas. This is a condition of residence in Germany, even for EU citizens.

If you’re only staying in Germany for less than 90 days and not intending to take up residence or work there, then you are not required to take out German health insurance.

Taxes and social insurance deductions in Germany are also high. Plus there are a number of other oddities – such as the “solidarity surcharge”. This is a tax which is added to tax bills to help fund the cost of reconstructing the old Eastern German economy and which is still in force years after German reunification.

There is also the “church tax” which you have to pay unless you sign a declaration to explicitly opt out. There’s even a monthly TV tax which finances the public TV channels. The law was changed so that this tax now has to be paid by everyone. You can’t opt out of this – even if you don’t have a TV.

All this means that the money you save from the comparatively low rent you pay in Berlin may in part be wiped out by the health insurance and high taxes.

What you gain on the swings, you lose on the roundabouts, as the saying goes!

Hostility in Berlin towards Entrepreneurs and Hipsters

For a long time, Berlin has relied on state subsidies to help get by. This stems from the years of the division of Berlin into East and West.

As a result, there’s still a tendency for people to expect the government to bring everything to Berlin – jobs, industry, subsidies.

And there’s a certain hostility to entrepreneurs to be found among some people which can seem pretty odd. Partly this is a hangover from the left-wing anti-capitalist mentality from the old days of West Berlin.

I’ve experienced this myself, with people implying I was an enemy of the people for running my own business.

To avoid this sort of friction, some young entrepreneurs in Berlin even today keep a low profile about their businesses and tell people they are students instead.

There are cases of new boutiques, bars and other shops getting sprayed with “yuppies out” type graffiti or even being firebombed.

So if you’re planning to start your own business in Berlin, be prepared to be treated as an anti-social outcast exploiting people for profit and the evil capitalist system.

There’s also a more recent hostility to “hipsters”. These are mostly young people from other western countries, who move to Berlin because it’s cool, hip and cheap.

Funny thing is though that no-one openly admits to being a hipster themselves. It’s always the other people who are the damn hipsters.

Anyway, this influx of newcomers, whether hipster or not, is forcing up rents and real estate prices and is leading to changes in the social composition of some districts in Berlin.

This resentment is not directed solely against migrants from other countries, but also towards Germans migrating to Berlin from other regions, particularly from Western Germany.

There’s also a bit of an on-going problem in Berlin with so-called “neo-Nazi” inspired right wing violence against foreigners, particularly non-whites. This is mainly confined to parts of the eastern suburbs where there is very high unemployment.

There have also been incidences of hostility being expressed towards people who are heard speaking English in public. This tends to come from bigoted small-minded types, though it’s also in part a reaction against the vast increase in newcomers often only speaking English and little German that Berlin has experienced over the last decade or so.

Germans Can Be Very Reserved

Compared to Americans, Germans are socially reserved and take much longer to open up. They don’t go in for the easy casual small talk of Americans.

Small talk isn’t really done in Germany. Smiling too tends to be met with a puzzled and suspicious look rather than a reciprocated smile back. Germans don’t smile unless there’s a clear reason.

I’ve been to house parties where the Germans at one end did not mix or speak to the Germans at the other end.

People in Germany also don’t usually mix work and free time. The relaxed after-hours drinks scene that you find in the UK for example doesn’t really exist in Germany.

All this means that it can be harder to penetrate people’s social exterior.

Some Germans will tell you this is because in Germany people are more “loyal” when you do actually get to know them and become friends, compared to the “superficial” Americans. As if it’s some special deal you get that applies only in Germany.

I don’t buy this. Basically people here are far too socially reserved and everyone would benefit if they would lighten up a bit and be more socially open.

Berlin Gets Very Cold in Winter

The climate in Berlin also deserves a mention. Summers in Berlin are very hot and muggy and there’s not much air conditioning to be found.

But winters in Berlin are brutal and more like Chicago than Europe. I always say winter in London is like autumn in Berlin.

Living in Berlin you get to discover a new meaning to the term “winter”. Winter in Berlin is like an additional season which they don’t have in London. Berlin doesn’t get quite as cold as Poland or Russia, but believe me, it often feels like it.

Spring and Autumn are probably the best times of the year to be in Berlin.

Don’t Forget German Love of Rules and Regulations

Finally, even though it’s Berlin, German rigidity, love of regulations and abiding by the rules applies in the capital just as it does elsewhere in Germany.

You’ll find plenty of unrelenting bureaucracy to cope with and fight your way through. And you’ll still have to wait at the roadside for the green man signal before crossing the street – even if there’s not a car in sight.

So is it Worth Moving to Berlin?

Unless you’re just planning to go and spend a month or two having a break or a sabbatical there, I wouldn’t automatically recommend moving to Berlin. It depends…

Berlin Can Be A Difficult City To Thrive In

Berlin is a difficult city to live in if you don’t already have a job lined up, an existing source of income, or if you don’t have a specific skill to offer which is in demand in Berlin.

I also wouldn’t recommend Berlin for a longer period if you aren’t prepared to learn German.

Large numbers of people in Berlin live on social welfare. Jobs are scarce and well-paid career jobs even scarcer. Once the arrival gloss of Berlin wears off, quite a number of expats come to realize the limitations of Berlin.

It can be all too easy to become trapped in a low-level existence in Berlin. Expectations fall, people become used to living in low-rent apartments, with low outgoings, working (when they can find work) for little money, and generally just scraping by. All this for the sake of a city which prides itself on being “poor but sexy”.

It’s worth bearing in mind that not one of the top 30 biggest German companies has their headquarters in Berlin. I’m not saying or assuming that you would necessarily want to work for any of them – I certainly wouldn’t – but it gives you an indication of how the economy is in Berlin.

Some people find themselves losing out on career opportunities just for the sake of living in Berlin.

The fact is that Berlin is not a capital city which plays in the same economic league as London, New York, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Does it make sense to insist on living in a city – and region – where career opportunities may be limited? Obviously I can’t answer for every situation because each person’s circumstances are different. Only you can decide.

Things Are Improving For Berlin

But – things are improving for the economy in Berlin. After years of stagnation following German reunification there are now signs of economic hope in the capital.

The new Web and e-commerce startup sector is one such hope. Technical research and development across a range of areas, and in particular biotech and energy technology are also strong in Berlin.

In Adlershof there’s the new science, technology and research campus known as WISTA. And the developing “Mediaspree” district to the east of Mitte along the River Spree has attracted several top name companies, including MTV Europe, Universal Music, O2, Hugo Boss, BASF, Mercedes and Allianz amongst others.

Tourism is also big in the capital and there’s been enormous growth in tourist numbers visiting Berlin over the last decade. Visitor numbers are still growing fast and so far there’s no end in sight. Berlin is now the most popular tourist city destination in Continental Western Europe.

And of course, the new Federal government quarter has been a success as has the reconstructed Potsdamer Platz – which was Continental Europe’s biggest postwar building project.

Renovation and reconstruction still continues unabated throughout Berlin, even though there have been setbacks. One of which is the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport which so far has been an embarrassing fiasco with a series of costly project design and construction errors which are still being rectified.

But there have been a number of other more successful big infrastructure improvements such as the north-south road and rail tunnel, the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof or central station, and some new transport lines being constructed. New retail malls are also springing up throughout the city.

And Berlin’s economic mainstream stand-bys such as higher education and the conference, exhibition and event sector are still as important and strong as ever.

Although some initiatives such as the alternative arts centre Tacheles have had to close, one of Berlin’s hallmarks has always been the large number of alternative initiatives and projects throughout the city and especially in some of the eastern districts.

This has always been one of the most appealing features of Berlin which has set it apart from other big cities – and it’s one of the aspects that gives Berlin its unique energy and atmosphere. Berlin is at least one big city where the bankers and bureaucrats do not have everything their own way.

My Verdict on Berlin

So here’s my final verdict on Berlin…

Whether you will be enthralled by Berlin or not depends partly on where you’re coming from and what your expectations are.

If you’re determined to experience the “big city” – and Germany’s – and Continental Western Europe’s biggest and perhaps most unique city…

if you have a skill in demand in Berlin, if you work location independently, eg freelance, via the Web, or if you have your own business already established which you can run from anywhere…

if you want to escape the pressures of London’s or New York’s sky-high rents…

if you want to escape big corporate office horror or downtrodden commuter misery…

and if you are willing to put the effort in to make a successful go of it and to learn German and integrate…

– then it can be well worthwhile moving to Berlin.

And if you intend to study, then Berlin can also be a good choice of destination.

To sum up, here’s a quick overview of the main pros and cons of living in Berlin as I see them:

Advantages of Living in Berlin

  • lively and plenty of energy with a real feeling of change and renewal
  • creative atmosphere with lots going on
  • unique city with a fascinating history which can still be felt
  • cosmopolitan, plenty of expats
  • non-conformist lifestyle
  • Web entrepreneur start-up culture
  • low living costs, especially rent and transport
  • relaxed and good quality of life and urban environment
  • good location for exploring Eastern Europe
  • Berliner Schnauze – it can be funny

Disadvantages of Living in Berlin

  • weak local economy with few jobs available
  • rents increasing fast and strong competition for affordable housing in good areas
  • less readiness to speak English than eg. in the Netherlands
  • hostility to entrepreneurs and persistent welfare mentality
  • some xenophobia towards foreigners and “hipsters”
  • compulsory – and expensive – health insurance and high taxes
  • socially reserved
  • rigidity and love of regulations
  • long cold winters
  • Berliner Schnauze – it can get on your nerves

 

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Image Attribution: Berlin Cityscape seen from Victory Column – Courtesy of Thomas Wolf, www.foto-tw.de

 

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6 Responses to Moving to Berlin – The Pros and Cons of Living in Berlin

  1. yigit July 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    how up-to-date is this article? cant find a date!

    • Kevin July 22, 2013 at 5:37 am #

      The article is from 2013.

  2. Nicole August 2, 2013 at 4:15 am #

    Thanks so much for this great article!

    • Kevin August 2, 2013 at 4:57 am #

      Thanks Nicole. Glad you like it!

  3. Steve November 30, 2013 at 4:13 am #

    Yeah. It’s really just a shitty time to try to move to a major city right now. They’re either expensive (and the wages are not keeping up with the cost of living), have high unemployment, or both.

    London’s expensive, but you’ll have far more job options as an English speaker, the wages are higher, and health care is cheaper. Paris is perhaps even tougher for a non-native than Berlin. Amsterdam looked like a reasonable in between up until about a year or two ago when their unemployment rate started to really go up. The Scandinavian countries are notoriously difficult for finding work in even with lower unemployment and their English fluency. The other German cities are more on par with major European cities in cost, much less artsy, and they’re even less diverse than Berlin. Most of the other major cities in Europe are too touristy, have high unemployment rates, and will be harder to integrate into. Australia’s cost of living has skyrocketed. Canada is in a similar state as the US right now (stagnant), and its cities aren’t very appealing. At least they still have a better health care and education systems. The US is still great if you’re well off, but it’s a mess for the vast majority who aren’t.

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