Expats Move Home: Blazing the Paper Trail out of Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI’m spilling the beans on all the nitty gritty details of how we ended our expat adventure. To catch up on previous posts, click here.

Moving in America is relatively simple: pack, move, transfer your utilities, and forward your mail if you are desperate not to miss a single issue of your favorite People.

Getting out of Germany is a bit more byzantine. Yep, you do still have to do something with your stuff, but other bureaucratic matters get bumped up from suggested to required. But, is it as hard to get out of Deutschland as it is to get in?

Getting In

Moving to Germany is a nail-biting adventure in paperwork and bureaucracy, similar to attempting to get a visa or green card in the US. Given how much the Germans love order, it’s no surprise that all documents deemed obligatory must be just that – in order.

Strangely, I never posted on any of our experiences in obtaining resident permits at the Burgeramt (affectionately known as the “burger service” in our family), so you’ll have to just trust me on this one.

It is very likely guaranteed that during the initial residency appointment, you’ll suddenly realize or be made to realize you’ve forgotten an essential document (like an original birth certificate). Or, you’ll be scolded for something ridiculous like using all caps instead of upper and lower case… or blue ink instead of black.

For most expats, the “burger service” dishes up the first taste of German culture shock.

Getting Out

Thankfully, leaving Germany is a total piece of (Black Forest) cake. When we wanted out, we simply showed up at the local Burgeramt, filled out a form, provided the date we would exit the country, and received our Abmeldung (more on that below).

I recall thinking the process was just too easy. We must have forgotten something.

But no – the Abmeldung is all that we absolutely had to have as far as the government was concerned. We could even keep our residency cards as souvenirs; no need to turn them in at the Burgeramt or the border. Really!

Don’t let simplicity fool you. One should not underestimate the significance of the all-important Abmeldung. This document really is required. Without it, one cannot cancel contracts such as mobile phone service, internet service, insurance, etc. Remember, order and respecting the system are of first importance!

We asked for our Abmeldung four weeks before departure, but the norm is two weeks or even less. The officials at the Burgeramt did not want to issue the golden ticket so soon, but with a little pleading and begging in our broken German, they eventually obliged.

Duties

Now that we had our eerily-easy official paperwork in order, it was time to tackle other official duties. Thanks, Chandler, for ruining that word for me – forever.

The post office and the bank expected us to provide a German forwarding address, even though we were moving to the US. What?!

Thankfully, a friend volunteered to let us use hers. And, perhaps even more important, she was someone we could trust since she’d be opening our mail and possibly dealing with confidential information.

We notified Deutsche Post of the new address through their website. Again, the process was rather straightforward. Our mail will be forwarded to our friend’s address for one year. The only surprise was that in Germany, mail forwarding is not free!

We opted to leave our bank account open since we knew we would need it for our apartment deposit, German tax return, etc. We switched all our statements to paperless (an option strangely not presented to us before) and provided our new German forwarding address as requested.

If we had wanted to close the bank account, we would have needed to wire the balance to the US and pay some rather hefty fees on both the German and American sides. Seeing as the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has shifted in favor of the dollar, I don’t foresee that money traveling to US soil anytime soon.

In the future, if we do decide to eventually close the account, we will need to write a letter stating our wishes (in triplicate and notarized in blood, I presume) and include our slashed-to-bits ATM debit cards in the envelope.

Fortunately, we did not have any phone or internet service to cancel since that was included in our rent. We did, however, cancel our health, auto, and personal insurance, providing a copy of our Abmeldung – of course! – to get out of the contracts.

Whew!

While the details of departing Deutschland seemed a smidge overwhelming in the moment, the process turned out to be fairly simple in hindsight. This was a welcome surprise while in the trenches of wrestling our worldly goods into fifteen, thirty-kilo boxes.

Little did we know, the hardest task lay ahead and had nothing to do with packing or  paperwork…

Have you ever had an experience where you thought navigating government bureaucracy would be more or less difficult than it actually turned out to be? And, if you’re an expat, what was the process like to enter/leave your country of residency? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Marvel: The German Tax Frenzy

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life - TaxesI had a nice little post for you today on how to making your own travel journals.  But then last night happened.  And what, pray tell, could be so thrilling as to distract me from posting pretty pictures of paper?

Getting our German taxes done, that’s what.  And, unfortunately, I have no pretty pictures of paperwork.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, sheesh, who cares about taxes?  That’s stupid and boring.  I’ll just get back to my Lean Cuisine microwave meal now, thankyouverymuch.

Well, hang on to your hats for just a minute more while I recap flying through three years of tax returns done in 90 minutes.  Schnell!  Schnell!

We’ve been told over and over that we should do our German taxes because we’d get a decent amount back.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I loathe doing taxes and even more so as an expat.  Doc Sci gets plenty of money taken out of his paycheck, and I was not interested in the amount of effort required to get a “decent” refund.

But one of Doc Sci’s colleagues kept bugging him about it, and she even offered the name of her tax guy who spoke English and came to your house to do the whole shebang.  Finally, we broke down and called this guy – let’s name him Larry since that’s a very nice accountant-ish name – back in January and asked for an appointment.  He informed us he was much too busy for poor peons like us, but we should gather all the paperwork he had listed on his website and call him back in February.

Shucks, I am always up for digging through my files and mining the depths of my archives for financial and legal documents with long names like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Lohnsteuerbescheinigung.  Okay, no, no I’m not.  So, I just made a very impressive looking pile several inches deep and then threw the binder of bank statements on top to look very, very organized.  Go me.

When February came, I picked a time when Doc Sci would be home in the afternoon, and I slipped him Larry’s phone number, a smile, and a few bats of the eyelashes.  Please, oh please, won’t you call Larry again and set up an appointment?  Here’s my planner so you’ll know when we’re available.  Aren’t I a nice wife to help you out like that?

But, Larry didn’t want to schedule an appointment for next week or the week after.  No, no, tonight suited him just fine.  How about four hours from now?  This should’ve been a clue to me that we would’ve been better off calling him Fast & Furious.

Fast & Furious Larry showed up around 8:30pm rolling a briefcase behind him which is a corporate America move, not a German one.  Doc Sci thought Larry looked like an accountant.  Well, what the heck does an accountant look like?  I thought he looked like a nerdy study partner, hair in the eyes, glasses, and a polo shirt.  Maybe that is what an accountant looks like, but what do I know?

This guy made himself right at home, busting out the biggest laptop we had ever (EVER!) seen.  It was equipped with two anti-theft devices.  One was a dongle (I was informed by Doc Sci that this is the proper term, and it is neither inappropriate nor misspelled) that must be inserted in order to use the computer.  The other was its sheer mass, half the size of a Brinks security truck with some computer whirlygigs and a keyboard inside.

Even better, he had a gazillion gadgets duct taped to the cover.  An orange highlighter, one of those bank pens on a spiral cord, a wireless phone (internet maybe?), peanuts, pretzels, a beer, but sadly, not an apple.

We (stupidly) had not asked in advance how much Larry’s services were going to cost, so we decided a few minutes before he arrived that we’d start with that as a means of introduction.  Hello, nice to meet you, are you too expensive for our poor little just-a-cut-above-a-grad-student means?  But, Larry was not interested in small talk.  He whisked away our questions and told us to bring on the paperwork.

Wait, what?  You’re going to do three years of our taxes RIGHT NOW?!  Yes, ma’am and the faster I get it done, the cheaper it is for you.

Ai, ai, Captain Larry, well then let’s not delay!

For the next 90 minutes, Mr. Fast & Furious fired questions and orders in broken English.  “You have bank statement from Flugtickets when you move to Germany?”  “How many kilometers your home in America from the airport?”  “Kindergarten receipts!”  “You have American tax papers?  They not printed out?  Print out!”

Remind me if I ever do this again to wear Nikes and wicking workout gear.  We were dripping sweat sprinting back and forth between the printer churning out credit card statements, receipts, and summaries as far back as 1897.  Every foot/cent/mile/dollar/euro/kilometer counts, as long as you’ve got the backup to prove it.

In the end, he scrawled several numbers on a paper.  “That how much you get back.  That how much you pay me.”

I about fell over when I saw the figures.  We’re getting several thousand (yep, THOUSAND) euros back for the last three years, and homeboy here just made 436 Euros in about an hour and a half.  We are to pay Mr. Fast & Furious this random amount after we receive our refund.  And, of course we must do this by bank transfer.  Checks are so.. American.

Needless to say, we never envisioned our evening to begin with an awkward introduction followed by a frenzy of dollars, sense, and madness to finally land our butts on a pile of gold at the end of the German rainbow.  I’m quite certain that our 2012 April date with Uncle Sam will be neither as thrilling nor as profitable.  But, that’s okay.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get to do this all over again next year.Signature-Marigold

Marvel: Homeschooling in Germany – Illegal!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - MarvelsCan you believe it?  Educating children at home in Germany is illegal!  And I don’t mean illegal as in it’s illegal to operate a dance hall on a Sunday in South Carolina.  No siree, trying to homeschool your kids in Germany is dangerous business.

I’ve known about this rule for a while now, but I never gave it much thought.  When we first arrived in Germany, T-Rex was only 2, and Screech was barely 10 months old.  We had no plans to stay for more than one year.  Since children must already be 6 to start first grade, what concern was this homeschooling law to me?  Plus, I wasn’t even sure I would want to homeschool.

Actually, I’m still not sure.  But I like options.  I don’t like serious fines and legal mumbo jumbo and threats about taking away custody of my children because I might decide that a German primary school isn’t the best place for them.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality for any family who dares to fight the iron-clad, you-must-not-educate-your-children-yourself rule.

Germany is very serious about their compulsory education.  All children are required attend a state-approved school, no exceptions.  Absences must be sorted out in advance.  My neighbor had to secure special permission to take her daughter out one day earlier than the scheduled Christmas break so that the family could fly to their homeland for the holiday.  If she had not obtained this approval, she could’ve be stopped at the airport and denied boarding with her daughter.  No, this is not North Korea we are talking about; this is Germany.  One of the richest and most prosperous countries in the world is also one of the most fearful.

Fearful of what?  Of course one could argue that fanatics of any religion might want to indoctrinate their children and isolate them from peers and open thinking.  This is a concern to be sure.  But that doesn’t seem to be the underlying thought when it comes to this particular law.  No, this fear is fixated on losing control of the masses.

All governments around the world share this anxiety, at least to some degree.  If enough of the people do not agree with the government and teach their children to dissent without respect, then disastrous consequences could ensue.

While these worries may be reality in some places to some extent at some time, it’s extremely pessimistic.  Loads of creativity, innovation, and advancement are also possible, perhaps even likely.

Fortunately, not every country in Europe is as tyrannical as Germany when it comes to homeschooling.  Sweden is an ally in Germany’s prohibition, but Switzerland, France, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom allow home education to some degree.

Do some families in Germany risk fines, imprisonment, or even losing custody of their children in order to homeschool?  Yes.  Some teach at home under the radar, doing their best to avoid detectionOthers are advocating for change, allowing themselves to be examples to the world and hoping the exposure of their trials makes way for dialogue that leads to a reversal of the law.

But, what about Americans and other foreigners living in Germany?  Are they exempt from the German education laws?  Usually not.  Some members of foreign armed forces or families of diplomats can get away with it.  But everyone else must obey and send their children to a German school (public or private).

This is not to say that German schools are inherently bad or that they are brainwashing children on the sly.  I merely aim to point out the lack of choice and bring attention to the prevailing public thought that the government knows what’s best for all children in Germany.

Be thankful for your freedoms, Americans, hug your children tightly, and pray for the wisdom to handle the challenges – educational or otherwise – of raising them.

You can read another excellent post discussing homeschooling in Germany here.  If you’re looking to get involved and help a homeschooling family, you can find action steps at the end of this article.Signature-Marigold