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

An American Buying a French Car in Germany – Part 2

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Buying A CarThis is part two of Doc Sci’s adventure in buying our new car!  You can read Part 1 here.

On the appointed day, I was on the bank’s doorstep bright and early.  I got my baller roll of 100 dolla bills. Except in euros they have 500 dolla bills y’all.

The big money is kept in a vault, so if you need those 500 dolla (okay, okay, they are euro) bills, you must wait several minutes.  The lock is on a timer – presumably long enough that an employee could press an alarm and the Polizei could arrive before the bandit made off with the loot.

So after the obligatory wait and with 5 grand in my backpack, I set off – on the bus – to buy a car.  I gave Slick Dealer the cash, and he promptly put it in his safe a.k.a his jacket pocket.  The dude had way more 500 dolla bills too.  A serious baller roll, no joke.

We then climbed into his custom leather seats and took a long, awkward 30-minute drive to the registration office (called the Bürgeramt in Germany).  On the way into the building, he saw no less than 4 people he knew.

Like all government offices, visitors must take a ticket: first-come, first-served.  The place was packed.  So Slick Dealer hit up one of his pals for a ticket, which reduced our wait time to 15 minutes instead of over an hour.  The actual registration of the car took longer than usual because of the French title, but thank God it turned out to be a legit (as in not stolen) vehicle.

Finally, I paid 42 euros and was given my registration, license plate number, and a green sticker to put on the inside of windshield on the passenger side.

Green Environmental Sticker
source

The green sticker is very important.  Next year, our city is requiring all cars that drive in the city center to have these stickers that indicate an acceptable level of emissions and environmental pollution.  Without a sticker, drivers will have to stay out of the city center or pay a fine if caught.  Old cars obviously have a hard time getting these, and so do diesels.

Speaking of old cars, we learned that there is a tax each year on your car which is based on how old the car is as well as how big the engine is.  At some point, it just gets too expensive to drive an old beater because the taxes cost way more than the car is even worth.

Taxes are paid to the government via bank transfer.  In order to register the car, you must give them your bank account number, and sign a piece of paper authorizing the direct debit of the taxes (paid yearly).

Anyway, I took my newly registered paperwork down to the the license plate shop.  Surprise, surprise, Slick Dealer  knew the woman behind the counter.  They had a nice chat, and she only charged me half price for the plates.  At least dealing with this guy had some benefits.

We then got back in his ride for another long, awkward drive back to the car that I now own.  I hesitantly drove it off the lot, double and triple checking traffic, lights, and signs because this is no rental.  I own this clunker and am responsible for anything that happens.

Smarty pants Slick Dealer didn’t put any gas in the tank, so I had to stop off to fill ‘er up.  I watched the gauge go up, up, up, and at 70 euros I had to shut it off because I couldn’t stomach paying more than that for a single tank of gas.

Since I only ride my bike around our city, I had no idea how to get home from the gas station.  Thank goodness for Google maps and a smartphone (which, by the way, just happens to be about the only thing that is cheaper in Germany than in America).

As I’m driving, I realize that all the controls and dashboard messages are either in French or in German.  The car paperwork is missing the code necessary to change languages.  Guess I’ll be giving Slick Dealer a call once again.

This car might be cheap in price, but it’s wicked loaded with electronics.  Halfway home my rear end was so sweaty I had to pull over and figure out how to turn off the butt warmers.  It also took me five minutes to figure out the windshield wipers, and another ten to make heads or tails of the key.  It’s actually the size of a credit card and looks like large keyless entry remote, only you stick the whole thing in a slot and then push a big Stop/Start button to turn the car on and off.  It’s like I need a PhD or something just to own this ride.

In the end, I’m glad it seems our adventure with Slick Dealer was just that – an adventure instead of a nightmare.

Note from Thrifty Travel Mama:  Thanks, Doc Sci for taking time out of your research schedule to write this guest post!  Oh and in case you’re dying to know, our car really is French not only in previous ownership but in make and model (Renault Scenic).  We like to keep things multicultural around here!Signature-Marigold

Big Foot’s Birth Certificates

Having a baby in another country is certainly an adventure.  After the birth, however, it’s time to move on to bigger and better things… like paperwork!   Red tape!  Bureaucracy!

Since little Big Foot was born in Germany, he’s entitled to a German birth certificate.  And good thing, because that document is needed for a host of other necessary items like a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a US passport, a German visa, German health insurance, etc.

We applied for the German birth certificate at the hospital where he was born.  True to German nature, that office hours are ridiculously restrictive.  Think one hour on a Monday and one hour on a Thursday.  That’s it.  Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it sure seemed like it.  And trying to fit those office hours into a newborn’s schedule was a real barrel of laughs.

At the office, both Doc Sci and I had to show our passports and birth certificates as well as our marriage certificate.  When I pulled out copies, the woman informed me that the city absolutely had to have originals.  This proved to be quite a problem for us since our originals were resting comfortably in a safe on the other side of the Atlantic.

Round and round we went with the government.  We begged.  We pleaded.  We took a translator with us that, ahem, embellished our predicament.  In the end, we were granted the birth certificate for Big Foot but only after we forked over $60 to have our original marriage certificate overnighted from the US.  Evidently, marriage certificate forgery is big business and the city official insisted on seeing the real thing.

In the meantime, I made an appointment with the US Consulate in Frankfurt to apply for Big Foot’s passport.  When looking over the required documents, I realized there are two types of birth certificates in Germany.  The kind we had just fought for was only the short version, and we’d need the long one.

Ugh.

Fortunately, the process for the three-page birth certificate was much easier.  I could order and pay for it online.  When the government official had a question, she emailed me directly – and even answered my reply promptly.  I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been impressed with government service, German or otherwise.

(In case you’re wondering, the German birth certificates are nothing special.  No fancy paper, no gold, no silver, no color at all.  Just plain Jane computer printouts.)

Since Big Foot was not born in the US, he cannot have an American birth certificate.  Instead, we requested a Consular Report of Birth Abroad at the same time we turned in our application for his first passport.  (I’ll post separately about our experience applying for Big Foot’s passport at the US Consulate.)

The Report of Birth Abroad is a beautiful document complete with a raised golden seal and a holographic strip.  It’s much prettier than all of the other family members’ certificates.  And it better be.   That one piece of paper set us back a hundred bucks!

US Consular Report of Birth Abroad.

As for citizenship, he isn’t automatically eligible for German citizenship even though he was born here because neither of his parents (that’s us!) is German.  He can apply for it, but he must choose at the age of 18 which country will be most deserving of his tax dollars, er, I mean whether he would like to be a German citizen or an American citizen.

Regardless, we are very glad that Big Foot is now official in two countries.  Hooray!

Expat Taxes

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life - TaxesI recently had a friend ask me about my taxes.  Not as in, “Are you done with them yet, slacker?”  She’s a nice friend.  It was more like, “How different is it for you since you don’t live in the US?”

Well, truth be told, I am a slacker.  I hem and I haw and I drag my feet all through January and February, and even the beginning of March.  I hate doing my taxes.  I know, I know, I’m not the only one.

Might I suggest to you, though, that expats (expatriates, Americans living abroad) dread taxes even more than the average American?

As an American living in Germany, I can attest that doing US taxes is the pits.

We don’t get W2’s.  We get paid in foreign currency.  We have to translate our year-end income statement from another language.  We have to get all our tax forms from any US financial interests electronically or find a buddy to open our mail, scan, and email the documents to us.  And we have lots and LOTS of rules with confusing definitions.

As you can imagine, most people just pay a professional.

I am not most people.

I have an absolutely irritating DIY work ethic.  I’m also thrifty as all get out.  If I can do my own taxes for free, why would I pay someone upwards of $300 to do it for me?

And, if I don’t do my taxes myself to understand the system, how will I ever know if $300 is a bargain or a rip-off?

Since I’m NOT a CPA or a lawyer, and I do not have any tax advice for you, I’ve decided to offer you an absolutely thrilling array of random facts regarding my expat tax experience.   Just what you’ve always wanted.

  • Expats get an automatic two-month extension on their tax due date.  The only catch is that you must attach a statement explaining why you qualify for the automatic extension.  I’m an expat.  I’m special.  The end.
  • Expats can deduct up to $92,900 (2011) of foreign-earned income as long as they meet certain requirements.  This made my tax bill for 2011 a nice fat even zero.  Since we pay German taxes, it would really be a joy-killer to give Uncle Sam a helping, too.  Now you know how much we do not make.  
  • Expats must have been out of the US for 330 days in a 365 day period in order to qualify for the income deduction mentioned above.  It’s also possible to qualify by living and working outside of the US for an entire January-December tax year as long as trips were infrequent and not business-related.  As always, such requirements are never simple and many restrictions apply.
  • Even expats can e-file their taxes.  Though not all programs support this feature, it is possible.  I use TaxAct (and I don’t make any money if you click on that link).  Bonus: TaxAct has a free e-file version regardless of income.
  • Expats must notify the US Department of the Treasury of any foreign bank account that reaches 10,000 USD at any point during the year.  Though this isn’t filed with your taxes and doesn’t go to the IRS, it’s part of the process and must be reported yearly.  Expats failing to fill out this form while having a fat overseas bank account can be fined $100,000 or more.
Itching to know more?  Check out the IRS Tax Guide for US Citizens and Resident Aliens Abroad.  I highly recommend indulging right before bedtime if you’re having trouble sleeping.

So, Happy Tax Day to you, dear reader.  If you are one of the lucky Turbo-Tax-and-go Americans, celebrate!  Other Americans actually envy you.

If you have ever filed taxes as an American living abroad, leave a comment to let us know your experience.Signature-Marigold