The Real State of Immigrant Integration in Germany

PEGIDA, the “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West,” was gaining steam in Germany before I left to visit family in the US over the Christmas and New Year holidays. It was being thoroughly debated in the German press and counterprotested in German streets. I was somewhat surprised, however, when I first started seeing PEGIDA show up in US media. The world is watching what’s happening here.

For anyone unfamiliar, PEGIDA is a protest movement that has been demonstrating in the streets of some German cities for the past several weeks, especially in the East German city of Dresden. They are not a political party, and even if they were, national elections aren’t for another few years. Some of their demands will probably become softened and mainstreamed over time; they are too large of a movement to be ignored, and indeed, no one is ignoring them. To their credit, they are peaceful. If there have been incidents of violence or vandalism, then these haven’t made the headlines.

But part of why they are alarming is because they are largely made up of people who have the least amount of actual familiarity with what they are protesting against. Dresden has much smaller percentages of immigrants and Muslims than most other German cities, so many critics of PEGIDA reach the conclusion that its sympathizers are forming their opinions about immigration and Islam though the worst misinformation and most sensationalist media coverage of these communities. PEGIDA may speak to some legitimate concerns about wider German demographic changes and policies, but its roots are in populist fear and ignorance.

I’d like to illustrate a very specific example of that ignorance here. I am not a Muslim and do not wish to comment on debates centering around Islam in Europe–many more well-informed minds are already covering this. But I am an immigrant, and I do know a thing or two about what we go through. So when PEGIDA revealed a list of demands in Dresden last night, I was particularly annoyed to see this:

“The introduction of a right and responsibility of integration. This obligation, if truly fulfilled, will automatically assuage people’s fears about Islamization, foreign domination, and the loss of our culture.” (translation mine)

Here’s the thing.

Mandated integration classes have already been part of our immigration laws for about a decade.

It’s mostly language instruction (up to the B1 level) with a bunch of civics lumped in. In the end, participants have to pass a B1 language exam as well as the “Leben in Deutschland” (Life in Germany) test , which as it happens is the same test used in naturalization proceedings. For the curious, that test is freely available all over the internet.

There are issues with the current integration classes that can’t be ignored. One is that large swaths of the immigrant population is exempt for various reasons–myself included, on the grounds that I already spoke German and was highly educated when I got here. Inter-EU migrants are also exempt. I would argue that these exemptions aren’t problems, per se, so let’s look at something that actually is a disaster:

The classes are massively underfunded. The state mandates that these classes take place, but they do not take responsibility for hiring permanent teachers to carry them out. As a result, these classes are often led by freelance teachers in private or semi-private institutions. They are highly qualified: by law, they must have degrees and training in the teaching of German as a Second Language. But they do not work under the same conditions that “normal” public school teachers do. They face low hourly wages instead of a respectable salary, have claim to no paid leave of any kind (including vacations, family leave, or sick leave), and receive no insurance or pension contributions from their employers. (My personal experience with these and other issues in freelance teaching can be read here.) If the state is to take integration seriously, it must respect those highly trained professionals who are in the trenches doing the actual, hard work of helping newcomers to this country learn our language, and that requires offering at least the same resources we already offer other, similarly qualified educators.

It must also make these classes free of charge for participants. There’s currently a small fee, about €1,20 per hour for most students. That sounds small, but the course is required to be 660 hours long, giving most people a total of €792. Yes, there are ways to get discounts, subsidies, and reimbursements, but the upfront price is a real burden. PEGIDA says it favors a “Canadian-style,” points-based immigration policy. That’s ironic, because Canada also offers not just one, but two forms of fee-free language instruction (French and English) for it its immigrants: Language Instruction for Newcomers (LINC).

A separate issue is that a lot of people (>40%) fail these classes. What do you do with someone who tries their best and still fails? How many times should they be allowed to try again? Will you deport them with their spouse and kids, who may be citizens? What if this person is dyslexic? Illiterate? It’s very easy to say “one country, one standard,” but the reality is so much messier than that.

The flip side is that in some respects, the classes are actually too easy. B1 language competency is not fluency. You’ll still need an interpreter in many situations, and you won’t really enjoy untranslated German media or find it easy to make monolingual German friends. So do we raise the standards and let even more people fail?

Finally, just because someone passes a class doesn’t mean they make use of what they learned. If you’re living in an ethnic-linguistic enclave and you stop practicing German as soon as you pass your test because everyone around you speaks something else, language attrition will set in, and the current system does nothing to control for this. Similarly, you may know what you have to say on the civics test, but it doesn’t mean that you agree with it or believe in it. But the state cannot and should not control who you associate with, where you live, or what you think.

Yet I somehow feel that PEGIDA isn’t arguing for a solution to these complex problems if they’re arguing for the “introduction” of an integration scheme when we have already had one for a decade. It just says to me that they don’t actually know what they’re talking about, and they don’t have reasonable, thoughtful, and legal solutions to these problems.

These issues are complicated. They’ll cost money to solve. A “deport everyone who fails” approach will land the government in court, where it will lose. Our government has to think complexly and open up the coffers if it’s going to take integration seriously.

And that’s not something PEGIDA seems to be even remotely aware of.

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Visiting “Home”

I moved to Germany in 2012 and have returned to the US only once since then. This Christmas will be my second visit. I’m looking forward to it a great deal.

My first visit was about two months long and took place during Berlin public schools’ summer break. Because I was an English teaching assistant at that time, my residence permit was only valid during the actual school year, so when that ended, I was obliged to leave Germany. I spent slightly over a month in my home state, and then in the second month, my then-fiancé came to New York City to meet up with my family and me.

We spent about a week in New York before road-tripping back down south, with a stop in DC along the way. Because my hometown can be deliriously boring, and because most of the hometown friends I grew up with have left the place, we decided to continue road tripping, visiting friends in other parts of the state as well as my old alma mater. Finally, we went to Chicago for several days to visit my sister.

It was a very eventful trip. It had to be. My hometown couldn’t have possibly appealed to my husband for more than a few days, and he’d spent almost a thousand dollars just for the flight. We had to make every day count, so we covered a lot of ground.

Christmas break, however, is remarkably shorter. We have exactly two weeks. As a result, we’re going to my hometown first for a few days and then spending the entire rest of the break in New York City. We didn’t feel like we had enough time there during our last trip.

I’m excited for lots of reasons. Of course I want to see my family and any old friends who might be around when we are. New York City is always an exciting place to be, and we have lots of exciting activities lined up. As musical fans, we’re seeing two Broadway shows. We’re also going to be there on Christmas day, so there will be presents and plenty of general holiday cheer.

But what I’m especially excited about are the things I took for granted every day that I used to live in the US. I’m thrilled to be able to go shopping at stores I know, with brands and sizes that I’m used to. I am thrilled by the anticipation of lowbrow chain restaurants and fast food like Cookout, Bojangles, and Olive Garden. I want to have drinks with my mom, dad, and sister. I look forward to participating fully in conversations as a confident and articulate native speaker of the local language, instead of a foreigner with obvious mistakes and an accent. I want slightly more daylight hours.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. But then once I have it back for a few weeks, I find that I’m generally satisfied. I can’t eat at the Cheesecake Factory every day if I want to live very long, and once I get everything I need while shopping, that’ll lose its appeal too. I love Germany and I won’t be sad to return. But once in a while, it can be very, very exciting to go “back home.”

Five differences between German and American Christmas

This past weekend, the Christmas season officially began in both German and US culture. In the one corner, we have the beginning of Advent. On the other, Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Both countries are increasingly subject to Christmas creep–I started seeing traditional German sweets in supermarkets at the end of October–but ’tis now legitimately the season.

There are, of course, similarities in how the two cultures do Christmas. But there are also more differences than you’d think.

1. Nobody cares about “the holidays” here.

I always embraced “happy holidays” in the US. Many of my friends practice religions other than Christianity, and although I knew a great many non-Christians who celebrated Christmas anyway, it felt odd to wish a “merry Christmas” to someone I knew actually celebrated Hanukkah. I also worked in food service for many years and preferred not to make assumptions about any of our customers. It’s easy enough to wish someone a “happy holidays” without offending anyone inadvertently.

Germany’s population is much less religious than the US overall, in addition to being much less Christian. That said, even in the atheistic, ex-commie East, people still love Christmas. Our largest religion after Christianity is Islam, but that still doesn’t justify a German translation of “happy holidays.” In case you hadn’t noticed, Ramadan is currently creeping further and further into summer and spring thanks to the lunar calendar; it was in June-July this past year. There are no major Islamic holidays in December nowadays.

It’s safe to say “Frohe Weihnachten” (merry Christmas) in Germany. You’re not stepping on any toes. The culture and demography are just different here.

2. Christmas is actually two days long.

Germany takes the whole “on the first day of Christmas… second day of Christmas” thing seriously. December 25 and 26 are on German calendars as 1. Weihnachtsfeiertag and 2. Weihnachtsfeiertag, respectively. The 25th and 26th both collectively count as Christmas, and they’re both national holidays. I don’t know why the other twelve days of Christmas were left out, but it’s fine, since both of the ones we do celebrate are actually quite boring because…

3. You open your presents on Christmas Eve.

The joy and anticipation of growing up as a Christmas-celebrating kid in America is all about Christmas morning, as in, the morning of the 25th. Santa puts your presents under the tree on the night of Christmas Eve, while you’re sleeping, and then you wake up as early as your parents will let you so that you can play with all your new stuff. Germans just open their presents after dinner on the 24th. It feels so wrong, so anticlimactic. Or maybe German kids are just hyped up all day on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve). I don’t have much contact to little German Kinder yet, so I wouldn’t know.

4. Stockings aren’t hung by the chimney with care, but shoes get stuffed on December 6.

Thanks to the good old American melting pot, we’ve combined (perhaps bastardized) many different cultures’ traditions of Christmas and Saint Nicholas. To us, Saint Nick is just another name for Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or Kris Kringle (another German borrowing from Christkindl, or Christ child). But in Germany, even in the Lutheran and non-religious parts, the Catholic feast day of Saint Nicholas is still celebrated on December 6, separate from the three-day Christmas blowout of the 24th-26th. On this day, children leave a shoe outside their door, and “Saint Nicholas” (the child’s parents) fill the shoe with candy. The candies should be well wrapped, though. A fancy, decoration-only foot container isn’t used; it’s usually just a regular, everyday shoe.

5. Christmas markets are truly superior.

I can’t recall ever hearing about a traditional Christmas market in the US, although apparently they’re catching on in Chicago and elsewhere. In Germany, they’re everywhere, every weekend (some daily), from Advent to Epiphany. They’re a series of quaint outdoor stands that sell traditional crafts, gifts, snacks, and drinks, which might not sound so special until you realize how amazing Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and Quarkbällchen (fried curd cheese balls) with powdered sugar are. On weekends there are often musical performances, and some of the bigger markets will have rides such as Ferris wheels, making the whole thing a cross between a fair and a winter wonderland of awesomeness.

They are infinitely more pleasant than being crammed like a sardine inside a suburban mall after Black Friday–which also, thankfully, has yet to make inroads here, although apparently our British cousins are falling prey. I hope Germany resists as long as possible.

Shopping in Germany: Nothing fits and I don’t know these brands

Lane Bryant is for plus sizes. Hollister is for teenagers. Old Navy is a cheaper version of The Gap, which is a cheaper version of Banana Republic. Victoria’s Secret is overpriced and their sizes are unrealistic and limited in range.

I never sat down and studied these brands consciously. These are associations made over time, by a combination of mere exposure, personal experience, and advertising. I can tell you which stores I shop at and which ones I don’t, or that my sizes run smaller at some of them compared to others as a result of vanity sizing. I had over twenty years to make these connections over time.

Then I moved to Germany.

I have no frame of reference for anything here, and in my third year, shopping is still a nightmare.

Nothing fits.

It’s somewhat common knowledge that many countries have different sizing systems. It’s also, at least theoretically, a fairly easy problem to solve. You look at a conversion chart and you find out which US sizes match with which UK sizes, for instance. Or you take measurements (preferably metric!) and figure out your size based on whatever a certain brand reports as its sizing patterns.

It is never actually that simple, though. Individual garments of the same style, from the same manufacturer, can vary slightly. Vanity sizing exists everywhere. Some stores do it more than others. And what if you’re on the edge between two sizes?

In addition, some countries set their sizes for different demographics. My very tall, very thin German husband couldn’t find a single pair of fitting pants in the US. I am short and thin and haven’t been able to find pants at many German stores. Yet in China, I was an extra large. When designers strive for averages—especially averages that vary from country to country—some non-average people will get left out, or end up in categories they don’t recognize.

And I don’t know these brands.

There is no Gap here, no VS, no New York and Company. I’m sure I could get similar clothes if I poked around long enough at a department store or online, but I don’t. I’m used to a radically different shopping experience: mall-sized land hogs where you can browse a large selection in relative anonymity, where individual stores pattern along different basic aesthetics and market sectors. In Germany, there are a lot of large department stores and a lot of intimidating little boutiques.

Well, that and H&M. (And Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, and those only because I live in a big city.) But I’m not going to shop there for everything I own just because I’ve heard of them before. In fact, I don’t actually like a lot of H&M stuff. Their bras were utter crap, I hate their styles in women’s jeans, and a lot of their clothes are so low-quality that they simply fall apart. It’s not exactly balanced in favor of professional wear, either, which is mostly what I need.

Just shop online, then.

Shopping online from German/European companies doesn’t solve the style, size, or branding problems. It also adds shipping and removes the ability to try things on, making returns an almost inevitable hassle. Zalando only fixes a few of these issues.

Ordering imports from US brands means even higher shipping costs, and German couriers are surprisingly unreliable for international packages. Customs will hold on to some items for weeks and then make you pay outrageous taxes. Sales tax alone is 19%, not counting import duties. Returns are as good as impossible, and again, they’re often necessary in light of the fact that you can’t try anything on in advance.

So what do you do?

Due to dietary and lifestyle changes that are also a direct result of my move to Germany, I’ve lost over 20 pounds since leaving the US. Despite many excursions into shops here, I haven’t bought a single article of clothing in the last year. I just haven’t been satisfied with anything I’ve tried on. I’ve been belting the crap out of floppy old pants—even putting new holes in old belts—and hoping I can hide holey shirts under less-holey layers. Nothing is as embarrassing as the puckering old bras with the underwire eating through its fabric casing and poking you in the sternum.

What I’m about to do is go on a shopping spree when I’m back in the US at Christmastime. I hate shopping—I am not going to browse; I am on a mission for specific items from specific places. But I look forward to the familiarity and the knowledge I’ll be paying way less than 19% in sales tax no matter where I go. I can’t wait to have stuff that fits, and as evidence that decades of marketing has done its job properly, I can’t wait to have the shopping experience I’m used to.

“Do I need to speak German in order to live in Germany?”: A legal perspective

In 2005, the German government passed new immigration regulations that require knowledge of German civics and the German language for the obtainment and renewal of certain kinds of visas. Knowledge of these two subjects can be gained during state-standardized (but often privately offered) Integrationskurse or “integration courses,” which end in two separate state exams. Not every migrant is required to take the course and the exams, but for those who must, the stakes are high. Repeated failure to pass the tests, or a refusal to participate, can lead to visa non-renewal and eventual deportation.

What are the language requirements?

The German government essentially copy-and-pasted the Common European Framework of Reference for Foreign Languages (CEFR) into its legislation. A1 language proficiency, the lowest level possible, is dubbed “einfache Sprachkentnisse” (simple proficiency) by the German government. A2 is considered “hinreichend” (sufficient), and B1 is “ausreichend” (adequate), the threshold for indefinite visa renewal and/or naturalization. Proficiency beyond B1 is considered Beherrschen der deutschen Sprache (mastery of the German language) and a besondere Integrationsleistung (special integration achievement) leading to reduced waiting times for citizenship applications.

In my personal and professional opinion as an immigrant and a language teacher, these expectations are low. B1 proficiency will enable a person to hold basic conversations, such as placing orders, describing families and hobbies, giving and asking for directions, and describing basic health issues. It also allows learners to understand simplified news articles or the “gist” of more advanced texts. It doesn’t prepare learners for job interviews or client/colleague interaction in a white-collar, German-speaking workplace. It doesn’t provide for the depth and nuance needed to understand and debate issues relevant to voting and political participation. And from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that it is not enough, in many cases, to foster deep personal relationships with monolingual Germans.

My judgments here, however, are profoundly influenced by my privileges and personal expectations. I am used to Western education and society, Germanic languages, middle-class aspirations, and the Roman alphabet. If I had come to Germany with, say, a fifth-grade education in a country that uses some other writing system, I’d absolutely face different learning challenges. I don’t believe that people in such a position should be forbidden to live in Germany, especially when questions of asylum and family unification come into play. So, in my view, the government set a standard that is easily attainable for some and perhaps more challenging than others. This is a basic expectation rather than a crowning achievement.

Who must take the integration classes?

Most non-EU migrants are, at least theoretically, required to learn some degree of German in order to live here, if not at first, then by the time of visa renewal, usually within one to three years. Au Pairs with no prior knowledge of German, for example, are often required to learn German alongside their childcare duties for this reason, though this does not need to be in a state integration class.

Language ability particularly relevant for spouses of German citizens or permanent residents who wish to move to Germany for family unification purposes: in most cases, they are expected to reach A1 level German before arriving in Germany. Again, to me, A1 language proficiency is not challenging. For many, it’s achievable within months or even mere weeks of sustained practice. But “many” is not everyone. Illiterate people, uneducated people, and poor or rural people without access to German language education may see the A1 language requirement as a tremendous hurdle, and laws that prevent family unification may indeed be unconstitutional under German and EU law.

Exempted from the integration courses are migrants with a “discernably minimal integration need,” a threshold often met by holding a college degree in any language, specialized training, and/or B1+ knowledge of German at the time of arrival.

Also exempted are migrants from within the European Union who do not depend on social benefits as well ethnic German repatriates (Spätaussiedler), who may nevertheless participate in the courses if they wish.

Language requirements for students and academics vary by academic program and the individual applicant’s specific role.

What about that German civics test?

The “Leben in Deutschland” (“Life in Germany”) exam is the same exam that is taken when applying for citizenship. It is a multiple choice exam covering the basics of German history, culture, and law. It is only offered in the German language. There is a test bank of about 300 questions, which the Federal Ministry of Migration and Refugees makes freely available online. Questions can be as simple as “What is a typical German Christmas tradition?” or as complex as “Which German states were part of the former German Democratic Republic?” or “Which authorities oversee the registry of dog ownership?” Test takers receive a sampling of 33 questions on test day, of which 15 must be answered correctly for the culmination of the integration course and 17 must be answered correctly for naturalization purposes.

92% of test takers pass the exam on the first try, compared to about 56% for the B1 language exam. This is probably due to the test’s focus on passive recognition of relevant words, its lack of critical or expressive language production tasks, the free availability of the entire question bank online, and the ability of test takers to guess correct answers thanks to the test’s multiple choice format.

Where can I find out more?

In 2013, a documentary about integration courses in Berlin was produced, entitled Werden Sie Deutscher (Become a German). The film follows the experiences of a small handful of migrants from diverse backgrounds as they attend their integration course, prepare for the language exam, and (re)apply for residence permits at the immigration office. The film is at times humorous and at times heartbreaking. It’s definitely worth a look, especially for native Germans who may have no idea what struggles immigrants actually face in order to be able to live in this country.

My one problem with the film is that it does almost nothing to cover the German civics coursework and test. I suspect that this was a stylistic decision on the part of the filmmakers, since language courses are often funnier than watching people memorize flashcards of political definitions. However, inquiring minds can find the entire Leben in Deutschland test bank online, as mentioned. The Süddeutsche Zeitung actually has an interactive website devoted to the test, where visitors can compare Germany’s test to the naturalization tests of other countries and see which questions are most frequently answered incorrectly.

Compared to countries such as the UK and the US, Germany’s immigration laws are fairly generous. Nevertheless, Germany currently has lower immigration rate than the US, the UK, France, and several other EU countries. Nativists who fear that immigrants are taking over the country simply do not have the facts on their side. Nor do most of them seem to understand what exactly immigrants must go through to live here legally. There are many requirements, of which language and civics tests only cover a fraction. For many people, these requirements are difficult to meet. But hundreds of thousands have participated in state integration courses annually since their inception ten years ago, showing a deep desire to respect Germany’s laws and become full members of society.

The Best German Textbooks: 6 Tried and True Classics

For the past two weeks, readers may have noticed that there haven’t been updates to American Ausländer. Part of this is because I’ve just started grad school, and the transition into working student life has me swamped. The other part of it is that I’ve been blogging elsewhere.
To make up for my absence, I’d like to direct readers to my posts over at FluentU’s great blog for German language learners, starting with this post about some of the books that helped me learn German over the years before I moved to Berlin. Does this count as a guest post if you wrote it myself? Who knows. Read on.

The Best German Textbooks: 6 Tried and True Classics

Let’s face it. Learning a language on your own is tough. How do you know where to begin? Where can you find learning material? How can you test yourself? Where do you get explanations for concepts you don’t understand?

Clearly, there’s a lot that can go wrong when learning German. This is where a good textbook can save you.

Why to Use German Textbooks

Textbooks aren’t written by any old dummy. They’re written by the pros: highly educated native speakers and experienced teachers. The entire job of the authors is to help you become fluent, and they know the best methods and exercises to help you learn.

This is one area where classroom learning has the advantage. Students are guided by a (hopefully) skilled teacher, using (hopefully) high-quality materials. But even if you’re self-studying, you can get many of the same benefits out of a good textbook.

Even if you’re already touring through Germany with a “learn by osmosis” attitude towards the language, you’ll benefit from the guidance of an expert-designed curriculum.

How to Choose Which German Textbook is Right for You

There are hundreds of German language textbooks out there. A single publishing company may have dozens and dozens of titles. It can be overwhelming. Which one is right for you?

First, think of your level. Are you a beginner (A1-A2), intermediate (B1-B2) or more advanced (C1-C2)? It does you no good to have an advanced textbook if you’re still learning the difference between nominative and accusative. It doesn’t help to have a beginner’s book if you’re nearly fluent, either.

Next, think of your goal. Why are you learning German? Do you want to be able to hold a general conversation? Are you studying German for a specific purpose, perhaps for university studies or travel? Are you just working on your grammar? Each textbook has a slightly different focus.

Lastly, think of your age. There are books for kids and there are books for older learners. You can learn equally well from each one, but you might feel a little silly while doing so.

Read the full post at FluentU to see my list of 6 well-known German textbooks.

What you can* and can’t** do as an American in Germany

The American Red Cross is picky about who gives blood. The last time I donated while visiting the US, I mentioned that I now live in Germany. The nurse immediately wanted to screen me out. Then I explained that I hadn’t yet reached the magical five-years-out-of-America mark, after which I will naturally succumb to mad cow and Creuzfeld-Jakob disease and all of the other ravages of daily life in one of Europe’s richest and safest countries.

We’re a little odd in how we treat foreigners and overseas residents sometimes. So is every country.

But in honor of the fact that I’ve just donated successfully in Germany for the first time, here’s a list of some of the things you can* and can’t** do as an American citizen in Germany.

What’s with the asterisks? All good rules have good exceptions, and the Germans love them. These are all blanket statements, not refined explanations. If you fulfill all the other requirements and you’re from the right state of origin and you have the right paperwork and the civil servant on your case is having a particularly good day… maybe these will apply to you. Don’t blame me if not.

You can donate blood.

American guidelines prevent anyone from donating who has resided outside of the US for a total of five years or more, regardless of whether that person was born on US or foreign soil. That means I only have another two or three years to go before I’m excluded from donating in my country of birth.

But Germany doesn’t make the same distinction. If you meet all the typical health requirements and you’re a legal resident–though honestly, they didn’t even look at my visa–your donation is acceptable here.

You can drive.

But only up to six months (ie, as a tourist). Six months after your arrival, you need a German license if you want to continue to drive. For Americans from some states, this simply requires you to show up at the DMV and show your license to get a new one, because some states have full licensing reciprocity. Other states have only partial reciprocity, meaning you’ll be required to take an exam. Anyone trying to do any of this after six months of residency will have to start from scratch, and that almost certainly means paying hundreds if not thousands of euros for driver’s ed.

You can stop paying (some) US taxes.

Thanks to complicated arrangements like the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, most Americans are off the hook for income taxes below a certain threshold. Everything other than “earned income” (certain sales, investment returns, etc.) will be taxed as long as you retain US citizenship, no matter where you live. It’s omissions like these that are driving up US citizenship renunciations.

You can benefit from tuition-free education.

Tuition-free doesn’t mean free-free, and student visas require proof of significant financial security (among lots of other things), but in general, yes, the rumors are true. Foreign students do not pay a different rate than German students at public universities.

You can’t vote in German or European elections.

To Americans, this may seem like a no-brainer, since we don’t let non-citizens vote either. Voting requires citizenship, right?

It turns out that Germany is in the minority of EU/EEA countries holding onto this policy. Fifteen European countries allow resident foreigners from non-EU countries to vote in local elections at least, and virtually all intra-EU migrants can continue to vote for the European Parliament no matter which member state they’re from or which member state they live in. In the UK, members of the Commonwealth (former colonies like Nigeria, India, Australia, etc.) are also given the vote upon taking up residency.

This issue was especially contentious in the recent city-state referendum on what would happen to the Tempelhofer Feld airport-turned-park in Berlin. About half a million out of the city’s roughly three million residents were not allowed to vote.

You can’t (usually) become a dual citizen, but you can be born that way.

Naturalization in Germany most often requires the renunciation of the applicant’s original citizenship. There’s a whole host of exceptions to this rule, including some that may apply to US citizens, but the German government generally frowns upon dual citizenship.

However, if you’re born to one American and one German parent, or you’re born to German parents on US soil, you can be a dual citizen for life. And if you’re born to American legal residents in Germany on German soil, you can be a dual citizen until you reach the age of majority, and then you have to choose which passport to keep and which to renounce.

It’s all very complicated and arbitrary and the laws will most likely be in flux until the end of time.

Voting as an Overseas American

I come from a state with new, restrictive Voter ID laws. I don’t like these laws. I think there’s a clear ulterior motive behind them.

Republicans swept into control of both houses of my state legislature and assumed my state’s governorship in 2010, for the first time since Reconstruction. A lot of things have happened in the last four years. The governor refused Medicaid expansion, we passed a state constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage (overturned just last week!), and our budget for social services and education has been slashed to the bone—which was painfully relevant to me first as a university student and then as a new teacher.

Additionally, the newly elected leaders had the right to redraw voting districts and set new, restrictive guidelines on who could vote. As a result, we’ve become highly gerrymandered, early voting has been reduced, and suffrage itself has been restricted to those who carry state ID. That’s no problem for anyone who has a driver’s license or a passport, but not everyone does. Why would you pay to apply for these or similar types of identification if you otherwise never use them? This is why critics assert that the ID requirement is tantamount to a poll tax.

Personally, I did not have to show photo identification in order to vote this year. And I was allowed to vote early—as early as August. I was even allowed to vote digitally, from the comfort of my sofa.

The reason? I vote absentee, as what’s officially dubbed an “overseas American.”

Getting the absentee ballot

When I first came to Germany, I thought it’d only be for a year. It was a presidential election year, though, and I wasn’t going to miss it. I simply e-mailed the NC Board of Elections to explain my case. While I was still in the US, I filled out some forms, which included giving part of my social security number OR my driver’s license number, but not both, and not with any kind of photo identification.

My ballot came by e-mail. I had the option to return it by e-mail as well. I printed off the ballot in PDF form, marked it, signed a release, scanned it, and sent it back to the NC Board of Elections via another e-mail. I didn’t even have to pay postage. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.

I also couldn’t believe it when I started getting new ballots automatically for every subsequent election and primary. North Carolina’s system, it seems, becomes opt-out rather than keep-opting-in. Sometimes I wouldn’t even realize that a primary was going to occur, and then a ballot would land in my inbox. Imagine if it were that easy for everyone.

While in Germany, I married and changed my name. I e-mailed the Board of Elections again to ask what I had to do to update my voter registration. I filled out the exact same form as the first time, with my SSN/driver’s license number. Again, no photo ID needed. They didn’t even care to see the marriage license that was the original legal proof of my name change.

Amazing, isn’t it, that they’d make things so easy for someone who doesn’t even live in North Carolina, while the state’s most vulnerable true residents are being systematically disenfranchised. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that overseas voters tend to come from certain means, and that many of us are involved in military or missionary work. Couldn’t be.

Why you should vote absentee

After having such a good experience with it, I highly recommend absentee voting for all those who are able to do so, especially in states with new voting restrictions at the physical polls. I’m not sure exactly what one needs to do in order to be able to vote by mail, e-mail, or fax. This is in part because every state has its own board of elections with its own laws. As a result, I’m really only familiar with the North Carolina process that I’ve been through. Websites such as FVAP and VoteFromAbroad should be able to help anyone who’s curious about absentee voting elsewhere.

The important thing is to vote at all, no matter where you’re from or where you live now. I wasn’t totally satisfied with the candidates on my ballot, but I did my civic duty and I try to create change and community in other ways as well. I believe that the only way to shape the system is to participate in the system, so please, do your part and vote.

If you’re reading this, you’ve already got an internet connection, which means you have all you need to inform yourself and, at least in North Carolina, to actually cast your ballot. Just do it!

Tuition-free Germany 2: What’s it actually like?

Applying to an American college is an arduous process. A multimillion dollar industry has sprung up around SAT and ACT test prep alone. Anyone who’s been to an American high school knows the pressure to do things that “look good on college apps.” Often, these are things that have nothing to do with what we want to study: community service, club leadership, sports, participating in performing arts.  And we admit to ourselves that we do some of these things just to look good on college apps. We don’t always care that much about the activities, but in our teenage years, in our system, they are crucial. Good grades are important, too, but they’re just one part of the holistic applications process.

To get into a German college, on the other hand, you basically just need good enough grades.

Wait, really?

Of course, you have to have good enough grades with the right kind of diploma, the Abitur. Simply put, there are different kinds of high school diplomas in Germany, and correspondingly, different types of high schools. Some will qualify you for direct entry into a trade, and some will prepare you for college. If you go to one of the college prep schools, you’re required to do AP or A-Level work in a number of subjects. These don’t end with a national, standardized, multiple-choice test, but a series of teacher-generated essays and oral exams. You might also be expected to finish complete 13 grades instead of 12.

In addition, you have to choose your university and your major at the same time. There’s no such thing as an “undeclared” freshman. Theoretically, your high school education should have been rigorous enough to provide you with the educational depth and breadth that Americans tend to expect from general education requirements in the first two years of college. In Germany, you hit the ground running with your major, so you have to know what your major will be. It should be related to something you already had good grades in, especially if there is a GPA cut-off or Numerus Clausus for a popular program such as medicine.

Okay, but I have a US high school diploma. Where do I sign up?

An American high school diploma alone is not enough to get into a German college for undergrad. You should also be prepared to show evidence of German language proficiency, a few AP or IB credits, and in some cases even outstanding SAT scores—even though the SAT has no equivalent in Germany, your scores speak to your aptitude and abilities in a way that some German colleges will consider in assessing foreign applicants.

All of that is just to get accepted to college, by the way. If you’re not from the EU, you’ll also need a student visa. For that, you need to already be accepted by a program. Then you need to assemble all the usual documents for the Ausländerbehörde: proof of German health insurance, registration at a local address, and proof of financial stability (to the tune of about $10k in the bank on day one).

Let’s say I did all this. What can I expect German college to be like?

Focused. Independent. Less fluff around the edges, and I mean that in every way.

A large part of the rising cost of college in America is non-instructional. In many respects, colleges compete for students the same way businesses compete for customers. When schools try to attract applicants, they like to show off their newly renovated buildings and their champion sports teams and their zillions of quirky clubs (paid for by everyone’s fees, rather than member dues) and team-building opportunities and their 24/7 vegan gluten free dining hall and their array of diversity offices…

I enjoyed all these things when I was in college, but they have nothing to do with studying. The German uni where I’m studying now has academic buildings and labs, a Mensa (cafeteria), some libraries, and a bare minimum of administration compared to my US alma mater. I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that state support is not the only reason why costs are so much lower here, and I like it that way.

This does lead to an absence of “school spirit” as Americans understand it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have no friends and never party. It just means that you won’t do so under the auspices of some sentimental connection to a Greek letter org, a sports team, or the university itself.

There’s also less fluff in the classroom itself. In addition to cutting out most superfluous electives, you can expect many classes to meet only once a week, with only one or two grades, usually a final exam and/or presentation. Yes, that does often mean there’s no attendance grade. But even if you do go to class, you’re still expected to put in lots of independent study. There are no weekly quizzes or graded homework or study guides to let you know how you’re doing along the way. It’s all on you in the end.

Grade inflation is also less of a problem in Germany. In some STEM fields, dropout rates can be up to 36%. And remember, your major is your entire path. If you switch majors, in many cases, you must start college over from scratch.

In the English class I taught last year, not a single person got an A or A+ grade and only two students got an A-/B+, yet my colleagues told me that my final exam was too easy. They were unapologetic about their fail rates, perhaps almost proud. Although failing students have the option to take a second exam several weeks later, many of them simply go on to fail a second time.

That sounds kind of awful.

It’s just different. Culturally speaking, most of what Americans associate with college is general experiences and interactions, not education. Just look at the application process: my ability to stock a food pantry or play the cello has no bearing on my ability to study quantum mechanics. That’s not to say that no one learns anything or that many classes aren’t rigorous. We just value different things, to varying degrees.

The huge Student Union where I often met with clubs and gave performances, the activities and speakers these clubs planned for us, the diversity offices that made me feel welcome, the facilities and full-time cleaning staff in my dorm, the beautiful arboretum and rolling green lawns, the two all-day dining halls, the two two-story student fitness centers (with swimming pools!), the sports teams I rooted for since childhood—I loved it all, but it was extremely expensive. That’s the trade-off that American society has chosen to make.

If you’re looking to make a different choice, and you’re willing to learn some German, than Germany might be right for you.

Tuition-Free Germany: The Facts Behind the Headlines

It was a story destined for clickbait headlines. “This Country Just Abolished College Tuition Fees.” “Free Education.” “Germany just scrapped tuition fees. (Why can’t England?)”

For anyone familiar with the German higher ed system, the news wasn’t quite so revolutionary. Most German public colleges and universities were already tuition-free. The most accurate headline, therefore, reads “Last German State Abolishes University Fees.” That just sounds less sexy.

Yes, Germany has states.

Map of the Bundesländer by C. Busch, Hamburg. Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.

Map of the Bundesländer by C. Busch, Hamburg. Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.

Let’s get basic. Germany is made up of sixteen state- or province-like entities, the Bundesländer. Just like in the US, education is mostly a state affair, not a federal one, and this includes higher ed. In 2006, the German Constitutional Court ruled that states could decide whether to charge tuition fees, so some of them began doing so. The public was largely against this, so even where fees came into play, they didn’t last long. Lower Saxony was the last Bundesland standing, and the flashy headlines refer to Lower Saxony’s recent decision to abolish its fees.

People who studied in tuition-charging states between 2006 and 2014 are sadly out of luck. They were casualties in an unpopular and short-lived experiment. But compared to tuition in most of the Anglophone world, their fees were peanuts anyway: usually €500 ($631) per semester.

But it’s totally free now, right?

No, it isn’t.

We’re talking about tuition fees specifically. Just like at US colleges, there are still other fees to be paid. Tuition in my final year at the University of North Carolina was “only” $2564 per semester, but with $940 in additional fees (many of which went to fluffy activities, student clubs, and unnecessary renovations to athletic buildings). Then came room and board. I personally minimized my housing and food costs by living off campus and never having an overpriced meal plan, but the price tag was still much higher than the cost of tuition and fees alone.

German students also need housing, food, transportation, and mandatory medical insurance, just like I did in the US. Much of this is subsidized, but it’s definitely not free.

If I hadn’t been from NC, though, my out-of-state tuition at UNC would have been $12,476 per semester. Here’s where I find the German system truly remarkable: it makes no distinction between residents and non-residents when it comes to fees. Even international students pay the same rates as everyone else. Anglophones, take note: study the German language diligently, and you too can get a world-class education at a fraction of the cost.

So what does it cost?

At the Humboldt University in Berlin, semester fees total about €293 ($370). Most other public universities in the city-state of Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg are about the same, or even slightly lower. Of this figure, €187 ($236) is for a 24/7, all-areas public transportation ticket. It is not restricted to academic use only; it is even valid during summer and winter breaks between semesters. A non-student transport rider could easily wind up paying many times that amount, as I did last year.

Health insurance is not covered by these fees, but if you qualify for student status, you can join one of the state-supported public health insurance companies for a drastically reduced price of about €78 ($96) per month. This isn’t some cheap, emergency-only nightmare insurance, either. It’ll get you one of those heavenly “leave the doctor’s office without paying a cent” scenarios that Americans mythologize, even for preventative care and check-ups.

It’s speculated that some people prolong their studies unnecessarily just to keep enjoying these perks. Who can blame them?

And you said this goes for foreigners too?

Yes. Perhaps this is why Germany is the second most popular destination for international students outside of the Anglophone world.

However, non-EU students will need to obtain a visa, and this requires significant financial background checks. You must have access to thousands of euros in savings throughout your studies, possibly with a financially stable guarantor such as a parent. A limited amount of work for wages is permitted, but financial stability must be proven upfront.

And if I might wildly speculate: political winds of change may blow through the system someday. Sweden used to have tuition-free higher ed for foreigners, but they recently introduced full tuition fees (up to almost $19,500) for non-EU students. As a result, applications from non-EU students dropped by 80%. With euro-skeptic and anti-immigration views gaining mainstream appeal in Germany, as well as budget crunches squeezing the existing higher ed infrastructure, “free” education for foreigners isn’t a sure thing forever.

But do I have to speak German?

The Großes Deutsches Sprachdiplom from the Goethe Institut

Programs taught in German will require an official test as proof of German language ability, such as a Goethe-Zertifikat (above) or DSH.

I hate this question, but I’ll admit that in some cases, the answer is actually “no.”

In terms of graduate education (master’s degrees and beyond) it is possible to study entirely in English, in certain fields, at certain universities. Bachelor’s degrees are still almost exclusively offered in German. Different schools have different fluency requirements, but I can’t imagine taking on college-level work without B2 proficiency at the very least.

But the reason why I hate this question is the attitude it implies.

Education in Germany is dirt cheap for students, but it certainly isn’t free to the taxpayer or to the state. State funding to education at all levels is an investment that a society makes in itself. If you get a degree in another country and you choose not to learn the local language, you probably will not hang around long enough to make a long-lasting contribution to that society to balance out the financial investment it has made in you. When foreign students zip back to their own countries immediately after graduation, that’s not an ideal return on investment for the country that just paid the full price of educating them.

Even if you reject this argument and claim the banner of “world citizen,” can you imagine the situation in reverse? Could a German exchange student come to the UK or US and expect full instruction in German, for free, with a myriad of other subsidies for which neither she nor her family have ever contributed taxes?

Beyond that, people who don’t learn German limit themselves socially, economically, and generally. Will you make friends only with other English speakers? Will you expect all the German speakers around you to switch to English just for you? Will you require a translator for every social, medical, and commercial service you need? Will you miss out on local and national current events by forgoing German media? Will your job options be plentiful?

You can live in Germany without speaking German, but most people cannot fully thrive this way. But you don’t have to sound like the perfect Hochdeutsch native speaker on your first day of class. Just do your best. The German government will even subsidize some of your efforts to learn.

Conclusion

Germany is gaining attention for its high-quality, low-cost education for all, and it should. With the final defeat of tuition fees, Germany is doubling down on the idea that education is a right, which should be free for students of all backgrounds. The Anglophone world, meanwhile, has been moving in the opposite direction, to the detriment of many millions of students.

For students who can meet the requirements of admission at a German university–and I haven’t even begun to comment on how high those standards are–studying in Germany is a sound financial decision, a strong educational investment, and generally enriching life experience.

On a personal note, I myself will be starting my Master of Arts in Linguistics this Monday. Wish me luck.