Since taking the leap to begin my freelancing journey overseas, I’m often asked why I chose Berlin as my new home. The answer is simple: the Berlin freelance visa.
Of course, it’s not the only reason to move to Berlin. The city also has an exciting and growing startup scene, a vibrant art and music scene, and an affordable lifestyle compared to other major European cities. The possibility of a visa specifically designed for freelancers and the self-employed however, makes this “poor but sexy” city even more appealing and a much easier location to launch your freelance business from within Europe.
One of the most challenging parts of this visa, though, is the limited “official” information available online. It’s a visa that you kind of need to be “in-the-know” for. Most freelancers I’ve met all agree that they hadn’t heard of this visa option prior to arriving, yet were informed of it in conversations with fellow freelancers, within Slack communities (like NomadList and Berlin Startup Slack Group), and through reading various blog posts online.
Because of Berlin’s lack of a specific industry and its history as a creative hub, my understanding is that the freelance visa was introduced to attract skilled and creative types to the city. The idea was simple: it would grow the startup and music scenes it’s become well-known for, and boost the economy in the process. It’s been quite successful so far and has allowed a growing number of creatives, tech companies and entrepreneurs to move to Berlin and focus on what they do best.
With a freelance visa in Germany, you can work with startups, businesses and individuals on a need-based and part-time contracts. You can also work with clients outside of Germany, through platforms like CloudPeeps. This visa also allows for increased flexibility and independence while in Germany, without having your visa tied to a specific company. Interestingly if you’re from the USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, you can arrive in Germany on a tourist visa and apply for the freelance visa upon arrival.
As an Australian living in Berlin and currently on the freelance visa, these tips are from my own experience and research to help guide you on this exciting journey. This along with my checklist to moving overseas and working remotely will assist you in taking this leap to a new life in Berlin!
1) Pre-application steps
Be prepared from the very beginning that this is (a) not a fast process; and (b) will require much patience with the German system. Funnily enough, when it comes to bureaucracy in Germany, things don’t actually move swiftly or often efficiently as you may expect! That’s why it’s important to research as much as you can prior to starting your application process and more importantly, why you should find a native German speaker to assist you. Many of the processes and government-run offices you need to visit are very traditional with no English available. For your own sanity, having a native speaker in your corner will help you greatly. They will also come in handy later on with translations that are required for your documentation.
There are professionals you can pay to assist you with the process and who understand how to move through the system more swiftly. However, many freelancers often prefer to do it themselves (with a German speaking friend to assist) to save on cost. It really is a personal preference here, depending on your budget and time available. Hit up Facebook Groups and Slack communities to ask questions on this and check out other freelancer blogs online for advice and recommendations.
Next, you will need to book your visa Termin (appointment) with the Ausländerbehörde (visa office) immediately, as it will take 6-8 weeks to get an appointment. This can be completed online. If you are still on your tourist visa, this will extend your current visa (though you will not be legally allowed to work in Germany yet) and also allows you time to complete the checklist of requirements for the appointment. Make sure your tourist visa hasn’t expired yet though!
By now, you should have found somewhere to live permanently and will need to register your address with the Bürgeramt. You can book an appointment online and may have to wait up to six weeks for an appointment. You will need to show your lease or a letter from your friend that you’re officially staying with them (no Airbnb’s, though they’re a dirty word in Berlin these days!). This document is vital for your visa application and you can not go to your visa appointment without it.
Lastly, you will need to have found a private health insurance provider to use (such as ALC Health), as you will not be able to use the German healthcare system. There are strict requirements here to meet German standards and many overseas or cheap travel insurance options will not be acceptable. Be sure to check before committing to one or choosing the cheapest option.
2) Determine your business plan
Now is the time to really deep dive into why you’re here in Berlin and what you aim to achieve in the next one to two years. Develop a business plan and determine your service offerings and packages. (Here are some tips for packaging your services.)
If you haven’t done so already, sign up to some freelancing platforms like CloudPeeps and apply for roles immediately. Research the local job opportunities in Berlin and EU/UK, and confirm some potential clients to work with once you have your visa confirmed. These connections will assist you with your visa application (more on this below).
Join Facebook groups and Slack communities (such as Buffer, Tech London, Berlin Startup Slack Group, NomadList) to explore other potential opportunities and attend various meetups locally to start building your profile and get your name out there!
3) Compile documentation
For your visa appointment, you need to prove that you’re capable of finding work and supporting yourself — and ultimately, be a super addition to the city! There are differing views on what to take in, often dependent on your career role (and whether they will understand it). There are mandatory items though. Here is what is recommended and what I had prepared for my initial appointment:
- Visa application form (completed) – “Antrag auf Erteilung eines Aufenthaltstitels” (Application for Issuance of a Residence Permit)
- Official registration form – “Anmeldung”
- Proof of health insurance – Must meet German standards (Ladies, you’ll need to be covered for female specific medical assistance, such as pregnancy, too)
- Valid passport (with more than six months validity)
- Cover letter: essentially a mission statement of what you do and why you’re interested in working in Germany
- Curriculum vitae
- Copies of your degrees
- Portfolio of your work: printed and presenting some examples of the kind of work you do
- Letters of recommendation/reference (4-5 if possible): original and translated versions
- Letters of intention from clients to work with you (4-5 if possible): original and translated versions must be supplied, letters or contracts either in or outside of Germany is acceptable, must be less than 25 hours for any role (or its considered a full-time job).
- Bank statements: Copies of your bank accounts to prove you meet a minimum of 9,000 euros (which is considered enough to live on in Berlin for one year, seriously!) The more money you can show, the better case you have. Financial security is vital.
- Revenue forecast & financial plan: Basically show that you have considered how you will fund your time in Berlin.
On the day:
- Two current biometric photos
- Application fee (they have a machine that takes credit cards but I recommend coming with cash)
Aim to provide all this documentation in a very organized and professional manner (you’re not the first or last application they’ll see that day!). Don’t forget to take copies of your application for your records before your appointment as well. The easier and more organized you make it for them, the faster your application will be reviewed and (hopefully) accepted!
4) The appointment
Be sure to arrive early at theAusländerbehörde, as it is a huge and confusing building and you’ll need time to find your country’s area and maneuver amongst all of the people here (it’s always crazy busy!). Come prepared with your native speaker professional (or friend), be confident and friendly, and most importantly, be patient. This is not the place to lose your cool or get frustrated.
The appointment will be conducted mostly in German and will take 10-15 minutes as the officer reviews your application. If there is anything they’re not clear on, your application will be sent onto relevant staff and you will be sent home to wait until further notice.
If your temporary visa extension is about to expire and you still haven’t heard anything about your visa, book another online appointment just to be sure. As long as your visa hasn’t expired when you make the online booking, it automatically gets extended until your online appointment.
How long will your visa take? Received on-the-day, one month, two months, up to six months — there’s no consistency here and will depend on your application. All I can say is: keep following up (through a German speaker) and be patient. They will get back to you.
5) Post-application steps
Once you have your visa (hurray!), you will need to swiftly set up a tax file number and seek the advice of a local German accountant to assist you. VAT, local tax laws, your starting tax level and more; these are all questions you’ll need to determine with your accountant and will need to start invoicing and working in Germany. Get your head around the tax system as quickly as you can and understand any tax requirements for your home country.
Lastly, you will need to set up a bank account (business and personal) locally (preferably with your native speaking friend) to start using for your business. Be sure to check about fees and requirements with opening an account with a German bank. Good choices are Sparkasse (low fees) or Deutsche Bank (English options), though more freelancers are moving to online banks such as N26 instead as they are freelancer and self-employed focused (now also with a new beta business account option).
The freelance visa is an exciting and simple way to launch your freelancing career while living in one of the world’s most creative and affordable cities. If you do your research, get organized well in advance and have patience, the visa process can be relatively smooth and painless. And once you receive the visa in your passport, it’s a great feeling knowing you have the next few years to enjoy the city while focusing on growing your global business — all from continental Europe!
Have questions about applying for the freelance visa in Berlin? Leave them in the comments below!
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