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    Two Years Ago, I Moved From The US To Europe — Here's How I Did It & My Advice For Those Wanting A Similar Change

    Plus, my advice for anyone considering a similar life change.

    Hey all! I'm Michelle, and I'm an American currently living in Berlin, Germany. Ever since I moved here two years ago (and wrote all about it), a lot of BuzzFeed readers have reached out to me directly. They've been curious about what inspired such a big move, or how, logistically, I even did it. To help anyone considering a similar change, I wanted to outline exactly how it all went down.

    Michelle No / BuzzFeed

    I moved in 2019 — aka pre-pandemic times. And while the execution might look a little different for anyone attempting a cross-continental move today, my hope is that sharing my experience will still prove useful to anyone trying to navigate the same process.

    First things first: As for what motivated me to even start thinking of moving, I'll be honest — for the most part, I was just done with living in an overpriced and loud city. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    A gray and foggy aerial view of the financial district in New York
    Imagedepotpro / Getty Images

    I had been living in New York City for seven years, and had been feeling — for at least two of those years — that my time in that city was coming to an end. There were a few elements of NYC that were starting to really wear on me, including a lack of affordable housing, the stress of commuting in a crowded subway, the noise (my god, the NOISE), and the crowds. 

    I think I would have been able to weather most of those things, if only I had had a normal-sized apartment to come home to. But even on my decent staff journalist's salary, the best I could ever afford was a tiny ground-level studio apartment that was surrounded by loud neighbors vacuuming or blasting music, and construction work at all hours of the day. It always felt like the city was designed to nourish the rich and make the rest of the 99% feel perpetually disconnected from basic comforts. 

    It was pretty clear to me from the start that I'd never stay in New York long-term — just long enough to get my writing career started and experience NYC living. So I had already planted the seeds for my eventual move a long time ago — the only thing left was to find my next perfect home. 

    So of all places I could move to from NYC, why did I pick Berlin? There are plenty of reasons. But if I had to pick one, it'd be the quality of life.

    Writer's bike parked right next to a lake, with text reading, "Day trip to the lake, check"
    Michelle No / BuzzFeed

    I discovered Berlin on a weeklong trip here a few years back and instantly fell in love with it. And when I say "love," I really mean someone told me they were paying 600 euros for their one-bedroom apartment. 

    There's also the fact that Berlin has the most parks in (probably) the whole country, a low cost of living relative to New York, a creative scene, designated bike lanes across the whole city, and very importantly, silence. I remember a friend commenting that as soon as she stepped foot in Berlin, she felt that she had to start whispering. And perhaps it's not that Berlin is a quiet city (though Sunday is a sacred and quiet day) — but more that I had become so used to such high decibels of white noise in New York that Berlin felt like a library. 

    Besides all these obvious draws, I also had an insane curiosity for what life in Berlin would be like. I remember looking out of my Airbnb one day, at all the locals enjoying their coffees below, and feeling an incredible lust for their lives. I wanted their access to Berlin and all its green spoils. I wanted to be a Berliner. 

    Before considering Berlin, I had thought about simply moving back to where I'd grown up (Los Angeles), or to another American city. I didn't want to move to LA because I knew I had at least one more adventure in me — and I knew that if I moved home, it would be much harder to leave again. 

    As for the other American cities — I'm not sure why, but I never felt a pull to any of the places I visited. In hindsight, I think that's because I wanted to live someplace that pushed me a little more outside my comfort zone. 

    I knew it'd be challenging to move abroad, but I also knew that as a single, healthy person in my 20s, there was no better time than now to act on my dreams.

    The writer holding her hands out in the middle of a verdant Berlin forest
    Michelle No / BuzzFeed

    First of all, I should mention that I've lived abroad before. I was born and partly raised in Italy, and then moved to the States when I was still in elementary school. As someone who's been an immigrant in two different countries, I've learned resilience, endurance, emotional intelligence, and code-switching between three cultures (Korean, Italian, and American). Being a foreigner has been the hardest thing in my life, but it's also taught me endless real-world skills that I knew would serve me if I chose to move again. 

    In addition to a lifetime of preparing for an intercontinental move, I knew that my window of opportunity for dropping my whole life for a risky move was slim. I was a healthy person in my late 20s, without parental caretaking obligations, property to manage, kids or pets, or serious medical ailments that would require regular visits to special doctors. None of these life circumstances would preclude anyone from moving abroad — but the operational and mental roadblocks would definitely require more strategizing. 

    The unexpected, final push I needed to commit was my parents' excited support for my decision. They were giddy with the idea of me living in a country that they themselves had wanted to live in in their younger years, and secretly, I think they were looking forward to the opportunity of living vicariously through my experience.

    And though I was confident in my decision, I still felt scared by the uncertainty of whether I'd ever come back to the US.

    View of Berlin's TV tower, Berlin's main river, and other city landmarks with a sunset in the background
    Nikada / Getty Images

    Moving is an incredible privilege, but with great power comes great responsibility (sorry). 

    The one caveat I gave myself to moving was telling myself that I would try living here for an absolute minimum of five years, if not indefinitely. I'm a dreamer, but I'm also a realist, and knew that uprooting my life would mean that I might also have to postpone other life goals of mine, including starting a family or publishing a book. So I told myself that to give myself the chance to have those things and make this transcontinental move, I'd commit to staying here for at least five years. 

    Two years in (and having lived 1.5 of that time during the pandemic), I feel like I'm finally getting a sense of life here and can picture a future here long-term. But my family and many loved ones are still in the States, so I don't think I'll ever close the door to returning to the US. 

    *HOW I DID IT*

    So once I decided to actually make the move, I knew there were a few tedious (but essential!) necessities I had to figure out 😩. I'm talking about 1. 💸Money💸 and 2. 📄A visa📄

    Comedy Central

    Money-wise, I did not have much of a financial cushion. I hardly had any savings, and no family money. I knew that my move to Berlin would hinge on me finding a job BEFORE I moved there.

    CBC

    Between paying for my overpriced Brooklyn apartment, paying off student loan debt and medical bills, and the high cost of just breathing and existing in NYC, I had not saved that much money by the time I decided to move. In fact, I'd gone into a lot of credit card debt (I'll save these details for another story, another day 😅). As someone who grew up in a completely self-made immigrant family, I also didn't have family wealth to rely on.

    But I did have one huge privilege: When I visited Berlin in 2019, I was able to work out of BuzzFeed's Berlin office for three months. This meant that I was able to start applying for and interview at companies, in real life, around the city. I was fortunate enough to find a job within weeks of looking — but I know it can take much longer for people with less work experience or looking for jobs in more crowded sectors. (More info on applying for jobs remotely later in the post.)

    If it's any reassurance: I may not have had much when I first moved here, but in my second year, I've saved more money than I ever did in my seven years in NYC. The difference might not feel as stark for someone coming from a smaller US town, but as someone who's only lived in major American cities, I knew I'd actually be saving money by living here. Here's a pretty accurate range of the cost of living in Berlin in 2021

    To reside in the Berlin for more than three months*, I had to secure a visa — and that was an obstacle, to say the least.

    Comedy Central

    For me, the legal and bureaucratic hurdle of securing a visa was the most stressful part of moving abroad. 

    It's especially difficult in Germany, where a lack of digitalization means that a lot of the information and step-by-steps you need to get a visa is exceptionally hard to find. 

    I was able to secure a visa through the job I found, but for the sake of transparency, I'll also outline the alternatives, and some resources you can use to help you in your search. 

    *Citizens of the United States with a valid US passport can travel to 26 European member countries of the Schengen Area for a maximum of 90 days

    From personal experience, here are the most popular types of visas:

    Netflix

    Among all the people in my social network, these are the three most popular visas that people applied for. Your situation might mean you're better suited for a blue card visa, a language-learning visa, or an au pair visa, and you can find information for those in the link below. For most of the visas, you will at the very least need to secure an apartment. 

    Work visa: This is the visa I got. To get this visa, you need a company that offers you a job. Once a company extends a job offer, they'll usually guide you through the application process and in many cases even accompany you to your visa appointment. If you're like me, you might be wondering, could I — a non-German speaker who is not an engineer/UX designer/other in-demand worker — find a job in a foreign city? To which my answer would be, your chances are probably higher than you might think, especially if you're a native English speaker and are willing to take a job in customer service or sales. For further reference, check out this list of skills in demand in Berlin. Linkedin and Berlin Startup Jobs are two great resources for starting your job search. And don't worry, most Berlin-based companies are happy to interview you from abroad, especially in a post-pandemic world. Read more about the requirements here

    Freelance visa: This visa is a little trickier to finagle, because it requires you to figure out a lot more bureaucratic components by yourself, without an HR team to hold your hand through it. Assuming that you have a marketable skill that you can live on (anything from teaching yoga, to graphic design, to sports coaching), you still have to check off three other big requirements to get this visa: 1) Find a flat you can register in your name, 2) secure at least two "letters of intent" from German-based entities, and 3) get health insurance. Also, if you're over 45, you have to prove you've got some form of a retirement plan. Most people struggle with #2 the most, because it requires you to network with German companies and find at least those two people to write you letters. Here are a few tips. Read more about the freelance visa requirements here

    Student visa: This one's the most straightforward and "easy," but obviously harder for people who have zero interest in attending university or people who need a full-time income. Read more about the requirements here

    There's also a six-month "job search" visa for people who want time to look for a job, and many, many more alternatives you can look through here (Google Translate will come in handy).

    Many Berliners — both foreign and national — know that the real test to settling in Berlin is finding a flat.

    Epix

    If you're fine living with roommates, then finding a flat will be significantly easier. Of course, you'll still have to beat out many applicants, but it's more within reach than trying to find a place to live in by yourself. You can start your research on eBay Kleinanzeigen (aka "eBay Classifieds"), which in Berlin is used less as a bidding website for niche goods, and more of a Craigslist-esque site for apartments and random goods. There's also WG-Gesucht and loads of Facebook groups dedicated to shared apartments.

    If you want to find a flat on your own, the difficulty level goes up. You need to get together many more documents, including a proof of stable income, a letter from your previous landlord confirming you have no rent debt, and a Schufa record. You can read all about those requirements here. The reality is that Berlin is going through a housing shortage, and has been for a while. Many public viewings will have giant crowds of people fighting for one spot. It took me about three months of looking and applying for flats to finally get one offer. 

    The most convenient strategy, IMO, is to find either a furnished flat or a shared flat first, and then once you've found a job, start your search for your own place. 

    *EXTRA TIPS*

    If you're still interested in moving, there ARE a few things you can do before and after you get here to make your life easier.

    I can be pretty stubborn, so I felt pretty undeterred by all the roadblocks mentioned above (finding a new job, a new flat, health insurance, etc.), I didn't see them as signs that I'd probably be better off staying put. More as annoying things I had to do before fulfilling my manifest destiny of living in Berlin. 😅

    There are a few things I wish I had done in advance to make my transition here easier. 

    The most simple thing you can do before making a big move is save as much money as possible.

    Bravo

    Expect that you'll spend at the very least 1,000 euros moving here as a single person, including a pricey flight (pro tip: Book a seat that includes lots of checked bags, instead of mailing yourself your stuff), visa application fees, a new phone contract, renting out a pricier-than-average flat, and food costs. You'll be leaking money going out for social dinners, and generally exploring your new city. And if you're unemployed, you'll need the funds to pay for rent, transportation, and food costs for the foreseeable future. 

    And importantly, you'll want as much money in the bank as possible when applying to flats to signal to landlords that you're financially stable and can support yourself. 

    You can survive in Berlin on English alone, but you'll need German to thrive. Start learning as soon as possible.

    TBS

    In the last two years I've lived here, I've taken almost a year's worth of classes, with a few months' break in between each level. Some people might wonder why my German is still so subpar, and most days, I wonder that and berate myself for it. 

    The fact is learning a new language is hard. Especially when you're trying to work a full-time job, exercise, feed yourself, and make a whole new group of friends from scratch. Apart from the logistics of trying to learn a new language, there's also the intense social anxiety of being a full-grown adult trying to do something so new, the shame of vulnerability, and above all (for me, at least), the anxiety of being a person of color speaking German and feeling intense imposter's syndrome. 

    My point is that learning German is hard when you're settling into a new country. Try and get as many classes in as possible before you move here, and you'll thank yourself for it later.   

    If you've deactivated your Facebook account, it might be time to get back on it. In Berlin, Facebook Groups are going to be your new Google search engine.

    CBS

    As I mentioned before, Germany is still living in the early 2000s when it comes to digitization. That means there's not a whole lot of straightforward information out there on simple questions like: Where you can buy a used washing machine? What you need to get a library card? Do you have to pay taxes in both the US and Germany as an American living abroad? (You don't, unless you earn above $107,600). Or sometimes it is out there, but you just don't know the right German-language keywords to google. 

    For all of those questions, I've often turned to Facebook. Groups like Free Advice Berlin, Berlin4Beginners, and Americans in Berlin have helped me crowdsource answers to so many questions I would never have known how to find answers to. It's a pity that being an out-of-the-loop foreigner means I literally can't disconnect from certain social media platforms — but it does help me understand what a privilege it is to have the option to unplug. 

    Accept that making friends as a late twentysomething will be a long process. But it will be worth it.

    And finally, prepare yourself for culture shock.

    The writer wearing a traditional dirndl, standing in front of a lush mountain top
    Michelle No / BuzzFeed

    Culture shock, in theory, simply means encountering a way of living, communicating, and thinking that's completely different than yours, and that can therefore disorient you. 

    In practice, for me, this meant encountering people who spoke insensitively on topics of sex and gender, getting used to everything being closed on Sundays, accepting that Berlin is a city filled with people constantly coming and going, and perhaps most frustratingly, experiencing a lot of casual racism. 

    I also surprised myself with all the American institutions I suddenly grew very homesick for, like Trader Joe's, national parks, and even my college. (Tip: One essential item I'd recommend bringing to recreate all your favorite recipes is measuring cups/tools!) But I've met a lot of fellow immigrants (and locals) who've helped me weather the homesick blues. 

    If this list of things to consider/do to move abroad seems overwhelming, then you're not alone!

    Nickelodeon

    First of all, consider that you probably had to do many of those things in the country you're living in now, including finding an apartment/house, making friends, finding a job, and getting health insurance. You probably just had a bit more resources available to you in the past, and most importantly, the support of others who've done all of it before. 

    If you can be patient with the process, then you can do it! Nothing has fanned my curiosity and contributed more to my understanding of the human experience than being a foreigner — and if a neurotic, anxious, emotionally high-maintenance person like me can do it, then you can too.

    And because you can never have too much support, here are some additional resources that helped me while going through this process.

    Facebook Groups:

    German Freelance Visa Help: If you're applying for a freelance visa, this group is filled with people who have done or are going through it.

    Berlin4Beginners: Regular COVID-19 updates and general questions about living in Berlin. 

    Americans in Berlin: American-specific inquiries about Berlin life (for example: Around Thanksgiving, expect lots of questions about where to find a good pie pan.)

    Berlin WG: One of the largest Berlin apartment Facebook Groups around. Loads of potential openings are posted on a daily basis. 

    Resources for BIPOC:

    Black Brown Berlin: An amazing resource for POC living in Berlin, including a database of businesses owned by POC. 

    BIWOC* Rising: A group offering mentoring, networking, and other career resources to BIWOC.

    Bureaucracy help:

    Settle in Berlin: A ton of free answers on bureaucratic Berlin questions, from how to get a German driver's license, to how to get a bank loan. 

    All About Berlin: One of the most holistic sites that helps people figure out all the essentials to Berlin life and guides people on how to fill out various forms.

    Career/Job Search Resources:

    Kununu: Like LinkedIn, but German. 

    Berlin Startup Jobs: A pretty regularly updated job search engine specific to the Berlin startup community. 

    Curious for more Berlin content? Follow my Berlin life on Instagram here.

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