Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Studying in Germany - Arrival

Disclaimers: I graduated from the University of Stuttgart in October 2005. A lot of things have/could have changed since then. Most of the information is obviously from my own experience in Stuttgart and from my current stay in Munich. Although other cities in Germany are not drastically different, there could be a lot of city-specific information that I am missing. In short, please google for detailed information. Here is one such link I found - http://www.justlanded.com/english/Germany/Germany-Guide

If this is 'arrival', then obviously there is an article before this and you can read it here.

The first step would be to check your university website for A-Z FAQs. You might be able to find even email ids of senior students who can give you up-to-date information. Here is an example: http://www.ia.uni-stuttgart.de/internat/services/index.en.html

Below given is a list of things you would have to do once you get here. Since many Universities have an orientation program that begins a month before semester begins, to help international students settle down, learn the language and get comfortable with their surroundings. Do not miss this orientation, its a lot of fun and it makes life a lot easier when you are running from lecture to lab to shopping to cafeteria if you atleast know where everything is !

Weather: If you are from a place where the coldest it gets is 20 deg C, then the weather in Germany will surprise you. There are 4 seasons and hence 4 different sets of jackets, clothing and shoes that go with them ! Do not try and buy everything in India, just have a couple of sweaters, a jacket (do not buy a leather one, is very difficult to maintain especially in rain and snow), some thermal undergarments and you can buy the rest here.

Airport to University: Check if the universities have an airport pick-up service. If there is none available, do not panic. All airports in Germany are well connected to cities by means of railway networks and/or public transport. The airport website will have detailed information about it. Here is one example - www.munich-airport.de/EN/ . The 'getting to the airport' section will give you clear information. Besides this, there are always 'Information Counters' in any airport or railway station marked by an "i", also known as "i-punkt".

If you are arriving in Frankfurt and are catching a train to another city, there is a railway station right at the airport. The train availability and price can be obtained from http://www.bahn.de/ . You can also book a ticket online. Note: Please allow a couple of hours for customs, immigration, baggage claim while booking the ticket. Since trains from the airport are always full, getting 'seat reservation' will be a smart idea. Seat reservation can be done at an extra cost of 3 euro per train.

If you have already reserved for accommodation, make sure you know where to pick up the keys from. Send an email with your time of arrival to the concerned person.

Avoid arriving on a weekend since all offices are closed from friday afternoon to monday morning. NO SHOPS ARE OPEN ON A SUNDAY ! All shops close at 8 pm on working days and much earlier on a saturday depending on where you live.

Here is a link to the welcoming service offered by the University of Stuttgart - http://www.ia.uni-stuttgart.de/internat/services/welcoming/index.en.html

Accommodation: As soon as you get your admission letter, start hunting for accommodation information. Most Universities will have student apartments on campus known as 'Studentenwohnheim'. These are usually studio apartments or WG (Wohngemeinschaft). In case of a WG, 3 or more students will share a huge apartment. While the living room, kitchen and bathroom are shared, each student will have his/her own bedroom. Note: Europeans are very touchy about their personal space, so forget the concept of sharing your bedroom with someone.

The 'Studentenwohnheim' is generally reasonably priced. It would save you time in commuting to and from the campus plus it is always a 'happening' place where there is always something going on, to get rid of your loneliness. Even if you decide on staying elsewhere, do so only if you already know someone who can help you find a place or after a few months of staying in Germany, when you have had enough time to settle down.

Formalities: You will get a list of things that should be completed on your arrival in Germany. Your program co-ordinators will offer help to do this. Here is a brief description of those formalities
  • Anmeldung: Roughly translated as ‘Registration’. You go to the cityhall (Rathaus or Bürgerbüro), show them a copy of your lease and register yourself as a resident of that city. This address will then be used for all official correspondence you get – welcoming package, tax information etc. This will also be the right time to get your Lohnsteuerkarte (Tax cards). Students pay taxes too, but very little compared to the regular tax system in Germany and for this you need to submit your tax card to your employer. Note: This ‘Anmeldung’ will be regarded as a proof of your address when you try to open a bank account or get your visa extended. So keep this safely until you move to a different place.
  • Bank Account: The easiest option is to open a bank account in a bank closest to the University. However you might want to consider a bank that has branches all over Germany. For example, LBBW (Landesbank Baden Württemberg) has branches only in the state BW (Baden Württemberg). Unless you want to do everything online, this bank account will not work if you move out of this state after your studies. Also, choose online banking (and telephone banking) while you open the account. Except cash withdrawal (duh!?), everything can be done online - money transfers locally and internationally, checking account balance, applying for a loan etc. This will save you a lot of time and trouble since Banks are open exactly during your lecture hours ! Note: Do not forget to deposit the DD and travelers cheques you brought with you. Also keep some cash with you for some intial expenses. Thereafter, you can pay for most things using a debit card (NOT credit card), also commonly known as EC Karte.
  • Immatrikulation: Now that you have a bank account, you can finally start paying ! Naturally the first thing you pay is the semester fee and you have to enrol at the University and get your student id. This is called Immatrikulation. You have to fill in some forms, submit your documents along with the fee receipt to do this. Beside the student id, you will also get what is known as ''Studienbescheinigung''. This is a small slip of paper indicating your name, student id number and the semester. This would be asked for in a number of places where you have to prove that you are a student. While the student id is valid for 2 years, these slips are issued anew every semester. Note: Remember, the student id is your golden card for discounts everywhere. So never go anywhere without it !!
  • Krankenversicherung: Health Insurance (or Krankenversicherung) is mandatory for every resident in Germany. As a student, you have really subsidised rates, around 60-70 euro per month and some of the common Insurance providers are TK, AOK. Again, students usually choose the closest one ! All you would need is your passport, student id and proof of address.
  • Visa Extension: The student visa obtained before arriving in Germany will usually be valid for 3 months. Before it expires, you have to go to the Ausländerbehörde (International Office), fill in a form, show your documents - enrolment, address proof, health insurance and pay a fee of 40-60 euro to get your visa extended. usually the visa is given for a year at the end of which you have to do this process again. this is done to ensure that you are indeed still a student and that you are actually studying at the University like you claimed before. Note: Be warned that there is a lot of paperwork in the first 2 weeks and it might be frustrating but once its done, everything else will go on like clockwork !
Food and Shopping: Saturday is called Einkaufstag (Shopping day) since all stores remain closed on sunday (its God's day and you are supposed to pray !). Students usually hit stores like Lidl, Penny Markt and Aldi that offer groceries at subsidised rates (more or less like Walmart) for regular supplies like cereal, milk, yoghurt, frozen vegetables (Fresh vegetables are not available all the time in these stores), fruits etc. and then go once a month or fortnight to the Indian stores for supplies like Dal, Rice, Masala. Your seniors will be able to tell you where these stores are located, which of them is cheaper (Srilankan, Bangladeshi, Pakistani stores are all there in many places and they interestingly always have desi names and sell desi items).

Shopping for electronics in Germany is not a great idea because of the 19% sales tax. If you must have a laptop, then bring one from India or ask your friend/cousin to get one from Singapore or the States. However, you can find deals online or sometimes within your university where there are always special offers for students.

Communication: With developments in technology, this is really not as challenging or as expensive as it used to be. The cheapest option is naturally the various VoIP services available where PC to phone calls are free or costs 3-5 cents per minute. Check out justvoip.com or nonoh.net for more information. This obviously means you need an internet connection or actually a computer to begin with. It is pretty easy to find second hand computer deals from students who are graduating or rising to the level of owning a laptop :D.

  • Internet: All universities will have WiFi in public areas - mostly everywhere in the campus and in some case in libraries, cafeteria and classrooms. Also, you will have computer centres where you can go and browse, print etc. Student dormitories will have cheap internet connections that cost 10-15 euro per month.
  • Mobile and SIM: Getting a post-paid SIM on a 2 year contract will probably be the cheapest option. In such a contract you can virtually get a mobile phone for free (obviously not the iphone 3G !! asai dosai appalam vadai !!). Pre-paid cards are far too expensive and is an option only if you have a landline number and you want to use your mobile as a ''for-emergencies'' device.
Germany's mobile network o2 has this cool option where your mobile phone will also be assigned a ''local'' number similar to a landline within your home zone (this is a 5km radius with your home address being the centre). In this zone, all calls from and to your phone are billed at the same rate as that of a landline. Note: There are multiple flat-rate options available, so google and ask around before you decide on a plan.

  • Calling cards: Calling cards are really outdated now and I have not used one in the last 2 years but this could still be a mode of communication when the internet fails you. You can usually buy them in the desi stores. Trial and error will tell you which ones are good but it usually costs 4 euro for a 1 hr calling card (that usually lasts 40 min and even less if you make multiple calls using the same card).
Traveling: This is probably the best part of being in Europe, you take a wrong turn and you are in a different country. A schengan visa allows you to go to 14 countries (or more, the list keeps growing) and since you have a residence in a schengan country you are allowed to visit Switzerland as well. As a student, you get discounts in train tickets, tourist places entrances etc and you can stay in youth hostels that cost 30 euro a night and visit places you have only heard of in books or seen in Bond movies.

The public transport system in Germany is one of the best and you can reach any nook or corner of Germany without a car. Semester tickets are available for students. Even otherwise, weekend tickets, group tickets (where 5 people can travel with 1 ticket) make traveling pretty cheap.

Driving: If you get an international license, you can drive here for the first 3 months and then you need to get a license here. Getting a license can be very expensive (around 800-1000 euro) and so students never get a license until they graduate and find a job. If you already have a license in India, then you can ''change'' it to a german license within the first 3 years. This 'conversion' process also requires you to take a theory and a practical driving test but you will not be required to practice for a specified number of hours. Beginners should complete atleast 9 hours in the Auto-bahn (highways with no speed limits in select areas) with a driving school before registering for the driving test. Each hour costs 45 euro and hence you can save a minimum of 400 euro if you already know how to drive. Note: If you have time before leaving, learn driving and get a license.

I jotted down information that I think would be useful. If you have any specific questions, leave a comment.

Welcome to Germany and Do India proud ! Good Luck !
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