03 February, 2014

I'm Officially a German Resident!

Today was the big day: I finally picked up my shiny new German ID card! This card serves as my residence permit, or Aufenthaltstitel, for the remainder of my stay as an au pair in Germany.

I've been waiting to finally get my residence permit for months now. The process for an au pair visa (which isn't given as a visa in the passport anymore but as a residence card) is supposed to go like this:
  • Schedule an appointment with the Ausländerbehörde (alien registration office) 
  • Go to appointment with required paperwork (au pair contract, copy of passport, proof of health insurance, proof of residence in Karlsruhe)
  • Wait a few weeks for papers to be processed
  • Return to Ausländerbehörde to pay the residence permit fee
  • Wait a few more weeks for card to be printed
  • Return a third time to pick up card

Total wait time: approx. 6-8 weeks.

This isn't exactly how the process progressed for me. There were several more bumps and delays along the way.

First of all, one of the stated requirements for obtaining an au pair permit in German is a basic ability to speak and understand German (at least level A1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages; more info about the CEFR can be found HERE). For that reason I decided not to apply for my residence permit right away but to wait at least until I was enrolled in a German class and had learned a little bit. It turns out that I needn't have bothered waiting, since they never once asked me to prove my German ability and for the first two appointments a German speaker went with me. People say that for Americans and other people from English-speaking countries they don't care as much about the language requirement. 

While I was waiting for the above-mentioned German skills to develop, and after registering my name and address with the city (something that everyone who moves anywhere in Germany has to do) in early September, I received a packet in the mail from the city. Inside was a visa application, which, I was told, I needed to fill out and return. (I'm technically only allowed to stay here for 90 days without applying for residency.) I was confused when I got this form, because I thought I had to make the first move and make an appointment with the Ausländerbehörde myself. I talked it over with my host mom and we decided to fill out the form and return it with the necessary documents, and also make an appointment.

My appointment was in mid-October. It was quick and easy, since they already had most of my paperwork. I was told it would be a short wait, maybe a few weeks, and I would receive a letter when I could come back and pay for the residence permit.

Then the waiting started. I waited a few weeks, and then a few more. My host mom and I both emailed the Ausländerbehörde to ask what was going on, and my host mom tried calling a few times. Finally she got someone on the phone, and she found out that the office that was supposed to process my paperwork had forgotten to send it to someone else (or something), but that everything was progressing again now. This was sometime around mid-December, fully two months after my first appointment. 

Another week or two later, I was given an appointment for early January, at which I would pay for my residence permit. I went with my friend Robert (so he could translate things for me if I didn't understand), I paid the fee, and I was told to wait another 3 weeks until my residence card had been printed and was ready to pick up. (Waiting is the major theme with this process, if that wasn't already clear.) When I got confirmation that my card was ready, I scheduled an appointment online to pick it up.

That appointment was earlier today. I was called from the waiting room exactly on time (maybe even a couple minutes early), the signing of forms and receiving of card took about 45 seconds, and I was on my way. FINALLY, I have everything in order and can prove that I'm an official, legal resident of Germany. Imagine that, I'm almost a real German!

Total wait time: approx. 15 weeks.

Amid all of that confusion, there was another curiosity about my visa: I'm fairly certain I was given a normal work permit and not an au pair visa (these are supposed to be separate things). I think because I filled out the general visa application and not the au pair application, my visa was processed as a normal work permit (or maybe they've changed the rules and au pair visas are now all processed as work permits, but I don't think so). This had an unforeseen but positive side effect: I now have a residence permit that is valid until December of 2014, almost four months longer than I was expecting. Here's why: since for my first 90 days here I was technically still on a tourist visa, my residence permit didn't become valid until the middle of December. And since work permits are only issued for a minimum of one year, I now have legal residency from December 2013 until December 2014. This gives me options after September, when my au pair contract is complete: I can either stay several months longer with my host family or spend some time traveling in Europe (subject to financial conditions) before heading back to the States for Christmas.

Final conclusions: German bureaucracy is just as aggravating as in any country. Even in a place that has a reputation for being efficient, there are bound to be bugs in the system, and apparently I was one of them. However, despite the long wait between appointments and the difficulty of contacting someone without going to the office in person, I have to say the experience in the office itself was very positive and the appointments were always very quick. All in all, there are worse countries to try to get residency in (I'm looking at you, Spain).

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