09 May, 2016

Getting a Student Visa in Germany

Image source: pixabay

Today I finally got my shiny new residence card! After walking around the past month with an expired one (through no fault of my own) it's nice to finally be fully legal again. I had already submitted all the paperwork almost two months ago, so today was just the pickup appointment. As expected, everything went fine! Phew! This has not always been the case, so it was a relief to have no issues.

Since I've gotten questions here and there from other would-be international students asking for advice on universities, visas and other logistics of being an international in Germany, I've decided now is a good time to write a how-to post about getting a student visa.

Despite the difficulties I had the first time getting my student visa, the process in Germany is actually not that difficult. You simply have to make sure you have the correct forms in hand and your appointment should go just fine. So what are these forms exactly?

To apply for a student visa in Germany, you will need:

  • a completed visa application form
  • proof of enrollment at a German university
  • proof of health insurance coverage
  • a copy of your Anmeldebestätigung
  • enough money to cover your living expenses for the duration of the visa OR proof of a scholarship
  • your passport
  • a biometric passport photo
  • the visa fee in cash

Please note that this information is valid if you are applying for your student visa once you are already in Germany. Citizens of some countries, including the United States, can enter Germany without a prior visa, like I did, and then apply for a student visa from Germany while still legally a "tourist." Whether you are allowed to do this or not will depend on your citizenship. I cannot guarantee that the procedures, paperwork or fees that I describe here will be valid for people applying for a student visa at a consulate or embassy outside of Germany, although I suspect they are similar.

Let's go through those requirements one by one:

Completed visa application form

Before your appointment you will have to print and fill out a visa application form. This is a two-page document in which you fill in your name, address, type and length of visa desired and answer a bunch of questions about your situation. You can find the current form here (current as of April 2016, no guarantees for validity in the future).

Proof of enrollment at a German university

In order to be approved for a student visa, you will need to have applied to, been accepted to and confirmed that you will attend a Germany university for the following semester (or year). Once you've been accepted, confirming attendance is usually as simple as submitting a form and transferring the semester fee in full to the university. I won't cover the application process in this post; my best advice for the application process is to contact the university/universities you are considering attending and asking them about their application process and requirements. 

Once you have accepted your place at the university, you will receive or be able to download and print your Immatrikulationsbescheinigung (certificate of enrollment). You will need to bring this piece of paper with you to your visa appointment.

Proof of health insurance coverage

Once you have your Zulassungsbescheid (acceptance letter) from your university of choice, you will be able to enroll in Germany's public health insurance system at a fraction of the regular cost. The monthly premium for Germany's Krankenkassen (public health insurance providers) is usually a percentage of your income, but as a student you get a fixed, affordable rate. I currently pay just 80 euros per month for the most comprehensive medical coverage I've ever had, so as a student don't miss out on this amazing deal. There are private insurance plans out there, but they will be much more expensive so don't even bother worrying about those.

Enrolling in the health insurance system is fairly straightforward. You simply choose which Krankenkasse you would like to sign up with, sign the paperwork and send it in with your Zulassungsbescheid and any other documents they ask for, and you will receive written confirmation of insurance coverage within a few weeks. You will need to bring this written confirmation to your visa appointment with you. 

There are dozens of Krankenkassen to choose from, but try not to get too overwhelmed. They all offer a basic level of coverage that is mandated by law, and the only differences between them are small variations in price and which extra services (for example, Traditional Chinese Medicine) are covered. I decided to choose the cheapest one, but the choice is up to you. There are several websites that will help you compare prices and services, one of which is krankenkassenvergleich.de (only in German, unfortunately I couldn't find a comparison site in English). You can submit the paperwork to the Krankenkasse yourself or you can go through an insurance agent at no extra cost.

Copy of your Anmeldebestätigung

When moving anywhere within Germany, you will have to register your address with the Bürgeramt. This is an entirely different process from the visa application, which you can read more about here. When you register your address you will receive a certificate known as an Anmeldebestätigung, which you will need to bring to your visa appointment. You will also need this certificate to get health insurance and to enroll at the university (among other things), so make sure you register as soon as you arrive in Germany. For me the Anmeldebestätigung was not required to renew my visa, but I can't guarantee that this is the case everywhere so when in doubt, bring it with you!

Enough money for living expenses OR proof of a scholarship

This is very important: although you'll hear people say that university in Germany is free (it's not), you will still have to pay your own living expenses! The minimum estimate for the cost of living for a student for one year is 8000 euros, so you will have to prove that you have at least this much money (or access to it) for each year that you would like your visa to be valid for. You can prove this in a few ways. By far the easiest way is to bring a bank statement from a German bank account in your name with a balance of 8000 euros or more (note that this is the bare minimum and I would highly recommend having more than that if possible). Another way is to get someone currently living in Germany to sponsor you, which basically means they promise to cover your expenses or assist you financially for the duration of your visa. (I don't know exactly how this works since this is not the situation I am in.) You can also provide proof of regular income from a job, but keep in mind you will only be able to work part-time while on a student visa.

Another way is to receive a scholarship that covers your expenses. There are a variety of scholarships available to international students, which can be found on the website of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, or DAAD). There is a search function that allows you to search for scholarships that you qualify for as well as plenty of other useful information about scholarships, working as a student and much more. (The search page is only in German, the other pages are also in English.)

Your passport

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure that your passport is valid for at least the length of time you would like a visa for and the six months after that. You don't need to bring a photocopy along if you don't want to, since they will photocopy everything there anyway.

A biometric passport photo

You will also need a passport-sized photo which meets biometric specifications. Don't let the word biometric scare you, it just means the photo has to meet certain requirements, the most important of which is the size: 36 mm wide by 45 mm tall. Note that this is NOT the same size as an American passport photo! You can get your photos taken at a photo studio or you can use one of the many biometric photo booths that allow you to take your own picture and print your photos instantly. More information about the photo requirements can be found here.

The visa fee in cash

The safest bet always when in Germany is to have cash, and a visa appointment is no exception. The fee for a new application last year in Hildesheim was 100 euros and the fee for a renewal this year was 80 euros. I would definitely do your research for the specific city you are applying in because the fees are subject to change. If you are receiving a scholarship the visa fee is waived.

Once you have your paperwork all set, it's time to move on to the next step:

Scheduling your visa appointment

You will need to schedule a visa application appointment with the Ausländerbehörde in the city where you will be living during your studies. Make sure you schedule your appointment well in advance, since many offices are booked solid for months and you will need to allow around six weeks after your appointment for your residence card to arrive.

Some cities allow you to schedule an appointment online, but some you will have to call. Your best bet is to search for the website of the Ausländerbehörde in the city where you will be studying and find out how they handle appointment scheduling.

The appointment itself

The appointment itself, if all goes well, should last around 10-15 minutes. It is usually fairly painless, and as long as you have all the required paperwork you will almost certainly be approved for the visa. (Unlike some countries that have quotas or limits for the number of visas they give out per year, Germany does not and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, issues visas to everyone who applies and fulfills the requirements.) Still, it can't help to be prepared, so here are some tips for some other-than-ideal scenarios:

  • if you do not speak German or your German is not very advanced, bring a native German speaker with you. The employees at the office should speak English, but there is no guarantee that they will speak it well.
  • if you have previously lived in a different city in Germany, you may run into problems. When I applied the first time in Hildesheim, they didn't want to accept my application because they needed to first check that I didn't have a police record in Karlsruhe, where I had lived before. If something like this happens, stand your ground! Especially if time is running short, don't leave the office until they have accepted your paperwork, because the fact of the matter is they don't need to wait for the records check in order to accept your papers, they usually just want to get out of doing any work so will claim they "can't do anything for you." Don't fall for it. This is a situation where having a native German speaker to advocate for you in flawless German will help your case.
After you've identified yourself and handed over your paperwork (which they will then photocopy and maybe return to you), they will take the fingerprints of each index finger, have you sign some forms, take your money and inform you that you residence card will be ready in around six weeks. Then they will just send it to you, right? Wrong.

The pick-up

Rather than doing the easy thing and sending your residence card directly to you, the printer in Berlin will send your card to the Ausländerbehörde where you applied and you will have to go pick it up. They do this supposedly so that they can explain the electronic capabilities of your card to you in person, but since no one ever uses the electronic functions of the card anyway it's a pretty useless endeavor. Regardless, they will send you a letter approximately six weeks from the date of your original appointment telling you a date and time to come back and pick up your card. You show up at that time, they hand over your card, you sign some more stuff, and voila! You are now a legal resident of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland! Congratulations! Now time to hit the books!

Image source: pixabay

Visa duration

Now that I've gone through the student visa application process I'd like to say a quick word about the duration of the visa. There seem to be no set rules for how long or short of a time period a student visa in Germany is issued for, and at least in my case they based the duration of my visa on how much money I had. They saw that I would be able to support myself for a year with the finances I showed them, so they issued my visa for one year (after telling me to write "2-3 years" in the space on the application form asking for desired duration of visa. There really is no system here). As a result, I've had to renew my visa, but this time, with a similar financial situation, I've been issued a renewal for two years. It honestly is just up to the individual who processes your paperwork, so don't panic if the visa you are issued is valid for more or less time than you were expecting. 

I hope this post has been helpful! If you are considering or are in the process of applying for a student visa in Germany and have unanswered questions, please let me know in the comments and I will do my very best to answer them.

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