Welcome to the jungle – a short bureaucracy guide for new international PhD students in Bonn

(image from colourbox.com/ Galyna Andrushko

Bureaucracy – sounds painful? Bureaucracy in Germany – even more painful? Bureaucracy in Germany when you don’t know German – aw, that really hurts!

Almost three years ago when I came to Germany, the amount of documents written in a mysterious code made of weird clumps of letters stuck together in an endless row made me learn the word Enttäuschung (German for disappointment and frustration). I had no clue which documents I needed to get my student ID and where to get them. Additionally, in some offices here people are shy like an ugly horse when it comes to speaking English (few times people pretended not to speak English until they realized I was not lying about how crappy my German was). And here I figured out the first helpful thing to do – when approaching bureaucrats first ask in German (actually the worse it is the better). That will make them realize that their English is better than your German and they will often switch to it with a smile. They will appreciate you are trying. Then I discovered that I needed to be a pain in the butt for my fellow German PhD students and I had to bother them with questions: Can you translate it for me? Can you call this person? This is my paycheck – am I in the right tax group? etc. Although I felt really stupid asking for such basic things it also felt really nice to experience how helpful, understanding and patient people here can be!

(image from colourbox.com)

What I was still missing was a checklist. Which documents I needed to fill out and where to get them. I promised myself that after I will get through this endless jungle of documents I will write everything down and publish it somewhere for the better future of new international PhD students in Bonn. But, as soon as I was done with all the nonsense I didn’t want to think about it anymore. Now, enough time has passed and my conscience still bothers me so here is the checklist. Now, don’t sue me if something is missing! It was almost three years ago after all. But I hope it will still be helpful!

  1. Never ever forget to ask: What documents do I need and how do I get them? (Welche Dokumente benötige ich und wie bekomme ich sie?)
  2. Sign the contract (kind of obvious, but just to be systematic)
  3. Find health insurance company (Krankenversicherung – it is good to ask someone for advice, e.g. your co-workers or someone from human resources can suggest one)
  4. If it is not done automatically, find a retirement company (Rentenversicherung – ask around as well)
  5. Have a B2 level English exam (you need it to register as a student and to get your student ID, which allows you to use public transportation for free, but you don’t need it to start working)
  6. Register (Anmeldung) in the city hall (Stadthaus) within 2 weeks of moving into your apartment
  7. Create a bank account (for this you need to have a proof that you live in Bonn – so the document from Stadthaus)
  8. Make sure that your tax group (Steuerklasse) is correct (automatically you get assigned to a group in which you pay the most taxes and you need to talk to the human resources to change it. Otherwise you can end up paying around 300 Euro more a month. But once you straighten that out the Finanzamt (Tax Office) will send it all back to you, so don’t worry – you are not losing this money)
  9. Register as a PhD student (B2 exam required) in Promotionsbüro (for Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences). Make sure to call them or email them in advance to ask which documents exactly you need so you don’t end up going back and forth
  10. Get the proof of your health insurance from your insurance company (Strangely enough health insurance ID is not a proof – a piece of paper that looks like you could print it at home is)
  11. With a document of approval from Promotionsbüro and health insurance proof you need to go to Studentensekretariat to get your temporary student ID and your real student ID will be mailed to you.
  12. If you’ll work with biological material you will need your HBV antibody titer and/or vaccination proof. They can vaccinate you or check the titers at the Betriebsarzt, but you won’t be able to enter S2 (safety danger 2) area until you get the permission from the doctor.

The list may be longer but these are the most important steps. Good luck!

(image from colourbox.com)

Of course, if you don’t have our fancy EU-citizenship you’ll have to try harder. You will need to get a visa first. This is what my friend from Taiwan needed in addition:

  1. A letter of acceptance (Zulassung) from the German professor to get a short-term visa.
  2. Short-term visa (3 months).
  3. With this short-term visa you can come to Germany and enroll to the university
  4. Once you enroll you get your student ID
  5. The blue A4 part of your small pink ID (you will know what I mean when you see it) will be needed in Ausländeramt where you can prolong your visa.

And, naturally there are other documents you may need for the visa, but I imagine they differ depending on your country of origin. So, never ever forget to ask: What documents do I need and how do I get them?

P.S. Sounds unbelievable, but eventually you will be done with it 🙂

(featured image: photo from colourbox.com/PetraD)

Author: Kasia Jobin