It’s not easy. In typical American fashion, I walked into the Ausländerbehörde naively expecting to receive a visa to do freelance work as I pleased with little to no time or effort. Generally I’m not so confident in these sorts of situations, but judging from blog posts across the web from fellow artists (primarily in Berlin), it was going to be a cakewalk. Granted, maybe in 2004 it was easier, and Berlin is clearly a more art-and-design-friendly city than the mid-sized Baden-Württemberg town of Tübingen. Whatever the case, what followed was a multi-month struggle against the forces of bureaucracy and language barriers.
The following is my personal advice based on my recent (August 2012) experience applying for and obtaining a Freelance Artist Visa in Tübingen, Germany.
The process can be both frustrating and difficult, but it is certainly possible. Freelancing is less common in Germany, so you will need to work a little harder to convince the immigration authorities that you can make a living and take care of yourself without mooching off government social services.
Note: Once you begin the process of applying for your visa, you don’t need to worry about overstaying your 90-day Schengen Visa. Your visa is automatically extended until the point your application is either approved or denied.
This guide assumes that you are:
a) a passport-holding American
b) an Artist, Photographer, Graphic Designer, or similar freelance professional
c) already living/travelling in Germany with your 90-day Schengen visa
d) applying for a 1-2 year freelance visa
What you’ll need:
-A German friend
-Anmeldung (Residency Declaration)
-The application form
-Your American Passport
-2 Biometric passport photos
-Proof of Health Insurance Coverage
-A German Bank account
-€100 for the application fee
-Letter of Recommendation from a German citizen (optional)
-Anything else thats convincing
The first step in applying for a visa is the Anmeldung. Do this as soon as possible after your arrival in Germany! There’s nothing German beamters dislike more than the impression that you (an American) are not taking your visa application seriously. I waited until 2 weeks before my Schengen Visa expired and they’re were clearly not amused. The Anmeldung is probably the simplest step in the process. The Anmeldung is a written declaration of who you are and where you live, submitted to your local Ausländerbehörde. If you don’t already know, the Ausländerbehörde is the Foreigners/Alien Office that will be handling all of your application paperwork along the way. In small to medium sized towns, you usually won’t need an appointment. Just show up, take a number, and wait for a few minutes. If you’re in a city, check online or give them a call to set up an appointment. It’s very similar to the DMV back in the States. Anyway, in order to submit your Anmeldung, you will need either a rental agreement or a the person you are living with to come along and vouch for you. You’ll simply fill out a 1-page form and they’ll scan your passport. After you’ve received your copy, step one is done.
Tip: It helps tremendously to bring along a German-speaking friend/girlfriend/boyfriend, especially if your German language skills are lacking.
Freiberufler or Selbständiger?
Generally in the US, we would refer to a “freelancer” as “self-employed.” The meanings are essentially synonymous. However, in Germany “self-employed” refers specifically to entrepreneurs and business owners. This can make it a little confusing when you are initially explaining your situation and filling out your application. Unless you plan on starting a business and hiring employees, you will want to refer to yourself specifically as a Freiberufler (Freelancer) and NOT as a Selbständiger (Self-Employed).
Money in the Bank
After submitting your Anmeldung, the real work begins. First and foremost, you’ll want to open a German bank account. For your visa application, you will need to prove via bank statements and contracts for work that you have enough money to provide for yourself. In my case, they expected €800/month (which translates to €9,600/year). Realistically, this is more than double the amount I’ve been spending since arriving in Germany 6 months ago, but they are firm with that number. They told me that they will only accept statements from a German bank, but I was ultimately able to submit both statements from my Deutschebank account and from my US-based savings account. The more money you have in your account, the better. If necessary, I’ve heard of people borrowing money from friends or family or taking out a loan while the visa application processes. If you happen to have ~€10,000 lying around in your bank account, I imagine that you can prove your year’s worth of financial security without submitting any contracts and can therefore skip the next step.
Since most of us don’t have enough money saved to cover an entire year of living expenses at €800/month, you will need freelance contracts and/or letters from future clients. The Ausländerbehörde’s €800 number can be met based on a combination of your current savings and your expected future income. So, if you can only prove €200/month with your bank statements, you will need contracts for at least €600/month of income. If you haven’t already, start looking for and finding potential clients and future projects that you can put down on paper. You will want to include estimates and corresponding, signed contracts in your final application portfolio.
Getting German health insurance (Krankenversicherung) is near-impossible for Americans (and other foreigners) on a limited visa. Yet, you will need health insurance coverage that explicitly meets the requirements of German law in order to be approved for a visa. This can be the most difficult and frustrating part of the process. The internet is full of misinformation and non-information regarding this topic. I eventually found the easiest solution was to find a private health insurance broker that specialized in expatriates. A broker will make sure you get the correct insurance coverage and their consultation is free, since they receive commission from insurance companies. I ended up with international health insurance from ALC (a subsidiary of health insurance provider AXA) that is surprisingly cheaper than German Privatkrankenversicherung and covers me all over the EU. Just remember, it is absolutely essential that your health insurance specifically meets the requirements of German law and that your policy comes with paperwork (in German) specifically stating this.
Assorted Additional Paperwork
Paperwork will be your best friend by the time you finally get your visa. The rules that the Ausländerbehörde must follow in order to grant you a visa seem to vary on a case-to-case basis. With that in mind, the more paperwork (especially stamped and/or signed) that you can submit as part of your application, the better. Include things like your business card, cv/resumé, letters of recommendation, samples of your work and anything else that makes it appear that you are comfortably adapting to life (and work) in Deutschland.
Getting your German Freelance Visa
Once you have your application completed and all your paperwork in order. Head back to the Ausländerbehörde and submit everything in a nice folder. If they are satisfied with your paperwork, you’ll pay a €100 application fee (keep your receipt!), scan your finger prints, and sign a few forms confirming that everything you have submitted is true and authentic. They’ll give you a couple pamphlets (in English if you want) and let you know that confirmation will arrive in the mail after a few weeks. Once you receive your letter, you can head back to the Ausländerbehörde once again, where you will receive an Electronic Residence Permit (eAT) card along with the conditions of your visa.
Disclaimer: I am not an immigration lawyer and I can’t guarantee that your experience and requirements will be the same. Please don’t get upset (and don’t be surprised) if your experience applying for a German Freelance Visa is completely different.
If you have any additional questions, please leave a comment. I’ll try my best to help. Good luck with your application!
Update (March 31, 2013) After spending a year living in Germany, I’ve returned to San Francisco where I am living and working full time. However, I’m still happy to offer what advice I can. While the comment section for this post is now closed, if you have any questions, feel free to write me using the “Contact” section of the site.
I had a recent conversation with Jordan Chamberlain of DesignFad and he a few tips of his own for the application process based on his experience with the Ausländerbehörde in Lörrach:
In my experience, smaller towns handle the process differently from everything I’ve read about online in bigger cities.
- Smaller towns aren’t as familiar with the process. The Ausländerberhörde refers to a big legal book for the regulations, which in my case, turned out to be out of date. You can’t tell an immigration official her job, so be prepared for a little wasted time as they figure it out on their own.
- The upside of a small town for me was that I had singular physical contacts with whom I have good relationships at both the Ausländerberhörde and the IHK, as opposed to in larger cities where it sounds like the experience is more like the DMV, in which case you build no report as you go through the process.
- The Ausländerberhörde in Lörrach insisted that I get in touch with someone at the IHK. The person I needed was someone in charge of Freelancers, whom you can find on their Web site under “Services A-Z”. Don’t bother going to the IHK. Just give them a call or write an Email.
- The IHK required me to submit a business plan, which is crazy for a freelancer, but after some looking I found a solid example of a freelance graphic design “agency” using a Web app called Liveplan.com. It cost me $20, refundable, and about six hours to creat. Just remember to cancel your subscription after you’re done. Here’s the example: http://www.bplans.
com/graphic_design_business_ plan/executive_summary_fc.php# .UUGP31s6Vgo
- Because I don’t speak passable German, as part of my residence Visa I was told that I would need to complete an “integration course” including 600 hours of German language lessons and an orientation section, all paid 50% by the German government. I’m still looking into this. Sounds like it might not apply to me, but I need to research more.