Germany may not be a native English-speaking nation, but it still manages to readily find a place among the top five educational destinations in the world. Nearly 400,000 international students—from India, China, Iran, Syria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and other countries—start their college day saying a happy “Guten Morgen.”
One reason why Deutschland is popular is that its top universities deliver many international degree programs in English, including many bachelor’s and master’s programs. World-class universities and colleges provide education at an affordable price tag.
The country has many cities where students will love to pursue their programs and deeply imbibe the German culture: among the top cities are Berlin (the capital and the largest city), Frankfurt, Munich, Dresden, Aachen, Bonn, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Freiburg, and Marburg.
Germany is one of the world’s fastest-aging societies, and was likely to face a shortage of skilled talent by 2035 if an internationalization strategy had not been adopted.
In 2013, the government adopted the strategy, and targeted to increase international student enrollment by 30 percent by 2020. That’s where you begin to understand why Germany is called “the Land of Ideas.”
Among the top universities are Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, the Technical University of Munich, Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Freiburg, University of Bonn, Technische University Dresden, and the University of Hamburg.
Popular bachelor’s degrees are those in mechanical engineering, design, business administration, and social sciences.
International student life in Germany
Germany is ranked 22nd, among the most peaceful countries, of the 163 nations named in the Global Peace Index 2019 rankings.
That international students prefer to complete their studies and work in Germany is an indication of how safe they perceive the country to be. Munich, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, and Freiburg are the safest cities in Germany.
It may not be necessary to take any special precautions as you go about life in Germany, but only the usual measures such as avoiding dark or empty streets and when using an ATM.
Rare cases of violent crime are reported, but petty crime, most commonly, pick-pocketing, is more common. There is increased vigil against terrorism after attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin.
You should take care of your safety at crowded places and events, though the police will come to your aid if you need them.
The emergency numbers in Germany are 112 for ambulance and the fire brigade, and 110 for police. You can also contact your embassy or consulate for directions in case of an emergency.
Education system in Germany
Children 3-6 years old may attend kindergarten, after which school is compulsory for nine or ten years.
Those from grade 1 to 4 study the same syllabus, and after grade 4, children are separated according to their academic ability and their families’ wishes, and admitted to schools that focuses on vocational training along with general subjects, to higher vocational programs, or to ones that readies students for either vocational or university programs and grants a diploma called abitur.
No matter what, every student in Germany is required to complete nine years of schooling, and study a minimum of one foreign language.
Germany has both public and private higher educational institutions, but 90 percent of students attend the former.
These institutions comprise over 100 universities, 210 universities of applied sciences, over 50 arts and science colleges, and 50 other specialized institutions.
They offer 18,000 programs, including 1,800 conducted in English. Private institutions offer various degree programs in a range of subjects, and many of them have English as the medium of instruction.
Like in other countries, the higher educational institutions offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. In some subjects, other degrees, after a pass in the Staatsexamen, are also granted.
Germans may be known for their natural reserved disposition, but that doesn’t stop them from being extremely friendly to foreign students. They provide guides to international students through the initial difficult days, and most universities/colleges offer international offices.
Inside classrooms, it is bit like a UN meeting, with students from all over the world, from France and Portugal to Lithuania and Turkey. The teaching style and lectures are rigorous and the teachers are strict.
Meticulous, sincere work is demanded of students, and instances of laxity, such as coming late to class, are frowned upon. Professors need to be addressed with a “Herr/Frau” (Mr/Ms) along with their surname, or a “Herr/Frau” Professor.
The German curriculum puts equal stress on theoretical and practical studies. You will have a lot to study, and exams are not a cakewalk. Hard work will be your mantra to success.
Many courses that are part of your program may follow the seminar model and take into account class participation for grade, but there are many others where your grades depend only on the final exams.
Professors have high proficiency in English, and use the language whether they are teaching students who have opted for a German- or an English-taught degree.
Outside campus, too, Germans are friendly, though they may not smile to make you feel good. People in most big German cities, such as Berlin or Munich, speak English, but this may not be the case in smaller towns. To help yourself understand the culture, you need to learn German.
The difference between US and German higher education is that in the US, for the high fee that you pay, there is virtually a system that ensures that you are comfortable and enjoying the experience. In Germany, you get no such hand-holding; you need to figure things out by yourself.
Campus life in Germany
As much as university study is a rigorous exercise, there is a fun side to campuses, too. There will be many parties and events you can attend and where you can socialize. Try to go to at least a few of them, as they are good places to make friends. But keep in mind that you’re in Germany mainly for a degree.
On longer weekends, you can take trips to the countryside, for sight-seeing and for getting to know the German culture better. There are a number of museums, castles, and picturesque spots for sight-seeing.
The Berlin Wall, the Reichstag, the Jewish Museum, the BMW Museum, Lake Constance, and the Heidelberg Castle are some popular attractions.
You could join a university group, many of which organize tours. You can even plan a tour of Europe on longer vacations, though you will have to find a good deal to reduce expenses.
Germany can pride itself in having the most beautiful university campuses in the world, such as Heidelberg University, Ludwig Maximilian University, and the University of Rostock, to name only three.
After you arrive
You need to register your address with the local authorities within two weeks of arrival, and your first priority is to find an accommodation. You will need an ID or your passport, confirmation from your landlord, residence permit or visa, and notarized rent contract.
You will then have to open a bank account to pay your utilities bill, to receive your wages from your temporary job, and to complete other transactions. A few banks have made the process smooth for international students. You should select one bank and proceed.
Public health insurance is mandatory but doesn’t cover all your medical needs. You may have to go for private health insurance. You will also enroll for your university program and for German classes though your program may be taught in English.
Residents of countries other than Switzerland and others in Europe may need to apply for a residence permit to stay in Germany for more than 90 days. Residents of some countries may need to apply for a permit before arriving in Germany. Make an appointment as soon as you can. You need to get a German SIM card from one of the major telecom companies.
Even before you arrive, try to learn to cook some basic dishes, especially if you are from an Asian country. Restaurants are expensive, and you may not feel like going on a cuisine exploration every now and then. Gather information about public transport in your city and buy a pass.
You may also explore the city, particularly your own neighborhood, so that you know where essential supplies can be bought. Attend festivals and university events for knowing the German culture and for local information.
Each region in Germany seems to have its own weather, but generally, winters are cold and snowy and may touch minus 10 degrees Centigrade with an average of 3 degree C.
Summers are hot with a maximum temperature of 35 degrees C with an average of 22 degrees C. The country has its best weather in the fall and in the spring.
Germans, generalizing widely, are not considered the friendliest of people around the world. As mentioned, you may not get a lot of smiles from them, but you can rest assured that they are helpful and ready to assist a foreigner.
In big cities, most Germans do speak English. However, if you want to visit the smaller towns and imbibe the country’s culture, you should learn German.
Living in a shared house, joining a sports club, taking up a part-time job, and volunteering for social service are good ways to try to taste the culture.
To get into it, attend orientation meetings and pub meeting, where you will meet newcomer students and students who have already completed a few semesters.
Food and cuisine
Talking about food, there are a few German items that an international student would naturally experiment with: currywurst, dönerkebab, fried pancake, bread and crusty roll, real German pretzels, German candies, and German ginger Christmas cookies, Black Forest cake, German beer, and Pilsner are some of them.
The country’s cuisine focuses heavily on bread, potatoes, and pork, and greens such as cabbage. Coffee, cake, and beer are popular. It is said that you can have a different type of beer each day for 15 years before you need to taste one that you’ve tasted before.
As for everyday food, students can eat at the university canteen (Mensa), cook by themselves, or go to a restaurant. The last option is costly, but food from India, US, France, Italy, Thai, and China are widely available. At canteens, meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes are served.
What about vegetarians? At Turkish döners, you can get vegetarian döners with falafel. At other restaurants, vegetarians may find delight in a number of dishes including a vegetarian sushi.
Of course, French fries are everywhere. Top burger joints also offer choices for vegetarians. Vegetarianism and veganism are food trends now, and stores have vegan sections.
Finding students’ accommodation is not the easiest thing to do in Germany. Universities do not guarantee accommodation in their student halls, which are the cheapest option at €220-€240 ($247-$269, as on June 26, 2020) a month.
Shared apartments, which usually have two or three rooms each, cost €280 a month. Apartments are available at an average rent of €350 a month, and are preferred by PhD students and students with families.
The best advice would be to look for accommodation the moment a university offers you admission and you decide to accept it.
Tuition fees, first. In Germany, you can study for free regardless of which country you’re from, but only at public universities. You will have to pay administrative fees of €300-€400 a semester.
At 100 private universities, you need to pay tuition on a par with that in the UK. You may be eligible for a scholarship, and you will get your money’s worth in facilities and also specialized programs intended to ward off competition from public universities.
In the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, public universities (in cities including Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Manheim, Freiburg, Heidelberg, etc.) can charge tuition from non-EU/EEA students: €1,500 a semester, a much lower fee than at other universities in Europe.
Public universities charge tuition fees for master’s programs taken after a gap following your bachelor’s degree; for example, executive MBA programs.
From January 2020, students are expected to show funds of €10,236. The monthly cost of living includes rent (say, €300-€500), food and drink (€200-€250), health insurance (€100), phone (€30), leisure (€50-€100).
On an average, about €850. The cost of living in Munich, Frankfurt, and Hamburg is higher than in smaller cities.
International students can apply for scholarship. DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) runs a database that helps foreign students search for scholarships based on their country of origin.
If you’re a student from outside Europe, you can work 120 full days a year or 240 half days, but no more than 20 hours a week during your semester. Internship and volunteering are also considered work.
Self-employment and freelancing are not allowed. If you want to work, you should apply to the Federal Employment Agency and to the Foreigners’ Office.
International students can take up part-time jobs, summer/winter vacation jobs, internships, traineeships, and volunteering.
Part-time jobs include university research assistant (€11-€12 an hour), office assistant (€12), language tutor (€12-€15), call center assistant (€15), support staff (€7), shopping assistant (€9), field interviewer (€18-€20), and home delivery (€11).
Bigger cities obviously have more job opportunities. Local organizations and companies also provide job opportunities.
University job information can be found on blackboards placed in hallways and from the website of “Studentenwerk,” a job agency run by students. The Federal Employment Agency also provides information.
A day in the life
(By a first year master’s student studying English philology at the University of Gottingen, Germany, paraphrased for conciseness)
My day is spread out between my writing, learning German, and doing academic work.
After waking up in the morning, I do some yoga and have some tea and breakfast. My typical university day starts at 10.
Many think that Germany is for engineering and the sciences, but the fact is that the humanities are also catching up, with excellent research facilities and PhD opportunities and a healthy learning environment.
I spend a great deal of time in libraries, which have great collections and provide a quiet atmosphere for work.
In the evenings, we go out and visit new places, hang out at bars, go to house parties, or attend musical events.
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