The Guide to Teaching English in Germany

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Thinking of teaching English abroad? Germany might not be the first European country that comes to mind, but maybe it should be! What you will find in this article is an honest, how-to guide to help you navigate the process of teaching English in Germany. So grab a beer and learn why teaching is wunderbar in Deutschland!

Mention Germany and people think of thick accents, sausages, and of course, beer – Germany is the world’s 3rd largest beer consumer, edged out only by its neighbors, Czech Republic, and Austria. Mention Germans and they think of a serious and organized people, the classic joke goes something like this:

How many Germans does it take to screw in a light bulb? – One. We are efficient and have no humor.

The fact that this joke was told to me by a German, followed by hearty belly-laughter around the table, should tell you that there is much more to Germany (and Germans) than the stereotypes would have you believe.

Why Teach English in Germany?

I could tell you about the fantastic quality of life, affordable living, plentiful jobs, eager students young and old, or the fact that living here gives you a great jumping-off point from which to explore the rest of Europe – all of that is true. In fact, of the top 25 cities to live in the world, seven were in Germany! But if you’re like most TEFL teachers here, you’ll come for all of those practical reasons, and stay for the wonderful people.

That’s not to say moving here is simple. Speaking the German language, while not essential (I didn’t speak a word), is definitely advantageous and it’s certainly one of the more challenging languages to learn. German bureaucracy is famous for being complicated and paperwork-heavy.

Additionally, most TEFL work is freelance, which may not be suitable for people who require a consistent paycheck. However, once you get past these first few hurdles, you’ll find the culture, lifestyle, and work-life balance experienced in Germany is something many countries aspire to provide for their workers.

While the initial process of coming here to teach English in Germany can be a little daunting, this article will give you an overview of all the helpful information you need to get started, along with some tips and personal experiences. I’ve fallen in love with the people, landscape, and culture in ways I never imagined … I’m sure you will, too!

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German TEFL Market and Job Opportunities

The demand for English teachers in Germany is already high and continuing to grow. This is because an increasing number of companies are expanding internationally. English is now absolutely essential for day-to-day business activities.

In the following sections, I’ll outline job opportunities, standard teaching packages (e.g. hours, wages, and challenges specific to teaching in Germany), as well as some examples and advice on how to navigate the TEFL market.

The Basic Requirements of Teaching English in Germany

There are very few basic requirements for entry into the German TEFL market. In general, you should be a native speaker (bilingual is fine) and have a bachelor’s degree. Apart from that, I’ve never witnessed any restrictions on citizenship. Having a master’s, TEFL certification, and/or loads of experience gets you both better gigs and higher wages.

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany's most famous landmark.
The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany’s most famous landmark.

Should You Take a TEFL Course?

Generally, I recommend language schools to new ESL teachers – it provides a much-needed paycheck early on and also a faster track for obtaining a work permit.

If you start your ESL teaching career at a language school: Berlitz, inLingua, or your city’s VHS (“Volkshochschule” – a community and adult learning center), you can expect to be paid between €13-18 per 45-minute “unit” at the beginning. The higher end is possible with a master’s degree or TEFL (or similar) certificate. I had neither, but I did have a background in teaching, editing, and had studied English. Even with my relevant experience, I started at only €14.

If I could do it all again, I think investing in a TEFL certificate would have been invaluable. As you’ll see from some of my examples below, my first year was a lot of hustling to get the hours and income I needed to live in Germany. That 4 EUR per unit increase from the get-go would have made a huge difference!

The pay rates increase if you nab a spot at some higher-level teaching institutes like universities, etc. and they go up dramatically if you freelance on your own. But once again, the chances of securing one of those coveted and higher-paying positions also increases with a TEFL certificate. So consider it!

Additional Qualifications are Valuable

The great news is: regardless of where you fall on the qualification or experience spectrum, employment is very possible for any native speaker! Sometimes having studied or worked in a field other than language can even be an advantage. Being an engineer, IT specialist, or nurse, etc. will get you jobs which pay more for “Fach” English (field-specific English).

In other words, all skills and areas of interest are valuable and make you more flexible and desirable. So make sure you list hobbies and other non-language skills, etc. on your resume as these will also help match you up with quality customers or companies!

Where Can You Teach English in Germany?

Due to a complicated credential process, it is not possible to work in any public institution without having studied and passed your specific federal state’s teaching program. This means elementary through high school at public institutions are not options for foreign teachers.

However, teaching at companies privately or via a language school is a booming industry. On top of that, higher-paying teaching positions can be found at international schools, private schools, or higher education institutions.

Generally, this work is on a freelance basis and salaried positions are very hard to come by. Still, working freelance has many benefits and it is possible to live, work, and even save while freelancing. Geographically, any large city will have plentiful work opportunities and I recommend starting your TEFL journey in a mid to large-sized city.

Getting Your First Teaching Gigs

Teaching English in Germany, at least in the beginning as a freelancer, is a hustler’s game – you say yes to every job you’re offered.

Writing emails from abroad is an ineffective way to find work. While that is possible or even preferred in some countries, in Germany your best bet is just to apply in person. Just be sure to come with enough savings to last you 3-6 months while you establish yourself.

Unless you’re coming with TEFL certifications, a master’s, or tons of experience, the courses you are offered at first will not be much to write home about. It’s important to prepare yourself for early hours and long days initially. It will take some time and patience to really get established – but hustle for a bit, put in the time, pay your dues, and this will change.

The Ideal Classes for a Freelance ESL Teacher

At a language school, not all jobs are created equal. There are what I like to call good gigs and “meh”-jobs. Senior teachers usually take all the good gigs at first, but be available, flexible, and show that you’re willing to do the dirty work and you’ll start seeing more “good gigs” get thrown your way.

Good gigs are:

  • Regularly occurring, daily or weekly, for several months.
  • Blocked groups of classes, preferably a full day’s worth.
  • Paid travel units to the company – bonus if you get a food card or something. (Note: Every school will pay for travel costs incurred, but not every job pays travel time (travel “units”).

A full block of classes at one location generally means you make more money that day. These jobs are ideal! It’s steady, reliable income, not a patchwork of short classes spread all over the city with lots of non-paid time-gaps in between. Even on the lower-earning end,14€ per hour, this schedule will net you €200-250 per day!

I’ll be honest, in the beginning, I got the opposite: scattered classes around town with unpaid travel time… it was exhausting. However, after a few months of proving my fortitude and reliability with the courses no one else wanted, I’d saved about 3k living frugally, got offered those coveted block courses, and finally started saying “no, thank you” to the “meh”-jobs.

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Your Salary When You Teach English in Germany

Overall, I would estimate that your first year’s salary will work out to between 800-2,000€ per month, depending on your willingness to hustle and level of certification. Even the lower end is typically enough to live anywhere comfortably.

As a freelancer, you are responsible for your own savings and insurance, etc. and if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. In other words, vacation or sick days can be taken at will, but your paycheck will take a hit. Also, while there is no limit to your hours or salary, keep in mind that taxes are graduated, so sometimes making slightly less annually, if it keeps you in the lower bracket, is actually better in that regard.

After you’re established, and especially if you start working for yourself, your unit price goes up to about €40 per unit and above. Big difference! Personally, it took me a few years to get there. Keep in mind, customer acquisition and program design become much more labor-intensive behind the scenes, too, once you’re on your own. But as a freelancer, there are virtually no limits to how many hours you can work, and subsequently, how much you earn annually.

Find the countries paying the highest salaries for teaching English abroad.

How to Obtain a Work and Residency Permit

To begin our journey, you must first imagine and fully embrace the three pillars of Germanism: Planning, Preparation, and Process. Got it?

You would think that in a country known for its efficiency, the legal processes would be quick and painless. I’m afraid that stereotype (which is generally true and admirable) meets its doom in the world of German bureau-crazy. Case and point: the“Auslaenderbehoerde” (Foreigners’ registration and immigration office). Patience is needed as soon as you step foot in this maze of paperwork and complicated floor structure.

I don’t mean to scare you or say it’s impossible, but it can be overwhelming for newcomers, especially if you don’t speak a word of German. Most of the caseworkers themselves speak decent English, however, the people who direct you to the appropriate rooms or forms to fill, or set appointments, rarely do.

On the top of the Wallberg overlooking Lake Tegernsee (Bavaria)
On the top of the Wallberg overlooking Lake Tegernsee (Bavaria). (Photo: Heather Bradley)

General Tips

A work permit and residency permit come hand in hand. You basically need one for the other, and vice versa, so you will be given both as a combination.

Research online for your specific city. There is a chance everything you find will be outdated, but familiarizing yourself with your city’s process and forms before you go can only help you.

Know that there is some luck and variation between caseworkers. Most are great. Sometimes you even luck out: you get an extra friendly worker who is not too much of a stickler for rules and technicalities; other times, you’re not so lucky. Yes, I’ve been sent on goose-chases and been told conflicting info far too often. Patience and kindness – It’s a mantra: say it, love it, live it.

Bring a friend. Seriously! Ask a roommate or colleague nicely and promise a lovely dinner or cookies if they help you navigate the shark-infested waters of immigration.

Bring everything. German’s love proof of things on paper. Do you want to be a German? Think like one! Have copies of every conceivable document you think there is even a slight chance you need on hand. The last thing you want is to be turned away after four hours of waiting because you are missing a physical copy of your bank statement. (Find a list later in this post).

The Work and Residency Permit Application Process

It is absolutely essential to live and work legally in Germany – don’t risk it. The permit process can seem like a closed-loop, but I promise that things eventually fall into place for everyone.

Before you can teach English in Germany, the work and residency permit process usually goes like this:

1. Find a Residence

This is typically your first priority, as having a registered address is essential for all other steps (health insurance, bank account, work permit, etc.). Not only that, like Germans, you also need to register your address (called “Anmeldung”) at your local “Bürgeramt” within 14 days. There are many options for types of accommodation. Just make sure you get your name on a lease – even if it’s the third signature down or a short-term sublet.

2. Open a Bank Account

Usually, step two: You need to have a German bank account relatively early on in the process. Many payments happen via direct deposit or bank transfer. It’s a step many people find surprisingly frustrating and bureaucratic. Again, this is a little tricky given that most banks want you to come in and sign the papers in person. However, to sign them legally, you must understand the German language and this creates an additional barrier if you are like I was and don’t speak a lick.

Some banks offer an official translator or translated documents, often for a fee. My solution was to find an online bank and a friend to help me understand the terms – an easy, albeit frustrating, workaround!

3. Get Insurance

This is a strict requirement. You need to prove your insurance is valid in Germany for the duration of your approved stay. A letter or email from your provider saying so will do. Alternatively, if you need new insurance, I recommend an expat-specific insurance policy as they tend to be cheaper.

Usually, if you freelance you’re likely to have private insurance as opposed to the public option – although there are ways around this. I have MAWISTA ExPat (private) and can generally recommend them. Germans love their insurance options – online you will find a plethora of blogs specifically dedicated to this topic!

4. Apply for Jobs

The single biggest factor in getting hired is showing up in person. If you have little to no experience, your first stop should be language schools. Walk in during opening hours and ask about the hiring process. Be nice to the secretary! They are always important. Actually, just be nice in general.

Then proceed as you would in your home country, with your resume, the interview, and so on. Often they will give you an in-person or online training course. Make sure to request a letter stating their offer of employment. Usually, each school has a standard letter. You will need this for your residency and work permit!

Even with extensive experience, the language school route can be a good option for those just starting out in Germany. Other places to find work are online job listings for your city, or directly on the websites of schools, and universities, etc. Some of my best jobs have come from word-of-mouth or even volunteering, but it takes some time to establish yourself. There is plenty of work teaching English in Germany: research online, pick a city and apply in person.

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Documents You Will Need to Bring

As of this writing, Australian, Canadian, and US citizens and a few others can begin the process from within Germany while on their normal tourist visa valid upon arrival for 3 months.

Once here, get started early and make appointments when possible a month in advance to avoid stress – walk-ins are accepted but the lines are long. Below is a list of potential documents you may need on hand. Please know this is not exhaustive, and when in doubt, bring it!

To get your work and residency permit in Germany, your application must include the following:

  • Valid passport. You will need to go through the whole process again any time your passport expires, so consider renewing before you go if your passport is set to expire in 3 (or fewer) years.
  • 1-2 current 35x45mm biometric photos. You can take one at any Fotofix booth at train stations and airports or at local photography shops.
  • Proof of health insurance. Your health insurance card will do
  • Proof of residence. Remember registering your address? You’ll get your address registration confirmation (“Meldebescheinigung”) in the mail. Bring it!
  • Residence permit application form called: “Antrag auf Erteilung eines Aufenthaltstitels”. First-time applicants are typically limited to a one year trial period.
  • Proof of income and/or savings. Your bank statements will do. This is to prove, especially as a freelancer or self-employed person, that you are capable of supporting yourself in or extracting yourself from the country without burdening the state.
  • Proof of offered employment. A standard letter from your employer will do.
  • Sometimes: Job description form, called “Stellenbeschreibung”.
  • Sometimes: Your resume or CV
  • Expect a €50 -100 application fee

Good Luck! I promise it’s doable! More info can be found on the website of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Finding Accommodation When You Teach English in Germany

Depending on the city, this can range from being relatively painless to being a nightmare. I’ve lived in three different German cities, all of them in the two largest and southernmost states: Baden Wurttemberg and Bavaria. Now I live in Munich.

Expect variation in the prices or difficulty of securing housing. Munich is infamous for its high-cost, hyper-competitive housing market. Nearby Augsburg (population ca. 250k), on the other hand, was relatively easy. I recommend www.immobilienscout.de or even facebook expat groups specific to your city as a starting point.

The city center of Munich (Bavaria), Germany
The city center of Munich (Bavaria), Germany

Rent will usually be listed as “kalt” or “warm” meaning rent without or with utilities, respectively. Note that places are often listed with the total number of rooms (“Zimmer”) and this does not mean bedrooms (e.g. “1 Zimmer” will usually be a studio, “2 Zimmer” will be 1 bedroom and 1 living room); kitchen and bathrooms are not included in this figure. Expect a deposit of about three months’ rent.

The reality is: as a foreigner, freelancer or not-yet-employed person and non-German speaker you are not exactly the most desirable candidate for a landlord and that puts you at a disadvantage.

This leaves three options: Have impressive bank statements, have a German take responsibility for you, and, most commonly, sublet or have roommates. Apply to a “Wohngemeinschaft” (WG), this is a shared apartment, usually with a chief renter looking for subletters where they enjoy having a multicultural presence.

Remember, this doesn’t need to be your forever home, but it does get the process started and it gives you official papers, like a lease and registration confirmation. I was fortunate. I came to teach in Germany partly because I fell in love with a German, and he was able to help me remove a lot of the negatives in the permit and residence-finding process. The process is significantly easier with a German next to you.

Living Costs in Germany

Costs of living depend very much on the city and region of Germany but a salary of just €850 per month will cover you in most cities. Restaurants and groceries are surprisingly inexpensive and this greatly reduces living expenses. You can find incredibly precise estimates related to your chosen city on this website. Compared to many other European countries, Germany is quite affordable, and it is possible to create a nest egg while teaching English in Germany.

Note: Germans hardly ever pay with credit card. Debit or cash are king here, even in larger stores like Ikea! Yet another reason a German bank account is a must.

What is Living in Germany Like?

Living in Germany is fantastic. In the cities, you’ll find varied cuisine with modern artisanal options becoming increasingly popular, as well as theaters that feature OV (original version) films. The streets and parks bustle with people passing on bikes and others sprawled out on any flat patch of pavement or grass socializing, especially in sunny weather.

Sports and fitness clubs abound, making it easy to stay fit. Opt for a city-wide membership and you can join classes indoor and outdoor all over town for a set monthly rate. Public transportation is excellent within cities and also has great connections to rural and scenic areas as well.

Farmer’s markets in many cities are great places to pick up fresh ingredients including meats and cheeses. They often also feature food trucks and hand-crafted items. And during winter seasons, even small towns put on whimsical Christmas markets where friends and strangers gather for “gluhwein” (hot mulled wine) to help combat the frigid temps.

Beer gardens, especially in the south, are an event whenever the weather is nice. Germans “cheers” each and every person at the table while maintaining eye contact – this is a time-honored tradition and it can be quite humorous to the non-initiated.

Nightlife is lively and can even last until sunrise in some cities, provided you’re in the right “Stadtteil” (district). However, smaller towns or even certain neighborhoods in larger cities can completely shut down after 7pm – so be sure to ask around to find the right area for you.

Sundays are a different story. Stores, apart from restaurants, are generally shuttered on Sunday meaning downtowns can be eerily (and for tourists, confusingly) quiet and abandoned feeling. I like to wander the empty streets at this time and enjoy the typical tourist-admired architecture and sights without the crowds.

Unfortunately, supermarkets are also closed on Sundays (or have very restricted hours) in most states of Germany – remember those 3 P’s of German culture? Planning, Preparation and Process, that’s how the Germans shop. On top of that, during the week, stores, including supermarkets close at 8pm (in Bavaria) or 10pm in some other states; all of this means you have to plan your meals a little more carefully than you may be used to!

Large concerts and festivals also feature heavily in German culture and cater to any musical style. That said, smaller musical venues are harder to find – as a musician myself, I had to hunt around to find out about jam sessions and other local live music joints. Once you find one, they can usually key you in to where the action happens throughout the month.

The natural landscape is gorgeous and every form of outdoor recreation is possible whether it be hiking in the Alps, sailing on a lake, or basking in the sun along a river. Germans love spending time in nature, and after exploring the country, it’s easy to see why.

The list of positives is far too long to list and I recommend moving here to discover your own favorite aspects about life!

A clichéd German snack ("Brotzeit") somewhere in the mountains
A clichéd German snack (“Brotzeit“) somewhere in the mountains. (Photo: Heather Bradley)

German Mentality

But I promised you an honest look at life for an expat here and I’d be lying if I said some of Germany’s quirks weren’t a little hard for me to adjust to initially or to this day.

Germans believe in smiles, and they give them more sparingly than other cultures. This means it’s not a default setting like it may be in the US or Canadian culture. Don’t be surprised if strangers don’t smile at you in passing and correspondingly, don’t be sad if your smile is returned with a strange or skeptical look. Germans only smile when they have a reason to. The bright side is when you receive a smile, it’s genuine.

Also somewhat related to this, the German service industry is only that in the name. After seven years here, I’m still caught off guard by some of the gruffness of customer service employees. The service culture is changing, but for now, at least in Bavaria: no, the customer is not always right. This can be jarring the first time you experience it.

This is most apparent in restaurants. Do not expect a restaurant server to stroll cheerfully up to your table, introduce themselves with a smile, and fawn over your needs. “They are there to serve your food, not be your friend” a German friend once said, which just made me chuckle at the blunt accuracy of it.

You may initially find the German way to be too direct, unsociable, and pragmatic, but I’ve learned to appreciate it, or at least find amusement in their lack of amusement with my permanent enthusiasm. Essentially: My students love my smile, strangers are confused by it, and both of those facts make me happy… thus I’m trapped in a vicious smile-cycle. ?

What about Racism?

I am someone who “blends in” with the locals. In other words, my experience has been positive, but I am aware of the privilege my skin color affords me. Speaking to my friends of color, most have had overwhelmingly positive interactions, especially with people under 40.

That is not to say, however, they haven’t been treated differently at times either. Sadly, racism and bigotry still exist, but I am happy to report that Germans push back hard against it in their society, especially compared to several other European countries. The former eastern German states are known, whether merited or not, for having stronger anti-immigrant sentiments than other regions.

Final Thoughts on Teaching English in Germany

There are plenty of technicalities and challenges that all hit you right at the beginning, including, most notably, a bureaucratic immigration process and a predominantly freelance TEFL market, with all its pros and cons. This can be a little overwhelming.

However, once you clear those initial obstacles, you have access to one of the strongest economies and highest qualities of life in the world. With great social benefits, open-minded people, and superb work-life balance, there is a lot to be grateful for. This article contains just about everything I wish someone had told me before I took my leap of faith, which is a lot!

But apart from all the practical reasons you should come and teach English in Germany, I’d like to share one more with you: Germans are the most lovable and helpful people I’ve ever known. Yes, they are a puzzle you have to understand to unlock, but friendships are meaningful, and interactions are amusing and rewarding once you crack the German code.

I hope this article can help you do just that – to not just survive or integrate but to thrive and make amazing connections while teaching English in Germany. Because it’s been eight years (I planned only two) since I moved from sunny California to not-always-sunny Germany, and it’s still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Deutschland ist wunderbar.

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