This is a more personal blog post about my experience as an american expat in Germany - specifically about my experiences at the Bonner Ausländeramt (Bonn’s Foreigner’s Office of the City of Bonn).
I moved to Germany in August 2015 and immediately began my first incarnation of the Ausländer Shuffle (which I affectionately name after the NU Shuffle). Luckily, as a USA citizen, I entered the country with a 90-day tourist visa which required no prior paperwork or pre-registration; just show up. In that 90 days, I had to get all of my paperwork in order, which included a local cell phone number, proof of local housing, proof of German insurance, proof of minimum bank account funds, and ultimately proof of enrollment at the university. This was about as non-linear as a Kurt Vonnegut novel. I had the benefit that my housing had been pre-registered by my study program. For everyone else, the first thing they’d have to do is find housing, and even worse, do it without the benefit of all the other paperwork that they couldn’t get without already having housing.
After that was all done, I was able to sign up for my first appointment with the Bonner Ausländeramt (Terminvereinbarung im Ausländeramt). Side bar: an adjectival is when you turn a noun into an adjective. In the German language, most places can be converted into an adjectival by adding the -er suffix. That’s why it’s called Wiener Schnitzel - it’s Schnitzel from Wien (Vienna). Sign-ups for appointments are online (https://www.bonn.de/antrag_auslaenderamt), then they send you information about your appointment by snail mail. Unfortunately, this office has not yet digitalized. You’re assigned a case worker based on your last name, and you typically stay with them the entire time you live in the city. They will keep a paper file in their office on you, next to all the other paper files for all the other foreigners in Bonn. People from the USA are typically given a two year visa when studying. In theory, this is more than enough time for most study programs. Studying in Germany is cheap (just a 200-300 Euro administration per semester) so a lot of people decide to take their time. I didn’t (oops).
My second encounter with the Ausländeramt was two years later after I had finished my master’s degree in November 2017, before starting my Ph.D.. The Ausländeramt snail mailed me unprompted a few months ahead of time with a date and checklist of all the things I would need to renew my visa. They either have a very boilerplate document for renewals ( most likely) or just assumed that my studies hadn’t yet concluded, and therefore most of the document wasn’t applicable. I had my Ph.D. work contract with Fraunhofer, but not yet proof of my Ph.D. student status (I learned later that this is its own nightmare) but they effectively let it slide and issued a new student/work visa. Side bar again: it’s really great for companies to have students working for them. You have so few rights when you’re also a student, and companies don’t have to follow many of the worker laws. This is partially why Fraunhofer’s business model to recruit as many students as possible to do most of the work is so great for Fraunhofer.
My third encounter with the Ausländeramt was two years later after I had finished my Ph.D. in December 2019, but they did not issue me an appointment unprompted (I’m not sure why). I ended up finding the sign up form again, that I had forgotten about from four years prior and signing up for an appointment a few months in advance. After finishing graduate studies in Germany, you can get an 18-month “work search visa” which is mostly the same as a work visa but is issued even if you don’t already have a job. I was exited by this because I wanted to take some time off. The only issue was they issued my appointment after when my visa expired. This was particularly bad becuase it was in December, and I wanted to travel for the holidays. If I did this and my visa expired while I was out of the country, I would have a big problem - you can’t re-enter for 6 months after your visa expires. I tried emailing (unsuccessfully) and phoning the office every day for two whole weeks. They don’t answer the phone. It turns out that sometimes it forwards to the City Hall, and they are very annoyed to get questions about Ausländer affairs. With the end of December approaching and still no plan how to get home for Christmas, I ended up going to the office at 6:45AM (it opens at 8AM) one day try and get a walk-in appointment. I was the 5th person in line, and by the time office opened at 8AM, the line was going down the street. I knew I would be quick, but there were many people who were unprepared, had extenuating circumstances, or were just a more difficult case to deal with, so only a few of them would be seen between 8AM and noon when the office closed (and it’s only open 4 days a week). Being 5th, I got to see the walk-in administrator around 9:30AM, and they easily issued me a Fiktionsbescheinigung after only a few minutes of describing my situation. That document states that my case has basically been approved, but the paperwork is still pending. Effectively, I could travel with my expired visa + this document freely, and I then proceeded to book a very expensive last minute flight back home. Unfortunately, my appointment was just after New Year’s, so I didn’t get much vacation at home.
All the people I’ve talked to at the Ausländeramt were good people. They’re just really understaffed, overworked, and without the benefit of competent programmers and a progressive digitalization agenda to make their lives and the lives of their clients better. Then the Coronavirus hit. Everything was shut down for months. They issued emergency visa extensions since they couldn’t work in office, and none of the work could be done from home. The facade collapsed and it left many people confused, unsure, and anxious about their statuses.
My fourth encounter with the Ausländeramt should have been sometime around today, since my visa is no longer valid tomorrow. Unfortunately, I signed up two months ago for an appointment and never received any post. I emailed the office to ask for a confirmation, and got nothing back. The office doesn’t answer their phone line (this is the same now as it was before the pandemic). The difference between this time and last time is when I went to get a walk-in appointment, I was refused at the door by security because of pandemic precautions - only appointment holders can enter. This is a bit of a Catch-22: Can’t go in the office without an appointment. Can’t get an appointment without going in the office.
It turns out they’re still rotating which staff are in on any given day and many have home office (where they can’t really work, since all of it is done on paper that lives in the office itself). I have been very anxious about this day coming and officially tomorrow I will be in Germany illegally.
Last time I ended up on the phone line with the City Hall instead of the Ausländeramt, they weren’t very sympathetic to my cause, and also realized that they could effectively speak in their fastest and most ornamented German such that I couldn’t understand them anymore. Luckily, my German friend offered to help me this time with the shuffle and we got on the phone with the City Hall. They were surprisingly helpful this time, but what happened next was a total farce:
- We talked to the nice lady at the city hall. She figured out what the office number for my case worker was (this is very secret information) and shared it with us so we could call directly.
- We called directly. It didn’t answer (just went on ringing). After trying this at 15 minute intervals, we decided to call back the city and ask if we could have another case worker’s number. She gave us the name and number of another case worker in the office. We called them. They said that they would share the number of the person who shared the office with my case worker (these guys are cramped in there with all the files.)
- We called the office mate of my case worker. No answer (but this time, it cut out after a few rings). We supposed that she was in office, but obviously busy. We tried a few times, no luck.
- We tried the first case worker again that the nice lady at the city hall had given us. She was busy too, so we had to wait a while before she picked up. We asked her about the other lady, and she was nice enough to walk in the other room and ask the second case worker when she would be available for us to call.
- We called back when she was available. She looked up my file, saw my visa expires tomorrow, was sympathetic to my cause, and said that she would snail mail a Fiktionsbescheinigung to me. Luckily, I live in walking distance from the Ausländeramt and this should arrive tomorrow.
Let’s hope this means I won’t be here illegally come tomorrow! By the end of this experience, I think we had spent way too much time of several people at the Bonn City Hall and also the Ausländeramt. My friend had spent a few hours with me, too, so what was the real cost of all of this? I actually still haven’t solved my problem since I still don’t have an appointment to actually extend my visa, either. My friend hadn’t experienced this kind of problem when he lived in Belgium and France because EU citizens all share the right of free movement between countries, and was just as jarring for him. He emailed our mayor, Katja Dörner, a nice letter about the experience too. She’s part of the “Green Party” which is pretty progressive, so maybe this will be a wake up call.
I’ve been lucky enough to be an easy case for the Ausländeramt - but it can’t be overstated the advantage I have enjoyed based on my country of origin and my educational status (among other things). However, most of the things I’ve done at the Ausländeramt could have been automated. The system for creating appointments should be 100% automated. It should be more granular as to what you need from the appointment, and better inform clients what they need and better allot time. The system should know when your visa expires, and automatically issue a Fiktionsbescheinigung (perhaps with an apology note) if they can’t get you an appointment before the expiration. Even most of the stuff that you need to do at the appointment (present documents, etc.) can be automated through the internet (even if only applicable to a subset of easy cases, like mine)! I’m sure this would make this a much more pleasent experience for the case workers and clients.
Update 2021-07-28: I’ve received a Fiktionsbescheinigung in the post, it was signed and sent on the 26th. It’s good through the end of January 2022 - that’s how behind the office is. Ooof.