It’s decided: you want to don a dirndl, hike the Bavarian Alps, have easy access to major European cities, and experience history and culture in the metropolis of Berlin? Sounds like Germany is the perfect study abroad country for you!
Not only is Germany positioned so as to provide a very instructional and unique Western education, where the effects of modern history can be seen firsthand, it’s also increasingly popular for its widely available English-language university programs, and affordable tuition. All German public universities have free undergraduate programs, for locals and international students alike.
Deciding to go on a student exchange in Germany was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only did I learn a new language, make lifelong friends, and get way outside my comfort zone -- it also taught me independence, budgeting, and how to make friends wherever you are.
Whether you decide to study in the Northern post city of Hamburg near Denmark, or the Southern Bavarian paradise of Munich near the Swiss Alps, here are some things you need to know before studying abroad in Germany. These are the kinds of tricks I wish I’d known before I went. I hope they help make your summer, semester, or year abroad as memorable as mine!
Germans are Very Punctual
Buy a wrist watch -- seriously. You’re going to need it.
Germans love to be on time, or early by North American standards. From their expedient transit systems, to personal meetings, to the start of sporting events -- you’ll look like a real schmuck if you show up late, even if it’s just by a few minutes. Some people might even consider it downright rude. Save yourself the pain and invest in a watch before you go so checking the time is as easy as glancing at your arm. You might even consider setting it a few minutes fast, just in case your North American tardiness habits sneak up on you.
Figure Out Your Student Accommodations
Germans love to have everything planned. If you’re hoping to have a homestay arranged, chances are you’ll need to arrange it long in advance of actually arriving in Germany.
If you plan on staying in an apartment, we recommend seeing if your school has any recommendations for the area. There’s often an affiliated dorm or student housing arranged through your partner institution that’s the preferred accommodations for the area.
If you decide to look for your own apartment, there are plenty of resources available in English nowadays via the internet. Do research beforehand to make sure you can find a place that’s relatively close to where you’ll be studying to save some commute time.
There is a wide variety of English-language resources for apartment hunting in Germany, including Craigslist, Studieren Werk Berlin, AirBnB, and Berlin Apartments, among many others. Bookmark these now and plan ahead so you can snag good student housing; if you roll up expecting to sort something out in the two days before classes start, you may be unpleasantly surprised to find there are far fewer good options.
There’s More to Germany than Big Cities
I’m not saying that Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt aren’t a good time -- they’re popular study abroad destinations for a reason! --, but make sure you also investigate some of the smaller cities that also have unique exchange programs. Places like Marburg and Freiburg are small university towns in idyllic settings, built around castles and look like the setting for a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. If hectic cosmopolitan life isn’t for you, it’s worth giving these options a look as well.
Speaking German is Great, but You Can Get By Without
By all means if you can learn some German before you come, that’s great, but one of the best things about Germany and its popularity as an exchange student destination is that there are plenty of resources in the country to help you learn German once you get here. Chances are you destination university has a program, and there are also numerous private language schools you can sign up for to find something that better fits your schedule.
Additionally, it’s true that many Germans, especially the younger ones, speak at least a bit of English. The country also has a good tourism market, so in the bigger cities especially locals won’t be put off by you asking for directions in English -- slowly.
Germany has Lots of Amazing Snacks
From currywurst to Berliners, Germans do snacks right, especially when they’re meant to accompany beer. Here’s a short list of some you’ve got to try.
Currywurst -- classic German ‘street meat,’ grilled sausages sliced up and then drizzled with curried ketchup.
Spreewaldhof Get One! -- these single pickles packaged in a can will make you laugh, and also make for a good study snack.
Spritzkuchen -- delicious fried German pastries drizzled with icing; sometimes called German Crullers.
Pumpernickel Bread -- It might have a funny name, but Germans are downright serious about their bread. The darker, the better. In fact, bread in general is huge here, with bakeries doing everything from dark rolls to savoury loaves, to sweet brötchen. You’ll quickly forget about the bread of home.
Pretzels -- Not the tiny, dried one you find in chip bags, but big, luscious pretzels to season your beer at the local Oktoberfest.
Marzipan -- This sweet treat made from almond paste is especially popular around Christmas time, and any students studying in Hamburg should make a point to visit Lübeck, a town just an hour northeast of Hamburg that’s especially renowned for its marzipan.
There are Different Dialects of German
Most people are surprised to learn there’s not just one version of German that’s spoken across the country. There are many different dialects, most belong to either the ‘High German’ or ‘Low German’ classification.
High German (Hochdeutsch) is the dialect you’ll hear around the central and southern half of Germany, and into Luxembourg, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. It’s also the main administrative language for the country, and what you’ll hear most people in mass media or higher education speaking. Low German (Plattdeutsch or Niederdeutsch) is the dialect you’ll hear spoken in the north, and is not as common.
If you forget which is which, it helps to remember that Low German comes from the low-lying coastal regions to the north, and high German comes from the more elevated mountains to the south.
And then you have Bavarian, known in German as ‘Bayerisch’, which is something else entirely. As a German-as-a-second-language-speaker, Bavarian will no doubt leave you wondering what the heck just happened to your ears and why all the German you were learning suddenly seems to make no sense. This fun language is spoken mainly in the southern Bavarian parts of Germany, and also some places in Italy and Austria.
German Cinema Will Help You Fit In
Germany is a huge contributor to cinematic history, especially in the early 20th Century. There are distinct German film periods, including that of the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany and West German films. Recently there have been a string of hits out of modern German cinema, including Run Lola Run, Good bye Lenin!, The Edukators, and The Lives of Others.
I recommend watching a few German moves before you go to get a feel for the culture, and also have some pop trivia to discuss with your German classmates. We also recommend screening them in German with English subtitles, of course! This is also a great way to pick up some slang to add flavor to your German.
Here’s my list of recommended German movies to watch before you go, with titles in English (followed by German).
Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt)
Good Bye Lenin! (Good Bye Lenin!)
The Edukators (Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei)
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika)
The Baader Meinhof Complex (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex)
Downfall (Der Untergang)
The Boat (Das Boot)
The Bridge (Die Brücke)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant)*
The Crocodiles (Die Vorstadtkrokodile)
The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)
If you watch everything here, you’ll have a great overview of German cinema culture before you even set foot in Deutschland!
*In Bavarian German, bonus!
Football is Sacred
‘Fußball,’ or soccer as Americans call it, is huge in Germany. You’ll see bars full of crazed football fans on big game evenings, and it’s not uncommon for big rivalries to sprout between fans of opposing teams.
Football fans who choose to study abroad in Germany will be especially at home in Munich, where the whole city can be seen sporting the red colors of home team Bayern Munich when they have a big game, and where you’ll need to buy your tickets in advance if you want to catch a match.
Forthrightness Will Help You Communicate
Germans are very direct and outspoken, straightforward, and honest. If someone asks ‘How are you?’ They mean it as a serious question, not as a small-talk starter to be brushed off with, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ If someone asks you how you are, they expect to hear about you, your family, how you’re feeling and what your plans for the next little while are. By contrasts, Americans’ proclivity for shallow small talk is one that some Germans find downright frustrating.
Furthering this intercultural communication crisis is the fact that German humor is often blunt to the point of seeming rude by American standards, and often relies on context rather than a knowing ‘wink’ or obvious guffaw to deliver the punchline. I promise once you get used to it though, you’ll find Germans are actually hilarious. Also, get used to making lots of eye contact.
Sundays are for Coffee & Cakes
Even though Germany has a very liberal attitude towards religion, they have a very strict attitude towards ‘No Work on Sundays,’ leftover from when it was still considered ‘the Lord’s Day.’ This means not only are most stores closed (except for train stations, and some other necessary conveniences), but Germans don’t like to see you doin anything that disturbs the peace, or looks like hard work. This means no mowing the lawn, doing anything loud, or even practicing music.
I once made the foolish mistake of thinking a nice Sunday afternoon was the perfect time to practice my flute music for an upcoming orchestral performance with the youth orchestra I was involved in. I never saw my host father fly up the stairs so fast as when he did to stop me, assuring me that it was too much work for a Sunday. Telling him I wasn’t even practicing ‘that hard’ did not to assuage him.
Save your Sundays for hanging out and relaxing with family and friends. On Sunday afternoons in particular, Germans are very fond of serving coffee and cakes, sort of their version of a British high tea. Some bakeries even open for a couple hours on Sundays just so Germans can pick up some cakes for this very reason.
Germany is a Wonderful Study Abroad Destination
The semester I spent living in Hamburg, Germany was one of the best six months of my life. Not only did it instill a huge sense of independence and responsibility in me, but I learned the language, grew a love for German culture and cinema, and had the crazy experience of learning to communicate with classmates in a totally different language (although, I admit, I never did finish my copy of Hobo Faber by Max Frisch -- sorry, guys!).
To give you an idea of just how easy it can be -- when I left for Germany the only sentence I could say was, ‘Your house looks nice,’ and ‘I’m hungry.’ I was the only English exchange student in my class, and I still had a total blast. Germany is an absolutely wonderful destination for study abroad, and one that makes fitting into another lifestyle quite easy for English speakers. From Hamburg in the north to Munich in the south, there’s plenty to do and love from the big cities to the natural wonder of this country, and living there gives you a chance to explore it first-hand.