Hey, people in my computer. The past two months have been a whirlwind of bureaucratic red tape, unsolicited phone calls, and agonized waiting. As horrifying as this process is, remember that I’m in a country that welcomes immigrants. Whenever I think about that, it reminds me that it’s probably a LOT worse for people trying to get into the US. I was lucky to be born there. You guys, be grateful if you have an American passport and stop being so damn xenophobic. That shit is annoying.
Anyway, immigration is an immensely complicated topic and there’s a lot to say about it. What follows is a rant about just one of the many requirements for the visa application if you’re a freelance English teacher in Germany.
After the CELTA course (which ended in the middle of August), I was so exhausted that I pretty much collapsed in on myself like a dying star. I slept at least 12 hours every day for a month afterward, which is probably because I had only been getting three hours of sleep a night during the course. This felt familiar, and I gave myself that month to recover. Sure, I hardly ever left the apartment. Sure, the whole point of moving to Germany was to improve my German and I’d spent all my time so far speaking English with other English speakers. That was fine, since the plan was to be here at least a year. I had plenty of time, and the CELTA course was so, so intense. I needed to rest before I could function as a human again.
Then, around the middle of September, I suddenly started freaking out about getting my work visa. At this point, I had already been in Germany for two months, which meant I only had a month left to get my work visa (Americans can enter the EU as tourists and stay for up to 90 days without a visa. A visa is required for anything longer than that). I hadn’t started looking for teaching jobs. I hadn’t tried to figure out what kind of health insurance I needed. Despite my grandiose plans of living in Germany as a freelancer, I had done absolutely nothing toward getting the work visa that would allow me to stay here.
In order to apply for a work visa, you already have to have been offered a job. In the case of freelance English teachers, you need a letter of intent from at least three different language schools. The letter of intent is a document stating that the language school is interested in hiring you as a freelancer and should also state how much they’ll pay you and how many hours they want you to work. It’s not a legally binding contract, but it still isn’t something a school director will just hand out to people. In addition to applying for a job, you have to ask them to go out of their way to help you, the foreigner, stay in this country.
And so began a furious, panic-fueled campaign to apply to every language school in Berlin in under thirty days.
It was a demoralizing process. It might be different in other parts of Germany, but Berlin is extremely competitive (probably because it’s an awesome city and EVERYONE wants to be here). A lot of language schools won’t even consider someone unless they are an EU citizen or already have a work permit. Why would they go out of their way to help me when they could just hire a British person instead? (as of now, November 2016) There were so many times when it seemed like they were interested in what I had to offer, but then changed their minds as soon as they learned that I needed a work permit. All I needed was those three pieces of paper and the nightmare would end, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to help me.
Image via pewdiepie.wikia.com
I got so sick of being told, “Sorry, can’t help you. Come back if you figure it out.” The thought of another day filled with begging, indifference, and rejection was almost enough to make me want to give up and go back home.
To put things into perspective, I applied to over thirty language schools in Berlin in one month. Each time I applied somewhere, I put their information with the date I contacted them into an Excel spreadsheet. Every day I would look for more schools to apply to, either by emailing them my CV or by going in person. Once I’d done that, I would follow up with a phone call two weeks after our initial contact.
Over thirty language schools, and not one of them called me back.
I’m told that’s how it is here. Language schools receive tons of applications every single day, so you have to scream to get any attention. If you don’t scream loud enough, you must not really need the job.
That month was tough, but through it I learned how to steer the conversation toward my work permit instead of bluntly asking for a favor. I used to work in a hospital, so if I was able to find the school director, one of the first things I would ask is if their school offers medical terminology classes. That opened up the conversation so I could talk about my past experience and what I could offer the school. It gave them a very concrete detail that made me stand out from the dozens of faceless emails they had to sift through every day. I’ve worked a few office jobs, so I would also ask about classes on business English and corporate communications. Then, after I’d gotten their attention and made them think about how I could benefit their school, I would ask if they were willing to write a letter of intent for me to use on my visa application.
I still got rejected a lot, but even as they told me “no,” a lot of school directors said that I should stay in touch because they really thought they could use me. And even though I heard “no” a LOT during that month, I only needed three people to say yes.
I think the biggest challenge was not giving up. There were days where I had to fight just to get myself out of bed in the morning. There were days when I felt like I couldn’t take another phone call that ended in rejection, but the only way to find out if the next school would help me was to call them. Even though the last three calls I had made put me through to a bored-sounding receptionist who had probably thrown my resume in a drawer somewhere and forgotten about it, the next one might get me a job interview.
That’s exactly how I got the three letters I needed. Despite the overwhelming rejection, despite being told over and over again by receptionists, “Well, if they haven’t contacted you by now, they’re probably not interested,” I still kept putting myself out there. By consistently sending out applications, going in person to harass the school director, and following up with phone calls, I was able to secure an interview on top of the three letters of intent (I’m still waiting for one school to email the letter to me, but that’s a whole separate issue).
The first one I got came as a complete surprise. By then, I was used to school directors losing interest once I mentioned the work permit. I had gone to apply to a school in person and had already asked the school director about the kinds of classes they offered. I sat in front of his desk in my spiffy interview clothes, bracing myself for the inevitable rejection as I told him about the kinds of classes I would be able to teach, when he glanced down at my resume and said, “Oh, you’re an American. Do you need a letter of intent for a work permit?”
This was the complete opposite of every other conversation I’d had so far. He said he could have the letter ready for me in a week, and then looked concerned and asked if I needed it sooner. At that point, I wanted to leap across the desk and sweep him into a huge bear hug.
This process was stressful and dehumanizing, but I learned so much from it. Even though there are tons of schools whose policy is to not lift a finger to help a freelancer (even though their business depends on freelancers), there are also good, compassionate people out there who will treat you as a human being.
The tricky part is finding them.
As of right now, I still haven’t officially applied for my visa. During the panic phase in September, I went on the Ausländerbehörde (immigration office) website and was able to book an appointment for November 17th. That was over a month after my 90 days as a tourist were up, but because the appointment was booked within those 90 days, I was allowed to stay until the appointment. That bought me an extra month to get everything I needed.
That helped ease a lot of the stress I was feeling.
I’ve heard other Americans say that when they tried to do the same thing, there were no appointments available at all. I got lucky. Cthulhu be praised.
I think if I hadn’t been able to book the appointment at the immigration office, I would have shown up without an appointment before the 90 days were up and just hoped they would give me an extension on the paperwork I was missing. I’ve heard horror stories about people who didn’t have an appointment having to show up at 4 am to get a place in line, and still not being helped until the afternoon. Obviously that’s not ideal, but if my options are to have one shitty day at the Ausländerbehörde, or give up on everything I’ve worked for and go back home, then it’s no contest.