Everything you wanted to know about the German artist visa and how to get one.
(Photo from 2013: how you’ll feel when you get that sticker in your passport.)
The German artist visa allows non-EU citizens to live in Germany for one year to pursue creative freelance work. It can be prolonged for up to five years, and depending on the jobs you receive, can be broadened over time to permit other types of work.
This guide is based on my personal experience. The process of attaining this visa isn’t an exact science, but depends mostly on having the right paperwork. My experience with German visas has been pieced together through trial and error, but the overall steps are relatively simple. I’m hoping that this guide can help you avoid detours. I’ll list links when available.
Although this visa is available throughout Germany, the immigration office in Berlin is most acquainted with the process. For anyone looking to explore creative projects in Europe, I would recommend starting out in Berlin.
Note: The Berlin immigration office (Ausländerbehörde) is one of the few Berlin institutions where employees don’t (or won’t) speak English. If you want to avoid hysterically waving your arms and grunting during the appointment, I’d bring someone who speaks German with you the first time around.
You need an address in the city you’ll be living. An apartment contract is ideal, but if you just arrived and are staying with a friend before finding housing, a letter from this nice friend stating that you live there is sufficient for a first-time application. You’ll need your passport for this too.
Appointments at the registration office (Burgeramt) have long waiting times make an appointment here, so your best bet is to arrive a half-hour before your local office opens (so, 6:30 for a 7:00 a.m. opening) and wait in line to receive a number. (Trust me, if you get there at opening time you’ll be too far back in line to get an appointment and will have to wake up horrendously early again the next day.) Once you register your address, you’ll receive a stamped form which you’ll need for your appointment at the Ausländerbehörde.
Applicants for a work visa are required to be health insured. As a first-time visa applicant, I squeezed by with travel insurance, a much more affordable option (which I’ve heard is no longer accepted). But I had to switch to German insurance when I worked full-time for a German theater.* German insurance is a hefty monthly expense (around 250 Euro a month for the most basic plan). I have Barmer, and am pretty happy with them. Barmer’s English website. (Side note: the Künstlersozialkasse (KSK) is a program for freelance artists that assumes the role of an employer by paying half of your insurance premiums. It’s a whole new can of worms to apply for this and be accepted, but is worth it if you plan to stay in Germany for awhile.)
The Berlin Ausländerbehörde is located at Friedrich-Krause-Ufer 24, 13353 Berlin.
There are boards indicating where people from each country should go. American citizens should head to the second floor of building C (third floor in the US system).
Appointments at the Ausländerbehörde have a three-month wait time, but can be booked online in advance. make an appointment here. Make sure to be on time for your appointment, and bring a print-out of your appointment confirmation (with number). If you don’t have an appointment, you can still arrive at opening and wait in line to speak with an agent in room 218, but you might be waiting for awhile. (You’ll also have to do more insecure arm waving to explain what you need.)
What to Bring
- Berlin registration certificate
- Proof of German health insurance
- Valid passport
- Application for artist visa: application pdf
- Portfolio: I learned that a nice photo on top helps, resume, jobs you’ve done, articles, reviews, and letters of recommendation can’t hurt, either. The more the better.
- Two job offers: you want to show that you’re desirable to the German market, but don’t go crazy. A letter or email from a friend or colleague saying that you will do a project together in Germany on a certain date should suffice. Agents become more specific about what they want during the visa renewal process, but for starters they are pretty easy going.
- Passport-sized photos. There’s a machine in the building where you can take them for 7 Euro. I’d do it there, because they want to see the official-looking green rectangle on the side of the page. Don’t ask me why.
- Bank statment: This is to confirm that you can support yourself, and that you won’t take money from the government to survive. If you have any savings, transfer it into your account for this purpose. A few thousand Euro is ideal.
- The visa will cost between 50 and 110 Euro, which you’ll pay at check-out.
If you’re missing something, an agent might give you a new appointment and tell you what to bring next time. But if they’re satisfied with your materials, you should receive an artist visa that day, most likely for one year to start. Now you’re allowed to work as a freelance artist in Berlin. Congratulations!
A few cautionary notes:
*If you’re a performer, this may apply to you. Theaters can’t hire guest performers as freelancers, so they’ll hire you as an employee for a fixed period. In order to do jobs like these with a freelance visa, you need to go back to the Ausländerbehörde with an unsigned contract and a few applications to have your visa amended. (form for employee and form for employer). They’ll send these things to the Work Agency (Agentur für Arbeit) for permission. This process takes three weeks if you’re lucky. When you receive notice, you’ll return to the Ausländerbehörde to pick up your revised visa. This all has to happen before you can start working.
Never tell the immigration office that you need the visa because you already started the job, whether or not you’ve been paid. You can and will be deported if you work without a valid visa. The dates on your visa need to match the dates on your contract.
If you want to renew this visa after a year, make sure that you make another appointment at the Ausländerbehörde at least three months before your visa expires. You can’t allow time to lapse between visas if you’re hoping for an extension.
So, am I missing anything? Ask a question or share your experience here. If you decide to explore getting an artist visa, or have other concerns about living abroad, let me know.