Red Tape

There are many things that Germans have more of than Americans, e.g. types of beer, vacation days, semesters spent in college, and foreign language skills.  Another part of German life, and something you will deal with in abundance, is Behördenkram, red tape.  The German bureaucracy is so oppressive, and so notorious that Franz Kafka was able to create an entire (albeit mostly posthumous) literary career out of it and its patriarchal underpinnings.  If you don’t believe me, read Der Prozess/The Trial; it’s amazing.  (Or watch the movie.)*

I have been here five months, and in that time have had minor run-ins with German-style bureaucracy.  In October, I set up an account with Deutsche Bahn, the German train system, and tried to authorize payments for train tickets directly from my bank account via the internet.  After filling out a form on the internet, filling out a nearly-identical paper form and mailing it in with copies of my ID cards and bank account numbers, I was rejected.  I received a letter from Deutsche Bahn with a bulleted, eight-item list of the minuscule mistakes I had made that led to my rejection.  One of them was that I had not signed the form.  I had, in fact, signed the form, but when I printed on the size paper they specifically required, the signature line ended up on a second page.   Apparently lifting up the first page to examine the second page in a stack, or perhaps formatting the form so that it fits in on one page in the first place, is too much to ask of the Deutsche Bahn.

In case you are wondering, I still cannot buy a ticket online with the Deutsche Bahn and pay for it from my bank account because of another four-and-a-half-month-long struggle with German bureaucracy.  The only legitimate problem that the Deutsche Bahn had recognized with my application was that my home address and the address on my ID card were not the same.  Since I had used my Virginia driver’s license, and my US Passport, and I currently live here in Germany, they were right.  The reason I had used my American ID, however, was because I had not yet received my German residency permit.  Let me explain…

All German towns have a resident office, and everyone living in Germany (including German citizens) must register with their residency office.  During my first week here in September, I registered first with the resident office in Damme, and then paid a visit to the “local” (read: 30 miles away in the county seat) foreigner office to apply for a residency permit.  This is standard operating procedure for all non-German citizens living in Germany.  Americans can travel into Germany and stay for 90 days without a permit.  Since I still had 83 days left when I went to the foreigner office, I thought I was fine.  I was wrong.

On September 1, 2011, the German government changed from visas that are attached to your passport to electronic cards with biometric capabilities.  The change meant that in addition to all of us new foreigners, all foreigners in Germany who already had valid permits also had to get the new electronic residency permit.  This change also meant that every foreigner office in the country was busily, but slowly, making the switch to the new permit.

On the day of my first visit, I found out that my office did not yet have the electronic fingerprint-taker.  I was still able to fill out all the paperwork, and give them a biometric photo for my future card, but I would have to come back for the fingerprint.  This was in September.

Fast-forward to the end of October.  I still had not heard from the office, so I emailed.  They still did not have the electronic fingerprint reader, but they would email as soon as they did.

Jump to mid-November.  I received an email that they were ready for me, so I made another trip there just to spend five minutes in an office building having my fingerprint taken.  On this trip, I pointed out that I had to be out of the country by December 4.  The man I was dealing with assured me it would be no problem.  After all, it was not my fault that they were not ready.  Since I was flying back to the US on December 14, and would therefore have to go through passport control, I asked for some sort of documentation.  He assured me again that it was not my fault, since I had done everything in a timely manner. I had to point out to him that the guards at the airport in Frankfurt would have no way of knowing that. He finally conceded to give me a paper saying that my residency process was “underway.”  (By the way, the passport control folks at the airport were not pleased with this document, but after thoroughly examining it, me, and my passport, they eventually let me leave Europe.)

Shortly after my return to Germany, I received a letter that my residency card had arrived at the foreigner office.  However, since the foreigner office was not permitted to mail such things, I would have to go and pick it up.  After another 30-mile trip, and a 45-minute wait, I finally had my residency permit in my hands.

That’s not all, though.  Since the police in Germany have not yet been equipped with machines to read the new cards, I have to carry with me at all times an additional sheet that proves the police that the card I have to prove my legal status here actually does that.  At this point, all I can do is laugh.

*Better yet, read this short story, which more or less sums up both Kafka’s writing and the typical experience of dealing with German bureaucracy:

Gibs auf!

Es war sehr früh am Morgen, die Straßen rein und leer, ich ging zum Bahnhof. Als ich eine Turmuhr mit meiner Uhr verglich, sah ich, daß es schon viel später war, als ich geglaubt hatte, ich mußte mich sehr beeilen, der Schrecken über diese Entdeckung ließ mich im Weg unsicher werden, ich kannte mich in dieser Stadt noch nicht sehr gut aus, glücklicherweise war ein Schutzmann in der Nähe, ich lief zu ihm und fragte ihn atemlos nach dem Weg. Er lächelte und sagte: »Von mir willst du den Weg erfahren?« »Ja«, sagte ich, »da ich ihn selbst nicht finden kann.« »Gibs auf, gibs auf«, sagte er und wandte sich mit einem großen Schwunge ab, so wie Leute, die mit ihrem Lachen allein sein wollen.  

(Text from

And now for my translation/summary:

Give Up!

I was on my way to the train station one morning when I realized I was running late.  I didn’t know the city very well, so I asked a guard for directions.  He smiled and asked, “You want me to tell you the way?”  “Yes,” I answered.  “Give up, give up,” he said, and turned away.

(This is the stuff that made me want to go to grad school.)

About heidihefeweizen

I am a 29 year-old American woman who has received a Fulbright scholarship to work as an English teaching assistant in a German high school.
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6 Responses to Red Tape

  1. meganwanders says:

    gah. That takes me back to moving to Switzerland. My first residence permit took 7 months and many trips to the kreisbüro. The next bureaucratic nightmare – having a baby. I hate the paperwork.

  2. What a story! It really gives one an immediate sense of the travails of living in a foreign country. My (German) husband had the opposite experience when we applied for a marriage license in Canada. The office was in a local drugstore (!!!), we just walked in and…applied. I think we needed ID (his German passport was fine), but no other paperwork proving that we weren’t married to other people, etc. We’ve been married 8 years now, and he still can’t get over it.

  3. kathleen says:

    Classic Germany.

    (Also, Kafka Doodle makes me think of Magna Doodle, and what a Kafka Doodle toy might look like…)

    • I think you’d have a hard time opening the box on the Kafka Doodle. Once you finally got in, there would be instructions, but in another language. Then, the woman in your life would throw it in the river, and your dad would yell at you.

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