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The expat’s healthcare guide to Germany

To help get you started, we’ve put together a quick introduction guide to some of the basics to think about when trying to navigate healthcare in Germany.

The expat’s healthcare guide to Germany
Photo: Studioclover/Depositphotos

Finding a doctor

You should figure out what doctor to go to before you actually need to see a doctor. Luckily this isn’t too hard – every doctor in Germany is listed in the local phone directory (Gelbe Seiten) under Ärzte, so this could be your starting point.

If you have an international health plan such as Cigna Global, your insurance company may be able to help you find a doctor who speaks your language – just get in touch with their 24/7 customer service.

Naturally you can also find a doctor online – multiple websites list doctors according to their location or their specialty. This website is searchable in English as well. If you do speak German, websites like DocInsider offer ratings and rankings by other patients. Often, however, the best references come from word of mouth – so just ask a friend, neighbor, or colleague.

Other good sources are the university clinics (Kliniken) in major cities that provide outpatient services in addition to hospitalization. These clinics are usually staffed by highly skilled doctors who often speak English. You could also contact your embassy or consulate for a list of doctors who speak English or your native language.

The opening hours at doctor’s offices vary greatly. Many offices are closed on Wednesday afternoons, so it’s best to call before you visit and make an appointment. 

Find out more about Cigna Global health insurance

Emergency care

If you need medical assistance outside of normal doctor office visiting hours, you have a couple of options.

If it’s not terribly urgent, but you still can’t wait until the doctor’s office opens, you can take advantage of the Ärztlicher Bereitschaftsdienst (Medical Emergency Service). This is a GP who is on call to handle emergencies after normal office hours. You can reach the service anywhere in Germany by dialing 116 117.4

You could also try calling your regular doctor. If they’re unavailable, the recording on their answering machine might give you the number of a nearby emergency doctor.

In more urgent scenarios, you look up the section called Ärztlicher Notdienst or Ärztlicher Bereitschaftsdienst  in your local newspaper. It lists all physicians on stand-by for emergency duty, numbers of emergency hotlines, and pharmacies with 24/7 service.

And if there’s not time for that, take a taxi to the nearest emergency room (Notaufnahme) or call 112 or 19222 for an ambulance.

Call ‘112’ for high emergency cases (think life-threatening cases) and call ‘116 117’ for all other emergencies. Both numbers work 24/7.

Specialist care

Most people have a Hausarzt or Allgemeinarzt (general doctor) as their family doctor, who will make referrals to a specialist if necessary. Most specialists require a referral, called an Überweisung, so don’t just call up any specialist and expect to receive an appointment out of the blue.

Pharmacies

Pharmacies (Apotheke) are often open as late as 8pm during the week, and may have earlier closing times on Saturdays. They are always closed on Sundays and public holidays, but there will always be at least one in each city/region that provides out-of- hours service. Look for a notice in the window of any pharmacy to find out which pharmacy is on duty, or alternatively, find the addresses in your local newspaper in the section “Apotheken-Notdienst” (pharmacy emergency service).

You can also find contact information on the pharmacy emergency service online.

Unlike in countries such as the USA or UK, large drugstore chains do not exist in Germany. In fact, a “drug store” in Germany (Drogerie) sells toiletries and other consumer items, but not medicines.

However, you can purchase over-the- counter basic medication, such as cough syrup, cold medicine, throat lozenges and nose spray at stores like Rossmann and dm (drogerie markt). 

You can only receive prescription medication if you have a written prescription from your doctor – the Medical Products Act in Germany is quite strict.

If you have private insurance and your prescriptions are covered, make sure to save a copy of the prescription and a stamp – this will allow you to be reimbursed. You pay for the medicine yourself in the first instance but just send the copy of the prescription and the payment receipt to your insurer and you’ll be reimbursed within a few weeks.

Insurance

Alright, so how do you pay for it all?

If you have German health insurance, your insurance company will give you a plastic ID card (Krankenversicherungskarte) which you need with you when you visit a doctor. This card contains a chip with your personal data, which the doctor’s secretary will screen on your first visit. Statutory health insurance accreditation (Kassenzulassung) means that costs will always be covered by the insurer.

Generally you have to figure out health insurance, and prove you’re covered, before you get a residence permit in Germany. Many people simply have the state health insurance, while others opt for private global health insurance such as Cigna Global. Hospitals in Germany can be quite expensive, so private health insurance can be a great net to fall back on.

If you are state-insured, the doctor will send his bill directly to your insurance company. If you have private insurance, you’ll usually pay the full price up front for both visits and prescriptions, and send the receipts to your insurer for reimbursement.

Note that some doctors only treat privately insured clients. Of course that’s not a problem if you already have an international health plan such as Cigna. But if you have state insurance, make sure you check this when making an appointment. Doctors who accept state payments generally display a sign – Kassenarzt or Alle Kassen in their office. If you’re treated by anyone other than a Kassenarzt, the state insurance system will not reimburse you.

All emergency expenses are automatically covered by your public health insurance in Germany. If you’re a member of public health insurance you don’t need to pay anything, whether you go to hospital or call the ambulance.

Things to keep in mind

Any time you go to a hospital or see a doctor, make sure to bring your health insurance card.

Make copies of your bills, for visits and surgeries, particularly if you have private insurance and need to send them off for reimbursement. Exactly how long you wait for reimbursement can vary but it’s usually one to three weeks.

Participating in a global private health insurance plan, like that offered by Cigna Global, who specialise in healthcare for expats, ensures you are covered at every level, while having maximum flexibility.

Find out more about Cigna Global health insurance

 
This article was produced by The Local Client Studio and sponsored by Cigna Global.
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BERLIN

Why Berlin deserves its ranking as the ‘third happiest city’ in the world

A handful of German cities ranked among the world's 'happiest' according to a recent index, but Berlin took the top spot at third in the world. We asked some long-term residents about the best (and worst) parts of living in Germany's notorious capital.

Why Berlin deserves its ranking as the 'third happiest city' in the world

Berlin was rated the third happiest city in the world according to the “Happy City Index 2024”.

Other particularly happy cities in Germany are Munich and Cologne, which also qualified for the index’s “Gold” standard.

Leipzig also ranked among the top 100 happiest cities. Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, Hamburg, and Frankfurt all ranked in the top 250.

According to the Institute of Quality of Life, the Happy City Index ranks cities across the world according to “thousands of indicators…that directly relate to the quality of life and the sense of happiness” of city residents.

Cities in the index are given a score in five categories: citizens, governance, environment, economy and mobility. The citizens category, for example, looks at a city’s education system, its level of social inclusion and library resources.

Berlin received its highest scores in the citizens and economy categories, followed by mobility.

The city with the highest overall score was Aarhus, Denmark followed by Zurich, Switzerland.

In light of Berlin’s high score for happiness, The Local takes a look at what makes Germany’s capital a great place to live, as well as some things that residents often complain about.

A capital of accessible mobility

One thing that a lot of Berlin residents appreciate is how easy the city is to navigate without a car. 

Thanks to an interconnected network of trains, trams and buses, you can get anywhere on public transportation – and often in roughly the same amount of time it would take to drive. 

Berlin’s 190 kilometre tram network happens to be among the oldest in the world.

A tram drives past the famous ‘World Clock’ in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau
 

Additionally, the city has a fair amount of bicycle infrastructure. It’s no Danish city, but there are enough bike lanes to make commuting across the city by bike an appealing option when weather allows.

Whether by train, bike or foot, visitors and residents alike tend to find that Berlin is a nice city for just wandering around.

Paul Sullivan, founder of Slow Travel Berlin who has lived in Berlin for 16 years, told The Local that as a “committed urban hiker”, he finds the city “incredibly laid-back and accessible, fascinating and full of interesting people”.

For urban hiking in particular, Sullivan added that it helps that the city is pleasingly flat.

Affordable living (despite rising costs)

In the Happy City Index, Berlin’s second highest score was in the economy category – which feels a bit ironic for a city long known for being “poor but sexy”.

But despite wages in Berlin being notoriously low compared to other major German cities, the city remains affordable overall. 

Asked what he likes about living in Berlin, content creator and tour guide Jonny Whitlam, told The Local, “The best part is the relative affordability.”

“Despite rising rents and groceries in recent years, average German wages are higher than many European neighbours, but cost of living isn’t significantly more, meaning that living, eating, and saving are a distinct possibility and attraction,” he added.

Affordable mobility is a factor here too, with Berlin residents being able to access all of the city’s public transportation for €49 per month with the Deutschlandtiket. Starting in July, residents could even opt for a local €29 Berlin-abo ticket instead.

Of course, as Whitlam mentioned, rising rents and living costs have delivered some blows to Berlin’s affordability in recent years.

Berlin has become the second most expensive German city to rent in, and rents continue to rise rapidly in the city despite rental price protections in place.

READ ALSO: Why are Berlin rents soaring by 20 percent when there’s a rent brake?

For now, however, Berlin rents are still cheap compared to many other big European cities. According to Statista, average rents in Berlin in 2023 were still well below those in Amsterdam, Lisbon, Rome, Paris, and Munich.

A playground full of culture and history

Mobility and affordability make Berlin a great place to stay for those who reside here, but arguably what draws newcomers to the city is its culture.

For Whitlam, Berlin’s “hedonistic bent” is among the city’s draws. Residents and visitors alike often find a taste of that hedonistic culture at one of the city’s many world-renowned techno clubs.

READ ALSO: Berlin’s techno scene added to UNESCO World Heritage list

Queue for Berghain club

Hundreds of people queue outside Berghain, Berlin’s most famous techno club. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

Whitlam notes that Berlin’s rich and well-documented history also makes the city ripe for exploration. Between “Prussian, Imperial, Third Reich, or Cold War locations…you’re never far from something historically interesting and deeply significant,” he said. 

For Sullivan, Berlin offers a “sense that life can be lived differently…a willingness to embrace the alternative and quirky”. 

For some, an alternative life might mean attending FKK (nudist) events or sex-positive parties and for others it might mean growing vegetables in a community garden or living on a boat in the Spree.

Whatever it is you are into, you can probably find a community of people who share your interests in Berlin.

It’s not all wine and roses

There are many reasons why Berlin has earned its place on the Happy City Index, but it demands to be said that there are plenty of things that local residents take issue with. 

“I find it amusing that Berlin has landed in the ‘happiest cities’ category given the heavy weight of its history, the way Berliners have a reputation for routine grumpiness, and that residents complain endlessly about the long, miserable winters,” said Sullivan, putting his finger on a couple common complaints.

Beside grumpy locals and bad weather, the other most common complaint is having to deal with bureaucratic nightmare scenarios.

“Bureaucracy, and the glacial pace of it, is one of the worst things about living in Berlin,” said Whitlam.  

He added: “I have sat before government officials that have asked me to come back with this or that piece of paper, and then been amazed that I have scanned it and saved it in the cloud…This reticence towards technology isn’t just annoying, it will leave this country left in the dust as everyone else moves forward.”

Thankfully, for Berlin residents, after you’ve spent some time doing battle with bureaucracy, you can go for a walk through the park, and have a modestly priced drink by the Spree.

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