For members


What moving to Berlin as a British exchange student during the pandemic taught me

Moving to another country is a stressful experience at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. Eve Bennett reflects on the struggles and the rewards of coming to live in Germany in such an unprecedented year.

What moving to Berlin as a British exchange student during the pandemic taught me
Bennett wearing a face mask on the U-Bahn. Photo courtesy of the author.

If you’d have told me at the start of 2020 that I would be writing this piece in an apartment in Berlin, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

I study German and Spanish at university in the UK, meaning I am required to spend the third year of my course working or studying in countries that speak my target languages.

The opportunity to spend a year abroad and immerse myself in new cultures was the reason I chose my course, and I’ve been dreaming of being able to pack a suitcase and leave my normal life behind since I first learned to say ‘Guten Tag‘.

But although I was excited to embrace the chic, cosmopolitan European lifestyle, I was not expecting to come to Germany until 2021 at the earliest.

I had devoted a lot of time to brushing up my Spanish, having planned to spend the second half of the 2020 studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

But just three months later, as the coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise and borders began to close, my perfectly planned year abroad evaporated overnight.

READ ALSO: Opinion: What it feels like to be an American in Germany during the coronavirus pandemic

A spontaneous decision

It soon became impossible to leave my own house in the UK for non-essential reasons, let alone to leave the country. Those university students already living abroad were forced to fly home and there were talks of scrapping the year abroad entirely for the following year.

Thankfully, as lockdown measures began to show results and case numbers began to drop, it seemed I would be able to make the big move anyway, even if it was not quite in the way I had originally envisioned. 

In Berlin over the summer, it might have been hard to tell there was a pandemic. Photo: Eve Bennett

I made sure to follow the global situation very closely during lockdown, scouting out countries safe that would be enough to travel to. It soon became clear that Latin America would remain out of the question, so I turned my search closer to home.

Ultimately, Germany seemed like the safest bet. Compared to the delayed and disorganised response of the UK, an early lockdown and clear government messaging ensured that the country came out comparatively well from the first wave.

Inspired with confidence that the country had the situation under control, I decided to bite the bullet and move to the German capital seven months earlier than planned. 

READ ALSO: How Germany's international residents are affected by the coronavirus pandemic

A strangely normal start 

Anyone who has moved to Berlin will know that the flat-hunt is far from easy during normal times, let alone under the current circumstances. The difficulties of online-viewings and limited vacancies were compounded by the constant fear that a second wave would stop me in my tracks.

After what felt like an eternity spent on WG-Gesucht and eBay Kleinanzeigen, I eventually found a place to live and hopped on a flight not long after. 

Packing up your life and moving to another country is enough to make anyone feel anxious, and despite stabilising case numbers, the risk of coronavirus remained very real. 

But from the moment I got off the plane at Schönefeld I knew my confidence in Germany had not been misplaced. 

Despite moving from a normal-sized town to a bustling capital, I felt safer than I had ever felt at home. Coronavirus testing was readily available for all arrivals at the airport (a novelty coming from England) and hygiene rules were well signposted and strictly enforced.

As I explored the city, I also noticed that people were generally more observant of the requirement to wear masks on public transport and in shops than they were back at home, which helped put my mind at ease. 

In fact, there were days where the pandemic almost entirely slipped my mind – the glorious summer weather made it easy to forget the difficult months of spring and enjoy a few weeks of relative normality.

READ ALSO: 'There needs to be a complete lockdown again': How well is Germany handling the coronavirus second wave?

Easy adjustment period?

I also felt more secure in the knowledge that Germany’s coronavirus response was far more organised than the UK. 

The country has a working contact-tracing app, sufficient testing capacity and a clear, no-nonsense set of rules, all things that the UK government are yet to achieve. 

The Europeans’ love for outdoor living and dining also made building a support network here far easier than I had expected. 

My fears of being unable to meet new people due to social distancing regulations dissolved when I realised just how many opportunities there were to meet in a safe way.

Whether it was sipping Radler on the banks of the Spree or watching the sunset at Tempelhofer Feld, there were plenty of outdoor spaces that were perfect for building new, long-lasting friendships.

Even the nightmare bureaucracy I had been told to expect when arriving in Germany was made easier by the pandemic. The notorious Anmeldung process can now be done online, saving me a long queue at the Bürgeramt (and a great deal of stress). 

Sudden changes

Initially it felt fantastic to be in Germany, knowing I had escaped the chaotic situation in the UK. I received countless messages from friends expressing their jealousy that I was living the continental dream. 

READ ALSO: Why is Germany doing better than the UK at fighting a resurgence of Covid-19?

Of course, adjusting to life in a new city takes some time, even when you aren’t still struggling to acclimatise to the reality of a global pandemic. But once I had overcome the usual mental and administrative hurdles, I finally felt like I was finding my feet. 

And then, out of the blue, my district in Berlin was named as a ‘risk area’ by the German government. 

Cases in the capital began to skyrocket as the weather got colder and the days grew shorter, and it wasn’t long before various federal states banned tourists from risk zones staying in hotels.

The author enjoying a bit of normalcy in a Berlin park over the summer. Photo courtesy of the author.

Soon after, the 11pm curfew on bars and restaurants was introduced, and the bustling city I had come to love grew even quieter. 

Normally, a short trip home to see familiar faces and indulge in home comforts is enough to help you when you’re feeling stressed or alone, but growing travel restrictions soon took this option off the table as well.

Far from home

Moving away from home can be an isolating experience, and in recent weeks it has been hard to shake the feeling of being increasingly trapped.

But despite the ever-changing circumstances around me, the pandemic has also enriched my time here in ways I didn’t expect.

The inability to travel around Europe as I had originally planned was initially hard to swallow, but the current travel restrictions have led me to explore places I would never normally think of visiting.

When my planned trips to Vienna, Prague and Dresden fell through, I decided to visit the town of Szczecin in Poland whilst the country was not a risk area, and I was blown away by how much it had to offer.

I have also used the free time I had set aside for travelling to get to know Berlin on a much deeper level, which has made me realise that you don’t always need to go far to make amazing memories. Sometimes, there are incredible things lying just under your nose.

The last few months have been challenging in many ways, and the move to Germany was far from what I was expecting.

But as we head into a difficult few months, I am more certain than ever that I chose the right country to stick out the winter in.


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For members


What Brits in Europe need to know if they move back to the UK post-Brexit

Most Britons now accept that moving to an EU country is tricky and involves a lot of paperwork, but for Brits deciding to go back to the UK it's easy, right? After all, you're just going home? Wrong.

What Brits in Europe need to know if they move back to the UK post-Brexit

Moving countries is a time-consuming process – but if you’re British and living in the EU you might think that moving back to the UK would be simpler? Well, there won’t be a language barrier and as a UK citizen you won’t need any immigration paperwork (although if you’re bringing an EU partner with then that gets complicated) – but you will still face administrative hurdles around pensions, healthcare, driving and taxes. 

Some of these issues existed before Brexit, while others are as a direct result of the UK leaving the EU. Here are the most common questions from Brits thinking of moving back to the UK; 

Do I still qualify for NHS treatment?

You are entitled to NHS treatment if you are ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK – there is no minimum time limit so as soon as you are back in the UK on a permanent basis, you can use the NHS. You will need to register for a GP in your local area in order to access non-emergency treatment, and to get an NHS number if you do not already have one.

You may need to provide proof of a UK address in order to use NHS services – although in reality UK citizens are rarely asked for this apart from when registering with a GP. 

If you have been an S1 holder while living in the EU you should cancel that, just so there is no confusion over where you are getting your healthcare.

If you go back to the EU for a visit, remember that you are now a tourist and will need a GHIC card to get European healthcare, while travel insurance is also advised in case of accident or illness while visiting an EU country. 

Can I drive on my EU licence in UK?

If you have been living in the EU you may have had to change your UK licence for a French or Spanish one for example.

Once you’re back living in the UK you can continue to drive on you EU licence until the age 70 or if you move to the UK when you are 67 or over you can drive for three years. After this time you’ll need to change your licence.

If your licence or photocard has an expiry date – once it’s time to renew, you should swap it for a UK licence. You’ll need a valid photocard licence to drive in the UK.

You can find details on the swap process for UK licences here, and if you’re in Northern Ireland here

UK residents with an EU licence can if they want exchange their licence for a UK one, if they wish to do so, without the need for a re-test.

Can I bring my EU partner with me?

If you’re returning alone you won’t need to do any kind of immigration paperwork, your UK passport is enough. However if you are bringing with you a partner who is not a UK citizen, it becomes complicated.

After the end of the Brexit transition process there was an ‘amnesty’ period in which Brits with EU partners could move back to the UK under the old immigration rules. This is now ended and EU partners face the same immigration process as all other foreign spouses.

Essentially either your partner will need to have already secured a relatively high-paying job in the UK, or you will need to prove that you have a large amount of money to support them. They will need to go through the process of getting a UK visa (which is expensive – between £1,000 and £1,500 just for the visa fee) and there is no guarantee that their application will be successful simply because they are married/in a civil partnership with a Brit. They will also need to take an English-language exam. 

Find full details here

What about my pension contributions from the EU? 

If you have been working in an EU country, you will probably have been contributing to that country’s pension system. Pre-Brexit, UK and EU pension contributions could be blended into a single pension – but this is no longer the case.

However those Brits still living in the EU who are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement are still theoretically covered by blended pensions if they had made pension contributions in the UK before moving to the EU, but the same does not apply if you move back to the UK and keep working. 

The good news is that EU countries still practice this – so if for example you have worked in France, Germany and Italy your contributions will be totted up and paid out as a single pension – you apply in the last country you worked in. Bear in mind, however, that different countries have different pension ages. So if for example you worked in France (pension age 64 under the new system) and Greece (pension age 67) – you will start to get the French portion of your pension from the age of 64, but you won’t get the Greek part until you turn 67.

The country that is paying your pension may require you to have an EU bank account to pay into – and you should check with the country paying your pension whether there are any other conditions to observe.

When it comes to a pension from the UK, it depends on how long you worked there – the basic rule is that you need 10 years of National Insurance contributions in order to get a state pension. However the UK government states that periods of work done in the EU or EEA ‘may’ count towards your qualifying period. Even if they do, however, they don’t count towards the total pension amount – so for example if you worked for 7 years in the UK and the remaining 35 years of your career in the EU, you can qualify for a UK state pension, but it will only be based on the 7 years of work in the UK (in other words, the payment per month will be tiny).

Further details on UK pension entitlement here.  

Do I need to hand back my residency card, health card etc before I leave the EU? 

Most countries require that you hand back residency cards before you leave, but in truth this is rarely strictly enforced. Check with the local authority that issued your card what they want you to do with them, but most simply ask you to post it back. 

If you do end up keeping residency or healthcare cards – don’t use them on trips back to the EU. Tempting as it might be to avoid border queues or healthcare fees, you will create a confusing official record if you are claiming to be resident of two countries at once.

If you have taken citizenship of an EU country, that is a different matter and of course you are entitled to keep and use your EU passport when visiting the EU.

READ ALL What do dual-nationals need to know about post-Brexit border controls

Do I still have to pay taxes in the EU? 

It’s highly likely that you were paying taxes in the country you lived in. Generally, tax declarations concern the previous year, so you will have to do at least one tax declaration and payment after moving back to the UK.

In France for example, the annual tax declaration takes place in April, and concerns the previous calendar year. So if for example you move back to the UK in September 2023, you will have to complete a tax declaration in April 2024, covering your 9 months of residency in France in 2023.

If you still own property in an EU country you will pay property taxes there, and if you have any earnings in your former home you will likely still have to pay taxes there – check with your local tax office. 

When you left the UK, you will likely have informed HMRC that you were leaving the country, so you will now have to tell them that you’re back. Whether you have to fill out a UK self-assessment form depends on whether you are a salaried employee or self-employed/retired. 

Can I keep my bank account? Do I need a new UK account? 

This one depends on the policy of your bank, but most banks in EU countries require you to have an address in that country.

It’s likely that your UK bank may have closed your account while you were living outside the UK, in which case you will need to open a new one.

A practical option while you are moving and still have interests in both countries is to open an internet bank account with a company like Wise or Revolut – these offer accounts in both pounds and euros and give you a European IBAN and a UK Sort code, so you can use it in both countries.

Will my EU qualifications be recognised?

If you were studying or gaining professional qualifications while living in the EU, don’t assume that these will be recognised in the UK. Brexit ended the mutual recognition of qualifications – check with the professional or academic body that issued them whether these are recognised in the UK, you may need to acquire a certificate of recognition.

It’s a good idea to check this point before you start job-hunting in the UK. 

Be prepared for hassles

The advantage of moving back to the UK is that you’re not starting from scratch and at least you know how things like council tax, electricity billing and healthcare work.

However, don’t assume that it will all be plain sailing – your lack of a recent UK address will make you an anomaly in many companies’ systems and you’re likely to be forced to have several long and annoying conversations with call centres while you explain that while you are a UK citizen, you have not recently been living in the UK.

There are likely to be other niggles too – many UK car insurance companies won’t recognise a no-claims bonus built up abroad, so you’ll be back to paying full premiums on your car insurance, while banks might request extra money laundering checks due to your foreign associations.

And if you fondly imagined that switching from Edf France to Edf UK, or Orange France to Orange UK would be easy because they’re the same company, forget it. They insist they have nothing to do with each other, so you cannot transfer an account.