Step by Step Guide to Start as Freelancer in Berlin

Freelancing in Berlin for the perpetually disorganised

Confession time: when I moved to Berlin from the UK six months ago, I had no plan. I had the address of a family friend I could stay with for a few weeks, a job interview which ended up going nowhere, a few hundred pounds in my bank account, and a rising sense of dread whenever I tried to research German bureaucracy.

The latter wasn’t helped by the contradictory advice offered on most of the websites I visited, or the fact that these were all aimed at sensible people who, unlike me, already had established careers. Following a few months of phone calls, panicked late-night Googling, dubious advice from friends, and ignoring my problems in the hope they’d go away, I decided that I needed to do some systematic research into how I could actually work as a freelancer in Berlin without receiving threatening letters from various institutions. And without going crazy. Here’s what I’ve learned.

(Disclaimer: I’m writing this as a UK citizen, pre-Brexit - as such, I know nothing about visa regulations. Yet. Watch this space)

Everything I should have done before I got here

Whether you’re moving to Berlin and hoping to continue your existing freelance work, or you’re planning to get a job in a hipster café while you work on your graphic design portfolio, there are a few basic things you need to think about before you move.

First things first: you’re going to need a place to live. Specifically, a place which lets you get Anmeldung - literally, “registration”. This guide will give you the lowdown on the technical details, but how do you find a flat with Anmeldung in the first place? You can try looking at short-term sublets on Facebook (just search “flats in Berlin” and you’ll come across a few groups), but most of these are overpriced and un-anmeld-able. Unless you already have a network of friends in Berlin who can ask around for you, I’d recommend creating an account on WG Gesucht and hunting around for a flatshare. A reasonably-priced room in a shared flat can cost between €300 and €500 per month, including bills.

Next you need to think about how you’re actually going to make a living. In an ideal world, you’d already have plenty of contacts and you could just get on with earning money (don’t forget that, depending on your visa, you might need to prove you have clients in Germany). In reality, you’re probably worrying that freelancing alone isn’t going to pay the bills. This leaves you with two options: either broaden your scope beyond your chosen field and look for a few hours’ work per week as a freelance childminder/ English tutor/ bartender, or find some paid employment to tide you over. If you go for the latter, you’ll need to work out what percentage of your income will come from freelancing - this will affect how much tax you pay and the kind of health insurance you’re eligible for.

Let’s start with health insurance - get yourself a coffee, a notebook, and some coloured pens, because this might take a while. Put simply, there are three classifications of paid employment in Germany: Minijobs (currently, paying up to €450 per month), Midijobs (currently, paying between €450.01 and €850 per month), and Vollzeit (full-time employment, currently paying €850.01 or more per month). If your work is classified as a Midijob or as full-time employment, then your employer has to help pay for your health insurance and you’ll be “compulsorily insured” (pflichtversichert) via a public health insurance company. You’ll also have to pay a contribution based on your freelance income - but since that’s variable, you’ll have to check it with the insurer.

If, on the other hand, you take on a Minijob alongside your freelancing, you’ll be “voluntarily insured” (freiwillig versichert), and you can choose to be insured by a private or a public health insurer. Make no mistake, though: you do have to have insurance, and whichever path you choose this will cost you at least a couple of hundred euros per month - even if your freelancing dries up and you’re only earning a Minijob wage. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a parent or spouse in Germany whose insurance you can use when the going gets tough (marry me, somebody?), you’ll need to make sure your income is able to cover health insurance on top of everything else.

Now it’s time to think about tax. There are a few important things to consider. Firstly, depending on your income and what kind of freelancer you are, you might need to charge your clients VAT. Secondly, if you’re new to freelancing, start documenting all your expenses - many items, from travel to office space, are tax deductible - and the hours you spend working. Thirdly, if you’re working as an employee and a freelancer at the same time, you’ll have to pay tax on both sources of income - this gets complicated, so check out this thread for more information. On top of all of this, depending on what time of year you move and how many working days per year you spend in Germany or your home country, you might have to pay some tax in both countries. If you’re from the UK, you should start by checking out this page.

Getting your head around housing, healthcare, and the tax system before you’ve even moved can be intimidating, but it’s far better than leaving it till later. Above all, if you’ve got a problem, ask someone who knows - and no, your friends (or even your clients) don’t count. Call the relevant government or health insurance hotline, and get a friend to translate for you if necessary.

Paperwork II: revenge of the bureaucrat

So despite all these obstacles, you’ve decided to move to Berlin anyway - after all, how hard can it really be? An expat’s work is never done, though, so in between hangovers you’re going to need to do some cold, hard admin.

You should have two priorities: getting a bank account and getting the aforementioned Anmeldung. Before I arrived I spent hours weighing up the pros and cons of various “proper” banks, but in the end I realised that the only option available to me was N26. If you’re not earning enough to even start thinking about loyalty programs or credit cards, then this is probably the bank for you; you don’t even need to provide proof of address, so it lets you get up and running in a matter of weeks. Next, it’s Anmeldung time. You’ll need Anmeldung to get various other pieces of paperwork: your personal tax ID number (Steueridentifikatsionsnummer), freelancing tax number (Steuernummer), and hygiene certificate (Rote Karte - you’ll need this if you want to work with food).

Then, of course, you’ll need health insurance - which means you’ll need some form of income, as a freelancer or as an employee. If you think your freelance career might take a while to get off the ground, then make it your top priority to find a Midijob (see above). Once you’ve got a source of income and a health insurer, you need to find out what your pension insurance number (Rentenversicherungsnummer) is - and most importantly, send off for your Sozialversicherungsausweis. This is just a piece of paper with your pension insurance number on, but you’ll need it if you ever need to claim unemployment benefits.

Finally, since you’re a freelancer, you’ll need to create invoices for all the work you’re (hopefully) getting paid to do. Check out these pages for tips on how to do this correctly. This is actually relatively easy - and if you’re having trouble, just ask a fellow freelancer.

Getting settled in

Doing things by the book is important, obviously, but what about your day-to-day life? Where can you work? Who can you network with? And most importantly, how do you achieve some kind of work-life balance?

First up: where to work. The most obvious option is your bed (it’s free!), but you probably don’t want to spend 24 hours a day in your room. Coworking spaces are great, as is the coffee shop around the corner, but both of these options can quickly eat into your budget. Alternatively, you could get a library card (it’s way cheaper), or even set up your own “coworking” scheme with some friends - just arrange to go round to each others’ flats on different days and bully each other into getting things done. If you do occasionally need somewhere to meet clients, then companies like Spacebase let you rent meeting rooms across town by the hour - without signing up for a pricey membership.

Wherever you’re working, we all know that freelancers live and die by their personal networks. An obvious advantage of coworking is that you’re surrounded by other freelancers, but if you’re working from home then don’t despair: the internet provides. Facebook has plenty of freelancing groups which can help you out with everything from finding a graphic designer to working through your ridiculously complicated tax problems; meanwhile, Meetup can connect you with other freelancers in your field for some actual face-to-face interaction.

Finally, it should go without saying: resist the urge to monetise every waking hour. Try to remember the reasons why you moved here - the arts scene, the nightlife, some vague idea about learning a language - and actively schedule them in. Start going to some kind of regular event where you can make friends, add everyone you meet on Whatsapp, use Bumble (does this actually work??), hell, talk to strangers in the U-Bahn. Whatever you do, remember that there’s more to life than paperwork and paying the bills.

Rosemary Brook-Hart
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