Thursday, September 27, 2007

Berlin's Foreigner Registration Office

One of the many bureaucratic hurdles one must jump through in order to continue living in Germany is to receive or extend one's residence permit. The process is usually fairly straightforward: you fill out an application with two photos; you have to be registered in the town where you are living (the first bureaucratic hurdle); you present your rental agreement; your proof of insurance; your bank statements, scholarship statement, or letter from your parents promising at least 500-some euros per month to support you; your acceptance to the university or language school, if you attend one; a job offer, if you have one; and some cash -- anywhere from 30-60 euros.

In Frankfurt/Oder, this process generally took around a month. Their Foreigner Registration Office was only open twice a week, and the trainee there, powertripping on his ability to make things difficult, often required papers that were unnecessary and not at hand (with a bunch of stamps, natch). Also, for whatever reason, they couldn't actually print the title that goes in one's passport immediately, so about two weeks after everything was squared away one finally received that prized rainbow sticker that takes up two valuable pages in one's passport.

In Hamburg, this process could be completed in about an hour, if one showed up at the office's opening time. Straightforward tasks like registration were handled in the Bezirksämter around the city rather than at the central registration office, which I now feel has to streamline the process (for applicants, at least) dramatically. I have nothing but good things to say about the two employees who helped me with my residence permit in Hamburg. They were incredibly helpful, tried to make things easier for me, granted me ample extensions, saw me outside of office hours, allowed me to call their personal extensions, etc. Tip of the hat, Eimsbütteler Bezirksamt!

So now Berlin. I had heard stories -- that they didn't reply to requests for appointments, that the lines were long, that "preferred nationalities" got a more comfortable waiting room than others, etc. I applied (via email, how tech savvy) for an appointment at the end of August, before I left Hamburg even, for some point in September before my extended permit expired on October 1. After a week, their sad reply: there are no appointments remaining for September! What's a girl to do? Come and wait in line, they replied.

And come (three times) and wait (five hours) I did. Me and the masses of people also denied appointments, many of them students just arriving in Germany.

First, I have to say that the Berlin Foreigner Registration Office (sharing a building with the office dealing with asylum seekers) is in the freaking middle of nowhere, which is pretty hard in a big city like Berlin. And yet, tucked away between a canal and a bunch of train tracks, the nearest bus stop 500 m away with nary a subway or suburban train station in sight, they managed to put an institution for a huge population reliant on public transportation. From where I live, it takes an hour to get there, so I spent an additional six hours in transit.

They are open only three days a week. Two of those days, they open at 7 a.m. and close at 2 p.m., but run out of appointments by noon. One day they open at the far more human 10 a.m., closing at 6 p.m. Today the line snaked through the crowd control setup in the registration hall, out and down a hallway, out the entrance doors and into the courtyard and was still outside 1.5 hours after opening when I left.

Once you get your number in the registration hall, you continue waiting in a series of waiting rooms, depending on your nationality or academic status. Tuesday, they called my number 21 two hours after opening. Today they had served nine people in 1.5 hours. There isn't enough seating in any of the waiting rooms.

And as if that's not bad enough -- 30 cents per page to copy. Only one photo machine. And the toilets don't have seats. You get to choose between a bowl to squat over or an authentic squat toilet. I have never met those anywhere else in my time in Germany.

For me, the third time was the charm and I did end up with a piece of paper allowing me to remain here legally: a Fiktionsbescheinigung. I had to laugh at the name. It's good until Christmas Day. I'm supposed to contact them again in six weeks, by which point my file should have arrived from Hamburg and hopefully the start of school year madness will have subsided. I am guessing my appointment will be sometime in December. It sure would be nice (and would make things a LOT easier) to have a job offer (ha!) by that point . . .

The good news is it appears the Fiktionsbescheinigung allows me to continue working at pithy jobs for now, even though the woman in the office had assured me my status would change. The other bit of good news is that I didn't have to pay anything yet.

And while I complain about the process, the office and my treatment, I understand that it is still so much worse for those not from a western ally like the United States, for applicants with small children, for refugees, for everyone who doesn't actually speak German. And I also imagine how complicated, confusing and stressful it is for the foreign students in the U.S., especially after September 11. And you thought the DMV was bad!


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