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Why expats don't feel happy when living in those German cities

A lot of bureaucracy and little human warmth: German cities often don't allow expats to feel at ease. These are the findings of InterNations' Expat City Ranking 2023. Out of 49 cities, the German metropolises of Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt are ranked bottom.

Based on the annual Expat Insider survey, the Expat City Ranking 2023 provides an insight into the best and worst cities to live abroad. 49 cities were analysed. With more than 12,000 participants in 2023, it is one of the most comprehensive studies on living and working abroad. The ranking provides detailed information on satisfaction in the areas of quality of life, settling in, working abroad, personal finances and expat essentials (such as administrative issues and housing).

A study published in the middle of the year already showed that Germany is one of the least attractive locations for expats. In a global comparison, the country offers expats and skilled personnel from abroad the worst start.

German cities are difficult places for expats

Out of a total of 49 cities, the four metropolises of Hamburg (46th place), Berlin (45th place), Munich (38th place) and Frankfurt (37th place) are at the bottom of the Expat City Ranking 2023. German cities are indeed a difficult place for expats who want to integrate into society. In Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, respondents face enormous hurdles when it comes to making friends, familiarising themselves with the local culture or dealing with the paperwork-heavy bureaucracy. Hamburg and Berlin are therefore among the five least favourite cities and also among those with the most unhappy expats. Munich and Frankfurt fare slightly better.

Frankfurt: Good for your career, but not a new home

Frankfurt is ranked 37th out of 49 in the Expat City Ranking 2023. Although this puts Frankfurt in the bottom half of the ranking, it is still the best result of any German city. Overall, 69 per cent of expats are satisfied with their life in Frankfurt (compared to 72 per cent worldwide). Nevertheless, the metropolis on the Main has many of the same problems as Hamburg, Berlin and Munich: Expats find it difficult to make friends, the population is considered unfriendly and the digital infrastructure, administration and language cause major problems.

In fact, Frankfurt ranks among the bottom five cities in the index for familiarisation abroad and for the general friendliness of its inhabitants (45th place in both cases). Less than half (49 per cent) feel at home in Frankfurt (compared to 62 per cent worldwide) and only 44 per cent find it easy to get used to the local culture (compared to 62 per cent worldwide).

"The cultural difference and the language barrier greatly impaired my ability to socialise."
Expat from Nepal

Like Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, Frankfurt is not an easy place to start a new life. The city is ranked 44th in the Expat Essentials Index and ranks second to last - after Berlin - in terms of digital infrastructure (48th place). For example, 27 per cent of respondents find it difficult to make cashless payments - more than three times as many as the global average (eight per cent). While Frankfurt is also among the worst ten cities in terms of administration and language (41st place for both), it performs slightly better than other German cities when it comes to finding accommodation (35th place) and the affordability of housing (30th place).

The city on the Main also disappoints in terms of quality of life (30th place). It is in the bottom three for affordability of public transport and in the bottom ten for culture and nightlife (43rd place). However, the city, which is known for its banking sector, has some strengths in the areas of working abroad and personal finances. The local labour market is the second best in the world and the city ranks third for job security. In addition, 69 per cent of respondents say that their career prospects have improved as a result of moving to Frankfurt (compared to 59 per cent globally). However, expats see little meaning in their work (69 per cent positive responses compared to 78 per cent worldwide). A good salary can make up for this: 80 per cent believe that their disposable household income is sufficient or more than sufficient to lead a comfortable life in Frankfurt.

Munich: Those who persevere at the beginning can expect an exceptionally high quality of life

Munich takes 38th place in the Expat City Ranking 2023. Compared to Hamburg, Berlin and Frankfurt, the Bavarian capital is the German city with the best quality of life and the best conditions for expatriates (11th place in each case). However, Munich presents its expats with similarly high hurdles as the other German metropolises. As a result, the city ranks second to last in the Expat Essentials Index (48th) behind Berlin. In addition, expats find it difficult to settle in Munich. Overall, 67 per cent are satisfied with their life in Munich (compared to 72 per cent worldwide).

"I enjoy the safety, the beautiful city, the good public transport, the good healthcare and that it's a great place to do sport."
Expat from Ecuador

Apart from the high cost of public transport (46th place) and the lack of culinary and gastronomic diversity (42nd place), Munich shines in terms of quality of life (11th place). Almost all respondents (95 per cent) appreciate the infrastructure for cars (compared to 75 per cent worldwide) and 96 per cent are of the opinion that it is easy and safe to walk and/or cycle in Munich (compared to 77 per cent worldwide). The city is also among the top ten in terms of the availability of environmentally friendly goods and services, the urban environment and safety. And even though Munich did not make it into the top ten for healthcare (14th place), respondents in Munich rated this much more positively than in other German cities.

Munich also ranks highly in the "Working abroad" index, taking first place worldwide for job security and third place in the local labour market. A Hungarian expat confirms: "I appreciate the stability of the workplace, the work-life balance and the transport infrastructure here." While 79 per cent are satisfied with their working hours (worldwide: 64 per cent), many do not see any meaning in their work - the city is in the bottom five for this factor. Munich also performs worse than Berlin, Hamburg or Frankfurt when it comes to personal finances. Munich ranks second to last in the Expat Essentials Index, with only Berlin performing worse. Fast internet at home is a real challenge (48th place), as is cashless payment (47th place).

"Technology is not used much where it could be very useful, for example in health or administrative services. It's honestly hard to believe how outdated the systems are here. And finding a flat in Munich is a nightmare, especially as a foreigner."
Expat from the USA

While administrative issues are slightly less of a headache than in other German cities, Munich ranks second to last behind Dublin when it comes to housing. The affordability of housing is rated negatively by an alarming 82 per cent of respondents (compared to 42 per cent worldwide) and 73 per cent say it is difficult to find a flat (compared to 31 per cent worldwide).

Berlin: Bumpy start to new life for expats

Berlin ranks 45th out of 49 in the Expat City Ranking 2023, putting the German capital at the bottom of the Expat Essentials Index and making it the place where expats face the biggest start-up hurdles. Berlin is in last place when it comes to digital life in general and the availability of fast internet access at home (49th place in both cases). Cashless payments are also difficult for 43 per cent of respondents - more than five times the global average. Berlin also ranks in the bottom ten cities for administration and language. In addition, 78 per cent of respondents complain that it is difficult for expats to find accommodation (compared to 31 per cent worldwide).

According to the index on settling in abroad, expats in Berlin also have the hardest time building a social life. Only Vienna (49th place) scores worse here. Berliners are also considered the second most unfriendly people (48th place), which could be one reason why 39 per cent of respondents do not feel at home in Berlin - almost twice as many as the global average (20 per cent). In addition, 57 per cent find it difficult to make local friends (compared to 36 per cent worldwide). It is therefore hardly surprising that Berlin expats are also among the unhappiest (47th place).

When it comes to working abroad (24th place), Berlin performs slightly better, but is also only average. The local labour market stands out, with 83 percent of respondents rating the current economic situation as good (compared to 62 percent worldwide). In terms of general job satisfaction, however, Berlin is again in the bottom ten.

The loneliest expats live in Hamburg

Hamburg is ranked 46th out of 49 in the Expat City Ranking 2023 and is the city with the unhappiest expats (48th place) - only Vancouver scores worse. A full 41 per cent of respondents are dissatisfied with their social life (compared to 25 per cent worldwide) and 35 per cent have no personal network of people who support them (compared to 24 per cent worldwide). Almost three out of five respondents (61 per cent) state that they do not find it easy to make friends locally (compared to 36 per cent worldwide), which puts Hamburg in the bottom five (46th place) in the ranking of cities where respondents find it easiest to find their way around.

It's not easy to gain a foothold in Hamburg. The city is ranked 47th in the Expat Essentials Index, and life in Hamburg is particularly difficult if you don't speak German and are looking for a flat. The Hanseatic city is in the bottom ten for both factors. Hamburg is in penultimate place - after Berlin - when it comes to cashless payments. And 61 per cent find it difficult to deal with local bureaucracy (compared to 38 per cent worldwide).

Miserable weather in Hamburg creates a bad mood

Expats are also dissatisfied with the rainy and cold climate and weather (49th place), another factor that puts Hamburg in last place. The northern German city also disappoints with limited travel options (42nd place) and a ranking in the bottom ten cities for access to healthcare services (42nd place). This means that Hamburg only achieves a middling ranking in terms of quality of life.

Nevertheless, Hamburg achieves its only top ten ranking for job security (fourth place) and 67 per cent are impressed by the local job market (compared to 47 per cent worldwide). However, 15 per cent of respondents see no meaning in their work - almost twice as many as the global average (eight per cent). In terms of general job satisfaction, the city ranks in the bottom ten (41). All in all, this puts Hamburg in a mediocre 25th place when it comes to working abroad. The results for the personal finances index (27th place) are also less than stellar.

This article is from the 1/2024 issue of the magazine "Life Abroad".

The magazine is published four times a year free of charge with many informative articles on foreign topics.

It is published by the BDAE, the expert for protection abroad.