Living as an Expat in the USA vs. Germany: 6 Differences

I started my expat journey almost 2 years ago in Chicago. Living in a big American city was always on my bucket list. However, things change and after an amazing year in Windy City my partner and I decided that we want to move back to Europe, closer to our families. Our next destination was Heidenheim (Germany) and we’ve been living here for almost 5 months now. Based on my experiences with both countries I’ve noticed quite a lot of differences between expat life in the USA and in Germany, that’s why I’ve decided to write this article. People who would like to relocate to another country, want to get the best of their experience abroad. This blog post offers a detailed look at life in both countries. If you’re not sure which country is better for fulfilling your expat dreams then I hope this article will help you figure it out. Before I continue, I would like to point out that this blog post is not based on any kind of stereotypes. All of the differences that I will mention are based on my personal experiences.

6 differences between living in the USA and Germany

1. Work-life balance

One of the first big differences that I’ve noticed between these 2 countries was the work-life balance.

USA: In the USA you will get around 14 vacation days every year and you cannot transfer them into the next year. When it comes to maternity leave, there is no federal paid leave and the states have to decide by themselves. According to Healthline, a lot of women don’t even qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act, which could grant them 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Moreover, 25% of women are “forced” to go back to work after just 2 weeks after giving birth. Most office jobs are 9-5, however, a lot of people tend to work even more than 9 hours every day. A lot of them don’t have any real social life or they don’t get to spend a lot of time with their families.

Germany: In terms of a work-life balance, Germany is a complete opposite of the USA system. You will get at least 21 vacation days, in a lot of cases even up to 30 every year. Workers here also get unlimited sick leave and paid maternity leave. Moreover, they are protected by a variety of laws, which ensures them to get fairly compensated for their work. Germans work hard but they also respect free time. At least in office jobs, people will usually leave around 4-4:30 pm and spend the rest of their afternoon with their family and friends. You won’t see a lot of them working late or even during the weekends.

2. Meeting new people

What I’ve also noticed when I moved to Germany, was the big cultural difference and the way people here approach newcomers.

USA: Americans will definitely make you feel very accepted from the very first day on. They welcome foreigners with basically open arms and they want to connect with you right away. I remember my first day in the advertising agency, when I walked through that door, everyone was really excited to meet me and they immediately invited me for lunch and drinks after work. I felt really good and even more motivated to do some amazing things there. It was basically the same with every person I met in Chicago. I never had a feeling like I was a stranger even though technically I was.

Germany: When it comes to networking and meeting new people, Germans tend to be quite reserved. Especially when you move to a smaller city like Heidenehim, you will have to be aware of the fact that people here just need some more time in order to start hanging out with you. They usually don’t like small talks so you will have to take some other approach and do the first step by inviting them to a cup of coffee or lunch break. That is part of their culture and the sooner you accept the fact, the better it's going to be for you.

3. Education system

If you’re thinking of studying in either of these 2 countries then you should know that they are quite different when it comes to the education system and the costs related to it.

USA: USA is definitely a dream destination for many students around the world. According to Russian Vagabond Blog they had 1,095,299 international students across different universities. The USA is home to many top-ranking schools like Harvard, Stanford and CalTech. That’s why having an American degree has an excellent reputation worldwide. However, universities in the USA are not free, and paying for tuition can cost you a fortune. Many students cannot simply afford to study there or if they decide to, it takes them years to pay off all the debts. Tuition fees range from $5,000 to $50,000 according to The World University Rankings.

Germany: As an undergraduate, you can study for free at public universities in Germany. You will only have to pay for enrolment and administration, which is usually around €250. Here you will find high-quality education and one thing that was really interesting to me was their dual study system. It means that you can study and at the same time do a paid internship in one of the German companies. It’s a really good way to get some experience before getting a degree. There is also a downside to the German education system. Many of the lectures are mostly in German, so if you don’t know the language, it can get really hard.

4. Career opportunities

Thinking about your career and job opportunities is one of the most important aspects when moving abroad. The USA and Germany have a lot to offer however there are some things that are unique to each of these 2 countries.

USA: USA has a lot of really successful big and small companies, so when you look at the job postings, the list of available jobs is almost endless, however, they do prefer to hire someone who is already living there and the competition is big. That’s why it took me 6 months before I actually landed a job in Chicago. It’s not easy and you will have to put a lot of hard work into searching but it’s going to be very worth it in the end. Before applying to jobs there, you will also have to check how the visa application process looks like and what are the requirements, because you’re not allowed to work there without a visa.

Germany: Germany also offers a lot of amazing job opportunities where you can bring your career to the next level. You will find a lot of open positions in the business/finance field and in IT, logistics, and engineering. However, most of the companies (including international ones) do require a fluent level of German. That’s why I would recommend you start learning it as soon as possible if you’re planning on searching for a job here one day.

5. Standard of living

Germany and USA have both a pretty high standard of living, however in Germany there is less poverty, social disbalance and the healthcare system is better than in the USA.

USA: When we’re talking about standard of living in the USA, we have to look at different aspects of it. Healthcare is expensive, there is quite a big gap between rich and poor people and also the crime rates are higher than in Germany. On the other hand, the income is higher (some fields) than in Germany and they also enjoy lower taxes. Everything is very money oriented so if you have a good salary then you can afford a lot of things in the USA.

Germany: Germany, in my opinion, has one of the highest living standards in Europe. They have a very clean environment, low crime rates, well-developed infrastructure, good transportation, high quality healthcare system and it’s also one of the highest paying countries in Europe.

6. Landscape diversity

When it comes to landscape diversity both USA and Germany have a lot of beautiful places that you can explore and travel to, however because of its size and different climate zones, USA has more things to offer.

USA: USA has 50 states and is the world”s third-largest country in size and in terms of population. You will find everything, from beautiful beaches and canyons in the west to mountains, lakes and big amazing cities in the east. If you’re planning on moving to USA, then I guarantee you, you won’t be bored. When I was living in Chicago, we traveled around basically every weekend. We explored Illinois, went to Florida, Louisiana, New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. There are still a lot of places that I want to explore so hopefully I can travel there again soon!

Germany: Germany is one of the countries with a large variety of different landscapes. You have the sea in the North, Alps in the south and a lot of lakes in between. Forest covers a big percentage of the country. There are a lot of beautiful hiking hills and if you’re a cycling fan, then Germany is perfect for you. If you’re more into big city life, then I would recommend you Munich, Berlin or Hamburg. These cities can offer a lot of good bars, restaurants, interesting shops and parks where you can just sit down and read a nice book.

USA or Germany?

Each of these 2 countries has its own pros and cons when it comes to living as an expat. USA is a land of many really good job opportunities, very open-minded people, and a lot of places that you can explore. Germany on the other hand has a cheaper education system, better work-life balance, and a high standard of living based on many aspects. So now it’s up to you to decide. Where would you rather move to? Let me know in the comments down below.

Till next time,

Lara P.