What they don’t tell you about the Immigration Office

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I arrived at the Immigration Office late in the morning on a Monday, so I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to take care of getting my residence permit that day. The hours are 08:00 to 12:00. The woman at the front desk told me that they open at 08:00.

I thought 08:00 was a bit extreme, but if I arrived before 09:00, at least, I’d be fine. With three more hours until close, how could I not be? I arrived Tuesday morning shortly after 08:30. A friend of mine was already there. As I’m in the elevator on the way up to the fourth floor, she said they just put a “CLOSED” sign on the number dispenser. They would not be seeing anyone who didn’t already have a number.

I decided to wait it out and see what would happen. There were two small waiting rooms. All the seats were full, so people were sitting on the hallway floors. We were, too. Eventually, a couple of seats opened up and we snagged them. A man who had to go, for work or another daily obligation, gave my friend his ticket. His was earlier than hers. She gave me hers. 037. It was around 10. Around noon, my friend went in. She came out empty-handed. She didn’t get it, and the woman was mean and rolled her eyes at her. I thought since I had everything the university told me to provide, and understood a bit of German, I’d be fine. Well, she was nicer to me, but no cigar. Wednesdays they are closed.

I arrived at 07:14 on Thursday morning and was seventh in line. The doors opened at 08:00. I am not going to go into detail about the events that followed between going up the elevator and getting my number (09), but it was not a good look on humanity at all. Looking back, I would have attempted to organize a line. I wish that the people who work there did. In the mad rush up the four floors to the number dispenser, it didn’t matter how early you got there, it only mattered that you were aggressive. I let my friend  who helped me on Tuesday go ahead of me (bumping me to 08), and a woman who was not there early anywhere near as early as us somehow got up there, too (bumping me to 09).

Still, 09 wasn’t a long wait. I went in with everything I was told the previous time that I needed. Plus, I filled out the application I was given the previous time to the best of my ability while I waited.

So here is what you actually need for the Immigration Office:
1. Your number. (Get there at 07:15, and it will go fast. Get there at 7:30, and you could wait for hours.)
2. Your passport.
3. Your insurance exemption letter that says your insurance works for Germany.
4. Your AirBnB receipt or renter’s agreement. (You must have something printed out. Digital copies are not accepted.) The university will say that we need our City Registration confirmation, but this does not suffice.
5. A “biometric passport photo” that is 35 x 45 mm. On photo paper. Cut out. (Note: this is not the same size as a U.S. passport photo.) You can get this done at a Copy Shop. I went to one right by Chlodwigplatz, a stop from TH Köln.
6. Stamped certificate of university enrollment. (The letter that you received when you arrived so you could use public transport.)
7. Proof of sufficient funding. Currently, you need proof of 853 euros for each month you are staying in Germany. I printed a balance letter saying that I had an amount in excess of the amount I needed. If you have Charles Schwab, this letter is easily accessible online. However, it is not likely to be in the correct currency. Do the calculation and write amount of euros your currency equals on the letter.
8. The application, if you have received it before. Plus, the information that will go into the application such as your address, your German phone number, your insurance information. Basically, the things you probably have accessible in your wallet or on your phone.

I brought these things in when my number was called. I was told I need to pay 50 euro and I was ready to pull it out of my pocket. (Note: for my friend, it was 56 euro. Bring excess.)

But, the cash register is at City Registration. So, she held onto my passport, I took the blue form she gave me around the block from Ludwigstraße to Laurensplatz to the person at the desk entitled “Kasse” and paid the 50 euro.

I went back to Ludwigstraße, went up the elevator, knocked on the person’s door who was helping me, and waited. She came from the outside, said “Komm rein.” I followed her in and handed her the blue receipt. She handed me my passport complete with the residence permit inside.

“Das ist alles?” I asked.

“Das ist alles,” she said.

Arriving in Cologne (+ what you need to know if you’re studying abroad)

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I landed at the Frankfurt airport (FRA) at 05:30 on a Friday morning. I had until 09:15 to show up at my AirBnB in Cologne if I wanted to not have to lug my bags around the city until actual check-in time, which was 3 p.m…. I mean, 15:00.

Customs was no problem. I had the documents I needed with me, my acceptance letter into TH Köln and the address of where I would be staying. But, the customs official believed me when I told him, in German, that I was a student and where I would be studying.

Fortunately, I had the learned wisdom (from previously studying abroad) to not have to wait on baggage claim by bringing only 1 carry-on, 1 personal item and a ski jacket. I raced past baggage claim and was the first in line at the train ticket counter. I booked the next ICE (Inter-City Express) train to Cologne Hauptbahnhof at 06:43. I ran to the platform (= Gleis auf deutsch), which was about 70 euros. I had 30 minutes of free WiFi on the train.

I arrived in the center of Cologne, looked at a public transit (Kölner Verkehrs-Betriebe – KVB) map at the station, took a photo of it (actual photo to the right), and caught the line to the stop by my AirBnB. I activated Verizon’s TravelPass for the day with a phone call to the person at the AirBnB, and was let in with an hour to spare.

Things to do when you first arrive in Cologne as a study abroad student:
1. Go to ALDI and pick up a SIM card in the Aldi Talk Prepaid Starter Kit. Find somewhere with WiFi, and start the process of activating your SIM card. This will may take 24 hours.
2. Go to your university’s International Office and pick up the letter that allows you to use public transportation for free as a student.
3. Go to an Insurance Agency to receive an exemption letter that states your insurance will work for your stay in Germany. I went to the AOK recommended by my university and they did NOT give me the document, but THIS ONE DID: Techniker Krankenkasse (TK) located at Habsburgerring Eingang, Pilgrimstraße 2, 50674 Köln.
4. Return, with the letter, to the International Office and pick up your MultiCa (student card). DO NOT LET THEM TAKE THE LETTER — you will need it for the Immigration Office, but nobody will tell you this. They will now also give you the information on the bank transfer you need to make to pay the semester fee of about 275 euros. Paying the fee with Transferwise worked for a fellow student in my program. Do this immediately, as this will take a few days to go through before you can put money on your MultiCa. Some of the Mensa’s (student dining halls) accept cash, but they all accept the MultiCa.
5. Ask your landlord to fill out the form confirming where you will be living: Wohnungsgeberbescheinigung, and take that and your passport with you to register with the city.
6. Apply for a residence permit at the immigration office. This is a whole thing, which requires waking up early, waiting in line at 07:00, and understanding some German. A post regarding this process is upcoming here.

What I Packed into 1 Carry-On & 1 Personal Item for 1 Year Abroad

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For the next year, I will be living through 4 seasons in 3 countries on 2 continents with 1 carry-on. 

I flew out of Orlando, Florida, for in Frankfurt, Germany, landing on Sept. 13. The temperature was a drastic change from the casual 90s of summer heat to Germany’s mid-60s in mid-September.

In February, I’ll be moving to Warsaw, Poland, and in June, to Dalian, China. Now, if I was planning on cozying up in these cities, maybe I’d check a couple bags. But I’m the type of person who finds it inefficient to stick within the confines of one town when I could be hitting up destinations on my To-Go List.

So here I am with cheap flights booked and in mind (I booked this one on Kayak.com), flights that tend to have fees for anything they can get, especially luggage. Sacrifices are essential.

Actual photo of me at 3 a.m. before catching my connecting flight to Germany. A ski jacket, a personal item and a carry-on are all I brought for 1 year abroad. (Photo by Jess Howard)

Fewer bags = more flexibility. Aside, I’d much rather spend my money on fresh clothes in new places than lugging old rags around the world.

I will be crossing out the things I brought that I could have left behind.

I’ve seen people with carry-ons stuffed to the brim. I didn’t, and I recommend not. All it takes is one airport attendant to throw your bag into one of those measuring boxes. Plus, you might want to bring  souvenirs (or a more fashionable wardrobe) home.

My goal was to pack as little as possible, without feeling like I would need things while abroad.

Okay, so here are some quick tricks:
- take your sleeping bag out of its stuff sack and have the stuff sack on hand when finalizing your packing.
- for those who carry purses: pack a purse that can fit into a backpack — I packed mine with all the necessities so it was easily accessible in the outside pocket of my school-sized backpack.
- bring a refillable water bottle and keep that in your personal item. Save money and the planet. Of course, sometimes you will have to buy bottled water, like I did, as drinking water was not available during my layover in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
- most airlines allow you to carry a jacket on board. Let this be your biggest one. I stuffed my hat and gloves into the pockets of my ski jacket and carried it on the plane with my carry-on and personal item.
- wear your boots. I brought waterproof Timberland’s specifically to wear in the city, and hopefully they suffice for hiking as well. My Lowas were in the pile, but their rugged exterior was not as versatile with professional attire.
- I also wore a flannel, but I think I could have gotten away with wearing a jacket aside from the heavy one I carried on. Would consider wearing a medium jacket next time.

Packed in the personal item:
- purse (or no purse, whichever) with headphones, iPod, wallet and passport (if these aren’t in your pockets), make-up, gum, comb, floss, fork/spoon utensil (rather than the plastic throw-aways) and sunglasses in their case.
- water bottle.
- Stanley travel coffee mug/french press. YES. Coffee machines are not always a thing where you could be staying. If you need a cup before you go out to get a cup, this is the thing.
- YOUR PERSONAL STUFF. In mine, I packed pens, a journal, my planner, camera gear and other miscellaneous technological items – one other lens, Zoom recorder, chargers, adapters for the countries I’m going to, USB sticks, memory cards, and batteries.
- your toothbrush. Mine’s electric, so it’s a little bigger than normal toothbrushes, but it still fit next to my purse in the outside pocket of the backpack.
- a tiny travel first-aid kit and emergency survival blanket.

Packed in the carry-on:
Note: Often the outside pockets of carry-ons have the capacity to exceed the size limitations of your carry-on bag if filled.
- in the outside pocket: clear quart-sized ziplock bag of toothpaste, moisturizer and exfoliator. Or whatever your desired liquids may be…
- in the other outside pocket: a book. I brought “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama.
Inside the main compartment of the carry-on:
- at the very bottom: Monopod.
- On the very top: laptop.
- climbing shoes, shoved into my running shoes. (Climbing shoes are compact and tiny, so it worked well.)


- two cylindrical Tupperwares that clear soup came in from the Japanese restaurant Tokyo. The idea was for saving food, or taking food to go, or for “takeaway,” as they say here in Cologne, Germany, BUT I have only used one of them once, in the nearly two weeks I’ve been here.

tweezers, nail clippers (I am an adamant short-nail kind of person) and beeswax wrap for saving food — which I haven’t used at all, and a reusable loose leaf tea bag, which I also have not used at all, inside the tupperware.
- Hair ties.
1 bar of shampoo soap and 1 bar of goat milk soap (from Sally’s Soaps!), along with a soap holder/dish. (I am currently staying in a month-long AirBnB in Germany, and the tub is immaculate. Before I left I decided I’d rather pack this simple item than irk the people I live with with sticky residue and risk get kicked out. People are particularly particular.)

- formal attire: 1 business jacket, 1 pair of nice pants, 3 button up collared shirts (2 of which could pass with casual attire), 1 nice dress.

- Rocks.

- 1 stuff sack with everything casual: ski pants, casual dress, 3 pairs of leggings (1 as “pajamas,” 1 for sports in the summer, 1 insulated for sports in the winter… these all also double as under layers), 2 sport tanks, 2 t-shirts, 1 pair of sports shorts1 pair of jean shorts (which I brought on ACCIDENT! I meant to take those out), 1 pair ultralight long johns, 2 long-sleeve under layers, and 1 one piece bathing suit and light board shorts (these were probably a little extra).
- Cards.
- 2 sports bras and 7 pairs of underwear (they are quick-dry, so I really didn’t need that many, but I also didn’t want to think about it every other day, this time.) I shoved these into any spaces in between other items.
- 8 pairs of socks (2 pairs of long wool socks, 2 pairs regular black socks, 1 pair short sneaker socks, 1 pair wool sneaker socks, 2 pair Wolverine wear-around-the-house socks.)

Even as I go through bolding the good stuff, I can’t help but feeling “extra.” It seems like an incredible amount of stuff. Considering this feeling, and seeing it all written out on screen, next time I’ll bring less and may even shed some stuff along the way. Any ideas on what to cut?

I would love to trade out my carry-on for my backpack. 

Things I Cut from the To-Bring Pile Before Leaving the U.S.:
- sleeping bag
- sleeping bag liner (it gets super cold in Germany and Poland and they do not use the heater like we do in the U.S.)
+ warm medium jacket
+ leather jacket (For style points…would reconsider wearing onto plane next time.)
- jean jacket (Perfect for 1 week of weather here, not worth bringing so far.)
- water filter, because you never know when its going to be your city with the water problem.
- Deuter pack. Originally, I wanted to bring everything in my carry-on in my backpacking backpack. LOL.
+ yoga mat travel towel. I would reconsider bringing instead of my travel towel. (I ended up buying a mat here.)
+ headlamp. (I feel naked just saying that.)

Botanical Gardens

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We spent the first day of Fall, and a last rare glimpse of full sun, at the Botanical Gardens in Cologne. We met lots of flowers, busy bees, and an artist featured in the gallery. We stopped at L’Osteria after for some pizza. It was a wonderful, carefree day before the rain set in near relentlessly through the rest of our semester in Cologne.