Lens: Becoming Berlinerin at the Bürgeramt

Alright, here we go: The Bürgeramt (resident service center), sometimes overlapping with the Bezirksamt (district bureau), houses the Einwohnermeldeamt (registration bureau) ((tired yet?)). It is here that all residents of Germany, citizen or otherwise, must legally register their address. As a German citizen, I got to skip all the visa business and head straight to my district’s Bürgeramt to acquire my official forms and Personalausweis (ID card). This was back in November 2011. 

A couple Google mapped turns and a 12 minute walk later and I’ve found it: an obtuse slab of grayish-white looming from across the Hohenzollerndamm,  its curving ends threatening to swallow me whole.

Rathaus Wilmersdorf_TagesspiegelAn arrangement of dark statues greets me as I near the entrance. Their distressed faces stare at me, mouths and eyes opened wide as if to warn, “get out while you can!” One is sprawled out on the ground, having seemingly given up altogether. It’s probably a memorial to a citizen’s uprising or something, but I can’t help but think this is some sort of sick joke. The Germans can’t be that ignorant of their reputation when it comes to bureaucracy.

A few good minutes trolling empty hallways on the wrong floor and I’ve found it. The first desk of three that I will encounter in the next 30 efficient minutes. Check-in, forms, wait. Rinse, repeat. (You will inevitably pick up the wrong form, miss your number being called, or head to the wrong room- a set of rolling eyes following you as you go.)

I am one of maybe five in the waiting room, which is both a relief and a privilege. This midday excursion is my biggest event of the day. Less than 2 weeks in Berlin and I am nicely settled in my family’s apartment with a printed letter from my Opa detailing our ownership tucked neatly into my German passport. My one-quarter of German blood is what makes all the difference between me and the squirming Middle Eastern looking couple hastily sorting their paperwork across from me. I carefully read over my single form, tripping over one or two questions that use the fancy German I didn’t grow up with. Welche berufliche Tätigkeit üben Sie aus? instead of Was ist Ihr Job? I cluck my tongue angrily at a question asking my religion, resisting the temptation to write something snarky. I know it’s for tax purposes, but it pisses me off anyway. I leave it blank.

My number flashes on the screen and I practically jump out of my seat, as if they’ll give up my spot within 30 seconds. The woman I’m assigned to is brusque but not unfriendly, and I try hard to speak my most proper German. It’s not like this mid-level bureaucrat has the power to take away my passport, but the irrational fear persists in the back of my mind.

She’s a bit confused by me and my occasional grammar mistake, but 5 or 6 stamps later and I’m free. She uses a ruler to cleanly draw a line through “Bethesda” and replace it with “Berlin”. As official as German bureaucracy is, at times it just seems like a game of Monopoly. Writing on a passport with a pen? Paying for my Personalausweis in cash? Where is my “Get Out of the Amt Free Card”?


Monopoly or not, I am now in possession of all the Papierkram I need for a legitimate life in Germany – in Berlin – in Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf – in my apartment building – in that order. I am now rounding GO.

-By Sophia Burton


  1. The other side of the coin: today Stella and I drove down to Bellingham, WA, to visit the Social Security Office. It never crossed my mind, but apparently, I am entitled to benefits. We were met by a smiling security guard who directed us on how to “sign in”. We sat in comfortable chairs and then were met by a very friendly and helpful young man who listened to our enquiries and efficiently helped up complete all the necessary forms. The whole experience was a pleasure.

  2. ‘cluck my tongue angrily’ is such a good phrase.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.