It is a good idea to learn as much as you can about Germany before you actually arrive, especially the differences in business practices, social norms, and laws that might affect your success. Even if you plan on going to Germany in a year, start preparing now!
Language barriers are often very frustrating so, if possible, attempt to learn some German before you come to the country. Such as "Danke" (thank you), "Guten Morgen" (good morning), or "Sprechen Sie Englisch" (do you speak English?) are very useful. Wherever you go, people will always appreciate it if you show that you are trying to communicate in their language. Germans tend to be formal and reserved when conducting business and titles are very important. In German business situations, you should never use a person's first name until they offer. It is too easy for North Americans or other English-speakers to falsely assume that because a German-speaker is being friendly and congenial it is alright to become more familiar with them. Such premature familiarity makes many Germans uncomfortable, though they might not say so. It may be possible that people at your office will introduce themselves by their first names, but always wait until they directly offer before using it. Introducing yourself, either in person or over the phone, is always done by saying your first and last name.
When people meet or take their leave in Germany they usually shake hands briefly while maintaning eye contact. Shaking hands is part of the social behaviour and also a part of German business culture. It would be impolite not to do so. However, if you say hello to someone in passing it is not necessary to shake hands with them.
Germans place a lot of emphasis on punctuality. If punctuality is not an overly important factor in your own country, you should try to get used to it in Germany as soon as possible,if you do not want to cause a lot of annoyance. If you make an appointment you should arrive on time.
A classic German breakfast "Frühstück" is hearty and is comprised of bread or rolls, butter, cheese, cold meats, jam etc. Traditionally, the main hot meal in Germany is lunch (Mittagessen), eaten between 12 and 2 o'clock. Before eating, people wish each other "Guten Appetit" (enjoy your meal). The evening meal "Abendessen" is essentially composed of bread and butter with cold meats and cheese and is traditionally served at about 6 o'clock. Keep in mind these traditional habits are no longer observed by everyone. Many Germans eat different things for breakfast, or nothing at all, only have a snack at lunchtime, and eat a hot meal sometime in the evening.
During lunch or dinner time you will hear the words "Mahlzeit"or "Guten Appetit" which means "enjoy your meal". If you enter a table where people are already sitting and eating, it would be considered impolite if you do not say "Guten Appetit". The expression "Mahlzeit" is a proper way to address people at the company between 12:00 and 14:00, rather than saying hello.
Many students will be taking part in an internship (Praktikum) while staying in Germany. German companies will usually pay at the end of each month, so plan ahead to make sure that personal cash is available for the first weeks. If you are living with a host family then most services such as food, laundry, and some entertainment may be provided by them. However, if a host family is not available, you may have to rent an appartment. If this is the case, you are responsible for paying the rent, buying your own food, personal transportation, laundry and entertainment. Make sure that your personal funds are sufficient to cover these expenses.
Germany is one of the European countries that introduced the Euro in 2002. Currency can be exchanged at banks and small exchange offices. Banks are usually open between 8:30 and 16:30 and CLOSED on the weekend. Travellers checks (Reiseschecks) are cashed at banks (as long as you have your passport for ID), but never at "Sparkasse". ATM's are located at most banks, train stations (Bahnhof), and the post office (Deutsche Post ). If your bank card from home has a "MasterCard"or "VISA" logo it should be okay to use. If not, you may need to purchase an EC credit card, or an EC debit card at a bank after opening an account, which is free for students. It is advisable to open a bank account anyway while you are in Germany because most companies pay directly through the bank, not with cash or a cheque. EC credit cards work like other credit cards, while the EC debit cards work by putting money 'on' them, so each time the card is used the amount is automatically deducted until it is time to add more. Most businesses will accept the EC credit or debit card. Credit cards such as "MasterCards" or "VISA" cards are not accepted by all shops or restaurants.
Most purchases are made with cash. Though many stores will accept EC, credit or debit cards, it is advisable to carry enough money for daily needs. Vegetable stores, fruit stores, bakeries and butcher shops are often separate. Opening hours are usually between 9:00 and 18:00, and most shops close around 16:00 on Saturdays. On Sundays all shops are closed. Most people carry a canvas bag (or a hand-basket) as most shops charge you for plastic or paper bags. Bargaining in shops is not usual.
Students enrolled at a German university must take out a German statutory health insurance. The International Office will advice you on this issue.
In Germany, you can only get medicine at pharmacies (Apotheke). These should not be confused with drugstores (Drogerie) where, at the most, you can buy weak drugs like cough sirup, and mainly can find products such as shampoo, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, soap, toothpaste, body lotion etc. Some of these items might also be found at a grocery stores at a slightly higher price.
Germany has a great network of trains, buses, subways and streetcars. Buses within the cities run frequently and are simple to use. Even small villages will have access to a bus that can take you to a train station connected to all the cities in Germany. It is even possible to take the train to almost any city in Europe.
Some cities have an old town center (Altstadt) with castles and city walls. The buildings are often used as museums or government offices. Most cities have a marketplace (Marktplatz) where you can find the city hall (Rathaus) and the church (Kirche), as well as a variety of small shops. Usually pharmacies, bakeries, and grocery stores are located throughout the city along with many banks.
For your information: All electrical power points in Germany are designed for 220 volts, 50 Hz. AC and two-point plugs. Any adapters you may need can be bought in electrical shops.