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From San Francisco to Berlin, moving to Europe as a UX Designer

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The story about how I got here

Photo taken from our flight leaving San Francisco

It’s been over a year since I moved to Berlin. In November of 2019, my partner and I arrived in Tegel airport after 21 hours of travel. As we awkwardly tried to corral our six suitcases to the taxi stand, we were told off by an old German that we were on the wrong side of the sidewalk. Welcome to Germany!

Although 2020 was not the year any of us expected, I still feel incredibly grateful to have started a new chapter in Berlin. I want to share my story about how I moved here, to inspire those of you dreaming about moving to Europe, and show that you can do it too.

This is what moving with only checked luggage looks like

Why Europe?

For context, I am an Asian American woman who was born and raised in the Bay Area. In California, I was surrounded by a huge extended family, 15+ year friendships, and a large professional network. Except for going to college in Chicago, studying abroad in the Netherlands, and a brief stint in New York, my life has taken place in California.

In my junior year of college, I studied at TU Eindhoven, located 1.5 hours south of Amsterdam. Eindhoven is known for its technical and design schools, and as the birthplace of Philips electronics. I loved it — perhaps more than college itself. In addition to being immersed in Dutch design culture, I learned to bike, navigated Europe by train, and made friends from different countries. Living in Eindhoven opened my eyes to a new way of living. When I came back to finish college, I vowed to move back in a few years.

After college, I moved back to San Francisco and a few years turned into ten. It was never the right time to move: my boyfriend didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to leave my job, or I was too scared to do it on my own.

Finally in 2018, I was ready to take the leap. I felt financially secure and had a partner equally excited to move with me. Things felt comfortable and familiar in San Francisco, but also stagnant — like I was living the same year over and over again. I was ready for something new. I was also tired of the culture of chasing in the tech industry — chasing the next promotion, looking for the next unicorn startup, and worrying about buying an affordable house. I was afraid that if I didn’t leave now, I would fall into those social norms and never leave.

How did you pick where to move?

My partner and I tried to make a data-informed decision — with qualitative (overall feel, excitement) and quantitative inputs (cost of living, taxes, weather).

1. Told everyone we were moving to Europe

“Hey, what’s new in your life?”

“Oh, we’re moving to Europe next year.”

As soon as my partner and I were aligned on our desire to move abroad, we started telling people. Stating it as a fact, “we’re moving to Europe next year,” created a form of accountability — even if we had no idea when or how to do it. Our friends shared tales of their own dream cities and introduced us to their friends who had made a similar move. Making it public was a commitment device, but it also surfaced advice and support from others.

2. Made a list of English-speaking cities with tech hubs

Since we’re only fluent in English, we limited our search to cities where English was the workplace lingua franca, at least amongst tech companies. I scoured LinkedIn, European VC funds, and job sites for UX jobs, and my partner did the same for software engineering jobs. In general, we found the most jobs in Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, Munich, London, Stockholm, and Zurich.

3. Narrowed down to three cities

We decided to take a two week vacation to explore our options and get a real sense of what it would be like to live there. We wanted to spend quality time in each place, which meant that we could only visit 3-4 places on our trip.

My partner, the engineer in this relationship, created a spreadsheet and tried to compare every quantifiable variable. Cost of living, average salaries, high/low temperatures, hours of daylight, approximate taxation rates…there was at least 10 columns. Meanwhile, I went back to our original goals and aspirations for moving abroad in the first place, and re-examined our list through that lens.

We eliminated the cities that felt more culturally similar to the US (Dublin and London) and places that were too cold for me (Stockholm). I was also drawn to cities with a vibrant creative culture. Ultimately we narrowed our list down to Copenhagen, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

4. Went on 2-week “scouting trip”

On our scouting trip, we spent 4 days in each city. Staying in Airbnbs and avoiding touristy areas, we explored neighborhoods and met up with the friends of friends living there. Our goal was to live like a local and get a sense of what life might be like.

I also set up some informational interviews in each city to get a sense of the job market and start my search. Through word of mouth and our network, I heard which companies were growing and identified ones I might want to work at. I also preemptively changed my location on LinkedIn so recruiters could find me. I was surprised by the number of companies that responded to my online applications — I seemed to get a higher response rate than in the Bay Area.

  • In Copenhagen, I spoke with design firms and advertising firms. There were large global firms (e.g. Fjord), as well as more local, boutique agencies (e.g. DesignIt). There was also a vibrant international community built around the design school CIID.
  • Berlin had the liveliest startup scene, with some more mature startups such as Zalando and SoundCloud. There were several startups in fintech (SumUp, N26, Taxfix, Revolut, Klarna), travel (Omio, GetYourGuide), and language learning (Babbel, Lingoda). Google and Amazon also had small offices there.
  • Amsterdam had a mix of design firms, startups, and larger tech companies. Booking.com had a large presence in the center of the city. Several American companies such as Netflix, Uber, and Tesla picked Amsterdam as their European hub.

5. Weighed our options

After some reflection back in San Francisco, we picked Berlin. Here’s why:

  • Largest city After living in San Francisco, with a population of ~900k, we were interested in trying out a bigger city. Berlin’s population was 3.5 million, Amsterdam’s was 1.1 million, and Copenhagen was 800k. We also felt this difference when we were in the cities. In Berlin, we could bike for 45 minutes and still be in the inner ring. In Copenhagen or Amsterdam, we pretty much covered the whole city in that time.
  • High potential to make friends Having a larger population with a lot of expats led to a lot more loose connections. We were introduced to several friends of friends who had moved to Berlin from San Francisco or New York. There were more seeds we could imagine growing into a community.
  • Lowest cost of living Berlin also had a significantly lower cost of living. We could comfortably afford a 2-bedroom in Berlin’s city center, but perhaps only a 1-bedroom in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. And we wanted the luxury of a second room for a home office / guest room.
  • Diverse population As an Asian American woman, I can’t help but notice the diversity, or lack of diversity, around me. On our scouting trip, I innately felt more comfortable with Berlin, which has large Turkish, Vietnamese, and Thai communities. On the day to day level, this means I didn’t feel like I stuck out as much. It was also easier to find Asian groceries and restaurants, though it is still a far cry from the Bay Area.
  • Potential to find an interesting job After watching the job market for 3 months, we were both optimistic that we could find a job in Amsterdam or Berlin. Copenhagen seemed to have less options, especially for software engineers. We were also pleasantly surprised that working in Silicon Valley helped us stand out to recruiters. Although Amsterdam’s and Berlin’s tech scenes are definitely growing hubs for Europe, they both felt much smaller than the Bay Area’s, New York’s, or Seattle’s. Anecdotally, it feels more like the size of Denver’s or Chicago’s tech scene.
  • Vibrant creative culture Berlin has always been known as a place to live the Bohemian dream — where artists can revel in the city’s grittiness. This wasn’t my Berlin dream; however, I was drawn to how culture and creativity seeped into daily life. Accessible art galleries were sprinkled across neighborhoods, and it was commonplace to go to the philharmonic or indie movie theater (at least pre-COVID).
Excited to finally have our Blue Cards

How did you get a visa?

There were a few ways to get a visa in Germany. I ended up signing a job offer while in San Francisco, and getting a temporary visa before we moved. After completing mountains of paperwork, I now have a Blue Card that allows me to stay in the EU for up to four years, as long as I am employed in the same industry I applied with.

Since moving here though, we’ve met Americans with a diverse range of visas. There are product managers on freelance visas, masters students on student visas (masters degrees are free if you get in!), and others who came on their 3 month Schengen travel visa and found a job when they got here.

In retrospect, we were pretty conservative and took the least risky route. There are lots of ways to make it work. The visa process took much longer (~4 months) than we expected because of a backup of appointments at the German embassy. I wish we had started earlier so we didn’t have to move to Berlin at the start of winter.

So, how’s it going?

Overall, it has been great! When we originally moved, we decided to stay for a minimum of two years. One and a half years in, we don’t have any plans to leave in the near future. We’ve settled into an apartment, and even bought and installed a full kitchen. Most apartments here don’t come with a kitchen when you first move in — not even a sink!

I enjoy how accessible everything is in our neighborhood (Friedrichshain). Within 10 minutes I can walk to 3 grocery stores, multiple pharmacies, my doctor and dentist, and best of all, my weekly farmer’s market. Although Berlin’s neighborhoods are quite spread out, the S and U-bahn make most places within a 40 min train ride.

We’re also slowly making progress on our German, though people say Berlin is the worst place in Germany to learn German. In most places in the city center, people can speak perfect English. Lingoda has been a convenient and affordable way to take online classes during the pandemic.

The hardest part is definitely being away from our friends and family. With the pandemic we haven’t felt safe going home and haven’t had any visitors. It has also been challenging to make new friends since the lockdown started. I am hopeful for the future though, and have great trust in Angela Merkel to lead us out of this situation.

In conclusion

If you are reading this, and wondering how to turn this dream into reality, here are a few pieces of advice:

  • Make it public and tell everyone It might be scary to publicly share your aspirations, especially if you don’t know how to reach them. However I’ve found that after I told people where I want to get to, my friends supported me by checking in and holding me accountable.
  • Set small milestones Planning a big move like this can feel daunting- a lot of people don’t know where to start! My partner and I have a practice called “Quarterly life planning” to set goals like “Plan a scouting trip” and “Apply to 5 jobs in Europe.” Breaking such a big project into smaller goals helped us make incremental progress.
  • Be patient, and don’t lose hope If it feels forced right now to make a move, consider waiting. It took me 10 years to find the right time to move, but I always kept it in the back of my mind.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t find moving from San Francisco to Berlin that much harder than moving from San Francisco to New York. The toughest part was getting through all the paperwork and bureaucracy, which took about 2–3 months pre-move (visa application, packing, finding temporary housing) and 2–3 months post-move (finding an apartment, registering your apartment, opening a bank account).

More questions?

I’m happy to answer more questions about our move through the weekly office hours I host here.

Photo taken in Berlin on our 2019 scouting trip
Photo taken 1 year later in 2020, in the same spot, which is now 3 blocks from our apartment


From San Francisco to Berlin, moving to Europe as a UX Designer was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.