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Ask Hans-Torsten: Health insurance for freelancers

Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin, like the ever-complicated issue of health insurance for expat freelancers in Berlin.

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Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected] 

Dear Hans-Torsten,

I’ve just arrived in Berlin from the UK and have been looking around for jobs – but only received offers for freelance work as an English teacher or a translator. I was told I have to provide for my own health insurance, which came as a bit of shock as I was used to National Health in the UK (you have to pay contributions if you’re a freelancer there too, but you’re automatically insured no matter what). It just seems like German health insurance is complicated and expensive – I don’t know if I’ll even be able to afford it. Any tips?

Jack L.

Hans-Torsten: Health insurance is the number one concern for foreigners coming here hoping to freelance. Berlin is supposedly the creative capital of the universe, but it’s not that simple to get set up here. It’s easy to end up in a precarious uninsured status if you do nothing about it.

I actually survived here as a freelance journalist and translator without any health insurance for three years. Thankfully I never got sick or had a serious accident. And that was before 2009, when health insurance became a requirement for all residents of Germany. 

Foreigners actually have an advantage over German citizens when it comes to cheap insurance. German self-employed freelancers must sign up for German statutory insurance (gesetzliche Krankenkasse) or German private health insurance (private Krankenversicherung). The former will cost you around 15 percent of your ‘profit’ as a freelancer, and a minimum of about €300 per month, though spouses and children are automatically insured as well.

Private can be much cheaper for young people (as low as €100-150/month for those in their twenties) but rates climb rapidly as you approach your forties (we’re talking €300-400/month and upwards, with an unpredictable increase every year).

For young, foreign freelancers, there are a couple of other options. The cheapest is getting an international expat health insurance policy from your home country or online. These policies usually cover all the basics when you get sick, but might not cover dental work, checkups or alternative therapies. But they can be cheap: a Polish freelancer on the Exberliner team pays just €50/month for such a policy. 

The other option is the Künstlersozialkasse (KSK), a special insurance scheme for freelancers in artistic/creative professions: painters, graphic designers, actors, musicians, writers, journalists etc. In your case, as a language teacher and translator, you would have to convince the KSK that your income is derived mostly from translating, and it would have to be translation of a journalistic or literary nature – no software manuals!

So what is the KSK? It’s not an insurance provider as such, merely a state institution which pays half of the contributions to health, pension and old-age care insurance for insured artists. Once you’re in (you might want to hire a special consultant to help you prepare your application) it’s a great deal, and cheap compared to every other health insurance option for freelancers in artistic professions. 

Confused yet? It’s not simple. If you’re a freelancer starting out and are unintimidated by German bureaucrats, you should consider going to the Job Center and applying for a subsidy to help pay for your insurance costs in the initial phase of self-employment. Be prepared to fill in a lot of forms and be ready to convince them that you’ll eventually be making enough money to cover your own insurance. After all, the word “freelance” was originally coined to describe independent mercenary knights who had no single master – and isn’t that what you want, Jack?

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013