Germany, you'll soon discover, is a very well-run country. But a little bit of bureaucracy is a price for keeping a well-run operation. Your very first duty is to let the local authorities know the location of your official residence within the first week of your arrival in Germany. This registration involves going to your local registry office (Einwohnermelderamt, Bürgerbüro or Meldestelle) at your local town hall (Rathaus) and filling out a form in which you provide your new address. Registration is required of all residents in a community, whether German or foreign. It is a process that goes very quickly. Please mind: failure to register can earn you a fine, with the amount depending on how long you've been residing at the unregistered address. Moreover, everyone is required to register anew when they change their residence, unless that change only entails moving from one flat in a property to another.
EU nationals (as well as citizens from Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) are treated like Germans when it comes to residency and employment, and therefore don't need any permits. They simply have to register with the German authorities.
If you come from a non-EU country and are seeking employment in Germany, then you probably arrived with a corresponding work visa you received from the German embassy or consulate. In this instance, you can begin work directly upon arrival. However, you should make sure to report to the Foreigners Office (Ausländerbehörde) to apply for a residency permit well before your work visa expires.
If you come from a non-EU county which doesn't require a visa to enter Germany, then you must apply for both a residency permit and work permit at the Foreigners Office. Without a valid residency permit, you will not be permitted to work in Germany. To receive a work permit, you must have a concrete job offer; you'll also need to supply photocopies of your academic records, certification of your qualifications and a biometric portrait photo. The Foreigners Office will likely also require additional documentation, depending your occupation. And don't forget to bring extra cash: fees for registration can be in excess of 130 euros, and credit cards are not typically accepted.
Be sure to put in your applications promptly, as this process can take a while. Once you have handed in your application to the relevant authority, there may be long gaps during which you hear absolutely nothing from your case worker - but this is a positive sign that the processing stage is running smoothly. At this point, it is not necessary that you contact the authorities; you can rest assured that your case worker will get in touch if they need more documents from you.
The residency permit will initially be granted to a limited time period, and you'll need to make sure to renew the permit well before it expires. The renewal process usually runs more smoothly than getting your first permit - assuming that all the other conditions for approval still hold.
After five years of living in Germany with a limited residency permit, you can then apply for a permanent residency permit (Niederlassungserlaubnis) which allows you to stay here indefinitely. One important exception: highly-skilled workers (academics with specialist knowledge, teachers, business executives with many years of experience and a high annual salary) can directly apply for a permanent residency permit rather than the usual temporary permit.
For more information on residence permits, your first point of contact should be the Foreigners Office in your town. Detailed information can also be found at the Federal Interior Ministry, www.bmi.bund.de. Also check out the one-stop website www.verwaltungsdurchklick.de, which was created by the Rhine-Neckar Metropolitan Region in cooperation with the governments of the three federal states in the region.
Whichever permit you apply for, remember that a residence permit is only valid for the duration of your passport. Should your passport expire during your residency in Germany, you will need to apply for a renewal of your residency and work permit. But this last process, you'll be glad to hear, is a mere formality.
When you first register with the authorities, you'll also be given an income tax registration card (Lohnsteuerkarte), along with a slim brochure explaining (in German) the fundamentals of the tax system and determining your tax status. Your choice of tax group is not a matter of personal preference. It largely depends on your marital, family and job status, and you may be required to provide proof of all these things before you're officially admitted into a specific tax group.