The name game

Author thumbnail
Sabine Devins - [email protected]
The name game
Photo: Josh Devins

Giving birth while living abroad can be a daunting prospect. The third instalment of the Local's series Motherhood in the Fatherland follows expectant mum Sabine Devins as she negotiates the cultural quirks of having a baby in Germany.


I have a little footballer on the way. The World Cup fever that gripped Germany a month ago seems to have taken hold inside, and Baby Devins is a kicker. All the action hardly allows a baby-free thought, but at 23 weeks pregnant, there is a lot to think about.

One of the first things my co-creator and I discussed at the beginning of the pregnancy was names. As new parents it will be among the biggest first decisions we make for our child, and it’s a task that can be made even more difficult by German rules.

The quest to find unique baby monikers has led to some outlandish results around the world. In New Zealand, one couple was told they could not name their baby “4real” in 2007 because numerical digits are not allowed. Their solution? They named their son Superman, with the intention of continuing to call him “4real.” Some parents have managed to take things that far because most English-speaking countries have few restrictions on baby names, but in Germany — ever the nanny state — there are quite a few.

When Baby is born, residents must head down to their local Standesamt (civil registry office) to officially register the vital details of their new addition. There German parents find themselves at the mercy of bureaucrats who decide whether the name they put on the birth certificate will get the stamp of approval.

Many of my Canadian friends are choosing gender-twisting names like “Charlie” or “Devon” for girls. But here in Germany, if a name does not properly reflect the baby’s gender, parents had better have a feminine name that lends itself to a gender-bending nickname to put down on the books instead.

Also verboten are names that could cause future humiliation to the child. Along the same lines, babies cannot be named after corporations, though I did recently overhear a new mother introduce her daughter Nike in my OB/GYN’s office. Apparently the bureaucrats will make an exception for babies named after a Greek goddess who also happens to represent a sports equipment company.

Last names are also subject to complicated rules. If both parents opted to keep their family names, they must choose whether their newborn will take on the mother’s or the father’s family name, but not both. According to the Standesamt, the surname chosen for the first-born must be the name given to subsequent children, insuring that that siblings always have the same last name. Furthermore only one surname can be given, which is why one wouldn’t normally see a Günther Schmidt-Henkel on a class roster, unless both his parents hyphenated to “Schmidt-Henkel” when they married.

Happily for expats, they are exempt from these rules. But the Beamte, or public officers, are still known to call local embassies to check that parents are following the rules of their home countries. But being Canadian, this means we could still register a “Papaya Devins” if we wanted to.

However, there are some rules that we’re happy to have applied to us, particularly when it comes to citizenship. Along with the usual questions fielded by pregnant women, expectant expats are also often asked, “Will the baby have dual citizenship?”

For Baby Devins, the answer is yes, according to Alexander Baron von Engelhardt, a German lawyer who specializes in expat legal issues like citizenship and runs the website LG2G: Legal Guide to Germany.

As I’ve mentioned before, my parents are from Germany and were both still German citizens when I was born in a little Canadian prairie town, thus granting me dual German-Canadian citizenship. As a baby born to a German mother in Germany, our child will also be granted German citizenship, despite my Canadian birth. It turns out we’ve already set our baby up with a pretty special gift: dual citizenship for life.

“If the citizenship is inherited, the child has the right to it forever,” von Engelhardt told me.

Unfortunately for many of my counterparts, giving birth in Germany does not automatically mean citizenship for their babies. Most children born to foreign parents in Germany will have to choose between German citizenship and the citizenship of their parents when they turn 18 under the state’s Optionsmodell, or “option model.” This is the case for children born to naturalized German citizens or those born to permanent residents, explained von Engelhardt.

If one parent is German, the baby gets German citizenship, but dual passports depend on the laws of the other parent's native country.

For people here on a temporary visa, be it work or a spousal visa while their spouse has a work permit, the mother’s visa rights are transferred to the baby. It’s simply a matter of registering the birth with the foreigner’s office (Ausländerbehörde) and the child has the legal right to stay in Germany as long as the mother does.

While my husband and I are exempt from Germany’s naming rules for his or her Canadian passport, we are still expecting a little Fußballspieler, so we’re thinking of names that won’t offend the Standesamt and look good on both German and Canadian passports.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also