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The complete guide to getting a freelance visa in Germany

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The complete guide to getting a freelance visa in Germany
A freelancer working from home. Photo: Deposit Photos/kasto
11:16 CEST+02:00
The 'freelance' visa is a popular way for non-EU nationals to live and work in Germany. But what is this visa? Who can apply for it - and what does it allow you to do?

If you've spent much time in Germany as a foreigner, you've probably heard about the mysterious ‘freelance' visa. If you've spent time in Berlin, you might have heard it referred to as either the ‘freelance artist visa' or simply the ‘artist visa'. 

Regardless of the country you move to, understanding and navigating the complex visa rules is likely to be difficult. Germany's federal structure, along with its varying rules for nationals of different nations, can make this even more difficult. 

READ: Germany's future depends on immigration and integration: Merkel

This guide provides a broad overview of the freelance visa in Germany. While we hope to provide you with a little information as to what it is - and what it isn't - remember that this should not replace the advice of a qualified immigration lawyer or advisor. 

Free to do what I want any old time

There's a lot of confusion around the freelance visa - known in German as the Aufenthaltserlaubnis für selbständige Tätigkeit, or the Resident's Permit for Self-Employed Activity. 

Put simply, the freelance visa is a residence permit which allows someone to live in Germany and work in one or more specified areas. 

The total list of specified areas, laid out in EStG §18, is extensive and includes diverse professions like vets, pilots, commercial chemists and patent attorneys. 

The Local's special report into the German Ausländerbehörde (foreigners registration office)

Part 1: What it's like to visit Germany's immigration office

Part 2: The Local's interview with the director of Berlin's Ausländerbehörde

Part 3: Your complete guide to visiting Germany's immigration offices

This is where things get a tad confusing. These specified areas vary from state to state. The law basically says that each state has the right to include or exclude certain types of freelance work depending on the (mostly economic) needs of that state (§21). 

The most notable example of this is the so-called ‘artist' visa. Technically speaking there is no artist visa. Instead, artist is one of the categories of freelance visa. 

Berlin authorities a while back decided that the city-state needs more artists, therefore it included artists as a sub-category.

The 'Aufenthaltstitel', or visa to stay in Germany, will take up two passport pages - the second which will include the freelance visa, or the so-called Aufenthaltserlaubnis für selbständige Tätigkeit. Photo: DPA

This explains why the artist visa  — such a feature of the Berlin expat scene — doesn't exist in the same form in other parts of Germany. 

Some of the other more popular freelance visa categories include language teacher, translator and journalist.

While generally speaking you will choose only one category of work when applying, it is possible to choose more than one if you make the case. 

This is important as once the visa is approved, you will only be allowed to take on work in that area. If you're an actor and a model, both will be in the category of artist, but if you're both a journalist and an artist you'll be unable to work in both areas unless you receive approval for both. 

IN THE MEANTIME... Browse thousand's of English-language jobs in Germany

Understanding freelance work in Germany

In Germany, freelance work means work that is done not as an employee but as an external contractor. This is an important distinction - and one which sometimes does not apply in other countries. 

Freelancers, for instance, will be required to pay their entire health care costs - whereas employees will generally only pay half (with the employer company paying the other half). 

As we discussed in our recent series looking at people's experience with the German foreigners registration office, getting approved to work freelance does not allow you to be an employee of a company. 

While there is provision for you to apply for a special exemption from the Ausländerbehörde, this can be difficult - and time consuming. 

If you are working continually for one employer in a ‘freelance capacity', it may be necessary to make the switch to being an employee - but this will require you to apply for a new residence permit which will connect directly to the company you work for. 

There are advantages here, but it does tie you to that company - meaning that it'll be harder or even impossible to take on jobs with other employers. 

Who can apply? 

Any non-EU citizen who is skilled and experienced in one of the set professional areas can apply. 

Generally speaking this will require you to show evidence of a qualification - i.e. a university degree or a certificate from a drama school - but obviously evidence of successful work in the area without said qualifications may also be sufficient. 

There's no age limit, although anyone applying over the age of 45 will need to “possess adequate provision for old age” (§21). 

Where can I apply? 

Unlike many other European Union countries, Germany generally doesn't require people to apply in their own countries - although this will depend on the country you are from. 

Nationals of Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea or the United States - and presumably soon the United Kingdom - can apply in Germany. 

For nationals of other countries, check with your embassy if you indeed do need to return home to apply (i.e. before you book a ticket or send your passport on its merry way).

If applying in Germany, simply go to the local offices or make an appointment. Some will have so-called 'Welcome Centers' rather than straight out Ausländerbehörden, however these are pretty much identical and will largely require the same documentation. 

What do I actually need to apply?

Germany's love of paperwork is legendary - and applying for a visa is of course no exception. 

The exact nature of the documents you will need to bring depends on whether or not you are applying as a Freiberufler or a Selbständiger, with the latter requiring you to also lay out your business concept and make a case as to why it will be successful. 

Remember that there's no guarantee your case worker will speak English, therefore bringing a translator or at least translating all of the documents will be helpful.

While the following are general across Germany - this is a list in English from the Berlin office - be sure to check with the website of the relevant state in which you are applying. 

The most important documents are the freelance visa application form, proof of suitable health insurance and proof of residence in the state you're applying (i.e. the Meldebescheinigung/Anmeldung). Without one or all of these, you'll be swiftly shown the door. 

You can apply for an Anmeldung at your nearest Bürgerämt. Photo: DPA

You'll also need to provide documents which prove that you will be able to successfully work in the area for the set period. 

The most important documents in this category are recommendation letters, which are letters from previous or prospective clients indicating that they were happy with your work and they'd work with you in the future. There's a minimum of two, although more definitely helps. 

Evidence of funds - i.e. a bank statement - is also essential. This will show that you have enough money to sustain yourself while you build up your freelance contacts. This will include an amount which covers rent, food, business expenses etc. 

No set amount is given, but it will be hard to convince your friendly case worker that you can adequately survive for a year if the monthly allowance only provides enough for rent, a bag of rice and a few bottles of Sternberg. 

In addition, you'll need your resume/CV, examples of previous work, evidence of a qualification in the area (i.e. uni degree or other certificate) and a cover letter. 

In addition, you'll need to bring your passport, two biometric passport pictures (35 x 45mm) and enough cash to pay the visa fees as you might not be able to pay with card (anywhere between €40-120). 

Tell us: Do you have a freelance visa? What was your experience in obtaining it?

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