This is where (and why) Germans are moving abroad

The majority of Germans move abroad for professional reasons - and earn significantly more there, according to new research.

This is where (and why) Germans are moving abroad
Photo: DPA

The first results of the study “German Emigration and Remigration Panel” were presented by Andreas Ette of the Federal Institute for Population Research earlier this week in Berlin.

The majority, or 76 percent, out of the 180,000 people who move abroad every year are graduates, reported Focus Online.

“Emigration is a domain of the highly qualified,” said Ette.

But other types of workers also benefited from the move, he added.

READ ALSO: Explained: Who are the foreign workers coming to Germany?

On average, full-time employees earned around €1,200 more within one year than they would have in Germany. This also applies when adjusted for purchasing power, the researchers found.

By way of comparison, net wages in Germany also rose in twelve months, but only by an average of €87.

For the representative survey, 10,000 people born in Germany between the ages of 20 and 70 who had moved abroad – or returned to Germany from overseas – between July 2017 and June 2018 were interviewed.

Most of them cited their own profession as a reason for moving (58 percent). The second most frequently given motive was the lifestyle in their target country. 

For 37 percent, however, moving due to their partner’s career decision was the decisive factor. 

Around 180,000 people emigrate every year

For both graduates and low-skilled workers, the move abroad was particularly worthwhile, they said. Their earnings increased at an above-average rate. 

Around 180,000 Germans emigrate every year – and about 130,000 Germans who had been living abroad return each year. 

This graph (“Where the Germans Emigrate: Most popular target countries”) shows the number of Germans who have moved abroad over the past 10 years, and to which countries. Graph: DPA

Yet it is unclear how many people stayed abroad for the rest of their lives, the researchers said. 

Currently, five percent of Germans live abroad. In comparison with other OECD countries, Germany ranks third in the number of citizens heading overseas – behind Poland and the UK.

Most important target country: Switzerland

As a result of the move, Germany will lose skilled workers, at least temporarily, said Ette. However, because skilled workers from other countries are migrating at the same time, the migration balance remains positive. 

“The best are doing well [abroad], but the best are also coming [to Germany],” the researchers said.  

The migration of skilled workers is therefore not a brain drain, but a brain circulation – i.e. not a migration of competent workers in and out of the country, but rather a cycle.

The most important destination by far for German emigrants over the past 10 years has been Switzerland with almost 200,000 having moved there, ahead of the US (127,000), Austria (108,000) and the UK (82,000). 

Although men and women emigrated in equal parts, a “more classical family model” dominated, in which men's careers played a more important role. Women often only returned to the workforce after they were back in Germany again.

Younger people above other groups tend make the decision to move: The average age is between 36 and 37-years-old and thus just under 10 years below that of the German population.

Since the 1980s, the number of German emigrants has risen continuously, said the researchers.


Emigrate – Auswandern 

The domain – (die) Domäne

Circulation – (der) Kreislauf

The most common reason – (der) häufigste Grund

The lifestyle – (der) Lebensstil

We're aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

Member comments

  1. It would be very interesting to see a breakdown of these statistics per year, if available.
    For example, I’d guess the number of Germans moving to the UK has declined over the past few years due to BREXIT!

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What Germany’s plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

To tackle its ever-widening skills gap, Germany wants to encourage talent from aboard to move to the country by introducing a points-based immigration system. Here's what foreigners need to know about the changes.

What Germany's plans for a points-based system mean for foreigners

What’s a points-based system?

A points-based system is an immigration model where foreigners have to score above a certain threshold of points in order to obtain a residence or work permit in a country. The exact scoring system is set by the government, but can include factors like language skills, family connections to the country, specific qualifications or work-related skills, or the amount of money in your bank account. 

Points-based systems can also be known as “merit-based systems”, because there tends to be a pretty big emphasis on what you can offer a country in terms of education or skills. 

The model was first introduced in Canada way back in 1967 as the country tried to move past a system based on race and nationality to one that favoured language fluency, youth and educational or vocational background. A similar step was taken in Australia just a few years later in 1972 and, since Brexit, the UK has also introduced its own points-based model. 

How does this relate to Germany?

When the new ‘traffic-light’ coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) took office last December, the parties pledged to reform Germany’s immigration system and bring a fresh cohort of workers into the country.

“In addition to the existing immigration law, we will establish a second pillar with the introduction of an opportunity card based on a points system to enable workers to gain controlled access to the German labour market in order to find a job,” the coalition agreement read.

This would apply to third-country nationals who don’t otherwise have the right to live and work in the country. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Germany’s new government means for citizenship and naturalisation

German language course poster

A sign advertising German courses. Language skills can count towards points in a points-based system. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

FDP migration specialist Dr. Ann-Veruschka Jurisch, who is working on these reforms, says the policy is driven by Germany’s desperate need for workers. 

“The Liberal Party (FDP) is convinced that we need more labour migration,” she told The Local. “We do have a lot of options for coming into Germany as a labour migrant – but it’s a bit complicated – and if you want to come to Germany to search for a job and you don’t come from an EU country, it’s much more difficult.”

That’s why the coalition is aiming to offer a second route for people who don’t have job lined up in Germany, but who otherwise have the skills or talent to find one. 

What will this look like?

The plans for the points-based system are still at an early stage, so the exact criteria haven’t been worked out yet.

What’s clear at this stage, however, is that the points-based option would run parallel to the current model, which generally permits people with a concrete job offer in a skilled profession to come and work in the country. 

“It’s about (people having) a good opportunity to come to Germany when they have either a job offer in sight or a direct job offer,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said in response to parliamentary question in January. 

“Next to that, we want to achieve a further possibility for talent – for qualified men and women whose skills we need in Germany, who still don’t have a work contract but, if given access, could use that opportunity. That’s what we’re talking about with this Canadian points-based system. It shouldn’t replace our current system, but rather improve it.”

In short, that means that people with a job lined up won’t be disadvantaged – but there will be alternative routes for those without them. It also won’t affect the EU blue card scheme

READ ALSO: ‘I finally feel at home’: How Germany’s planned changes to citizenship laws affect foreigners

Will people need formal qualifications? 

Probably not – though it will obviously depend on the sector someone works in and their level of experience in their chosen field.

“I personally am convinced that you shouldn’t place too much emphasis on formal qualifications, because it’s very complicated getting your formal qualifications recognised in Germany,” said Jurisch.

“A medical doctor, for example, is one where you can’t say, ‘Okay, you’ve got some experience so we don’t need to see your papers.’ But there are a lot of other jobs which do not have this restriction and they are not formalised but rather based on practical experience.”

Carpenter wood

A carpenter sands down a block of wood in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

The issue of recognising qualifications is also a problem that the traffic-light coalition has set their sights on solving during their time in office.

At the moment, the process of getting qualifications officially recognised in Germany is done on a state-by-state basis, so somebody who gets their degree recognised in Brandenburg may have to redo the entire process again in Bavaria, for instance.

According to Jurisch, there have already been conversations between the Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education on the issue, and Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has also promised to take steps to solve it.

But, she said, it’s complicated: “I’ve started to dive into this issue, and the more I dive into it, the more complicated it becomes – so there are no silver bullets.” 

How many workers are needed – and where? 

In order to plug its labour shortages, Germany needs around 400,000 new workers every year, according to the Federal Employment Agency. In 2020, Germany’s net migration was just 200,000 and 150,000 people of working age entered retirement – which means the country is currently falling well short of its targets. 

“We have shortages everywhere,” Jurisch said. “We need 400,000 new workers every year, and these people won’t be born in Germany – or if they are, they won’t grow up for another 20 years.

“We haven’t managed to get more women into the labour market, or they work part time, so I don’t think this will make a big difference, and I don’t think we will close the gap by training people.”

In this sense, it seems that immigration is the only option for filling major staff shortages in almost every profession. 

“Whoever I talk to, be it nurses, nannies, IT workers, industrial workers, teachers, lawyers – everywhere we have a shortage,” Jurisch said.

staff shortages Germany

A sign outside a restaurant informs customers of a closure due to staff shortages. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

When will the points-based system be introduced?

Unlike with the plans to reform citizenship, which the SDP-led Interior Ministry wants to achieve by the end of the year, there’s no firm timeline in place for the points-based system.

However, the FDP is fighting for the policy to be given higher priority and would like to introduce the new visa system before the next federal election in 2025. 

“I hope it will be done in this legislative period,” said Jurisch. “I’m pushing to get it a little bit higher up on the agenda.” 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’