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LIVING IN GERMANY

EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

If you're planning on staying in Germany for the foreseeable future, you'll probably want to secure your rights by applying for permanent residency or even German citizenship. But what's the difference between the two and are you eligible? We take a look.

A woman fills in the German citizenship test
An applicant for German citizenship fills in her Citizenship Test. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Uli Deck

If you move to Germany from a non-EU country, you’ll generally need to apply for a residence permit of some kind. These are often granted for a period of two to three years for purposes such as work or study, and need to be reapplied for once they’re due to expire. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What you need to know about getting a visa for Germany

For people who plan to settle in the country, however, there are two other options that can help you secure your residence rights over the long term: permanent residency and German citizenship. To apply for these, you’ll generally need to have spent a prolonged period of time in Germany already and show that you’ve integrated well.

Here are the two main options available for foreigners who want to settle in Germany – and what you’ll need to do if you want to apply for them. 

Permanent residency 

A permanent residence permit – or Niederlassungserlaubnis / unbefristete Aufenthaltserlaubnis – does basically just what it says on the tin. This type of permit entitles you to stay in Germany on a permanent basis, without having to go through the constant rigmarole of extending or reapplying for visas every couple of years.

It also gives you flexibility that you don’t tend to get with most types of short-term residence permit, which is a huge advantage if you plan to start studying again after a period of work, or want to enter the world of employed after a period of self-employment.

Since shorter term residence permits generally grant you the right to stay in Germany for a specific purpose (i.e. a period of study or an employment contract with a certain company), these types of visas can limit your options.

With permanent residency, however, you’re free to start a business, change careers, or even retrain at a German university or college with no repercussions for your immigration status. 

Another benefit of getting permanent residency is that you’re entitled to make use of Germany’s social security and welfare system if you need to. That means you can apply for student finance to go back to university, get financial support if you’re ill or otherwise unemployed, and access child benefits when you start a family. 

Be warned, though. While the word ‘permanent’ does technically give you a lifelong right to reside in the country, leaving for more than six months or with the intention of living abroad could cause you to lose your permanent residency. Your right of residence will also be limited to Germany – not the entirety of the European Union – though you will be able to travel to other European countries for up to 90 days without needing a visa. 

Travellers pass through Leipzig airport
Travellers pass through Leipzig airport. With permanent residence, you can travel visa-free in Schengen for up to 90 days, but leaving for more than six months could cause you to lose your status. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Peter Endig

As a non-EU national, you also won’t be able to vote in any German elections – no matter how long you’ve lived in the country and paid into the system. 

How do I know if I’m eligible for permanent residency?

According to the Federal Ministry for Migration, most people are eligible for permanent residency in Germany if they’ve lived in the country on a residence permit for at least five years, have a secure source of income and can prove sufficient levels of integration and German language skills.

In concrete terms, this means you should have held a job that matches your qualifications and have paid into the state pension pot for at least 60 months (or five years). You will also to have to prove you have at least B1 German skills and pass a test to show you understand life in Germany. 

In some cases, you can get permanent residency status more quickly after moving to Germany:

  • If you have a Blue Card, you can get permanent residency after only 33 months if you have little or no German skills, or 21 months with a B1 level of German. 
  • If you are a skilled worker or researcher, you can get permanent residency after four years.
  • If you are self-employed and earn above a certain threshold, you can get permanent residency after three years. 
  • If you have studied at a German university, you can get permanent residency two years after finishing your course, as long as you’ve held a job that matches your qualifications for that duration of time. 
  • If you have close German family members that still live in Germany, you can get permanent residency after three years. 

For a full list of exceptions and rules, consult the BAMF website here. Or check out our explainer below for more detailed information on how to nab yourself permanent residency status:

EXPLAINED: How to secure permanent residency in Germany

German citizenship

Unlike with permanent residency, which is basically designed to enable you to settle in the country as a foreigner, German citizenship – or deutsche Staatsangehörigkeit – will essentially change your status from ‘foreign’ to ‘naturalised’.

With German citizenship, you’ll have all the same rights and privileges as German nationals who were born here, including voting in all types of elections – from federal to local – and being able to leave the country for any amount of time and still return with your rights intact.

If you have children, they’ll automatically gain German citizenship as well (though this is also the case for long-term foreign residents who have children in Germany). And – best of all – since Germany is a member of the European Union, you’ll automatically gain the right to live and work anywhere in the EU, from Brussels to Bologna.

A German passport
A German passport with ‘European Union’ inscribed on it. German citizenship will allow you to live and work anywhere in the EU. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Like permanent residents, you’ll also have complete freedom to choose your career path here, whether that’s starting a business, working as a freelancer, studying at a university or opting for gainful employment.

Unlike non-EU people who have a residence permit, however, you’ll also have the right to apply to ‘EU-only’ jobs. These generally include public sector work like teaching at a state university or working as public official. And if politics is your thing, you’ll even be able to put yourself up for election as an MP

Of course, like any other German, you’ll also be able to access state help when you need it, from student grants to unemployment benefits. 

How do I know if I’m eligible for German citizenship?

As you might imagine, the barriers to entry are somewhat higher if you want to become German. For a start, you’ll have to have lived in the country for at least eight years (though this can be reduced to seven with an integration course or six under exceptional circumstances). 

Partners of German citizens have a much quicker route to citizenship. If your husband or wife is German, you’ll be able to nab a German passport after just three years of residence in the country – though you must have been married for at least two years at the time of application. If one or both of your parents are German, you should also have a right to citizenship. 

The Goethe Institute in Freiburg
A teacher holds a German language course at the Geothe Institute in Freiburg. People who complete B1 German and an integration course can get German citizenship after seven years. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Patrick Seeger

Like with a permanent residency application, you’ll need to have proof of at least B1 German language skills and will have to pass a citizenship exam, or Einbürgerungstest, which will quiz you on Germany’s political system, history, life and culture. 

In addition to that, you’ll generally need to prove you’re able to support yourself without relying on help from the state, that you have health insurance, and that you have a secure place to live. 

READ ALSO: How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)

Can I keep my existing nationality if I become German?

Under current rules, dual nationality is rarely permitted in Germany for non-EU citizens.

However, if the coalitions for the ‘traffic light’ coalition – named after the party colours of the FDP, SPD and Greens – are successful, this could change under the next administration.

In their preliminary coalition agreement, the parties appear to have stuck to their manifesto promises of allowing multiple citizenship – though we will have to wait and see if this applies to all first-generation immigrants, and not just children of migrants.

However, since it’s largely been the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Unions (CSU) blocking dual nationality in the past, a change to this rule does seem likely under a new government. 

READ ALSO: 

In addition, parties are keen to make routes to citizenship easier, for example by lowering the years of residence needed in the country from eight years to five or six. 

Keep an eye on The Local’s political coverage to see how this develops over the coming months. 

Member comments

  1. With regards to ‘permanent residency’ is the 6 months out the country counted in one stretch or an accumulative number of months in a given timeframe?

    1. An important point. I’m not sure to what extent having Permanent Residency overrides what’s in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
      Another related point about leaving Germany for a period of time, is what happens with your health insurance rights. I believe that these are lost if you go to live under another health insurance regime. Or at least the other health insurance regime would have to pass the test of being a publicly supported service in order to opt back into the German one. That was the case with the NHS, but whether its still the case, may depend on where we are with post Brexit relations. This applies to German nationals as well I understand.

      1. To clarify, PR doesn’t “override” the WA – in fact, the WA cross-references Directive 2004/38/EC, ensuring PR rights for WA beneficiaries who meet the requirements, but then adds an additional, WA-specific provision in 15(3), namely “the right of permanent residence shall be lost only through absence from the host State for a period exceeding 5 consecutive years”. Hence, the statement in the article – “leaving for more than six months or with the intention of living abroad could cause you to lose your permanent residency” – is incorrect in the special case of PR acquired through the WA.

  2. Just curious if anyone is in same situation…I am who receives a UK Pension (professional not State) and pays the tax on it to the British Gov as my job counted as Government Service and is covered by a sort of double jeopardy agreement between Germany (I have never worked in Germany). I moved here 12 years ago and wonder where I stand regarding Permanent Residency or Citizenship (I am not married but my Mother was German)

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For members

RESIDENCY PERMITS

What to do if you lose your residence permit in Germany

Third-country nationals with the right to live and work in Germany are generally issued a residence permit in their passport or in the form of an ID card. But what do you if you happen to lose this vital document - or if it gets stolen? Here's a step-by-step guide.

What to do if you lose your residence permit in Germany

Losing an important document can be a nightmare scenario for foreigners in Germany – especially if it’s the one you rely on to live and work in the country. So if you search for your residence permit one day and suddenly realise it’s missing, you may feel the urge to panic. 

Luckily, there’s a process to follow to get a replacement and ensure nobody else can misuse your residence permit in the meantime. This being Germany, it may take a little time, but rest assured you will be able to replace the document. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

Different types of permit

If you’re a non-EU national in Germany, you’re likely to have one of two documents proving your rights and status in the country: 

  • a residence permit that’s placed on a page in your passport (Zusatzblatt zum Aufenthaltstitel), or
  • an electronic ID, or eID, card (electronischer Aufenthaltstitel) for permanent residents. 

Some third-country nationals who’ve been in Germany for less than five years on a visa will have their residence permit in their passport, while others will have been issued an eID card. Permanent residents will generally have an eID card. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to prove you’re a resident in Germany

Brits who lived in Germany before the Brexit cut-off date are likely to have a special type of electronic ID card known as an Aufenthaltstitel-GB. This looks pretty similar to a permanent residence card and basically signifies that the holder is entitled to the same rights as EU citizens living in Germany. 

You’ll need to do things slightly differently depending on which type of residence permit you have, so we’ll cover each in turn. 

In either case, if you suspect you’ve been a victim of theft, it’s a good idea to file a police report so they can be on the lookout for any potential fraud. 

What to do you if you lose your electronic ID card

1. Call the cancellation hotline 

If you’ve mislaid your eID card or it’s been stolen, the first thing to do is call up a national hotline on 01801 33 33 33 and put a block on the card.

To do this, you’ll need to have your Sperrkennwort (blocking passport) handy. The way you’ll have received this can differ from state to state, but usually it is sent out in a letter along with the PIN and PUK for your electronic ID card around the time that the eID was issued. 

This will block anyone from using your eID function. If you find your card again, you can unblock it by visiting the Ausländerbehörde. 

If you haven’t activated the eID function or happen to have mislaid your blocking password as well, then move straight to the second step below. 

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s electronic ID card and how do you use it?

2. Get in touch with the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigner’s Office)

Once you’ve put a block on your card, you’ll need to get in touch with the Ausländerbehörde to let them know what’s happened and arrange a replacement card.

You can do this via email or telephone but may also have to book an in-person appointment if they need to see certain documents for issuing the replacement. If you need to block the eID function and don’t have your Sperrkennwort, you’ll need to take your passport to the Ausländerbehörde to do this.

Bear in mind that you won’t get your new ID card straight away. Depending on the state, it can take a up to three months to be issued. You’ll also need to pay a fee for the replacement card, which can vary from state to state and is normally paid with cash or EC card at the Ausländerbehörde. 

Also, once an order for a new card has been sent off, you’ll no longer be able to reactivate your old card should you find it again. 

Ausländerbehörde Berlin

People go in and out of the Ausländerbehörde in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Kay Nietfeld/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

What to do if you lose your passport and visa 

1. Order a new passport 

It probably goes without saying, but if you lose your passport with your residence permit in it, the first thing you’ll need to do is get hold of a new passport. This should be done via the government of your home country. 

2. Book an appointment at the Ausländerbehörde

Once you’ve got your new passport, make an appointment at the Ausländerbehörde to get a replacement printed out. If you’re unsure what documentation to bring with you to the appointment, check on their website or send them an email beforehand.

Once again, you’ll need to pay a fee for the replacement, which is normally done on-site with cash or an EC card. 

What if I’m travelling out of the country soon? 

If you’re leaving Germany and don’t have time to get a replacement eID card or residence permit, contact the Ausländerbehörde straight away. They should be able to assist you with emergency proof of residence, which is normally done in the form of a Fiktionsbescheinigung (a certificate confirming your status and rights before the official proof has been issued).

Obviously, if you’ve lost your passport, your first port of call will be your home country’s embassy, who can normally issue emergency travel documents within a matter of days. 

For Brits covered by the Withdrawal Agreement, bringing other proof of residence in Germany such as your registration (Anmeldung) with you or a work contract should suffice to avoid getting a stamp in your passport when you re-enter. But even if you do, it won’t affect your rights.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are no hard borders in Schengen, so if you’re travelling around the EU, you’ll generally be fine without your visa. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: How can I re-enter Germany without my post-Brexit residence card?

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