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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

IMMIGRATION

What you need to know about Germany’s points-based immigration plans

Germany wants to make it easier for non-EU citizens to enter the country to help combat the shortage of skilled workers with the so-called "opportunity card". Here’s what you need to know.

What you need to know about Germany's points-based immigration plans

As The Local has been reporting, Germany is currently facing a huge gap in its labour force, with the Labour Ministry predicting a shortfall of 240,000 skilled workers by 2026.

This week, Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil presented the initial details of a new points-based immigration system, which is designed to make it easier for people to come to Germany to work. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German industries ‘most affected’ by skilled worker shortage

The new Chancenkarte (“opportunity card”) presented by the SPD politician is broadly similar to the Canadian points system, and will offer foreign nationals the chance to come to Germany to look for work even without a job offer, as long as they fulfil at least three of the following criteria:

1) A university degree or professional qualification

2) Professional experience of at least three years

3) Language skill or previous residence in Germany

4) Aged under 35 

Holders of this opportunity card would then have one year to look for a job and would have to finance themselves during that period. 

According to the Labour Minister, the German government will set a yearly quota for the number of people who will be able to come to Germany with an opportunity card, based on the needs of the labour market.

“It is about qualified immigration, about a non-bureaucratic procedure,” Heil told WDR radio. “That is why it is important that those who have received the opportunity card can make a living when they are here.”

Speaking about the proposals, Professor Panu Poutvaara, Director of the ifo Center for International Institutional Comparisons and Migration Research told the Local: “I welcome the government proposal. Germany needs more workers at different skill levels. What is important is that this should complement the current opportunities to come to Germany also from outside the European Union with an existing job offer, not replace these. I assume that the proposal is meant only to extend the current options, but the precise proposal is not yet circulated.”

READ ALSO:

According to a survey by the Munich-based Ifo Institute, the vast majority of companies in Germany are currently struggling with the issue of a shortage of skilled workers. The survey showed that 87 percent are facing worker shortages and more than a third of respondents see it as a threat to competitiveness. 

“The shortage of qualified employees, and meanwhile of employees in general, is the third threat to Germany as a business location, alongside shortages of raw materials and energy,” Rainer Kirchdörfer, CEO of the Family Business Foundation told die Welt. 

Changes to immigration and citizenship laws ‘high priority’

The proposed measure is part of a package of reforms to immigration law which will be presented later in autumn.

The government also wants to make it easier for people to hold multiple nationalities and make naturalisation of foreigners easier. In future, naturalisation will be possible after five years instead of eight years currently, and as little as three years in cases where people are deemed to have integrated particularly well.

“We need more immigration,” Heil told Bild am Sonntag. “To this end, the traffic light will present a modern immigration law in autumn. We are introducing an opportunity card with a transparent points system so that people our country needs can come to us more easily.”

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

A spokesperson from the Interior Ministry recently told The Local that the changes are a “high priority” but they could take time. 

They said: “The modernisation of citizenship law agreed in the coalition agreement of the governing parties is a high priority for the federal government. There are also plans to make dual and multiple citizenships generally possible.

“The careful preparation and implementation of this important reform project is underway, but will take some time because fundamental amendments to the Citizenship Act must be prepared for this purpose.”

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