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EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

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'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.

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. 

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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. 

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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

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  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?

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