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IMMIGRATION

EXPLAINED: How I got German citizenship – and how you can too

After Brexit, Brit in Berlin Sarah Magill felt deflated. But she decided to have a go at applying for citizenship. After a lot of hard work and an emotional journey, she got her German passport at the start of this year. Here's her experience and tips.

A naturalization certificate of the Federal Republic of Germany.
A naturalization certificate of the Federal Republic of Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Stephan Jansen

When I woke up to the result of the Brexit referendum on June 24th,  2016, I was incredulous. “This is surely not really going to happen”, I told myself.

I suspect like many other British citizens living in Europe, the possibility of “maybe another referendum” kept me from taking any action to register my residency in Germany during those first few post-referendum years. 

“Just wait and see what happens”, I thought, “surely they will come to a sensible arrangement to protect our rights.” But when Boris Johnson’s government secured a decisive election victory in December 2019, I realised that sensible solutions were off the table.

A British flag flies in front of the famous clock tower Big Ben on June 24, 2016 in London, Britain. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Michael Kappeler

As the deadline for Britain’s exit from the EU at the end of 2020 drew nearer, I started weighing up my options. By then, I’d been living in Berlin for five and a half years, and had no plans to return to the UK. The most straightforward option would have been to get a residence permit, but after checking out the requirements for becoming a German citizen on the government website, I realised I may be in with a chance of becoming German.

The benefits of German Citizenship

For me, one of the most enticing motives to apply for German citizenship was to rejoin the community of European citizens and regain the freedom to travel and work within any other European country. 

The other main attraction was, of course, the non-forfeitable right of residence that comes with Germany citizenship, which would mean I could continue living in Berlin without having to worry about being kicked out of the country or having to reapply for residency if I were to live outside of it for a period longer than six months. 

Other attractive rights that come along with citizenship include the ability to vote in state and federal elections, the possibility of running for political office yourself and access to civil servant status. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

The conditions

Under the previous German government’s rules – which are for now still in place (but are likely to change soon) – you have to have lived continuously in Germany for eight years in order to apply for German citizenship. If you complete an integration course, this can be reduced to seven years, and, in special circumstances, even to six.

At the Volkshochschule (VHS) Karlsruhe, the word Kursteilnehmer is written on a whiteboard in various gender spellings. picture alliance/dpa | Uli Deck

Having a Masters Degree from a German University meant that I was able to reduce the eight-year barrier to just six when I applied for my citizenship. But the language threshold was higher. Those who have lived in Germany for eight years have to have a B1 language level, but, having lived in the country for less than eight years, I needed a certificate of B2 level German. 

When I’d decided that I fulfilled the most important prerequisites for the citizenship application (including no criminal record, independent means of subsistence without social assistance) I made an appointment in June 2020 with my local Einbürgerungsamt (naturalisation office) for my first appointment to get advice on how to become a German citizen.

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

The first appointment

I don’t know what it is about German Bürgerämte (local authority offices), but I always seem to have a feeling of apprehension when entering those buildings. It was no different when I went to my local Einbürgerungsamt in east Berlin for the first time and I suddenly felt sure that my plan to apply for citizenship would be immediately dismissed. 

But when I was ushered into a 70s-style, DDR office – exploding with paperwork – with my responsible Beamter (civil servant), I found myself more at ease in the slightly chaotic surroundings.

I told my advisor that I was not sure if I could apply, as there were still a few months to go before I had officially been living in Germany for six years. He brushed this aside and urged me in no uncertain terms to get my skates on and start gathering the documents I would need for a citizenship application.

A British and a German passport. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

If I wanted to keep my British passport, my application would have to be in process by December 31st, 2020, otherwise I would have to forfeit my British citizenship in order to gain the German one.

“Just get all the documents together as quickly as you can – ideally before the end of the year” he told me “and the Senate will decide whether to grant your application”. He gave me a printed out list of all of the requirements, marked up the parts that were relevant for me at lightning speed – it seemed he’d done this a thousand times before. 

The (surprisingly reasonable) process

Applying for citizenship in a country which is renowned for its love of bureaucracy meant that I was under no illusions that the process would involve a hefty amount of paperwork. But I was relieved to find out that the cost for the application process itself was a reasonable fee of €255 (and still is), and that the documents required were all relatively easy to acquire. 

The list of documents I had to provide was: proof of continual residency in Germany over the previous six years – which in my case took the form of social security payments, proof of earnings, working contract, home rental contract, tax declarations, as well as translated copies of my birth and degree certificates. Oh, and a certificate (either from TELC or the Goethe Institut) proving I had passed the Einbürgerungstest  (naturalisation test) and proof of B2 level German proficiency. 

With the help of the national database of approved translators  I was able to find a local and low-priced translator, who quickly Germanised my documents and gave them the official stamp they needed. 

A long wait for test results

The trickiest part of the Einbürgerungsverfahren (naturalisation process) for me was organising the two tests because both came with official waiting times for results of up to three months. 

As the fastest available language test cost €170, I decided it was worth aiming for a higher level certificate, which would at least also be useful for my professional life. I got myself a C1 language test book and spent a few weeks swatting up on grammar and practising for the most daunting part of the test – the 90 minute writing exam. At the end of August, I sat a three-and-a-half-hour long C1 TELC exam and waited on tenterhooks until mid-October before I finally got the result. 

For the naturalisation test, I had to find an appointment at a Volkshochschule, via their website. The test is composed of 33 questions (in German) on a range of topics from German history, politics and the constitution, and you have to get at least 17 correct answers to pass.

Borrowing a book with all of the 310 possible questions from my local library, I found that most were fairly straightforward and often just required some common sense. But it was definitely important to have read all the questions at least once before sitting the exam and I was also able to test myself on the government question database.

Sarah outside the local naturalisation office with her citizenship certificate. 

The final stretch

By late November 2020, I was hugely relieved to have positive results for both of my tests and forwarded the certificates on to my caseworker by early December and two weeks later I got a confirmation email to tell me that my application had been completed and passed on to the Senate. I had done everything required of me, I just had to wait for the decision. 

Then, on January 22nd, 2021, I got my official Einladung zur Einbürgerung (invitation to naturalisation) through the post. Now all I had to do was go and collect my official certificate of German citizenship. 

In “normal” times, this would involve a ceremony at the local Rathaus and shaking hands with local dignitaries. But, as this was in the middle of the Covid lockdown, I collected my certificate from the messy office where it all started. 

But, as I sat at the desk making my solemn declaration of intention to uphold the laws of Germany, I didn’t care.  I was delighted, relieved, and surprisingly emotional to be officially welcomed as a German citizen.

Member comments

  1. I had a broadly similar experience in Weimar.
    The official in the Einbürgerungsamt was friendly, patient and helpful and the process itself was not too bureaucratic.
    The ceremony in the Rathaus was strangely moving and I was surprised to feel quite proud afterwards.
    It had the same attraction for me – of being able to keep my British citizenship too.

  2. Congratulations on passing the C1 exam! Really well done.
    I have the B2 at the moment, but the prospect of stepping up to C1 is just totally daunting… even after nearly two years of lockdown, during which I should have had tons of free time. Maybe this year 😉

  3. Sadly now the option of keeping British as well as German citizenship is currently not open to Brits.

  4. I should love to have German citizenship but I don’t think I can even live in Germany now because, as a pensioner, although I have income enough to rent somewhere to live and to run my life, I don’t fulfill the financial criteria for residence. My plus for being German is, as a British teacher of German for many years I am both fluent in German and familiar with the country. I long to be a proper European again and have no desire to remain British. However, at 81 I might well not live long enough to achieve citizenship anyway. So, unfortunately, my dream of meine zweite Heimat is unlikely to be fulfilled!

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READER INSIGHTS

‘Lack of transparency’: What it’s like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

Getting permanent residency can be a great way to secure your rights in Germany - but what's it like going through the application process? The Local spoke to readers about their experiences.

'Lack of transparency': What it's like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

For non-EU citizens living in Germany, permanent residence is often the go-to status when they decide to build a life here. For years, there have been strict rules that make it difficult to obtain dual nationality, so those who aren’t keen on losing their old citizenship can secure their rights by becoming permanent residents instead.

On the Make it in Germany website – set up by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – information in English states that most applicants simply need to fulfil a short list of requirements. They need to prove they know German, are well integrated, have a secure livelihood, and have held another residence permit for at least five years.

But how are these rules applied in practice, and how long does it take to switch from a temporary visa to permanent residence?

When The Local spoke to readers about their applications, we found hugely varied experiences for people on different types of visa and in different parts of the country.

“The requirements for permanent residency are clearly defined in the law,” said 27-year-old Manpreet J., who’s originally from India. “What is not defined is how to prove that they are met. This is where the problem begins.”

According to Manpreet, there are even different definitions of a secure livelihood in different regions. In Aachen, for example, a temporary work contract wouldn’t be enough to fulfil this requirement, while just 30km away in Heinsberg, it would.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

‘Bring everything you can think of’

Jaton’ West, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Berlin, found the criteria for accepting applications similarly inscrutable.

“We applied twice,” She told The Local. “The first time they only renewed our visa – no explanation as to why. We reapplied when it expired and were granted it. Seems like it’s a crapshoot and just depends on the whim of the person processing your application.”

For Jonathan in Nuremberg, the whole process was marked by a “lack of transparency” – starting with the fact that there was no available information, in English or German, about what documents would be needed during the process.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners' Office.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners’ Office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Six weeks after sending in his application for permanent residency, his local Foreigner’s Office emailed him to inform him that he would need 10 additional documents – including a German language test and integration test that he didn’t know he’d have to take.

With his residence permit due to expire in a matter of weeks, he was left with no time at all to find hard copies of all the other documents, let alone manage the 14-week turnaround for booking and receiving results for the tests. 

“The frustration is that I could have taken these tests anytime in the past year, if I had known that I needed them,” he said.

Düsseldorf resident Dmitry, 33, also received incomplete information about the documents he needed to provide – both on the website of his local Foreigner’s Office and in an email he was sent.

“As far as I recall, no list mentioned bringing the work contract, and the contract for the flat was also required. Finally, I had to provide them translations of my degrees, despite already having provided them for my Blue Card,” he said. “In the end, it’s worth bringing everything a person can think of.”

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is my British residency title the same as permanent residency in Germany?

‘Smoother than expected’ 

For the vast majority of respondents, the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the application was the hardest thing about securing permanent residency.

Others said they had found it tricky to brush up their German skills to meet the B1 language requirement.

However, a number of people said they been pleasantly surprised by how relaxed their case workers had been and how simple the process was.

This was the case for 32 year-old Angela, who moved to Berlin from Colombia. 

“I prepared a lot of documents, but in the end all they checked was my salary and that I had contributed to the pension fund and Krankenkasse (health insurance),” she told us. “I don’t know why it was so easy for me – my intuition tells me higher income people have it easier.” 

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill.

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | arifoto UG

For 39 year-old Shila, who lives in Mainz, the experience of applying for permanent residency was similarly hassle-free. After emailing the Landesamt and her local case worker, she was given an appointment and a list of documents to bring with her. 

Despite the fact that she wasn’t able to supply a language certificate, the application was a success – and her case worker even offered to talk to her in English.

“It was in 2021 in the middle of lockdown, but it was a very positive surprise to me after hearing all the bad experiences on Facebook groups,” Shila said.

The huge variation in experiences even extended to the amount of time it took for permanent residence to be granted.

While some lucky applicants managed to complete the whole thing within a month, others have waited as long as a year and a half – and in some cases are still waiting for an outcome. 

Easier with a Blue Card

Among those respondents who had an easier time, many told us they had originally come to Germany on a Blue Card – a special EU visa for skilled workers on high incomes.

Blue Card holders with basic German language skills are able to receive permanent residency after living in the country for just 33 months. Meanwhile, those with slightly more advanced skills (B1) can secure their permanent status after just 21 months.

Berlin resident Steven, 50, told us he was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’d only need an A1 language certificate, thanks to the fact that he’d been living in Germany on a Blue Card.

Others took advantage of the fast-tracked option and secured their B1 certificate in order to get a permanent residence permit after less than two years.

Adi Singh, 33, said getting a hold of permanent residence in Munich had been an incredibly smooth process – largely because he’d applied through his employer.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for citizenship or permanent residency?

With his B1 language skills, Adi was able to apply after just 21 months, and he received his card within just six months.

“I had one in-person appointment at the KVR close to the approval stage, but that was quick and short,” he said. “But they make it a point to speak to you in German, likely to establish that B1 level.”

Compared to the experience of applying for his Blue Card himself, Adi said applying via his employer had helped him avoid bureaucratic issues.

“I was fortunate to do it through my firm, and I would recommend that if your company does not apply for it for you, it is a good idea to hire an immigration firm that will do the process,” he advised. “It’s worth the time and energy saved.”

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