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GERMAN CITIZENSHIP

‘Two years is normal’: How Germany’s citizenship process leaves foreigners hanging

Foreigners who want to get citizenship in Germany face many obstacles, including long waits and requests for obscure paperwork. Why does the process take so long - and is it putting people off from applying?

People walk in central Hamburg.
People walk in central Hamburg. Some regions of Germany appear to be struggling to process citizenship applications. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Georg Wendt

In February 2020 Mahmoud*, who originally comes from the Middle East, sent off the application for himself and his family to become German citizens. 

After almost seven years spent in Germany, the family not only met the necessary requirements, they felt German. “One of my children was born here,” he says. “They speak only German at home.”

He received confirmation from the Berlin office that his application had been received after three months… and then nothing. 

Almost two years later, in February of this year, he finally received a response on his request for dual citizenship. 

READ ALSO: Why Germany’s reform of dual citizenship laws can’t come soon enough

“In the first two lines they apologised for the delay,” he recalls. “They said that it was due to the pandemic and a lack of personnel.”

The office also informed Mahmoud that it couldn’t accept his application because he intended to keep his home nationality. The case worker told him he’d have to chose between the two.

A person holds a German and British passport.

A person holds a German and British passport. Many foreigners in Germany want dual citizenship. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Britta Pedersen

He is now challenging that decision – he believes he qualifies for dual nationality due to the financial costs that would be involved in giving up his nationality of birth – but he doesn’t expect to hear any decision for months.

In the meantime, the fact that he doesn’t have a German passport is costing him opportunities at work. His employer would like him to travel outside the EU but that isn’t easy with his current passport.

‘Two years is normal’

Mahmoud’s plight is one that many people who have applied for German citizenship will probably identify with. 

While exact figures on how long it takes to get citizenship are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that those who apply need to be have high levels of endurance.

“I think the longest one I’ve heard about is three years,” says German resident Dina*, who’s also from the Middle East and set up a social media support group for people to share experiences after she became frustrated with waiting for months on a reply. “But two years is very normal.”

Members of her group often complain that it is impossible to make an appointment online, or they are informed that slots are booked up for the rest of the year.

“Besides the long waiting times, the most annoying thing for people is the lack of transparency and the fact that you don’t know what’s going on or what stage your application is at,” she says.

She herself has been waiting for almost three years for a decision and has no idea whether she’ll find out in the next days or weeks, or whether it will take months before she has clarity.

“You are given the impression that naturalisation isn’t high up Germany’s list of priorities,” she remarks.

READ ALSO: ‘European again’: How changes to citizenship rules will affect Brits in Germany

No proper data collection 

Naturalisation, or Einbürgerung, is a process that is dealt with at the district level in Germany, with little oversight from state governments.

The Local asked eight of Germany’s 16 federal states, including Berlin, Hamburg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria, to provide details on how many applications for nationality are made each year and how many are successful – and only two came back with comprehensive answers.

The rest stated that they are “under no legal obligation” to collect the information we were asking for.

A man holds a German naturalisation certificate.

A man holds a German naturalisation certificate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

But district-by-district information for Berlin that the city was pushed into releasing last year reveals just what a lottery the naturalisation application can be.

While authorities in the District of Treptow-Köpernick claim to confirm that they’ve received an application within one to three working days, in the district of Pankow this initial step happens “within six months.”

Steglitz-Zehlendorf, where Mahmoud applied, claims to confirm receipt “within a few days”. In his case it took almost three months.

There are also huge discrepancies between the Berlin districts in the time it takes between the receipt of the application and the day on which the applicant hears whether they have gained citizenship.

Those who apply in Pankow should be prepared to wait 18 to 24 months while in the central district of Mitte the whole process is typically done and dusted in four months.

Staff shortages

One reason why some local governments perform so poorly is chronic understaffing. 

As Germany becomes more ethnically diverse, ever more people are applying for nationality. At the same time though, districts are not employing enough new staff to cope with the backlog of cases.

In the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, for instance, applications went up by 44 percent between 2016 and 2020, from 874 applications for citizenship to 1,266. But the number of positive decisions only increased by 22 percent in the same period.

This pattern is repeated elsewhere in the country.

Statistics the city of Hamburg provided to the Local show that close to double the number of applications were made last year compared to the number of positive decisions. Given that only a handful of applications are rejected – just 43 from 9,500 applications – it is clear that the the reason people aren’t getting citizenship is because no decision is being made at all.

Johannes Brandstäter, an expert on migration at the Diakonie charitable association, says that a lack of staff is one of the key factors behind the big differences in processing times.

“If there is not enough personnel then applications take a very, very long time,” he says. “Take the example of Kiel, which has really pushed citizenship but has also employed more staff. They have a high level of naturalisation and are something of a paragon.”

On the other hand, he says that Berlin has put money into publicity campaigns but still suffers from chronic staff shortages. The result is that people struggle to even book an initial consultation in the capital.

People enjoy the sun in Berlin.

People enjoy the sun in Berlin. Chronic understaffing of immigration offices is a problem in some areas. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

‘Not really wanted’

There are other reasons why applications can take so long.

The Migration Integration Policy Index, an international comparison of countries’ integration policies, gives Germany poor marks on its laws governing naturalisation.

Not only is Germany the last major migrant destination to have a general ban on dual citizenship, rules around independent income and state welfare receipt “are major factors behind Germany’s below-average naturalisation rates,” the study has found.

The new ‘traffic light’ coalition government is planning to streamline the process by, among other things, abolishing the ban on dual nationality. For now though, conditions that include being “financially independent” or proving that one is “integrated into German society” appear to be clogging up the system.

READ ALSO: What’s the latest on Germany’s dual citizenship laws?

A lot of the speed of processing also seems to lie with the individual case worker. 

At the Diakonie’s 500 nationwide counselling centres, people trying to gain citizenship often complain about the hurdles involved and the fact that officials demand obscure paperwork from them.

“They have wiggle room to interpret the rules,” says Brandstäter, who notes that the rules governing dual nationality are often interpreted more strictly for people from some countries than they are from others.

“Many people have the impression that their applications are not really wanted,” he adds.

Ultimately, he says that the rules and the way caseworkers interpret them are so “daunting” that many people don’t even start to apply for citizenship.

“There are some five million people in Germany who could become citizens, but for various reasons don’t do so. That’s five million people without full legal equality through a German passport, that’s pretty extreme.”

‘Determined’

Mahmoud has consulted a lawyer who is helping him prove that he would stand to suffer significant financial losses were he to lose his home nationality.

“The issue is with the case worker. She says she has never heard of someone with my nationality being given dual citizenship,” he says. “But if she were to look into the data bank of the Berlin Senate she would see that that isn’t the case.”

He says that he is “determined” to see the application through, even if it ends up taking many more months. 

*Names of some our interviewees have been changed to protect their identity as they continue through the naturalisation process. 

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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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