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IMMIGRATION

EXPLAINED: Who is entitled to German citizenship by descent and how to apply for it

German citizenship law is based on the principle of descent, which means that a child automatically acquires the citizenship of a parent regardless of their place of birth. However, when you were born and whether your parents were married can affect this right.

A man holds a German passport in his hand.
A man holds a German passport in his hand. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

Shortly after taking office last year, Germany’s traffic light coalition government announced a plan to loosen citizenship laws and make it easier for foreign nationals to gain a German passport. Almost a year later, however, those plans have still not come into force. In the meantime, here is a look at another way foreign nationals may be able to gain German citizenship.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When will Germany change its citizenship laws?

The principle of descent 

In Germany, das Abstammungsprinzip – the principle of descent – was originally the only basis for German nationality under the Reich and Nationality Act which came into force in 1914. Since then, it has been broadened by various amendments to the law. 

Here is a guide to understanding who is entitled to German citizenship by descent and how to apply.

Children born to married parents

Before 1975, in almost all cases where the parents were married at the time of birth, you could become German only if your father was a German citizen.

The law was broadened slightly in 1964 so that children who would otherwise have been stateless were able to gain German citizenship if only their mother was German. This law applied until December 31st, 1974.

Then, those born to married parents after 1975 automatically became German citizens if one of the parents – father or mother – was a German citizen at the time of their birth. This rule still applies today.

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

However, if you were born outside of Germany after December 31st, 1999 and your German parent was also born outside of Germany after December 31st 1999, then you were not born a German citizen unless your birth was registered in Germany within one year of your date of birth.

For those who were born before 1975 and after May 23rd, 1945, when the old rules about paternal inheritance still applied, there is now a possibility to become a German citizen by applying for ‘citizenship by declaration’.

Photo: A newborn baby at the Vivantes Klinikum in Friedrichshain, Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Monika Skolimowska

This possibility came into force in August 2021 and involves submitting an application form called an Erklärungserwerb (declaration application) and proof of parentage, with documents such as birth, parentage and marriage certificates. The application procedure itself is free of charge, though you may need to factor in costs for getting documents translated or certified by a notary.

A checklist for those who are entitled to apply for citizenship by declaration is available, in German, on the Federal Administration Office’s website

Children born to unmarried parents

Before July 1993, in almost all cases where the parents were not married at the time of birth, you could become German only if your mother was a German citizen.

If you were born before July 1993 and only your father was a German citizen, you could only become a German citizen by legitimation i.e. if your parents got married after your birth. 

After July 1st, 1993, another change in the law meant that having either a German mother or father meant that a child of unmarried parents was a German citizen. However, if only the father was a German citizen, legal paternity had to be established before the child’s 23rd birthday. This meant obtaining a Vaterschaftsannerkennung (acknowledgement of paternity).

A father twirls his child in the air in Munich, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance / Tobias Hase/dpa | Tobias Hase

This is still the case today, and, as with children born in wedlock, if you were born outside of Germany after December 31st, 1999 and your German parent was also born outside of Germany after this date, then you do not automatically gain German citizenship. In this case, your birth must be registered in Germany within one year of your date of birth.

Adopted children

If you were adopted as a minor (under the age of 18) by at least one German citizen on or after January 1st, 1977, you automatically gain German citizenship. If the adoption took place outside Germany, the adoption must be recognized in Germany and have the same legal effects under German law to qualify for German citizenship.

German grandparents

Unlike in some other European citizenship laws, you can‘t jump a generation and apply for citizenship in Germany just because of a German grandparent. However, your parent might have acquired German citizenship by descent from your German grandparent(s) through one of the above categories, which could mean that you could also qualify as a German citizen. 

People living outside of Germany

Not living in Germany doesn’t mean that you are not a German citizen under the principle of descent. However, if you want to get a German passport, you’ll need to obtain a certificate of proof of citizenship – a Staatsangehörigkeitsausweis. 

READ ALSO: How foreigners can get fast-track citizenship in Germany

To do this, you will have to fill out a form and submit it to the Federal Office of Administration, which investigates whether or not applicants are German citizens. Along with the form, you will also have to submit various documents including proof of parentage, birth and marriage certificates.

Dual citizenship

The children of a foreign parent and a German parent have a right to both nationalities, as long as the law of the foreign parent’s home country allows it.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: what you need to know about dual citizenship in Germany

Children born to at least one German national abroad also have a right to dual citizenship, as long as the country of their birth also recognises the principle of ‘jus soli’ – the right to citizenship to those born in the territory of a state. The parents have to register this birth with the local diplomatic mission within the first 12 months of the child’s life. 

Exceptions and developments

In June 2021, the so-called “reparation citizenship” law was passed in the Bundestag, which closed legal loopholes which had led to descendants of people who fled Nazi Germany to escape persecution having their applications for a German passport rejected.

Under the new law, descendants of those deprived of German citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds between 1933 and 1941 can claim citizenship through their parents’ restored citizenship.

READ ALSO: How Germany is making it easier for Nazi victims’ descendants to get citizenship 

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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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