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EXPLAINED: Where do Germans typically emigrate to?

We know a great deal about the foreigners that call Germany home and where they live. But where do Germans tend to go when they emigrate elsewhere?

EXPLAINED: Where do Germans typically emigrate to?
Many German emigrees opt for German-speaking Switzerland. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/KEYSTONE | Yanik Buerkli

Around five million Germans currently live abroad, with a net 64,000 Germans having left Germany last year, according to official figures from Germany’s federal statistics office Destatis.

Most though, stick fairly close by. The majority of the most common destinations for emigrating Germans are in Europe and, perhaps not surprisingly, the two biggest also have German as an official language.

Switzerland takes in the most German emigrees by quite some distance. About 17,000 Germans took up residence there just in 2021.

The second most common destination country was Austria, with 11,000 Germans going there to live and work last year.

Yet Germans also went to many places where German is not an official language.

In third place for Germans in 2021 was the United States, with 8,400 Germans having moved there last year. Notably, the United States was the only country outside the European continent to make the top ten for emigrating Germans.

Just over 6,000 Germans took up residence in sunny Spain last year, with around 5,000 each opting for Turkey, France, the United Kingdom, and Poland. The Netherlands and Italy then rounded out the top ten.

Emigration from Germany also went up slightly in 2021, charting about a 0.7 percent uptick over 2020 figures to a total of one million. It still comes in below the number of people immigrating to Germany, with 1.3 million, or a net 300,000 people having taken up residence in Germany in 2021. At the end of last year, a total of about 11.8 million foreigners were living in Germany.

Career reasons motivate many Germans, particularly graduates, to take up residence in a new country. Higher salaries and lower taxes in Switzerland are described as an attractive reason for some Germans to emigrate.

The federal statistics office reports that many do end up returning later, with very few countries having seen a significant net gain of Germans heading there compared to those returning home. Switzerland and Austria are the highest net gainers of Germans.

In 2021, 11,000 Germans headed to Austria in 2021 while only 6,000 came back from there – for a net gain of 5,000. The same year, Switzerland had a net gain of 7,500 Germans. In 2020 alone, 6,900 Germans naturalised as Swiss citizens.

Spain and Poland also gained more Germans than they lost – with net gains of just over 2,000 a piece.

READ ALSO: Who are Germany’s foreign population and where do they live?

According to official statistics though, Germany has been a net immigration country for most of the time since records starting getting kept in 1991.

The year 2008 was, so far, the only year on record that saw more people leave Germany than come in, with that year seeing a net loss of 100,000 people. The next year, 2009, is the only year on record that saw an equal number of people entering and leaving.

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‘Dangerous and wrong’: German MPs clash over citizenship plans

In a heated debate in the Bundestag on Thursday, MPs traded blows over plans to liberalise Germany's tough citizenship laws, with both sides accusing each other of "dangerous" behaviour.

'Dangerous and wrong': German MPs clash over citizenship plans

The debate saw emotions running high across the political spectrum as parties fought over what they saw as the future of the German economy and its identity. 

As MPs from the traffic-light parties – the SPD, Greens and FDP – heckled from the sidelines, CSU politician Andrea Lindholz delivered a scathing attack on what she described as the “irresponsible” and “unprofessional” behaviour of the Social Democrats (SPD).

Instead of pushing through far-reaching reforms, the Interior Ministry should have dealt with the “sensitive” topic of migration and citizenship in a more careful way, she argued. 

“I’m convinced that everyone that wants to become German should give up their previous citizenship,” Lindholz said. “Do you think it’s a good thing when German dual nationals take up military service for another country?

“Do you not think people from authoritarian countries should give up their old citizenship?”

READ ALSO: HISTORY: What’s behind the push to reform dual citizenship laws in Germany?

Taking the floor later in the debate, CDU MP Ariturel Hack took an even stronger line against the government’s plans to allow non-EU citizens to obtain dual nationality in Germany.

“You cannot share national loyalty between two countries,” he said, referencing demonstrations in favour of Recep Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, which he claimed numerous Turkish-Germans had participated in.

“The coalition’s plans for dual nationality are false, dangerous and they have to be stopped.” 


Tensions had been building throughout the week after CDU parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei accused the government of wanting to “flog off” German nationality.

“The German passport must not become a junk commodity,” he told right-wing tabloid Bild on Friday. 

His comments – which were echoed in Bild’s headline – were a response to the Interior Ministry’s planned citizenship reforms, which include cutting down the years of residence required for German citizenship, allowing non-EU citizens to hold multiple nationalities and lowering language and integration requirements for people from the guest worker generation. 

Referring to the lower requirements for gaining citizenship, Frei accused the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) of turning German nationality into a “Black Friday deal” and lessening its value.

But his words drew fierce opposition during the emergency debate on Thursday, with SPD politician Mahmut Özdemir describing the comments as “shameful”. 

“They come out of the same drawer as ‘benefits tourism’,” he said, referring to the language CDU leader Friedrich Merz had used in recent weeks when describing Ukrainian refugees in Germany. “That drawer should stay closed.”

The conservatives’ rhetoric was also criticised by Reem Alabali-Radovan (SPD), who accused the CDU and CSU of peddling myths about migration that were “dangerous to society”.

“Chancellor Olaf Scholz and I recently met a few people who this relates to: women and men who bring our country further, whose parents and grandparents did the same,” she said. 

“Think about these people when you’re throwing around these words: it’s a slap in the face to all those people with a migrant background.”

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

Citizenship reform plans

The urgent debate had been requested by members of the CDU and CSU parties in order to address the government’s proposals for removing barriers to naturalisation.

The conservatives have said they are vehemently opposed to the plans, arguing that the changes remove the incentive to integrate into German society and encourage people to move into the benefits system rather than working.

However, the proposals have drawn support from the left-wing Linke, who argue that denying long-term residents of Germany the right to vote is damaging to democracy.

In a combative speech in the Bundestag on Thursday afternoon, Linke leader Janine Wissler described the idea that the German passport would be devalued by higher levels of naturalisation as “insane”.

“What did you do for your German passport, Herr Merz?,” she shot at the CDU leader. “Exactly the same as me: nothing. It’s a pure accident, it’s a lottery.”

The passport isn’t devalued by more people becoming German, Wissler said. “You devalue people with this kind of language.”

Currently around 10.7 million people live in Germany without a German passport, meaning they are unable to participate in state and federal elections.

According to Özdemir, around half of this group has lived in the country for seven years or more.

If the government’s plans go through, however, non-EU migrants could be able to gain dual nationality as early as next summer. 

READ ALSO: EXCLUSIVE: German Bundestag to debate law allowing dual citizenship in December