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Reader question: Can I still get German citizenship after claiming benefits?

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Reader question: Can I still get German citizenship after claiming benefits?
A woman scans her German passport at an electronic gate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

As routes to citizenship open up for a greater number of people in Germany, some are wondering whether unemployment could stand in the way of their naturalisation dreams. We spoke to immigration lawyer Sven Hasse to find out what you should know.

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With the German economy sliding into recession this year, the sad truth is that periods of unemployment will be unavoidable for many. Several major companies - including tech giant SAP, cell phone provider Vodafone and chemical company BASF - announced layoffs earlier this year, and it's likely this trend could continue.

For foreigners who end up unemployed, this creates a major dilemma: if I fall back on social welfare, will this jeopardise my future application for citizenship? Is it okay to rely on unemployment insurance - otherwise known as Arbeitslosengeld I - and what happens if I switch to Bürgergeld, or long-term unemployment benefits? 

The Local spoke to Sven Hasse, a Berlin-based lawyer who's specialised in citizenship and immigration law for 23 years, to clarify some of these questions. Here's what he had to say.

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Unemployment insurance vs social welfare

According to Hasse, the first thing it's important to know is that authorities distinguish between different types of unemployment benefits. 

People who've just been laid off and need to fall back on Arbeitslosengeld I (ALG I) for a short time shouldn't worry about this affecting their citizenship application. To clarify: that's the type of benefit you get if you've been employed for at least a year in the past 2.5 years, and it's calculated as a proportion of your previous income. 

In contrast, long-term unemployment benefits - known as Arbeitslosengeld II (ALG II) or Bürgergeld - are welfare payments that you get from the jobcentre if you're unemployed for a longer period of time. These, according to Hasse, can be more of an issue.

What the law says about claiming benefits

When someone applies for naturalisation in Germany, case workers want to check that the person applying can support themselves and their loved ones financially - both now and in the future.

In fact, the Federal Office for Migration (BAMF) states that one of the key requirements for citizenship is that "you can finance living expenses for yourself and your dependent family members - without social assistance or unemployment benefit II."

That means that authorities may slow your application down if you're currently on a probationary period at work, for example. 

It also means that your case is unlikely to be processed if you're currently receiving long-term unemployment benefits - and you will need to show a good reason for having done so in the past. 

READ ALSO: TEST: Could you pass the German citizenship exam?

Regional differences 

However, Hasse points out that some regions are more strict than others when it comes to showing financial independence from the state.

"In the south of Germany, they want to make sure that even in future you can afford your living costs - and they want to see your pension statement, make sure that you have contributed to the pension scheme and make sure that you have a pension in future," he explains. 

"But if you come a little bit further north - like in Berlin - for them a sign that you have a current job, that you haven't been unemployed for long periods of time in the past, will generally suffice. So it's a little bit about their prognosis and this prognosis is more strict in the south than it is in the north."

A woman holds German citizenship test.

A woman holds a German citizenship test. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lino Mirgeler

Generally, however, Hasse says it's not a problem to be unemployed - but it is a problem to rely on social benefits.

Primarily, the law points to Sozialhilfe and Bürgergeld as the welfare payments that stand in the way of citizenship, though you may have to prove your ability to exist on other means if you're currently claiming things like Wohngeld (housing benefit). 

If you've claimed social welfare in the past, however, there are ways to still meet the criteria for citizenship. 

READ ALSO: How hard is the C1 language test for Germany's upcoming fast-track citizenship?

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How to argue your case if you've previously claimed benefits 

When you apply for naturalisation in Germany, the Citizenship Office will look back over the period of time that's relevant to your application.

So, if you're applying for naturalisation and eight years of residence are required in your case, they'll check if you've been on Hartz IV - which is now known as Bürgergeld - in the previous eight years. 

"If you have a right to naturalisation, the law says: you shouldn't receive social welfare or it shouldn't be your fault that you received social welfare," says Hasse.

"If you did not receive it or at least you did not receive it in the eight years relevant for naturalisation, then it is basically fine. And if you received social benefits or social welfare from the jobcentre in the past, they can ask you: what have you done to avoid this?"

The jobcentre in Berlin Mitte.

The jobcentre in Berlin Mitte. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp Znidar

In short, if you do claim social support, it should be due to circumstances which are out of your control.

That may provide a route for people to explain previous welfare claims, says Hasse. 

"If you can explain, well, there were layoffs in my company, and it was difficult for me to find something else, because I maybe had two little children to care for, but I did what I could - I applied for a lot of positions and then I found something a year later, for example, that is not an obstacle," he explains. 

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Periods of illness, such as mental health crises or depression, can also be used to explain time off - but Hasse says this isn't an easy way. This is largely because you'll need to prove both that you had the illness and that you are now in a position to support yourself.

"To be honest, if you need this exception, then maybe they'll postpone the decision, maybe they say, 'We'll see how it develops in the next year' and so it can slow down the process significantly," Hasse adds.

READ ALSO: Why German citizenship applications in Berlin are facing delays

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Could the rules change under the new citizenship law? 

The government is currently reviewing a draft law from the Interior Ministry that sets out numerous changes to Germany's citizenship laws.

These include reducing the residence requirements from eight years to five, allowing dual nationality and scrapping language requirements for migrants over the age of 67, among other things.  

The Local has now obtained a copy of the draft bill and, in its current form, it will still require applicants to be able to support themselves without state benefits which are provided under book two or book twelve of the Social Code - which includes Bürgergeld, housing and old age care benefits.

For fast-track applicants, the draft law states, more broadly, that applicants should be able to support themselves without "state benefits", without specifying which types of public funds are included. 

"What these are, we will only know when administrative regulations are in place after the law comes into force,” Hasse told us.

"Since the accelerated naturalisation is not a case of entitlement, but the authority has discretion here, I can well imagine that for recipients of ALG I, the authority will simply wait for them to take up a new job before taking the final decision on the naturalisation application", he explained.

That means pension statements, employment contracts, savings or a spouse that can support you are likely to remain key to citizenship applications - even as several other parts of the law are liberalised. 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: What's in Germany's draft law on dual citizenship?

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