Immigration to Germany – from Visa to Gaining German Citizenship

Germany with a population of 82 million and the fourth largest economy in the world happens to be the second most popular “immigration country” after the US. Every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants from all over the world find their new home in Germany and more than 100 thousand foreign nationals living in Germany acquire German citizenship through naturalization. Today, one out of eight Germans was born outside of Germany whereas one out of five persons living in Germany has at least partial foreign roots. That is, 16.5 million German inhabitants have a migratory background (i.e., they are either former immigrants or foreigners born in Germany, or they have one immigrant or foreign parent). About half of the people with a migratory background living in Germany have a German passport.

Purposes for Immigrating to Germany

There are millions of people, especially in the impoverished third-world countries, who dream of moving to Germany permanently. Some will manage to fulfil their dream someday but many will not. Although Germany is among the countries most open to immigration, certain criteria must be met. That is to say, the second biggest immigration destination in the world can be picky. Hence, in order to receive a residence title in Germany a person must have a strong case – unless one is a citizen of the EU/EFTA country. To assess your chances you should know who is welcome and who is less so. This list of the most common purposes for immigrating to Germany should help you with that:

  • Studying and vocational training
  • Internships and research (under the immigration category “scientist”)
  • Employment (as “highly skilled professional”) and self-employment
  • Family reunification
  • Seeking political asylum

Most migrants come to Germany for study or work, or as refugees seeking political asylum while many also get there through family reunification. Germany has relaxed its immigration laws already in 2005 and has been attracting highly skilled professionals from around the world to fill the gaps in its labour market. However, for unskilled labour the door has remained closed so far. An exception are the citizens of another EU or EFTA country (commonly known as the European Economic Area, which includes all EU member states plus Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein and Switzerland) who, though technically foreign migrants, must be treated as German citizens when buying properties, seeking employment or pursuing higher education in Germany. All other foreign nationals need a special residence title in order to stay, study or work in Germany.

So, before you start getting ready your papers and spending money on translations and immigration lawyers, consider whether you fall within any of the aforementioned immigration categories.

General Requirements for Immigration to Germany

Whether you are looking for information on immigration to Germany or only on moving to Germany for a definite period, we have you fully covered. This guide has been compiled to provide a general overview of all immigration options and necessary requirements for anybody from anywhere in the world who would like to move to Germany. You will find here basic information on all relevant topics from securing an initial entry visa and residence title to extending the residence permit and finally naturalization.

As a general rule, individuals wishing to immigrate to Germany (others than refugees and EU/EFTA citizens, i.e. EEA nationals) must have a clean criminal record, their health insurance policy must cover Germany and they must be in good financial standing to secure an initial residence title. That is, they will have to prove to the German immigration authorities that they can support themselves financially for the duration of their stay. In addition, depending on the purpose of their intended stay in Germany, candidates must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in the German language.

Entering Germany

Nationals of third countries (that is non-EEA nationals) need a residence title to stay longer than three months, study or work in Germany. Many of them also need a visa to enter Germany. They will have to apply for a visa in person at the nearest German embassy or consulate. You can get all necessary information on the type of visa, requirements and application procedures as well as contact details for the nearest consulate or embassy from the Federal Foreign Office.

Schengen Visa and Business Visa

In general, a tourist visa or a business visa allows the holder to stay in Germany (as well as in all other countries within the Schengen Zone) for a maximum of 90 days within a six-month period. However, it does not allow the holder to take up any work during their stay. People who will be visiting Germany regularly for private or professional reasons may also apply for a multiple Schengen visa.

Nationals of some countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the USA) do not need any entry visa for a visit shorter than 90 days, while they may use this time for job hunting or applying for admission to the university. If they meet certain conditions they can then apply for a corresponding residence permit while still in Germany.

German Study Visa

Those who wish to study in Germany will need to apply for a study visa (if already accepted to the university) or a study applicant’s visa. Visa applicants will have to demonstrate that they can support themselves financially for the duration of their stay. Once enrolled at the university, this type of visa will be converted into a residence permit for study purposes. Foreign students from non-EEA countries are allowed to work 120 full or 240 half days a year.

Visa for Training in Germany

Foreigners from third countries wishing to pursue a training course in Germany may apply for a residence permit for the purpose of school education serving to acquire a vocational qualification or for the purpose of basic and advanced industrial training. These permits are usually granted for training courses where there is a shortage of suitable candidates from Germany and other EEA countries. Applicants must prove they have sufficient financial resources to support themselves for the duration of their training course (usually two years). Foreign trainees from non-EEA countries are allowed to work for a maximum of 10 hours per week. In addition, those whose professional qualifications were not recognized as being fully equivalent to German qualifications may take part in a qualification programme in Germany that will help them acquire the skills they are lacking. For this, they will need to apply for a residence permit for the purpose of recognition of professional qualifications.

Jobseeker’s Visa and Work Visa for Germany

Individuals who want to come to Germany specifically for job hunting and stay longer than 90 days may apply for a special type of visa called “jobseeker’s visa”. Jobseeker’s visa is usually granted only to graduates of institutions of higher education whose degree is recognized in Germany. This visa allows the holder to stay in Germany for six months but, just like any other visitor type of visa, it does not allow them to take up any employment. Once they find a job that corresponds to their professional qualifications, they may apply for a residence permit for gainful employment or an EU Blue Card without having to leave Germany. Likewise, those highly-skilled foreign nationals from third countries who were offered a job in Germany while staying abroad (i.e., outside Germany) will need to apply for a work visa at the nearest German consulate or embassy and, once in Germany, they will be issued a residence permit for gainful employment or an EU Blue Card.

German Visa for Internship and Research

Young talented scientists from non EEA-countries may apply for a visa for internships or a visa for research. When approved they will be issued a corresponding residence permit.

Visa for Self-Employment in Germany

Foreign freelancers and business people from third countries may apply for a visa that will allow them to conduct business on German soil. Once approved, they will be issued a residence permit for the purpose of self-employment.

Van Der Elst Visa

Non-EEA employees of the European firms who were relocated to Germany from another country within the EEA are entitled to a Van Der Elst visa, which will allow them to work for their company in Germany.

Types of German Residence Permits

Residence permits are handled by the alien’s office (Ausländerbehörde) and granted for a definite (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) or indefinite term (Niederlassungserlaubnis).

  • Limited residence permits are issued for a specific purpose such as study, internship, vocational training, employment, self-employment or family reunification. Therefore, we speak of a residence permit for the purpose of study or for the purpose of gainful employment, etc. A limited residence permit does not automatically imply that the holder is allowed to work and depending on the type of a residence permit restrictions may apply.
  • An unlimited residence permit, also known as a settlement permit, is issued for indefinite term and is only granted to foreign nationals who have been living in Germany for quite some time. Holders have an unrestricted access to the German labour market.

Studying and Vocational Training in Germany

German secondary schools and, especially, German universities are open to students from all over the world. There are plenty of opportunities for foreign students to participate in intensive language courses, secondary-school exchange programmes, vocational training courses, in-company training programmes, university exchange programmes and university courses for international students as well as regular university study programmes.

The good news is that public schools and public universities in Germany typically charge no tuition fees. However, students from third countries (i.e., countries outside of the European Economic Area) need a residence permit for study purposes, whereas one of the requirements for issuing this permit is the proof of sufficient financial resources. Once finished with their studies, foreign graduates can stay in Germany for another 18 months looking for a job. Those who find a job will have their residence permit for study purposes converted into a residence permit for work. After two years of staying and working in Germany they are entitled to a permanent residence title also known as a settlement permit (upon meeting certain other conditions). For more detailed information on immigration opportunities available to foreign students please refer to the section “Study in Germany”.

Employment and Self-Employment in Germany

Citizens of the EEA countries have an unrestricted access to the German job market. For other nationals, access to the German labour market is less straightforward. They need a residence permit for work and their chances of securing this permit largely depend on their qualifications and professional skills. Germany is welcoming people from all over the world to fill labour shortages in many areas. These include healthcare professionals, electrical and mechanical engineers, IT specialists, natural scientists, teachers and some other professionals. However, the majority of humanities graduates or unskilled labourers will find it difficult to secure a residence permit for work purposes.

There are also restrictions for those citizens of third countries who would like to start their own business in Germany. Typically, an investment of 250,000 Euros or creating five jobs in Germany would be required. In addition, candidates will have to prove that their products or services benefit the German economy. If successful, they will be issued a residence permit for self-employment.

For more detailed information on employment and self-employment opportunities in Germany for foreign nationals and related requirements please refer to the section “Work in Germany”.

Family Reunification in Germany

Nationals of third countries who want to join their spouse or family member living in Germany must apply for a residence title for the purpose of family reunification at the German embassy or consulate in or nearest to their home country (they will be issued a family reunification visa by the embassy). Typically, they will be asked to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the German language. This also applies to children over 16. However, exceptions do exist. Citizens of Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and the USA are exempt from this rule. Likewise, foreign spouses of EU Blue Card holders do not need to take a language exam. In addition, proof of the German language proficiency can be waived for university graduates and for spouses of highly skilled professionals, researchers and self-employed business people if they were married or lived in a registered partnership before moving to Germany. For information on examinations used to evaluate basic language skills (A1 level) for the purpose of family reunification please refer to the section “German language proficiency examinations”. Once in Germany, foreign spouses and family members will need to register with local authorities (the alien authority and the resident registration office). Then they will be entitled to take up gainful employment.

Political Asylum in Germany

In the past three years, more than 1.3 million people (890 thousand in 2015, 280 thousand in 2016 and 187 thousand in 2017), most of them from the Middle East and North Africa, sought refuge in Germany. According to the German asylum law, foreign refugees fleeing war or political persecution in their home country (defined as religious, racial or ethnic persecution, or persecution due to other differences) can be granted asylum in Germany. 223 thousand asylum applications were received in 2017 versus 746 thousand in 2016 and 477 thousand in 2015. Around half of the reviewed asylum applications were approved.

Asylum applications are submitted through refugee reception centres and handled by the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). Once the application was received, a temporary residence permit for the duration of the asylum procedure will be issued. This residence permit does not allow asylum-seekers to work but after three months they can apply for a work permit which will give them secondary access to the labour market (that is, if no German of EEA national is available to fill a certain position). Although the BAMF seeks to reduce the processing time of asylum applications, it is still nearly half-year.

In general, asylum-seekers can be granted full refugee status (political asylum) or refugee protection status, they can receive subsidiary protection status or they can be granted a prohibition of deportation. Those who see their applications declined are bound to leave Germany or they may face deportation (unless they receive a temporary suspension of deportation known as “Duldung”). However, it is possible to appeal a rejection.

Entitlement to Political Asylum and Refugee Protection Status

Asylum-seekers who received political asylum or refugee protection status will be granted a three-year residence permit which can be changed into an unlimited settlement permit after three years. Recognized refugees thus receive full access to the German labour market and social welfare system and are entitled to privileged family reunification.

Subsidiary Protection

Applicants who received subsidiary protection status are granted a one-year residence permit which can be extended by another two years for as long as conditions in their home country prevent a safe return. Refugees under subsidiary protection gain unrestricted access to the German labour market and social welfare system but privileged family reunification is not permitted. After a period of five years (whereby this period also includes the waiting time for the processing of the asylum application) they can apply for a permanent settlement permit.

Prohibition of Deportation

Persons who were granted a prohibition of deportation may not be returned to their home country and, therefore, receive a residence permit for at least one year. This residence permit can be extended several times. It gives them the right to work but they must seek approval from the local immigration authority first. Family reunification is not permitted. Just like those with subsidiary protection, they can apply for a permanent residence permit after five years of continuously living in Germany.


Applicants who received rejection of their asylum application but were temporarily exempt from deportation (this is called “Duldung” in German) can have this exemption extended repeatedly for several years and thus manage to stay in the country. However, persons suspended from deportation need approval of the local immigration authority to engage in gainful employment and in the first four years only gain secondary access to the labour market. In the meantime they can complete vocational training that will improve their chances in the job market. After four years of staying in the country they will gain full unrestricted access to the German labour market.

Naturalization – Who Can Acquire German Citizenship

Although immigration to Germany as measured by the number of people who received German citizenship reached its peak at the turn of the century, still about 100 thousand people are naturalized every year. Foreign citizens with a German parent and, under certain circumstances, German-born children of foreign parents who are residing in Germany are entitled to German citizenship. Likewise, foreign children under the age of 18 adopted by German parents automatically acquire German citizenship while spouses of German citizens can be naturalized after three years of living in Germany. In addition, foreigners who have been legally living in Germany (i.e., they must have had a residence permit) for eight years (for some applicants this can be reduced to six years) can also apply for German citizenship. However, there is a catch. Unless you are a citizen of an EEA country you will have to renounce your existing citizenship (this does not apply to those with a German parent though). Generally, foreigners applying for German citizenship must demonstrate a good command of the German language and a good knowledge of the German legal system and society, they must be able to support themselves financially and have no criminal record. For more information on naturalization visit the website of the Federal Ministry of Interior.

Helpful Resources

  • BAMF – Federal Office for Migration and Refugees
  • Make It in Germany – a joint project of the Federal Ministry of Economy and Energy, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the Federal Employment Agency
  • Auswärtiges Amt – the Federal Foreign Office

There are many doors open for those who wish to immigrate to Germany, especially if they are young and possess the right qualifications. This guide briefly covers all relevant topics related to immigration to Germany from entering Germany to gaining the German citizenship. Since most immigrants initially come to Germany to study or to work, you should also check other sections of this website. More specifically, you should read the chapters discussing opportunities for studying and working in Germany to find additional relevant information and useful contacts that will help you overcome immigration hurdles. Remember, Germany is the second most immigration friendly country in the world, so your chances are good.