Study at a German University: Guide for International Students

Germany is the second most attractive destination (after the UK) for international students wishing to obtain a university degree in Europe. German universities are renowned for combining studies with scientific research and are a steady source of innovations and patents. High international rankings of many German universities, free tuition, relatively low cost of living in Germany, reasonable funding opportunities including generous scholarship programmes and promising employment prospects after graduation are among the most compelling reasons that convinced 340 thousand international students to enrol at German universities in the academic year 2017/18.

This one-page guide has been compiled to help international applicants for university study in Germany answer all their most common questions regarding admission requirements, application and visa procedures, choice of study programmes, funding options and general opportunities to study at German universities. Read on to learn more.

Why Study in Germany

  • Tuition-free education at some of the highest-ranked universities in the world
  • Access to cutting-edge technology and world-class research facilities while studying in Germany
  • More than 15,000 different study courses to choose from
  • Hands-on education as many German universities have close links to the industry
  • Truly international environment as all German universities accept foreign students and offer study courses in English
  • Opportunity to learn German and improve your English while studying in Germany but there is no need to learn German if you do not want to
  • Excellent reputation and worldwide acceptance of German university degrees
  • Reasonable cost of living for university students in Germany
  • Good funding options including scholarships for international students
  • No age limit for students in Master’s and PhD programmes in Germany
  • Possibility to work while studying in Germany
  • Endless opportunities to find a job and stay in Germany after graduation

Who Can Study at a German University?

Citizens of any country can pursue a university degree in Germany. Some will have it initially easier than others, though. EU and EFTA (European Union and European Free Trade Association) nationals do not need a visa or a residence permit to stay or study in Germany but they will have to register with local authorities (Einwohnermeldeamt) in their town. Likewise, citizens of many countries outside of the European Economic Area (EU + EFTA) do not need a visa to travel to Germany but they need a residence permit to study in Germany. Once admitted to the university, they can apply for a residence permit within 3 months of their entry to Germany. However, citizens from countries that need a visa to enter Germany will have to apply for a study applicant’s visa before their arrival in Germany. Once accepted to the university, this type of visa can be converted into a residence permit for study purposes.

Documents Needed for Visa Application

Citizens who need a visa to enter Germany will be required to submit the following documents to apply for a student visa or an applicant visa:

  • Passport that is valid for at least another twelve months
  • Confirmation of application from the German university for an applicant visa
  • Admission letter from the university for a student visa
  • Health insurance coverage for Germany
  • Proof of sufficient funds for at least one year (ca eight thousand Euro) which may also include scholarship

For more detailed information get in touch with the nearest German consulate or embassy.

Documents Needed for Residence Permit

In order to convert a student visa into a residence permit for study purposes you will need the same documents as above but instead of the admission letter from the university you will have to submit a certificate of enrolment. Residence permit for study purposes is issued for two years, so make sure your passport is valid for at least as long.

Health Insurance

Citizens of the EU and EFTA countries can use a statutory health insurance from their home country that is registered with a German statutory health insurer. Nationals of other countries may be able to use a health insurance from certain private insurers in their home country (it must cover Germany and must be accepted in Germany) or they will need to get an insurance cover from a German statutory insurer. German insurers are obliged to offer discount rates to all students under 30 years of age. Please note that students have to provide proof of the health insurance coverage to be allowed to enrol at a German university.

Requirements to Study at a German University

Universities in Germany are autonomous and, therefore, in order to find out about exact admission requirements you will need to contact their Akademisches Auslandsamt (AAA) or International Office in English. German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) will help you find contact details for the International Office at any university in Germany. The International Office staff will not only inform you about requirements, admission restrictions (numerus clausus) and application deadlines but also about applicable fees and available degree courses. There is absolutely no discrimination, so anyone wishing to study in Germany at the university will have to meet the same admission criteria of that university.

Language Requirements to Study in Germany

Generally, many universities offer international study courses taught in English and for these courses German proficiency is not required. However, students coming from non-German speaking countries will need to provide proof of German language proficiency if they wish to pursue programmes taught in German. Most likely they will have to pass one of the two tests – Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang ausländischer Studienbewerber (DSH) or Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache (TestDaF). Please refer to this article for more information on language examinations for international students.

University Entrance Entitlement

An appropriate school qualification is no less important than language competency. Your school qualifications will be reviewed by the International Office staff to ensure Hochschulzugangsberechtigung (or university entrance entitlement in English). That is, for a Bachelor’s programme they will need to determine whether your high school graduate certificate corresponds to the German Abitur. In general, most school-leaving certificates from a higher education institution in the EU and EFTA country will entitle you to study at a German university. Depending on the university entrance entitlement (general or subject-specific) granted by the International Office, you will be allowed to take any study courses or only some specific courses.

In fact, even if you do not possess an adequate qualification you may still be able to pursue studies at German universities. But, before you can enrol in a regular degree programme you will need to complete preparatory courses (Studienkollegs) provided by the university of your choice. Preparatory courses typically take one year. In addition, some Fachhochschulen may also require you to complete a working internship.

In some cases, school-leaving certificates of applicants from countries outside the European Economic Area (EU and EFTA) may not be accepted as readily as those from the EU and EFTA countries. Therefore, students are advised to check the anabin database (available only in German) for school qualifications in their home country that are recognized in Germany as a university entrance entitlement. Click on the tab “Suchen” and then choose your country and type of school-leaving certificate and school.

Other Possible Requirements

Some German universities may require international applicants for undergraduate courses to pass the TestAS (Test für Ausländische Studierende or Test for Academic Studies in English). The aim of this test is to assess the student’s ability to study at the German university. High scores can help greatly improve your chances of being admitted.

Requirements for Graduate/Post-Graduate Studies in Germany

Regarding graduate/post-graduate studies, students who have earned a bachelor’s or a master’s degree from a foreign university need to get in touch with the International Office of the German university of their choice to have their degree recognized in order to be allowed to pursue Master’s or Ph.D. studies in Germany.

Application and Admission Procedure in German Universities

When applying for a degree programme at a German university you need to find out whether there are any limitations imposed. Some programmes at German universities, such as medicine, are extremely popular and thus have a limited number of places. These restricted programmes are also called numerus clausus degree programmes. Some programmes are restricted on a national level and then we speak of a central restriction whereas others are restricted only locally at a particular university.

No Admission Restriction

If no restriction is in place you can directly enrol in the programme of your choice provided you have been issued a university entrance entitlement certificate by the university’s International Office. You will need to fill in the application form and provide a copy of your university entrance entitlement certificate as well as your CV, proof of health insurance in Germany and a photo. Please note that you will need to meet a certain deadline to be admitted.

Local Admission Restriction

For restricted degree programmes only the best applicants will be admitted. Selection criteria include the average grade as well as other factors such as assessment test results, applicant’s interview scores and specific practical experience. Applications are submitted directly to the chosen university and will be handled by the university staff.

Central Admission Restriction

The major difference between applying for a programme with central and local restriction is that for nationally restricted programmes you need to apply with the Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung (University Admissions Foundation) and not directly with the university as is the case with locally restricted programmes. Therefore, applications for nationally restricted programmes are handled centrally by the University Admissions Foundation.

Applying through Uni-Assist

If you want to apply for several degree programmes at different universities you can use the paid service of Uni-Assist which will handle all your applications for you. This service is specifically designed for international applicants. The staff at Uni-Assist will review your documents and make sure they are complete before forwarding them onto the universities you are applying to. However, please note that Uni-Assist cannot be used for applying to the University Admissions Foundation for nationally restricted programmes.

Application Deadlines

In most cases, application deadlines are the 15th of July and the 15th of January for the winter and the summer semester, respectively.

Choosing the Right University and Study Programme in Germany

There are over 300 public and 100 private universities in Germany, offering more than 15,000 degree programmes. German universities are classified into classical universities (Universitäten incl. Technische Universitäten), universities of applied science (Fachhochschulen) and colleges of art and music. Unlike largely research-oriented Universitäten, Fachhochschulen are, as their name suggests, practice-oriented with strong links to the industry and do not provide Ph.D. degrees. In contrast to many other parts of the world, German public universities tend to have better rankings than private ones. In 2017/18, 45 German universities were ranked among the top 1,000 universities in the world and all of them were public. See this article for a complete list of the top German universities and their highest ranked degree programmes.

German universities provide plenty of degree programmes designed for international students as well as courses for exchange students staying for one or two semesters which are all taught in English. Most undergraduate foreign students begin with courses conducted in English while taking free German lessons at the university. Once their command of the German language is good enough to study in German, they continue with courses taught in German. When it comes to post-graduate programmes, many of them are taught entirely in English (especially structured Ph.D. programmes). The website of DAAD will help you find degree programmes in English. TOEFL or IELTS are generally required from non-English native speakers who wish to pursue international courses in Germany.

International students who are seeking programmes taught in German can use the search engine of Hochschulkompass to find out about all study programmes available at German universities. Alternatively, students can also use a portal of studieren.de to search for all Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes offered at German universities. A useful tool for identifying highly regarded degree programmes and to see how they compare with each other are the German university rankings compiled by the German Academic Service (DAAD) in cooperation with the largest German national weekly newspaper “die Zeit”. Those who already have an idea of what programme suits them best should contact student advisory services at the selected university to have any specific questions regarding their chosen study programme answered.

Finding and Applying for a Ph.D. Programme in Germany

International students who wish to earn their Ph.D. in Germany need to find a supervisor called Doktorvater or Doktormutter either through personal contacts or searching through the database of doctoral studies of hochschulkompass.de. Once they have found a supervising professor, they can enrol at the university provided they meet the qualification requirements (Master’s degree in their intended course of study that is equivalent to the German degree). Another option is to find a structured Ph.D. programme. Applicants for structured Ph.D. programmes should contact the International Office of the selected university to begin standard application procedure. Like in classical Ph.D. programmes, a corresponding Master’s degree will also be required. Since most Ph.D. programmes in Germany (and structured doctoral programmes particularly) use English as the sole language of instruction and communication and the thesis is also written in English, proof of German proficiency is typically not required.

Cost of Studying in Germany and Financing Options

Public universities in Germany do not charge tuition fees to undergraduate students. Most public universities also waive tuition fees for graduate students, especially for consecutive Master’s programmes (building directly on a Bachelor’s degree earned in Germany). However, there is a small one-off enrolment charge (typically around 200 Euros) that becomes payable at the beginning of each semester. This amount often also includes semester ticket for local public transportation. Private German universities, however, usually do charge tuition fees.

According to DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), the average monthly budget of a German university student is 864 Euros versus 725 Euros budget of an international student in Germany. A significant part of this expense (and also the most variable) is rent. Average monthly cost of a room in a student’s dormitory is 250 Euros while a small studio can cost between 350-650 Euros a month, depending on the town and other factors. In addition, Ablöse (compensation for investments made by the previous tenant) and 1-3 months deposit will often be required. Since acceptance to the university does not guarantee anybody a room in a dormitory and renting a flat alone is too expensive, many students live in shared apartments (Wohngemeinschaften) to save on rent and initial investment (more information on the cost of living in Germany). In order to secure inexpensive accommodation in dormitories students are advised to contact their local Studentenwerk immediately after enrolment.

Scholarships for International Students

There are plenty of scholarship options for international students in Germany, both governmental and non-governmental from private foundations, to help them finance their studies. Below are the links to the most comprehensive lists of scholarship programmes available to foreign students in Germany.

Working while Studying in Germany

Students who come from countries outside of the European Economic Area (EU and EFTA) are only allowed to work part-time, that is either for 120 full days a year or 240 half-days a year or 20 hours a week (remember this also includes voluntary work). Still, this may help them cover part of the living costs. It goes without saying that those from the EEA countries can work full time.

Finding Work in Germany after Graduation

Citizens of the EEA countries (EU and EFTA) may stay and seek employment in Germany for as long as they wish just like any German national and they do not need a work permit. Other nationals, including those who normally need a visa for Germany, can extend their residence permit and stay in the country for a period of 18 months after graduation while seeking employment. If they find a job, their residence permit for study purposes will be converted into a residence permit for work. In addition, those who need a visa to enter Germany and decide to leave the country after finishing their studies can still seek employment in Germany. They will, however, need to apply for a six-month visa for the purpose of job search to return to Germany for job hunting.

Summary of Steps for Applying to Study in Germany

We hope this concise guide has strengthened your desire to study in Germany. To get you started here is a summary of what you need to do to apply for study at a German university:

  • Take up an intensive German language course
  • Find a German university and a study programme. You can choose more than one
  • Enquire about admission requirements
  • Do the necessary paperwork and have your school diplomas recognized in Germany
  • Sort out your financing (do not forget to check out scholarships options)
  • If you need an applicant visa, take up an insurance policy that covers Germany
  • Apply in due time

Germany is the home of 340 thousand international students benefiting from tuition-free education in Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programmes at some of the world’s most renowned universities. Why not join them and study in Germany too?