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Residence Permits in Germany

Residing and Working In Germany.

You're not truly living in Germany until the paperwork's done. Here's a quick primer on exactly what you'll need.

Images from the Bundesamt für Migration and Flüchtlinge

All foreigners from outside the EU who wish to remain in Germany for longer than three months must obtain a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel), of which there are now two types. You can apply for a residence permit at the local Foreigners Office (Ausländerbehörde) if you are in Germany on valid visa. (It’s important to know that a visa is not really a residence permit. Visas are normally issued for a limited period of time, for a very specific purpose, and normally have strict conditions regarding the length of stay as well as the number of times you can leave and re-enter Germany over the life of the visa.)

Citizens from some countries (including the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Israel, New Zealand and Switzerland) are allowed entry into Germany without a visa and may apply for a residence permit while in the country. If you don’t come from any of these countries a visa can be issued by a German embassy or consulate in your country of residence. It may also be possible to directly apply for a residence permit at the embassy or consulate in your country.

The rules for what you need to get a residence permit may vary somewhat from place to place and according to your status. You'll certainly need a valid passport, a couple of “biometric” photos, proof that you have a place to live, proof of health insurance and proof that you can support yourself. Other things you may need include proof that you have a critical skill, proof that you are married, proof that you have independent means or a pension, a health certificate and a certificate of good conduct.

If you decide that you are going to stay in Germany for a longer period you must have a registration certificate (Meldeschein) to prove that you have a residence. You get it at the Registry Office (Einwohnermeldeamt) that is responsible for your community or your city neighborhood. Registering is a simple matter of going there and filling out a form. They may want to see your passport and lease, so have them with you. There is no charge for this registration.

Every time you change your residence within Germany, whether you move next door or across the country, you must report this to the registry offices at both the old and new place of residence. This isn't an action directed at foreigners. Germans, too, must keep the police posted when they move.

The two types of residence permits are limited (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) and unlimited (Niederlassungserlaubnis). The Niederlassungserlaubnis can normally only be applied for after several years of continuous residence or if certain special requirements are met. The limited permit carries an expiration date. You may be allowed to apply for an extension of that permit when the expiry date nears.

Perhaps you are joining a family member who is already here. Perhaps you want to study here. Or perhaps you qualify for asylum. Such persons usually get a residence permit unless there is a good reason not to grant it, such as a criminal record or no visible means of support.

Or perhaps you want to work here. This makes things more complicated. If you come from a non-EU country, a category that includes the USA and Canada, you will need a residence permit that gives you the right to work in Germany. Although unemployment in Germany is lower than in past years, competition for certain jobs may be tough and it may be difficult to get permission to work in certain circumstances. Much depends on whether or not a job can be filled by a German, EU citizen or others that have earned “preferential treatment”. If you've been offered a job by a German company, it can probably help you in getting the necessary permission. For those interested in being self-employed, it is still possible to get a residence permit provided that you meet certain criteria. For more on this read the article on Setting Up a Business in Germany. People from EU countries have the status of Germans when it comes to working and don’t need special permission.

If you are a highly qualified professional or have a critical skill your chances of getting a permission to work are greatly enhanced. You may very well get a residence permit and a well paying job. Germany's immigration laws are geared to making a move to the country attractive to the highly qualified.

Even if they don't have critical skills there are certain cases under which a non-EU citizen is allowed to seek work. Family members of persons with critical skills can also seek work even if they don't share those critical skills. This is a measure aimed at attracting those sought after employees.

The Foreigner’s Office (Ausländerbehörde) coordinates with the local branch of the Labor Office (Bundesagentur für Arbeit) to determine whether or not the permission to work is granted. Permission to work may be granted for a particular job only, not employment in general.


Starting on September 1, 2011 German residence permits were no longer put in passports in the form of a “sticker”. According to the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge these adhesive labels have been replaced by an electronic residence permit (eAT) in credit card format.

The new cards have a chip on it that includes biometric features – a photograph and two fingerprints - as well as other information. A photograph is displayed on the card as well. The additional information on the chip can be used as an electronic identity document as well as a qualified electronic signature.

This is an EU requirement in an effort to standardize residence permits throughout the member countries. It is also intended to “strengthen the bond between the document and the document’s holder.” Furthermore, “all residents of non-member states (including infants and children) shall be issued their own electronic residence permits.”

The practical implications of this new requirement means that family members will have to submit “biometric” photos and those over the age of 6 will have to visit the Ausländerbehörde to be fingerprinted before a residence permit is issued.

Those who currently have the residence permits in their passports do not have to get the new card right away. Their residence permits will remain valid until 30 April 2021. If the passport expires before that date the new card will be issued upon renewal of the residence permit.

Download a pdf explaining more about the new electronic residence permit.

Germany is now issuing the new EU Blue Card to highly skilled, qualified non-EU citizens. For more information click here.

Different Circumstances for some Foreign Residents of Germany

The overwhelming majority of legal foreign residents in Germany are in the country with one of the standard residence permits issued by the German authorities allowing them (and their eligible family members) to live in Germany while working for a German company or studying at a German school. Residency is also normally granted in most cases to eligible EU citizens and spouses of German nationals.

There are, however, a number of foreigners that are in Germany legally under other circumstances. Uniformed military (and their accompanying family members) from the USA and NATO countries are allowed residency under various Status of Forces Agreements (SoFA) negotiated with the German government. Civilians that work for the various defense departments or ministries as well as diplomats and other foreigners assigned to their country’s embassy or consulates may also have a different status (as do their family members). A different status may also be afforded to foreigners who work in Germany for companies that contract with the various foreign military and diplomatic offices of other countries. Some residents that are self-employed may also fall under this category.

Issues regarding residence permits, health insurance, tax status and filing requirements, spousal employment, eligibility for German social benefits, German driver’s licenses, proper registration procedures and others things may raise questions from this group.

For example, if a spouse of an active duty USA military member takes a job with a German company would he or she be eligible for German benefits? What sort of tax issues would that present? Or suppose a person from the USA, UK or Canada is working for a home country based company that has a contract to perform services in Germany? Would health insurance issues and benefits be involved?

These are just a couple of examples of the sort of situations that those in Germany under “different circumstances” may face.

There are specialized companies that have in-depth knowledge of these complicated issues and can guide people through the bureaucratic maze to make sure that they are in full compliance with German regulations and are able to take advantage of the various benefits that may be available to them.

If you think you may fall under any of the “different circumstances” you may want to get in touch with experts regarding legal, accounting and tax matters who can offer advice and help.

(Business Set-Up Ltd., an advertiser on this site, is one of the companies that may be able to help.)