How to Immigrate to Germany

So you want to move to Germany from North America or some other region of the world. How can you do that? You can start by following this helpful guide.

Although aimed primarily at North Americans, this German Way guide also applies to people entering Germany from some other parts of the world. Besides Canada and the United States, that includes citizens from Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. For a complete list, see Overview of visa requirements/exemptions for entry into the Federal Republic of Germany from the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt).

Berlin Bezirksamt

The first step to getting a residence permit is to go to your local registration office and register your address in Germany. This is called Anmeldung. Pictured: The city hall (Rathaus/Bezirksamt) for the Berlin district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

NOTE: If you want to obtain German citizenship, that’s a different, separate matter that we don’t address here in detail. To become a German citizen you must: (1) reside in Germany usually for a minimum of five years, (2) demonstrate a sufficient command of German, and (3) pass a citizenship test. This guide is not about German citizenship. Many expats have lived in Germany for decades without obtaining German citizenship. See more about this below.

90 Days Visa-Free
People from North America and the countries listed above can enter Germany as a tourist before they apply for a residence permit. In fact, this is the recommended way to do it. People from other non-EU/EEA nations usually have to apply for a residence permit BEFORE they arrive in Germany. Although Canadian and US citizens get up to 90 days for a stay in Germany without a travel visa, it is wise to begin the application process for a residence permit soon after your arrival in Germany. There are also other things you need to do before you can even begin filling out your application for a residence permit.

Don’t confuse the terms “visa” and “permit.” A travel or tourist visa allows you to enter a country for a limited time (often 90 days). North Americans and citizens of certain other nations are allowed to enter Germany for 90 days without any visa. On the other hand, if Canadian or US citizens wish to travel to Russia, they are required to obtain a travel visa before they can enter Russia, even as a tourist.

In this guide we use the term “residence permit” for a document that allows you to stay in Germany beyond 90 days.

In March 2017, the European Parliament passed a resolution threatening to require Americans to obtain a travel visa before entering an EU nation. The resolution came in response to the fact that the US does not offer full reciprocity in its Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for all EU nations. Unlike the EU, the US also requires that EU citizens entering the US obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that costs $14. See more here: EU/USA: ESTA and the Visa Waiver Program.

The Residence Permit
A German residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) allows you to reside in Germany beyond the non-visa 90 days limit. In the past, it was common to call such a residence permit a “residence visa,” probably going back to the days when a residence visa was written or glued onto a page of your passport. To avoid confusion, in this guide we use only the term “residence permit” for the eAT document (a plastic card with a digital chip) that allows you to reside legally in Germany. There are two basic types of residence permit: 1. A temporary permit that is valid for a certain length of time (months, years) and must be renewed periodically. 2. A permanent permit, similar to a US “green card,” that allows the bearer to reside in Germany permanently. Like a green card, a permanent residence permit, also known as a settlement permit, grants only legal residence. It does not grant German citizenship.

No, you do not have to be fluent in German to obtain a residence permit. But you are expected to gain some proficiency in the national language, and you probably won’t get a long-term residence permit without it. Our advice: Start learning German as soon as possible, even before you arrive in Germany. You will enjoy life in Germany much more if you can communicate in German. While it is possible to get a residence permit without high German skills, you are much more likely to get the permit you want if you can speak at least some German. See more about language requirements below.
The German Language Course Residence Permit
This conditional permit is intended only for persons who want to learn German in Germany. It is limited to a duration of three months to one year, and cannot be extended. It requires enrollment in a language school in Germany.

Whether you plan to work or not, any stay in Germany over 90 days requires a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel, “residence title”). Unlike in former times, there is no separate work permit and residence permit. You get a residence permit that fits your category: work, student, freelance, artist, accompanying spouse, etc. If you don’t have a residence permit that states you may work, you can’t work legally in Germany! In any case, for any type of residence permit you do have to demonstrate that (1) you can support yourself while living in Germany, and (2) have proof of health insurance that is valid in Germany. Plan ahead! Know the rules!

There are four basic categories of residence permits issued by German authorities:

  • Residence permit (limited-time residence title, with or without employment)
  • EU Blue Card (limited-time residence title, highly qualified)
  • Settlement permit (permanent residence title)
  • EU permit for permanent residence (permanent residence title)

Any German residence permit is issued on the basis of various requirements and conditions. Permanent residence permits are normally granted only after a person has lived in Germany for at least five years. Many expats who have been living in Germany for 10 years or more have no permanent permit. They must renew their limited-term permit every two or three years. A permanent “settlement permit” usually requires you to demonstrate a high level of German proficiency.

German Citizenship
Foreigners who wish to obtain German citizenship (deutsche Staatsbürgerschaft) must meet certain requirements, including residence, a sufficient command of German, and passing a citizenship test. However, a permanent residence permit is not tied to German citizenship. This guide does not address the issues involved in applying for German citizenship (Einbürgerung). For more about that topic, see this German website: German Citizenship FAQ – Auswärtiges Amt (in English).

Working in Germany (or Not)
Although there is no longer a separate “work permit” for expats in Germany, you are not allowed to work unless this is explicitly noted in your residence permit. There are several categories of residence permits that allow you to make a living in Germany, depending on whether you work for a company or run your own business. Whether you work or not, you do have to demonstrate that you have sufficient income (retirement, savings, etc.) to live in Germany without becoming a burden to the state. Below are the main permit categories.

eAT front

This is the front of the German eAT card that entitles the bearer to reside in Germany. Below are the categories under which you can apply for a residence permit. PHOTO: BAMF

GENERAL RESIDENCE PERMIT CATEGORIES (with section of the Residence Act)
Each of these permit categories has special conditions related to required documentation, financial resources, health insurance, language competence, length of stay, etc. See below for more about each one.

  • Education, School and Studies (Section 16) – This permit category is for people wishing to study in Germany at the graduate or undergraduate level. There is also a special German-language-study visa (valid for 3 months to one year and cannot be extended) which requires full-time instruction in Germany.
  • Student Applicant – Only for students who have not yet been accepted by a German institution
  • Self-employment/Freelance (Section 21) – Issued for a stay of up to 3 years. It can be extended under certain conditions. Covers almost any freelance field from artists to architects, from English teachers to musicians. Also entrepreneurs.
  • Research (Section 20) – Up to one year or the duration of the research project. Must be tied to a specific research institution or university.
  • Internship or Vocational Training (Section 17) – Only valid for the term of actual internship or training course. Can be extended for up to one year in order to find employment.
  • EU Blue Card (Section 19a) – Since August 2012, for highly-qualified employment. Only applies to academics and university graduates. Requires a minimum annual gross salary of 50,800 euros (39,624 euros for scientists, mathematicians and engineers, as well as doctors and IT specialists). Only valid for the term of actual employment, with a maximum of four years (can be renewed). Includes family members. Under certain conditions, the Blue Card can be converted into an unlimited settlement permit. For more, see this website: The EU Blue Card (BAMF, German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees)
  • Skilled Employment (Section 18) – Similar to the EU Blue Card, but for trade skills. Difficult for North Americans to get. In order to hire a non-EU citizen, a company has to prove to the German government that no one else in Germany or in the entire EU is capable of doing the job. Most people get this visa through an employer who has hired them, often a North American firm that is transferring them to Germany. Only valid for the term of actual employment.
  • Job Search (Section 18c) – Allows you to reside in Germany for up to six months to seek employment. All related costs are your personal responsibility.
  • Family Reunification (Sections 28 and 29 – spouse, parent or underage child) – For family members who want to enter Germany in order to join family already living in Germany. This is the category you would use if you are married to or plan to marry a German citizen. It is valid for 3 to 5 years, depending on certain factors.
  • Settlement Permit for Highly Qualified Foreigners (Section 19) – Unlimited, permanent residence. Usually for people who had an EU Blue Card.
  • Settlement Permit (Section 9) – This is the normal, unlimited, permanent residence permit that almost everyone wants. Normally granted only after 5 years residence in Germany, although under certain conditions, it can be granted earlier. Usually requires more than basic German language proficiency

SoFA: US military personnel, government officials and their families reside in Germany under the special conditions negotiated between Germany (a NATO member) and the United States under the Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA).

Asylum: Although it rarely applies to North Americans, Germany also grants residence permits for people requesting asylum.

Before the Aliens Authority (Ausländerbehörde) will even allow you to apply for your residence permit, you need to take care of several important matters. If you try to start the process before these items are completed, you will be told to come back after you have done so.

1. Registration (Anmeldung)
All adults living in Germany have to register their place of residence with the local authorities. Since you plan to live in Germany for a period longer than 90 days, you also have to register. (If you move away, you have to deregister, abmelden.) Besides your certificate of registration (Anmeldebestätigung), sometimes the Foreigners Office may want to see a copy of your lease or proof of home ownership.

In larger cities (Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, etc.) you register at your local Bürgeramt, also called the Bürgerbüro, depending on the region. (Stuttgart, for example, has over 20 Bürgerbüros located all across the city. Frankfurt has 11 Bürgerämter.) In smaller towns you just go to the town hall (Rathaus). No Anmeldung, no residence permit. But this is a legal requirement anyway, so take care of it as soon as you have a place to live, or if you move to a new place. You also can’t get a German bank account without your registration document, and that’s the next thing on your to-do list.

TIP: Some expats have had problems converting a US or Canadian driver’s license to a German one because they they did not have a copy of their original, first Anmeldung in Germany. For example, if you first registered your address in Hamburg, but later moved to Frankfurt and then registered there, the authorities in Frankfurt may ask you to show your Hamburg Anmeldung in addition to the Frankfurt one. Hold onto all your German documents!

2. Bank Account (Bankkonto)
When you apply for your residence permit, you need to prove you have sufficient income and/or financial resources. Part of that will be proven by bank statements. A bank account also gets you another vital component of life in Germany: the EC card, or bank debit card. If you also want to get a German credit card, be aware that unlike a credit card in North America, a German “credit” card is not really a credit card. If you charge a purchase for 500 euros, the bank will automatically deduct that amount from your account on your next card statement. You don’t have the option of paying it off in installments over several months. Remember, Germans don’t like debt!

3. Health Insurance (Krankenkasse)
Anyone living in Germany, including expats, is required to have health insurance. Long-term residents need to have German health insurance coverage. A Canadian or American policy won’t be valid. Health insurance in Germany comes in two main types: private and public. If you’re not sure which option is for you, you can always get a one-year policy from a private insurer until you know more. For more about insurance, see The German Health Care Jungle.

4. German Language Skills (Sprachkenntnisse)
Germany wants all its residents – citizens and non-citizens – to be able to function in German. For foreign residents, this helps further their integration into the German way of life. Your application for a residence permit will go smoother if you can understand and speak at least some German, but it is not required for your initial application. However, if you want a long-term permit or an extension, you may need to prove you are learning German.

German language skills (Level B1 or higher, see more below) are generally required for a permanent settlement permit. If you eventually want to become a German citizen or get a permanent settlement permit, you will have to demonstrate a high level of German. There are specific requirements tied to those long-term residence permits, and tests. But even if that is not your final goal, you will be much happier in Germany if your German skills are reasonably good.

The CEFR: Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
This set of language standards, with six proficiency levels, was developed by the Council of Europe for use by each of the EU (and other) nations. Germany uses the CEFR (GER, Gemeinsamer Europäischer Referenzrahmen für Sprachen) to assess a candidate’s language proficiency. Ranging from A to C, the A-Level is the lowest, beginner’s stage, while the C-Level is the highest. Each level is further divided into two sub-levels: A1/A2, B1/B2, C1/C2.

Here are the guidelines for the B2 level of the CEFR:

  • Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
  • Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
  • Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

For more, see this Wikipedia page: Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Also see this GW Expat Blog post: Levels of Language Proficiency: My Life in Germany (with guidelines for the American Interagency Language Roundtable, ILR).

MORE at The German Way
Moving to Germany: The Top 10 Things to Consider
What expats need to know about moving to Germany

Which level you must achieve may depend on your location in Germany. The foreigner offices across Germany seem to vary in their requirements, but you will usually need to prove at least B1 or B2 level (via the Zertifikat Deutsch test) for a long-term residence permit. For citizenship, a C1 level may be required. The Düsseldorf Ausländeramt website states the following: “Der wichtigste Bestandteil bei allen Integrationsbemühungen ist, dass Ausländerinnen und Ausländer, die neu nach Deutschland kommen, schnellst möglich Kenntnisse der deutschen Sprache erwerben. Aber auch für die Erteilung von Niederlassungserlaubnissen oder für eine Einbürgerung werden Kenntnisse der deutschen Sprache voraus gesetzt.” The information continues (in German) with examples of the CEFR levels that may be required. Some offices may allow you to skip the Zertifikat Deutsch test (and its fee) if your German language skills are obviously at a higher level, but there is no guarantee of that. Also, if you have graduated from a German secondary school or have earned a skilled trade certificate, language testing can be waived.

As we said before, the better your German, the better your chances are for obtaining a long-term residence permit and/or German citizenship.


Okay, you are now in Germany and have determined what kind of residence permit you need. If you have done your homework, you’re now ready to proceed. For details see this page: Getting a Residence Permit for Germany.

More | Getting a Residence Permit for Germany

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NOTE: The information on this page and on this website is not intended as legal advice. You are advised to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal concerns regarding a German residence permit or working in Germany.