A Manual for Germany > Politics and Law  > Foreigners’ Rights

Foreigners’ Rights

Information: Note: The following chapter gives you an insight into the laws regulating residency for non-German nationals in Germany. The rules are fixed but flexible. There is almost no rule that does not have an exception. Therefore the following paragraphs are intended as a guide, and not a binding definition of the law in Germany. Details can be acquired at your local Immigration Office ("Ausländeramt"), at advice centres (see chapter Cross-reference: Social Advisory Services (Charitable Organisations)) or, should there be a dispute with the Ausländeramt, from lawyers specialising in foreigners’ rights.

Hyperlink: www.integrationsbeauftragte.de/gra/themen/898_1027.php


Foreigners who come to Germany are subject to certain specific regulations regarding residence. A foreigner here is anyone who does not have German citizenship.

Information: Note: The following is not valid for immigrants of German origin ("Spätaussiedler") returning to Germany, mostly from states in the former Eastern Bloc. These people are Germans according to the Basic Law. You can obtain detailed information from the German Representative for Immigrants of German Origin and National Minorities in Germany: Hyperlink: www.aussiedlerbeauftragter.de or at Hyperlink: www.bmi.bund.de.

The regulations regarding foreigners do not apply equally to all foreigners. The right of abode in Germany also depends on the nationality of the immigrant (for instance, citizens of the European Union) as well as on the reason for coming to Germany (for instance as a refugee, migrant worker or student).

A fundamental distinction is made between EU citizens ("Unionsbürger") and so-called "third-country nationals" ("Drittstaatenangehörige").

EU citizens are nationals from the other member states of the EU. EU citizens and their family members – even those who are third-country nationals – have special status under European law (see Cross-reference: EU Citizens and their Relatives). Citizens from Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway enjoy as a general rule the same rights as EU citizens. Swiss citizens also effectively share the same rights as EU citizens.

Non-EU citizens or third-country nationals are citizens from all other states. The national Aliens Act ("Ausländergesetz") is generally valid for all these citizens (exceptions to the rule are Turkish citizens with valid work permits in Germany, who enjoy a special, privileged residence status due to bilateral treaties. An important distinction must be made in the group of third-country, non-EU citizens between foreigners who come to Germany to escape persecution and those who come for other reasons.

Information: Note: Citizens who come to Germany to escape persecution must apply for asylum to receive protection in Germany. During the asylum process certain restrictions are in place but asylum seekers are permitted to stay as long as the asylum process is ongoing. The following text does not address the process of seeking asylum. Information on matters regarding asylum is available at the Bundesamt für Anerkennung ausländischer Flüchtlinge (Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees - Hyperlink: www.bafl.de), Pro Asyl (Hyperlink: www.proasyl.de) or at the advice centres of charitable organisations.

Foreigners from Non-EU States

Foreigners who are not citizens of an EU Member State are referred to as third-country nationals. The following information is designed to give an insight into the legal situation of third-country nationals in Germany. Information for EU citizens can be found in the chapter Cross-reference: EU Citizens and their Relatives.

Information for foreigners that are non-EU citizens (third-country nationals)

Residence Rights

In order to enter and stay in Germany, third-country nationals always require a residence title ("Aufenthaltstitel"). The Residence Act ("Aufenthaltsgesetz") essentially distinguishes between two different residence titles: the unlimited settlement permit ("Niederlassungserlaubnis") and the limited resident permit ("Aufenthaltserlaubnis"). Other important differences in terms of the legal positions of third-country citizens also depend on the purpose for which the limited resident permit is issued.

Information: Note: Visas are also a type of residence permit. A visa, depending on the reasons given for residence in Germany when applying for the visa, is essentially the same as the different types of residence permits discussed in this section. The main difference is that a visa is issued by a German representative office outside of Germany. Residents from the majority of countries throughout the world are subject to visa restrictions. That means that a visa must be applied for at the German representative office in the citizen’s home country before entering Germany. The planned reason for coming to Germany must be correctly given in all visa applications.

Information: More information on visas for Germany and countries whose citizens are required to have a visa can be found at the Internet site: Hyperlink: www.auswaertiges-amt. de "Welcome to Germany"/ "Entry into Germany".

Residence permit

The Aufenthaltserlaubnis is a limited residence permit. For some groups of people, however, it becomes the basis for any long-term stay in Germany. In other words after a certain duration of residence in Germany and after certain conditions are met, holders have the right to apply for an unlimited settlement permit ("Niederlassungserlaubnis"). The "Aufenthaltserlaubnis" is generally only issued for specific reasons for coming to Germany. The rights that are granted with an "Aufenthaltserlaubnis" (e.g. entitlement to employment, subsequent immigration of dependents), depends in many cases on the purpose for which the "Aufenthaltserlaubnis" was issued (e.g. employment, training, recognition of refugee status, temporary protection etc).


A residence permit ("Aufenthaltserlaubnis") only ever allows you to take up gainful employment (employee or self-employment) if the residence permit expressly entitles you to do this. The following procedure generally applies for employees: The immigration authorities ("Ausländerbehörde") check whether the general legal prerequisites for foreigners are fulfilled for issuing an "Aufenthaltserlaubnis". If these are fulfilled, the immigration authorities request approval from the "Bundesagentur für Arbeit" (Federal Employment Agency) for taking up employment in a job. Approval is only then given if the job cannot be filled by a German, EU citizen or other employees given preferential treatment (e.g. third-country nationals who have been living in Germany for a longer period of time). This is known as the Priority Principle ("Vorrangprinzip"). After specific periods of time have lapsed, it is possible to be given the same access to the employment market as German and EU citizens.

Information: Note: Turkish workers and their family members who are legally in Germany are subject to special regulations in regard to work permits. These people have the right to work for others after they have worked for the same employer for a period of four years.

Information: N. B. The residence permit ("Aufenthaltserlaubnis") is only extended or converted into an unlimited settlement permit ("Niederlassungserlaubnis") if an application is made. This application must occur within the time frame given. It is therefore prudent to apply for a new permit some time before the old one has run out. In no case should the new permit be applied for after the old one has elapsed, because this could officially mean the person is illegally residing in Germany. This can lead to a lot of trouble and a loss of certain rights! For example, if the permit runs out on the 18th of February, then the new permit should be applied for on the 18th of February at the very latest, and preferably some time in advance of this date.

Settlement permit

The "Niederlassungserlaubnis" secures permanent residence in Germany. It has no time or spatial restrictions and gives you the right to take up gainful employment without having to undergo further approval by the "Bundesagentur für Arbeit" (Federal Employment Agency). This unlimited settlement permit generally entitles you to take up any form of gainful employment (exceptions apply only to a few professions, in particular the medical profession, e.g. doctors, and for receiving civil service status).

The "Niederlassungserlaubnis" should be applied for as soon as all conditions are met.

In the majority of cases this settlement permit will not be issued immediately. There are exceptions, however, for highly qualified people. People also receive a settlement permit directly on arrival in Germany who are accepted by the Federal Republic of Germany for special political reasons (e.g. Jews from the former Soviet Union). All other groups can only receive a settlement permit after a specific period of stay in Germany. Depending on the purpose for which the residence permit ("Aufenthaltserlaubnis") was issued, you may be entitled to a settlement permit ("Niederlassungserlaubnis") if other preconditions are fulfilled.

The following conditions must generally be met in order to receive a settlement permit:

For spouses it is sufficient if the partner is employed and pays social insurance contributions. For children there are wide-ranging exemptions. They are generally entitled to a settlement permit if, at the age of 16, they have possessed a residence permit for five years. There are also special regulations for issuing settlement permits for recognised refugees. They can usually already receive a settlement permit after three years.

Information: Tip: When extending your residence permit ("Aufenthaltserlaubnis"), ask the official dealing with your case about the conditions that still have to be fulfilled before you can apply for a settlement permit ("Niederlassungserlaubnis").

Information: N. B. Even if you possess an "Aufenthaltserlaubnis" or a "Niederlassungserlaubnis", a period of residence outside of Germany can lead you to losing your right of residency in Germany. Of course, not every holiday or trip to visit relatives and friends will lead to the loss of residency rights. But if you show that you are travelling abroad with the intention of staying there for some time (for instance if you cancel the contract on your flat in Germany), then the right of residency is immediately and automatically void. Even if you only leave for a short time there is also a danger. If you stay abroad for a period longer than 6 months, the "Aufenthaltserlaubnis" or the "Niederlassungserlaubnis" are automatically rescinded. Therefore, if you are intending to remain abroad for a long period of time then you should talk to your local immigration authorities. There are a number of legally binding exceptions (for instance for military service and for pensioners). The immigration authorities can help in these matters and discuss other possible exceptions.

Residence for the Purpose of Working

There are various residence permits that are issued for the purpose of taking up employment (as an employee or self-employed work). Which residence permit applies to you and which preconditions need to be fulfilled essentially depends on the type of intended employment. Here it is distinguished between employment that does not require any professional qualifications, qualified employment, highly qualified employment and self-employed work.

Non-qualified Employment

It is generally not possible to receive a residence permit for the purpose of taking up employment that does not require professional qualifications. These are only issued under exceptional circumstances if this has been allowed for in intergovernmental agreements or is permitted by legal ordinance.

Qualified Employment


It is permitted to employ professionally qualified foreigners in the case of specific vocations. These occupational groups are determined by legal ordinance. In individual cases, a residence permit can be issued for the purposes of carrying out a job requiring professional qualifications if this is in the public interest.

Highly Qualified Employment

Highly qualified persons can, in special cases, receive a settlement permit ("Niederlassungserlaubnis") right from the outset. The prerequisites for this are, among others, that they have a concrete job offer and that the "Bundesagentur für Arbeit" (Federal Employment Agency) has given their approval. People regarded in particular to be highly qualified persons are scientists with special expert knowledge, teachers and scientific workers with specialist functions. This group also includes specialists and people in senior managerial positions who receive a salary that is above a stipulated minimum value (double the contribution assessment ceiling for statutory health insurance, which is around € 4,000).

Self-employed Work

A residence permit can be issued for carrying out self-employed work. This presupposes that certain prerequisites are fulfilled that, in particular, ensure that the work has a positive effect on the German economy. These prerequisites are generally deemed to be fulfilled with a minimum investment sum of 1 million euros and the creation of ten jobs. If the investment sum or the number of jobs is less than these values, the prerequisites are examined in terms of the viability of the business idea, the amount of invested capital, the business experience of the foreigner and involves, among others, trade authorities and associations. Foreigners who are older than 45 years only receive a residence permit if they have a suitable retirement pension.

The residence permit is initially issued for a maximum of 3 years. If the planned business endeavour has been successfully realised in this time, a settlement permit can already be issued after three years regardless of the usual prerequisites.

Residency for the Purpose of Studying

Foreign nationals can be issued with a residence permit for the purpose of studying or for applying for a university place. A study applicant may stay for a maximum of nine months. Those who obtain university admission can obtain a residence permit for two years, which is normally extended until the end of the study. During the period of study, students may work up to 90 days or 180 half-days. It is also possible to carry out part-time work made available to students at the universities. On successfully completing the studies, the residence permit can be extended up to one year for the purpose of seeking employment. In order to receive a residence permit for taking up employment, however, the job must accord with the university qualification and it must be permissible for the job position to be filled by foreign workers. (This generally presupposes that the job cannot be carried out by Germans or other foreign nationals given precedence, in particular, EU citizens).

Information for foreign students or those interested in studying in Germany can be obtained from the "Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst" (German Academic Exchange Service) at Hyperlink: www.daad.de or at Hyperlink: www.campus-germany.de. See also chapter Cross-reference: Training and Further Education

Residency for the Purpose of Vocational Education and Training

A residence permit can also be issued for the purpose of vocational education and training. This generally requires the approval of the "Bundesagentur für Arbeit" (Federal Employment Agency) unless determined otherwise by legal ordinance or inter-governmental agreements.

Family Reunion

There are also extensive rules regarding the rights of non-EU, third-country citizens’ to family reunion ("Familiennachzug"), i.e. the rights of family members to join a relative who is already resident in Germany. (For the rights of EU citizens who have availed themselves of their right of free movement, see below). The type of residence permit is a factor in these cases.

Whether family members who subsequently join a relative already resident in Germany have a right to take up employment generally depends on whether the relative already resident in Germany has such a right. Therefore, not only do the same rights apply to the family members who subsequently arrive but also the same restrictions (e.g. have less favourable access to the labour market).

The family reunion of third-country nationals can only occur after certain conditions have been met (for instance the apartment must not be too small and the livelihood of the family members joining somebody in Germany must be guaranteed by the person already resident in Germany). Exceptions can be made, for instance with recognised refugees (people with rights to asylum or refuge according to the Geneva Refugee Convention), because the family can only get together on a regular basis in Germany. In addition, different conditions apply to different family members who wish to move to Germany.

Family members who are normally allowed to join a person already resident in Germany include the person’s spouse (see a), the person’s children (see b) and in individual cases also other family members (see c).

Information: Note on the keyword "Partnership": In Germany same-sex couples can form a partnership or civil union similar to marriage. The foreign partners in this type of relationship also have the same basic rights as those of married spouses.

Information: Note: German citizens have fewer restrictions in terms of bringing family members into Germany. For instance, all children who are residents of third countries can come to Germany until they have reached the age of 18. Even if a German citizen living in Germany is no longer able to look after himself or herself, relatives from abroad are also normally allowed to come to Germany, as it is not expected that the family member living in Germany could or should be forced to move abroad.

Information: Note: Recognised refugees (people with rights to asylum or refuge according to the Geneva Refugee Convention) enjoy important privileges (e.g. it is not absolutely necessary to have a guaranteed livelihood). On the other hand, people who receive a residence permit for other humanitarian grounds or for reasons of international law are subject to sometimes substantial restrictions in terms of the right to family reunion. Only certain aspects of these complex rules can be described here.

Information: Note on the keyword "Independent Right of Residence": Some marriages fail because of disagreements or even the use of violence. In the past there was a problem here because in order to extend an "Aufenthaltserlaubnis", the same conditions normally had to be met that applied when issuing the "Aufenthaltserlaubnis". If the persons concerned did not yet have a permanent residence permit (now called a "Niederlassungserlaubnis" or settlement permit), then sometimes the authorities refused to extend the residency rights of the spouses because the married couple had separated. Legislators believed that this was too hard. Now residency rights are extended even if the partnership has ended, as long as the marriage was in place for two years after moving to Germany. If the couple split up before the two years have elapsed, individual residency rights are nevertheless granted in some cases of hardship. Legislators assume that such cases of hardship occur when women, for instance, are forced to leave their husbands after being subjected to domestic violence.

Visits from Friends and Family Members Living Abroad

If friends or family members from abroad wish to visit Germany, this is not governed by the same regulations governing family members who wish to remain in Germany. Third-county visitors often need to secure a visa before coming even if they only want to stay briefly in Germany. In other words, visitors must acquire a visa, which is subject to a fee, from a German representative office in the third county. The German representative offices have a considerable amount of leeway when allocating visas. Of course, family ties are taken into account when allocating visas, and close relatives are often granted visas in these cases. In order to gain a visa, the visitor must prove that he/she has enough means at their disposal to finance their stay in Germany. This proof is usually provided by the family member resident in Germany, who signs a form at the local Immigration Office guaranteeing that they will cover the living costs of the visitor should this be necessary. This guarantee is called a "Verpflichtungserklärung". The Immigration Office often charges a fee for processing this application.

Information: Tip: More information on visas for Germany and countries whose citizens are required to have a visa can be found at the Internet site: Hyperlink: www.auswaertiges-amt.de, "Welcome to Germany"/ "Entry into Germany".

EU Citizens and their Relatives

European Union citizens enjoy a wide range of freedoms which means, for instance, that they are able to freely move anywhere within the European Union. Wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws are in place to protect EU citizens. This prevents individual states treating EU citizens differently than their own citizens. But of course there is almost no rule that does not have an exception. The freedom to move anywhere within the EU is not (yet) fully guaranteed. Some requirements relating to the law on aliens and some formalities are in place for EU citizens when they are in other member states.

Hyperlink: www.europa.eu.int/eures

Information: You can find detailed information for EU citizens on the Internet at Hyperlink: www.europa.eu.int/citizensrights or by phoning 00 800 6 7 8 9 10 11, which is a free phone number that you can call from all 25 member states in your own language.

Employees and Self-Employed Persons

One of the central points of this freedom of movement is to be able to work in other member states. Therefore EU citizens are protected under EU law if they wish to provide or receive services, set up their own business, or take up employment in other member states.

Information: Note: EU citizens can also travel to Germany in search of work without a visa. EU citizens and family members who are citizens of a member state of the European Union will be issued with a certificate certifying the right of residency. EU citizens therefore do not have to seek permission to stay from the immigration authorities. However, they must register within an appropriate time limit with the registration authorities (e.g. at the "Einwohnermeldeamt" (registration office)). According to EU law, however, they are not entitled to German social assistance ("Arbeitslosengeld II" (Unemployment Benefit II) or social security) while searching for employment.

Residence Rights

EU citizens are entitled to take up employment. They do not require special approval from the "Bundesagentur für Arbeit" (Federal Employment Agency). Certain restrictions only apply in certain civil servant jobs and only in certain cases (for instance the police). The Immigration Office can demand, however, that individuals prove that they fulfil the conditions of freedom of movement. An employee can secure this by gaining a letter of employment from their employer.

Information: Note: Transitional regulations apply to EU citizens from most of the new EU member states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary) for taking up work as employees, particularly if they have come to Germany recently. They are only eligible to take up employment if authorisation has been granted by the "Bundesagentur für Arbeit" (Federal Employment Agency). For issuing EU work permits, the same conditions apply as for approving the employment of third-country nationals entering Germany for the purposes of working (see above for residency rights of third-country nationals). EU citizens from the new member states enjoy, however, precedence over third-country nationals. These temporary restrictions initially apply until the 30th of April 2006, and to the 30th of April 2011 at the latest.

EU citizens who have continually lived in Germany for at least five years are entitled to continue living in Germany, regardless of other prerequisites governing freedom of movement. This also applies to their spouses or partners and dependent children. For children under the age of 16, however, this only applies if a legal guardian is living in Germany.

Temporary inability to work due to illness, accidents or involuntary unemployment does not affect the right of residence. A number of people also gain the right to remain in Germany, regardless of their original status of employment, even if they are no longer employed in Germany (for instance if they become unemployed due to a work accident).

Information: Note: Certain jobs require certain qualifications in Germany. The European Union is attempting to standardise the recognition of qualifications. Further information can be found on the Internet at Hyperlink: www.europa.eu.int/citizensrights.

Family Reunion

EU citizens enjoy wide-ranging rights to family reunion, i.e. the rights of family members to join a relative who is already resident in Germany for employment reasons. The following people are allowed to join their family members:

Information: Note: The right to come to Germany also applies to relatives who are third-country citizens, i.e. who are not themselves EU citizens. But these people do have to obtain a visa for Germany if they come from a country that has visa requirements (see above). (Although recent European legislation makes it now possible under certain circumstances to obtain a visa or other necessary documents after entering Germany, it is nevertheless recommended in these cases to do this before entering Germany.)

Students, Pensioners and Other EU Citizens Whose Livelihood is Guaranteed

EU citizens who wish to live in Germany are protected by European law and are privileged even when they do not wish to work or earn a living. Retired EU citizens have the right to live in Germany and draw their pensions from other member states. This is also the case for people who do not draw a pension but have sufficient funds to live in Germany. EU citizens can also study in Germany.

These groups must, however, prove that they have sufficient funds and health insurance coverage for themselves and their families. They must also prove this, if necessary, to the Immigration Office. Students generally only need to make a simple statement.

Students are allowed to bring – or be joined by – their spouses and children. For same-sex couples joined in civil union (see above), partners are also entitled to join their respective partner living in Germany. Others entitled to unrestricted freedom of movement are also allowed to bring their immediate older relatives (grandparents).

This always presupposes that the livelihood of the relatives is actually guaranteed.