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EXPLAINED: How to pay Germany's TV tax, or (legally) avoid it

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EXPLAINED: How to pay Germany's TV tax, or (legally) avoid it
Image: DPA
13:45 CET+01:00
Germany’s Rund­funk­beitrag - or television licence fee - might seem a reasonable cost at first, but if left unpaid it can go up pretty quickly. Here's the lowdown on the tax, how it's administered and how you may be able to get out of paying it.

If you’ve lived in Germany for a while, you’ll know the deal as soon as you see the familiar envelope in your letterbox. 

Everyone living in Germany is required to pay the German TV tax. The responsible authorities get a hold of your data as soon as you complete your registration (Anmeldung), so it’s almost impossible to dodge (even if you don’t have a TV).

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The fee is justified on the basis that the government wants to provide “a diversity of high-quality programmes on television, on the radio, online and in media libraries” without having to rely on commercial networks and advertising. 

The justification is similar to that in other countries which are committed to public broadcasting, although the German system is administered in a different fashion. 

Unlike the UK’s licensing system or Australia’s income tax-based charge, the German TV tax is charged on a per household basis - with pretty much everyone who lives in a house or flat liable to pay. 

Laptops and other devices fall within the scope of the new rules. Image: DPA

Rund­funk­beitrag

The Rund­funk­beitrag is a letter informing you about your obligations under the German TV and radio tax. 

The tax requires every household to pay €17.50 per month towards the Beitragsservice, which is the public service institution in charge of German public broadcasters on TV and radio. 

The ‘per household’ element is important to remember, as you pay per ‘Wohnung’ rather than per resident or even per television. 

This is great for people in large share houses or for families with kids old enough to chip in every month towards entertainment costs, but it slugs people who live alone particularly hard.  

In effect, a five-person share house addicted to Bauer sucht Frau and Der Bachelor pays the same per month as a grandmother who dusts off the TV remote once a year to watch Helene Fischer’s Silvestershow extravaganza.

The German TV tax was strengthened in 2013. Image: DPA. 

This can get a little more complicated due to the fact that each person angemeldet (registered) to a particular address will receive their own letter telling them to pay €17,50. 

If you get one of these letters but another resident of the apartment or house already pays the amount, simply write back and let them know. 

Sometimes - and particularly in short-term leases - your landlord will agree to pay the amount or split it with you. However this is not a legal requirement, so be sure to contact your landlord and find out who needs to foot the bill because someone will have to.

But what if I don’t have a TV? 

If you’ve been in Germany for a while, you may have gotten accustomed to the previous system administered by the Gebühreneinzugszentrale (GEZ). 

This system was fairer - particularly for people who don’t have TVs or listen to the radio - but it was also much harder to administer. 

Where people didn’t want to pay, they’d simply say they didn’t have a TV or a radio. As the GEZ didn’t have the authority to actually enter premises and check, they’d effectively have to take them at their word - thereby providing an incentive to be untruthful. 

The new system came into place in 2013,  on the assumption that every household has access to television or radio. As smartphones and laptops now count as devices that enable you to connect to public content, making the case that you have none of the above is likely to be difficult. 

Can I apply for an exemption or a discount? 

Recipients of government welfare benefits are exempted from the payment. This includes unemployment benefits, disability benefits or old age pensions. 

In addition, the vision or hearing impaired can apply to the Beitraggservice to have the fee reduced or removed completely. 

Students and apprentices 

Despite their love for a bit of Netflix and Chill, paying the fee can be extra tough on students.

First and foremost, they have less money - but their living situations (single rooms in student accommodation or lodging houses) can also make them liable to pay more than others of the same age (i.e. those living in share houses). 

The German TV tax rules broken down by the Rund­funk­beitrag. Image: Rund­funk­beitrag

In most cases, students and people completing apprenticeships (Ausbildung or Lehrzeit) will not have to pay, provided they receive student support funding from the state (known as the BAföG). 

Students who do not receive state funding will be liable. Those living in single room student accommodation will be required to pay the full €17.50, even if they share a bathroom or kitchen. 

But I don’t speak the language - and I just don’t want to pay

Trying to avoid paying the TV tax isn’t easy, particularly now that everyone who lives in a home is effectively liable. If you decide not to pay, the debt will keep increasing - with added fees and penalties along the way. 

On rare occasions, this may lead to jail time

READ MORE: Crackdown on broadcast fee ‘dodgers’

Even if you are leaving Germany, this can be problematic in the future if you decide to return. Therefore, avoidance probably isn’t a good solution. 

Being a German government initiative, we’d be remiss if we didn’t inform you about the Rund­funk­beitrag Boykott movement. There have been longstanding opposition movements to the Rund­funk­beitrag, many of which started before the shift to the new system in 2013. 

These rely on all kinds of political motivations - i.e. the government doesn’t/shouldn’t have the right to charge me, or I don’t support the content provided by state broadcasters - as well as the simple argument that ‘I don’t want to pay’. 

While these movements have gained some traction and will hold protests and demonstrations from time to time, you’ve probably got a better chance of successfully arguing your well-reasoned and thoroughly considered political case with a ticket inspector to avoid a fine for Schwarzfahren (riding without a ticket) than avoiding the TV tax. 

Even if you don’t speak the language, you won’t be able to argue your case. Instead - and particularly in the knowledge that you’re going to have to pay it anyway - use the opportunity to tune in and improve your language skills. And at least once a year to watch Helene Fischer’s Silvestershow extravaganza. 

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