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EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

Germany has a system of financial support for students known as BAföG. In many cases foreigners are just as entitled to apply as Germans. Here’s what you need to know.

Students attend a lecture
Students attend a lecture at the University of Hannover. Photo: dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

What is BAföG?

Bafög is an abbreviation for a word that would surely be the longest in pretty much any other language expect German: Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. This tongue twister breaks down to mean Federal Training Assistance Act. 

Ever since the 1970s it has helped Germans from poor backgrounds to take up a place at university to at a training colleague, with the idea being that financial hardship should never prevent someone from entering higher education.

In its current form the law provides for students form poorer families to receive €853 a month, half of which is a stipend and half of which is a loan that you will need to pay back once you’ve entered the workforce. 

The maximum you are expected to pay back is €10,000.   

Some 460,000 students were being assisted with Bafög payments in 2020, the last year for which there are numbers.

READ ALSO: How to finance your master’s studies in Germany as an international student

Who is entitled to BAföG?

There are two basic conditions attached to BAföG: you have to be under the age of 30 to apply and you parents have to be low-wage earners.

There are some exemptions for the age restriction. If you can show that you were not able to start a course of study before your 30th birthday due to health or familial reasons then you might still be eligible later. Also, if you are applying for support for a Masters degree then you can apply for Bafög up until the age of 35.

According to German law, your parents have an obligation to financially support your education. This means that German authorities ask for evidence of their income to assess whether you are in need of state support.

And this applies whether your parents work in Germany or abroad, the Education Ministry confirmed to The Local.

“Income calculation under the BAföG rules takes place regardless of whether one’s parents live in Germany or abroad. This applies both to German nationals and to people with non-German nationality who are eligible for support under BAföG,” a spokesperson for the ministry confirmed.

What about foreigners?

Bafög is by no means only available to Germans. A whole variety of foreign nationals can also apply.

The rules on which foreign nationals are entitled to financial support are fairly complicated. But the following list on eligibility is somewhat exhaustive:

  • If you are an EU citizen, or from an EEA country, and you have lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If you are married to, or are the child of, an EU citizen who has lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If your are an EU citizen who lives and works in Germany and whose intended course of study is connected to your current job
  • If you are not an EU citizen but have obtained permanent residency in Germany
  • If you have received refugee status
  • If you have lived in the country for at least 15 months as a ‘tolerated’ person (ie you applied for asylum and weren’t given full refugee status)
  • If at least one of your parents has lived and worked in Germany for three of the past six years
  • You are married to a German national and have moved to Germany.
  • You are the spouse or child of a foreign national who holds a permanent residency permit.

Due to the relative complexity of these rules it is advisable to speak to local organisations that support students such as the Studentenwerk Hamburg, the StudierendenWERK BERLIN or the Studentenwerk München.

READ ALSO: Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

How do repayments work?

The Federal Education Ministry states that you are expected to pay back your loan even if you return to your home country after completing your studies.

Repayment begins five years after you received the last installment of the loan at which point you are expected to pay back €130 a month. Although this amount can be reduced if your salary is low.

If you haven’t paid everything back after 20 years then the rest of the debt is dropped.

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For members


What foreign students should know about applying for German citizenship

If you're currently studying in Germany - or have in the past - you may wondering if this affects your chances of getting German citizenship. Here's what to know before you apply.

What foreign students should know about applying for German citizenship

Whether it’s the lack of tuition fees, the excellent job opportunities or the thrill of studying in Europe’s largest economy, Germany is a hugely popular place for international students. 

According to data from the Federal Office of Statistics, more than 600,000 student visas were handed out between 2006 and 2021, and around a third of these students end up staying in Germany long-term.

For many of these, getting hold of a German passport is the ultimate dream. 

Nevertheless, the landscape for students – or former students – can be confusing. Does the time spent studying count towards your years of residence, and can you even apply for citizenship while on a student visa? 

Here’s what you need to know.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get German citizenship after claiming benefits?

How studying affects your residence

Under Germany’s current rules, people generally need eight years of residence to apply for German citizenship – or six in exceptional circumstances. This is likely to be shortened to a maximum of five and a minimum of three under a new draft law being worked on by the Interior Ministry. 

However, it’s common to hear that the time you spent studying will be treated differently from other periods of time spent in the country, with officials ‘halving’ your study time when you apply for citizenship. 

So if you spent four years completing a Bachelors’ degree or Masters at a German university, and then worked for another two, you may wonder whether your time as a student only counts as two years – leaving you with four years of “official” residence instead of six.

However, according to immigration lawyer Sven Hasse, this isn’t the case at all. 

“Once you switch to another residence permit, it is possible to naturalise and the student years count fully,” Hasse told The Local.

One reason for the confusion could be the fact that student years are halved when you apply for a permanent residence permit, he added. 

Another is the fact that certain states – most notably Saxony and Bavaria – used to regularly apply this rule to people who were applying for citizenship. However, the Federal Administrative Court later found that there was no legal basis for applying this rule when it came to naturalisation. 

In short, that means that whether you studied for eight years or just two, your time spent studying should count fully towards your application. 

READ ALSO: UPDATED: The key points of Germany’s draft law on dual citizenship

Can I apply for citizenship while I’m studying? 

This is where things are a little bit trickier, especially for non-EU students who need a permit to study in Germany. 

That’s because people on student visas aren’t allowed to apply for naturalisation – even if they fulfil all the other requirements. 

According to Hasse, however, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem for most people. It’s just important to change your status as soon as you finish studying, for example by applying for a skilled workers’ visa.

Once you receive your new residence title – and provided you tick all the other boxes – there should be nothing stopping you applying for citizenship.

For EU citizens or Brits who are entitled to EU-style residence after Brexit, things are a fair bit simpler – and it shouldn’t necessarily be a problem if you’re registered on a course at the time you apply.

Students lecture hall

A student takes notes on their reading material in a lecture hall in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

However, officials may want you to prove that you can support yourself and any immediate family members financially and will likely want to find out what you’ve been doing during your time in Germany.

“With EU citizens it’s a little bit more difficult to prove their centre of life, because there is no residence permit needed, you just register,” says Hasse. “That means they may want to see that you worked or that you studied to make sure that you haven’t just registered, left again and after eight years applied for naturalisation. That’s of course not possible.”

In these cases, proof that you are – or have been – a student, could actually be key to proving that you exercised free movement and have a right to naturalisation. 

What’s in the new citizenship law? 

As The Local has been reporting, Germany is currently in the process of massively revamping its citizenship rules. 

In a draft law obtained by The Local, the Interior Ministry sets out plans to permit dual nationality, reduce the amount of residence needed for citizenship and ease language requirements for over-67s.

Unless there are major changes, the new citizenship law doesn’t appear to change much for students – though it may mean they can get citizenship far sooner than they otherwise would.

For example, if a student completes a two-year Masters of Science at a German university and speaks German at a C1 level, they may be entitled to apply for citizenship just a year after graduating.

READ ALSO: How could Germany’s planned reforms to citizenship law change?

Once again, the primary condition is that they are “on a residence titled aimed at permanent residence” – i.e. not a student visa – and that they can support both themselves and their family “without recourse to public funds”. 

It is unclear what kind of public funds or benefits are meant here, but the general rule of thumb will be to prove you have adequate finances to look after yourself and any dependents. 

Do you have a burning question about citizenship or the new naturalisation law? Let us know and we’ll try our best to answer it in a future article.