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READER INSIGHTS

‘Lack of transparency’: What it’s like to apply for permanent residence in Germany

Getting permanent residency can be a great way to secure your rights in Germany - but what's it like going through the application process? The Local spoke to readers about their experiences.

Application form for a residence permit.
Application form for a residence permit. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Wolfram Kastl

For non-EU citizens living in Germany, permanent residence is often the go-to status when they decide to build a life here. For years, there have been strict rules that make it difficult to obtain dual nationality, so those who aren’t keen on losing their old citizenship can secure their rights by becoming permanent residents instead.

On the Make it in Germany website – set up by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) – information in English states that most applicants simply need to fulfil a short list of requirements. They need to prove they know German, are well integrated, have a secure livelihood, and have held another residence permit for at least five years.

But how are these rules applied in practice, and how long does it take to switch from a temporary visa to permanent residence?

When The Local spoke to readers about their applications, we found hugely varied experiences for people on different types of visa and in different parts of the country.

“The requirements for permanent residency are clearly defined in the law,” said 27-year-old Manpreet J., who’s originally from India. “What is not defined is how to prove that they are met. This is where the problem begins.”

According to Manpreet, there are even different definitions of a secure livelihood in different regions. In Aachen, for example, a temporary work contract wouldn’t be enough to fulfil this requirement, while just 30km away in Heinsberg, it would.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How German citizenship differs from permanent residency

‘Bring everything you can think of’

Jaton’ West, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Berlin, found the criteria for accepting applications similarly inscrutable.

“We applied twice,” She told The Local. “The first time they only renewed our visa – no explanation as to why. We reapplied when it expired and were granted it. Seems like it’s a crapshoot and just depends on the whim of the person processing your application.”

For Jonathan in Nuremberg, the whole process was marked by a “lack of transparency” – starting with the fact that there was no available information, in English or German, about what documents would be needed during the process.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners' Office.

Forms for visa applications at the Foreigners’ Office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Six weeks after sending in his application for permanent residency, his local Foreigner’s Office emailed him to inform him that he would need 10 additional documents – including a German language test and integration test that he didn’t know he’d have to take.

With his residence permit due to expire in a matter of weeks, he was left with no time at all to find hard copies of all the other documents, let alone manage the 14-week turnaround for booking and receiving results for the tests. 

“The frustration is that I could have taken these tests anytime in the past year, if I had known that I needed them,” he said.

Düsseldorf resident Dmitry, 33, also received incomplete information about the documents he needed to provide – both on the website of his local Foreigner’s Office and in an email he was sent.

“As far as I recall, no list mentioned bringing the work contract, and the contract for the flat was also required. Finally, I had to provide them translations of my degrees, despite already having provided them for my Blue Card,” he said. “In the end, it’s worth bringing everything a person can think of.”

READ ALSO: Reader question: Is my British residency title the same as permanent residency in Germany?

‘Smoother than expected’ 

For the vast majority of respondents, the sheer amount of paperwork involved in the application was the hardest thing about securing permanent residency.

Others said they had found it tricky to brush up their German skills to meet the B1 language requirement.

However, a number of people said they been pleasantly surprised by how relaxed their case workers had been and how simple the process was.

This was the case for 32 year-old Angela, who moved to Berlin from Colombia. 

“I prepared a lot of documents, but in the end all they checked was my salary and that I had contributed to the pension fund and Krankenkasse (health insurance),” she told us. “I don’t know why it was so easy for me – my intuition tells me higher income people have it easier.” 

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill.

Folders filled with documents sit on a windowsill. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | arifoto UG

For 39 year-old Shila, who lives in Mainz, the experience of applying for permanent residency was similarly hassle-free. After emailing the Landesamt and her local case worker, she was given an appointment and a list of documents to bring with her. 

Despite the fact that she wasn’t able to supply a language certificate, the application was a success – and her case worker even offered to talk to her in English.

“It was in 2021 in the middle of lockdown, but it was a very positive surprise to me after hearing all the bad experiences on Facebook groups,” Shila said.

The huge variation in experiences even extended to the amount of time it took for permanent residence to be granted.

While some lucky applicants managed to complete the whole thing within a month, others have waited as long as a year and a half – and in some cases are still waiting for an outcome. 

Easier with a Blue Card

Among those respondents who had an easier time, many told us they had originally come to Germany on a Blue Card – a special EU visa for skilled workers on high incomes.

Blue Card holders with basic German language skills are able to receive permanent residency after living in the country for just 33 months. Meanwhile, those with slightly more advanced skills (B1) can secure their permanent status after just 21 months.

Berlin resident Steven, 50, told us he was pleasantly surprised to find out that he’d only need an A1 language certificate, thanks to the fact that he’d been living in Germany on a Blue Card.

Others took advantage of the fast-tracked option and secured their B1 certificate in order to get a permanent residence permit after less than two years.

Adi Singh, 33, said getting a hold of permanent residence in Munich had been an incredibly smooth process – largely because he’d applied through his employer.

READ ALSO: TEST: Is your German good enough for citizenship or permanent residency?

With his B1 language skills, Adi was able to apply after just 21 months, and he received his card within just six months.

“I had one in-person appointment at the KVR close to the approval stage, but that was quick and short,” he said. “But they make it a point to speak to you in German, likely to establish that B1 level.”

Compared to the experience of applying for his Blue Card himself, Adi said applying via his employer had helped him avoid bureaucratic issues.

“I was fortunate to do it through my firm, and I would recommend that if your company does not apply for it for you, it is a good idea to hire an immigration firm that will do the process,” he advised. “It’s worth the time and energy saved.”

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For members

GERMAN CITIZENSHIP

EXPLAINED: Could Germany’s conservatives block dual citizenship?

The opposition CDU has accused the federal government of wanting to “sell off” German passports with its planned reform of German citizenship law – designed to make naturalising as German easier and allowing dual citizenship for non-EU nationals. One expert says the CDU could water down reforms.

EXPLAINED: Could Germany's conservatives block dual citizenship?

As The Local Germany first reported last month, Germany’s federal Interior Ministry plans to present its draft law liberalising German citizenship rules in December.

Besides allowing dual citizenship for non-EU nationals, the federal traffic light government plans to shorten the amount of time someone needs to have been in Germany to naturalise as German from eight years to five. If someone has integrated well, for example by passing a B2 German exam, they would then be eligible for a fast-track of three years instead of the current six.

Under the plans, becoming German would also be simplified for both children and some seniors.

READ ALSO:

All three governing parties – the Social Democrats, Greens, and liberal Free Democrats – support the reform, as does the Left Party. Yet the CDU opposes the reforms, with parliamentary leader Thorsten Frei saying on Friday that “the German passport must not become junk.”

The CDU has a long history of opposing dual citizenship or citizenship reform in general, and blocked a 1999 proposal from the SPD-Green government at the time to allow dual citizenship.

In a nutshell, it did this by collecting millions of signatures on a petition against allowing dual citizenship and winning the Hesse state election, before blocking the proposal in the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper chamber representing federal states.

So could history repeat itself? Could a citizenship reform law pass a Bundestag where the government has a majority only to be derailed yet again in the Bundesrat?

Dr. Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, says the short answer is yes – it’s possible. But even in that event, she would still expect to see a compromise that would see a watered down law pass.

What is the Bundesrat and how could the CDU block citizenship reform in it?

Laws that pass the Bundestag then go to the Bundesrat, which has 69 seats representing Germany’s 16 states. Thirty-five votes are needed to reach a majority in that chamber.

The Bundesrat only has an advisory role on many laws. On these laws, the Bundestag can simply override the Bundesrat if it doesn’t agree. Other laws, however, particularly those that have large effects on how federal states manage their services, and thus finances – require the Bundesrat’s consent.

Hakan Demir, an SPD MdB for Berlin-Neukölln, answering a constituent’s question on Abgeornetenwatch.de, a watchdog website for German parliamentarians, argues the law is not expected to require the Bundesrat’s agreement. He says that’s because it will not have an impact on federal state financing. 

Green MdB Filiz Polat also says the plan is that the law wouldn’t need the Bundesrat’s consent, suggesting the traffic light parties may try to write the law such that they can argue that it doesn’t have to go to the upper chamber.

But Münch says there’s a legal case to be made for why citizenship reform would need to go through the Bundesrat – giving the CDU the opportunity to block it – just as it did in 1999 when a previous dual citizenship proposal had a Bundestag majority but failed in the Bundesrat.

“If we look at a theme like the right to German nationality, naturally that’s something that strongly affects how the states run their own Interior ministries and their immigration offices – which actually implement the laws,” says Münch. “For this reason, laws affecting that would require the Bundesrat’s consent.”

Münch explains that each state has a certain number of seats that only roughly correspond to its population. Coalition governments within those states typically vote as a bloc though, rather than along party lines.

That means that Baden-Württemberg, for example, which has six seats under a Green-CDU coalition, doesn’t simply split 3-3 in the Bundesrat like their parties in the Bundestag might. The coalition government in that state has to decide together how all six of their votes will go.

The current party composition of Germany’s upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, which represents state governments. A citizenship reform bill must pass both the Bundestag and Bundesrat, which doesn’t typically vote on party lines. It has 69 seats, with 35 votes needed for a majority. Image: Bundesrat

“The CDU and CSU don’t have actually have a majority in the Bundesrat, but they can, at the state level, push for their federal state to abstain from a vote,” Münch tells The Local. “And they’re in a lot of state governments.”

This means that the CDU in our example of Baden-Württemberg, a state where it shares power with the Greens, can prevent all six state votes from being cast in the Bundesrat – meaning that a citizenship law that’s passed the Bundestag can fall short of the 35 votes needed to pass in the Bundesrat – even when parties supporting the reform hold most of the seats.

“That’s why, when we’re discussing something like citizenship law, which would require the Bundesrat’s consent, an abstention is as good as a ‘no’ vote,” says Münch. “So the traffic light parties have to work with the Union here.”

Münch says it would be easier for the CDU to force their state to abstain on citizenship reform if they’re one of two parties – as in Baden-Württemberg – than if they’re outnumbered in their state government by two other pro-reform parties, as in Saxony. However, how a state votes also depends on which party leads the coalition or has the state’s Interior Ministry.

READ ALSO: HISTORY: What’s behind the push to reform dual citizenship laws in Germany?

Compromise still likely even if the CDU blocks citizenship reform

Münch says the traffic light parties will probably find it harder than normal to work with the CDU on a subject like citizenship law – an emotional topic that gets right at the question of who gets to be German. But she still expects a compromise.

“I don’t see a situation happening where the Union can block this proposal completely,” says Münch. “They’re simply not strong enough politically right now to do that.”

Where Münch does see the potential for pushback from the CDU is not on whether dual citizenship should be allowed or not, but on the question of how long someone must be resident in Germany in order to naturalise.

This means that although the right to dual citizenship may still end up being passed, the time requirements may not end up being shortened as much as the current government might wish.

“We’re not in the 1990s anymore,” adds Münch. “German society is much different now than it was then. Germany is much more an immigration country now than we were even then. That’s why I don’t think this is an ‘all or nothing’ question of whether this passes or not.”

Vocabulary

Majority – (die) Mehrheit

Vote – (die) Stimme

Immigration country (a country that attracts immigrants) – (das) Einwanderungsland

Dual nationality or citizenship – (die) Doppelstaatsbürgerschaft

Composition of seats (in a political chamber) – (die) Sitzverteilung

Governing coalition – (die) Regierungskoalition

The Federal Council – (der) Bundesrat

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