Just like obtaining a German visa, acquiring a German residence permit is strongly tied to your nationality and your reasons for coming to Germany. First of all, nationals of EU or EEA member states do not need a residence permit at all. As long as they move to Germany for work or study or have some way to financially support themselves, they enjoy full mobility within the EU. Upon arrival, they still need to register with the local authorities, though.
For an expat from outside the EU, a residence permit is usually issued for the purpose of employment or education in Germany. It is also possible to get one for joining a spouse or parent living in Germany. However, in the last case, this does not necessarily include permission to work in Germany.
The duration of your residence permit usually reflects your personal situation, i.e. your living and working conditions. Getting an extension is usually not a problem if your situation doesn’t change. For example, if you keep working for the same company year after year, your residence permit should be renewed as a matter of course. (Please also read our guide on German work permits for more information on how to enter Germany for employment.)
The following article solely focuses on the available types of residence permits. Furthermore, it explains how to register with the local authorities after you’ve moved to Germany.
All foreign residents from non-EU member states need a residence permit for planned stays longer than 90 days, regardless of their country of origin. A short-term visa for visitors can only be extended under special circumstances, e.g. if you fall seriously ill before your intended date of departure.
Usually, you have to apply for a visa plus a residence permit (and work permit, if necessary) at an embassy or consulate. Nationals from a few selected countries can also obtain these after arriving in Germany. There are just a few exceptions to this rule, especially for asylum seekers and political refugees. Obviously, they don’t have to go through the regular application process via a diplomatic mission.
For a typical expat moving to Germany, the following kinds of residence permits might be of interest: the temporary residence permit, the Blue Card, the EC long-term residence permit, and the permanent settlement permit.
A temporary residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) is the most common type. It’s generally valid for one year. How often it has to be renewed strongly depends on your employment status, your occupation, and your nationality. For example, a US expatriate who has an unlimited job contract with a company based in Germany may receive a permit that needs to be renewed after three years. However, if the same person only has a limited employment contract for the next two years, their residence permit will run out after around two years as well.
As long as your personal situation doesn’t change, the renewal of your residence permit is mostly a formality. However, if you change employers, lose your job, separate from your spouse, etc., all this can impact your residence status. In such cases, it’s best to contact the local Ausländerbehörde (Aliens Registration Office) immediately. You can also consult an immigration lawyer for further advice.
The EU Blue Card is a temporary residence permit plus work permit for highly-qualified employees. It’s easier to apply for than a regular employment visa. At the moment, you need a university degree and a confirmed job offer with an annual salary of EUR 47,600 or more. Expats working in engineering, IT, medical care, or the natural sciences may also qualify for a Blue Card if they earn at least EUR 37,128 per year. An EU Blue Card is normally valid for up to four years. The spouses of Blue Card holders are allowed to live and work in Germany, too. Moreover, it’s easier for expatriates with Blue Cards to obtain a permanent settlement permit.
Most foreign residents can apply for a permanent residence permit – a “settlement permit” (Niederlassungserlaubnis) – after five years. Some people may get it sooner: For example, if you are a non-EU national married to a German citizen, you could file your application for a settlement permit after three years. If you have graduated from a German university and hold a temporary residence permit for paid employment, you can even submit your application after two years.
However, you need to fulfill various other conditions: You have to prove some basic knowledge of the German language, Germany’s political system, and German society. Moreover, you need to show that you are able to earn a living and that you have made financial contributions to Germany’s national pension plan for five years. Proof of accommodation is also required.
In a few rare cases, a permanent residence permit is granted at once. For instance, highly qualified people, such as academic teaching and research staff, and scholars, can receive a settlement permit immediately if they can financially support themselves and have adapted well to the local culture.
The so-called “EU long-term residence permit” is almost identical to the German settlement permit. It was mostly introduced to comply with a new EU directive. However, if you obtain the EU long-term residence permit in Germany, this allows you to move to other EU member states. Unlike people with a regular residence permit or settlement permit, you receive full access to the labor market and social security schemes in the European Union.
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