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How can you immigrate to Germany?

Is Germany a country of immigration? This question has long been controversial in this country. It is only recently, and only in view of the number of asylum seekers and refugees who have come here, that many people have begun to regard the Federal Republic as a country of immigration. This late insight is astonishing, because around 16 million people with a migration background live in this country. These people have either immigrated themselves or are descendants of migrants in the last few decades (see info box).

In the current discussion about refugees coming here, there is often no clear distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers. Different legal rules apply to each of these groups, such as the Immigration Act for migrant workers (see info box).

Post-war migration

Since the end of World War II, two large waves of immigration to Germany can be identified: Shortly after the end of the war, many ethnic German repatriates immigrated from Eastern Europe and Russia. From the 1950s onwards, migrant workers came from southern Europe, from Italy, Spain or Greece, for example. Workers also came to Germany from Turkey through recruitment agreements between their home countries and the Federal Republic. And their relatives often also traveled with the migrants in the course of family reunification. Labor migration from southern Europe ended with the 1973 oil crisis. After that, there were hardly any legal ways to enter Germany as a migrant and to settle here. Legal opportunities did not arise again until 2000, when the then red-green federal government launched the Green Card for computer specialists, and then in 2005 with the Immigration Act (see text opposite).

Immigration to Germany: What does the Immigration Act regulate?

Although the Immigration Act came into force in 2005, only a few people know it. The Immigration Act defines central rules by means of which migrants can immigrate to Germany and work here. At least highly qualified migrants whose qualifications are in demand on the German labor market can immigrate through it.

Central parts of the Immigration Act are the Residence Act and the Employment Ordinance.

Immigration to Germany: different rules for EU citizens and citizens from third countries?

The possibilities to immigrate as a migrant worker and to work here differ depending on the origin of the migrants: EU citizens have different legal rules than people from third countries, i.e. from countries outside the EU.

How can you immigrate to Germany as an EU citizen?

EU citizens and their families do not need a visa to enter Germany, nor do they have to apply for a residence permit or a work permit.

This also applies to citizens of Switzerland and the European Economic Area (EEA). Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland belong to the EEA.

The EU right of free movement allows every member of a member state of the EU to stay in Germany with their family for up to three months.

"If Union citizens stay in Germany for more than three months, they have to meet certain criteria: For example, they have to work, be self-employed or at least look for a job," says lawyer Thomas Oberhäuser, chairman of the Migration Law Working Group in the German Lawyers' Association (DAV).

If EU citizens are looking for a job but haven't found one yet, they can stay in the country for up to six months.

EU citizens who are not gainfully employed are allowed to stay in Germany for a longer period of time, but then have to take out health insurance themselves and make their own living. This also applies to students and retirees.

EU citizens: what are the rules when looking for a job?

The German labor market is unrestrictedly open to EU citizens. However, depending on the profession they practice, they must pass a qualification test. This means: German authorities check the professional qualifications of EU citizens, compare them with German qualifications and, in the best case, recognize them as equivalent. Recognition as equivalent to German qualifications is the prerequisite for EU citizens to be able to work in the profession they have learned in this country.

EU citizens and recognition of professional qualifications: do you have to have every professional qualification recognized?

No. EU citizens only need to go through this process of verification and recognition of their professional qualifications for certain professional qualifications. Professions such as midwives, nurses or architects are excluded from this procedure, because every member state of the EU automatically recognizes such professional qualifications.

Do EU citizens receive social benefits in Germany?

Anyone who does not work in Germany, is self-employed or is entitled to basic security or Hartz IV benefits because they previously worked here will not receive any social benefits in the first five years of their stay. This includes Hartz IV benefits or social assistance. However, those affected can receive so-called bridging benefits for a maximum of one month until they leave the country.

Immigration from third countries: do you need a visa?

If you want to enter Germany from the following countries, you do not need a visa: Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, USA.

All other citizens from countries outside the EU need a permit, i.e. a visa, to enter the country. Migrants must apply for a visa in their country of origin at one of the German embassies or consulates general.

With the visa, migrants can stay in Germany for up to three months.

Academics can apply for a job search visa, which is valid for six months. Academics have to take care of themselves during this time and are not allowed to work. If they find a job during this time, they have to apply for a residence permit.

Immigration from countries outside the EU: do you need a residence permit?

If you want to stay longer in Germany, you have to apply for a residence permit in addition to your visa. In most cases, the residence title is initially limited in time and issued for a specific purpose of residence, such as gainful employment, studies or training. Anyone who receives a residence permit for employment does not need a work permit.

Immigration from third countries: what kind of residence permits are there?

The Residence Act has two titles: the residence permit (limited) and the settlement permit (unlimited). In addition, EU directives provide for an EU Blue Card (limited) and a permit for permanent EU residence (unlimited).

Immigration from third countries: when do you get a residence permit?

Whoever wants to obtain a residence permit must meet a number of criteria; “You have to have a passport and a visa for a specific purpose,” says Oberhäuser. "You also have to be able to make a living yourself and must not have committed a criminal offense."

The authorities only issue residence permits for apprenticeships, studies or to pursue gainful employment if study or apprenticeship positions are available or the migrant's professional qualifications are in demand on the German labor market.

Skilled workers must have a job offer and the Federal Employment Agency must allow them to work. This is always the case when skilled workers are working in a "bottleneck occupation", i.e. a profession in which there is a shortage of skilled workers.

Academics can get an EU Blue Card if they have a job offer and earn at least 48,400 euros per year. For scientists, mathematicians, engineers or doctors, the annual salary is slightly lower. There are also other residence permits, depending on the professional skills of the migrants.

Immigration Act: Does it also apply to low-skilled migrants?

These examples make it clear: Well-qualified foreigners can immigrate to Germany without any problems. "But it looks completely different with low-skilled workers," says attorney Oberhäuser. "For this group, the immigration law offers too few rules according to which they are allowed to settle here."

Another problem is that migrants can hardly obtain a residence permit if they are already in the country but entered the country with a “wrong” or even without a visa. The German right of residence hardly allows such a change of status. An example: “Anyone who has applied for asylum must usually leave the country before they can claim a residence permit for another purpose of residence,” says Thomas Oberhäuser. "For example, you are not entitled to a residence permit to work."