Study abroad in Germany: German universities

Study abroad in Germany: German universities

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To study abroad in Germany, learn about the top German universities, required qualifications, how to apply, fees, scholarships, accommodation and student life.

If you want to study abroad in some of the world's best universities in Germany, you will find many opportunities for international students.

Germany is an increasingly popular choice for international students who want to study abroad. There is a plethora of world-class universities spread right across Germany, more and more courses are taught in English, and most universities don’t charge undergraduate tuition fees.

Top universities in Germany

Germany has a high number of world-class universities. There are 42 universities in the QS World University Rankings 2014-15, which is more than any other country after the United States and the United Kingdom. There are 28 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15 top 400, with six in the top 100: Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (29), University of Gottingen (67), Heidelberg University (70), Humboldt University of Berlin (80), Free University of Berlin (81), and the Technical University of Munich (98).

Higher education in Germany

There are more than 2.5 million students enrolled in German universities and more than a quarter of a million of these are international students. About 85 percent of these students arrange to study in Germany themselves while the remaining 15 percent come to Germany on exchange programmes. Additionally, some 15 percent of TU9 top technological universities in Germany are international students.

In September 2014, all tuition fees for undergraduate courses at state universities were abolished for international students as well as German students. The German government continues to invest large sums – EUR 2.4bn approved in the last two years alone – in its higher education institutions as part of its Excellence Initiative and has a focus on technology.

There are around 450 state accredited universities in Germany, offering more than 17,500 programmes, including more than 1,000 courses taught in English. You can search for university courses in Germany.

The academic year is divided into two semesters at German universities, generally from September/October to February/March and then March/April to August/September. Dates vary from university to university.

Types of universities in Germany

There are state-funded and private universities in Germany, including universities, universities of applied science, and colleges of art, film and music. Some universities were founded back in the Middle Ages, while others were established after World War II.

The majority of universities in Germany are state-funded and the responsibility of individual states (länder). Most German students go to state universities. About 5 percent of universities are private but recognised by the state and are usually universities of applied sciences, which have strong links with industry and an international focus. A few universities are run by either the Protestant or Catholic church and usually specialise in specific subjects, like social work, education and, obviously, theology. Some information about private universities can be found at www.private-hochschulen.net (in German).

Qualifications awarded in Germany

Almost all Germany’s courses are now the two-cycle Bachelor/Master courses, following the Bologna ECTS (European Credit Transfer and accumulation System). Some technical and engineering courses still award a Diplom (four to six years, includes the equivalent of post-graduate education), while medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, food chemistry and some teaching degrees are Staatsexamen. Note that the degrees offered by some private universities in Germany may only be recognised internationally if the university itself is officially recognised by the German government.

The Bologna ECTS is recognised within all the countries making up the European Higher Education Area (EHEA):

  • Grado – Bachelor’s, three to four years, 240 ECTS. 
  • Posgrado – Master’s, one to two years, 60–120 ECTS.
  • Doctorado – PhD, three to five years, 60 ECTS.


Under the ECTS, one credit corresponds to the student workload required to successfully complete the course modules, and these credits can be accumulated and transferred.

Study abroad in Germany

Study exchange programmes and scholarships in Germany

German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst or DAAD) is a funding organisation for the international exchange of students and researchers, with a global network of offices and information centres. You can search for scholarships through the DAAD scholarship database.

Also see the website of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung or BMBF) for information.

The EU funds international students to study in Germany through its Erasmus+ programme. US students can take part in the German-American Fulbright exchange programme. You can check exchange programmes and scholarships opportunities with individual universities in Germany or in your home country.

Student visas and permits to study in Germany

If you’re a citizen of an EU/EEA country or Switzerland, you don’t need a visa or German residence permit to live and study in Germany. However, if your stay will be longer than three months, you must register with your the registration office, Einwohnermeldeamt or Bürgeramt, in your area. Read more in our guide for EU/EEA/Swiss citizens moving to Germany.

If you’re from Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea or the United States you can also come to Germany without a visa and register at the local Residents’ Registration Office and the Aliens’ Registration Office (Ausländeramt) to get a German residence permit after your arrival. 

Students from Andorra, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Monaco and San Marino only need a visa if they want to work before or after their studies.

Everyone else will need to arrange a visa via the Germany embassy in their home country. Read more information in Expatica's guide to German student visas and permits.

All students should be able to prove that they have sufficient funds to support themselves during their course, hold health insurance valid in Germany, and may also be asked to prove German language skills.

Applying to a German university

You can apply for most courses directly through the universities or through the University Application Service for International Students (uni-assist) which is run by the German Student Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). If you want to apply to any of the 169 uni-assist member universities on this list you have to apply online through uni-assit. Places are limited on some courses, such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy and other life sciences, and you have to apply through the Foundation for Higher Education Admissions.

Always check procedures and deadlines with individual universities; as well as varying between different universities they can also vary between degree courses and whether or not you are from the EU/EEA/Switzerland.

Qualifications needed to study in Germany

If you hold either the German Arbitur or a European higher education entrance qualification that would allow you to enter university in your home country (eg. British A Levels, European Baccalaureate) you can apply directly to a German university and start your degree. You may need to prove you can speak German and there may be other requirements, depending on your country of origin. You can find out about special requirements for students from different countries on the uni-assist admissions database.

If you have qualifications from outside Europe, you may be asked to go on a one-year Studienkolleg course at a university, which focuses on different core subjects and ends in a Feststellungsprüfung assessment of your suitability for a degree course. If you pass, you can then go on to study for a degree in that subject area anywhere in Germany. You can find out more about Studienkolleg courses here. Your qualifications also influence whether you can study any subject or only subjects in specific fields.

Some universities offer students who have been accepted onto a degree course a place on a preparatory course called a propädeutikum. Usually lasting one semester, these courses prepare students for study in their chosen area in Germany and may include information on degree course content, German teaching methods and language skills.

Language skills for admission to German university

Most undergraduate courses will be taught in German although there are some courses taught in English, and English-language Master’s courses are quite common especially in business-related subjects and social sciences. Check the language requirements with the university before applying.

While very few universities will accept students with no prior knowledge of German, language requirements do vary from place to place. Some require only a small amount of German; others a lot. Some universities offer language courses for students but not all. You may need to take a private language course to reach the standard before applying to your chosen university, or take a pre-study language course lasting one semester and ending with a DSH exam (a DSH 2 certificate will allow you onto a degree course).

Cost of studying in Germany

Since September 2014, tuition fees for undergraduates at state have been abolished, although some states charge fees, usually around EUR 500 per semester, for ‘long-term students’, ie. those who exceed the standard period of study by more than four semesters. Master’s degrees are usually free for students who have completed a bachelor’s degree at a German university within the past two years, otherwise they can cost around EUR 2,000 per semester. PhDs are usually free.

Private universities continue to charge and set their own tuition fees for all students and can charge up to around EUR 20,000 per year for undergraduates and EUR 30,000 per year for Master’s degrees.

The Federal Student Financial Aid Programme (Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz or BAföG) offers grants and loans primarily to German and EU students but occasionally those from elsewhere. You can ask the Student Services Organisation (Studentenwerk) for help to apply.

Every student in Germany also has to pay semester fees at the beginning of each semester. These fees are for the student union, student administration and sometimes for tickets on local transport. The amount varies between universities but is typically between EUR 100–250. 

Study abroad in Germany

Student accommodation in Germany

German universities do not automatically organise accommodation for students – it’s up to you to sort out. There will be university halls of residence in every university town. Rooms will be cheap – around EUR 240 per month – conveniently located and, as a result, in great demand. Around 40 percent of international students live in halls of residence. You can look for a hall of residence here. You’ll need to apply as soon as you receive your notice of admission from the university. You can apply though the Student Services Organisation Studentenwerk

If you don’t want to stay in a student residence you can rent a room in a shared apartment – expect to pay around EUR 280 per month. Look on university notice boards, through the Studentenwerk room exchange scheme or on the Internet:www.wg-gesucht.de , www.studenten-wg.de, www.wgfinden.de and www.wg-cast.de.

For private apartments, check out www.immobilienscout24.de, www.immowelt.de and www.immonet.de.

Working while studying in Germany

If you’re from the EU/EEA/Switzerland you can work without restriction or a work permit, although if you work more than 20 hours per week you’ll have to start paying into the German social security system.

If you’re from any other country, you can work for 120 full days or 240 half days per year, unless you’re working as a research/student assistant at the university when there’s no limit. You do have to inform the Alien Registration Office in your area if you work. Paid or unpaid internships during holidays count as normal work and will be deducted from your 120 days; internships required by your degree are not. If you break the rules, you may face severe penalties.

Read where to find a job in Germany. You can also look for work on the notice board on campus or on the university website. Your chances of finding work are better if you speak German.

Tips on German student life

As most major cities have their own excellent university, many German students go to the nearest university and return home at weekends, so student life can be quiet at those times.

Workloads can be heavy and students work hard. Students report that there is an atmosphere that education is for everyone regardless of background and an enthusiasm for learning for learning’s sake rather than to merely get a job at the end of it. Having said that German degrees are highly respected worldwide and if you stay in Germany your chances of employment are high. You can apply for an 18-month residence permit to stay in Germany to look for work. Read more about German work permits.

Living expenses are cheaper than other European countries, although cities like Munich and Berlin are more expensive than other German cities. Allow around EUR 750 per month for rent, travel, food, books, health insurance, phone, clothing and entertainment.

List of top German universities and institutions

Baden-Wüerttemberg


Bavaria (including Munich)


Berlin


Bremen


Hamburg


Hesse


North Rhine-Westphalia


Lower Saxony


Rhineland-Palatinate


Saarland


Saxony


Saxony-Anhalt


Schleswig-Holstein


Thuringia


Useful links


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Updated 2012; July 2015.

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