Getting a work permit in Germany is vital for expats who want to live and work in the country, and aren’t from the EU/EEA or Switzerland.
Depending on where you’re from, and how long you want to stay, you may be required to get a visa and a residence permit for employment purposes.
There are different types of residence permits depending on what kind of work you want to do. It’s important to apply for the right permit or else you may end up breaking the law.
You may also find our guide to all German visas and permits useful.
This guide brought to you with immigration lawyers Schlun & Elseven covers the following:
- Working in Germany
- What is the difference between a work visa and a work permit in Germany?
- Work permits in Germany
- Types of work permit in Germany
- Applying for work permit in Germany
- Changing or renewing work permits in Germany
- Costs of work permits in Germany
- Working without a work permit in Germany
- Useful resources
Schlun & Elseven
Schlun & Elseven are a well-established law firm offering clear and professional legal advice for expats moving to Germany. Whether you're a graduate, entrepreneur or parent with a young family, their dedicated team can provide help and assistance for all your German work permit needs.
Working in Germany as a foreigner
According to the OECD, Germany’s immigrant workforce stands at 36.5 million people – one of the highest in the world. The majority of these workers come from other EU countries.
Recent data shows that many of these people are skilled workers; more than 60% of EU immigrants either have a university degree or have completed vocational training.
However, there are opportunities for low-skilled workers, too. In 2017, 22,800 low-skilled workers from non-EU countries moved to Germany after securing a firm job offer.
Many of these workers have been helped by the ‘Western Balkan’ ruling, put into place by the EU. This has supported those from countries such as Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia to find work in EU countries.
As the country’s baby boomer generation moves into retirement, it’s likely the expat workforce will increase to support Germany’s aging population.
That being said, it’s not always easy to get a work visa in Germany if you’re not from the EU/EEA or Swiss. That’s because you need to get a residence permit with work authorization. The extent to which you can work will be detailed on your residence permit.
However, once you’re in, many find that Germany offers a good work-life balance. While the country consistently ranks as one of the world’s most productive, people work an average of just 26.3 hours per week with a minimum of 20 paid vacation days a year.
What is the difference between a work visa and a work permit in Germany?
Work visas and work permits are permissions to reside and work in Germany. The one you need depends on which country you’re from.
- Those from EU and EEA countries, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the USA will need a residence permit for work purposes. This can be applied for after arrival, and you don’t need to already have an employment offer.
- Those from other countries will need a work visa, and must already have this before traveling to Germany. To get this, you must already have a job in place. If you need a work visa, you will also need to get a residence permit once you get to Germany.
Work permits in Germany
German embassies and consulates are responsible for issuing visas and residence permits.
Residence permits and work visas usually feature your photo, and are stuck into your passport. They detail what kind of permit or visa you have, how long you can stay in the country, and whether or not you’re permitted to work.
A Blue Card is a plastic card that’s the same size as a driving license, also featuring your photo. Incidentally, these are multi-colored, not blue!
Types of work permit in Germany
There are different types of work permits and visas, so you’ll need to ensure you apply for the right one.
General employment permit
General employment permits in Germany are for those who work in jobs that don’t require you to be highly educated or highly skilled. You’ll only be eligible if the position cannot be filled by a worker from the EU/EEA or Switzerland. The permit is usually granted for a year and can be extended as long as your situation remains the same.
If your partner or relative has a German work visa
If you’re joining a relative who has permission to work in Germany, you will also be allowed to work.
University graduate permit
Foreign graduates who hold a recognized university degree and have sufficient funds can get a six-month residence permit to look for work (during which time you are not allowed to actually work). If you graduated from a German university, you can extend your existing residence permit for up to 18 months. Once you’ve found work, you can apply for a work permit.
EU Blue Cards
Blue cards are for those with a university degree and a guaranteed job with an income of at least €50,800 – or €39,624 in occupations where there is a shortage of workers. This gives you a four-year residence permit, and means family members can also come to live and work in Germany.
Highly skilled worker permit
If you’re highly skilled or earn more than €84,600 you can apply for a settlement permit. This allows you and your family members to live and work in Germany indefinitely.
Those wanting to undertake professional or industrial training can be granted a residence permit, which also allows you to work up to 10 hours a week. It lasts for two years – or less, if the course lasts less than two years. You can extend it for another year while you seek work. Find out more in our guide to German student visas.
If you want to come to Germany to set up a business, you can apply for a residence permit for self-employed business purposes. This is valid for three years, and can be extended if the business turns out to be successful.
You’ll have to do a lot of work before putting in an application. Firstly, you’ll need to prove that the business will fulfil a need in Germany and benefit its economy. You’ll also need to show a viable business plan, relevant experience, and evidence of business funding.
If you’re over the age of 45, you’ll also need to show evidence of your own pension provision. Those over the age of 67 will need to have enough to guarantee a pension of €1,110 per month. Citizens from a few countries won’t have to provide proof of pension; those from the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the USA are exempt. See our guide to pensions in Germany for more information.
Freelance workers can also apply for a self-employed residence permit. Freelancers are determined as those with catalog professions (Katalogberufe), including those working in science and engineering, the arts, professional writing, teaching, doctors, dentists, or lawyers. You’ll need to provide evidence that there’s a need for your skills in Germany, that you’re qualified and that you can finance yourself.
Scientific researcher permits
To carry out research, you need a host agreement (contract) with a recognized research institute. You’ll also need to show that you are properly qualified and financially secure. The permits last for at least a year, and you’re also allowed to lecture at your recognized institute.
Applying for a work permit in Germany
The responsibility of applying for the visa or permit you need lies with the individual, not your employer. Having said that, some German employers may be able to help make sure your application is successful. For instance, if you’re not from an EU/EEA country, an employer may be able to provide evidence that the job you’ve been offered cannot be done by other German, EU/EEA workers.
The application process for a long-stay German visa can commonly take between one and three months, so make sure you allow plenty of time. The timescale depends on your nationality, whether you already have a job in place and your occupation, and how busy the office is.
Making sure you know about all of the requirements and documents ahead of time will likely make the process quicker.
The documents you’ll need include:
- two fully completed application forms – these should be printed and signed
- two passport photographs
- valid passport
- proof of residence – this can include a diver’s license and/or utility bill
- health insurance certificate – this should be from your German employer. If you don’t have one, you’ll need a European Health Insurance Card, or travel insurance covering the time from entering the country until your employment begins
- employment contract or binding job offer – this should detail your salary and job description
- an up-to-date CV – this should show your academic qualifications and job experience
- proof of qualification – this includes certificates and diplomas
- personal covering letter – this should detail the exact purpose and duration of your stay in Germany
- proof of a clean criminal record
- proof of a paid visa fee – a long-stay German visa costs €75
- declaration of Accuracy of Information
Changing or renewing work permits in Germany
The ease and process of renewing your permit, or changing it if you get a new job – for instance – depends on the type of permit you have.
If your permit specifies a particular company, then moving to a different company would invalidate it.
Similarly, if your right to reside in Germany is tied to your spouse, then getting a divorce may affect your residency permit.
In cases like this, you may need to apply for a different type of permit – either linked to a new job, or on different grounds.
Other kinds of permits, such as the general employment permit or the student permit, aren’t tied to a particular job and can be extended.
To change or renew your permit or visa, you should visit the nearest Foreigner’s Office to where you’re living in Germany.
Costs of work permits in Germany
If you need a work visa to find a job in Germany, you must pay for it as part of the application process.
There’s a flat-rate fee of €75 for all long-stay German visas, however some people may qualify for a reduced price, or can even get the visa for free.
If you’re under the age of 18, a visa is half the price, €37.50, or can sometimes be waived.
The fee can also be waived for:
- those over 18 who are receiving public funding during their stay in Germany
- spouses, children and parents of German citizens
- family members of EU/EEA nationals
- diplomats, plus their spouse and children
- those from countries or categories where Germany has an agreement in place.
If you’ve paid the fee and later have your application rejected, you won’t get a refund.
Working without a work permit in Germany
Working and living in Germany without the correct authorization is a criminal offense, and the consequences can be severe.
As an employee, you can be initially fined up to €5,000. If you’re found to continue the offense, you could be arrested and face up to a year in prison.
It’s worse if you’re found to be residing under a temporary Schengen visa, which is also punishable with up to a year in prison or a fine.
Employers could face fines of up to €500,000. Any employers that repeat the crime, or illegally employ more than five foreigners at once, could be imprisoned for up to three years. There could even be five-year prison sentences for employers who illegally employ foreigners and also subject them to poor working conditions.