The Evolution of German Citizenship Law

John Michaud

AGI/Halle Foundation Intern

John L. Michaud is a research intern at AGI for the spring of 2022. He provides writing and research support to AGI's programs, monitors the media, documents meetings and events, and assists with database management.

Mr. Michaud is pursuing an MA in International Affairs at American University, with a focus on U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic relations. He has completed coursework on topics including U.S. security strategy, foreign policy institutions, and nationalism. In the summer of 2023, he will spend a semester at Freie Universität Berlin, where he hopes to solidify his German language skills and gain a better understanding of German and European perspectives on security policy.

Mr. Michaud graduated from the University of Virginia with a BA in Foreign Affairs and minor in German. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester studying the European Union in Freiburg, Germany. Prior to graduate school, he worked at National Journal, where he led a research team dedicated to profiling top policymakers in Washington and beyond. He grew up just outside of the Beltway in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Over the past three decades, German citizenship law has evolved from a largely jus sanguinis (“right of blood”) system with a high bar for naturalization to something closer to jus soli (“right of soil”), with birth citizenship open to German-born children of foreign nationals, reduced residency requirements for naturalization, and more opportunity for dual citizenship. Reforms have also opened German citizenship to more victims of previous persecution and injustice. The ruling Ampelkoalition (traffic light coalition) government is pursuing further reforms that would further reduce the residency requirement for naturalization and allow most people to keep their prior citizenship.

Who can be a German citizen?

Prior to 2000, German citizenship was mostly governed by a simple rule: das Abstammungsprinzip (jus sanguinis).  Children born with at least one German parent acquired German citizenship. Children born in Germany to two non-German parents did not automatically become German citizens. Naturalization required fifteen years of lawful residence in Germany.

This changed for the first time in 2000 after the Bundestag added the Geburtortsprinzip (jus soli) for children born to foreign parents in Germany. Provided that at least one parent had legally lived in Germany for eight years and had a right to permanent residency, a child would acquire German citizenship at birth—but would need to choose between Germany and the citizenship of their parents’ country at age eighteen. This requirement to choose is known as the Optionspflicht. The 2000 reform also reduced the number of years of residency in Germany required for naturalization from fifteen to eight.

In 2014, the Bundestag removed the Optionspflicht for children born in Germany to foreign parents if they had lived in Germany for at least eight years or fulfilled certain education requirements. These children would no longer need to choose between citizenships and could remain citizens of Germany and their parents’ home country.

In 2021, the Bundestag voted to make more people eligible for Wiedergutmachungseinbürgerung, or atonement naturalization. Since 1949, people who had their German citizenship revoked by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945 and their descendants have been able to claim German citizenship. The reform expanded this right to more people who lost or were denied German citizenship due to Nazi persecution—for example, because they fled Germany and took a foreign citizenship. It also gave people born after 1949 who had a German parent but were excluded from German citizenship under previous rules a ten-year window to claim citizenship. This includes people whose mothers lost German citizenship through marriage to a foreigner.

What are the requirements for naturalization?

To qualify for naturalization (Einbürgerung), applicants must meet a series of requirements related to residency, society, language, and loyalty. They must have lived in Germany legally and regularly for eight years, have a right to permanent residence, and be financially self-sufficient. They are required to possess an adequate knowledge of German language and society, the latter demonstrated by passing a thirty-three question Einbürgerungstest. They must not have a criminal conviction or be married to multiple people. They must promise to respect the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany. Generally, acquiring German citizenship through naturalization requires an applicant to relinquish their other citizenship(s).

What about dual and multiple citizenship?

Germans born with multiple citizenships can keep them permanently. Since 2014, this has also applied to Germans born to non-German parents (Ius-Soli-Deutsche) and raised in Germany, who were previously subject to the Optionspflicht.

To become a naturalized citizen of another country and keep German citizenship, Germans living abroad must apply for a Beibehaltungsgenehmigung, or permission to retain German citizenship. The German government grants this permission on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the Bundesverwaltungsamt (BVA, Federal Office of Administration). The applicant must explain how the foreign citizenship would help them avoid or overcome specific disadvantages in that country—economic and career justifications are taken most seriously—and demonstrate an ongoing connection to Germany through family, social, and other relationships. In general, the BVA has become stricter in recent years as the number of applications has risen. Once granted and received by the applicant, a Beibehaltungsgenehmigung gives them a two-year window to acquire foreign citizenship while keeping German citizenship. If foreign citizenship is acquired outside of this two-year window, German citizenship is automatically lost.

What are some exceptions to the rules?

Ius-Soli-Deutsche whose parents are either Swiss or European Union citizens are not subject to the Optionspflicht—that is, they can grow up outside of Germany without later needing to choose between citizenships. Germans who become naturalized citizens of Switzerland or a European Union country do not automatically lose their German citizenship.

People who seek naturalization in Germany are generally required to give up their prior citizenship. However, this does not apply to Swiss and European Union citizens. Israeli citizens who go through “discretionary naturalization” may keep their Israeli citizenship. Refugees may apply for citizenship after six years in Germany—instead of the normal eight—and may generally keep their prior citizenship. There are also exceptions for people whose home countries have “unreasonable” requirements to give up citizenship, or do not allow it at all. The latter list includes twenty-five countries, among them Afghanistan and Syria. Last year, the German government suspended this requirement for Ukrainian citizens, as the war-consumed Ukrainian government had stopped processing citizenship renunciations.

Certain groups, including children and spouses, can be naturalized after shorter periods of time in Germany. Older people may be exempt from language and knowledge requirements, based on a medical evaluation.

What are the proposed reforms? What do the other parties have to say?

In their coalition agreement, the Ampelkoalition—the Social Democrats, Free Democrats, and Greens—committed to creating a “modern nationality law,” including a quicker path to naturalization. In November 2022, German media reported that a draft reform law was nearly finished. The draft from the Bundesinnenministerium (BMI, Federal Ministry of the Interior), under the leadership of SPD politician Nancy Faeser, would reduce the number of years of German residence required for naturalization from eight to five and eliminate the Optionspflicht. Children born to foreign parents who have lived in Germany for five years would acquire citizenship at birth. As a rule, most people would be allowed to naturalize and keep their prior citizenship. Additionally, people older than sixty-seven would be exempt from the language and test requirements for naturalization—a recognition that Turkish immigrants of the Gastarbeiter Generation (guest worker generation) received little institutional support for integration when they arrived in Germany.

Within the coalition, leaders of the SPD and Greens have voiced strong support for the proposal, emphasizing the importance of citizenship as both a matter of equality and responsibility for people living in Germany. Chancellor Scholz has proclaimed that those who live and work in Germany “for good” should “be a part of our country, with all of the rights and responsibilities that belong to that.” Faeser has promoted an economic argument, warning that Germany faces an exacerbated Arbeitskräftemangel (workforce shortage) if more workers do not settle in the country. In a parliamentary debate on the proposal, the Green Party’s parliamentary chief executive Irene Mihalic characterized Germany as a “migration land” and said that citizenship is about having the chance to contribute equally to the success of the community. Further, she called it “insufferable” to question the loyalty of dual citizens to the federal republic.

However, members of the FDP have criticized both the timing and content of the draft. In an interview, FDP parliamentary group vice-chair Konstantin Kuhle said that the coalition parties must first agree on who should be allowed into Germany before discussing an easier path to naturalization. During parliamentary debate in December, he stated that a reform of citizenship law must be accompanied by the “repatriation offensive” also referenced in the coalition agreement. Additionally, the FDP would like to ensure that dual citizens cannot pass down their status to the next generation.

The other parties in the Bundestag are divided on the Ampel’s reforms. The left-wing Die Linke party has welcomed the reforms as matter of democracy, noting that over 10 million adults in Germany cannot vote because of their citizenship status. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has argued that the reforms would hurt integration and lead to “loyalty conflicts” for people with dual citizenship. Some members of the party have gone so far as to call them a “Verramschen“ (selling off) of German citizenship. The far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), known for its strident opposition to immigration, released a counter-reform that would eliminate birth citizenship for children of non-German parents and severely limit naturalization.

Faeser has defended her decision to release the draft proposal and expressed optimism that the coalition parties will come to an agreement. In January 2023, the BMI circulated a draft of the reforms to the other departments for their approval. Faeser has previously indicated that she would like to implement the reforms by summer, but without unity in the Ampel coalition it is unclear when the Bundestag would be able to pass them. Potentially complicating matters, Faeser is simultaneously running for the position of minister president (Ministerpräsidentin) in Hesse, where she served as a lawmaker for eighteen years and led the SPD in the state parliament.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.