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The Burning Issue

What you need to know about Germany’s new citizenship laws

From June 27th, more relaxed laws for German citizenship will take effect, but long waiting times and understaffed offices could mean that you won't be getting that passport any time soon.

Illustration: Andrew Berry

For any Ausländer living in Berlin, there are plenty of moments one might daydream about landing a German passport: perhaps while spending long hours refreshing the Ausländerbehörde’s website hunting for impossible-to-score visa appointments, maybe while anxiously waiting for a residency permit to arrive, or possibly while eyeing the latest elections and wishing to weigh in.

The path to that German Reisepass is about to get a bit simpler and a lot speedier come June 27 – theoretically speaking, at least – when a long-awaited landmark reform to Germany’s citizenship laws finally kicks into full effect. Significantly shorter residency periods and a default rule allowing immigrants to keep their old passports as dual citizens should prompt a whole flood of foreigners to apply, while older immigrants who came to Germany in the Gastarbeiter (“guest worker”) generation will see relaxed language requirements.

In Berlin, one in four residents aren’t citizens.

Instead of waiting eight years to apply, most foreigners will be able to put in for German citizenship after just five years of residency in the country, or as few as three years for those with “special integration achievements” (exactly what that means remains a bit vague, but C1 German language skills, extensive volunteer work or a socially important job have been cited as examples).

Start polishing up your Deutsch (for almost everyone, at least B1 competency remains required) and getting your documents in order, because in Berlin, where one in four residents aren’t citizens, the implications of these new rules should be significant.

Application overload

This being Germany, of course, the devil’s in the details – or, in this case, buried deep underneath all the paperwork. A pile of citizenship applications have already stacked up in recent years, as understaffed offices struggle to keep up with growing numbers of people seeking to become German.

Waiting times of two years or longer to file an application and actually receive citizenship are not uncommon. So despite some chatter about “Turbo-Citizenship” after just three years of living in Germany, don’t expect to receive an actual passport anywhere near that fast.

The devil’s in the details – or, in this case, buried deep underneath all the paperwork.

Berlin already has a backbreaking backlog of more than 40,000 applications, but the government seems tentatively prepared for the docupocalypse. In hopes of cutting down on massive bureaucratic delays, the city rolled out its own major overhaul of immigration bureaucracy at the start of the year, creating a new central naturalisation office within the Landesamt für Einwanderung (“Immigration Office”) or LEA; previously, staff at each local Bezirk administration were responsible for handling applications.

Photo: IMAGO / Photothek

The goal is to launch the Einbürgerung, or naturalisation process, here in Berlin into hyperdrive. In 2021 and 2022, just shy of 9,000 people each year managed to get citizenship in Berlin, while the backlog of pending paper applications piled up around the city, some of them dating as far back as 2014.

The official goal for the new agency? Granting German passports to at least 20,000 people every year. “Our goal is a maximum processing time of six months,” Wiebke Gramm, who heads up the naturalisation service at Berlin’s LEA, told reporters back in January during a tour of their new offices, according to the Berliner Morgenpost.

And – stop the presses – the process is now available with 21st-century technology. A new fully-online application system – and a “quick check” questionnaire to determine eligibility – is supposed to eliminate the need for time-consuming consultation appointments with the civil servants handling applications. Required documents like language certificates and citizenship test results can also be uploaded online.

The office remains short-staffed, with 70 of the 172 positions still unfilled.

Those familiar with the Landesamt für Einwanderung – where until recently faxes remained among the more efficient ways to get a response – might be sceptical. And the transition hasn’t exactly been smooth and pleasant: some local Bezirk offices stopped accepting new applications for citizenship months ahead of the switch.

Simply scanning and uploading the tens of thousands of pending paper files is expected to take until June, a spokesman told Tagesspiegel in early April. Things could speed up in the long run – but the huge backlog and a crush of eager new applicants spurred on once the reforms kick in could mean things stay a slog for a while. The same spokesman reported that Berlin’s office is expecting as many as 30,000 new applications over the course of the year. Do the maths and you realise that the bureaucrats won’t be digging themselves out from under all that paperwork anytime soon.

Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

How might they get it done? According to Tagesspiegel, between 600 and 700 people were granted citizenship in the city through the first three months of the year. That processing rate is expected to pick up over the course of April and hit about 480 per week, but the office remains short-staffed, with 70 of the 172 positions still unfilled. So it’s possible they’ll hit that 20K goal, but the jury is still out.

As much as residents here might like to bellyache about the Berlin agencies, the backlogs are hardly a purely local issue. Almost everywhere in Germany, a creaky and understaffed bureaucracy has been hit by an entirely predictable jump in the number of people applying for citizenship as immigration to the country has risen – and that’s even before the upcoming reforms hit the books.

People who arrived in 2015, amid the record-breaking wave of more than 2.1 million refugees and other immigrants, began reaching the eight-year mark to qualify for naturalisation under current law. In 2022, 168,000 people were naturalised in Germany, more than at any time in the last 20 years – and that record is likely to be smashed under the new rules.

A debate hits home

These naturalisation reforms are just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle in German politics over immigration, belonging and just who should count as a German. They passed early this year despite vehement opposition from the right-wing CDU/CSU bloc, who expressed fears that the sped-up timelines and default Doppelpass would somehow cheapen the value of the German passport – currently tied for second on the 2024 Global Passport Power Rank – and allow people who haven’t committed to laying down roots in the country claim citizenship.


During debate in the Bundestag, the CDU’s Alexander Throm claimed that the reforms were the proposal “with the most far-reaching negative consequences” to come from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition, and that the short timelines are “far too quick”.

Germany has long relied on immigrant workers to keep the economy humming, but has been less sure about whether those foreigners – and their families – deserve a permanent place in German society. West Germany sought only temporary Gastarbeiter in the 1960s and 1970s, in schemes that envisioned those immigrant labourers heading back to their home countries instead of putting down roots (even as the West German constitution guaranteed automatic citizenship to ethnic Germans moving west from the Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic and East Germany).

The government seems tentatively prepared for the docupocalypse.

The last major overhaul of German citizenship law came in 2000, under the previous left-wing Social Democrat-led government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. That law (controversial at the time) reduced the waiting period from an astounding 15 years down to the current eight. It also allowed children born in Germany to immigrant parents to claim German citizenship if at least one parent had been legally living in the country for at least eight years.

Despite these steps, many conservative politicians have consistently rejected the idea that Germany would ever be a country of immigrants. Former CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl called for Turkish immigrants to “remigrate” back to Turkey during the 1980s, trying to tempt them to leave the country by offering lump-sum refunds on their pension contributions.

Current Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, a Social Democrat who championed the latest reforms, argued that the changes are “about us adopting a different Willkommenskultur and seeing ourselves as a country of immigration”. German law needs to appreciate immigrants “who come to the country and contribute to the functioning of society”, she said. Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed that sentiment: “With the new citizenship law, we are saying to all those who have often lived and worked in Germany for decades, who abide by our laws, who are at home here: you belong to Germany.”

The current coalition, having noticed the major shortages of skilled workers across much of the economy, also hope that a swifter path to dual citizenship might help entice sought-after immigrants to move to Germany.

Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Though, ironically, even before the reform passed, a majority of people who naturalised in Germany were already allowed to keep dual citizenship, either because they were from elsewhere in the EU or because they come from countries that don’t allow renouncing (including, among other places, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Argentina).

The Turkish Community in Germany, a Kreuzberg-based advocacy group, forecast 50,000 Turkish citizens would apply for dual citizenship this year once the law goes into effect. “And I assume that in the long term, all 1.5 million citizens of Turkish origin in Germany who do not yet have German citizenship will acquire dual citizenship,” the group’s chairman, Gökay Sofuoglu, told the RND news agency.

“If word gets around about what the new law says, the number of applications for naturalisation will increase continuously,” he said. “Many will realise that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.” Ultimately, the change promises big things for Berliners: a huge number of people who have been living here, paying taxes, working and learning German (or at least attempting) could be recognised for their efforts in a way no German could refute, one hideous biometric photo later.

So if you’ve been here for a while, start drilling yourself on your der die das. We’re told that for the citizenship test, they stick you at a crosswalk with a red Ampelmann on a deserted street and see what happens next.