Gaining German citizenship through descent and ancestry

Gaining German citizenship through descent and ancestry

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Naturalisation is one of the most common ways people gain German citizenship, but you don’t necessarily have to live in Germany to become German. People with German ancestors can claim German citizenship by descent, although the process isn’t exactly simple. Tim Schlun from Schlun & Elseven Rechtsanwälte explains what you need to know, and why legal assistance can mean the difference between success and failure. 

German citizenship isn’t only useful for those who live in Germany. Gaining German citizenship opens up Germany and the rest of the European Union to you for the purposes of work, study and retirement. 

Similarly, if you need to come to Europe to work, whether short-term or long-term, having German citizenship means you don’t need a visa or residence permit. 

This article outlines the criteria for claiming German citizenship by descent, examines the application process and provides further information about the possibility of acquiring dual citizenship. 

The criteria for claiming German citizenship by descent and ancestry

Eligibility for German citizenship by descent reflects developments in German society and law over the last century, particularly concerning the importance placed on children born in and out of wedlock. 

The law relating to German citizenship by descent revolves primarily around three factors:

  • If the applicant was born in or out of wedlock
  • Their date of birth
  • Whether their mother or father was a German citizen

To be eligible for German citizenship by descent, you need to fit into the following criteria or be a direct descendent of someone who meets these criteria:

Children born in wedlock (born to married parents)

  • You were born before 1975 to a foreign father and a German mother.
  • You were born before 1975 to a German father and a foreign mother. 
  • You were born between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1975 to a German mother and a foreign father. (Note that, under this condition, you can only claim German citizenship if you would be otherwise stateless). 

Children born out of wedlock (born to unmarried parents)

  • You were born after July 1, 1993 to a German father. 
  • You were born before July 1, 1993 to a German father, paternity has been established, you have resided in Germany for at least three years, and you acquire German citizenship by declaration before your 23rd birthday. 

Other grounds for claiming citizenship by descent

If your ancestors had their citizenship taken away under Nazi rule on political, racial or religious grounds between 1933 and 1945, you may also qualify for German citizenship. 

Proving German citizenship by ancestry

It should be noted that proving all of the above criteria can be a complex process. Locating birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other documents can be a lengthy process, especially if you do not speak German. 

If you are committed to becoming a German citizen by your ancestry, consulting with an experienced legal professional is strongly advisable.

Developments in German citizenship law

If you do not fulfil the above criteria, there may be some additional options open to you to claim German citizenship by ancestry, thanks to changes in Germany’s citizenship laws. 

Recently, there have been significant developments in the law relating to German citizenship by descent, with new legislation introduced in August 2021: the Fourth Act Amending the German Nationality Act. This law sought to rebalance issues in the previous rules. 

However, it should be noted that there are specific time limits in place if you seek to claim citizenship by descent according to any of these criteria. The time limit is 10 years starting from when the rules came into force. 

The new law stipulates that you are entitled to German citizenship if: 

  • You were born before 1975 and did not acquire German citizenship because your German mother married your foreign father before your birth and consequently had to forfeit her German nationality. 
  • You were born out of wedlock before July 1993 to a German father and a foreign mother. 
  • You lost your German citizenship through “legitimisation” (i.e. after you were born, your German mother married your foreign father and had to forfeit her nationality). 
  • You are a direct descendant (child or grandchild) of an individual who meets the above criteria. 

Those interested in applying for German citizenship should note that there will likely be more changes to German citizenship rules in the coming years and keeping informed about them is the best way to prepare your application.

The application process for German citizenship by descent and ancestry

If you fit into one of the above-mentioned groups, you can begin the citizenship application process straight away. If you live abroad, you need to submit your application to the German embassy or consulate in your country of residence. It is also possible to apply directly to the German Federal Office of Administration (Bundesverwaltungsamt – BVA).

The application process consists of the following steps:

  1. Download and complete the relevant application forms from the German Federal Office of Administration (BVA) website
  2. Collect the required documents
  3. Submit the documents
  4. Get your case number and wait for an answer
  5. Receive your certificate of acquisition of German citizenship

Having all the necessary documents is essential to a successful application. The processing period can be as long as two to three years, so ensuring that your application has been correctly prepared is critical to ensuring it does not get rejected.

The required documents can vary on a case-by-case basis but usually include:

  • Passport or ID card
  • Documents proving parentage, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates and certificates of descent
  • Certificate of good conduct from your country of residence
  • Proof of impunity - proof you do not have convictions to imprisonment or youth sentences of two or more years or have been subject to preventive detention
  • Proof of possession or loss of German citizenship (if applicable)
  • Proof of acquiring or possessing other citizenships (if applicable)
  • Certificate of name change (if applicable)
  • Proof of custody (if applying with children up to 16 years)

It should be noted that the documents need to be original forms or notarised copies. You may also be required to have your documents officially translated if they are not in German or English. 

Dual citizenship

Germany’s laws and policies have generally prevented dual citizenship, although this is gradually changing over time. Currently, Germany allows dual citizenship for individuals from other European Union countries who acquire citizenship by residency, if that country also allows it. 

In the case of German citizenship by descent, you generally do not need to give up your current nationality by German law. However, it should be noted that although Germany allows for dual citizenship in this case, the other country’s laws may not allow for it. 

Therefore, if you are keen on retaining your current citizenship, you must check this essential matter in advance. 

Dual citizenship is generally a complex business, and it always needs to be researched thoroughly in advance before taking actions that could be damaging. 

Other means of acquiring German citizenship

If you are not eligible for citizenship by ancestry, German citizenship can also be gained by residency, whereby if a person resides in Germany for the required length of time, they can apply for German citizenship. This period is currently eight years of residence, but the federal government has provided indications that they want to reduce this requirement to five years.

Spouses or registered same-sex partners of German citizens are eligible for German citizenship after three years of legal residence in Germany. They need to fulfil the requirements for German citizenship by residency generally and have been married or in a registered partnership for at least two years at the time of application.

Schlun & Elseven Rechtsanwälte specialises in German citizenship applications. Their experienced team takes the guesswork and uncertainty out of the citizenship application process and helps guide you through the complex field of determining eligibility and acquiring dual citizenship. You can use their German citizenship eligibility checker to check your status, or get in touch for additional advice

Aykut  Elseven


Aykut Elseven

Aykut Elseven is a lawyer and partner at Schlun & Elseven. He advises and represents clients in Germany, Europe and worldwide as an expert in immigration and extradition law. In...

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