Rundfunkbeitrag: Germany's TV radio tax and how to pay it (or legally avoid it)

Rundfunkbeitrag: Germany's TV radio tax and how to pay it (or legally avoid it)

With a TV / radio tax price hike on the horizon, we take a look at the German tax everyone loves to hate, asking, what is the Rundfunkbeitrag, who has to pay it, and is there any way to (legally) avoid it? 

What is the Rundfunkbeitrag / ARD ZDF Deutschlandradio Beitragsservice? 

In the words of the Beitragsservice, the public institution in charge of public broadcasters ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio, Germany’s Rundfunkbeitrag is a “legally prescribed contribution for citizens, companies and institutions” to finance the news and entertainment programming produced by public broadcasters, “regardless of their actual media use”. 

By making everybody pay, the government argues, it can ensure that a diverse selection of high-quality programmes is available for all on TV, radio and online, without the need for advertising or commercial networks. Similar contribution services exist elsewhere in the world, for instance the TV licence fee in the UK, or the licence fee in Switzerland

Just a point of clarification before we get any further: although it’s often colloquially referred to as a “TV tax," the Rundfunkbeitrag is not officially considered a tax in Germany. This definition dates back to a 2018 ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court. Responding to lawsuits brought by people who opposed the licence fee, the court ruled that the Rundfunkbeitrag was not a tax - even though it looks very much like one. Instead, it continues to be called the euphemistic “broadcast contribution."

How much does the German TV licence cost?

Up until recently, the German TV licence cost 17,50 euros per month. In August 2021, however, after a protracted dispute that went all the way to the country’s highest court, it was finally agreed that the TV tax would increase by 86 cents to 18,36 euros per month. The new, higher fee will be charged from the end of August 2021. The fee is next due to increase in 2025, when it will rise to 18, 94 euros per month.

Who has to pay the licence fee (Rundfunkgebühr)?

Almost all residents of Germany above the age of 18 are liable to pay the licence fee. When you register in Germany, your details will be passed on to the Beitragsservice, who within a few days or weeks will write to you and inform you of your contribution obligations. 

However, it’s important to note that the German TV licence fee is charged per household. The rule is: one dwelling equals one fee. So, the charge is 18,36 euros per month, no matter whether you’re a one-person household with just an old battered radio, or 12 people all glued to various devices watching Tatort and Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten

This means it can work out relatively cheap for large house-shares or big families who have grown-up children able to chip in, but for single-person households it can be a large monthly expense. 

If you live in a shared flat, it’s worth noting that the Beitragsservice will normally send a letter to each person newly registered at that address, even if someone is already paying the licence fee. If you receive a letter, but you know someone in your household is already paying, simply fill in this online form to let them know. You will need to know the name and Beitragsnummer of your flatmate, and provide a copy of your registration certificate

If you’ve only got a short-term rental contract, your lead tenant or landlord might waive the Rundfunkbeitrag cost for you - but they are not obligated to. 

Is anyone exempt from paying the radio tax? 

Most people, but not everyone, is liable to pay the full licence fee. You can apply for a discount or exemption in the following situations: 

  • If you receive certain unemployment benefits, disability benefits, or a basic subsistence pension
  • If your vision or hearing is impaired
  • If you have two or more dwellings in Germany (you only pay the licence fee for one)
  • If you are a student in receipt of state funding (see below)

The rules for students and apprentices

Students might watch a lot of telly, but they’re not exactly flush with cash. To reflect this, most people studying in Germany or completing apprenticeships do not have to pay the licence fee, so long as they receive student funding from the German government (known as the BAföG), and do not live with their parents. 

If you do not receive state funding, you will be liable to pay the licence fee - which can be a bit of a sting, since students living in single-room student accommodation (that is, if your room leads off a generally accessible hallway) will be obliged to pay the whole fee on their own. 

What if you don’t have a TV or radio or watch ARD or ZDF? 

Unfortunately, you still have to pay. If you think Bauer sucht Frau is the most abominable programme to ever blight your screen, or even if you’ve shunned all digital technology and live in a hovel in the woods, chances are the Beitragsservice will root you out and demand you pay up for ARD and ZDF - unless you fulfil one of the exemptions outlined above. 

Some people find this difficult to accept because the system used to be different. Until 2013, the German organisation charged with collecting contributions was known as the GEZ (Gebühreneinzugszentrale), and the system was arguably fairer. 

You could apply for an exemption if you didn’t have a TV or a radio, and since the GEZ didn’t have the authority to actually enter your premises and check, lots of people used this option to get out of paying the fee. 

However, with the advent of new technologies, the limitations of this system became clear. On the assumption that everyone now has access to public content via the internet or their mobile phone, the new system came into place in 2013 and required all households to pay.

So can I avoid paying the licence fee?

Trying to get out of paying the TV tax is far from easy, especially since the authorities will have your details from the moment you register. If you choose not to pay, the debts will keep stacking up, with a few penalties thrown on top. 

If you still refuse to pay, it could affect your Schufa score, making it difficult for you to take out a mortgage in Germany, apply for a credit card, or get a loan. In extreme cases, you could land yourself in trouble with the police, and even face jail time. 

Our advice would be: just suck it up and fork out the cash, then make an effort to get your money’s worth. You could save yourself the cost of a German course by tuning in regularly and improving your language skills. 

How to pay TV tax in Germany

Your letter from the Beitragsservice will outline how you can set up payments. You have two options. 

You can give them a direct debit authorisation, either by filling out a form on the Beitragsservice website or by filling in the bottom section of the payment reminder. This means that the full amount leaves your bank account on a quarterly basis. 

You can also wait for your quarterly letter with the payment reminder and transfer the money manually, quoting your customer reference number. If you change address, you'll need to let the Beitragsservice know.

How to cancel the radio tax

If you’re going to be leaving Germany permanently, don’t forget to de-register yourself as well! This can be done via an online form. 



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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JohnMullen2 13:01 | 25 July 2023

First a bit of background: Most people outside of Germany probably do not realize that the German public broadcasters are not financed by taxes, donations, and grants as in the US or a TV licence as in the UK. In Germany, prior to January 1, 2013 public broadcasting was financed similar to in the UK: If you owned a TV or radio you had to pay. If you did not possess such a device then you did not have to pay. This changed on January 1, 2013. Since then, every household, regardless of income, size or even proof of non-possession of a receiving device, is required to pay a mandatory €18.36 monthly bill for the mere “possibility” of consuming public broadcasting content. There is no opt-out. Those who refuse to pay what is known as the “Rundfunkbeitrag” typically end up having the funds seized from their bank accounts without even a court order. This fee is effectively a regressive tax applied to all living quarters throughout Germany, and for obvious reasons is hugely controversial. The public broadcasters ARD ZDF and Deutschland Radio receive over 9 billion euros annually via this system in order to finance their directors’ >€400,000 salaries and enhanced pensions. Due to its mandatory nature, the Rundfunkbeitrag also violates Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as Article 11 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which state that Everyone has the right to freedom of expression which includes "freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers." And before anyone says it, NO, the EU did not deem the Rundfunkbeitrag as being in accordance with EU law. They only ruled on its aspects of state aid. They explicitly avoided any questions regarding its fairness and human rights, which would handled by a different court. The best way to deal with the Beitragservice is to not interact with them at all in any way - ever. If you are already paying. Stop paying. If you are thinking of paying, don’t. Do not under any circumstances contact them, as doing so would confirm that you have received their letters. I have been in Germany for over 13 years and have not paid a single cent to those idiots. I have also not received any letters from them for seveal years and the next time I do, if ever, I will simply use the 550 5.1.1 method described below. But first a little more background regarding these idiots: The Beitragservice operates on the assumption that everyone in Germany is "registered", similar to sex offenders in the US, at the Einwohnermeldeamt. Keep in mind, that the only information that the Beitragservice has to go by, unless you help them, is a list of names and addresses that they regularly receive from the Einwohnermeldeamt to which they then send their spam. GDPR be damned! The Beitragservice does not care about you per se, but rather the "ownership of a flat" (Inhaberschaft einer Wohnung) which is why, when you look at their "bills" (aka "spam") you will see "1 Wohnung = €XXX". If they really had their act together they would assign the "account number" to dwellings and not individuals, but they don't do this and seem to have a difficult time keeping things straight, especially over time, which is why they rely on their potential new victims providing the account numbers of those who are already paying. (…again, GDPR be damned!) A question to ask yourself is why can’t the Beitragservice themselves not keep track of the flats for which they are already getting paid? Clearly it is nightmare for them to keep track of what they are doing if all they really have to go by is a spamming list ...unless you help them. Contrary to what you might hear, the Beitragservice is NOT an agent of the German state (Behörde), but they turn to the state to enforce their will. This is cumbersome, inefficient, and controversial, which I will not get into. The point I am trying to make is to stay out of its way as best as you can. Their only tool is a list of spamming addresses, and we all know what happens when we reply to spam. The SMTP error 550 5.1.1 (email) essentially informs the sender that the intended recipient does not exist. When dealing with the Beitragservice it is in your best interest to do the same. The first rule is, first and foremost, do not open or in any way write on the envelope when their letters arrive in your mailbox. Instead, very quickly, either you or have someone else take the letter to your local Post* and tell the person at the counter that the addressee had recently moved out and to kindly return the letter to the sender. The Post will put a sticker on the letter stating that the addressee has moved and the Beitragservice will need to update their mailing list.** Rinse, wash, and repeat until the letters cease altogether, which they eventually will. Congratulations! Sie sind befreit! You will then be able to live in peace without being regularly harassed by the Beitragservice. And before you ask, no, the Beitragservice will not send a bailiff to your door looking for you if they cannot verify your existence in the first place, which is what they assume if their letters do not bounce back. People leave Germany all the time without deregistering at the Einwohnermeldeamt and the Beitragservice simply does not have the resources to verify the true whereabouts of every individual on their spam list.