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.
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 are in receipt of 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 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 to 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 license 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 wire 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.