If you want to start a business in Germany you need a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel) that gives you the right legal status. This is a tricky part of the process that many international entrepreneurs get tripped up by. For example, they get a business visa but it doesn’t let them set up a business in Germany. To help you avoid this pitfall, we’ve put together a guide to help you get a residence permit that aligns with your business aspirations.
- The immigration process
- Entry into Germany
- Residence & work permits
- Settlement/permanent residence permits
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If you are a ‘third-country’ national and want to live and work in Germany there are three big bureaucratic steps in the immigration process you should be aware of:
Here is a visual of the immigration process for entrepreneurs wanting to start businesses in Germany:
- Do I need a visa?
- How to apply for a visa
- What if I already have a visa?
Do I need a visa to start a business in Germany? And what are the regulations? The answer to the question depends mostly on your nationality.
Entrepreneurs from third countries (Drittstaat)
A “third country” (“Drittstaat“) is a country that is outside an international agreement or community, such as the EU.
If you’re an entrepreneur from a third country who wants to start a business or open a regional branch in Germany you need a visa and residence permit.
Unless you have a privileged nationality (Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK and the USA) you must apply for the right business visa (Visum zur Selbstständigkeit or ‘self-employment visa’) through the German diplomatic missions where you live before coming to Germany.
Entrepreneurs from ‘privileged nations’
If you’re a national of Australia, Israel, Japan, Canada, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, the UK or the USA, you can enter Germany without a visa and apply for a residence permit after you arrive.
If you would like to start working shortly after entering Germany, it’s best to apply for the right permit before you leave as the process can take a long time.
Want to apply for a visa and don’t know where to start? Below we explain step by step how the self-employment visa (Visum zur Selbstständigkeit) works.
Do you know the requirements of the visa you want to apply for?
If you have studied in Germany or are a researcher or scientist you can have an easier time with the immigration system because you have a special status.
For most entrepreneurs wanting to live and start a business in Germany, you have to apply for a self-employment residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis zur Ausübung einer selbständigen Tätigkeit).
This permit comes in two different categories:
- Freiberulfer – A person who wants to set up a business in a liberal profession. This field of healing, scientific, technical or consulting activities (e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, computer scientists)
- Gewerbetreibender – Someone who wants to set up a business in a professional field that doesn’t belong to the liberal professions (i.e., a commercial, craft or industrial enterprise).
The visa and residence permit process is quite similar except for some of the criteria you have to fulfil.
If you meet all the requirements for the visa, get together all the necessary documents for the application. Usually, the website of your local German embassy or consulate has a handy list of what you need.
At the same time, find out how to get an appointment for the visa interview and book yourself in.
Apply for your visa at the German embassy responsible for you (i.e., the competent embassy for where you live).
Make sure that you apply for a visa that gives you the legal status that matches your aspirations. For example, some visas only let you work as an employee or are just family reunification visas. This starts with double checking you have the correct visa application form.
The fee for an entry visa is usually €75. In most cases, you can pay this at the German embassy or consulate with local currency. (The fee is non-refundable even if the embassy rejects your application.)
Got your visa? Now it’s time to get ready for your trip to Germany.
You should take all your personal documents with you, such as birth certificate, qualifications, driving licence etc.
You’ll need health insurance coverage in Germany as soon as you land. When you pick up your visa, the German embassy will check your insurance documentation.
If you have a visa but are unsure if it gives you the right to apply for a residence permit (Aufenthaltstitel) to start a business, take a look at the text printed on the document in your passport. Below are two examples to help you figure it out.
Example one: Work permitted
The German text on the visa is as follows:
Aufenthaltsdauer entspricht Gültigkeit
This roughly translates in English to:
Gainful employment permitted
Residence period is the same as the validity.
The underlined text determines whether you’re able to apply for the residence permit that allows you to live and start a business in Germany.
The keyword is “gestattet”, which translates to “permitted” or “allowed”. This means the visa holder is legally allowed to work in Germany. The next visa example is the opposite case.
Example two: Work not permitted
The German text on the visa is as follows:
Erwerbstätigkeit nicht erlaubt
This roughly translates in English to:
Gainful employment not permitted
The wording in this visa that puts a dampener on your aspirations is “nicht erlaubt”. It means that you are not allowed to work in Germany. You can visit Germany to set up a business, but you can only be its shareholder and not a managing director or any other type of employee.
Generally, most ‘third country’ citizens can become shareholders of German companies without a residence permit. But, if you have want to live as well as set up a business in Germany then getting the right residence permit is essential.
- What’s next after I get my visa?
- What if I’m already living in Germany?
- What do I need for the application?
- What does the self-employment residence permit get me?
A visa is valid for three to six months to give you time to prepare for your residence permit application.
To set up a business in Germany, you’ll need to apply for a residence permit for the purpose of self-employment (Aufenthaltserlaubnis zur Ausübung einer selbständigen Tätigkeit).
You can apply for this residence if you’re already in Germany and hold either a:
- Residence permit for another purpose; or
- Visa which was granted explicitly for the purpose of self-employment (i.e., starting your business).
You will need to take a bunch of bureaucratic steps plus write a business plan to do this.
Contact your local immigration office (“Ausländerbehörde” or “Landesamt für Einwanderung”) to find out about the documents you need to submit your application. Then make an appointment to get a residence permit that allows you to live and start a business in Germany.
If you have a work permit or blue card*
Look on the Zusatzblatt of your residence permit. If you see the text:
Selbständige Tätigkeit gestattet, or
You can be self-employed in addition to your job. But, there is a catch: Your job must remain your main source of income.
If you are a student in Germany*
You must ask the immigration office (Ausländerbehörde) to change your residence permit – only then are your legally able to study and run a business at the same time.
You need to apply for a residence permit for the purpose of self-employment (Aufenthaltserlaubnis zur Ausübung einer selbständigen Tätigkeit).
*If in doubt get legal advice or contact your local immigration office (Ausländerbehörde); they can help you, but for some issues, they may direct you to a lawyer.
- You live mainly in Germany.
- Your business:
- Is of economic interest or meets a regional need,
- likely to have a positive impact on the economy, and
- secured financing via equity or a loan commitment.
- (Exception: Different standards apply to university graduates, researchers and scientists.)
- For university graduates, researchers and scientists, there are different rules for applicants who:
- have completed a study course in Germany at a state, state-recognised or comparable training institution, or
- work as a researcher or scientist in Germany and hold a residence permit.Note: Your business must have a connection with your studies or occupation as a researcher or scientist.
- Adequate pension plan (only if you’re over 45).*
Proof of a pension plan is not required for these nationalities: Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Turkey and the United States of America. (An adequate pension is always necessary for the issuance of a permanent settlement permit – regardless of age or nationality.)
*Make sure you have the most up-to-date info on what the authorities consider to be an ‘adequate pension plan’.
- A personal interview with the immigration authorities.
This may be tricky and should be a top priority. For example, getting an appointment at the Berlin immigration office is notoriously hard and you can take a lot of time and effort.
Do your due diligence and double-check with the immigration office you’ll be applying at.
The documents you’ll need to submit more or less are the following:
- Valid passport
- 1 current biometric photo
(check with the authorities about the latest regulations regarding photos)
- Completed Antrag auf Erteilung eines Aufenthaltstitels (Application for Issuance of a Residence Permit) form
- Business plan
- Budget and financing plan
Some immigration offices – such as in Berlin – have templates you should use.
Details of professional career, qualification certificates, diploma, references/sponsors
(Make sure you have German versions of these)
- For university graduates: A statement by the university
A statement by the university regarding the knowledge acquired in higher education and the connection to the business idea
- For university graduates: Degree from a state-recognised university or comparable training institution in Germany
(You must bring the original copies with you)
- For researchers and scientists: A statement of the previous employer
A statement of the previous employer (e.g., research institution) on your occupation’s connection with the business idea
- Commercial register extract (Handelsregisterauszug)
(Must be the original copy – the original application for entry in the commercial register certified by a notary is also acceptable)
- Trade registration (Gewerbeanmeldung)
(Only if no entry in the commercial register is required; in the original)
- Health insurance
If you have private health insurance (as opposed to statutory or public health insurance) expect the immigration office to scrutinise your coverage.
- Tenancy/rental agreement or proof of homeownership
- Rent / expenses for property
Proof of the monthly rent you pay (e.g., a current statement) or costs for maintaining your residential property (only original copies are acceptable)
- Adequate pension plan (only if you’re over 45)
Can be in the form of:
- an offer from a private pension or life insurer,
- own assets,
- acquired pension rights, or
- operating assets
- Proof of your permanent residence
- Certificate of residence (Meldebescheinigung) or
- Tenancy agreement plus written confirmation of occupancy from the landlord
If your business idea is successful and you can support yourself, you can get your residence permit extended, which is initially limited to a maximum of three years.
After that, you can apply for a settlement permit (Niederlassungserlaubnis), which will allow you to live in work in Germany permanently. More on this in chapter 4.
Once you have your residence permit you’ll need to extend it when it expires. But, after five years of living in Germany, generally, you have the option to apply to stay permanently. You can do this by applying for a Niederlassungserlaubnis (settlement permit) which gives you permanent residence in Germany.
To be eligible for the settlement permit depends on you having the following things:
- A residence permit for at least five years (there are some exceptions to this rule)
- The means to cover your living expenses
- Have made contributions to the pension insurance scheme (Rentenversicherung)
- You have a clean criminal record
- B1 German language skills
- A pass on the German naturalisation test
- Big enough living space
- A completed audit report by a qualified tax professional.
- All documents mentioned in the audit report
- Your lastest tax assessment notice (Steuerbescheid)
Want to know more about getting a settlement permit (Niederlassungserlaubnis)? We’ve got an article on the German Permanent Residence Permit that takes you through the application process in-depth.
The information published on our site is all written and checked by experts with the utmost care. Nevertheless, we cannot guarantee its accuracy, as laws and regulations are subject to constant change. Therefore, always consult a specialist in a specific case – we will be happy to put you in touch.
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