Tax return in Germany for foreigners made easy – Steuererklärung

Interactions with the finance authorities is almost always something we want to avoid. However, doing your tax return in Germany can not only be super easy, but also prove to be quite profitable. That’s right: you could probably expect to get a few hundred to a few thousand euros!

That was “how much”, but if the “how” is the part that worries you the most, let me assure you that Germany has come a long way the past few years. If paper forms are still around, tax payers have now a wide array of options to process their cases. Expats have been blessed with many others to do their tax return in Germany in English too.

So dive in with me into this broad introduction

Even if it’s not your first year here, the average tax return in Germany is close to 1000€ nation-wide. Now that’s motivation! 🙂

Tax return in Germany

The road to your tax refund in Germany :

Before your panic when thinking “I haven’t done my tax return this year!”,  let me assure you that there is good chance you won’t have any problems with your Finanzamt if you forgot to file a tax return. You might not obligated.

If your salary is your only income and you are single, then it will be a piece of cake to get your tax refund. You have already paid your taxes, now your job is to obtain as much refund as you can! For freelancers, it’s of course another story as it is compulsory.

Should i be doing one?

It is compulsory for self-employed people. For employees, it is only compulsory if they are in one of the following situations:

Income sources

  • Additional income (not from salary) higher than 410€ in total.
  • Salary replacement income (like unemployment benefits) higher than 410€ in total.
  • More than one employer in the year.
  • More than 2 salaries (like a full-time job and a minijob).

Family situation

However, even if you don’t have to do it, you may as well, as there are chances you get money back too.


So how can I do my tax return in Germany?

Doing it on your own

You can skip to this part if you need help.

If you feel confident enough to do it on your own, you first have to make sure you get all the right forms. It is recommended to download the forms directly from the official website this way. Click on the right hand side on “Einkommensteuer mit allen Anlagen”, a list with all the forms will appear.

You can also do everything electronically. On this website,  it is also possible to download the official tool called ELSTER (ELektronische STeuerERklärung) onto your computer. This tool enables you to proceed to your tax return in Germany in digital form, saving both you and your Finanzamt a lot of time. You need to sign-up for an account and you receive your password by post, which might take a week or two.

The ministry for finance has even set 2022 as the date after which no paper forms can be submitted in the future. Only digital forms then.

Here are the most commons forms for tax return in Germany

If you are an employee , you need the following forms (e.g for 2019) :

  • ESt 1 V 2019 (The main form that details general info like your adress, iD nummer,etc)
  • Anlage N 2019 (The form to detail your income as an employee)
  • Anlage Vorsorgeaufwand 2019 (The form to detail your insurances)

If you are self-employed, you need the following forms (e.g for 2019) :

  • Est 1A 2019
  • Anlage S 2019 (Freelancers only)
  • Anlage G 2019 (Gewerbetreibende only)
  • Anlage USt 2019 (if you pay V.A.T)
  • Anlage GeSt 1A 2019 (Gewerbetreibende only)
  • Anlage EÜR (If turnover is more than 17 500€ a year)

Other common forms include:

  • Anlage Sonderausgaben: to document special expenses you want to put off in taxes. This would include pension contributions, education costs, donations and a lot more.
  • Anlage Außergewöhnliche Belastung: to document “extraordinary” expenses in case of traumatic events, health issues or handicap.
  • Anlage Haushaltsnahe Aufwendungen: to document home related services expenses such as your cleaning professional or renovations.
  • Anlage Kind: to document expenses related to your children.
  • Anlage Unterhalt: to document financial support provided to other members of your household (eg: spouse, relatives with no income).
  • Anlage V: to document rental income.
  • Anlage AUS: to document income from outside Germany (except salary)
  • Anlage N-AUS: to document salary income from outside Germany.
  • Anlage AV: to document a Riester-supported pension scheme.
  • Anlage VL: if you received or want to receive vermögenswirksame Leistungen.
  • Anlage SO: in case you sold property that is not your primary residence, less than 10 years after purchase or pay alimony.
  • Anlage KAP: to document income from financial assets.
  • Anlage R: in case you are a retiree and want to submit a tax return in Germany.
  • Anlage L: to document income from farming or forestry.
  • Anlage U: to document alimony paid to ex-partners or spouses.

Honestly from there, i will gladly direct you to one of the best guides made in English around by our good friends of ToyTown Germany. It is very neat, clear and complete to do your tax return in Germany in English properly. I don’t see how i could give better information on how to fill in all those forms.

A figurative representation of how hard it seems sometimes 🙂

I don’t feel confident filling in my tax declaration in Germany alone, how can i get help?

If you are not so good with numbers or a bit scared of doing mistakes because of the German language, there are other ways to do your tax return in Germany.

Good value for the money: self-help online platforms

If this is too much to do, there are also online tools that make it super easy to get your tax declaration in Germany right for a maximum return. New platforms have appeared the past few years to help expats do their taxes 100% in English. They offer the following:

  • You can do your tax return in Germany in English.
  • Your hand is really guided step-by-step with the tool in a clean interface.
  • Check in real time how high your return will be.
  • Save progress at any time when you register for a free account, only pay when you submit.
  • Submit everything to the Finanzamt online directly.
  • Call a English-speaking hotline if you have questions.

In that space, i would recommend 2 providers:

TaxFix (35€ per submission): Pick this if your situation is relatively simple: employee or student, no income from abroad, no income from rental, etc. The interface is particularly clean and aimed at high processing speed but they don’t support all profiles yet.

SteuerGo (30€ per submission): Pick this if your situation is a little more complex: self-employed, married with kids, income abroad, pensions, income from property etc. For self-employed people, it also lets you do additional forms like (Einnahmenüberschussrechnung (EÜR), Umsatz- und Gewerbesteuererklärung). Interface is a little noisier but it supports almost all profiles.

SteuerGo & TaxFix do not support one case: if you have had a foreign employer that year. In this case, you can turn to platforms like SmartSteuer which also supports that (No English though).

Worth it if you have a more complex situation: a Steuerberater

You can also turn to professional tax advisers in Germany for this. A Steuerberater is a trained agent capable of preparing, processing and submitting your tax declaration in Germany. They are accountants usually experienced into finding particular rules that is relevant to your tax profile to optimize your return. Even if their fees are controlled by certain laws, you usually have to pay a few hundred euros for their services. This is why it’s only relevant if your situation is a bit more complex like earning relatively well, being married, having kids, owning a house and having different sources of income. It’s also quite normal for freelancers and self-employed persons to have one.

If you don’t know where to start your search for a Steuerberater, you can turn to platforms like Ageras. They search and find one for you based on your profile and needs. The service is free and the offers you receive non-binding.

Well said cat-friend, (deadline is 31st of July though) Source: Giphy.com

I am ready to submit my tax return, what now?

If you have decided to go with paper, send all forms together to your Finanzamt, without forgetting to sign them. If you have signed-up with Elster already, it’s all a matter of a click. With self-help platforms, you will need to pay a fee in order to submit it to the Finanzamt.

After this is done, you will probably wait for 1 or 2 months before you get any answer, and hopefully, a little ka-ching will appear on your bank account. You can afford this awesome ebike you spotted, or else, paying for your next trip back home.

Alternatively, the Finanzamt might ask you to provide proof for certain things you stated in the forms, or provide additional documents. In this case, expect even more processing times. Make sure to submit a response in time! Here again, if you need more time to gather those documents, you can simply ask for a little more time.


FAQ

What is the tax return deadline in Germany?

In theory, the deadline is to the 31st of July of the following year (for people that obligated by law to submit one). However, you can ask for an extension if you are short on time. Using a Steuerberater allows you to have even more time, as they have until February of the year after to do it (eg: a submission in Feb 2020 for the year 2018). Be aware that there is a penalty of 25€ per late month.

Important note: employees whose sole income are their salaries are not required by law to submit a tax return. This means that the deadline moves to 4 years in the future. For example, you can do your tax return in Germany for the year 2018 until the last day of 2022. Even more importantly:

As an employee, you can claim a tax return for up to 4 years prior the current year. Pretty handy if you forgot to do it those years to maximize return.

I am running out of time, can i extend the deadline?

If you feel like you are running out of time, you can let your Finanzamt know before the 31st of July you need more time. They usually give you an extra 2 or 3 months to do your tax return in Germany. If you are working with a Steuerberater directly, they can even do until the year after!

Which tax deductions can i make use of?

If, like me, you love to play the optimization game, you are surely interested to know which expenses can be put off in taxes. I have made an overview of possible tax deductibles for Germany on this post, for employees, freelancers and students.

Self-help platforms usually support most of them and help you make use of them.

When will i get my money after submitting all the forms?

It takes between 8-12 weeks for the Finanzamt to process your files and obtain your tax refund in Germany on your account. It’s usually quicker when sending everything out electronically. A poll made by a tax payer’s association uncovered the following waiting times to hear from the Finanzamt:

  • 18 % have to wait about 6 weeks
  • 32 % 6 to 12 weeks
  • 32 % up to half a year
  • 18 % longer than half a year

What should i do if i am unhappy about the results, or if some things were misinterpreted?

If you think the Finanzamt made a mistake to process your case, it is possible to protest and open a case (Einspruch) to explain your situation, within one month after receiving the Steuerbescheid.

I started to work without a Steuer ID from the Finanzamt… (maximum tax rate)

When this happens, your wage is being taxed at the maximum rate possible. It is possible to get the difference between that rate and the normal rate back when doing your tax return the following year.

I don’t have a Steuernummer yet, what do i put in the field for that in the forms?

If it’s your first year in Germany, it’s very well possible that you don’t have a Steuernummer yet (although you should have a Steuer ID already. Yes, they are not the same confusingly enough. More on that here.) In this case, just leave this field empty, and the Finanzamt will assign you a Steuernummer after your tax declaration.

Do i need to provide proof for anything i put off in taxes when doing my tax declaration in Germany?

It used to be the case that the Finanzamt would request the tax payer to prove any and all expense stated in the tax declaration. As you can imagine, that was just lot of paper to process. These days, the Finanzamt will request proof on a case by case basis only, in case they have a doubt or if the amount is rather large.

Beware however that you should still be able to prove those expenses even after the tax return has been processed. It is recommended to keep all relevant receipts for 10 years, especially for freelancers.

I have received income from abroad the past year; how should i go about this to avoid double-taxation?

The Finanzamt requires of all German residents to declare any and all income sources, even if they are coming from abroad and have nothing to do with your life here. If that income was already taxed from that country, you might avoid double-taxation if it has agreed to a tax treaty with Germany. If so, you can do that by filling the Anlage AUS – Ausländische Einkünfte for your declaration. More info about that here.

I have left the country already, can I try to do a tax return and will the Finanzamt transfer the money to my foreign bank account?

Absolutely, you can do a tax return in Germany for the year you left the country. The Finanzamt will transfer you the money in your foreign account if you give them all the necessary information, and a specific request to do so. You will very likely support the costs of the transfer on your own.


I hope this overview helped you to get started on the topic. Feel free to ask questions in the comments. All comments are read. Answers in the comments do no constitute professional advice and should not be treated as such. When comments can’t be answered, i usually recommend other solutions or resources. 🙂

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

1,276 Comments

  • Reply Maarten 13/10/2020 at 13:37

    Dear Bastien-settle in Berlin-. Great website. Vielen dank.
    Question: I left Germany in 2018. I received a letter from Munich Finanzambt that I have to do my 2019 tax declaration, official letter! How can I explain them I had no income gained in Germany in 2019 nor did I officially live there. I officially left Munich in August 2018.
    Many thanks for any guidance.
    Maarten

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 14/10/2020 at 15:20

      Hey Maarten, did you officially unregister when your left the country?

      • Reply Maarten Smeets 15/10/2020 at 19:57

        Servus Bastien, thanks for your prompt reply. I did officially sign out at the burgerambt. Not knowing I have to sign out from Finanzambt….
        How to proceed?

        Vielen dank
        Maarten

  • Reply Anu 10/10/2020 at 11:54

    Hallo There,

    Thank you for clarifying income tax returns filing and the importance of doing the same.
    I have filed for income tax returns for the year 2018 and recieved in returns only the extra tax amount deducted by Finanzamt.
    However, expenses related commuting to office, relocation to Germany,bank account maintainance and internet bills weren’t cosnidered for the refunds calculations. I wasn’t satisfied with the tax refund and sent a letter to Finanzamt to reconsider the missed expenses for the tax refunds.

    In reply to my letter, Finanzamt has sent an Einspruch letter. Could you please help me with the procedure of replying to Einspruch?
    That is, I would like to know, if I need to point to any specific rules of the refunds calculations from German income tax returns? if so, could you please point me to relocation and the

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 13/10/2020 at 10:30

      Hey Anu. All of this goes beyond my expertise and should be left to a Steueberater.

  • Reply M L 26/09/2020 at 18:25

    Hi!
    Firstly, I’m not a german national. I worked in Germany from July 2018 to March 2019 (afterwards I deregistered from Germany). I just received an “Erinnerung” from the german Tax Authorities to complete taxes in ELSTER – which to me seems quite scary and everything in the webpage is in German. I worked in Germany during my studies and received grants from the government in my home country (where I paid tax) until graduation in July 2019 as well as dividends. Further, I started working full time in July 2019.
    Do you have any good advice for me? Do I really need to declare? I’m afraid that I will need to pay taxes even after I deregistered due to my income after starting full-time which will inflate the “foreign” income for the full year.

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 28/09/2020 at 09:19

      Hey Marie. Since you had more than one income source during your time in Germany, it seems likely that you had to do it in my opinion. If you were not a German resident anymore before you started your new job outside of Germany, you were not liable for taxation in Germany anymore. In doubt, i’d get in touch with a Steuerberater so they can give you a detailed informed consultation.

      • Reply Maarten 14/10/2020 at 19:47

        Servus dear Marie and Bastien,

        I am in a similar situation. I left Germany august 2018. Now I receive an “Erinnerung ” to do my tax for of 2019. Note, after August 2018 I did not work nor reside in Germany.

        How come I am reminded to fill in the tax, how to let them know I am not obligated to pay tax in Germany as I did not work nor live there.

        Should I ignore the erinnerung ?

        Vielen dank
        Maarten

        • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 15/10/2020 at 09:56

          Hey Maarten. As replied to you in another comment; Did you unregister with the authorities when leaving the country?

  • Reply G S 07/09/2020 at 20:12

    Hi! My partner’s company asks some document from me that shows how much money I made in 2019.
    Salary slip is not enough as it doesn’t show other source of income. Do you know what document can I get from tax office for this?
    I have not done any tax return in Germany yet. Thank you for your help!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 08/09/2020 at 14:00

      Hey there. Yeah typically, a way to show that is to give a copy of your Steuerbescheid for the year prior. But for this, you need to do a tax declaration first. If you need this fast and your situation is rather simple, you could use one of the self-help platforms listed above. When submitting, you get a copy of what you sent to the Finanzamt, but there is no official stamp on it…

  • Reply MR Bumble 07/09/2020 at 09:37

    Hi I started working in in Germany in 2018. I never made any tax return. I had my main job and a side job on a mini-job (450 EUR) basis. Can I still make tax return calculation? Will I pay any penalties because of 2 sources of income ?? any advice of how to proceed?

    By the way – very helpful info. Thank a lot

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 07/09/2020 at 13:37

      Hey there. You still can and should do a tax declaration for both 2018 and 2019. You will most likely pay a late fee and a fine for doing it too late. There is probably no way to avoid that but you could also ask a tax advisor if there are ways to avoid penalties.

      • Reply Mr Bumble 19/09/2020 at 22:39

        Sorry for responding so late I am very thankful for this answer. It is almost sorted. take care….

  • Reply Laraib Khan 03/09/2020 at 22:33

    Hi there,

    The article was quite helpful.

    I applied for the tax return and received the letter from the Finanzamt a couple of days ago. It says that I will get no tax return. I started paying taxes from November 2019 onwards the moment I became a full-time employee in a company. I had my tax class changed to III from November 19th too. Do you know why I did not receive any tax return for those last 1.5 months? I applied as an individual married person for the tax return, as my husband was not working in 2019.

    Looking forward to your reply! Thanks in advance.

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 07/09/2020 at 13:17

      Hey Laraib. It’s quite impossible for me to tell without knowing a lot more about your situation and how you filled in the forms, what expenses you claimed and so on. Sorry.

  • Reply David 30/08/2020 at 08:00

    Hi. I have a small business and I use my vehicle for both business and private use. What are the rules regarding submitting the amount of business and private usage and fuel used etc? Also is there such a thing as a 1% rule I can opt for, which if I am correct avoids the need to keep a record of my business and personal usage and if so, how do I go about registering my preference?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 02/09/2020 at 10:00

      Hey David. Yes, there is this 1% rule you can use (Source). From what i understand, using the other method is a big mess and in my opinion, not worth the hassle. As a rule, you can do it if you can prove you use your vehicle for business purpose for at least 50% of the time. You’d need to record each business trip via a so-called “Fahrtenbuch” very diligently and then report this for your tax return too. Source.

  • Reply Himani 18/08/2020 at 22:02

    Hi,

    Thank you very much for an informative blog on taxation in Germany. Quite useful for students who do not have a huge amount paided as taxes compared to the amount paid to tax advisors.
    I had a question, in 2017 I had started a student job (<700EUR/month) at my university (werkstudent) and since the start date was 19th of the month for that particular month I had to pay taxes. It was about 30EURs though not a big amount compared to full time employment but I wish to get those. Any idea if that is possible?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 20/08/2020 at 10:08

      Hey Himani. I’d rather think the other way around: are there any expenses that you could deduct from taxes for that. Have you seen this?

  • Reply Khanna 30/07/2020 at 20:48

    Hello. Thanks for the informative blog.
    I was on deputation in Germany for 7 months. My home country + Germany salary was paid after tax deduction. Should i declare my rest 5 months home country salary as a Foreign income while filing return ?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 01/08/2020 at 22:04

      Hey Khanna. This answer does not constitute expert advice, but i would tend to say yes.

  • Reply sneha saha 27/07/2020 at 22:13

    Hi,

    I am an Indian, and I moved to Germany in Oct 2018 and started working. Before that from 2016 to 2018 I was doing masters in Sweden. For my masters, I took student loan for the tuition fee. So is it possible to declare tax on the loan I took between 2016 -2018? I am paying it back from 2018 – till now.
    Let me know if I can claim for tax refund, which year and in which segment I need to declare the cost.

    Thanks in advance,
    Sneha

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 01/08/2020 at 22:13

      Hey Sneha. I don’t know sorry.

  • Reply Bikramjit Sharma 24/07/2020 at 09:35

    Hi..Thanks for the very informative blog. I have a query. My tax class was changed from 1 to 3 in May 2019. So according to that, I should have gotten some more salary from May, 2019 onward. I I started getting it from November, 2019, I asked the tax office and they told that when I would applying for tax return of 2019, I would get the leftover salary. Do you know if any special form needs to be filled up for getting this leftover salary or it is automatically taken care by the tax office?

    Bikram

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 24/07/2020 at 21:39

      Hey Bikramjit. That should be done automatically yes.

    • Reply J,S 01/08/2020 at 10:30

      my wife and I use class4 and we normaly did our tax together, But we have now separated not living together anymore and we both did our tax return separate/ My question is that is it possible to get the return back separately as well because none of us has not yet receive anything.

      • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 01/08/2020 at 21:53

        Hey Js. Yes.

  • Reply Max 09/07/2020 at 19:01

    I have a capital loss from investing activities in 2018 and a capital gain in 2019.
    Can I bring forward the loss from 2018 to compensate the capital gain in 2019 ?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 12/07/2020 at 09:41

      Hey Max. That would work for businesses but not for private persons in my humble knowledge. You may ask a Steuerberater for professional advice.

  • Reply Pedro N 08/07/2020 at 12:07

    Hello,
    Thanks for sharing the very helpfull information!

    Quick question. If I fill in my 2019 tax declaration, my current address (outside Germany), will that be valid for the Finanzamt ? Also in case they want to reach me (tax assesment documents) ? Or should I have an address in Germany for submitting tax declarations ? Many thanks

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