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 E.T 05/10/2016 at 18:25

    Heyhey! Thanks for the post!
    Im planning to buy a new iPhone. I got a Blue Card from Germany and working in Berlin for 4 months as a mobile software engineer in a company. So, can I get a reimbursement for the phone which is kind of necessary for my work? Or maybe just tax refund of it?
    Thanks a lot!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 06/10/2016 at 09:30

      If we are still speaking about the German system, you can do by installments over 5 years. Source.

  • Reply morven clements 12/09/2016 at 18:54

    Hello, I’m an employee. I started work in Germany in oct.2015. On all pay checks (oct/nov/dec) I paid roughly around 40% tax. However the earnings for that period are below the taxable amount in Germany. So I should be able to claim that back rite? I registered for Elster, so I can fill everything out online, or do I still have to print stuff off?

    many thanks for all the good tips!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 13/09/2016 at 10:41

      Hi Morven. You won’t be able to claim all of it back but since you started a new job in 2015, you will certainly get a few hundred euros back for sure. Be sure to add all costs you had last year, that you can put off in taxes. When you register for Elster, you need an extra-step to be able NOT to send a paper copy as well. This is a certificate which requires you have a special password sent to you by post. You will find more details on the website.

  • Reply Sean 02/08/2016 at 22:33

    Hi, I am paid from the UK but pay taxes in Germany. Since I received my prepayment tax statement at the start of the year, the GBP has weakened considerably. This means that I pay a much larger amount of tax in GBP than I should be. Will the exchange rate be considered in a tax return in January? And recalculated accordingly? Which exchange rate will they use?

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 03/08/2016 at 11:12

      I am afraid this a bit out of my league and you might have to go to a specialist for a proper answer. I don’t even know where you should pay income tax to start with. Since your employer is the UK, how does it pay the taxes to Germany?

  • Reply Ryan 15/07/2016 at 16:00

    I recently started working here and have been placed into Tax Class 6 – 41% roughly. Now I’m not registered but when I do register I’ve been told that I can claim back that difference between my appropriate tax class 1 and the one I was charge at (Class 6) and I wouldn’t have to wait til it’s time to lodge your tax again, is this true and could you shed any light/point me in the right direction for this as it works out to be a fair bit of money I’ve missed out on.

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 20/07/2016 at 10:44

      This means that you receive money from multiple employers. Is that true? You should be class 1 if you are single and with only one employer. More info here and about the switch process here.

  • Reply Marc 13/07/2016 at 16:07

    Hi there! I’ve checked how much tax return I’d get and it seems I would need to pay around 100e MORE for 4 years I’m working in Germany! Can this be true? I’m working since 2012 and didn’t do any tax clearing so far. Only for 2015 I would get around 100e, but then for 2012,2013 & 2014 I’d need to pay more.
    Thanks in advance!

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 14/07/2016 at 21:49

      Are you maybe talking about Steuerberater fees? If so then it would be no surprise to pay that amount for 4 years together. The Steuerberater can tell you in advance roughly how much you’d get back in your first meeting. You can then decide if it’s worth it or not. You can also use online solutions like the one mentioned in the article. They usually tell you how much you’d get back before paying anything.

  • Reply Michael 01/07/2016 at 15:39

    Hi all, I have used the online-tool http://www.smartsteuer.de for my tax declaration. It’s easy.

  • Reply Nar 28/05/2016 at 20:49

    I went to the Finanzamt to ask for a deadline extension of May 31 but the employee told me that there is no need for extension and I have 4 years to submit the Steuererklärung, is that correct?

    BTW, I’m submitting Anlage N and Anlage KAP only

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 29/05/2016 at 10:25

      Are you a freelancer or employee ?

      • Reply Nar 29/05/2016 at 12:33

        Employed but I might fill “Anlage KAP” to get the interest rate for gain from capital to the same percent of my income tax, it does not make much sense to apply Anlage KAP anyway

  • Reply Mohamed Salah 27/05/2016 at 18:25

    Thanks a lot for the post.

    i have a question. i submitted today the tax statement but i found out that i missed to add a couple of items.

    is there a way that i can submit an amendment or withdraw the application?

    Thanks a lot in advance

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 28/05/2016 at 11:13

      Yes, it is possible to correct your statement at any time, especially if you have not received the Steuerbescheid from your Finanzamt yet. If you have done it electronically via ELSTER, simply send the corrected forms again to replace your previous statement. Else, you can simply send a letter to your Finanzamt to let them know what should be updated, and if applicable with the additional documents. Source

  • Reply Lidija 24/05/2016 at 17:09

    Thanks a lot, this is incredibly useful. Is May 31 the deadline for Steuererklaerung?

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 24/05/2016 at 18:11

      Yes it is, but you can ask an additional delay at the Finanzamt if you need.

  • Reply Marko 23/05/2016 at 16:35

    Hello, I have a question.
    How much important is, when you are giving the tax refund papers, to tell from which exact month I am employed in German company?
    Because I just forgot to tell the lady that I am working from 1. Juni 2015. and not the whole year.
    Is that a problem and should i go back and clarify that??

    Thank you.

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 23/05/2016 at 20:06

      They will look at your Lohnsteuerbescheinigung for 2015 and calculate your tax return based on that. They won’t look at dates.

  • Reply Anthony Bieber 19/05/2016 at 18:49

    Hey just a heads up the links to the 3 necessary files are broken. Just redirects to the files page. Would you be able to provide the new links? Thank You 😀

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 19/05/2016 at 23:02

      It’s been updated now. The linksare only valid for one session, that’s why you saw an error. This way.

  • Reply Melu 18/05/2016 at 18:20

    Hi, Can anyone rcommend a tax advisor here in Berlin who is familiar with how American income etc. is taxed in Germany? We just moved here a few months ago and are currently living mostly off of our savings that we have in the U.S. Consequently we will need help with how this impacts paying German taxes etc. Any names or tips are very much appreciated, thanks in advance.

  • Reply Pernilla Hansson 18/05/2016 at 13:35

    Really nice page, thanks! I have two questions though..
    – How does one mark that you are a full time student, and therefore should get all taxes paid back? (I had two jobs 20h in total per week, at the same time as I studied, and one put me in klasse 6, which I now want back)
    – How do I do to declare taxes for previous years?

    • Reply settle_in_Berlin 18/05/2016 at 15:27

      There is´a field that asks your “Beruf”. Maybe add it there ? I’m sorry i was never a student in Germany so i wouldn’t know. Maybe this link helps too? If you want to declare taxes for previous years, simply download the forms for the previous years and fill them in. It works up to 4 years prior.

  • Reply Pie 13/05/2016 at 00:53

    Great step-by-step instructions, thanks! The links don’t work, but since you also mention the name of the docs, it doesn’t really matter!
    Cheers!

  • Reply Matt 16/01/2015 at 15:43

    Good piece of advice !

    A couple advices from my side:
    – You can get your tax up to 4 years back,
    – The prices of tax advisory in Munich (for basic tax declaration) vary from 36 € up to 170 €
    – Depends how much your earn. Here you can calculate the the price for yourself: http://getdoido.com/tax_declaration

    If you want to know more how to do the tax declaration by yourself then check my last blog post where I described step-by-step how to make a tax declaration by yourself in Germany 🙂
    http://blog.getdoido.com/2015/01/get-your-tax-money-back-a-step-by-step-guide/

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