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 Hamid Ali 21/09/2017 at 13:19

    Hi,
    Thank you for the post, as it was very informative. Nevertheless, I have few questions.
    I am in Germany since 4 years now. I was always in tax category 1. I never did tax declaration(I am assuming it is not a problem, based on what I have read and what some friends and colleagues told me). I got married in May 2017; my wife is a Belgian citizen. My tax category was changed to 3 and my wife’s to 5. However, she is working from home with a company based in UK(she lived in the UK for almost 12 years). She is earning in pounds(almost similar to my earnings) and paying all her taxes etc there.
    1) Is it important for me to do tax declaration now, as my tax category has changed?
    2) Is she rightfully in tax category 5, even though she isn’t earning in Germany? How is ‘Anlage N-Aus’ related to this?
    Thanks in advance for your help.

    Regards,
    Hamid

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 26/09/2017 at 10:08

      Hi Hamid. This is a special situation but it’s not more important than before to do your tax return, just potentially more rewarding. If your Finanzamt put your wife in 5, then there must reasons for that, like past tax statements, etc.

  • Reply Candelaria Saenz Valiente 20/09/2017 at 11:48

    Hello, I am argentinian and my husband is polish, we have a child and we recently moved to Berlin. We are both musicians, unemployed. We own an apartment in Warsaw that we rent out (we pay tax for it in Poland). I will earn money here playing some shows but my husband, for now, is earning money and paying taxes in Poland. He travels all the time, so even though we are all three registered in Berlin, he’s part-time. Should we sign up in the finanzamt as a family of freelancers? Will that mean that by law he’ll have to pay tax on the jobs he has in Poland and abroad? That would mean paying double tax! I read in one of the comments that if you are not living 6 months continuously in Germany you are only liable to pay tax for the jobs within Germany. But then, how would that affect my status as a non EU wife of a EU member who lives in Germany part-time? Hope this scenario doesn’t get steam out of your head as it does mine! Thank a lot!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 27/09/2017 at 10:17

      Hi Candelaria. You will still need to declare your income from Poland to the Finanzamt but to avoid double taxation, you will need to follow the convention between Poland and Germany (Doppelbesteuerungsabkommen or DBA). More info there or try to Google that in Polish as well.

  • Reply Nageswara Rao Dasari 19/09/2017 at 16:47

    Hi,

    I had been working in Germany from Feb 2017 with tax class 1. My wife reached Germany this week and she did the residence registration yesterday, how much time will it take to reflect the change in tax class? I heard that it will be done automatically and I dont need to fill any application. Please share your thoughts.
    Thanks,
    Nag.

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 20/09/2017 at 08:39

      Hi Nag. Yes, this should happen automatically after a few weeks, but your marriage has to be recognized in Germany first i believe, if you want to take advantage of the tax classification for you two. Make sure this happens as well.

      • Reply Nageswara Rao Dasari 20/09/2017 at 12:07

        Our Marriage certificate is accepted while we did the residence registration, I hope that is enough as they updated the details in their system.

  • Reply Joda 19/09/2017 at 14:20

    Thanks for this helpful post. How do I know whether my spouse & I should submit our tax returns separately or together? Will SteuerGo guide us through that and do we both have to sign up separately?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 20/09/2017 at 08:29

      Hi Joda. If your marriage is recognized in Germany, then you can submit your tax return together, which SteuerGo will help you to do yes. You don’t need to sign-up separately.

  • Reply eko 19/09/2017 at 00:18

    Hi
    I have been completing my steuererklärung since 2014 and I always got some euros back until this year, I have to pay more than 300€ to finanzamt. I’m an employee married with 1 child. How is that even possible that I have to do nachzahlung??
    Thanks

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 19/09/2017 at 12:27

      Hi Eko. This is such a broad question with so many variables that i can’t possibly answer in a comments’ section. If you think there has been a mistake, you can always make an “Anspruch” and clear that up again with the Finanzamt. Check if you really put all relevant expenses in and that you didn’t have extraordinary income as well. Good luck.

  • Reply Riddhi Bhanushali 16/09/2017 at 16:31

    Hello,

    Your article seems helpful to me. Thanks a lot for the help.
    I still have some doubts:

    At what time of the year can I apply for the tax-returns?
    I get my salary (Netto Amt.) in my account every month but I’m actually unaware that what the Brutto Amt. is? I have no idea about the Tax-Format in Germany.

    I have started working as a part-timer and this is my first job ever.
    How could I know my Brutto Wages and the Tax Rules ?

    I thank you for your help in advance !

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 18/09/2017 at 09:24

      Hello Riddhi, as mentioned in the post, if you are a freelancer, deadline is end of may. If you are an employee, you have up to 4 years after the end of the year to apply for tax returns. Knowing your brutto wage won’t help you calculate how much you can get back. It’s more complicated than that.

  • Reply Adam 10/09/2017 at 15:19

    Hallo,
    I am a Student in Germany, I did a 6-month voluntary internship and received a netto salary of 6463 Euro (a brutto salary before taxed is 8700 Euro). As written on http://www.internationale-studierende.de/en/during_your_studies/jobbing/taxes_and_contributions/, I can get back the taxes if I earn less than 8130 Euro a year. Can you guys tell me that is this information correct and if so, 8130 Euro a year is based on brutto or netto income?
    Thank you in advance!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 10/09/2017 at 19:55

      Hi Adam, there is difference between earnings and income. As a student, you can submit a tax statement to get some of it back yes.

  • Reply Mrinalini 07/09/2017 at 21:25

    Hey, I have a question:

    I am a student in Berlin, and I have recently joined a job. It tax would be cut by the company’s tax-handling office. and I will claim for that. But I also worked for 1 month somewhere else, through a student agency. And, I think, the agency earmarked their commission but didn’t cut the taxes. Since I haven’t paid tax for that 1 month. Can I still apply for tax return? I mean will there be any issue if I haven’t paid the tax for 1 month but the taxes for the rest of the months now would be paid?
    some people have been scaring me, like, “don’t file for tax return because of this reason. Otherwise they will cut money from your account instead of giving you”. REally?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 08/09/2017 at 10:56

      Hey there. Being an employee in Germany means that your income tax is taken at the source on your payslip directly, as mentioned in the post, so you did automatically pay for that, if that’s really what you are talking about.

  • Reply Badger 06/09/2017 at 15:25

    Hi, I was registered as a Kleinunternehemer at the Finanzamt. I left Germany last year and I did a postal abmeldung to deregister my address at the Bürgeramt. Is this information passed on to the Finanzamt, or do I have to deregister with them as well?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 07/09/2017 at 10:51

      I would unregister at the Finanzamt as well to avoid any issues.

  • Reply Altynay Ussembekova 28/08/2017 at 09:07

    Hello! I am student in Germany and received a paper from my health insurance in January, that I can refund some amount of taxes. Now it is August, and I forgot about the paper till now, is it still possible to get tax refund for the last year?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 28/08/2017 at 10:00

      Hi Altynay. Yes, it is possible.

  • Reply Silvia 23/08/2017 at 16:02

    Hi All! I worked in Germany from 01.01.2017 to 15.07.2017 when I resigned. I moved to another country within the EU and as far as I know, I will have to file my tax return in Germany this year (2017). I am currently self-employed and will be paid for the consultancy in January 2018. I need a new PC and was wondering if it will be tax deductible in Germany given (1) The invoice for the PC will not be in German (2) I am not living in Germany anymore – already did the abmeldung – and (3) I am not earning any money when buying the computer nor anytime after (until next year).
    In advance, many thanks for your help!
    Cheers

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 24/08/2017 at 10:22

      Hi Silvia, the fact that the invoice is not in German is not important but in my opinion, since you already unregistered yourself in Germany (both residence and as self-employed), i don’ think any costs after the un-registration will be valid to put off in taxes.

  • Reply Maizon 23/08/2017 at 07:15

    Hi all,
    I worked in Germany from February – October 2013 and leaving Germany on November 2013. I thought i have to wait for at least 2years before applying for my tax refund. So, is it possible for me to apply for the tax refund now (2017)?? Thanks all..

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 23/08/2017 at 14:44

      Hi Maiton. Yes, as mentioned in the email. You can do it now.

      • Reply Maizon 07/09/2017 at 07:12

        Hi Bastein,

        Thanks for your reply.. I tried to register on ELSTER for online tax claim, but couldn’t get through. Do you have any suggestion in order for me to proceed with the tax claim via online? Because its almost 4 years since I’m leaving Germany. I have to claim my tax soon as I can. Thanks very much for your helps!

        • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 07/09/2017 at 10:54

          Hi Maizon, in order to register for Elster, i think you need to adress in Germany as they send you your password by post. If that’s not possible, you can still use the self-help platforms to do everything online. You might have to send some forms per post but that’s all.

  • Reply Roberta 16/08/2017 at 23:20

    I recently moved to germany and got employed. I live here with my husband. I am the only one working and we are both registered at the Finantzamt. Not just that it is clear in their system that I am married and logic it will be that I belong to tax class 3 right? Now… why after reviving my first salary I came to realize I’ve been deducted 40% for taxes??? Where could be the mistake and how I get a tax refund? Thank you.

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 17/08/2017 at 10:15

      Hello Roberta, it’s hard to for me to give any specific answer without knowing more details. You may come from a country where the difference between net and gross salary is not so high. Since the income tax is deducted on the pay check already, that difference in Germany can seem even greater. Also make sure that you marriage is recognized by the Finanzamt; if you haven’t taken any steps for that, you tax deduction due a non-earning partner will not work.

  • Reply Vihren 16/08/2017 at 14:54

    So I just filled my Tax form, and I have a problem. In the main form, there is the place where you can fill in your rent (top of second page) I am paying rent of about 300 euro monthly and this is important 3600 euro taken from my funds and makes a huge difference in the final calculation. However, there is the field called “Abziehbar” where I can write a percent between 1 and 59. I have no idea what that is and how do I find out how much of my rent is abziehbar and the difference in that percentage makes a huge difference in my taxes. Can you please explain that to me and how do I find this life-saving number?
    Also, when I fill the form, some fileds say that I need to submit “Nachweise und Belege” to the Finanzamt, and I don’t have any of those except maybe bank statements, but I guess they will have to live without them.

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 17/08/2017 at 10:27

      Hi Vihren. It is a good question but i can’t reply without knowing more about you(Freelancer? Employed? Nebenbeschäftigung?). It is simply too vague. I suggest you talk to a Steuerberater or use the recommended platforms and their hotlines to clear any doubts.

  • Reply Martin 16/08/2017 at 12:50

    I received a Erinnerung from the Finanzamt but I haven´t earned absolutely nothing as a freelancer last year. Do i have to fill all the forms when you had no income? Or is there any other suitable way to tell the FA that I had no earnings? Like sending a letter for example?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 17/08/2017 at 10:11

      Hi Martin, as mentioned in the post, it is compulsory for freelancers to do a tax return, regardless of the recorded activity that year. You need to fill in the forms yes, it should fairly fast since there is nothing to enter.

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