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 Sweden 13/10/2017 at 12:16

    Hello,

    Thank you so much for your work with this site. Its been so helpful each step of the way in relocating.

    I have a question regarding being in the wrong tax class.
    I started working for a company in Berlin in june and since I was renting second hand apartments without being able to do the holy anmeldung I have been in the wrong tax class (6) until now (october) I was told when I started here that I would receive the money I (over)taxed back once the HR dept. received identikationsumber and I came into the “right” tax class (1). I have now submitted it but was horrified when I read here that I won’t get the money back.

    Could you provide some more insight to how this works? Have I been screwed here?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 14/10/2017 at 11:44

      Hi Jens; sorry to hear about your case but it’s not uncommon unfortunately. I have never heard of the possibility of getting this back but do ask your HR what they meant by that and come back here to tell us the good news (hopefully). I would then amend this post.

  • Reply Louis 11/10/2017 at 12:27

    Hi there,

    Submitted my tax return 8 weeks ago and just got a transfer from the Finanzamt. The amount is different from what I expected, but still worth it. I was wondering if I will also receive a letter with the breakdown of my refunds? E.g. 100 euros for moving costs, 150 for x, 30 euros for y… etc.

    That would allow me to see what works and does not work for the next tax declaration!

    Thanks 🙂

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 11/10/2017 at 20:03

      Hi Louis. No, those costs impact on your total taxable income, so it is the sum of it that matters.

  • Reply Uday 10/10/2017 at 12:00

    Hi , In my case I received a letter from FINANZMAT regarding tax class change , but the same is not reflecting in the salary , it is still with old tax class even after 2 months, So what is the wait time for it to get reflected in the salary?(I spoke to the payroll team they said it is done automatically by local tax authority), Is there anything else I can do about it?

    Thanks in advance

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 11/10/2017 at 20:00

      Hi there. To my knowledge, this is handled automatically yes.

  • Reply Mahant Parekh 07/10/2017 at 14:10

    Hi,

    I came to Germany in Oct. 2012 for my Master Studies in Berlin.(1 year internship 2014-15) Completed my studies in 2016. Now I am working in Munich since 1 year 3 months. I have paid for my studies as the course was in English. I have never filed my tax return. I want to file it from 2012. Can you help how to proceed?

    Regards,
    Mahant Parekh

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 08/10/2017 at 11:03

      Hi Mahant, the process is clearly outlined in the post. Cant help you further sorry.

  • Reply Karl Emil Koch 06/10/2017 at 23:14

    Thanks for a great article!
    I have a question regarding the refundable tax. I am so unfortunate that i did not get my Steuer ID before my first salary. In your article you state that i cannot get my overpaid tax refunded. Can you explain this more in depth? Does it mean that it is unchangeable and I will have to pay maximum tax rate for every salary without being able to get it refunded?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 08/10/2017 at 10:59

      Hi Karl. You pay maximum rate on your salary until your get tax ID. After that, you should your employer know you have one and it should be fixed then.

  • Reply Slaw 06/10/2017 at 11:31

    Hi,

    I’ve been working in Germany in 2014/2015, and stopped working and left the Germany on 09.2015. Last week I’ve got the letter from Finanzamt that I need to submit the tax declaration for year 2016 (when I haven’t been in Germany already and definitively haven’t been working then). In the letter it have been told, that other option is to send letter with explanation, why do I think I do not have to submit tax declaration and proof of that. What should I do?
    Importantly, I’ve submitted the tax declarations for the years 2014 and 2015 before, and received the tax refunds.

    Slaw

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 08/10/2017 at 10:58

      Hi Slaw, then it must be a mistake from the Finanzamt. They must not be aware you have left the country. Send them a letter explaining your situation with documents to prove it (like the document that said you unregistered yourself at the Standesamt).

  • Reply Abhishek Jain 04/10/2017 at 09:10

    Hello,
    I just finished my masters and started working now in Germany Since september 2017 , I have some doubts regarding tax return!!
    1) Being a student, i did couple of parttime jobs and payed the taxes as well. Is there any way to get that money back??
    2) As a part of main job now, What steps i have to do get the money back? Do i have to apply now for this as well or should i wait for one year !!

    Looking forward to the positve reply

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 04/10/2017 at 16:40

      Hi Abhishek, please read the post again, the answer are there. As a student, you can still apply for a tax return yes. You have to wait until 2018 to apply for 2017.

  • Reply Andy 03/10/2017 at 18:30

    Hi,
    Thanks for all the infomation you are sharing (pretty awesome)!
    I have a problem, I was employed (single, tax class 1) at the University in Germany from May 2012 to September 2015, than I moved out. I was actually enrolled also as a PhD student paying semester fees for all this period. I have never filled out a tax return because in my situation was not compulsory. Few days ago, I was sorting all my old papers and I found out that on the first lohnsteuerbescheinigung (2012) there is the Capital letter “S” that apparently makes the tax statement compulsory even if you are an employee…I am a little be worried because at the time I was not aware about this stuff and now it’s pretty late…I am not sure what I am supposed to do. When I started in May that was my first job ever (before I was a student in my home country), so basically what they took was everything they should have taken (actually much more)….by the way I never eared anyting from them in the time I was there. Do you have any suggestion?
    Thanks man!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 04/10/2017 at 17:58

      Hi Andy. If you left the country and never received any news. I would not take any further steps and wait it out. If you are coming back one day, maybe best to clear it with a Steuerberater.

  • Reply Saleh 01/10/2017 at 02:21

    Hi,

    I have a full time job but I’m working as a freelancer beside my job, not every month though.
    My employer is already paying taxes for my full time job, how I can pay taxes for the freelancer work?
    I’m very confused how to start in my situation specially how to connect my both taxes together (full time and freelancer) specially that I’m not doing mine at all.

    Thank you
    Saleh

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 01/10/2017 at 14:33

      Hi Saleh. You should have registered as a freelancer. For more information on that and paying taxes too, you can read my guide there.

  • Reply India 28/09/2017 at 19:33

    Hi there, is it really possible to get a thousand or more euros back?? According to my ta consultant, I am only getting 500 back for 2015 and 500 for 2016 even though both years were for only partial employment. Not to mention the fact that I am paying about half of each refund amount to them for completing. I feel like I am over paying for a refund that is not that good…

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 29/09/2017 at 11:49

      Hi India. Yes it is really possible, but you need to justify enough expenses and tax cuts to get there.

  • Reply Saprol 28/09/2017 at 11:54

    Hi,
    I have a question. Do you still get a tax refund if you are a working student? Thank you in advance.
    Saprol

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 29/09/2017 at 09:04

      Hi Saprol. Yes.

  • Reply Ricardo Picinatto 27/09/2017 at 15:44

    I have worked in Germany for 3 months, register in Berlin tax class I and have no other income. I left my job and I won’t work in Germany in the future. First question can I send the tax refund before the end of the year (2017), since I am still in Germany or I have to wait to 2018?

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 29/09/2017 at 09:04

      Hi Ricardo, you have to wait for the next year.

  • Reply Ángel 26/09/2017 at 19:19

    Hi, I had heard that it’s only compulsory to do your tax return if you earn more than a certain amount. Is that true?
    It’s been almost 4 years since I started working in Germany and had never done it nor did I think I had to, so I’m a bit worried eheh. Thanks in advance!

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 27/09/2017 at 10:07

      Hi Angel. If you have been an employee all these years and that was your only income, then don’t be worried: you don’t need to submit a tax statement. You should do it though, because it is likely you will get hundred of euros back.

  • Reply Jacky 25/09/2017 at 01:25

    Hi there, Our company registered in UK and based in UK only. We don’t have any office in Germany. We sales computer accessories online to Germany via Amazon platform. We had apply a German VAT number and submit VAT return monthly. We received a letter asked for make tax return to Germany Tax office. My question is we are not registered in Germany, do we need to submit tax return in Germany ? Please share your thoughts. Thank you in advance.

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 26/09/2017 at 11:21

      Hi Jacky. This page is about tax return for private individuals, not companies, sorry. You might need to ask somewhere else.

    • Reply Hamed 26/09/2017 at 16:13

      Hello,
      If you have already registered your company in Germany and have a VAT Id, you need toy submit your VAT declaration each 3 months (quarter) and as soon as the Finanzamt receives your documents, they will automatically reimburse the VAT to your bank account assigned in your application.
      more questions?

  • Reply Michael 23/09/2017 at 00:51

    Hi,

    I am single and currently working in Germany since June 2017. I also earn money from online gambling. So can I ask you a few questions? How will the tax apply to my situation? Do i have to pay tax for my online earning? And can I still be able to get some tax return? Thank you very much.

    Michael

    • Reply Bastien - Settle in Berlin 26/09/2017 at 11:18

      Hi Michael. I assume you mean you are also gambling aside from your full time job as an employee. You have to be careful, it does count as income and should be taxed yes.

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