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Germany reforms citizenship law

January 19, 2024

Germany is reforming its citizenship law, streamlining the procedure to get German nationality. Dual citizenship will also become an option.

Woman holding German and Turkish passports into the camera
Many immigrants will now be able to become naturalized while holding on to their original nationalityImage: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

Germany has decided to make dual citizenship easier, as well as naturalization for non-EU citizens. The federal parliament approved the legislation on January 19, 2024.

It is a reform that has been in the works since the center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) took office in the fall of 2021.

The new citizenship plans boil down to these changes:

  • Immigrants legally living in Germany will be allowed to apply for citizenship after five years, rather than the current eight; if they bring special achievements to the table, this may be reduced to just three years
  • Children born in Germany of at least one parent who has been living legally in the country for five or more years will automatically get German citizenship;
  • Immigrants above the age of 67 will be able to do an oral instead of a written German language test
  • Multiple citizenships will be allowed

People living entirely on state support will not be eligible for German citizenship. German citizenship will be denied to people who have committed antisemitic, racist, xenophobic or other defamatory offenses that are seen to be "unreconcilable with commitment to the free democratic basic order."

Multiple citizenships

According to the Federal Interior Ministry, around 14% of the population does not have a German passport — that's just over 12 million people. Five million of them have already been living in Germany for at least 10 years. In 2022, 168,545 people applied for German citizenship, which was below the EU average.

So far, dual citizenship has been possible in Germany only for EU and Swiss nationals, those whose country of origin does not allow people to renounce citizenship (e.g. Iran, Afghanistan, Morocco), children of parents with German and other citizenship, refugees who are threatened with persecution in their home country, and Israelis. Syrians who came to Germany as refugees and are considered to have integrated well may also be fast-tracked to German citizenship.

The reforms will bring Germany in line with other European countries. In the EU, Sweden had the highest naturalization rate in 2020, with 8.6% of all foreigners living there naturalized. In Germany, the rate was 1.1%.

According to Germany's Federal Statistics Office, there are about 2.9 million people with more than one citizenship currently living in Germany. That's about 3.5% of the population. The actual number is likely to be higher, however, as it has recorded an uptick, with 69% of new German nationals holding on to their original passport. People with Polish, Russian, or Turkish passports top the list.

infographik showing the rising number of foreign nationals in Germany from 1970 to 2019
The number of foreign nationals in Germany has been rising

Opposition to the changes

The opposition center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has consistently blocked any reforms in the past, is opposed to the changes. "German citizenship is something very precious, and one should treat it very carefully," CDU leader Friedrich Merz told public broadcaster ARD when the first draft was published in December 2022.

The far-right anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is strictly opposed to the planned changes, saying "two-thirds of Germans do not want naturalization to be simplified and speak of a 'sell-out' (Verramschung) of their citizenship."

Changes are overdue 

DW has reported on the government's plans several times, and in December 2022 interviewed several people affected by the issue.

For example, Marc Young, who said that he had been living in Germany for 20 years and had long wearied of the political debate.

"Back then I would have been the keenest German citizen you could have imagined," he told DW. "But I refused to give up my US passport. Retaining your old citizenship does not mean you have split loyalties, like so many German conservatives claim. It just reflects who you really are. Changing it is way overdue."

"The German citizenship law is based on the principle of avoiding multiple citizenships," Greta Agustini, a German-based lawyer who specializes in immigration, told DW in December. "Other European countries, such as Italy, Sweden, Ireland, France, etc, allow dual citizenship and they have less bureaucratic laws regarding this issue."

Many of Agustini's clients had struggled to find a way to gain German citizenship. "They refuse to give up their home country citizenship, yet they also want to gain the German one," she said. 

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'Too late for the guestworker generation'

The group that has felt the effect of Germany's citizenship laws more keenly than any other is the Turkish community, many of whom came to Germany the last time the country needed workers: In the 1960s.

At this time, a rapidly growing West Germany signed deals with several states to recruit "guest workers," mainly for menial industry-based jobs.

By far the most came from Turkey, and there are now an estimated 3 million people of Turkish heritage living in Germany — 1.45 million of whom still have Turkish citizenship. Aslihan Yeşilkaya-Yurtbay, co-leader of the Turkish Community in Germany organization (TGD), said the reforms came "too late" for many of that original generation — "but [it's] better late than never."

"For the guestworker generation, this reform means recognition and respect for their lives and their work in and for this country," Yesilkaya-Yurtbay told DW. "A lot of Turkish people of the second and third generation will, I think, feel empowered by it because they always had an identity dilemma."

"Many people have waited for this, and have maybe given up hope," she said. "And if it really happens, then I think many will become German."

Yesilkaya-Yurtbay said that Germany would have been a different country if the reform had been brought in earlier. "People would have identified more with Germany if that possibility had been in place," she explained. "I'm sure people would have been more politically interested and more active in society if this opportunity had been there 20 or 30 years ago."

Marc Young also said that his own experience had given him a "small inkling" of what people with Turkish roots had had to put up with for decades. He added that he had raised German children and had no intention of leaving, and would probably apply for German citizenship when the reforms are passed.

"I would still apply if Germany allowed dual citizenship but I would see it now far more transactional in nature," he said. "I've paid my taxes and one day will be a German pensioner whether CDU leader Friedrich Merz likes it or not. Maybe that would change once I became German, but right now the bloom is off the Teutonic rose for me."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

The original version of this article was first published in December 2022 and later updated and republished to reflect new developments. 

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight