Half a year after Trump’s election, are you getting the feeling it’s time to get the hell out of the US? Here’s a surprising new trick – and a seven-digit number – that some Americans can use to get dual citizenship in Germany. It worked for me.
My friend Ryan Plocher from Georgia has always been a model citizen in Germany. He teaches English and social studies at a public school. He’s active in a political party and a trade union. During that long, dark night back in November, he told me that after a decade of living in Germany, he was ready to “take the plunge” and go deutsch. This meant giving up his US citizenship, not a step anyone would take lightly. To visit anyone in his family, Ryan would need to get a visa. If he ever had to care for a sick relative, he would need to apply for a Green Card!
Thousands of Brits have gotten dual citizenship in Germany since Brexit. But that’s not an option for Americans, right? One smart young Ami found a loophole, and I – along with a number of my countrypeople – have been able to slip through. The key is a sevendigit number, 126.96.36.199.2.1, and to be a loafer in life: i.e., earn less than US $2350 per month.
For Andy Plante-Kropp, it all started with the 2014 Tempelhof referendum. She had lived in Germany long enough for it to feel like home. But she learned that “almost half a million Berliners weren’t given a voice” in the vote about the former airport. So she started perusing Germany’s Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz (citizenship law), trying to find any way that things might change.
The law says dual citizenship is generally prohibited, but its 12th paragraph provides for an exception if another state imposes “unreasonable conditions” for giving up existing citizenship. It was in a ministerial regulation about applying the law that Andy discovered that magical number. Paragraph 188.8.131.52.2.1 stipulates that dual citizenship is possible “if the fees required to renounce […] exceed the average monthly income of the applicant for naturalisation.”
Did you catch that? Giving up US citizenship requires more than burning your passport and cursing at a picture of Trump –it’s actually rather difficult. In 2014, the US State Department raised the fee for renunciation to $2350 – an increase of 422 percent. So according to German law, an American can get dual citizenship as long as they earn less than €2100 per month (at the current exchange rate) before taxes. Gedacht, gelacht, gemacht, as they say here.
Andy went to her local citizenship office in Treptow-Köpenick and presented her interpretation of the law. The bureaucrats on duty were sceptical, but curious. In November 2015, she got a letter from the US consulate in Frankfurt that she would have to pay this fee regardless of whether she actively renounced or passively relinquished her citizenship. And with this letter, she returned to the citizenship office. Just 11 weeks later, she had her second passport. She explained everything on an Ask Me Anything on Reddit – and that’s how Elizabeth entered the story.
Elizabeth’s bureaucratic hell
“Lizzy” went to grade school with my kid sister. For the last five years, she’s lived in Cologne with her German husband. After reading Andy’s Reddit thread, she applied for citizenship in spring of 2016. Like Andy, she didn’t like the idea of “living here the rest of my life and never picking my representation”. But in contrast to Andy, she had to go through a classical Prussian Spießrutenlauf (running the gauntlet).
In addition to her language test and citizenship tests, she needed to go to the Office for Housing Benefits and get a “negative certification”, a form that said she was not receiving any money for housing. Then, she needed proof that her husband’s grandfather had done his military service. In other words, naturalisation required that a distant in-law had served in Hitler’s Wehrmacht (he had). Why so many difficulties? Germany’s states apply citizenship rules differently, even though it’s a national law. Plus, Lizzy was applying through a spouse – she would have needed eight years of residency to apply on her own.
“Harrowing” was how she described the experience. “The officials act as the gatekeepers to information, but they often don’t know the law themselves.” At the end of May, after more than a year of an “opaque” and “passively stressful process”, she got her passport.
Max’s long wait
Max (name changed) is a Berliner from Montana. The American, who works for a media company, is still waiting to see if his citizenship application has been accepted. It’s been more than four months. “Every morning I walk to the mailbox with trepidation,” he says.
For eight years in Berlin, Max has paid his taxes and followed the law. But he started sweating when the application demanded he list all crimes he had ever committed – even if he hadn’t been convicted. Did it count that he had gotten a ticket for running a red light on his bike near Alexanderplatz? With the help of a friendly law student, he figured out that it was only a misdemeanor and therefore irrelevant.
His sweat has subsided, but the trepidation hasn’t. Max fears he won’t get to hold onto his American passport. “At my consultation, the first thing they told me was: ‘You know you’re going to have to give up your American citizenship, right?’” But Max came prepared: he printed out both Paragraph 184.108.40.206.2.1 and an article on it from the Tagesspiegel. After reading it thoroughly, Max’s advisor agreed that this might be a way for him to keep his passport. But before that could work, Max had to prove the costs of renunciation, by way of a translated letter from the American embassy.
When Max returned with his application and the requested additional documents, he was also asked to write a formal statement on why he did not want to give up his American citizenship. Next came the moment of truth: proving he made under $2350 a month. As a salaried employee it would have been easy, but since Max occasionally freelances on the side, statements from both his accountant and the Finanzamt were required for the next trip back.
Now, after successfully getting all those documents and passing his citizenship test, Max has heard nothing. He’s confident that if his request to keep his passport wasn’t working he’d know, but he’s waiting on whether he gets to be a German in the first place.
In contrast, my application was a breeze.
On the fast track
As soon as I read that life-changing Reddit thread, I knew I needed to try for dual citizenship – before some bureaucrat decided to close the loophole!
I’ve lived in Berlin since 2002, nearly half of my life. Marrying my German girlfriend secured my immigration status, but I still felt like a guest in my home. Every election, I accompanied my wife to the polls just so I could register a complaint with the workers there. As soon as I read that life-changing Reddit thread, I knew I needed to try – before some bureaucrat decided to close the loophole!
Unlike Lizzy and Max, I didn’t need to spend weeks collecting obscure documents. I filled out the citizenship application in just two hours. When I went to drop it off, the Beamten were sceptical. “I can’t promise you’ll pull this off,” one said. “But we can give it a try.” Since I had gotten a bachelor’s degree in history in Germany, I didn’t have to take the language or citizenship test. I had to pay to play – €255 that I wouldn’t get back if my application was rejected. But three months later, a letter appeared in my mailbox. I was in!
“You shouldn’t toss your old couch or your old refrigerator onto the sidewalk.” These were the words of wisdom chosen by Franziska Geffey, district mayor or Neukölln, at a naturalisation ceremony for me and 43 other new Germans. A second politician told us we could contribute to a peaceful neighborhood by saying “Guten Tag” to our neighbors. Where are these people from? I’ve lived in Berlin for 15 years, and I’ve never heard anyone say “Guten Tag”.
With my profession of freelance journalism, an income under that $2350 per month threshold was practically guaranteed. But what about a model citizen like Ryan? As a teacher, he earns twice as much as the limit, so he will remain an Ausländer. In his social studies classes, he teaches Berlin youth that democracy relies on the participation of citizens, but he can’t participate himself.
Andy, the one who started all this, finds the whole process silly. “There’s no good reason why a US citizen making $2349 should be able to gain this status but someone making $2351 should not.” She thinks Germany should just allow dual nationality for everyone. It’s already available for 743 million EU citizens, and for Americans who can prove German Jewish ancestry (a process with its own bureaucratic hurdles, but that’s another story). “Dual citizens are everywhere, and we’re a pretty non-threatening bunch.”
As for myself… well, now that I’m German, I’ve been wondering if I can now tell even more jokes about Kartoffeln and Krauts. Or should I dial back the humour? I guess as a German-American, I can make fun of everyone. “Total joke immunity”, as Jerry Seinfeld called it.
Getting German citizenship: What you need
A valid visa: This is probably the simplest part. You likely already have this if you’re considering citizenship.
Means to support yourself: Even though as a citizen you’d be entitled to social assistance, Germany wants you to prove you’re not going for that right out the door. If you have a work contract, this will be a snap; freelancers will have more paperwork to deal with.
Uninterrupted residency in Germany for at least eight years: That means you didn’t go back home for a six-month vacation. For those who can prove they are especially integrated (an “integration certificate” from BAMF could help), it’s six years. If you’re married or in a civil union with a German, that number goes down to three years.
Knowledge of the language: An absolute must! The law states that you need a certificate proving B1 knowledge, but your interview will require better German than that – a completed C1 course is advised.
Basic knowledge of the German state: If you didn’t go to high school here or get a degree from a German university, you’re going to have to take a citizenship test. That’s 33 questions, of which you have to get at least 17 correct. The questions range from the absurd (“What kind of political system does Germany have?”) to the obscure (Guess who needs to find out what comprises the Bundesrat?)
No criminal record: That’s self-explanatory. Respect for the basic laws of a liberal democratic society: Here’s hoping your university activist group didn’t end up on some extremist watch list back home.