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EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

Germany has a system of financial support for students known as BAföG. In many cases foreigners are just as entitled to apply as Germans. Here’s what you need to know.

Students attend a lecture
Students attend a lecture at the University of Hannover. Photo: dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

What is BAföG?

Bafög is an abbreviation for a word that would surely be the longest in pretty much any other language expect German: Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. This tongue twister breaks down to mean Federal Training Assistance Act. 

Ever since the 1970s it has helped Germans from poor backgrounds to take up a place at university to at a training colleague, with the idea being that financial hardship should never prevent someone from entering higher education.

In its current form the law provides for students form poorer families to receive €853 a month, half of which is a stipend and half of which is a loan that you will need to pay back once you’ve entered the workforce. 

The maximum you are expected to pay back is €10,000.   

Some 460,000 students were being assisted with Bafög payments in 2020, the last year for which there are numbers.

READ ALSO: How to finance your master’s studies in Germany as an international student

Who is entitled to BAföG?

There are two basic conditions attached to BAföG: you have to be under the age of 30 to apply and you parents have to be low-wage earners.

There are some exemptions for the age restriction. If you can show that you were not able to start a course of study before your 30th birthday due to health or familial reasons then you might still be eligible later. Also, if you are applying for support for a Masters degree then you can apply for Bafög up until the age of 35.

According to German law, your parents have an obligation to financially support your education. This means that German authorities ask for evidence of their income to assess whether you are in need of state support.

And this applies whether your parents work in Germany or abroad, the Education Ministry confirmed to The Local.

“Income calculation under the BAföG rules takes place regardless of whether one’s parents live in Germany or abroad. This applies both to German nationals and to people with non-German nationality who are eligible for support under BAföG,” a spokesperson for the ministry confirmed.

What about foreigners?

Bafög is by no means only available to Germans. A whole variety of foreign nationals can also apply.

The rules on which foreign nationals are entitled to financial support are fairly complicated. But the following list on eligibility is somewhat exhaustive:

  • If you are an EU citizen, or from an EEA country, and you have lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If you are married to, or are the child of, an EU citizen who has lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If your are an EU citizen who lives and works in Germany and whose intended course of study is connected to your current job
  • If you are not an EU citizen but have obtained permanent residency in Germany
  • If you have received refugee status
  • If you have lived in the country for at least 15 months as a ‘tolerated’ person (ie you applied for asylum and weren’t given full refugee status)
  • If at least one of your parents has lived and worked in Germany for three of the past six years
  • You are married to a German national and have moved to Germany.
  • You are the spouse or child of a foreign national who holds a permanent residency permit.

Due to the relative complexity of these rules it is advisable to speak to local organisations that support students such as the Studentenwerk Hamburg, the StudierendenWERK BERLIN or the Studentenwerk München.

READ ALSO: Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

How do repayments work?

The Federal Education Ministry states that you are expected to pay back your loan even if you return to your home country after completing your studies.

Repayment begins five years after you received the last installment of the loan at which point you are expected to pay back €130 a month. Although this amount can be reduced if your salary is low.

If you haven’t paid everything back after 20 years then the rest of the debt is dropped.

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Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

Even if you think you’ve got the grasp on the German language, coming to study at a German university will introduce you to a number of new words and abbreviations you’ll have to get acquainted with. Here are some of the ones you’ll hear the most.

Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

das BAföG

The Federal Training Assistance Act (das Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz) is the main financial aid given to students in Germany. Don’t be put off by the typically German long compound noun, as it is mostly known by its abbreviation, “BAföG”. BAföG funding constitutes a generous needs-based grant and interest-free loan that helps many German students fund their courses and living situations.

die WG (Wohngemeinschaft)

Most students in Germany tend not to live in university dorms, instead they will choose to live in a Wohngemeinschaft (residential community), which is essentially a flat share, with other students. Popular sites to search for a WG include WG-Gesucht and ImmoScout24.

das Semesterticket

As part of the semester fee you pay upon enrolling at a German university, you receive a Semesterticket, which is a card that is valid on all public transport in your university town (or even the entire state), allowing you to make as many free journeys as you like between your WG, classes and your favourite student cafe.

der Studentenausweis

This is your student ID card that certifies your enrolment at a university, usually valid for one semester, after which it must be renewed or extended. It is essential for getting those student discounts and often has your semester ticket included in it.

READ ALSO: How to finance your master’s studies in Germany as an international student

der/die Ersti

A diminutive form of Erstsemestrige or Erstsemestler, Ersti refers to students who are in their first semester of studies, similar to Freshers or Freshmen. Ersti-Veranstaltungen are events put on specifically for first years.

der Kommilitone, die Kommilitonin

While it may seem a rather formal term, die Kommilitonen refers to your fellow students. If this is too hard to remember, you can always use the term der/die Studienkollege*in, which is a bit like referring to fellow students as your “studying colleagues”.

die Vorlesung

Like in the famous German novel Der Vorleser (or The Reader) by Bernhard Schlink, Die Vorlesung can mean a reading, but in a university setting the term usually refers to a lecture. At German universities it is common for there to be hundreds of students in a lecture, with a professor leading the class. To attend a lecture translates to eine Vorlesung besuchen.

der/die Dozent*in

A Dozent is a university lecturer but can also be a seminar leader or any other teacher position at the university. A more general, gender-neutral term is die Lehrkraft.

die Hausarbeit

Although directly translating to “homework”, Hausarbeit at university refers to term papers, which are longer form essays that many university modules require you to write. A dissertation at the end of your bachelor’s degree, meanwhile, would be your Bachelorarbeit, and your Master’s thesis would be your Masterarbeit

Students in Halle

Students enjoy a “Vorlesung” at the Martin Luther University in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Waltraud Grubitzsch

das Auslandssemester

Das Auslandssemester is a semester abroad, where students will spend one or two semesters studying at a university outside of Germany. Many students choose to do an Auslandssemester in Germany, while many German students do one elsewhere. A general study period abroad can also be called das Auslandsstudium.

die Mensa

Die Mensa is the cafeteria or canteen at German universities that offers hot and cold food at low prices. Vegetarian and vegan options are often also available, with some Mensen in German universities even becoming entirely plant based. They are often on campus and a great meeting spot for many students.

READ ALSO: What it’s like to study abroad in Germany during a pandemic

die Fachschaft

Akin to a student council, a Fachschaft at a German university usually consists of all students of an institute or a department. Membership is automatic upon matriculation to the university, and a small fee is usually paid upon enrolment.

das Studentenwerk or das Studierendenwerk

An institution at universities that is responsible for the social support of the students, promoting social and cultural interests of students. Similar to a student’s union, the Studentenwerke are regulated by state laws and are also paid for by students and carry out the operation of the Mensen, student dormitories and support for foreign students through counselling and cultural offerings.