What is the perfect tense in German?

What is the perfect tense in German?

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated November 7, 2022

The German perfect tense consists of an auxiliary verb and a past participle. Auxiliary verbs can be sein or haben. The choice depends on the main verb. The auxiliary verb must be conjugated in the present tense according to the subject. The Perfekt (present perfect) is one of three German past tenses (the others being the Präteritum, in English simple past, and the Plusquamperfekt, past perfect). If you want to dive into the German past tenses, we have some good news for you: The German perfect tense is the most commonly used and easiest of all and a good point to start. We’ll show you how.

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What is the perfect tense in German and when do we use it?

The Perfekt equals the English past perfect. According to the rule, we use the German perfect tense in sentences that refer to a completed action in the past and focus on the result of that action in the present. 

Lisa hat gestern die Küche geputzt.
Lisa cleaned the kitchen yesterday.

The cleaning took place in the past (yesterday) and the result (the kitchen is clean) can hopefully still be seen while the speaker tells us all about it.

Besides that, the German perfect tense can also be used to refer to an action that will be completed by a certain point in the future. Wait a minute? Isn’t that what the Futur II (future perfect) does? Indeed. But if, and only if, we specify the point in the future, we can go with the easier Perfekt here.

Bis nächsten Donnerstag habe ich den Frühjahrsputz erledigt.
Until next Thursday I (will) have finished the spring cleaning.

In all cases, in which the action has taken place in the past and has no connection to the present or future, the Präteritum (simple past) is the correct tense. In spoken language and informal written German though, we tend to use the Perfekt instead of the Präteritum with the exception of the modal verbs dürfen (may), sollen (shall), können (can), müssen (must), wollen (want), mögen (like).

Sie hat gestern Tennis gespielt.
She played tennis yesterday. 

In formal language we would say “Sie spielte gestern Tennis”. (Präteritum)

How is the perfect tense formed?

To form the perfect tense, you need two things:

auxiliary verb haben or sein, conjugated in the present tense according to the subject + past participle of the verb.

Ich habe Musik gehört.”
I listened to music.

Ich bin vor zwei Stunden losgefahren.”
I left two hours ago.

Note 1: 
As for word order, haben/sein takes the second place and the past participle at the end of the sentence.

“Ich habe mit meiner Freundin gesprochen.”
I spoke to my friend.

Note 2: 
The passive voice of the German perfect tense is formed like this:
haben/sein + past participle + worden

“Ich bin besiegt worden.” 
I was defeated. 

Therefore, all you need to know is 

  • how to choose and conjugate haben and sein
  • how to form the past participle

Difference between haben and sein

The trickiest point about the German perfect tense is how to decide between sein and haben.

You can simply memorize which verb asks for sein or haben while learning your vocabulary or apply the following rule of thumb:

If the action involves a movement as in change of place or change of state, use sein

Also use sein with the verbs bleiben, geschehen, gelingen, misslingen, sein, werden.

In all other cases, use haben. This includes:

  • Reflexive verbs 

Ich habe mich gewaschen.
I washed myself.

  • Verbs that take an accusative object

Ich habe einen Kuchen gebacken.”
I baked a cake.

  • Verbs that take no accusative object but don’t express a change of place or state

“Ich habe geduscht.”
I took a shower.

According to this, it must be:

Ich bin hierher gelaufen.”
I walked here. 

Ich bin aufgewacht.”
I woke up.


Ich habe ein Buch gelesen.”
I read a book.

If you are not sure if the verb in question goes with haben or sein, consult a dictionary.

How to conjugate haben and sein

For the conjugation of haben and sein in the present tense, use the following table:

sein (to be)haben (to have)
Iich binich habe
you (informal singular)du bistdu hast
you (formal, singular)Sie sindSie haben
heer ister hat
shesie istsie hat
ites istes hat
wewir sindwir haben
you (informal, plural)ihr seidihr habt
You (formal, plural)Sie sindSie haben
theysie sindsie haben

The past participles in German: regular and irregular

This is where it gets a bit confusing. Actually the regular verbs don’t pose much of a problem. The so-called weak verbs (schwache Verben) form the past participle like this:

ge + stem + te

lernen → ge – lern – t

It’s the dreaded German irregular verbs that make the past participle a difficult topic. These irregular verbs change their verb stem in simple past and/or the participle form. To make it worse, there are two kinds of irregular verbs: the strong verbs (starke Verben) and the mixed verbs (gemischte Verben). They form the past participle as follows:

Strong verbs: ge + stem + en

kommen (to come) → ge – komm – en (kommen, kam, gekommen)

singen (to sing) → ge – sung – en (singen, sang, gesungen)

Mixed verbs: ge + stem + t

kennen (know) → ge – kann – t (kennen, kannte, gekannt)

rennen (run) → ge – rann – t (rennen, rannte, gerannt)

Still with us? Hold on. There’s more. Very true to itself, the German language comes up with some exceptions on top of irregular verbs: 

  • If the word stem of mixed and weak verbs ends in t or d, we add – et:

warten (to wait) → ge – wart – et (warten, wartete, gewartet)

  • If the word ends on – ieren or is inseparable, we don’t need the ge-:

probieren probier – t (probieren, probierte, probiert)

verstehen verstand – en (verstehen, verstand, verstanden)

  • If the verb is separable, the ge- comes after the prefix:

einschlafen (to fall asleep) → ein – ge – schlafen (schlafen, schlief, geschlafen)

We know this is a lot to take in, especially for beginners. If unsure, you can always use a grammar checker.

What is perfect tense in German?

According to the rules, the German perfect tense is used in sentences that refer to an action in the past with a focus on the result in the present or for actions completed in the future — as long as this future is specifically designated. There is an easy rule for how to form the perfect tense with sein/haben and the past participle, but especially the past participle comes with a lot of irregularities and exceptions. Thankfully we also make an exception to the rules about usage and use the Perfekt all the time (except for modal verbs), so there is plenty of opportunity to get a feeling for what sounds right.

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Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website contentrundumstier.de.

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