How to get your income tax return in Germany without getting a headache

How to get your income tax return in Germany without getting a headache

by Erin McGann

Updated November 7, 2022

Filing your income tax declaration can be a challenge no matter what country you’re in, but if you’re new to Germany you’ve got to wrap your head around a whole new set of regulations for your Einkommensteuererklärung (income tax return). If you don’t yet speak much German, it can be very intimidating to look at all those long German words and § symbols all over the place. Don’t panic, you can definitely do this. The average tax return in Germany is €1072, so it’s worth persevering through the process. 

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Do I have to file a tax return in Germany?

Good question! There are certain situations when you don’t have to fill in the paperwork – generally speaking if you have the same employer all year, you’re not married, and you haven’t earned any extra income on top of your salary, you may not need to file your taxes. The Tax Office goes with whatever your company has withheld from your salary as the correct amount. However, freelancers, the self-employed, married people in the tax classes 3 and 5, and many other situations, require you to file your taxes in Germany

What documents do I need for a tax return in Germany?

The first step in making your income tax declaration in Germany is gathering your documents. Begin this process early, as you may have to do some additional work if you don’t have all of these details to hand. You will need:

  • Your Tax ID, Steuer-ID, which is a permanent number you receive once from the Federal Central Tax Office, Bundeszentralamt für Steuern
  • Your Tax Number, Steuernummer
  • Your year-end employment tax statement, Lohnsteuerbescheinigung, which your employer will give you at the end of the financial year
  • Details of any work-related expenses or sick pay
  • Details of any child-related expenses like education, KiTA, or daycare fees and the amount of child benefit payments, Kindergeld, you received

How do I file taxes as a freelancer?

If you are freelancing, some of the details of what documents you need will be different and we have you covered there too in our guide to filing taxes as a freelancer

What is the difference between a Tax ID and a Tax Number?

The German tax system is slowly modernizing, and these two identifying numbers are an interim step. The old system used a Tax Number, Steuernummer, that changed every time you moved to a new district with your new local registration, Anmeldung. This number has 13 digits. However, people move more often now and often file their taxes online, so the changing regional numbers didn’t make much sense anymore. In 2008, the German government introduced the Tax ID, Steuer-ID, which you receive once in your life and remains the same always. This number has 11 digits. Your Tax Number should appear on any previous tax returns, but if you can’t find it, you can contact your local Finanzamt to request it. One day, you will only need your Tax ID. 

It’s worth noting that your Tax ID is not the same thing as your social security number in Germany. 

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How to get your income tax return in Germany

Can you even file your taxes online in Germany? That’s a fair question, Germany is not always up-to-speed when it comes to online services. Thankfully, lately that’s been changing. There are a few different ways of filing your taxes in Germany. You can:

  • File your taxes yourself by post
  • Use the online portal ELSTER in German
  • Sign up with an English-language online tax service like SteuerGo or Taxfix
  • Work with a tax advisory group, Lohnsteuerhilfevereine
  • Hire a tax advisor

As a salaried employee, filing your taxes can be quite straightforward, even if you’re entering tax deductions for childcare or business expenses. If you decide to use ELSTER, know that you will need to sign up for a login ID that they will mail to you, so it’s not an instant process. 

A tax advisory group, Lohnsteuerhilfevereine requires you to pay a fee to join, and then they will help you figure out how to do a tax declaration in Germany. There are many different organizations across Germany, look for one in your local area. These groups are likely to be less expensive than hiring an individual tax advisor. 

When is the tax filing deadline in Germany?

The tax year is from January to December, and you have until July 31st of the following year to send in your information. For example, you would have filed your 2020 tax return by July 31st, 2021. It is possible to get extensions, and if you work with a tax advisor or tax advisory group, you can get an extension on your deadline. You can also apply for an extension individually from your local Finanzamt as well. 

Can I declare my income tax in Germany in English?

No, not if you’re filling in the official forms and sending them to your local tax office, or if you’re doing it online through the official portal ELSTER. However, there are several services that will walk you through the process in English, filling in the German forms for you. SteuerGo and Taxfix are two of the biggest ones. If you decide to go through a tax advisor, they will handle all the forms for you. 

Filing taxes is stressful – but you can do it

The process of filing your income taxes in Germany can be overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it you will be fine. Don’t panic if you find all the official German difficult to understand, even native speakers find it hard to process. They even have a term for it: Amstdeustch or Papierdeutsch. These terms refer to the legalistic and bureaucratic German you see in letters from the tax office, the bank, and the immigration office. Take your time and ask for help, you’re not the only one out there that finds filing taxes a bit challenging!

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Erin McGann is a Canadian freelance writer focusing on travel, living abroad, parenting, history, and culture. After nearly a decade living in the UK, Erin settled in Heidelberg, Germany with her husband and son. Dragging her family to every castle and open-air museum is a favorite activity, along with sewing, cooking, and weaving. You can check out her travel blog, and follow her obsession with half-timbered houses on her Instagram account.

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