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German citizens living abroad: What does this mean for the tax return?

Living abroad – Tax law in Germany

Moving abroad does not guarantee exemption from tax liability in Germany. Anyone residing abroad as a German citizen should obtain detailed information about the tax aspects.

The residence decides – Unlimited tax liability

The German tax law ties the tax liability basically to the residence. Anyone residing in Germany is liable to tax in Germany. And that regardless of where he earns his income. Even if you did not spend time in Germany during the fiscal year in question, the tax liability is based on your place of residence. The tax authorities assume your unlimited tax liability as long as you have a residence in Germany. The majority of countries handle the tax treatment of their citizens in a similar way. Only the US applies an even stricter tax law. Citizenship as a US citizen or the possession of a green card is already sufficient to be taxed in the USA. Residing abroad does not release US Americans from their tax liability in the US.

The reverse case – Limited tax liability

Employees and self-employed persons who earn their income in Germany, even though they are not resident in Germany, are usually subject to the so-called limited tax liability. For the income earned in Germany, you must submit a tax return to a competent German tax office for the relevant fiscal year.

Income in several countries – Double taxation

The so-called double taxation treaties refer to contracts between two states in order to protect taxpayers from double taxation. The double taxation agreement is governed by international law and thus provides transnational legal certainty. Germany has concluded double taxation treaties with most of the world’s countries. Frontier workers, who pay taxes for their work in one country, do not have to pay their income tax again in their country of residence. Special arrangements have been made with France, Austria and Switzerland. Employees who work in these countries but are resident in Germany pay their taxes in Germany.

Principles of the double taxation agreement

The intergovernmental agreements to avoid double taxation are based on four criteria:

  1. country of residence
  2. source country
  3. world income
  4. territoriality

The principle of the country of residence

According to the country of residence principle, a worker or self-employed person is taxable where he resides.

Source country principle

According to the principle of the source country, a worker pays his taxes where he generates his income.

World income principle

The principle of world income applies to workers who earn their income in more than two countries. The principle taxes the income generated worldwide where the residence is located.


This principle states that only that part of an income is taxed in a state which has been generated in the territory of the country concerned.


Which principle applies when residing abroad?

Which principle is used for which case basically depends on the double taxation treaties that have been reached between the individual countries. In German tax law, the principle of country of residence and the world income principle applies to citizens resident in Germany. For non-residents in Germany, however, the source country principle and the principle of territoriality apply. If you live abroad, then it is very important that you inform yourself about the double taxation agreements between Germany and the country of your current residence. Only then do you learn how the tax law between the country of your residence and the German country of origin is regulated.

Income from a rental in Germany

If you live abroad and you do not earn any income here, then you are basically no longer taxable in Germany. However, as long as you still have a property through which you generate income from a rental in Germany, then this income is subject to German tax law. If you still keep a rental apartment in Germany, then you are just as unlimited taxable in Germany. Since a holiday apartment in Germany can also be considered as a tax-relevant residence, you should thoroughly consult your personal tax liability before moving abroad.


Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Also published on Medium.

Published inDigital nomad

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