Self-employment

A person is considered to be self-employed (selbstständig tätig) if he/she works with his/her own equipment on his/her own premises and usually has several clients and/or customers. He/she decides which orders to accept and when and where to work. In the case of self-employment, the person in question is often contractually obligated to perform a certain service or to deliver a specific piece of work. In the cultural and creative sector, this applies to designers, authors and visual artists.

In the case of self-employed persons, the German system distinguishes between

  • freelancers (Freiberufler*innen) – independent professions (freie Berufe), also called "catalogue professions” ("Katalogberufe") and
  • businesspersons (Gewerbetreibenden).

As a rule, independent artistic activities are included in the independent professions, provided that the focus is on the artistic act. The differences between freelancing and operating a business are explained in more detail in the Freelancing or operating a business? section.

Residence status
Whether or not a person is permitted to take up self-employment depends on his/her residence status. The residence documents or ancillary provisions stipulate whether such an activity is permitted or not.

  • Formally recognized asylum seekers with a residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) (Section 25 German Residence Act – Residence on humanitarian grounds) or artists and creatives with a settlement permit (Niederlassungserlaubnis) have full access to the labour market and may therefore also be self-employed. The residence documents include a reference that states "Gainful activity permitted" ("Erwerbstätigkeit gestattet").
    In individual cases, the residence documents may contain the reference "Employment permitted. Self-employment permitted after authorisation by the Foreigners' Registration Office" ("Beschäftigung gestattet. Selbstständigkeit nach Erlaubnis der Ausländerbehörde gestattet"). In this case, an application for authorization to take up self-employment must be submitted to the Foreigners' Registration Office (Ausländerbehörde).
  • In the case of persons with a residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis) that was issued for a specific purpose and not on the basis of a formally recognized asylum application, information on the authorisation to take up self-employment can be found in the residence documents (Section 21 German Residence Act – Self-employment). In most cases, authorisation must first be sought before taking up self-employment.
  • Asylum seekers with a temporary residence permit (Aufenthaltsgestattung) or persons with exceptional leave to remain (Duldung) are not permitted to take up self-employment.


The Foreigners' Registration Office (Ausländerbehörde) is responsible for granting authorisation for self-employment where required. Since the German system distinguishes between operating a business (Gewerbe) and freelancing (Freiberuflichkeit) for self-employed activities, it is important to note what type of activity the residence title permits (see here for the distinction between freelancing and operating a business).

Example:
A visual artist has a residence permit to work as a freelancer (Section 21 (5) German Residence Act – freelance activities). He would like to open a gallery.

The operation of a gallery is considered a business enterprise (Gewerbe). The residence permit issued to the artist permitting him to work as a freelancer (Freiberufler) (Section 21 (5) German Residence Act – freelance activities) does not entitle him to open a business without further authorisation. Before he may open a gallery, he must submit an additional application for a different residence permit to the Foreigners' Registration Office (Ausländerbehörde) (Section 21 (1) German Residence Act – Self-employment).


The requirements for applying for authorisation to engage in freelancing (freiberufliche Tätigkeit) differ from those when seeking authorisation to engage in a business enterprise (Gewerbe):
In addition to the applicant's curriculum vitae, proof of health insurance, tenancy agreement, etc. the following are required for the granting of a residence permit for a freelance activity:

  • proof that the applicant is able to make a living (e.g. financing plan, proof of regular income, if available),
  • if working on a fee basis, fee agreements or letters of intent,
  • from the age of 45, proof of retirement planning, etc.

The application is subject to a fee (in Berlin, for example, up to 100 euros depending on the complexity of the case).

Detailed information on the requirements and documents to be submitted is available online from the Foreigners' Registration Offices (Foreigners' Registration Offices search page on the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge) website). Examples of information provided by the authorities in Berlin can be found here.

As a rule, the approval of the Federal Employment Agency (BA) (Bundesagentur für Arbeit (BA)) is also required. This agency is consulted automatically by the Foreigners' Registration Office.

A residence permit for a business enterprise may be issued, for example, to company founders and sole proprietors. The prerequisite is that there is an economic interest or local need and that the activity can be expected to have a positive impact on the economy. To this end, the applicant must submit a business plan, business concept, financing plan, etc. The conditions for granting a residence permit for a business enterprise are generally stricter than those applicable to freelance work.  
The application is subject to a fee (in Berlin, for example, up to 100 euros depending on the complexity of the case).

Detailed information on the requirements and documents to be submitted is available online from the Foreigners' Registration Offices (Link to the Foreigners' Registration Offices search page on the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge) website). Examples of information provided by the authorities in Berlin can be found here.

As a rule, the approval of the Federal Employment Agency (BA) is also required. This agency is consulted automatically by the Foreigners' Registration Office.

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