Is College Free in Germany?

Germany's public universities are free to students from anywhere in the world — but enrollment and visa requirements take some navigating.
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  • Europe is known for high taxes and plush social benefits, including free college.
  • Despite the hype, just a handful of European countries waive student tuition fees.
  • Even fewer offer free college to non-EU students — Germany is one exception.

Germany is just about the size of Montana in geographic terms, but this Western European country — birthplace of intellectual greats like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche — is full of academic opportunities. Germany boasts some 450 institutions of higher education, hundreds more than neighboring countries.

Around half of all German universities are public, and German public schools waive student tuition fees. In the last decade, the country extended free college to all students. In 2014, Germany officially eliminated tuition for most bachelor's and many master's degree students, regardless of country of origin.

Students must still consider administrative fees, the cost of living, and the expenses required to fund the visa process, but going to college in Germany is nominally free to all. Semester fees, which range from €100-€350, cover student organizations, university cafeterias, and a (highly discounted, often mandatory) public transport ticket.

One exception to Germany's free college system: the state of Baden-Württemberg, which charges non-European Union citizens €1,500 per semester to attend college.

Going to College in Germany

Going to college in Europe looks a lot like going to college in the U.S. ever since the Bologna Process established a coherent higher education system across the European Union (EU). On both sides of the pond, a three-cycle framework for academic qualifications confers bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.

While students at German universities now receive bachelor's or master's degrees, not the traditional European "diplom" and "magister," other higher education processes remain distinctly German.

German universities don't use standardized college entrance exams, relying instead on GPA. However, they do require students to have received an Abitur prior to enrolling. The Abitur is a qualification granted in Germany to students who successfully complete secondary education and final exams. It is considered a step above the U.S. high school diploma.

International students who do not hold an Abitur may acquire the degree through a one-year course at a Studienkolleg, a college preparatory school, which is also free.

Many international students who wish to attend college in Germany submit their applications via Uni-Assist, a national service provider that evaluates student applications. It costs €75 for the first application and €30 for each additional one for the same semester.

Germany, unlike the U.S., requires all college applicants to choose their degree programs prior to enrolling. Before applying to a German university, you must pick a course of study. And before applying for a German student visa, you must be enrolled in a German university.

Germany's Student Visa Requirements

U.S. colleges send out acceptance letters months before the first day of classes. German universities may let students know they're accepted as little as one month before the semester begins. It's possible to move to Germany before applying, which may also be the best approach when it comes to housing — most German universities do not offer student housing.

For international students already in Germany, the student visa process occurs at the Ausländerbehörde, the foreign office tasked with helping non-EU citizens get visas. International students still in their home countries should contact the nearest German consulate.

Student visa requirements in Germany include proof of enrollment, proof of health insurance, and proof of financial independence. International students must provide proof that they can financially sustain themselves. To do so, they must have roughly €8,000 in a German bank account at the beginning of the school year, each year.

That may sound like a lot of cold, hard euros, but at under $10,000, this sum barely covers a year's worth of living expenses. Students who don't have enough money by themselves may ask a parent or a permanent German resident to sign a statement promising full financial support, with the bank statements to prove sufficient income. They can also get a loan from the German government, or apply for scholarships.

Germany offers fewer scholarships than the U.S., particularly for undergraduates. One well-funded resource is the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst). DAAD awards competitive, merit-based grants to students of all disciplines and degree levels, from undergraduates to postdoctoral scholars and faculty.

Once you're in Germany, you can always make a little extra money by tutoring or getting a part-time job. Student visas permit students to work either 90 full-time days a year or 180 part-time days.