The prices of education around the globe have skyrocketed in the last few decades. The average annual fee for tuition and required services at public institutions was 7,250 U.S. dollars in 2019. The average price at private institutions is even higher. The United States is an infamous case, but it’s not the only country with such price tags on degrees. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and many others are on the top of the list with the highest tuition prices for their study programs. While the US has the most internationally-top ranked institutions in the globe, it has a tough contender.
Germany has the third most internationally top-ranked institutions in the world. In addition to those, it has nationally top-ranked universities which are overlooked by international rankings due to their topic specialties (art academies, applied sciences, etc.). So what makes German universities stand out among the others? The price tag. German public universities do not charge tuition. There are a few exceptions (discussed in a separate section later in this article), however, the majority of universities are free.
The above applies to all students who wish to apply to those universities. Therefore, international students from outside of Germany and the EU may also take advantage of tuition-free universities. The following article will deconstruct the concept of free-tuition in Germany. From an explanation of how this works, exceptions, to how one can apply; all important topics will be introduced. For those who are already experts on this topic, feel free to skip to our article on tuition-free universities taught in English.
Further ReadingTuition-free Universities in Germany
Why is it free and what exactly is “free” education?
In Germany, education is treated as a public good and something that should be accessible to all, like water or air. It’s a right which they take seriously. This is illustrated in how free education transcends through different parts of society, even above higher education. To start, childcare is also free. In some German states “kitas,” or daycares, and kindergarten are free for all children from birth. The restrictions vary among each state. In the kitas, children are prepared for attending school and socialize with other children.
Once children are six years old, they are required to go to school. Since most German schools are run by the state, there is no charge for children to attend; this is another testament to Germany’s prioritization of education as a public good. Additionally, Germany provides state funding for German students. The Federal Education and Training Assistance Act (BAföG), enables students to choose a program that best suits their interests without worrying about financing their student life. BAföG is need-based and granted if the student’s own financial means, or those means of the family/parents/spouse, are insufficient.
Likely the most important question students raise, is to whether study programs in Germany are completely and 100% free. The answer is both yes and no. Public universities in Germany do not charge tuition. Therefore, the study program and education part of the degree is free. However, there are other factors one must consider: social service provided by the university, administrative fees to process students, pub transport, and more. While students do not pay tuition, they may have marginal costs congruent with their studies. The chart below illustrates the differences between these costs, referred to as a semester contribution, and other tuition fees.
Costs in German Higher Education
|Tuition Fee||vs.||Semester Contribution|
|pays for study program||pays for administrative costs, social services provided by university, local public transportation ticket for unlimited use throughout semester|
|averages 5,000 - 7,000 € per semester||averages 200 - 300 € per semester|
|charged by private universities and specialized professional degrees (e.g. L.LM, MBA, etc.)*||charged by all universities|
*In the southwest of Germany lies the state of Baden-Württemberg. Baden-Württemberg has a mandatory tuition fee of 1,500 € per semester to all non-EU students.
As you can see in the table above, there are many benefits to the semester contribution. Most notably, it includes a student transport ticket. Free public transportation is rare at universities abroad. Germany prides itself on making the region accessible to its students. Such transportation passes can cost several thousand euros. However, this is automatically included in your semester contribution. Keep in mind that a semester contribution is not a tuition fee. Students in Germany do not pay for their education from public universities.
Programs which may charge tuition
When students hear that education in Germany is free and later learn that not all study programs are tuition-free, they think it must be a trick. However, there is a reason that some programs charge tuition fees in Germany. For example, private universities charge tuition; this is true around the globe in and out of Germany. Such cases are displayed below, along with descriptions of how and why these tuition charges exist:
Executive master’s programs are professional master’s programs which are offered at many universities. They may charge a marginal tuition fee. Some examples being an L.LM, MBA, MPA, or the Erasmus Mundus joint master’s degree.
The state of Baden-Württemberg
The state of Baden-Württemberg in the south of Germany has a mandatory tuition fee of 1,500 € per semester. This applies to all non-EU students. Universities in Heidelberg, Freiburg, Stuttgart, and Constance, will, therefore, charge this tuition fee.
In Germany, private university tuition fees average 5,000 € - 7,000 € per semester. Private universities charge tuition fees to all students, not just international students. In spite of these fees, private institutions are still very popular in Germany.
Keep in mind that the majority of study programs are free of tuition. Therefore, don’t be discouraged if you are searching for a free program and find others that charge tuition on your search. Our StudyFinder’s filters can help you with this process. Furthermore, note that there are funding options should your dream study program charge tuition.
Internationally renowned universities: also free!
Germany holds the third spot for the most internationally top-ranked universities around the globe. Because public universities dominate the German higher education landscape, all of the top-ranked universities are tuition-free depending on the program. Take a look at the top 5 internationally top-ranked universities in Germany below:
The universities are just a few of the well-known universities in Germany. There are even more universities that are nationally top-ranked German universities. Don’t hesitate if the university of your choice isn’t on these lists. Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) are more sought out for certain styles of education and topics.
Further ReadingPublic Universities in Germany: A guide for international students (2020/21)
Application process overview
The application process can sometimes be overwhelming for students. Therefore, we have simplified it below in just 3 easy steps to help guide you on the basics of applying. These steps are simplified but provide a useful overview for those who don’t really know where to start.
Search for your study program
This process requires a significant amount of research as well as knowledge to know how to find a great comparison of different programs. We have taken the liberty to do this entire step for you and collected all of this data (language requirements, admissions requirements, deadlines, program info, etc.). Our StudyFinder is the largest database of English-language master’s programs, so make sure to use it to your disposal!
Collect required documents
Once you have narrowed down the selection to your top programs, you should observe all of the requirements to apply and submit all documents by the submission deadlines. Be sure to begin this process early as some documents, such as official notarized documents and certified translations, may take longer to acquire. Be sure to inform yourself on how the application process is via Uni-Assist should this be relevant for you.
The final step is to submit all official documents to your desired universities. If you are applying via Uni-Assist, then you only need to submit such required documents once. If you are applying directly to universities as well as other programs that use Uni-Assist, be sure to submit requested data to all parties. This may include the submission of hard copies via mail as well as digital copies. Consult the admissions office at your preferred programs for further process inquiries.
Funding: options for international students
Though most students attend a tuition-free program from a public university, there are still other living costs to consider. Accommodation, food, drinks, and travel costs are all normal costs in student life in Germany. Though students may not be paying tuition, they still need to consider these respective costs in their budget. Luckily, there are many scholarship and funding options for international students in Germany. This also includes non-EU students; any student can apply for funding! Below is a brief introduction to some options on how to fund your student life:
To aid in covering student costs, there are many funding options available to students. While you may be aware of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), there are additional opportunities for scholarships. An introduction to scholarships is recommended for students who aren’t as familiar with the German scholarships landscape.
Further Reading10 things you need to know about scholarships in Germany
During your studies in Germany, you are generally allowed to do 120 full days or 240 half-days of paid work and take small student jobs. In exceptional circumstances, your local foreigners office may impose further restrictions. Student jobs are common and can range from positions on campus at your university, to also positions working in local restaurants or cafes.
Education in Germany has a reputation around the globe for being free. Not only is this true, but students can also opt to study at international-top ranked institutions which are also tuition-free. Any student, non-EU as well, can reap the benefits of these study opportunities. Some important takeaways:
- A semester contribution is a marginal contribution (200 - 300 €) required by all universities in Germany. This is not a tuition fee. Public universities in Germany do not charge tuition and anyone (including non-EU students) can apply.
- Even the top-ranked universities in Germany do not charge tuition. Because public universities dominate the higher education landscape in Germany, the top institutions are all public. Yes, even internationally top-ranked universities are free. Remember exceptions to the free rule: private, professional programs, and the state of Baden-Württemberg.
- For those students interested in programs that charge tuition, or anyone who wants funding to cover student living costs: there are many scholarship opportunities. Even non-EU students have a multitude of funding options to their disposal.