Now that you’re clear on the difference between Freiberufler and Gewerbe, what’s next? If your business activity classifies you as a Gewerbe, you’ll now be looking to register your business at the trade office. After this, you can finally start working!

In this article, we’ll run through the important details of registering a business in Germany (a process known as Gewerbeanmeldung), answering those pesky questions that had you slamming keys into Google a few seconds ago.

 

Read our full no BS Business Starter Guide:
How to start a business in Germany (2021)

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This article covers:

 

Calm the chaos of self-employment

Everything in this article can be found, with enough digging and translating, in official sources – but to save you time we’ve compiled the facts here. After all, Holvi is all about simplifying your self-employment.

 

Who needs to register a business in Germany?

This is the big question. Generally speaking, anyone wishing to become self-employed and earn profit must register their business (complete Gewerbeanmeldung) and acquire a trade licence (Gewerbeschein) at their local trade office (Gewerbeamt). This is outlined in § 14 of Germany’s Trade Regulations (Gewerbe Ordnung, or GewO). 

Oof, what a mouthful! Don’t worry, we’ve compiled a glossary at the end of this article for quick reference to these easily-forgotten terms.

Having said that, there's one crucial exception to this rule:

Freiberufler do not need to register at the Gewerbeamt.

For clarity on the term Freiberufler, visit our guide to freelancing – Freiberufler or Gewerbe

 

Note: Those pursuing a trade as a side business (known as a secondary, or ancillary, trade) will still have to register their business at their local Gewerbeamt.

 

 

 

Do I need a special licence to practice my trade in Germany?

For some trade professions, you’ll need to get a licence (Gewerbeerlaubnis) before you can register your business and start working on a self-employed basis. This is different from a regular trade licence (Gewerbeschein)

You can find a full list of trades requiring a Gewerbeerlaubnis in Germany here.

If applicable, you can apply for this special licence at your local trade office (Gewerbeamt) by submitting an online form. Alternatively, you can also apply in person.

You’ll be asked to submit some or all of the following:

  • CRB check (polizeiliches Führungszeugnis)
  • Proof of vocational qualifications (officially recognised, if foreign – see below)
  • Extract from the Commercial Register (see below)
  • Certificate of non-objection (Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung) from the tax office and town hall
  • SCHUFA credit report

To confirm whether you need a licence to practice your trade, consult with your local trade office or IHK (Chamber of Industry and Commerce). Here’s a nifty little tool to help you find your local IHK.

 

Tip – What is the IHK, anyway?

To learn more about the IHK and what it can do for your business, head over to this article.

 

What are ‘skilled trades’ in Germany?

Skilled trades (Handwerke) comprise another protected trade type in Germany. To practice a skilled trade or craft, you must enter into the Register of Qualified Craftsmen (and women, of course), or Handwerksrolle.

To do this, you need to submit a form called the ‘Application for Registration in the Register of Qualified Craftsmen’ (Antrag auf Eintragung in die Handwerksrolle). Unfortunately, this comes with a fee – but you do gain status as a skilled tradesperson, if only in name.

The category of ‘skilled trades’ in Germany is broad. It covers the following industries:

  • Electrical-, metal- and woodwork
  • Building & finishing
  • Health & personal care
  • Cleaning
  • Food
  • Glass, paper and ceramic work
  • Clothing, textiles and leather

To help you out, here are 43 skilled trades (Handwerke) that can only be practiced with specific qualifications (list includes equivalent titles in German). 

 

Tip – Are you especially crafty? Check with the HWK (Chamber of Crafts and Trades)

To dispel any doubt, you can consult with your local HWK to confirm whether your profession is classified as a skilled trade.



Recognition of foreign qualifications

Remember how some trades require a licence to be practiced in Germany? Well, this isn’t only true to Germany – other countries have equally high standards. As an expat, you might have foreign qualifications you wish to transfer to Germany. But are they recognised here?

Try this online form to see if your qualifications are valid in Germany.

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What is the Handelsregister (Commercial Register)?

Once you’ve established that your business activity will classify you a Gewerbe and you’ve gotten all the necessary licences (if applicable), it’s time to enter into the Commercial Register (Handelsregister). This is sometimes referred to as the German Trade Register, but for clarity we’ll stick to ‘Commercial Register’.

The Handelsregister is a register all businesses must be listed in, with the exception of Freiberufler, small businesses (Kleingewerbe).*

*Companies constituted under civil law (GbR) are also exempt.

Who needs to enter the Commercial Register (Handelsregister)?

Freiberufler and small businesses (Kleingewerbe) and exempt; however, all other business types will need to enter the Handelsregister.

If you’re a Freiberufler or small business, you can voluntarily enter the Handelsregister, but… it’s a big headache, comes at a small cost and doesn’t offer many advantages.

What is a Kleingewerbe?

Kleingewerbe (small business) is not to be confused with Kleinunternehmer (small business owner). These are two distinct classifications. 

Both Freiberufler and Gewerbe can register as a Kleinunternehmer and enjoy the benefits of being a small business owner (mainly, no VAT liability).

Kleingewerbe, on the other hand, refers to a commercial enterprise (i.e., not Freiberufler) whose operator (the trader) is not bound by the provisions of Commercial Code (HGB).

Kleingewerbe:

  • Do not need to enter the Handelsregister (Commercial Register)
  • Do not have to observe any commercial industry practices or special regulations
  • Are exempt from double-entry bookkeeping
  • Do not need to prepare balance sheets

Think of it as a lighter form of Gewerbe. Read more about Kleingewerbe here (link in German).

How do I enter the Commercial Register (Handelsregister)? 

If you’re neither a Freiberufler or Kleingewerbe, entering the Handelsregister is an essential step in registering your business at the trade office and starting work as a Gewerbe.

You can apply for entry into the Commercial Register with the help of a notary. Eek! Yes, sorry, this is a particularly old school system – German bureaucracy at its finest. 

Once the documents are completed, the notary will sign and send them off electronically to the appropriate office – to get technical, the Registergericht (or Amstegericht). It will then take between 14 to 21 days for your company to be entered in the Commercial Register, at which point you’ll get a Handelsregisternummer.

A Handelsregisternummer is the unique number given to each company listed in the Commercial Register (Handelsregister).

 

Tip – Double-check with the IHK

Before entering your trade in the Handelsregister, it’s a good idea to first check with your local IHK (Chamber of Industry and Commerce) to be 100% sure that your business activity does, in fact, classify you as a Gewerbe – after all, this is a lot of effort that could be avoided if you can successfully make your case for being a Freiberufler.

 

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How to register a business in Germany

Almost there! Now that you’ve got your Handelsregisternummer and any licences and permits you might require, it’s time to visit your local trade office and register your business.

What is Gewerbeanmeldung?

Gewerbeanmeldung is the process of registering your business at the trade office. Once it’s completed, you’ll receive a trade licence (Gewerbeschein) – this is your ticket to start work as a trader in Germany. 

 

Tip – Where's my trade office?

Use this site to find your local trade office.

 

What do I need to register my business in Germany?

Gewerbeanmeldung must be done in person at your local Gewerbeamt (trade office).

To register your business at the trade office, you’ll need to bring:

  • Valid ID, such as a passport or identity card (not a driving licence)
  • Registration certificate (Meldebescheinigung – obtained during Anmeldung)
  • Visa or residence permit enabling you to carry out self-employed activity
  • Handelsregisternummer (if applicable)
  • Proof of your qualifications and any permits or licences, as required

 

Tip – Bring cash just in case

Registering at the trade office usually costs between €10 – €40 (our sources assure us it’s certainly no more than €70). While we typically advocate paying expenses cashless, you might want to bring cash. You know, just in case.

 

What happens after registering my business?

Once you’ve registered your business at the Gewerbeamt, you’ll receive a stamped copy of the registration form as confirmation of your trade licence (Gewerbeschein).

After this, your information will automatically be forwarded to your local tax office (Finanzamt), as well as your local IHK and HWK, bringing about the following events:

  • You’ll fill out the Fragebogen zur Steuerlichen Erfassung online (mandatory as of 2021) and receive your tax ID number from the Finanzamt
  • You’ll also receive letters in your mailbox from your local IHK and HWK (as membership is required for traders)

If this sounds worrying, it shouldn’t. Just glance over this article on what to do when the IHK sends you a letter – the situation is the same for the HWK.

In conclusion

With so many variables at play, it’s impossible to cover all the ins and outs of registering a business in one readable article. Numerous laws and regulations exist (in German) to specify the steps you’ll need to take on your new and exciting journey as a Gewerbe. Just remember, 

If starting a business ever seems insurmountable, there are always people you can talk to… like tax advisors, the IHK and HWK.

The Gewerbeamt, Finanzamt, IHKs and HWKs might seem like daunting bureaucratic organisations, but at the end of the day they’re all staffed by people, most of whom are meant to support you.

So our final advice? Do your research (✓), talk to friends and peers and make any phone calls you need to clarify your next steps.

And if all else fails, try an in-person visit to the relevant authority. Make sure to use the Kindly Brontosaurus posture and, of course, practice your very best German!

 

Glossary

German

English

Finanzamt

Tax office

Freiberufler

Practitioner of a liberal profession

Freie Berufe

Liberal professions

Gewerbe

Trade (commercial activity)

Gewerbeamt

Trade office

Gewerbetreibende

Trader

Gewerbeanmeldung

Trade registration, or business registration

Gewerbesteuer

Trade tax

Handelsregister

Commercial Register, or Trade Register

Handelsregisternummer

Unique number given to each company listed in the Commercial Register

Handwerk

Skilled trade

IHK (Industrie-und Handelskammer)

Chamber of Industry and Commerce

Kleingewerbe

Small business – refers to no business registration with the trade office

Kleinunternehmer

Small business owner – refers to no VAT liability



Want to learn more about freelancing as an expat in Germany?

The world of self-employment in Germany is full of challenges, but you’re ready for it! We hope this article helps you understand the process of registering as a trader in Germany. If you want to explore more expat questions, check out: