What is the Rundfunkbeitrag? Explaining Germany's Most Hated “Tax”
We take a look here at one of the most controversial topics in everyday German life and one which affects pretty much everybody who moves here. Yes, we're taking a look at what is the Rundfunkbeitrag and as we'll explain, unfortunately you have little choice but to pay it.
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The Rundfunkbeitrag is most simply described as a licence fee for public service broadcasting.
It covers the cost of producing radio and TV programmes, as well as some of the offshoot services, from the TV stations ARD (Das Erste) and ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) and Deutschlandradio.
This also includes the regional TV and radio broadcasters such as SWR, HR, BR, RBB, NDR, MDR, WDR etc, which are also publicly funded bodies.
In some circles you may hear the Rundfunkbeitrag referred to as GEZ, which is the previous name this fee went by pre-changes to the law which came into force at the beginning of 2013 which determined legally since then why you have to pay the Rundfunkbeitrag. However, searching online for “what is the GEZ” rather than “what is the Rundfunkbeitrag” will throw up outdated information.
You will typically receive a letter from the authorities responsible for administering payment, asking you to register within a few weeks of your arrival in Germany, They know who you are and where you live because they are allowed to access information from municipal citizen registration offices (Anmeldungen or Einwohnermeldungen).
How does it work?
The fee is payable in quarterly instalments. Since 1st April 2015, this fee has been set at €17.50 per month. It is levied per household, and not per person. One of the few saving graces of the system.
It's probably best to let the Rundfunkbeitragsservice explain it though. Their downloadable guide in English is actually a very good overview of how it works, if you ignore some of the propaganda contained in there. It explains in simple language what is the Rundfunkbeitrag, as well as how it is administered.
Any household in Germany is legally obliged to pay this quarterly fee, regardless of whether or not you watch the TV channels or listen to the radio stations covered by it. It also covers media consumption online via on-demand services such as media players, streaming services accessed online via computer or smartphone, as well as in-car audio.
Shared households (Wohngemeinschaften) are only required to pay this per household, so 4 students living together for example would only be liable for paying the fee once. My tip here would be: Don't be the chump who ends up being the bill payer!
Why is it so unpopular?
Payment is compulsory, even if you don't consume their content
It seems like a logical argument to question why you have to pay the Rundfunkbeitrag if it's something which you never use. There are arguments for and against this. Not everybody uses libraries for example, but they are funded through taxation and are seen as a service which is generally there for the public good. The main argument against this is that there is not a substitute, for-profit service, as an alternative to libraries i.e. a service for borrowing books and recorded media. Therefore the vast majority of people do not object to funding public libraries through taxation. Whereas on the other hand, there are numerous (commercial) providers of television channels and on-demand services.
By international standards, German public service TV is poor quality
Judging a product to be good or bad is always something of a subjective argument. Nonetheless, I have tried to objectively argue that compared to the BBC, German public service broadcasting costs the taxpayer more and is inferior in quality (see next section). I do not expect too many people who have experienced both of them to put forward a solid counterargument.
Despite this fee these channels still run commercials
You would think that if you are paying in excess of €200 per year for public service broadcasting, then there would not be any commercials on the TV and radio. You would be wrong. So maybe the commercial breaks are not as long as on private broadcasters such as Pro7 and RTL but nonetheless, there are frequent breaks for adverts on public service TV and radio.
Let's compare with the BBC
So, I think it's fair to say that I am not a huge fan of the Rundfunkbeitrag. Allow me to justify this view with a simple comparison against the BBC.
The BBC is a respected public broadcaster, whose programmes and content are exported to all corners of the world. It is also funded by an annual licence fee of £147 (around €164), paid for by the general public. Any household which owns a television must pay the licence fee.
Aside from the quality of the programming and the lower price, however, there are 2 key differences.
1. People who do not own a TV (or now a computer or smartphone, which, fair enough, I know is pretty much nobody) are not forced to pay the licence fee. It is not a payment that you are automatically forced into signing up to. It is also free for anybody over the age of 75.
2. Radio and TV programmes broadcast by the BBC do not carry commercials from private advertisers. There are no commercial breaks, except for adverts for upcoming programmes or concerts from the BBC. (BBC World, BBC Prime, BBC America and so on are different, as they are not free-to-air British TV channels)
So, in summary, the BBC offers better programming, at a lower cost to the licence fee payer, and with no commercial advertisement breaks in their programming.
Isn't this effectively just another tax?
When is a tax not a tax? When it's called the Rundfunkbeitrag of course!
This has been an ongoing debate for years. Reforms were made to the law in 2013 to make this charge payable by all households, regardless of whether or not they own media devices.
Following this change, it was taken all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany, the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Karlsruhe, to protest that the forced payment of a public broadcaster licence fee was first of all unconstitutional and then again to protest that it constitutes a tax because everyone is forced to pay it.
Sounds fair enough, right? Any forced transfer of money from a citizen to a state-run institution can reasonably be considered to be a tax.
Ah, but no. It's not a tax…
Firstly, the fee is collected separately from income tax because this is considered a way to give public broadcasting companies their independence. Secondly, if a household can theoretically receive this service then they can also theoretically consume it, even if they make the choice not to. This was essentially the argument upon which the Bundesverfassungsgericht (the highest court in Germany) declared that the charges are not unconstitutional and thus is the reason why paying the Rundfunkbeitrag is not an optional choice.
What happens if I don't pay it?
If you choose to ignore the correspondence from the Rundfunkbeitragsservice, usually the process is as follows:
You will receive numerous reminders to register, which will ultimately result in them forcibly registering you and assigning a number to your case. You will then receive demands for payment, which will have late fees added to them if you don't pay. If you ignore these, your case will be referred to a collection agency who will then pursue the payment through the legal channels available to them.
Ultimately, they will give your case to a bailiff. If you continue to refuse to pay, or do not allow the bailiff access to your apartment, then they may freeze your bank account and take what is owed plus any administration fees they have incurred for collecting the money.
There is a very long thread over on the Toytown Germany forum which I have used to summarise the above information and which is a fantastic reference, although it is over 40 pages worth of posts. The thread also extensively charts some of the personal experiences of expats in Germany who have fought the system and refused to pay the Rundfunkbeitrag. Whilst I definitely would not condone or recommend this, I take my hat off to them for their stance against what seems to be an overpriced, poor quality product which we are all forced to pay for whether we want to or not.
Essentially, if you are only going to stay in Germany for a few months (a semester at a German university, for example), and do not plan living here again, then you can probably get away with not paying it without any serious consequences.
For any other circumstances, it's probably not worth the stress fighting the system because it is highly likely that you will lose in the end.
Make sure to deregister when you leave!
When you leave Germany, make sure that you deregister (Abmelden) with the Rundfunkbeitrag service before you leave.
I know someone who lived here, moved back to the US, and then returned to Germany almost 3 years later. Because she never de-registered from the Rundfunkbeitrag, they came after her for 3 years' worth of back payments. Even though she could prove that she was not physically in the country at that time.
Is this madness or extortion? You choose. So just make sure you avoid this and be sure to de-register.
My 2 cents' worth to conclude
Unlike some of the strongest opponents of the Rundfunkbeitrag, I am generally in favour of taxpayer-funded public service broadcasting. I grew up watching the BBC and while it may not be perfect, it is a hugely popular and respected institution throughout the world (well, except maybe in the White House!).
As long as it is politically neutral and is not influenced or coerced by the state, I feel that a non-commercial broadcasting service can bring educational and cultural benefits to its citizens and stimulate democratic debate.
However, I am not convinced that ARD and ZDF are entirely politically neutral. If you watch how Brexit and the Trump Presidency are being reported, there is clearly bias in their coverage. Whatever your opinions on either of them, this is not how an independent, public service broadcasting service should behave.
Compare coverage on ARD and ZDF versus what is reported in the Swiss public service broadcasting media and you will see what I mean. Being forced to pay over €200 per year for this “privilege” does seem to be excessive and unfair.