It’s one of the most controversial topics in everyday German life. It affects pretty much every expat who moves here. And we’re going to explain why, unfortunately, you have little chance of avoiding it…
What is the Rundfunkbeitrag in Germany? Explaining the public service media tax
The Rundfunkbeitrag is a licence fee for public service broadcasting.
It funds the production of radio, TV, and other services from the broadcasters ARD (Das Erste), 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. This was the previous name for this fee, prior to 2013, when some changes to the law were made. It also follows why you have no choice but to pay the Rundfunkbeitrag in Germany.
Be aware that searching online for “GEZ” rather than “Rundfunkbeitrag” will throw up outdated information.
How do they know who I am and where I live?
Within a few weeks of your arrival, you’ll typically receive a letter from the authorities asking you to register for it. They’ll know who you are and where you live because they have access to information from municipal citizen registration offices (Anmeldungen or Einwohnermeldungen).
After you’ve done your Anmeldung, fumbled through getting some health insurance, opened a bank account, got a German SIM card and got some personal liability insurance, – (deep breath) – this will most likely be the next bureaucratic hassle that will occupy your time.
How does the Rundfunkbeitrag 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, which is 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. It explains in simple language what the Rundfunkbeitrag in Germany is, and how it’s administered.
Any household 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. The Rundfunkbeitrag also covers online media consumption via on-demand services such as media players, podcasts and streaming services.
Shared households (Wohngemeinschaften) are only required to pay this once 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.
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.
Can I get away with not paying it?
There’s a very long thread over on the Toytown Germany forum which I used to summarise the above information. It’s a fantastic reference, although it is over 40 pages worth of posts. The thread also extensively charts some of the personal experiences of expats who have fought the system and refused to pay the Rundfunkbeitrag in Germany.
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’re 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 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.
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. First, to protest that the forced payment of a licence fee was unconstitutional, and then again to protest that it constitutes a tax because everyone is forced to pay it.
Sounds fair enough, right? Surely 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…
Two essential arguments were put before the Bundesverfassungsgericht (the highest court in Germany):
Firstly, that the fee is collected separately from income tax, as a way to give public broadcasting companies their independence.
Secondly, it was argued that if a household can theoretically receive this service then they can also theoretically consume it, even if they make the choice not to.
On this basis, it was declared that the charges are not unconstitutional and thus, paying the Rundfunkbeitrag in Germany is not an optional choice.
Why is it so unpopular?
Payment is compulsory, even if you don’t consume their content
It seems like a logical argument: why pay for the Rundfunkbeitrag if it’s something 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.
However, libraries have no substitute, for-profit services as an alternative ( i.e. a commercial 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.
Despite this fee, these channels still run commercials
You would think, having paid €200 per year for public service broadcasting, that content would come to you without the annoyance of commercial breaks.
You would be wrong.
So maybe the commercial breaks are not as long as they are on private broadcasters such as Pro7 and RTL. Nonetheless, there are still frequent breaks for adverts on public service TV and radio.
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 don’t expect too many people who have experienced both of them to put forward a solid counterargument.
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 by the general public. Any household in the UK that watches live television, or has access to BBC content online, 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 don’t watch live television, or who haven’t signed up to the BBC’s online services, are not forced to pay the licence fee. You can easily opt out. It is also free for anybody over the age of 75.
2. Radio and TV programmes broadcast by the BBC aren’t interrupted by commercials from private advertisers. The only commercial breaks occur between programmes, and consist of one or two short adverts for upcoming BBC programmes.
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.
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 three 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 sheer extortion?
Just make sure you avoid this and be sure to de-register.