Visa or Residence Permit? What's the Difference?

For those leaving their country for the first time, here is a quick definition of the difference between a visa (Visum) and a residence permit (Aufenthaltserlaubnis):

A visa is a document saying you have been approved to enter the Federal Republic of Germany. A visa can only be applied for outside the Federal Republic of Germany (in your home country) and must be presented to border control upon arrival.

A residence permit is a document granting you the right to stay and live in the Federal Republic of Germany for a certain limited period of time. You must have a valid reason for wanting to reside in German (e.g. studying). A residence permit can only be applied for after entering the Federal Republic of Germany.

For most non-EU citizens traveling to the Federal Republic of Germany to study, both will be needed: a visa to enter the country and then a residence permit to stay here.

Visas: Who Exactly Needs One?

Visa-free Entry for Selected Countries:

Citizens of a few select countries are exempt from having to obtain a visa prior to traveling to Germany. A visa to enter Germany is not required for citizens of Australia, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, Israel, Japan, The Republic of Korea (South Korea), New Zealand, and the United States of America as well as countries belonging to the European Union.

Students from these countries can simply travel to Germany and then apply for a student residence permit within three months upon arrival. (An exception applies to citizens of the European Union. EU-Citizens do not need a student residence permit to study in Germany.)

For a complete and updated list maintained by the Federal Foreign Office, click here.

Visa Requirements for Citizens of All Other Countries:

Most non-EU nationals require a visa to enter the Federal Republic of Germany. Before traveling to the Federal Republic of Germany, you must submit an application for a visa to the Germany Embassy or the German Consulate General in your country. The visa costs €60 and a processing time of two to three months should be calculated. We recommend applying for either a Student Visa (Studentenvisum), a visa for studying at a specific university in Germany or a Student Applicant Visa (Studienbewerbervisum), a visa for studying in Germany when it is not yet decided exactly which university you will be attending because you have not yet received an acceptance letter from the HCU or from some other university.

ATTENTION! Please be aware that certain types of visas cannot be converted into a Student Residence Permit. If you have applied for and obtained a visa of the type listed below, you will be required to leave Germany and from your own country will have to again apply for a visa:

- Tourist Visa (Touristenvisum)
- Visitor's Visa (Besuchsvisum)
- Business Visa (Geschäftsvisum)
- Language Course Visa (Sprachkursvisum ohne Studienabsicht)

Please apply for a Student (or Student Applicant) Visa if you want to study or complete your Ph.D. in Germany.

Schengen Visas cannot be converted into a Student Residence Permit. Those entering the country on a Schengen Visa will be required to leave Germany within three months and will have to apply for a Student (or Student Applicant) Visa.

Links for Further Information:

German Missions Abroad – A List of Embassies and Consulates Worldwide provided by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.

Visa Regulations – Information on the Federal Foreign Office of Germany's website about visa requirements, visa exemptions, visa fees, visa application procedures, Schengen regulations, etc. Includes links to downloadable visa application forms in several languages.

Visa Application Process for International Students and Applicants

Student Applicant Visa (§16 (1a) AufenthG)

As an alternative to applying for a Student Visa, you may want to apply for a Student Applicant Visa (Studienbewerbervisum) instead. If you choose to take advantage of this option, you'll have the benefits of being able to:

- avoid unnecessarily long waiting times applying for a standard student visa,

- promptly begin your studies at the HafenCity University Hamburg right at the beginning of the semester and not after classes have begun,

- participate in all of the preparatory classes,  information sessions, orientation seminars and events designed specifically for international students and offered during the International Welcome Week two weeks before semester begin, and

- register for the classes and seminars you want to take before they are full and before the registration period closes.


Those who choose to apply for a Student Applicant Visa, instead of a Student Visa, can immediately begin the visa application process without needing to wait for an acceptance letter from the HCU. By beginning the process earlier, you make it more likely you'll receive your visa on-time and can travel to Hamburg early enough to get settled in and begin your semester punctually.

In order to apply for a Student Applicant Visa you will need an Application Confirmation (Bewerberbestätigung) from the school where you applied. The HafenCity University will send you your Application Confirmation via e-mail shortly after you have applied online via the HCU's AHOI portal.

The Application Confirmation is simply a document confirming the HCU has successfully received your application. It does not predict whether or not you will be accepted to study at the HafenCity University! You will receive this information in a later correspondence in the form of either a Letter of Acceptance (Zulassungsbescheid) or a Rejection Letter (Ablehnungsbescheid).

Please be aware: Receiving an Application Confirmation and obtaining a Student Applicant Visa does not entitle you to be given entrance to the HCU. Your application will be processed of its own merit. This means, once you acquire your Student Applicant Visa, you should hold onto it and wait until after you have received an Acceptance Letter before traveling to Germany.

If you choose to travel to the Federal Republic of Germany before receiving a decision from the HCU and your visa expires while you are here, you can ask for an extension from the Immigration Office by providing them with a copy of your Application Confirmation. The Immigration Office can extend your visa until the HafenCity University has made a decision about your application.

When applying for a Student Applicant Visa, the Germany Embassy or the German Consulate General in your country will ask to see an Application Confirmation and will check to see if the following requirements are met:

- The applicant has a high school diploma which is valid and recognized in Germany.

- The applicant has a valid passport or a valid replacement passport.

- The applicant has enough financial support for the duration of their stay. The Federal Foreign Office has set this amount to be 720 Euros. This amount is based on the BAföG-Höchstsatz, an estimate for the average cost of living for university students not living with their parents provided by the Financial Assistance for Federal Education Act’s (BAföG).

Once an Acceptance Letter has been received, a Student Applicant Visa can be changed into a temporary Student Residence Permit. It is not necessary to leave the country while undergoing this process.

Please be aware that in applying for a Student Applicant Visa instead of the traditional Student Visa, you are taking a small risk. It is possible that after paying the €60, you may have the bad luck of receiving a Rejection Letter from the HCU. This is a risk that you take and for which you are completely responsible.  If you do not get accepted by the university where you applied, neither the university nor the embassy will refund your fee. The HCU will not reimburse, refund or pay back your visa fees. Visa fees are always the financial responsibility of the international student, regardless of whether or not the university accepts them.

Visa for the Purposes of Studying ("Student Visa" §16 (1) AufenthG)

You can apply for a student visa as soon as you have received an acceptance letter from the HCU.

You get a notification of acceptance (or rejection) by e-mail from the HCU student administration. This notification informs you that a letter of acceptance (or a letter of rejection) is available in your ahoi applicant account for download.

All notifications and letters are provided with legal remedies and a reference that they were created by means of PC technology and are valid without signature.

A visa for the purposes of studying can be applied for at any office of the German Missions Abroad. The embassy or consulate will examine your financial situation and then request approval from the appropriate immigration office in Germany.

Upon arrival, a student visa can be converted into a student residence permit. You will not need to leave the Germany in order to complete this process.

ATTENTION!: Exchange students (e.g. ERASMUS), guest students from HCU partner universities in non-EU countries and free mover from non-EU countries should apply for a student visa for the entire duration of their stay at the HCU (1 or 2 semesters). It will save you the costs of applying for a student residence permit in Hamburg (about 110 EUR).