1.6.2013 | Von:
Thorsten Nieberg

Germans Abroad

Die Uhrzeiten aus den Städten (l-r) Boston, London, Herzogenaurach (Herzo) und Hongkong sind am 14.02.2013 in Herzogenaurach (Bayern) beim Sportartikelhersteller Puma SE an einer Wand zu sehen.German chocolate on the shelves of a supermarket in Thailand. (© picture alliance / dpa )

A major problem with determining the extent of Germany’s population abroad (and that of any other state) is the conceptualization of this population and the fundamental question of who exactly should be considered being part of it. For example, should this conceptualization only include per-sons who have actually experienced moving away from Germany, or should it also seek to include persons of subsequent generations of Germans who have never moved away from the foreign locales they were born in? And, what about Germans who have taken on an additional nationality, so-called dual citizens, and those who have replaced their original German citizenship with an entirely new one? These are important questions which are an implicit issue in any discussion about how to capture a state’s population abroad.

Who is an expatriate? An attempt at a definition

…in the narrower sense

The term expatriate (or, expat) is generally used to denote a group of particularly qualified and skilled workers "whose stay abroad is often occupationally motivated, generally limited to one to five years, and [typically] occurs in an organizational framework and highly institutionalized context".[1] In this sense, the definition of an expatriate is limited to professionals and executives who are - on a temporary basis - sent to a foreign country by a German company or organization in order to manage its activities there as well as to ensure the transfer and exchange of knowledge and information between headquarters and subsidiaries.[2] Currently, around 60,000 of these mobile employees are working in the worldwide subsidiaries of the one hundred largest German enterprises. [3]

…in the broader sense

The original Latin meaning of the word, however, is much broader. It regards the duration of, and reasons for, such ventures as not relevant and simply refers to an expat as a person who lives outside his or her native country.[4] Following this understanding, the concept recently has gained increasing application as "an umbrella for a heterogeneous group"[5] whose members reside outside their country of citizenship for various reasons and periods of time. [6]

Such an expat conceptualization provides a useful perspective since it allows the reflection of a complex and diverse reality in terms of a state’s population abroad. For example, it allows the inclusion of all those subsequent generations of Germans into Germany's population abroad who are legitimate citizens of Germany but do not fall into the definition of a migrant—a notion which sees the change of one person's country of residence as a conditional criterion.

How many Germans live abroad? Some estimates

Attempts to determine a state’s total population abroad suffer from the existence of different conceptualizations and related measurement methods that vary across countries. Thus, national statistics on people flows are not a suitable source for the generation of an international portrayal of migration flows. This is especially due to the fact that states use different time thresholds to classify such movements.[7] Hence, there are only a few tentative figures available that allow for an estimation of what is defined here as Germany’s overall expatriate population. These figures range from 1 million to 10-15 million, depending on the source and the concept utilized for measuring.

The scholar Bleek, for example, processed data from the late 1980s and assessed that there were some 10-15 million persons residing outside of Germany who were capable of speaking German—and/or would avow themselves to German cultural heritage ("Volkstum").[8] Given the expat definition developed above, this statement certainly is an overestimation as it does not only include the qualifying citizenship-holders but basically all persons who feel some identification with their German ancestry.

In addition, the global people origin database as provided by the Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalization and Poverty (Migration DRC) at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom reported that the total number of legal residents in its 226 reference countries and state entities holding German citizenship accounted for some 1 million around the year 2000. This, on the other hand, is an underestimation, considering that it excludes data for a number of states that are also important destinations for Germans, such as the US, for example—and that it also does not recognize all Germans abroad as official residents of the respective countries. For example, it was noted in the database that the total number of persons born in Germany and residing abroad was much higher—around 3.4 million.[9] Keeping these different numbers in mind, it may be a fair compromise to assume that there are at least 1 million German expats worldwide but that their overall number most likely is much higher—possibly around those 3.3-3.4 million cited by the Migration DRC and in an OECD-database[10] , re-spectively. This would be an equivalent to some 4 percent of Germany's in-country population, currently estimated at 81.8 million.[11] This author’s own research indicates that, of these persons, there may be some 2,500 and 11,000 undertaking ventures in Hong Kong and Thailand, respectively. [12]

This text is part of the policy brief on "Germans Abroad".


Kreutzer/Roth (2006), p. 12 (this author’s own translation from the German language).
Ganter (2009), p. 3.
Ganter (2009).
Soanes/Stevenson (2006), p. 501.
Fechter (2007), p. 56.
McMillen (2007), p. 7.
Lemaître (2005), pp. 3-5.
Bleek (2003).
Migration DRC (2007).
Dumont/Lemaître (2005).
Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland (2012), p. 26.
Nieberg (2012), pp. 128-130.
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