How does the German school system work?

In Germany, education is compulsory from the age of 6. The number of mandatory school years ranges from a minimum of 9 to 12 years (including the vocational training required for work) in different federal states. The types of schools available in federal states also differ from each other.

Compulsory schooling lasts minimum nine years or until the end of the school year in which the student turns 18. The rules on compulsory education differ according to the Federal state concerned. As the federal states mostly regulate education, there are many options available. The conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs in different states of the Federal Republic of Germany prepared a helpful overview in this regard.

What kinds of schools are there in Germany?

Primary School ("Grundschule")

Orientation phase ("Orientierungsstufe")

Secondary Education (stage 1)

Secondary General School ("Hauptschule")

Secondary Intermediate School ("Realschule")

High School ("Gymnasium")

Comprehensive School ("Gesamtschule")

Vocational Education

Education is compulsory in Germany, so refugee children also have to attend school. However, it often takes a few weeks after your arrival in Germany until your children can actually start school. This waiting time very much depends on the respective federal state and your living conditions. In principle, your child should attend a primary school near your place of residence. In the initial reception centres ("Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung") some volunteers teach children until the family moves to a permanent place of their own. 

If you need help with finding a school, visit the Residents’ Registration Office ("Einwohnermeldeamt"), they will introduce you to a suitable school. Many schools also organise an Open Day event, mostly in the beginning of the year. You can personally go there and get informed.


Children and teens who don’t speak German will initially attend a separate class where they will study the language and learn about German culture. These are so-called welcome classes ("Willkommensklassen") or transition classes ("Ü-Klassen") designed to make integration into the German schools easier. After that, the students are transferred to regular classes based on their age and German proficiency.