Freiberufler or Gewerbe: what's the difference?

In Germany, there are two types of self-employed people:

  • Freelancers (Freiberufler)
    Professionals with special qualifications who sell their services. Their occupation is called a freier Beruf.
  • Tradespeople (Gewerbetreibende)
    All other self-employed people. Their business is called a Gewerbe.

This guide explains the differences between freelancers and tradespeople. You must understand this to start a business or apply for a freelance visa.

Freelancer (Freiberufler)

Freiberufler are self-employed professionals with special qualifications who sell their services.2

This includes self-employed artists, teachers, journalists, translators, therapists, engineers, IT professionals, accountants, architects, lawyers and doctors.4

It excludes actors, artisans, taxi drivers, delivery drivers, and most photographers.8 They are not Freiberufler.

If you sell products, you are rarely a Freiberufler.

Tradesperson (Gewerbetreibender)

If you are self-employed, but not a Freiberufler, you are a tradesperson (Gewerbetreibender). Your business is a trade (Gewerbe).

Websites that are financed by ads or affiliate links are almost always a Gewerbe.7

Is a website a Gewerbe?

What is the difference?

A Gewerbetreibender has more obligations than a Freiberufler.

If you register a Gewerbe, you must…

  • Get a trade licence (Gewerbeschein)
  • Pay the trade tax (Gewerbesteuer)
    In Berlin, sole proprietors give an extra 1.05% of their profit for trade tax. – How the trade tax works
  • Join the IHK and pay membership fees
    In many cities, IHK membership is mandatory for a Gewerbe. The membership fee is a percentage of your profits. – Fee calculator for Berlin
  • Get listed in the trade register (Handelsregister)
    If you are a sole proprietor (Einzelunternehmer), this is rarely required.
  • Use double entry bookkeeping
    If you are a sole proprietor (Einzelunternehmer), this is rarely required.

If you are a Freiberufler, you don’t need to do any of this. It saves you time and money.

Your Freiberufler or Gewerbetreibender status also affects…

  • Your residence permit
    When you apply for a freelance visa or permanent residence, the required documents for Freiberufler and Gewerbetreibende are different.1
  • The help you get
    The IHK helps Gewerbetreibende who pay the mandatory membership fee. They do not help Freiberufler.

It does not affect…

Trade licence (Gewerbeschein)

If you are a Gewerbetreibender, you must register your business at the Gewerbeamt. This is called the Gewerbeanmeldung.

This is how you get a trade certificate (Gewerbeschein). Your employer might ask for it. The Ausländerbehörde asks for it when you apply for a freelance visa.

How to get a Gewerbeschein

Trade tax (Gewerbesteuer)

If you are a Gewerbetreibender, and your profit is over 24,500€ per year, you must pay the trade tax (Gewerbesteuer). You register for trade tax when you do the Gewerbeanmeldung.

What is the trade tax?

Trade register (Handelsregister)

Some Gewerbe must be listed in the German trade register (Handelsregister). This is a lot of work, and you should avoid it if you can.

Who needs a Handelsregister entry?

You can request an entry in the Handelsregister when you fill the Fragebogen zur steuerlichen Erfassung.

Double entry bookkeeping

As a Gewerbetreibender, you must use double entry bookkeeping if…3

  • your profit is over 80,000€ per year
  • or your revenue is over 800,000€ per year
  • or you are listed in the trade register (Handelsregister)

Freiberufler don’t need to use double entry bookkeeping.

Double entry bookkeeping is more work for you. You can be exempted from double entry bookkeeping if you prove that it causes your business “undue hardship”.5 If you think this applies to you, ask a tax advisor about it.

How to choose?

You have no choice. The Finanzamt decides what you are when you register your business.6 The Ausländerbehörde uses the same definition as the Finanzamt when you apply for a freelance visa.

If you register as a Freiberufler, but the Finanzamt decides that you are a Gewerbetreibender, they can retroactively make you pay trade tax.9

Sometimes, it’s not clear. If you are not sure, ask for help.

Need help?

Where to ask business questions

Sources and footnotes
  1. §21 Abs. 1, 2a or 5 AufenthG 



  4. §18 EStG, Wikipedia, IHK Hamburg 

  5. §148 AO in English and German 




  9. This happened to All About Berlin