ELSTER: Digital tax returns in Germany


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  1. 导言
  2. What is ELSTER?
    1. What is “My ELSTER”?
  3. How do you register with ELSTER?
  4. How does registration with a certificate file work?
    1. How can the ELSTER certificate be extended?
  5. What features does ELSTER have?
  6. How do you file a tax return with ELSTER?

There are many different ways to prepare tax returns: in addition to commercial software and tax apps, ELSTER is a free alternative. In our article, you can find out what ELSTER is and what features the platform offers. We also explain the different ways to register and give you a quick guide on how to prepare your tax return with ELSTER.

What’s in this article?

  • What is ELSTER?
  • How do you register with ELSTER?
  • How does registration with a certificate file work?
  • What features does ELSTER have?
  • How do you file a tax return with ELSTER?

What is ELSTER?

ELSTER is a joint project between the German tax administrations of all federal states and the federal government for the digital processing of tax returns and registrations. The ELSTER portal is a type of online tax office for private individuals, employers and businesses, as well as associations and tax consultants. You can create your tax data through ELSTER quickly, securely, and—above all—free of charge, and submit it to the tax authorities. Even if you don’t prepare your tax return with ELSTER, but use another software or app, you are indirectly involved with ELSTER: all tax programs send their users’ entries to ELSTER and from there they are forwarded to the tax office. ELSTER has been in operation since 1996 and is still coordinated by the Bavarian State Tax Office. The name is an abbreviation of the German term “elektronische Steuererklärung,” meaning “electronic tax return.”

What is “My ELSTER”?

“My ELSTER” is the personal user area on the ELSTER platform. Until the 2019 tax return, the “ELSTER form” software was also offered. This could be installed on home computers and used to prepare tax returns. However, this is no longer possible. Since the 2020 tax year, the web-based application “My ELSTER,” which works directly in web browsers, has been the only option. One of the features “My ELSTER” offers is the ability to access receipts that have already been received by the tax office. In addition, users can view what data has already been entered on the electronic income tax card.

How do you register with ELSTER?

If you wish to use ELSTER, you have to register and create a user account. There are three ways to register with ELSTER that are available to all users free of charge:

  • An ELSTER certificate file
  • The ElsterSecure app
  • An ID card

In addition, there are two paid registration types: the use of a security stick, which is particularly suitable for entrepreneurs, together with the use of a signature card—which is of particular interest to tax consultants.

ELSTER itself recommends registration via certificate, which we will discuss in more detail in the following section. If you opt for the app version, all you need to register is a smartphone or tablet with a camera. The ElsterSecure app is then loaded. You can download the app via the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. In the app, select the option “ElsterSecure” under “Create user account” and “How do you want to log in to My ELSTER?”. You will then receive an activation ID by email and an activation code by mail. You enter the ID in the app and scan the QR code on the letter you receive via mail using the camera on your device. After you have successfully registered, ElsterSecure can be used to log in to “My ELSTER.”

To register using an ID card, it must be possible to read the data reliably from the ID. One option is to use a modern identity card in credit card format for this. Another option is to use an appropriate ID card reader and AusweisApp2. A smartphone with a near-field communication (NFC) interface is also suitable as an ID card reader. You can download the app via the Google Play Store, Apple App Store, and Windows. In order to register with an ID card, this function must be activated under “My user account” in your personal “My ELSTER” account. You can set which registration method you want to use here. If you choose the ID card method, you will receive an activation PIN, which you will need to replace with one that you choose yourself. This activates the ID card and allows it to be read.

For businesses, ELSTER also recommends the use of a security stick for registering and subsequently logging in. This is a special USB stick that stores a user’s digital identity via a cryptography chip. The stick costs a one-time fee of 56.48 euros (as of November 2023). To use it, you need to install the ElsterAuthenticator software. You can download the software for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

There are also costs for registration via signature card—usually between 50 and 150 euros. This is because the signature card is not issued by ELSTER but by banks, specialist companies, or certification authorities (known as trust centers). Personal identification is taken care of by them, so the ELSTER signature card only needs to be read. A card reader and the ElsterAuthenticator software must also therefore be used for this version.

Learn more information about the signature card—for example, about approved providers and cards.

How does registration with a certificate file work?

The majority of ELSTER users register with the aid of a certificate file, which is also colloquially called the “ELSTER certificate.” This is a file in a special format (pfx) in which the data is cryptographically protected. It can only be activated with a password and then linked to a user account in “My ELSTER.” A certificate file can be stored on different media—such as hard drives or USB sticks—and copied as often as desired. Registration with a certificate file is done in four steps:

  1. Create account: To request a certificate file, you must first create an account on ELSTER.
  2. Submit personal data: After selecting “Certification File” from the login options, you can enter your personal data—name, date of birth, and tax identification number. You then create a username, select a security question, and submit the data to the tax authority via the platform.
  3. Receive activation data: After around 14 days, you will receive an email from the tax office with an activation ID and an activation code by mail. Since the postal correspondence is automatically sent to the address registered with the registration office, you should check that it is up-to-date.
  4. Download certificate file: With ELSTER, you enter the data transmitted by the tax office. If this is correct, you can download and save the certificate file. This allows you to log in to “My ELSTER” and assign your own password if you wish. In the future, ELSTER authentication will be carried out with a combination of a certificate file and password.

How can the ELSTER certificate be extended?

An ELSTER certificate is valid for three years. Before the expiry of the validity period, ELSTER will remind you of this with several emails. If the certificate file has not yet expired, it can simply be extended in your personal ELSTER account. Under the note on the expiry of the validity, you will find the button “Renew certificate now.” If you click on it, a new file will be created that you can save and activate with your password.

If the ELSTER certificate has already expired, you will need to apply for a new one. To do this, use the option “Certificate file lost or certificate expired?” option when logging in. Alternatively, you can also visit this page if the certificate file has expired or you have forgotten the password.

What features does ELSTER have?

ELSTER is best known as a platform for online tax returns. These can be created using ELSTER and submitted to the tax authority. The income tax return is only one of many possible options: inheritance and gift tax returns, together with property tax returns are also available. For example, businesses can prepare their sales and income tax returns with ELSTER. The corresponding preregistrations can be made via the platform. For wage and value-added tax (VAT) returns, it is mandatory to submit the data via ELSTER. Anyone who is self-employed or runs a business is generally obliged to submit advance returns and income tax certificates to the tax authority electronically. However, employees, senior citizens, and pensioners may also use paper forms.

As ELSTER continues to expand, there are also several other types of taxes, declarations, registrations, applications, and notices available on it. Find an overview of the forms currently available.

Registered users also have the option of extending deadlines or appealing against decisions via ELSTER. When filling in the appropriate form, it is also possible to apply for a suspension of enforcement. On the other hand, claims to the fiscal court cannot be filed via ELSTER.

How do you file a tax return with ELSTER?

In “My ELSTER,” select the “Income Tax” form. Once you have specified the tax year, you can enter your data. Or, if you have already filed a tax return with ELSTER in the past, transfer your data from there. If you are using ELSTER for the first time, the next step is to enter your name and tax identification number and, if applicable, your partner’s data. There is now the option to activate a “system assistant,” which is usually recommended.

There follows three pages of questions concerning your professional and private situation:

  • Are you an employee or a pensioner?
  • Do you derive income from a business or self-employment?
  • Do you have children, a travel contract, special expenses or extraordinary expenses?

ELSTER determines the appropriate systems on the basis of this and other information.

On the following page, “Certificates,” the data that is already available to the tax authority can be transferred to the tax return. In addition to personal master data, this includes income tax and church tax withheld by employers, along with the solidarity surcharge, contributions to health, long-term care, pension and unemployment insurance, or pension payments received. In order to be able to retrieve the receipts, a retrieval code must be entered, which can be requested by mail under “Forms and Services” and “Manage Certificate.”

Finally, it is necessary to fill in all the attachments that the tax authority prescribes on the basis of the data previously entered. ELSTER points out potential errors—for example, with regard to plausibility—during the final check of the data. Unless these errors are corrected, the tax return cannot be sent. The final step is to submit the return online.