Germany has recognized electronic signatures (or “eSignatures”) as legally valid since 2001. The passage of eIDAS in 2016 enabled Germany and other EU countries to use eSignature in cross-border agreements without the need for a resource-intensive validation process.
Under German law, a contract is considered valid as long as legally competent parties agree to its terms, even in the absence of a signature. Thus, agreements may be considered legal and binding whether they are executed verbally, electronically, or using a physical paper document.
eSignature laws were standardized across the European Union in 2016 with the passage of eIDAS regulations (EU Regulation No. 910/2014 on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market).
eIDAS defines three classes of eSignature:
- Simple electronic signatures (SES)
- Advanced electronic signatures (AES)
- Qualified electronic signatures (QES)
SES include any form of electronic signal associated with a natural person, including scanned or typed signatures. AES include data that is uniquely linked to the signer. QES are granted the same status as handwritten signatures, but they carry strict certification requirements.
Common eSignature use cases
In general, the use of eSignatures is not very common in Germany. However, acceptance in the business community is growing.
Legally speaking, standard electronic signatures (SES) are valid and appropriate for a variety of business and legal transactions in Germany, including:
- HR documents including employment contracts, NDAs, privacy notices, employee invention agreements, benefits paperwork, and onboarding paperwork
- Commercial agreements including NDAs, purchase orders, invoices, sales agreements, distribution agreements, and service agreements
- Consumer agreements including new retail account documents, sales and service terms, purchase orders, order confirmations, invoices, shipping documentation, user manuals, and policies
- Real estate documents including short-term residential and commercial lease agreements
- Intangible property agreements including software license agreements and certain patent, copyright, and trademark licenses
In certain cases, qualified electronic signatures (QES) are required if an electronic signature is to be used. These include:
- Court briefs, pleadings, and other procedural documents
- Consumer credit and loan agreements
- Certain residential and commercial lease documents including notice of termination
- Temporary agency work agreements
Use cases where eSignature is not appropriate
Certain documents specifically require a handwritten signature in Germany. These include:
- Family law documents such as wedding contracts, adoption contracts, and acts related to inheritance law
- Private deeds governed by family law and the law of succession
- Private deeds related to real or personal surety
- Certain HR documents, including benefit agreements and termination of employment
- Assignment of shares relating to certain types of corporations
In addition, documents that require notarization are not compatible with electronic signature. These include:
- Contracts to purchase or transfer real property
- Domestic and family related acts including marriage contracts
- Contracts of inheritance or waiving of inheritance
- Reference letter regarding performance under a service contract
- Articles of incorporation for a company with limited liability
- Assignment of shares for a company with limited liability.
Technology standards in Germany
The requirements for digital signature technology vary significantly between countries. Germany follows a tiered eSignature model under eIDAS regulations, which includes three classes of electronic signatures. The most secure—Qualified Electronic Signatures (QES)—is the only type of electronic signature that is acceptable for certain transactions in Germany. QES require independent accreditation by an approved certification body.
As a member of the EU, Germany follows standards established by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), among others, to define the technical requirements for a QES. Each individual EU country maintains its own publicly accessible list of governing bodies approved to convey the appropriate certification.
The information on this site is for general reference and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be considered legal advice, nor should it be relied upon in any decision making process. Laws pertaining to electronic signatures vary by jurisdiction and may change quickly. Conga cannot guarantee the accuracy of any information on this site. Please consult with a licensed attorney, or other qualified counsel, for answers to any specific questions related to the use or validity of electronic signatures.
Last updated: 08/02/2021