The Perfect tense in German (Perfekt): Understanding the German present perfect tense and when to use the perfect

The Perfect tense in German (Perfekt): Understanding the German present perfect tense and when to use the perfect

German, a language known for its precision and structure, presents a unique challenge with its use of tenses, especially the present perfect tense (das Perfekt) . We delve into how to use the present perfect, the complexities of verb conjugation, usage of auxiliary verbs, and the distinctions between regular and irregular verbs in the context of  Perfect tense in German. This guide is tailored for English speakers and those new to German grammar, offering insights and practical examples to transform your understanding and usage of the German perfect tense.

What is the German Perfect Tense?

The German perfect tense describes something that happened in the past with a connection to the present tense. Unlike the simple past tense (Präteritum),which is more common in written German and is used to express a completed action in the past. The Perfekt is widely used in the spoken German language, making it indispensable for conversational fluency. It offers a unique way to talk about events that have been completed but still hold relevance or connection to the present.

Another key feature is the placement of the past participle at the end of the sentence, which is a common trait in German sentence structure. This positioning can initially be challenging for English speakers, as it requires a shift in thinking about sentence construction. Moreover, the Perfekt tense allows speakers to convey subtleties such as the completion of an action or its ongoing impact, which are essential nuances in everyday communication.

How to conjugate regular verbs in the present perfect tense in German

One of the intriguing aspects of the Perfekt is its composition. It's formed by combining an auxiliary verb (either 'haben' or 'sein') with the past participle of the main verb. 

The Perfekt is conjugated by using a form of haben (to have)/ or sein (to be) at the 2nd position of a main clause and the past participle at the end of the sentence.


  • Das Mädchen hat über den Witz gelacht. The girl has laughed at the joke.
  • Der Student ist nach Hause gefahren. The student has gone home.

Understanding the Role of the German verbs Haben and Sein

In German, the two auxiliary verbs, 'haben' (to have) and 'sein' (to be),are foundational to forming the perfect tense. The choice between 'haben' and 'sein' often depends on the main verb's action and can significantly alter the sentence's meaning.

These auxiliaries aren't just arbitrary choices; they are deeply rooted in the semantics of the sentence. Typically, 'haben' is used with transitive verbs (verbs that require a direct object). However, 'sein' is typically reserved for intransitive verbs that denote movement (like 'gehen' - to go) or a change of state (such as 'werden' - to become).

The correct choice of auxiliary verb can also reflect the nature of the action described. For instance, 'sein' is often used with verbs that imply a journey or transition, underscoring the completion of an action that has changed the subject's state or position. Conversely, 'haben' usually accompanies actions that are more static or do not imply such a change.

When to use sein

  • Locomotion: If you can go/move from A to B. These are often verbs of movement e.g swim, run, jump, go, drive
  • The verbs "to happen": passieren/geschehen 
  • Change of a condition: e.g. Das Eis ist geschmolzen. The ice is melted 


  • Der Junge ist heute zur Schule gegangen. The boy has gone today to school.
  • Das Mädchen ist über das Hindernis gesprungen. The girl has jumped over the obstacle.
  • Die Situation ist passiert. The situation has happened.
  • Die Frau ist aufgestanden. The woman has got up.

When to use haben

In all other cases haben is used e.g transitive verbs. 


  • Ich habe die Aufgabe gemacht. I have done the task.
  • Du hast dem Studenten geholfen. You have helped the student.
  • Inge hat lange gelesen. Inge has read for a long time.


Forming the past participle (Partizip ii) of the Perfekt

The past participle form is formed by adding a "ge" and "t" to the word stem for regular verbs (weak verbs). 


  • lachen (laugh) =  gelacht
  • machen (make) = gemacht

German Irregular verbs

There are two kinds of irregular verbs: strong verbs or mixed verbs for the perfect in German. The strong verbs have an "en" ending instead of an "t". 


  • fahren (to drive) = gefahren
  • fangen (catch) = gefangen
  • rufen (call) = gerufen

Mixed verbs have a change of the vowel and are more difficult to form. These verbs change their verb stem.


  • denken = gedacht
  • gehen = gegangen
  • helfen = geholfen

It makes sense to learn the irregular verbs. Here is a good list. 

How to use the perfect in German with separable verbs

Verbs with separable prefixes are using for example one of these prefixes: 

  •  ab, an, auf, aus, bei, ein, her, hin, herunter, mit, nach, um, weg, zu

Normally the Perfekt is created by placing a "ge" after the prefix and a "t" or "en" at the end. The same rules are applied here: In case the verb is regular, then a "t" is palced at the end.

  1. - machen = gemacht 
  2. ausmachen = ausgemacht


  • Der Student ist von der Party weggegangen. The student has left the party.
  • Der Bus ist um 8 Uhr abgefahren. The bus has left at 8 o'clock.
  • Die Freunde haben über den Urlaub nachgedacht. The friends have been thinking about the vacation.
  • Die Mutter hat das Licht ausgemacht. The mother has turned off the light.

Modal verbs

The present perfect differs for Modal verbs in German: 

  • Form of "haben"+ "infinitive" + "infinitive of modal verb"


  • Der Schüler hat die Aufgabe machen müssen. The student had to do the task.
  • Die Studenten haben für die Klausur lernen müssen. The students had to study for the exam.
  • Der Junge hat sein Zimmer aufräumen sollen. The boy was supposed to tidy his room.

Note: It is not common to use use the perfect tense with Modal verbs in German. People are using the simple past instead (also for English).

Differences between spoken and written German language

In the spoken language and informal German the perfect tense is used much more than the simple past. These two tenses are in English equally difficult. In German on the other hand, the simple past is more difficult because it has more irregular verbs. 



Why is the Perfekt important? 

  • It is important because people use it a lot in daily life. 

How is the past participle formed? 

  • Regular verbs add a “ge” plus a “t” to the word stem. 

How can I practise the German Perfect Tense in a quiz or in exercises?

  • You can find a free quiz: here

Article by Niko

Published 15 Jan 2024