Learn the Differences Between 'Sein' and 'Haben' in German

Verb selection can be tricky in perfect tense

If you are like most German language learners, you've probably come across the following dilemma when it comes to verbs in the perfect tense: "When do I use the verb haben (to have), when do I use sein (to be)?

This is a tricky question. Even though the usual answer is that most verbs use the auxiliary verb haben in the perfect tense (however watch for common exceptions stated below), sometimes both are used — depending on what part of Germany you're from.

For instance, northern Germans say Ich habe gesessen, whereas in southern Germany and Austria, they say Ich bin gesessen. The same goes for other common verbs, such as liegen and stehen. Furthermore, the German grammar "bible," Der Duden, mentions that there is a growing tendency to increasingly use the auxiliary verb sein with action verbs.

However, rest assured. These are other uses of haben and sein to be aware of. In general, keep the following tips and guidelines in mind when deciding between these two auxiliary verbs and you'll get it right.

Haben Perfect Tense

In the perfect tense, use the verb haben:

  • With transitive verbs, that is verbs that use the accusative. For example: 
    Sie haben das Auto gekauft? (You (formal) bought the car?)
  • Sometimes with intransitive verbs, that is verbs that don't use the accusative. In these cases, it will be when the intransitive verb describes an action or event over a duration of time, as opposed to an action/event that occurs in one moment of time. For example, Mein Vater ist ​angekommen, or "My father has arrived." Another example:  Die Blume hat geblüht. (The flower bloomed.)
  • With reflexive verbs. For example:  Er hat sich geduscht. (He took a shower.)
  • With reciprocal verbs. For example:  Die Verwandten haben sich gezankt. (The relatives argued with each other.)
  • When modal verbs are used. For example:  Das Kind hat die Tafel Schokolade kaufen wollen. (The child had wanted to buy the chocolate bar.) Please note: You see sentences expressed in this way more in written language.

    Sein Perfect Tense

    In the perfect tense, you use the verb sein:

    • With the common verbs sein, bleiben, gehen, reisen and werden. For example: 
      Ich bin schon in Deutschland gewesen. (I've already been in Germany.)
      Meine Mutter ist lange bei uns geblieben. (My mother stayed with us for a long time.)
      Ich bin heute gegangen. (I went today.)
      Du bist nach Italien gereist. (You traveled to Italy.)
      Er ist mehr schüchtern geworden. (He has become shier).
    • With action verbs that denote a change of place and not necessarily just movement. For example, compare Wir sind durch den Saal getanzt (we danced throughout the hall) with Wir haben die ganze Nacht im Saal getanzt (we danced the whole night in the hall).
    • With intransitive verbs that denote a change in condition or state. For example:  Die Blume ist erblüht. (The flower has begun to bloom.)