In many (civil law) countries, there are strong restrictions limiting people's right to change their names. For example, even after an upcoming reform, Germans who are not part of a minority must choose a family name shared by at least one parent. (NB: this is about the legal name for civil registration and contracts and such; there's nothing preventing your friends from calling you differently)

Married couples can choose a double name, but they cannot choose a name mixing both premarriage names or a different name entirely. Changing a given name is possible for trans people, but otherwise generally not. Likewise, in Belgium, a name change is only possible under exceptional circumstances.

What rationale does the government have for such strong restrictions on name changes? The upcoming reform in Germany is presented as being progressive, but it still seems to contain many restrictions where the rationale isn't quite clear to me. I can understand why there would be some restrictions on names (not offensive, insulting, not a slur or a threat, written or transliterated in the alphabet of an official language, etc.), but many of the restrictions do not cover the content of the new name, but the ability to change one's name at all.


  • FWIW, the "living law" is that most people in countries where it is legal to change your surname are not aware of that possibility or would never consider doing so due to social convention. So, the restriction while seemingly sweeping and arbitrary, largely reflects the expectations of people potentially subject to these laws. Few folks in the U.S. know their rights re names. I haven't seen a reliable source for it, but the lore is that in Prussia (the biggest predecessor state to Germany) there used to be laws on which days to do particular household chores and all sorts of other minutiae.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 23 at 23:39
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    @bdsl I am strongly assuming it's the latter. You can call yourself any nickname you want, but what the government writes on their documents is still going to be your name, or at least the name that will be used by the government itself, your employer, your insurance, etc. etc.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 24 at 14:48
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    Iceland, in general also a fairly progressive country, has a list of approved names you can pick from (nordicnames.de/wiki/Icelandic_Approved_Names). Ok, these are first rather than last names, but for last names the system isn't much more lenient (mother or father's first name with the gender-appropriate suffix, routesnorth.com/language-and-culture/…).
    – xLeitix
    Aug 24 at 15:03
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    @bdsl Many performers adopt professional names, but I expect most of them don't change their legal names. So when Lady Gaga signs a contract, it probably says Stefani Germanotta.
    – Barmar
    Aug 24 at 15:34
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    @bdsl Then read my question as being about "restrictions in getting authorities to call you by your new name". For some people it's important that their ID card has their new name.
    – gerrit
    Aug 28 at 11:41

3 Answers 3


Society seems to believe that people should be traceable through their name. So by default people are stuck with their birth name, and the birth name has to follow certain patterns with regard to the parents' name. This is spelled out in the law, and also shown by the restrictions around changing names -- for instance, law enforcement agencies are consulted.

It also assumed that families should be signified through a common family name, but that assumption has weakened over recent decades. For this reason, changing either given or family name is considered an exception (§3 NamÄndG). German society also believes that the given name of a person should signify the gender.

Both rules have exceptions to deal with foreign naming traditions and with historical and regional peculiarities (like the catholic use of 'Maria' as a male given name, but only as the second given name of a male).


Norway has such a law. It allows taking any common name, but restricts adopting a family name that is possessed by less than 200 Norwegian citizens.

It was passed because some family names are strongly associated with wealth and nobility, and there was a problem with people changing their names and then taking advantage of the new name to commit fraud.

Source: My host on a visit to Norway in the 1990s, who was born with such a name.

  • Comments deleted. This is not a place to debate the virtues and vices of Norwegian society.
    – Philipp
    Aug 24 at 8:26

Québec is a province in Canada; it uses Civil Law rather than the British-style Common Law used in all other provinces.

In Québec there are restrictions both on first names and family names. A Québec "Educate me about the law" site summarizes the rules (https://educaloi.qc.ca/en/capsules/choosing-your-childs-name/). Why does Québec have rules like this - it uses the Civil Code; that code likes rules.

It's also worth noting that when you get married in Québec, the bride does not take the family name of the groom. This change happened at about the same time. When that change came in, an explicit rationale was given in the National Assembly (the provincial parliament). Québec has a strong Catholic heritage and divorce really wasn't a thing until about (um) the 1970s. The Directeur de l’état civil, under the Civil Code tracks all personal transactions (births, deaths, marriages, etc. - the LDS church loves Québec, genealogy is easy to track). Having women change their names multiple times during their lives made tracking this harder.

First Names

  • “First names” includes middle names
  • Your child cannot have more than four first names
  • If one of the first names is a compound name (a name joined by a hyphen), you must insert a hyphen between the two names. If not, the two names will be considered two distinct names. (Note that compound first names are pretty common in Québec).

Family Names

  • The child can adopt either of the parents’ names, or a composite of the two names joined by a hyphen.
  • When both parents have composite family names, you must choose a name that contains only two parts.
  • A family name cannot include an initial (e.g.: B-Roy), because this kind of name does not meet the requirements of the Civil Code of Québec. The family names of the parents must be written in full so that the child’s family name fully reflects the family relationship to either of the parents, or both.
  • Your newborn’s family name may differ from the family names of your other children. This means that children from the same parents can have different family names.
  • The child’s family name cannot be composed of one of the parent’s first names.


Can the Directeur de l’état civil ask us to change the first or family names we give our child?

  • Yes, and if you don't agree, you could end up in court

Personal Anecdote

The change in the law that brought these rules into being happened the year my wife and I were married. This was way before the internet. I went to the courthouse (or maybe some other official building) to get information about the new law. There weren't even pamphlets printed up (the law was in its infancy). I asked the clerk if I could get something to bring home and read with my fiancée (since it changed a bunch of stuff about marriage law, and we were about to get married).

He gave me a quick rundown of stuff I already knew from reading the newspapers. Then, being in the software business and trained to look at edge cases, I asked about that second to the last point (about children having different family names). He hadn't brought that up. I gave my example: Say we have 4 boys, can we name them all Robert - can we give them four different family names:

  • Robert Fly
  • Robert Dog
  • Robert Fly-Dog
  • Robert Dog-Fly

He looked me in the eye, cursed, said something like "What, are you some kind of idiot" and then "Next", shooing me out of the line.

Note: I don't see how to tag this answer with a locale
Also Note: Much of this content is taken (either via summary or verbatim) from the linked site. That site does have a (c) notice, but the terms of service do not elaborate on any licensing restrictions.

  • In Germany, if Mr Fly marries Miss Dog, then the family name is either Fly or Dog, their choice, and that’s the name of all children. The couple can both use the family name, or if Fly is the family name she can call herself Mrs Dog-Fly, and if Dog is the family name he can call himself Mr. Fly-Dog. Gender doesn’t matter. And if they were previously married, their family name before the previous marriage is used.
    – gnasher729
    Aug 28 at 11:29
  • In Spain we use two family names for the children (the first of each parent's). Traditionally the first family name of the children was the first family name of the father, the second the first family name of the mother. Now the order can be changed, but all the children must use the same order. And we use it only for the children, neither of the spouses change their own family names (despite being traditionally Catholic).
    – SJuan76
    Aug 28 at 12:21
  • "Note: I don't see how to tag this answer with a locale" The germany tag on that answer isn't really a tag. It's just surrounded by backwards single quotes and looks like a tag. Aug 28 at 15:04
  • Actually, it's not. It uses the format: [tag:germany]. If you hover over it, you get ALT text of "Questions tagged Germany" and it's clickable. I figured it out and tagged this question.
    – Flydog57
    Aug 28 at 15:14

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