“Man muss”: German Bank Accounts

Here are some things to know about what it’s like to use a German bank account. Keep  in mind that it’s possible that there are many types of bank accounts out there, but all of this is accurate for our own bank account. Similarly, the only other place where I’ve had a bank account is in the U.S., and I’ve only ever had low-rolling, basic, student-level accounts there. If you’ve had a different type of  U.S. bank account or you’re from another country entirely, some of these points may not be useful/shocking/insert your own adjective here:

  • From what I understand, there’s no such thing as having a bank account in Germany without paying quarterly and yearly fees.
  • If you are opening a German bank account, I sure hope you like passwords and PINs. You will have one for phone access, one to access your account online, one to take money out at an ATM, one specifically for buying bratwurst…
  • Financial transactions are done entirely online. If you make an online purchase, the website will usually list the vendor’s banking account number. This is not a number that can be used for you to commit nefarious deeds with someone else’s account – it’s just a code telling your bank account where to deposit money. Similarly, all reimbursements and salary checks go directly into our account. We haven’t seen a physical check printed out here yet; in fact, some of the places I freelance for in the U.S. could take a lesson from this system.
  • If you like those passwords and PINs, you’ll really like completing online transactions! Every single transaction you complete requires a TAN, a 6-digit transaction number (one of about 100) that has been printed out and sent to you on a little sheet that you’d better not lose. I don’t know what happens if you lose it. Just don’t lose it.
Money suggestion: use funds acquired from German bank account to purchase crap from Christmas market.

Money suggestion: use funds acquired from German bank account to purchase crap from Christmas market.

  • With our account, you can take up to €1,000 out from the ATM at a time (in the U.S. I think that the limit is usually $300). Pretty much no one uses credit cards, opting instead for cash. However, our ATM card also functions as a direct debit card. I’ve noticed more than a few younger customers at the grocery store using their cards to pay even for small purchases. It’s like a little touch of home.
  • Ok, about that direct debit thing – it’s not actually *called* a debit card. It’s called an “EC  (Electronic cash) card,” which functions exactly as a debit card. The tricky thing, which we discovered when we went to London, is that it usually requires an entirely different kind of card reader. When you pay using an EC card in Germany, you stick the card into the reader and it sits there while you input your PIN and the transaction processes, rather than just swiping quickly. We’ve been able to use the card at a few places in the Netherlands, though not all, and it doesn’t work at most places outside of Germany.

13 responses to ““Man muss”: German Bank Accounts

  1. Wow I did not know they all charge quarterly or yearly fees. I also go for places with free checking. Here I opted to go with Service Credit Union which is an American bank but we can pull money out in cash or euro and while I haven’t used it they do have an option for paying bills in euro as well.

    • Not sure if they all do, but it seemed pretty standard when we researched our options – the only options for us up here being Deutsche Bank and Sparkasse. No American bank options here, though I can imagine you have a lot more choice down in Heidelberg!

  2. NOW I know why, in all my 60 years of living in Germany, I’ve never been able to buy Bratwurst with my credit card! Couldn’ t you have let me know sooner?! 😉
    But seriously: the EC card works all over the world, at every ATM where you see a “MAESTRO” sign, like you see it on your card. Whenever I need cash here in the US, I go to an ATM machine and get my money here, up to the equivalent of, I believe, 500 Euros. That, as far a I know, is the limit for a single withdrawal. The advantage: our local bank here in Karnes City doesn’t even charge me a fee for that transaction. It’s a very convenient way for me to get cash.
    But the EC card cannot be used like a credit card at machines that need swiping as the relevant information is contained on a chip embedded in the card, and not on that magnetic stripe that is read when you swipe it. For all those machines you need a “real credit card.
    As to the TAN number: the printed sheets one used to get with 100 of these numbers at a time are being phased out ba all German banks. Nowadays they send you a one-time TAN to your cell phone when you do online banking from your computer. Or you need a special device connected to your computer to create that number. Re the printed TANs: if you lose the sheet, you simply ask the bank for a new one. The old/lost one will be automatically made invalid once you confirm the new sheet. But as I said: that system is being phased out.
    There ARE some banks in Germany which do not require a fee to keep your account, but unfortunately you’re right insofar as most banks do.
    Best regards, and a Happy New Year,

    • Thanks, Pit! You’re the perfect one to shed some insight on this! I have a friend who has that fancy computer device that gives him a TAN each time he completes a transaction. It’s funny that you say the TAN sheets are being phased out – they seem rather archaic given how smooth and “virtual” everything else about banking is here.

      We haven’t had a problem using our EC card to take out cash anywhere – well, except for the fact that even when trying to use a Barclay’s bank in London, the menu came up in German with no English option! This wouldn’t be so bad, except it’s a different menu than the one we are familiar with from Deutsche Bank ATMs, with all new German words and prompts that we didn’t know just from having done it before. The clerk at the bank couldn’t help us, so we just guessed at pressing buttons until some British money came out.

      Per your comment and a few others here, I’ll bet that if we lived in a bigger city we would have more competitive and attractive banking options, including possibly free accounts. Something I forgot to mention: we were pretty set on choosing Deutsche Bank anyway, since they are part of a global agreement with Bank of America, Barclay’s and many others that lets you avoid some fees when using a member ATM. That became more useful than we would have liked when the Uni messed up and my husband didn’t get paid for the first few months we lived here…

      • You’re most welcome. I always try to help a little with my knowledge as a native German, who only 4 years ago moved to the US and who’s still having some of the same problems as an expat here.

  3. I visited an expat friend in Kaiserslautern recently and found that Sparkasse doesn’t charge her for an account. Supposedly it depends on which state in Germany you live. This didn’t make me feel particularly fond of the NRW area. But hey, I am sure there are other ways she gets charged that we don’t? Right?

  4. Banking in another language is always fun. I have a Chinese friend who visited the US and was shocked that he didn’t have to put in his PIN number after swiping his credit card. Interesting point of view.

    • Or that they don’t even ask for a photo ID when you use a credit card! They’re supposed to, but the last time that happened to me was when I was living in Spain.

  5. You know, when I first arrived in Germany I was rather frustrated with the inability to transfer money from my American account to my German one. The frustration actually stopped there. I don’t mind the transaction fees, as I don’t see many other fees associated with my and my husbands’ accounts. I think we only have very basic accounts, so I don’t really know the perimeters of the accounts, but it seems simple and straightforward.

    I also like that transactions (transfers) within Germany won’t take more than four hours. Furthermore, it is common for people, when they owe you money or vice versa, to just get their bank details and transfer the money into their account, no problem. I LOVE that it is so simple! Yes, the responsibility lies on the party transferring money to make sure the details are correct, but for all the convenience of having a debit card in the US, I would rather have my German account I think.

    Finally, German banks seem to be pretty up front about the fees, they don’t seem to do the same crap that American banks pull on their customers with the goal of squeezing every last penny out of them. I like that. I also like that the tellers are generally pretty helpful, amazingly so for Germany (who in my opinion is famous for their crap customer service).

    Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks for reading! We haven’t had much occasion to deal with our bank’s customer service reps, except for when we opened our account with a guy that was delighted to be speaking English with us. I’ve also gone in a couple of times to ask questions – back when my German was really bad rather than just manageable – and I got the same woman each time. She was very, um, tolerant of me. She slowed down a lot and used very small words. She wasn’t exactly friendly, but she didn’t yell at me – and that’s become our standard of “good” customer service here 🙂

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