Setting Up Your Cell Phone in Germany

Setting up your cell phone plan in Germany

These days, it’s hard to go even a short length of time with­out your mobile phone work­ing. We know you have a lot to think about when you relo­cate to Stuttgart, so fol­low our guide to choos­ing and set­ting up a cell phone plan in Germany.

Acronyms to Know


Ger­many oper­ates on a GSM net­work. If you’re com­ing from the Unit­ed States or many Asian coun­tries, it’s pos­si­ble you still have a CDMA phone, although they are being retired as 1G, 2G, and 3G net­works are retired. (Major Amer­i­can cell ser­vice providers like Ver­i­zon and Sprint used to only offer CDMA.) Even if you have a GSM phone (for exam­ple from AT&T or T‑Mobile) you might need to “unlock” it in order to use it with the Ger­man cell ser­vice. A locked phone can only be used with one provider, while an unlocked one can be used with any service.


If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you can change your phone num­ber and ser­vice provider as eas­i­ly as swap­ping out the SIM card in your phone. Like­wise, you can move your cell phone plan from phone to phone by moving over your SIM card. (Of course, get­ting a new SIM card won’t free you from any con­trac­tu­al oblig­a­tions to a pre­vi­ous provider.) SIM cards come in sev­er­al sizes but are eas­i­ly adapt­ed if you need to switch devices. They are pro­tect­ed with PIN codes that need to be re-entered when the phone is restarted.


In Eng­lish we’re more like­ly to say “text mes­sage,” but across Europe peo­ple pre­fer the acronym SMS for “Short Mes­sage Ser­vice.” MMS, or “Mul­ti­me­dia Mes­sage Ser­vice,” has become less impor­tant with the advent of online mes­sag­ing apps.

How to Get a Cell Phone Plan

There are three main avenues for obtain­ing cell ser­vice in Germany:
1. Check with your cur­rent provider regard­ing their inter­na­tion­al offerings.
2. Sign up for a con­tract with a Ger­man provider.
3. Buy a pre­paid “pay-as-you-go” SIM.

Let’s con­sid­er the advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages of each of these routes, as well as some gen­er­al infor­ma­tion about Ger­man providers. Plans and deals change reg­u­lar­ly, so it’s best to vis­it a local store to see what they can offer you.

1. International Plan

Most major mobile phone ser­vice providers offer a plan or spe­cial add-on that allows you to use your phone across the EU or even the world. A pri­ma­ry ben­e­fit is keep­ing the same phone num­ber that you have from your home coun­try and not need­ing to ter­mi­nate any ongo­ing con­tract you have. In addi­tion, you won’t need to have a fixed address or bank account in Ger­many. This is a great option for short­er stays in Ger­many. It’s also a pop­u­lar choice among Amer­i­can mil­i­tary mem­bers and con­trac­tors, since it’s also eas­i­er to stay in touch with Amer­i­cans at home and in Germany.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly this option is often quite pricey, espe­cial­ly in terms of nor­mal phone calls. Fur­ther­more, this kind of plan makes it dif­fi­cult for peo­ple with nor­mal Ger­man cell phone plans to call or text you, since it will be treat­ed the same as if you were still in your home coun­try. Nev­er­the­less, if you have a good data plan, you can side­step much of this has­sle by using VOIP and mes­sag­ing apps.

2. Contract

The largest Ger­man providers (and there­fore those with the most reli­able con­nec­tion and fastest data speeds) tend to push cus­tomers toward con­tracts. If you’re sure you’ll be in Ger­many for a cer­tain length of time or if you’re inter­est­ed in using a high vol­ume of data, this can be the cheap­est way to go.

These mobile phone plans require for­eign­ers to have a reg­is­tered address in Ger­many, which is con­firmed with your pass­port and a “Meldebescheini­gung” from the “Bürg­er­büro” (cit­i­zens’ office), as well as a Ger­man bank account. Pay­ment is with­drawn month­ly from your account, and there is usu­al­ly an acti­va­tion fee at the beginning.

You need to be very care­ful about the “Min­dest­laufzeit” (min­i­mum con­tract length) and “Kündi­gungs­frist” (can­cel­la­tion peri­od). Most con­tracts are for a min­i­mum two-year peri­od, regard­less of whether you bring a phone with you. That means you cannot break the con­tract in the first two years. Although the con­tract will cer­tain­ly men­tion a three-month can­cel­la­tion peri­od, that just means that you should give notice at least three months before the end of your con­tract, or else it will renew on a month-to-month basis. For exam­ple, if you start a con­tract in August 2020, then you can’t stop pay­ing before August 2022, and you need to pro­vide notice of your desire to can­cel no lat­er than May 2022.

There are three main providers in Ger­many: Telekom, Voda­fone, and O2. Over­all, data lim­its have been rapid­ly increas­ing, as has unlim­it­ed call­ing or tex­ting. Many con­tracts offer unlim­it­ed call­ing with­in that provider’s net­work (i.e. Voda­fone num­bers to Voda­fone num­bers), but have a lim­it­ed num­ber of min­utes for call­ing out­side it.

3. Prepaid

There is a huge range of pre­paid SIM cards avail­able in Ger­many. The most pop­u­lar are Aldi Talk, Lidl Con­nect, Voda­fone Callya, and Con­gstar by Telekom. They usu­al­ly cost 10 Euro and can be bought at local gro­cery stores as well as from cell providers. In the past it was pos­si­ble to acti­vate them with­out pro­vid­ing any per­son­al infor­ma­tion, but due to a change in Ger­man law for­eign­ers are now sup­posed to show iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and a “Meldebescheini­gung” to con­firm your iden­ti­ty and address. How­ev­er, there’s no need to have a Ger­man bank account, and some retail offices are lax about check­ing people’s details.

Some SIM cards are tru­ly pay-as-you-go and mere­ly give access to the net­work. Each minute of call­ing, SMS, or KB of data is deduct­ed from the cred­it you have loaded. You can then reload with a round val­ue of 5, 10, 15, or 25 Euro, whether using an online por­tal or app or buy­ing a top-up card from the store.

There are also cell phone plans that pro­vide a cer­tain allowance of call min­utes, SMS, and/or MB/GB of data for a 4‑week peri­od. With these plans you may some­times have unlim­it­ed call­ing and mes­sag­ing with­in the provider’s net­work. Regard­less of whether you use all of your allowance, your bal­ance resets to zero at the end of the month and you need to pay the same amount again in order to con­tin­ue ser­vice. If you go over your allowance and have addi­tion­al cred­it on your account, you are charged at a pay-as-you-go rate. If you have no cred­it, you will sim­ply be noti­fied that you are not able to com­plete the call, send the mes­sage, or access the Internet.

An addi­tion­al con­sid­er­a­tion with pre­paid plans is the dis­tinc­tion between mobile and land­line num­bers or “Handy/Mobil” and “Fes­t­netz.” While some mobile phone plans may allow you to side­step this con­cern, there is a dif­fer­ence in Ger­many between land­line-land­line and mobile-mobile calls as com­pared with land­line-mobile and mobile-land­line. Calls between the same type of phone are much cheap­er or more like­ly to be includ­ed in an unlim­it­ed plan, where­as cross­ing those net­works is more expen­sive or may just have a low­er cap.

A Few More Tips

1. Roam Like at Home

If you have a Ger­man cell phone plan, regard­less of whether it’s con­tract or pre­paid, then you can use it in all EU coun­tries with­out incur­ring any roam­ing charges. That means you can call, text, and use your data in Spain or Croa­t­ia exact­ly as if you were still home in Ger­many. That said, call­ing non-Ger­man num­bers will still be treat­ed as inter­na­tion­al call­ing, even if, for instance, you call a Span­ish num­ber while you are in Spain. Also keep in mind that Switzer­land is not an EU mem­ber state (although Telekom con­tract plans may include Switzer­land with­out roaming).

2. WhatsApp

The top mes­sag­ing and VOIP app in Europe is What­sApp. Unlike many oth­er social media apps, your account is tied to your phone num­ber rather than an email address or user name. While it is pos­si­ble to con­tin­ue using What­sApp with an old num­ber when you change, this can be a bit tricky. It’s best to wait until you have your Ger­man (or inter­na­tion­al) plan set up before start­ing to use What­sApp for the first time. What­sApp was acquired by Face­book and can be linked to your Face­book account as well. You can use it for voice and video call­ing as well as send­ing text mes­sages, pho­tos, and short videos between indi­vid­u­als and with­in chat groups.

3. Privacy concerns

From a foreigner’s per­spec­tive, the Ger­man insis­tence on dig­i­tal pri­va­cy and con­trol of online data may seem para­noid. For instance, you’ll meet lots of peo­ple who nev­er turn on loca­tion ser­vices and don’t use Face­book, Insta­gram, or sim­i­lar social media apps. Even among the mil­lions of Ger­mans who do use Face­book, many have a pro­file pic­ture in which they are uniden­ti­fi­able. It is nev­er­the­less quite under­stand­able giv­en Germany’s his­to­ry although today most Ger­mans are more wor­ried about pri­vate com­pa­nies than pub­lic sur­veil­lance. Ger­man law has evolved to reflect these concerns.

This has some impli­ca­tions for every­one, regard­less of your own lev­el of com­fort with shar­ing your data online. Most impor­tant­ly, it’s ille­gal to share or post pho­tos of peo­ple with­out their per­mis­sion if it would be pos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy them – that means not only their faces, but if they have rec­og­niz­able hair or tat­toos, for exam­ple. And that’s not just about pub­li­ca­tions by pro­fes­sion­als, but even shar­ing your touristy snap­shots in a What­sApp group. Of course, depend­ing on how pub­licly you share, it’s unlike­ly that a ran­dom passer­by will see the image and take you to court, but it’s good to be aware of the risk. You should def­i­nite­ly always ask your Ger­man friends for per­mis­sion before post­ing even a shared self­ie with them online.