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

GSM

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.

SIM

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.

SMS

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 chat 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. What’s more, the can­cel­la­tion peri­od usu­al­ly requires that you give notice at least three months before the end of your con­tract, or else it will renew for anoth­er year. 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 or else you’re stuck pay­ing until August 2023.

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.