Setting Up Your Cell Phone 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 chat apps.
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.
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).
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.