The Expat’s Guide to Opening a Bank Account in Germany

So you moved to Germany! Maybe you got a job and need to get paid? Or maybe you quickly discovered that you can’t use Visa or Mastercard in most places, so you need a German card to get by? If you are going to have any bills at all, you probably need to open a German bank account. But where to start? I present to you: The Expat’s Guide to Opening a German Bank Account.

Reasons You Need a German Bank Account

Maybe you moved to Germany and think that you don’t need a German bank account. That might be true, but if you plan on living here for a while then you’re going to need an account. Do you have a job? You need to get paid! Did you go to the doctor’s? You need to pay them! Did you buy some health insurance? You have to pay for it. The bill collectors around here don’t accept payment from cards. You have to pay them via wire transfer, and you have to pay them quickly. You could probably get by on giving cash to your friends and paying your bills from their accounts, but that will get old really fast, for both of you. It’s easier and more convenient to just have your own account! Plus, you’ll get a German banking card, which will be pretty cool to show your friends back home.

Differences Between German and US Banking

First of all, the German banking system is not the same as the American banking system. I would argue that it is, in fact, better. In a lot of ways, Germany is technologically behind the US, but not with regard to banking! For example, the Internet is a monopoly, so it’s not that great. You have a hard time getting cell coverage while on the autobahn or just not in the cities. Cash is king, and cards aren’t accepted everywhere. Visa and Mastercard are rarely accepted outside of the malls, and even then half the time the card machines are out of service. When it comes to banking, however, Germany has it down. You can give out your account info like free candy if you want, and fraud is almost unheard of. You can send money to people same day, free of charge. All bills are paid the same way that you send people money; you just log into your account, give the recipient account info and amount, put in your verification code (probably sent to you via text message) and BAM! you’re done. Wiring money doesn’t have the hassle of going into the banks or the added fees that you get in the US.

In the States, if you open an account with no money, the back office usually automatically closes the account within a few days. Here, I opened an account a full three weeks before my first paycheck, and it was fine! You also can’t overdraft your account like you can in the US. You either have the money to pay the bills or you don’t. Since the money comes out immediately, you don’t have to wait for overnight processing. There is no such thing as an “available balance” or “posted balance”. It’s just a balance.

What is Required

To open an account in the US, you usually need at least $50, a permanent address, phone number, email, and some form of ID. You have to talk to the banker while they ask you questions, trying to figure out where they can upsell you. (If you thought they were just being friendly, then they’re just good at their job! Trust me, I did that for >3 years.They just want as much of your business as they can get.) You can also walk in and open the account same-day. In Germany, depending on the bank, you just need a passport, phone number, and an address. If you want to use online banking (you do), then you also need an email. You do, however, have to make an appointment to open an account. I thought this was completely absurd, but that’s just how they do it!

Some banks, like Santander, require that you have at least two months of paystubs from a regular job with a salary to open an account. This isn’t the norm for most expats, so if you aren’t in that category then don’t worry! I have a better option.

Sparkasse bank is the bank of choice for most expats who are freelancers: teachers, writers, etc. You don’t even need 1 euro to open the account. As long as you have an address and phone number, you just go in with your passport and open an account!

What to Expect

I live in a smaller town, the locals generally don’t speak as much English as they do in a bigger city. My “German for eating” is fantastic, but my “German for banking” is quite limited. I wanted the safety blanket of a German-English fluent friend to come with me as my translator. It was definitely helpful to have her, but I don’t think it was completely necessary. The banker spoke a little bit of English, and it probably would’ve been enough to get all of my info and explain how the fees work, but it’s okay!

It’s a pretty straightforward process. You come in for your bank-account-opening appointment, and you sit at the desk with a banker. They get all of your information: passport info, contact info, how you plan to use the account (so they put you in the best option for you). I brought along my visa when I opened the account, but they didn’t even look at it. Once they get you in the system, they open your account. Then you get a little folder with a bunch of information and you can leave. The whole process takes around 10–15 minutes. Within the next week, you will receive your PIN number for your debit card, and then your debit card.

Congratulations!

You opened your first German bank account. Your new debit card is accepted anywhere that has a functioning card reader in Germany, but you should definitely carry some cash with you just in case. The German banking system may be ahead of its time, but the stores and restaurants are not.

If you are planning to travel abroad and will use ATMs to get cash, be prepared for the worst by reading What to Do if an ATM Eats Your Card Overseas.