Watching TV in Germany: Solutions for Expats
The German television (Fernsehen) standard used in Germany and most of Europe is not compatible with the television system used in the United States and Canada. Germany’s digital (DVB-T) PAL television system is different from the ATSC/NTSC television standard in the US. So what can expats do to solve this problem?
NEW for 2013
As of January 1, 2013 the old GEZ radio and TV fee in Germany has been replaced by the new Rundfunkbeitrag (“broadcast contribution”), a flat fee for all electronic devices in a household. Learn more below.
Watching TV in Germany
In Europe, including Germany, most radio and TV broadcasting follows the British BBC model, with a mix of public fee-funded broadcasters and private, commercial radio and TV networks. (For more about the German system, see Radio and Television in Germany.) Each household in Germany with an internet connection, a radio or a TV is required to pay a monthly “broadcast fee” that funds the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. (More about this fee below.)
Cable or Satellite TV
In Berlin today, there are over 25 digital television channels that can be received over the air. The situation is similar all across Germany. But very few Germans watch terrestrial TV. About 90 percent have cable and/or satellite TV. But even if you want to watch over-the-air TV in Germany, it isn’t free and you’ll need a TV set that works with Germany’s PAL TV standard. If you bring your normal TV set or display — even a digital one — from the US or Canada, you won’t be able to view any of the German channels. (It’s the same in Austria and Switzerland.)
There are also German cable and satellite services that offer programming similar or identical to cable and satellite channels in the US and Canada (BBC, CNN, Discovery, MSNBC, movie channels, etc.). But a standard US TV set won’t work with those services either. How do you deal with this problem?
TV and DVD Options / Solutions for Germany
There are several factors that make viewing German digital or cable TV on a standard American TV set impossible. Besides the number of lines in the PAL TV picture, the frame rate (50Hz, 25 per second in Germany; 60Hz, 30 per second in the US) and the color systems are also different. Even with a voltage converter, a normal US digital or analog TV is useless in Germany. But there are several solutions to this problem — some easier or cheaper than others.
Expat TV Solutions for Germany
Option 1: Buy a German PAL TV set
The simplest solution is to buy a PAL/DVB-T television set in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or online. Then you can leave your American TV at home (and sell your used German TV later). With a PAL TV set, you automatically get standard German features such as Bildschirmtext, the videotext service available in all three German-speaking countries. (That gives you all sorts of information, including news, program guides, and even airline departures and arrivals.) With the right kind of DVD or Blu-ray player (see below), it will also work with American and German DVDs or Blu-ray discs.
Option 2: A multisystem TV set
A multisystem television can handle all of the world’s three main TV formats (ATSC/NTSC, PAL, Secam). With a multisystem set, you don’t have to worry about which system you’re using, or even where you are. The disadvantages are mostly financial. A multisystem TV can cost a bit more than a normal TV, but it may be a good investment for expats who move around a lot.
Option 3: A PAL-to-ATSC/NTSC converter
The system-converter option has both advantages and disadvantages compared to options 1 and 2 above. The chief advantage is cost. A decent PAL-to-ATSC/NTSC converter can be purchased for less than $200. It will allow you to watch German TV and US (Region 1) DVDs on your US television set, so you don’t have to buy a new TV. The disadvantages include the need for a step-down voltage transformer for your US TV set (if it is not a 220/110 model) and a lack of Bildschirmtext (mentioned earlier). Plus, if you have an HDTV set, a PAL-to-ATSC HDTV converter runs about $300 and up.
Option 4: A multisystem DVD player
If you are primarily concerned about viewing DVDs, a cheaper solution is to buy a multisystem, multiregion DVD player. Although this solution will usually not allow you to view German TV unless you also have a PAL or multisystem TV set, the advantage is that most multisystem DVD players will work on any TV monitor — PAL, NTSC, or SECAM. Note that DVDs can also be played on a computer with a DVD or Blu-ray drive. (Note: Most Blu-ray movies have no region coding and will play on a German or US Blu-ray player.) Computer DVD players can switch to another region code, but some are easier than others to switch and there is a five-time limit. (See more in DVD Region Codes – from AboutGerman.net.)
Option 5: TV on your computer
This is not a primary solution, but it is a great option for a second TV or for those who would like to record German TV programs and movies. You’re probably planning to bring along a computer or two anyway. If you have a laptop computer with a TV tuner card or an external USB device like the EyeTV Hybrid, you can watch (and record) TV on your computer. Of course, you need a card or plug-in device that works in Germany.
When I was living in Berlin, I bought an Elgato EyeTV Hybrid (analog/digital) USB tuner for my Mac in Germany that worked great for both viewing and recording DVB-T over-the-air broadcasts (or listening to FM radio). It’s like a DVR in your shirt pocket! The Elgato software and program guide are also very good. The Hybrid can also double as a way to convert your old VHS tapes to a 21st century digital format. The DVB-T/Analog Hybrid (for the Mac) sells for 130 euros in Europe ($150 plus tax in the US). The cheaper EyeTV Diversity tuner (digital only) is only 80 euros. (Note: The German version will not work in the US, and vice versa.) See the Elgato site for details. For PCs there are several options from EyeTV, Hauppauge.com (US) or Hauppauge.de (Germany).
The solution you choose will depend on your goals and your financial situation. No one set-up is going to be right for everyone.
No more GEZ
As of January 1, 2013 the old GEZ (Gebühreneinzugszentrale) fee has been replaced by the new Rundfunkbeitrag (“broadcast contribution”). Whether you want to or not, if you have a radio, TV set – and now a computer or tablet – in your household, you are required to pay a monthly fee to help finance Germany’s public broadcasters (ARD and ZDF). The difference now is that it no longer matters how many devices (TVs, computers, radios, smart phones, etc.) you have in your household. The new Rundfunkbeitrag is a flat fee per household. The old GEZ monthly rate for a TV and radio was 17.98 euros. The new flat fee is the same. Most people pay the broadcast fee quarterly (53.94 euros) by automatic bank withdrawal. For more information, see the Rundfunkbeitrag Website (in German), where you can get more information and register.
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