How To Open a Bank Account in Germany


One of the first things you have to do when you move to Germany is open a bank account. You have money, you’re an upstanding citizen, it should be easy – right? Not so fast.

Expat How To Guides for Germany > HOW TO OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT IN GERMANY

Berliner Volksbank

A bank branch office in Berlin. PHOTO: Erin Porter

As with so many things in Germany, opening a bank account usually includes enough paperwork to make you bemoan the naïve soul who thought it’d be “fun” to move to Germany. But a German bank account really is necessary to rent a flat or house, get a phone, or receive a pay check. It is unavoidable. Our guide on how to open a bank account in Germany will help you make this potentially painful process, einfach (simple).

Germany’s Cash Culture
Let’s start with the basics. Austria and Germany, as part of the EU, use the euro (EUR). This currency is used throughout most of Europe, but not in places like Switzerland with their fancy Swiss francs (CHF).

While in Germany, you need to get your hands on actual banknotes and coins. Cash, or Bargeld, is king. For a place with such an established banking industry, the Germans seem to have a deep distrust of credit and money not in hand. (Might have something to do that crazy inflation after WWI). Even today, most everyday purchases are made with cash. Everything from a Wurst (sausage) to a new iPhone may require a cash payment. For Americans used to buying a pack of gum with their card, Germany’s cash culture can seem stifling.

Because of this, ATMs are plentiful in city centers. They are marked by an “EC” sign or have the German word for cash machine, Geldautomat. Almost all can be operated in English, German, and a few other languages. In Austria, ATMs are called Bankomats.

Bankomat

An Austrian Bankomat in Vienna.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Germany’s three major banks – Deutsche Bank (and its subsidiary Postbank), Commerzbank and Hypovereinsbank – cooperate as the Cash Group, which means ATM withdrawals are free if you bank with them and use their ATMs. Other ATMs may charge as much as 5 euro per withdrawal. Other banks, like DKB, offer free withdrawals as long as the machine doesn’t require a fee.

For larger payments, people rely on an Überweisung (money transfer). You used to memorize your important bank numbers like your account number (Kontonummer) and bank routing code (Bankleitzahl) with pre-allocated TAN codes used for online payments.

This practice changed with the introduction of the Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) in February 2016. SEPA establishes a uniform set of rules regardless of location within the EU (plus 5 countries outside of this area). With SEPA, there is no differentiation between national and cross-border euro payments. SEPA also uses an account number and bank code, but these have been updated to IBAN and BIC code or SWIFT code, respectively. Today, German personal bank accounts must have IBAN account numbers. Transfers usually take about one business day and are free to complete online. TAN codes for online banking are now generated on the fly using a small electronic device provided by your bank.

International Money Transfers
A bank is seldom the best place to use to transfer money internationally, especially for big-ticket items such as a home purchase or a business transaction. Refer to our article on International Money Transfers for transferring funds to or from Germany.

Germany’s cash culture is – slowly – changing. Most banks now issue an EC Karte for cashless payments. This works like a bank debit card, with more places than ever taking cashless payments. Credit cards are also becoming more popular, but still far less common than in North America. Fees range greatly, with free cards requiring more expensive accounts and banks may only offer this option after several months of good credit. The amount of credit is usually in relation to your monthly income.

Still, be prepared with cash for everything from a meal to a hotel.

Selecting a BankGerman Bank Accounts

Most German banks are of high integrity and offer similar services, but fees vary widely and some are much friendlier to expats. The number of branches and their location may be an important factor in choosing a financial institution. Online banking also is becoming very common, as well as mobile apps. Do your research to find the right bank to suit your needs.

Types of Bank Accounts
There are two basic types of accounts in Germany:

  • Girokonto (current account, similar to a US checking account but without checks)
  • Sparkonto (savings account)

Most financial transactions are completed using a Girokonto (via a debit card or a money transfer, an Überweisung). Unlike in the France and the United States, Germans don’t write personal checks. Most of the time, a Girokonto includes an EC-Karte, the German version of a debit card. Mosts banks charge a monthly fee for this service, although it may be waived if you keep a minimum account balance. For example, Sparkasse charges a fee of 4 euros per month if the total account balance averages less than 3,000 euros per month. These accounts do not earn interest but allow you to pay by card and use an ATM.

A Sparkonto is often opened at the same time as a Girokonto and allows you to save money and earn interest. However, interest rates for a savings account tend to be low, even lower than in the US.

Note that university students may be entitled to special student accounts that are exempt from account charges (Kontoführungsgebühren) if they qualify. There are some restrictions on these accounts, such as an age limit of 29.

Expat Banking Tip
Yes, you do need to open a German bank account, but it is also wise to maintain access to at least one home-country bank account. That allows you to pay bills and access funds back home. It’s a small world after all.

HOW TO OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT IN GERMANY

Postbank

The Postbank division of Deutsche Bank shares space with the post office.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Some banks cater to an international crowd, while others are reluctant to provide services or paperwork not in German. You also have a choice of a bank or a savings association (Sparkasse, Raiffeisenbank), and each type has its own advantages and disadvantages.

To open a personal bank account in Germany, you should provide:

  • A valid passport with a current German residence permit
  • Anmeldung (registration)
  • Completed application with personal info: name, age, nationality, address, income, etc.
  • Initial deposit (minimum amount depends on the bank)
  • Proof of income/employment, a letter of recommendation from your employer, pay slips, etc. (The more of these you have, the better your chances of receiving a full-service account.)
  • SCHUFA credit rating (optional, although it may be required at some banks)

Another thing to consider when opening a bank account is if your home bank has a partner in Germany. Deutsche Bank and Bank of America are partner banks and offer low-cost/free transfer services.

Opening an Online Bank Account
Increasingly, it is becoming an option to open a German bank account online. To verify your identity you may need to use a webcam, verifying code sent by email, or going to an approved subsidiary like PostIdent. PostIdent requires you download an identity verification sheet from your bank’s website and present it at your local post office with your passport. Your documents are signed and sent to your bank. The bank usually pays the fee for this procedure.

Yet another option is to have a lawyer or notary complete the process for you.

Some banks are reluctant to offer accounts to foreigners, or may require a minimum amount of time holding an account before allowing you to hold a credit card. Others require a minimum income to open an account. Some nationalities also need to undergo a verification by a home bank. A customer representative should be able to guide you through this if it is required.

Cards and documents will be sent to you through the mail once the account is opened.

German Banking Glossary

  • Bargeld – cash
  • Anmeldung – registration
  • Pflichtfeld – required field (on a form)
  • Kontoinhaber – account holder
  • PostIdent – The post office will verify your identity to open an account. This is popular with online banks.
  • Sparkonto – savings account
  • Girokonto – checking account
  • Sperrkonto – locked account used for foreigners to acquire visas. This is to prove they have sufficient means to stay in Germany.
  • EC-Karte – EC card, a debit card accepted by most German retailers and businesses
  • TAN codes – special transaction codes that you use online to verify payments from your account
  • Kontonummer – account number (now IBAN)
  • Bankleitzahl – bank routing code (now BIC/SWIFT)
  • Studentenausweis – student ID
  • Kontoführungsgebühren – bank account fees; waived with student status
  • aktuelles Nettoeinkommen pro Monat in Euro – current monthly net income in euros
  • Disposition Kredit (DispoKredit) – overdraft protection (loan); usually requires a premium account
  • Zinsen – interest (paid by you or to you)
  • Überweisung/Geldüberweisung – money transfer

German Banks and Saving Associations
German financial institutions are generally open from 8:00 until 16:00 and may have one night per week with evening hours. Conversely, some banks – such as DKB – are online-only with extremely limited storefronts. Even many “normal” bank branches are fully automated, with no tellers or teller windows. There may be a few humans on hand to assist customers, but all deposits and withdrawals are done by machine. There are even fancy machines into which you can feed euro banknotes, which are automatically counted and totaled. You then take your printed receipt, and go on your merry way.

Major Banks Operating in Germany

  • Citibank – Most branches are located away from major centers. Citi does offer a free account if you maintain a total continuous balance of at least 2,500 euros in any account you have with them in Germany.
  • Comdirect – This bank is a subsidiary of Commerzbank and operates online. It offers a free Visa credit card and sign-up is easy and the credit card allows you to get cash out of machines in Germany and abroad for free.
  • Commerzbank – One of the largest banks in the country, it has an extensive branch network dedicated to consumers. It offers a free bank account including EC Karte (but not credit card) if you open your bank account online, as well as premium accounts that offer two debit cards and travel insurance. This bank is highly rated with above average customer service and regularly offer promotions for new sign-ups. Their site is available in English.
  • Deutsche Bank – Germany’s largest nationwide bank is also one of the most well-known internationally. They offer a range of services like specific accounts for students and for accountants/lawyers or other professionals that hold client money. As mentioned before, their partnership with Bank of America can make for easy money transfer for customers.
Deutsche Bank twin towers

Deutsche Bank’s twin towers in Frankfurt am Main. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

  • DKB – Deutsche Kredit Bank is ideal if you like no/low fees and are comfortable doing all your banking online. It offers a free account, ATM withdrawal (unless that machine charges a fee) and a free EC card. If you have an issue, you can call or email customer support. Note that in recent years DKB has become more stringent in their requirements and may require a certain level of income.
  • HypoVereinsbank – Another large bank across Germany, they are part of the international Italian banking group Unicredit. There are a range of accounts and online services with Konto Klassik free of charge if a minimum of 1,500 euros is deposited every month. The site is only available in German.
  • N26 – A relative newcomer, this online bank caters to the expat market with English info and it is quick and easy to sign up with its own app. Information is in English and they offer free accounts. However, they are also growing quickly and some expats have expressed dissatisfaction with how their account was handled.
  • Netbank – An online bank with a respectable history. Allows customers to use any ATM for free.
  • Postbank – Once the biggest retail-customer bank in Germany, it is now owned by Deutsche Bank. Postbank Giro plus offers a free EC Karte and a free Girokonto if you maintain a minimum of 1,000 euro a month auto-deposited into the account. They also have a large ATM network.
  • Sparkasse – Sparkassen are run as a non-profit public service with many branches and ATMs throughout Germany. Each large German city has its own Sparkasse. For example, Berliner Sparkasse is the largest retail/consumer bank in the city. However, they do have high charges for non-Sparkasse ATMs.

This HOW TO article was written by Erin Porter.

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  • Germany.info – The website of the German Embassy in Washington, DC has a lot of good information for Americans living and working in Germany.

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