Playing Your Cards Right

While credit cards are not as commonly used in Germany as in some other countries, most major stores, hotels, and restaurants accept all major credit cards.

In many German supermarkets and smaller stores it is impossible to pay with a credit card, but most of them accept direct debit cards. After you opened your account, you will receive a debit card displaying a Maestro sign from your bank, usually referred to as EC card. This card can be used to make payments and to withdraw money from your account at ATMs. 

The debit card generally gives you a certain credit limit (Dispokredit or Überziehungskredit) but beware of hefty interest rates on overdrafts. Within the given credit limit you may carry a negative balance at all times. 

If you use the ATMs of your bank or associated banks to withdraw cash, no additional fees are charged. Other banks’ ATMs state the fees they charge. Germany’s major banks, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, Hypovereinsbank and Postbank, have formed an alliance called cash group and offer free cash withdrawals at their ATMs for all of their customers. The EC card is widely accepted all over Europe, but a flat fee of a few euros is generally charged for withdrawals abroad. Withdrawals are calculated at the official exchange rate outside the euro zone. 

By either signing or indicating your personal identification number (PIN), payments by EC card are debited directly to your account. Some stores may ask for further proof of identification. Note that the EC card does not have a cash-back function. That means you won’t be able to get cash from the supermarket register after buying groceries, as is standard practice in many other countries. 

Security issues 

As in every service-oriented business, there are a number of differences between banks in other countries and those in Germany. The most shocking habit of bank tellers in Germany for U.S. expatriates is their reluctance to request ID from a customer when withdrawing money from their account at the counter. Most banks will compare the signature on the withdrawal forms with a signature on the computer screen, but they almost never go as far as requesting ID. 

That means if you lose your EC card, Europe’s most popular debit card, or credit card in Germany, you certainly have reason to fear that some clean-cut gentleman with a harmless smile may laugh himself all the way into your bank account without needing to know your pin number. 

If you lose your card, you should therefore block it immediately by calling the appropriate number.