What is the best German bank account for me?

Feeling nervous about opening a German bank account? In a German bank? In German? Worry not – it’s not such a big deal. Aside from the titan German banks, there are even purely online options available these days – in English. This might sound like a fairy tale but trust us, it’s true. So, stop with the nerves and start reading!

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Do you like getting paid? You do?! Then welcome to the magical, wonderful world of opening a bank account in Germany!

Urgh, more bureaucracy? Why do I need a German bank account?

You dare question the wisdom of the mighty German banking industry?

Oh, you do. OK, well, there are many practical reasons to open an account here - the first being that many German companies prefer to pay your salary into a German bank account, which is pretty important if you enjoy surviving. The second is that Germany is a little backwards when it comes to paying by card. Often credit cards are not accepted, and sometimes even foreign debit cards are a no-go. Standing red-faced in a supermarket, while a queue of impatient foot-tapping Germans builds up behind you as you break out in a sweat trying various cards should be enough to have you running to your nearest bank to open an account.

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How do I open a German bank account?

It’s actually not as complicated as you might think, especially if you speak a few words of German. With any luck you’ll get a jolly old German man who chortles his way through your attempts at pronunciation, taps a few keys on his computer and hey presto, you’re done. Even if your German isn’t exactly fabulous, you’ll probably still be able to get away with smiling winningly and gesturing helpfully at your documents.

What documents do I need to bring with me?

Time to stock up on ink, paper and patience – here we go again with the German love of paperwork. In order to open a German bank account, you’ll need the following documents:

  • A valid passport with a current German residence permit
  • Your Meldebescheinigung (address registration)
  • Completed application with personal information: name, age, nationality, address, income, etc. Or you can just fill it in at the bank if you’re feeling brave.
  • Proof of income/employment, a letter of recommendation from your employer, pay slips, etc. Freelancers will have to get proof of income. 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)

Oof, that’s a lot. Can’t I just do all this online?

If you’d asked a few years ago, the answer would have been a resounding NEIN. However, even German banking giants like Deutsche Bank and Sparkasse are catching up in this respect and, miracle of miracles, now you can. You’ll just have to use a webcam, verifying code sent by email, or go to an approved subsidiary like PostIdent to verify your identity.

Can I only use my bank’s ATMs?

An excellent question and one that could save you rather a lot of time and money in the long run. Germany is still, in many ways, a cash culture so you’d be wise to choose a bank that has an ATM in your vicinity. Many small shops and cafés don’t accept cards so it’s handy to always have a few euros in your pocket – you don’t want to have to miss out on that Heimwegbier you’ve been dreaming about all day.

You can, of course, use any bank’s ATMs but fees for withdrawing from a Sparkasse ATM with a Deutsche Bank card, for example, will make your jaw drop. If you’d been wondering why your German friend dragged you 5 km out of your way to find a bank machine on a night out, this is why. Some banks do have partner banks (Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, HypoVereinsbank and Postbank are members of the Cash Group) and they mutually waive ATM usage fees for their customers. Sparkasse is a lone wolf but, with 25,000 ATMs nationwide, you’ll never have to go far to find one.
Is there any way around this madness?

Funny you should ask – yes, there is! It’s a bit of a newbie in the German market but N26, a purely online bank, is growing faster than a German can say Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung. Since most expats need to open a bank account (long) before they master the German language, it’s extremely popular with this community as everything is available in English.

Online bank? In English?? Tell me more!

Although everything is done digitally, N26 offers the same guarantees as a traditional bank, so the funds in your account are insured against theft or hacking. There are also no fees attached to the “Girokonto” (normal transactional account), a limited number of free withdrawals worldwide per month (yes, even at German ATMs) and free international money transfers. You can open the account online – in English – in just a few minutes and you don’t even need to have a registered address in Germany. N26 prides itself on its transparency so even its ATM card is see-through, which will draw “oohs” and “aahs” from your friends back home. Of course N26 is not the only bank in town that offers English Service, check out some pros and cons of N26 here. If you need more choice than check out this bank account feature comparison of the best German Bank accounts for English speakers.
Just a reminder though – always, ALWAYS read the terms and conditions no matter which bank you choose. If they’re in German, get a German friend to help you – they seem to actually enjoy this kind of stuff. Just try to look appreciative and not snore through their (probably quite detailed) analysis. Viel Glück!

So, now that you’ve got your shiny new German bank account, the world is your oyster! You can actually get paid! Maybe even go buy some oysters to celebrate! Or a döner kebab if that’s more your speed. Whatever you decide, give yourself a pat on the back as you’ve just somersaulted over one more obstacle to becoming a fully functioning human being in Deutschland.

Written by Linda O'Grady, co-author of From the Bürgeramt to the Bedroom.