Chances are that if you’re relocating to Germany from another country, you’ll likely need to open a bank account. If you’ll be working in Germany, your employer might even require that you get an account for direct deposit of your paychecks. It’s common for landlords, cell phone companies, internet providers, and utility companies to ask for your banking information before you can sign contracts for services. Though not impossible to survive in Germany without a bank account, it won’t be easy. If you’re a fellow expat or immigrant like us, we’re here to tell you how to open a German bank account from personal experience.
And don’t worry if you don’t speak German. We didn’t either, and the whole experience was a snap!
Things to Know Before Opening a German Bank Account
Before you sign on that dotted line, there are definitely some things you should know. The more information you have before opening an account, the happier you’ll be.
Germany’s currency is the Euro.
The euro replaced the Deutsche Mark in Germany in 2002. You’ll usually see it written as EUR or €.
Those coming from the US will need to get used to more small denominations being in coin form. Euros are available in the same 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cent coins as in US currency, but they also have a 2 cent coin and both a €1 and €2 coin that are really common.
Be prepared for a lot of pocket change!
A few basic German words come in handy when opening an account.
Bargeld/Geld – Cash
Geldautomat – ATM/Cash machine
Anmeldung – Registration
EC-Karte – Old name for girocard
Girokonto – Checking account
Girocard – Contactless cash card, functions like a US debit card and is widely accepted in Germany
IBAN – International Bank Account Number, used in the EU, Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Hungary
TAN codes – Specific codes used for online payments to verify your account
Überweisung – Money transfer
Germans don’t use personal checks.
Unlike in the US, paper checks don’t readily exist in Germany. In person, you’ll need to pay with either cash or a credit or debit card. Online bills are typically paid by transferring money from your IBAN, or account number, to another IBAN account number.
Expat Tip: Once you get used to it, being check-free in Germany isn’t a problem until you want to update your US passport by mail. It can only be paid with a cashier’s or bank check (no personal checks) made out to your local US embassy. If you want to pay by cash or credit, you’ll have to renew in person. You can always ask a family member in the US to mail you a cashier’s check in the exact amount you need and mail it in with your renewal packet. It worked like a charm for us!
It’s not only ok, it’s actually expected for you to share your IBAN with total strangers.
This will likely come as a shock to our fellow Americans. It certainly did to us!
Unlike in the US where we’re taught to guard our banking information with our lives and never give out your account number, it’s commonly done in Germany. You’ll provide it for everything from paying car registration fees, standing orders for your rent, and for shopping online.
It doesn’t mean Germans don’t care about privacy. They do! And German banks are incredibly secure. It’s just an entirely different system, one in which it’s ok to share your account number.
IBAN accounts in Germany start with the country code “DE” and can be up to 34 digits long. It’s a good idea to have your IBAN memorized or somewhere secure for times you need to provide it.
Financial institutions in Germany have shorter working hours than in the US.
If you’re used to doing your banking on Saturday or even Sunday in the US, you’ll need to adjust to a shorter banking work week in Germany.
Not only are most stores closed on Sundays, but it’s rare for banks to open on Saturday either. If you find one that does, you’ll need to aim for a very short window of opportunity.
During the Monday – Friday work week, typical bank hours are 8 am to 4 pm. Some even close for an hour – or longer – for lunch! Never just head to your bank on your lunch break or after work without first checking the hours. More often than not, it’s closed.
Cash is still king in Germany.
Even with a bank account, always travel with cash.
According to a survey by the Deutsche Bundesbank, 74% of all transactions in Germany in 2017 were paid in cash. It’s not uncommon to book lodging or eat at a restaurant and find out they only accept cash, especially in rural areas.
How to Open A Bank Account in Germany
The process of actually opening a bank account in Germany is pretty straight-forward. Once you’ve figured out which financial institution offers the specific services you need, you’re just a few steps away from checking one more to-do item off your relocation list.
We recommend making an appointment before you go, but if you’re in a hurry and have all your documents, you can always visit during their opening hours and ask to speak to someone about opening an account. Just know that they might not have an English-speaking agent available.
Make sure you take the following documents with you to the bank.
Passport or federal form of ID
German residency permit
Completed application provided by the bank
Anmeldung – proof of registration from the city/local authorities
Lease or similar proof of address/residence in Germany
Employment contract as well as the most recent pay stub, if you have it
Proof you’re a student, if you are
Money to be used as an initial balance in your new German bank account
SCHUFA credit report (some banks may ask for this)
That’s a lot of documents, right? In the US, you don’t have to be MacGyver to open a bank account with nothing but a stick of gum and a ballpoint pen.
Choosing A German Bank
Germany’s banks fall into one of six main categories: private commercial banks, public savings banks, international banks, investment banks, co-ops, and online banks. Each offers its own set of services, catering to specific clientele. The type of bank matters less than finding one that offers what best fits your needs.
You’ll probably already have a list of things you know you want, but if not, here are some things to consider.
Does the bank offer services in English or your preferred language?
Does it offer a free account or are there monthly fees, transfer fees, or withdrawal fees?
Will you need and/or have access to ATMs? Is there a fee to use them?
Does it cater to international customers with options like low-cost wire transfers and credit cards?
Do you need an account in a brick-and-mortar bank or will an online banking app suffice?
Some of the Best Banks in Germany for Expats
When we were shopping for a bank, we read about a bunch of different companies and their services, features, and options. These were the ones that we most frequently saw on lists for some of the best banks for expats in Germany.
Deutsche Bank is the largest bank in Germany in terms of sheer customers. The company offers in-person services, mobile banking, and offshore banking, and they offer a full range of banking services – loans, credit, financing, etc. Their standard account is called AktivKonto and costs €5.90 a month. As members of the “Cash Group,” they offer free access to all ATMs operated by other members of this group, which includes Commerzbank and Hypovereinsbank.
Commerzbank pops up on just about every list of the best banks in Germany. Their website is in German or English. They offer in-person services, plus mobile banking. The basic account – Kostenloses Girokonto (free-of-charge current account) – offers a free girocard, routinely offers incentives like signing bonuses, and it doesn’t incur monthly fees when a certain amount of money is auto deposited every month.
Postbank offers a free account that comes with a girocard as long as you have at least €1000 a month auto-deposited. As a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, it offers access to their partner ATMs free of charge as well.
Only German residents can sign up for accounts with Sparkasse. Operated as non-profit public financial institutions, they’re absolutely everywhere you look. Unfortunately their account and ATM fees were higher than the other banks we considered, but they’re worth looking into. They’re popular with a lot of residents.
Why We Chose Commerzbank
Like many expats, we didn’t know how long we’d be living in Germany when we initially relocated. We just knew it would likely be a minimum of at least two years, since that was the tentative verbal contract agreement with Trav’s new employer.
That said, we’d decided to keep our US bank account open and active. We needed a way to make the monthly mortgage payments on our house in Oregon, to regularly pay off the balance on our international credit cards, and for other random bills in the US.
Expat Tip: We recommend that unless you’re planning to relocate to Germany permanently, keep your US bank account open. Trust us when we say it’ll come in handy.
We had to open a bank account in Germany.
We possibly could’ve gotten away with not opening a German bank account at all, except that Trav’s German employer required that his monthly checks be auto-deposited into a German bank account. It forced us to find a bank, and fast!
Even if we hadn’t had to though, we likely would’ve opened one eventually, especially once we realized we’d be in Germany longer than we originally anticipated.
It just makes daily life so much easier, from being able to use our Commerzbank girocard when we shop for groceries at Lidl (they don’t take Visa, so it’d be cash-only for us), making purchases with online stores in Germany, or paying doctor’s bills that require a direct IBAN account transfer.
An online-only banking account/app wouldn’t be sufficient for us.
Since we had to open an account, we next had to decide if we’d be ok with just an online account. Though Germans have historically been slow to embrace technology, online banking has been growing quickly in recent years, and there’s no shortage of online banking apps that’re able to offer low or no fees because they don’t have to pay the overhead for maintaining a physical location for customers.
We realized pretty quickly that we wanted a bank that could offer in-person assistance when an ATM machine ate our debit card (which happened) or when we needed to buy €50 worth of 50-cent pieces for the coin-operated laundry machine at our apartment.
Online-only banking wouldn’t be a good fit for us – though we did eventually sign up for one, try it for a month or two, and ultimately close the account. There was nothing wrong with the app, but by then we already had our Commerzbank bank account, and the online bank offered fewer services than Commerzbank. If you don’t need in-person services, there are tons of great options for free online banks.
As one of Germany’s three largest international banks, Commerzbank is great for English speakers.
We moved to Germany with only two weeks’ notice and had little to no knowledge of the country or the language, so finding an expat-friendly bank that offered services in English was important. Before opening our account with Commerzbank, we repeatedly read and had heard from fellow expats that the bank is “expat-friendly.” We quickly found it to be true.
Because it’s a large bank that caters to international clients, Commerzbank is known for having a high number of English-speaking employees. They typically have at least one English-speaking staff member working at any given time.
That extends to providing at least some documents in English as well, and to providing English-language options on their website. Once you get used to the differences in online banking in Germany, the website is a snap to use, even if you still have no idea whether to use der, die, or das.
They’re a full-service bank.
At Commerzbank, we’re able to access pretty much any services that we can from our bank in the US.
Every month, Trav’s pay checks are auto-deposited into our Commerzbank account. We share the account, and both of us have girocards (debit cards) which were free and which we can use for free at a ton of retailers and ATMs. Wherever we can’t use our US Visa card, we use our Commerzbank card.
We do most of our banking online, so we set up our online account right away.
With it, we have standing orders for our rent to be paid directly to our landlord in Germany, for our utilities to be paid monthly, for our dog registration fees to be paid quarterly to city officials, for car insurance, internet – pretty much everything. We rarely actually have to think about paying a bill or do it manually.
In typical German fashion, it’s all automatically just taken care of like clockwork.
Our Commerzbank account is free.
Commerzbank has several different options for checking accounts.
We would never open a bank account with monthly fees, so we opted for the most basic option, Kostenloses Girokonto. It’s free as long as we auto-deposit at least €1200 into it each month.
Since the entire reason we needed the account is to deposit Trav’s pay checks, this isn’t a problem. If he were to lose his job in Germany, we’d return to the US and simply close down the account, so it’s not a concern for us. It’s definitely something to consider when opening an account though.
The €50 bonus for opening an account didn’t hurt!
At the time we opened our account, Commerzbank was running an incentive program. They gave us €50 just to open our account with them.
Their incentive programs vary. At times, incentive amounts are as high as €100. Before you open an account with them, ask if they’re running any incentive programs and what the details are.
Doesn’t it just make more sense for a bank to pay you for your business than for you to pay them?!
Our Personal Experience Opening A German Bank Account
Just a few minutes past noon on an oppressively gray November day, Travis and I rushed to an appointment to open a German bank account with Commerzbank, our second foreign bank account in just over a year.
Wondering if it would be as difficult to open one in Germany as it had been for us to open a bank account in Switzerland, we checked in at the front desk of Commerzbank, then waited a bit anxiously in the lobby.
Two representatives greeted us with friendly smiles almost immediately.
We felt a bit like royalty when they led us to a private room. After offering us cappuccinos with tiny little cookies – Why has our bank in the US never done that?! – we got down to the business at hand.
The bank representative asked to see our US passports and Trav’s work contract, nothing more.
We told the bank employee what we wanted in an account, then reviewed the requirements. The documents were all in German, but the representative carefully explained each page and what we were signing. We scrawled our signatures next to a couple of prominent Xs, and BAM!, we were in possession of our very own German bank account!
The rep assured us we’d be able to access our new account within two days, and we could expect our new girocards in the mail within a week.
Pretty standard, right?
It was pretty much like opening an account in the US, except we had to make an appointment in Germany. This likely has more to do with the specific bank and branch than the country though.
Transfering Money from Switzerland
One final item on our agenda was to transfer the bulk of the money in our Swiss bank account to our new German account. Assuring us it was no problem at all, the rep offered to walk us through it in his office.
He instructed me to sign into our Swiss bank account online via the Commerzbank computer. After switching the language to German, he quickly filled out an online request to transfer money from one European bank account to another.
For a fee of about €20 for the transfer, it was well worth it.
He even offered to take care of closing our Swiss account for us, which was really nice. Since we weren’t quite ready for that, we declined. We still have a couple of outstanding transactions open with our Swiss bank, so we’ll close our Swiss account in person when we return with a moving truck for our things.
So that’s it, how to open a German bank account, easy as pie. Hopefully you’ll have an equally pain-free experience so you can get back to the business of settling in to your new expat life in Europe.