Hamburg river

Buying a SIM Card in Germany

By Keir Briscoe Get Connected14 Comments


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There are plenty of amazing things about Germany besides just the beer. I’m here in winter, which is definitely the off-season. Luckily, off-season is one of my favorite times to travel.

Besides the obvious of not having to deal with large crowds of tourists, It also means the Christkindl Markets are open and going strong.

There’s nothing better on a cold German evening than a hot ceramic shoe full of spiced and spiked Glühwein. Add a bratwurst or schnitzel, and that’s my idea of some satisfyingly unhealthy calorie consumption right there.

Expecting hassle and high costs, I was surprised how easy it was to get a SIM card in Germany. There are many options available, based on your data, text, and voice requirements.

Top-ups are easy to do, and readily available at local gas stations, convenience, and grocery stores. Here’s what you need to know.


Note: Germany is part of the European Union, which introduced new roaming regulations in June 2017. These “roam like at home” rules effectively ended roaming charges across much of Europe, meaning you’ll usually pay no more for calls, texts, and data in other EU countries than you would in the country of purchase.

There are some exceptions and limits, however. Double-check the details at time of purchase if you’re planning to use your SIM elsewhere in the region.


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Companies


  • We recommend Vodafone for most travelers

There are three major network providers in Germany, with many, many companies reselling their services.

Deutsche Telekom (formerly known as T-Mobile) is generally considered to have the best network. It has the best LTE availability and offers the most free Wi-fi hotspot locations. Resellers include Congstar, ja!mobile, and Lebara Mobile.

Vodafone has a network almost as good as Deutsche Telekom, and includes roaming for all EU/EEA countries (except Switzerland) at the German rates. Resellers include Fyve, Otelo, and Lycamobile.

o2 has the smallest network, but is the only one that covers the entire Berliner U-Bahn system with 3G/HSPA+ and LTE speeds. This includes subways, so it’s good if you plan to spend a lot of time on transit. Resellers include ALDI Talk, NettoKOM, Ortel, mobile, and WhatsApp.

I only listed a few of the reseller options but there are several more available. The resellers are generally cheaper and offer a wide range of incentives and offers. This can make them more attractive than the major players, but there’s often a trade-off.

Both Telekom and Vodafone reserve LTE speeds for their own customers and not their resellers. o2 does allow resellers to access these speeds, but as mentioned, has the smallest network.

As with most locations the highest speeds are found in the cities. While the whole country is covered, the rural areas are likely only to get 2G/EDGE speeds.

I bought a Vodafone SIM, as I’d be traveling outside of Germany afterward, and wanted to use my leftover credit without roaming fees. I also wanted access to the LTE network to see what kind of speeds were available.

The Vodafone option was also cheaper than Deutsche Telekom, and gave more data.

How


When I arrived at Hamburg airport I was in a rush to catch my train, so didn’t check the availability of SIMs there. A quick search on Google suggests SIM cards are available at phone stores in the terminal, however, if you’ve got more time than me.

SIM cards are available in grocery and convenience stores as well as specialty “Handy” stores. Yes, Germans call their cell phones “handys”. There is no end to my amusement with this.

Websites like Lebara.de (Telekom reseller) offer a SIM you can order for free and have delivered to a valid German address. I ordered one and gave my aunt’s address, but ended up leaving before it arrived.

Regardless of where you buy your SIM, it needs to be registered, and a data/voice package set up. Registration can be done in official carrier stores and some major electronics stores, or via a video chat-based system called WebID.

Generally foreign credit cards are not accepted for buying data and voice packages, so have a German friend available or use cash at a store.

Inside Dial Isie

To buy my card I walked to the local Handy store where I was staying in Timmendorfer Strand. I speak absolutely no German. The gentleman at the Handy store spoke only a few words of English, but generous use of hand gestures and grunting got me the available options and costs for each.

You’ll need your passport for registration, along with a German address. The easiest option is to use that of your hotel or hostel.

The whole process of buying the card and getting it set up was incredibly easy and painless. I was told it would take 20 minutes for the card to activate but I was already connected within five minutes. Some services claim up to two hours to activate. My entire time spent in the store was about 15 minutes.

Prefer to spend your vacation sightseeing instead of buying SIM cards? Grab one in advance to stay connected in Germany and across Europe.

This Orange SIM includes 20GB of data, 1000 international texts, and two hours of international calls. The price includes US delivery, and it's valid for two weeks in 30 European countries. Use the code EUCPO10 at checkout to get 10% off!

Other options are available if you're traveling for longer, need a portable hotspot, or want a different mix of calls, texts, and data. Either way, you'll be connected with a minimum of fuss before you've left the airport.

Costs


A SIM package with 2GB of data, plus 200 minutes of phone and text credit, costs €9.95 and is valid for 30 days. Other packages with less or more data are also available.

Registration should technically be free, but it’s not uncommon for Vodafone stores to charge an unofficial fee of up to €10 to do it.

The Telekom SIM package I was offered had less data for more money, and the store didn’t offer any o2 or reseller SIM’s.

To check the balance on my Vodafone SIM, I dialed *100#

Topping Up


Topping up is as simple as going into a grocery or convenience store and finding the cards hanging by the checkout lanes. I found Vodafone top-up cards at REWE and Aldi grocery stores, and most gas stations also have them.

Top-ups can be done at the network’s websites, but often only accept German credit cards. There are third-party top-up services such as prelado.de that may accept some non-German credit cards but also have an option to use Paypal. An alternative payment site is aufladen.de, though it charges a transaction fee.

The most reliable way is going to a physical store, as they accept both cash and foreign credit cards. It’s quick and easy, and the top-up cards are available everywhere.

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Coverage and Data Speeds


As shown below, the speed in Timmendorfer Strand was 12.44Mbps down and 4.66Mbps up. That’s fast enough for pretty much anything I’m likely to do on my phone.

I’m writing this article in Neu Wilmstorg, just south of Hamburg. Shockingly there’s no Wi-fi in this cafe, so I’ve tethered my computer to the phone and am getting speeds of 8.6Mbps down, 1.4Mbps up. That’s not screamingly fast, but not bad either.

German Vodafone speeds in Timmendorfer Strand

Vodafone speeds in Timmendorfer Strand

Check out our guides to buying SIM cards in many other countries here.

About the Author
Keir Briscoe

Keir Briscoe

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Growing up, one of Keir's biggest dreams was to explore the world, though he never thought it would become his reality. At the end of 2014, he quit his job as a project manager, sold most everything he owned, and set out to see the world. His travel goals are to make new friends everywhere he goes, become a better photographer, and avoid cold locations. You can find him at keirbriscoe.com.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    An even easier methid is to order a pay as you go SIM from Amazon.de and have it shipped in advance to your hotel

  2. Avatar

    Thanks for this article! Would you recommend SIM-only contracts for someone moving to Germany and living there at least 2 years? Or at that point, would a contract with a provider make more sense? I am thinking the latter, but wondering your advice as well. Thanks!

    1. Dave Dean

      I don’t know specifically for Germany, but in general you’ll get better deals with a contract than prepaid. If it was me, I’d ask about the options, then get a prepaid service for a month to make sure I was happy with coverage, data speeds etc, before switching to a contract if there were decent savings to be had.

    2. Avatar

      Hello there Nicole. I am wondering if you have found a good SIM-Only contract as I too am in the same position as you (Staying in Germany for 3+ years).

  3. Avatar

    Do not use Vodafone!
    Very poor service and even worse customer service!
    I traveled to Germany and bought CallYa Smartphone Special prepaid SIM-card in Berlin. I paid 35 euros even though it says 10 euros on the plan itself. I was told that my SIM will get activated in 3-4 hours. I had mobile internet right away, but could not make any phone calls (I had to make an urgent call). The next day I was traveling to Munich and decided to stop by a Vodafone shop to fix the issue since I had to make a call that day. The first staff member did not speak English very well, so he had to transfer me to an English speaking representative. He said that they could not help me. They don’t know what exactly the problem is, but something went wrong at their shop in Berlin, and that if I need help, I need to go back to the same shop in Berlin to get help. Really? Driving 600km for this? This is just ridiculous. I tried calling that Berlin shop from the shop phone and no one picked up. The staff member suggested me to buy a new SIM-card that will get activated in 24-48 hours. Are you serious? Great way to make money. Selling SIM-cards that don’t work and no one can help you with. After that, I asked if there is some English-speaking customer service that I can call. They gave me the number. I asked to use their phone to call since my SIM-card didn’t work. They said they won’t let me. The exact quote was “Go to a hotel and call from there”. And then the staff member said that they spent too much time on me already and that they can’t help me. It seems like the staff of this shop doesn’t realize that they work for Vodafone and not for their local shop. They expressed that it’s not their problem many times throughout our conversation. At that point, I just left.
    Also, the internet stopped working once I left Germany even though they claim that the prepaid card is “EU Roaming inclusive”.
    Not sure how Vodafone is still in business with such ridiculously poor customer service and lies at all levels of the company.

  4. Avatar

    Did you use your own phone that you brought from the US? Or did you buy a phone there? Was your phone locked?

    1. Dave Dean

      If you bought a locked phone, it needs to be unlocked (either by the company you bought it from or a third-party service) before you can use a SIM card from a different provider in it.

    1. Dave Dean

      Not that I’m aware of. You can buy esim service from a few international SIM companies that will cover Germany, but it’s more expensive than a physical local SIM.

  5. Avatar

    Reporting on recent experience with Vodafone in Germany (June 2019): If you’re in a smaller city, the Vodafone shops will tell you they are out of the prepaid cards (they aren’t, in fact, but don’t want to sell them to you because they don’t make enough $). Or — if they have them, they’ll claim that there’s a EUR 55 set-up fee, which apparently the stores are allowed to impose. If you’re in a large city like Munich, though, the Vodafone shop in the Marienplatz does a healthy tourist business so hasn’t had a problem with selling the prepaid cards, at least in the past.

    That said, I lived in Germany for a year recently, and had a prepaid plan on Vodafone. They were okay, nothing exceptional. I tend to go with them when I go back because they’re cheaper than Telekom while having access to LTE.

    For those asking about contracts for extended stays: Prepaid was the only option for me — contracts were 2 years minimum. The other thing to keep in mind if you go the contract route is that contracts work differently in Germany. You have to read the fine print very carefully and contact the provider (often in writing) many months in advance of contract end to notify them that you do not want to continue the contract. The assumption in Germany with pretty much all contracts is that the consumer *wants* to continue the contract, so they will automatically extend and you are on the hook for the full price of the contract if you haven’t notified them in the proper time that you don’t want to continue. They will sic collections on you if you don’t pay, even if you’re out of the country.

    Also, whatever you do, do your research in advance. When we went to the local mall Vodafone kiosk to buy our cards a few years ago, the associate tried to steer us into a business contract that I hadn’t seen on their website, and he told us it would be no problem to cancel the contract if we could prove we’d moved out of the country. NOT TRUE!

    Basically, the commissioned salespeople at any mobile provider will try to get you into whatever pays them the most, and will lie about the terms. By the time you’re snared into a contract you don’t want and can’t cancel until the end of 2 years or more, that associate will be long gone.

    Buying your card at the grocery store gets around this, but the registration process can be tricky if you don’t have good wifi (as in, you’re on crappy hotel wifi). They need to be able to get a clear shot of your passport next to your face on a video chat. It took three tries for me when I bought an Aldi Talk card recently.

    Last year I was in Ireland first and bought my Vodafone SIM there with absolutely no problem. If you have an opportunity to do that, do so — you can roam EU-wide with no extra charges.

  6. Avatar

    We were just in southern Germany near Baden Baden June 2019. Went to a shop called Okto Media. Purchased a 1.5 GB data, text and talking $10 Euro SIM card with previous TMobile company now called Telekom.DE. No activation fee. Very very helpful tech folks who spoke English. The only issue is my US passport was rejected twice. We had to try my wife’s passport with same address and that was accepted within 10 minutes. So give yourself extra time for this process (took us 24 hours to fix). But once it worked, we used it for free roaming to Italy. The 1.5 GB lasted 10 days. We used free WiFi in restaurants and Airbnb’s to save on the data plan. Could not be any happier. Thank you for all the posts. They were very helpful to get us in the right direction. We now head to Istanbul. Will write up a review on pricing, provider and if we get the sim to work out there!

  7. Avatar

    Thanks for your article! An update from Berlin (July 2019): we had the same issue that has been previously mentioned; the o2 and Vodafone stores we visited at train stations and main centres were asking for around €15 to activate the sim (so at least €25 total including the sim). Further, the stores at Frankfurter Allee claimed they didn’t have Prepaid Sim cards, except for one Vodafone store which was asking for €40 to activate (!).

    By far the best deal was at the Saturn stores (we went to the one at Alexanderplatz). They had someone who activated the cards for free (and we only needed our passport), and also had a buy one get one free deal, so we got two Prepaid o2 cards for only €10.

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