There are plenty of amazing things about Germany besides just the beer. I’m here in December, 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.
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, with the most 4G availability, and offers the most free Wi-fi hot spot 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 and 4G 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 many 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 4G speeds for their own customers and not their resellers. o2 does allow resellers to access 4g 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 speeds.
I bought a Vodafone SIM, as I’d be traveling outside of Germany afterwards, and wanted to use my leftover credit without roaming fees. I also wanted access to the 4G network to see what kind of speeds were available.
The Vodafone option was also cheaper than Deutsche Telekom, and gave more data.
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 I 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. Typically registration is done over the Internet, but sometimes a store will do it for you. Buying in a grocery store will require online activation. 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.
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. A generous use of hand gestures and grunting got me the available options and payments for each. I gave my passport but didn’t need to supply an address. If you are asked for an address give your hotel or hostel address.
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 5 minutes. Some services claim up to two hours to activate. My entire time spent in the store was about 15 minutes.
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My SIM package cost me 20€, and came with 750 Mb of data, 200 minutes of phone and text credit valid for 30 days. Any unused credit is carried over to the next month. I didn’t see any weekly packages available in the store when I bought mine.
The Telekom SIM package I was offered was 25€ for only 500 Mb of data. The store didn’t offer any o2 or reseller SIM’s.
To check the balance on my Vodafone SIM, I dialed *100#
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 web sites, 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.
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.