What differentiates the banks?
As cash is still the dominating means of payment at a lot of places in Germany, free cash withdrawals are an important feature. All banks usually offer them with certain restrictions – a lot of times you even enjoy free withdrawals abroad. Some banks limit the number of free monthly withdrawals, others set a certain minimum withdrawal amount or restrict withdrawals to their group’s ATM network. Even if handing out several cards, most banks allow free cash withdrawals with only one of them. Ignoring any of these restrictions can result in paying as much as €6 for one withdrawal.
Girocards (also called “EC-Karte”) are debit cards and the most widely accepted cards for cashless payments in German stores. Even though the acceptance of Visa and MasterCard has been steadily increasing, especially smaller stores/ restaurants only accept Girocard. They usually come with a Maestro or V Pay functionality and can be used for cash withdrawals, too. These cards are not suitable for online or telephone payments.
Visa / MasterCard / Credit Card
Having a Visa or MasterCard is especially important for online shopping as well as international travel. Some banks (i.e. N26) only offer debit cards with limited functionalities compared to credit cards. These cards are usually not suitable as a guarantee for rental cars or hotel bookings. Neither do they offer free credit if you run out of funds at the end of the month. In return requirements in terms of credit-worthiness are less strict.
Service and accessibility
Nowadays all banks offer advanced online, mobile and telephone banking. However, there are differences in regards to user-friendliness that will depend largely on your personal taste. Direct banks are online only, whereas traditional retail banks provide their own network of branches and therefore additional face-to-face service.
Language and residence
Especially when you have just arrived to the country, you might not have a German residence or extensive knowledge of the language. Most banks offer their website, online/ mobile banking interface and customer service exclusively in German. However, some provide services additionally in English. If you opt for a traditional retail bank, the language skills will depend highly on the local staff. Moreover, most banks require a German residence. If you do not have it yet, you can chose one of the accounts that allow registering with a foreign address – sometimes even from abroad.
Usual current accounts are dedicated to consumers (i.e. (un)employed people, students or pensioners). Traditionally, freelancers or self-employed people require a special (more expensive) business account. However, some banks also offer their more advantageous conditions of usual current accounts to all target groups.
Most banks’ business comprises more than just current accounts. Traditional retail banks have the largest service portfolio (i.e. credits, mortgages, saving accounts, investment banking). However, their conditions are not always the best so that it might make sense to search the best provider for each service individually.
Which banks are there on the market?
The offer and competition in the German banking market are quite large. Therefore, customers enjoy lots of benefits for no or low fees and high sign-up bonuses. You should take advantage and chose one of the free accounts that come without any monthly cost (see our list of comparison).
Traditional retail banks offer personal service and a dense network of branches but (except of some) they charge monthly fees. Online banks miss their own branches but usually offer free accounts with the best performance-ratio. All banks nowadays have extensive phone/ online service that is accessible from around the world. Thanks to a national deposit guarantee, your funds of up to €100,000 are secured at any German bank.
The most famous banks on the German market are:
Sparkasse (Savings Bank)
Organized in regional entities, their offers vary depending on your place of living. Sparkasse has the highest density of branches and allows free cash witdrawals nationwide at other savings banks.
Volksbank/ Raiffeisenbank (Cooperative Bank)
They are also organized in regional entities with varying offers depending on your residence. Volksbank/ Raiffeisenbank has the second highest density of branches and allows free cash witdrawals nationwide at other branches.
Deutsche Bank is Germany’s largest private bank with activities abroad. It also owns the independant “Postbank”. Cash withdrawals are free at all Cashgroup ATMs (Deutsche Bank, Postbank, Commerzbank, HypoVereinsbank).
Germany’s second largest private bank is one of the few traditional retail banks offering free accounts. For free cash withdrawals chose a Cashgroup ATM (Deutsche Bank, Postbank, Commerzbank, HypoVereinsbank).
The Netherlands‘ largest bank offers direct banking services but does not maintain any branches in Germany. Free cash withdrawals are possible at any ATM unter certain conditions (see the overview of bank accounts below).
HypoVereinsbank by UniCredit (Italy)
Since the merger HypoVereinsbank is part of Italy’s largest private bank. It has more than 400 branches throughout the country. However, the density of the network varies regionally so depending on your location it may be far. For free cash withdrawals you can take advantage of any Cashgroup ATM (Deutsche Bank, Postbank, Commerzbank, HypoVereinsbank).
Consorsbank by BNP Paribas (France)
Since the takeover, Consorsbank belongs to the largest bank of France. The activities are online only. Free cash withdrawals are possible at any ATM unter certain conditions (see the overview of bank accounts below).
Banco Santander is Spain’s largest bank. It has about 200 branches throughout the country so that it may be hard to access depending on your location. However, free cash withdrawals with Girocard are also possible at associated banks (CashPool). If you have a credit card with Santander, you can use any ATM.
There are many independent (online) banks that enjoy high customer satisfaction and offer some of the best current accounts on the market. Especially for international residents they may be the first choice. This category includes N26, DKB, Volkswagen Bank, TARGOBANK and much more.
How do I open a German bank account?
The opening process for getting a German bank account is always quite similar and it is usually done online. For retail banks you can also open the account directly in the branch. Nevertheless, from our own experience, you may get worse conditions if you do not fill out the online form before. For example, once ourselves we ended up paying extra for a credit card and received a lower sign-up bonus just because we did everything at the branch. Usually, the entire process of online application and identification takes about 15-20 minutes.
The Opening Steps
- Fill out your application on the website (incl. name, address, age, nationality). Sometimes you will be asked for profession and income. Based on these data, the bank may also decline your opening request – especially if you just moved to the country and do not have stable income or credit history (called “SCHUFA”). In case this happens, just opt for another bank as some seem to be more restricitive (i.e. DKB) than others (e.g. N26). You may still open another account a few months later once you are properly settled.
- In case you are accepted, you are asked to identify yourself. For this, you usually only need your passport (depending on the bank and your country of origin, an EU-ID card can be sufficient). Few banks may also ask for a proof of address (usually the registration confirmation “Anmeldung” from the townhall). This process can be done online either with a webcam or a smartphone. Alternatively, you may print out an identification form that you will receive by e-mail. With this form and above mentioned documents the identification can be completed at a post office or, if your bank is a retail bank, in one of their branches.
- Some banks may additionally ask you to post the printed opening documents with your original signature. If you do the identification process in a branch or at the post office, you may leave it there.
- Congratulations! Finally, your account information, bank cards and pin will be send to your home.
Can I change my bank account or open several accounts?
Of course you can open several accounts. It may especially make sense if you want to have a separate shared account with your partner or for business expenditures. If you are unhappy with your choice, some banks even offer automated services to move your direct debits/ standing orders. Therefore, you should first open a new account before closing the old one.