7 Tactics to Avoid Paying 1,000+ EUR in Fees in Germany
One stereotype about German people that I heard many times before moving to Germany is that they love following rules. While it may be a stereotype, I would say that it has some basis in truth based on the experiences I have had since moving here. There are rules governing just about every situation that you may face in Germany, and you are sure to inadvertently break many of the rules in your early days living here. It may start with being angrily yelled at for accidentally walking through the bike lane on the street or perhaps feeling the angry stares of parents as they watch you jaywalk across the street as they scold their children to not copy your dangerous, rule-breaking behavior.
At some point, to keep your sanity, you will have to decide how much you care about what others think about your actions or how much in fees you are willing to stomach for breaking the rules. Some rules you will learn from your peers, but others you will have no choice but to learn from trial-and-error. The price for learning those often unwritten rules is the fee attached to them, and life in Germany can quickly get costly! Since moving here, I have had the displeasure of learning many expensive lessons and racked up over 1,000 EUR in fees!
It can feel as though you either arrive poor in Berlin, or you become poor as the fees nickel and dime you to death. I wish that there had been a guide to the fees to watch out for that I could have read when I moved to Germany, so I have shared my learnings here to help you to avoid the mistakes that I made and save more than 1,000 Euros in fees while living in the German capital.
How I Accumulated 1,000+ EUR in Fees
The fees in Berlin come often and in relatively small amounts – there was no one thing that comprised the majority of the fees that I have paid over my first year in Berlin. Let’s take a quick walk through my fee-filled two years in Berlin, going from highest to lowest fee amount.
Broadcasting Fees (437.5 EUR)
There is a fee that every household must pay in Germany that covers public broadcasting on television and radio called Rundfunkbeitrag. It currently costs 17.5 EUR per month per household, so if you live with roommates, you can split the single fee among all residents of the apartment. New residents will typically receive a letter from the company within 4-6 weeks of registering their new flat with the government.
While you might ask why you have to pay this fee even if you do not have a television or speak German, the fact of the matter is that this fee can be assessed even if you simply have the ability to access the Internet from your flat because it may be possible for you to enjoy the privilege of accessing this content of questionable quality through other non-television-based digital means. I am fairly sure that the fee will still be charged even if you only own a smartphone that can theoretically stream the content that the fee covers. There are many people out there, German and non-German alike, that are fighting this fee, particularly because you must pay it to a private company, not a public one. As such, it is a fee, not a tax, but you are forced to pay it just the same. The fee is so unpopular that it has been brought to the courts many times in the past few years to try to get it removed, but unfortunately the courts have upheld it every time. The penalty for not paying this fee is so severe that people have even been sent to jail for refusing to pay it!
Given that you will be forced to pay this monthly burden unless you live in the middle of the German woods without a phone or electricity, you should expect your bills to increase by 17.5 EUR soon after moving into your own flat. I had expected to get the first letter demanding payment within 4-6 weeks of moving into my new apartment, but the letter never arrived. It seemed that somehow I had snuck through the system and managed to escape the dreaded broadcasting fee! I did not know what I had done or not done to receive this blessing from the gods, but I cheerfully went about my life for months without worrying about seeing the fee being deducted from my bank account each month.
Fast forward almost two years later, I was interested in putting my apartment up on Airbnb following the implementation of a new policy in August. According to the new policy, I would have to apply for permission to rent out my room at the local Bezirkamt in Friedrichshain. I took in the application (it had to be delivered in person, not online…), got it stamped by the lady receiving the paperwork, and I went on my merry way knowing that I would get more information on the application in the mail within a couple weeks.
A few days later, I checked my postbox and found a completely different letter from the broadcasting agency addressed to me at the specific detailed address I had used to apply for Airbnb permission. To my horror, I learned that these agencies share housing information and my fortuitous evasion of the broadcasting fee for the past two years swiftly came to an end. Scared to get enforcers sent to my apartment or eventually be put in jail, I quickly wired the last two years’ worth of payments (totaling 437.5 EUR) to the agency and will continue to pay this frustrating fee over the months to come.
Paying for Insurance Between Jobs (217 EUR)
Germany does have a great healthcare system that I would strongly recommend to my American friends considering making the move abroad. I am on a public healthcare plan like many others and have yet to pay for doctors visits other than a deep teeth cleaning at the dentist.
The issue I had was not with the quality of the help or the price of the insurance itself, but rather with the way that insurance works when changing jobs. I left my previous company on November 30, 2017, in preparation for starting at my new company. My initial contract from the new company had a start date of January 1, but I was concerned that I could not start until after returning from the United States, so I tried to move the start date to January 8. In Germany, it is customary to start on either the 1st or 15th of the month, so we decided to have me start on January 15 and I would get a signing bonus equal to the work that I would be doing on the week of the 8th. Both parties were happy with the arrangement, and I signed on the dotted line.
While the contract was in the final stages of being drawn up, I got in touch with my insurance company to alert them of the employer change. I was expecting to have to pay for my own insurance while between jobs from November 30 to January 8 and so they sent me some paperwork via snail mail (as is still customary in Germany) and then I called to speak to someone about how to fill out the German language forms properly. At first, the insurance person said that I did not need to fill out or pay anything if the time between my jobs was a month or less! “Fantastic,” I thought, “I can get through this month without paying for insurance in the time in between!” However, when the person found out that my time between jobs was about six weeks long, longer than the one month that was initially discussed, the conversation quickly turned to the fact that I would have to pay the full insurance amount out of pocket.
What this meant was that if I had kept my start date as January 1 instead of moving it to January 15, I could have saved more than 200 Euros in insurance payments! That was a disappointing realization to come to with the expensive holiday season quickly approaching, so keep that in mind when you are doing the math on your insurance coverage between companies.
Electricity (166 Euros)
To set the stage for this story, it is important to know that when you get a flat in Germany, there are essentially two types of rent that you agree to. One is called “cold rent” that purely represents the cost of living in the flat itself, and another is called “warm rent” that includes the expected costs of gas and heating onto the cold rent. Note that the warm rent does not include electricity, and the final costs are assessed the following year, so you may get yet another bill for overages almost a year afterwards.
When I moved into my flat in December 2016, the electricity was already running. I had expected to get a bill for it in the mail, but nothing showed up after waiting for a few months. I was busy with trying to get the new apartment to feel like home, following up on getting wireless internet (which took 4 months!), and working on a new job search. There was so much coming at me that I will admit that some things got left on the wayside, and ultimately I figured that I was mistaken about the situation and that the electricity must have been included in the warm rent. I mean, how else was I getting electricity in my apartment without issue and still no mail about it in my mailbox?
One cool September morning at 8:30am before leaving for work, the power suddenly went off in my apartment. I waited a few minutes expecting it to come back on after a generator or something kicked in, but when my room stayed dark for 10 minutes, I decided to write my landlord an email asking about the situation. Then I opened my apartment door, saw the staircase lights on and knew that I had a real problem. I found the grounds keeper at the entry floor of the apartment and he informed me that he had just let someone in to cut off my power! You would hope that he or the electrician would at least have the decency to inform me about what was going on, but no, that is not the way things are done in Germany.
I called the electric company that my landlord referred me to and the phone representative actually apologized (the first time I received an apology from customer service since moving to Berlin!) when he discovered that the apartment’s account was still under the last resident’s name for some unknown reason. I think that this issue may have also caused the delay in getting any information about the broadcasting fee I described above, but I cannot be sure. The representative could not quickly get my power back on over the phone, so I had to go to their offices to pay the unpaid bills in cash in order to get my power turned back on the next day.
I made the trek down to the electric company’s offices to get this all sorted out during my lunch break. The customer service representative agreed that indeed my account was in the previous renter’s name, and we quickly got a new contract in place. It turns out that they had sent many mails to the previous renter’s name over the months that I had lived in the flat and all of them had been returned after failing to find the address to deliver them to. This happens in Germany because the name of the mail recipient needs to actually be posted on the mailbox itself or the letter will be undeliverable. With my name on the mailbox and the previous tenant’s name on the letters, all of the mail was consistently returned to the electric company. They had even gotten someone come to try to find the correct mailbox after several letters were returned to them – I know this because there was a specific additional line in the fees that I had to pay for this person to come to my apartment building to search for the mailbox!
This whole situation was made even more infuriating when I looked in my mailbox that morning after the power went out and found a paper card inside letting me know that indeed my power had been cut. The area on the card where the electrician is supposed to write the customer’s name had a large “?” written in ink as though the company did not know my name, but at the same time they managed to know which mailbox was the right one for the power that they were cutting. They didn’t know my name and yet they slipped the card inside the mailbox with my last name on it!? From my perspective, this means that they could have knocked on my door or put a note in my mailbox if they had really wanted to, but instead they decided to alert me in writing only once they had turned off my power. Annoying, right?
I complained as much as I could about paying the 160+ Euro fee that covered the cost of the electricians coming out to shut off my power and then returning to turn it back on again the following day, but as usual, I lost. Even though it is true that if I had actually received any mail from them I would have paid without question, in Germany it is always the customer’s fault for not reaching out, following up, etc. I fight the system as much as I can here and generally expect that I will lose in the end – I just prefer to take the fee abuse standing up instead of sitting down!
Contracts (128 Euros)
It turns out that you have to cancel contracts in Germany far in advance, often 3 months or more from the contract’s final date. I knew about this situation to some degree when I moved to Berlin, but in this particular case I did not realize I was in a renewing contract. In my first weeks in the city, before I started working, I had a lot of free time. The sun was shining, I only had a few hours of class in the morning with free and open afternoons, and so I thought I would start going to the gym again. Full of hope and motivation, I joined the local McFit gym for ~20 Euros per month. The only problem was that I did not have a German bank account yet, so I had to do a wire transfer from my US account and pay for a year upfront. I paid the money, got my membership card, and made good use of it over the first few months.
As most gym stories go, I got busy and stopped going to the gym. I certainly remembered that I had the membership card, but I figured that my membership would be up when the year was over. Unfortunately, McFit had other things in mind. It all started when I got a notice that I had not paid in September, one month after the initial one-year period ended. I thought it was in error and told them as much, but the contract I signed had actually continued through after the one year that I had paid for, and so I needed to cancel it if I did not want to pay anymore. I tried to cancel immediately but still had to pay for a total of six months before my membership would be fully expired due to the fact that I had not canceled within the cancellation window that had ended months before the final day of the initial one-year period.
At this point, they only had my postal address and name, no email or current bank account information, so I thought that I might be able to play dumb and not pay. However, I have a good feeling that the debt would hang around until I would have to eventually pay it one day for a lot more than the 128 Euros that it would cost to cancel it today. Thus, once again I did my best to make peace with the losses and parted with the money to give myself the peace of mind that the gym contract was truly going to be finished.
Transit Tickets (60 Euros)
I returned home from Greece in November on a Sunday. I had been buying monthly rail passes since moving to Berlin and saw that my current one was up on Tuesday. It felt too early to buy another pass on Sunday, so I waited. Monday, same story. Tuesday, I managed to completely forget about the pass. Wednesday, I had forgotten about the pass and the fact that it had expired… until all of a sudden some thug-looking ticket checkers started approaching me on the train.
Panicked, I looked outside and saw that we were definitely too far from the next station to be able to make a run for it. I was with two friends that have monthly passes, and you can take friends with you on the train after 8pm on weekdays or all day on the weekends. Unfortunately, it was only 7pm on a weekday.
I did not have any other ideas, and my time ran out. The ticket checker finally approached us and all I could do was show him my expired ticket in hopes that he would see that I was trying to make it work with a monthly pass expired by only one day in hand and next to friends only one hour from the time where we could freely ride together. Unfortunately, he did not appreciate the work that I had put into trying to follow the rules (even with a one day expired monthly ticket) and handed me a 60 Euro fine. I have since seen this happen to Germans and foreigners alike, leaving some people in tears. I was told that I could either pay there or have a letter sent to me that would also put the infraction on my record. Reluctantly, I paid the plain clothes ticket checker the required 60 Euros, took the receipt, and tried my best to enjoy the rest of the night.
Household Repairs (52 Euros)
A couple weeks before Christmas, I had friends over to watch a movie. Usually when I have house parties, I am able to push a button on the intercom to unlock the front door when someone rings. This time, when someone buzzed my room, no matter how many times I tried to unlock the front door via the intercom, it would not open. Therefore, I had to go up and down the four flights of stairs between my apartment and the ground floor a dozen times to let everyone inside the building. By the end of the night, I was exhausted and knew that I needed to get the door fixed.
I told the landlord the issue and a few days later two electricians came to my apartment. They easily fixed the intercom in my room, but they also proceeded to fix the front door button panel so that I could actually hear the guests that were buzzing the door and communicate with them. Ever since moving in, I have heard nothing through the phone next to my door and could only buzz people in without talking to them. It is quite unnerving to buzz someone into the building even if you cannot be sure who they are, so I figured something was wrong but did not know enough to tell my landlord up until that point as it was my first flat in Europe. It turns out that a previous “repair” person had pulled on the cables from the buzzer board hard enough to disconnect the communication part of my intercom system, so luckily these electricians put everything back together again. I thanked them for fixing it up and then they left.
A couple days later I was informed by my landlord that the cost of the electricians visit would be taken straight from my bank account. I protested the best that I could but lost once again when I was told that the rental contract stated that all apartment repairs under 120 Euros would come out of my pocket. When you have something like that in your contract, what can you do but accept the charges and move on? C’est la vie….
Bank (35 Euros)
When I first moved to Germany, my company advised me to open a personal savings account at Deutsche Bank. They set me up with an appointment and I was happy to have a real German bank account under my name. After I started working, I heard from colleagues about other banks that were more technologically advanced and open to foreigners, and so I quickly moved all my money out of the DB account into a new one.
Unfortunately, what I forgot to do was actually close the original account. After not using my DB account for more than 6 months, I had to pay the back charges for low account balance of 5 Euros per month totaling 35 Euros when I asked to close the account. Knowing that I could not fight these charges, I told them to take the money and close the account as quickly as possible so that I could leave the bank and never have to deal with them again. Luckily they heeded my requests, and I was out of there with one bank account and 35 Euros less within a few minutes.
Tactics to Avoid and Come to Terms with Being Fined in Germany
As these stories show, I have been through a lot of annoying and frustrating “learning experiences” in Berlin over the last year. Though they have been painful to stomach, I have learned a lot from them in terms of the way that Germany works and how I can best move forward to get fewer fees. To help others that have decided to start the next chapter of their careers in Germany, I have compiled 7 tactics below to help you to avoid getting into the red and become more zen when dealing with the fee-happy German culture:
1.When calculating your budget in Germany, add in a cushion for fees on a monthly basis (to include fees such as the broadcasting one) and in your savings account in general as you will surely encounter situations where you have to pay fees that you were not anticipating. Try not to let these little costs add up and cause you to go over your budget for the month.
2. See how long you can get your insurance coverage extended between your old job end date and new job start date, and then plan your new job start date accordingly in order to avoid paying for insurance yourself if at all possible.
3. Read your contracts as fully as you can so that you can understand the unique peculiarities of each of them. Learn what expenses will need to be paid when, if you need to contact any other parties on your own, and the steps required to break the contracts, so that you will not get your electricity cut or have to pay for an additional 6 months of unused gym memberships. If you do not hear from another party when be the expected time, take the initiative to reach out yourself rather than waiting until it is too late.
4. When you sign a contract in Germany, it will be around until you cancel it in the proper fashion (usually through a handwritten note many months in advance). Use volders.de to track when your contracts will be coming due so that you can pick a new plan or cancel your contracts at the right time.
5. Buy an annual rail pass and get it to automatically renew so that you can get the cheapest price per month and not have to worry about the date of your monthly pass expiring. Alternatively, buy multiple monthly passes upfront, or buy your next pass a few days in advance by setting the start date to the date that your current pass expires. You can also just buy a bike, but be prepared for cold winters and year-round rain!
6. Don’t go with traditional banks in Germany, get an account with an online bank like N26. I have had no issues with them whatsoever and love to be able to control everything from my phone in English!
7. Come to terms with the fact that you will encounter situations where you will have to pay fees while living in Germany – it is a part of life for everyone living here. Even though your instinct will be to try and fight the fees, acknowledge that most attempts at this will be futile. You will spend more time, money and effort trying to fight the fee than it is worth, so in most cases you are better off just paying it and getting on with your day. Consider the fees as part of the cost of living abroad, and try not to let the frustration overshadow all of the great things that life in Germany has to offer.
I have been told on multiple occasions by Germans that if I had learned to fluently speak the German language (“a language spoken by more than 80 million people!”) that I would not have ended up in this predicament. However, I do not agree with that response. Certainly learning a country’s language can help you to communicate with locals and gain a deeper understanding of the inter-workings of the culture, but I do not believe that speaking a language more fluently will give you deep insight into all of the unwritten and unexplained rules of the society. These rules are easy to break without even realizing it and often give Germans trouble as well.
Learning how to do things in a new country is a common pain for expats moving to a new country around the world, but I think Germany can be especially challenging given the sheer number of rules that you have to discover and navigate. If you are unlucky enough to encounter the same or similar challenges to the ones that I have shared here, then at least you can find some solace in the fact that there are plenty of other foreigners experiencing similar frustrations at the exact same time across the globe!
Feeling some of the same frustrations? Disagree entirely? Have a story to share? Let us know in the comments below!