In Germany armed only with a credit card

For our summer holidays this year the Outsider and family journeyed to Germany.  One reason for this is son #1′s pursuit to visit what seems like every natural history museum in Europe, and Stuttgart had one of the best in Germany, he said (we did Berlin last year).

Fast and smooth - the German ICE train

To avoid spending all our time a big city we decided to spend a few days first in picturesque Heidelberg.  Arriving by train (Eurostar, ICE and S-Bahn), a long but interesting and smooth journey, we bought a two-day transport pass at Tourist Information.  ”Cash or credit card?” the very friendly and efficient assistant asked.  ”Cash” we replied without thinking too much, after all we’d brought plenty, even allowing for the really awful exchange rate between the pound and the Euro.

It turned out the Tourist Information kiosk was one of the few places that accepted our credit cards.  We carry both Vias and Mastercard, credit and debit cards.  Having had difficulties in France some years ago when they were still using their pre-standard chip and PIN system, we hedge our bets these days.  What we were not prepared for was the almost complete lack of shops and restaurants that accepted any of our cards.  The Outsider was used to travelling to Germany quite often when still working, and never had much problem using plastic then.

In the UK we have become used to being able to use credit and debit cards almost anywhere.  Even the smallest of restaurants and shops seems to have a chip and PIN machine, even market stalls and craft traders in the middle of fields.  We’ve become used to cards being taken anywhere, and we rely on them.  If our cards were going to be useless in Germany, we were going to have to be very careful with our cash reserves.  Suddenly using cash for that purchase of our travel passes felt rash.

We did spot some people using a type of card in the local supermarkets, but those same supermarkets wouldn’t take our cards.  The Outsider didn’t find out what cards these were, maybe they were pre-payment cards, popular with shops as the risk of fraud is low, at least for the shop.

Eurocheque logo - still seen in shops in Germany

Some shops sported the Eurocheque logo.  Eurocheques were once quite popular across Europe, particularly before the days of the European common currency (the Euro).  They could be written in a variety of currencies and then converted back into the user’s own currency by the banking system.  But they were withdrawn in 2002 (coincidentally when the Euro was introduced) when cheque guarantee cards were withdrawn.  Whether this meant the shops still accepted Eurochques (at their own risk presumably), or whether they just hadn’t taken down the logos we never found out.

Fortunately for the Outsider’s family our fortunes changed when we moved to Stuttgart for the second part of our holiday.  For some reason there were more places that would accept our cards, even the supermarkets we used, so the pressure on our cash reserves eased.  When we asked in the Stuttgart Tourist Information kiosk they were at a loss to explain why the two towns were so different.

Maybe we were just unlucky.  Maybe it was just the particular shops we went in, and the restaurants we visited.  Maybe they were not so interested in the tourist trade (hang on, that’s Heidelberg we’re talking about).  Whatever the reason, we’re going to do our research before visiting Germany again, and make sure we have the right plastic.

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4 Responses to In Germany armed only with a credit card

  1. Martin (from Germany) says:

    The right plastic may not always exist, or it may not be available to you.

    First of all, compared to the UK, Germany still is a “cash-society”. The US newspaper Christian Science Monitor once had a article about it: http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/1020/p06s02-woeu.html – That article is from 2005, but virtually nothing really changed since then. (With the exception of the state of the world economy, of course.) This doesn’t mean that Germans (like me) don’t use plastic. We often use debit cards. There are more than 92 milion debit cards in Germany but these cards aren’t MasterCard or Visa debit cards.

    This brings me to the “Eurocheque logos” you saw in Germany. I doubt these logos were real Eurocheque logos, and no one in Germany still accepts Eurochques. It is much more likely that what you saw were old “electronic cash” logos. I think I have to explain this and that’s only possible if I go a bit back in history. Back in 1991, German banks introduced a national debit card system, called electronic cash, but they did not introduce debit cards. What they did instead was adding the electronic cash function to German Eurocheque guarantee cards. Until 2002, every German Eurocheque card also was a debit card.

    However, there was no acceptance mark for these cards, the Eurocheque logo was used as an acceptance mark. Then, in 2002, Eurocheques and Eurocheque guarantee cards were withdrawn, but German banks did not introduce an acceptance mark back then. The old Eurocheque logo was sill in use, only the word “eurocheque” was chanced into “electronic cash”, but there is also a variant of that logo without any words under the two letters “ec”. The cards became pure debit cards and were called “EC-Karte” (EC card) since then. Later, in 2007, German banks changed their mind and introduced the “girocard” logo (together with a new “electronic cash” logo) as an acceptance mark for these domestic debit cards and also for the German ATM system, the German domestic interbank network. See also: http://www.girocard.eu/index_en.html

    But the transition to the new brand and logos is very slow. Even today (December 2011), there are many German banks who still call their debit cards EC-Karte and many shops still use the old logos. There is no technical difference between an EC-Karte and a girocard, the only difference is the logo on the card. You wrote that you did spot some people using a type of card in the local supermarkets. I’m absolutely sure that these cards were girocards. The only problem is the only way to get a girocard is to open a so called Girokonto at a German bank. A Girokonto is the most common type of transactional account in Germany. (There is a different type, called P-Konto, but this type exists especially for people with financial problems and therefore doesn’t include a girocard.) It is probably possible for a person from the UK to get a German Girokonto, including a girocard, but I doubt this would make any sense if you only want to use it as a tourist.

    By the way, I’m a bit surprised that you had so much problems with your credit cards in Heidelberg. I’m sure you did leave the “normal” tourist routes, so the answer is yes, you were just unlucky. Generally, tourists in Germany do not have problems with their credit cards if they do not leave these “normal tourist routes”, but this may change fast if they do. Sometimes, all shops in one street accept credit cards, but two or three streets from there, no one accepts these cards. However, this is much more likely in the north-east of Germany, where I live, but you were in Germanys south-western part, where credit card usage is most common within Germany.

    Most German restaurant do not accept any credit or debit cards, including girocards. I do not really know why that’s the case, but it may have much to do with the fact that Germans simply don’t expect that a restaurant accepts anything else than cash. An exception from this are of course restaurants with many tourists as customers and most (but not all) upscale restaurants. Most shops in Germany accept girocards, but many may not accept anything else, especially if it is a small shop, and some small shops only accept cash.

    All this may have to do with the fact that, all combined, there are only about 42 million Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club and American Express cards in Germany – a country with a population of about 82 million. With other words, only about every second German has such a card, and this number even includes Mastercard and Visa debit cards.

    Altogether, I do not really know how to help you. The only real option may be to plan your next trip to Germany very careful to ensure that most shops and restaurants on your route will accept your cards. (Or not to leave “normal tourist routes”.) Either that, or you use at least some cash, like many Germans…

    I’m sorry that I can not really help you, but many Germans do not really like and often don’t want credit cards. This may sound a bit odd to people from the UK or many other countries, but this probably has much to do with German history and culture.

    • malcolm says:

      Thank you Martin for a most detailed and extensive reply. As you say, I think our problems were mainly with the non-tourist restaurants, and if restaurants generally don’t take credit cards, non-tourist ones are doubly so. The shops were a surprise, but again we were using non-tourist supermarkets so I can understand the problem you have explained.
      I must have struck it lucky when on business trips, mainly in Munich, where I never had any problems using a Visa credit card – just as well as I typically only took a small amount of cash!
      I’m very appreciative to get such a detailed first-hand explanation of the history of credit and debit cards in Germany. I first had a credit card myself way back in 1971, and they are all-pervasive in the UK. Some would say too easy to get hold of, a situation that has resulted in the disastrous debt situation in the country generally. Maybe Germany’s use of cash and careful use of debit cards has helped to keep your economy strong.

  2. sudarshan harshe says:

    My my…amazing….!
    One of my friends told me that Germans don’t use credit cards. I doubted!
    After reading this…I realized that may be not all but most Germans avoid this (if so!).
    Rest..the card usage condition is remarkably bad as compared to Indian market conditions.
    Regards,
    Sudarshan

  3. Simon says:

    Most of the stores in Germany accept Maestro-Cards.

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