TELEPHONE AND INTERNET SERVICE IN GERMANY
Once your housing situation in Germany is finalized, the first thing to do is to get the phone ringing there. Germany has a wide selection of telephone, Internet and mobile options available, but you may also find that most of the German carriers are not well equipped at serving English speakers. To break the language barrier consider contacting a service provider that offers service in English.
Telephone service is also available through Telekom stores located in most towns and cities throughout the country, however you should be prepared for the standard German customer care and billing with Deutsche Telekom. It's important to be aware of the terms and conditions of your service agreement. Many German phone and Internet plans are only available with a 2-year minimum for example, and may require that you cancel in advance in order to avoid an automatic (and binding) contract extension.
Public telephones are also available however most are no longer coin-operated; you will need a phone card, which is available for purchase in various denominations at post offices, gas stations, supermarkets, and most newsstands.
PHONE SERVICES: ANALOG OR ISDN
There are two general types of phone services in Germany: a "standard" analog phone line, and ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). Discounted domestic and international calling plans are typically available with either type of service, plus caller-ID, call forwarding and voice-mail are usually included. DSL is possible with either an analog or an ISDN line and the dedicated web connection means that you will be able to surf the web and use your phone simultaneously.
An analog phone connection is by far the most popular and easiest to use: it has one line, one number, and utilizes standard analog telephone hardware. Answering and fax machines from other countries can normally be used along with the right adapter. It is illegal to use North American cordless telephone products in Germany due to the radio frequency used by those devices. It is often best to buy a DECT rated cordless phone (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) in Germany to be assured that it complies with current radio-frequency regulations and electrical safety guidelines.
ISDN phone service utilizes digital network technology to add more features and flexibility with two digital phone lines and a total of three different telephone numbers. This allows two separate phone conversations at the same time, which may be ideal for larger households or a home office that needs a dedicated business line and number. On the other hand, the basic monthly fee is typically higher, and ISDN devices are somewhat more costly than their analog counterparts and may require special wiring.
Before selecting either analog or ISDN, you may want to first check with the homeowner to find out how the home is wired and if there are any special requirements that could lead to additional costs. Many German homes for example have only one telephone outlet! Cordless telephones or routers may be the best solution in these cases, offering the greatest flexibility in nearly any housing situation.
Details That Make a Difference
When registering for telephone service, make sure that you know the complete residential address. It is very useful if you can provide the name and telephone number of your home's previous tenant at the time of signup, the housing office, rental agent, or homeowner can usually supply this information. Do request a fully itemized bill at the time of signup as this is not always the default for many German service providers. Activation times can vary, normally it can take between 5 to 14 business days. Your telephone number and date of activation will be confirmed in writing. TKS can also send your activation letter and monthly statements to your private e-mail address.
In some cases a technician may need to make a house call to activate the line, make sure that you can provide access to your home's utility areas if requested. If you can't keep the assigned appointment, reschedule or notify the service line immediately. If a technician comes to your home while you are not there, you will still have to pay for the travel expenses. If your home has several German TAE telephone outlets, do not be surprised if only the single primary outlet is activated. The other telephone outlets are considered "internal wiring" and are not included with the standard line activation, configuring your computer's Internet connection is also normally not included. Additional technician charges would apply if anything beyond the standard activation is requested. It is usually best to work with the property owner or a private installer if customization is needed, but try to fully assess your requirements and the costs in advance.
Phone bills are sent monthly and payment must usually be received within seven business days. Cash payments can be made at any German post office or bank, a nominal fee for the Überweisung (bank transfer) may apply. The default and preferred method of payment is to have your monthly bills automatically debited directly from a compatible bank account through a Lastschriftverfahren. This service is typically free of charge and can be requested with any bank account that has a German bank code or BLZ such as Community Bank, Service Credit Union or German banks.
Unless you are just passing through, look into German wireless service sooner rather than later - international roaming through your home carrier can be expensive. Germany has many mobile phone providers that offer a wide array of devices that are available both prepaid (pay-as-you-go) and with annual service plans. Non-GSM phones from the USA will not work outside of North America; however the tri- or quad-band GSM phones sold in Germany are compatible in the US and nearly everywhere else. Wireless Internet connectivity is also possible over web-enabled phones but be sure to find out the rates in advance; the best bet is to use an extra add-on web option. Inbound mobile calls while in Germany are free of charge. As a result, calling a mobile is more expensive than a landline since the caller pays for the cost of the connection, not the receiver. In Germany it is against the law to use a mobile phone while driving, be sure to use some sort of "hands-free" device.
Dial-up or "narrowband" Internet connectivity is extremely slow and inefficient, although it may still be a viable solution for very light or infrequent users. There is very little if any investment or start-up cost. All you need to get online is an active telephone line, a 56K modem which is still a standard built-in on even the newest computers, and an Internet access account. Your Internet account consists of a username, password, and a telephone number as issued by your Internet service provider (ISP). Dial-up in Germany is always metered on a time basis, a dial-up flat rate is not available. Plans are available with a monthly fee that includes a defined amount of minutes or hours every month, unused time is usually not carried over. There are also plans without monthly fees but the per-minute price is typically a little higher. Dial-up over an ISDN phone line is somewhat faster than with a standard phone line, but does require the use of a compatible ISDN modem.
If you know that dial-up is not for you, then one of several high-speed DSL plans can be considered, with download speeds of between 1000 and 6000 Kbps being the most common and readily available in most areas. Germany's DSL network is under constant improvement and expansion, however there are still some places where DSL may not be technically feasible. If broadband connectivity is an essential part of your work or private life, you may want to check the availability before buying or renting a home. Unlike dial-up, DSL is available with a flat rate. Therefore you can leave the service "always-on" as the separate connection leaves the phone line free for calls. Required hardware includes a Germany compatible "Annex-B" DSL modem, Annex-A modems from the USA are not compatible. A separate DSL activation charge normally also applies, however many telcos nowadays do offer package deals with activation and hardware discounts but normally only in combination with a 2-year service agreement. Another high-performance option, available on select US military installations is TKS Cable Highspeed or "cable modem" Internet service.
Internet access does not have to be restricted to your home. Germany has Internet cafés and thousands of wireless Internet "hotspots" many of them free of charge. Aside from airport terminals, hotspots are also available at hotels, gas stations, bars and restaurants. Locations are always subject to change, so just do a web search to find a current list of locations near you. WLAN enabled laptops and mobile phones can be used. You can also get online on-the-go over a mobile phone data network using your mobile phone's web browser or on a notebook computer utilizing a GSM adapter that plugs into a USB port. The USB "web sticks" are available with either a prepaid or annual service plan and can offer DSL-like download speeds of up to 7200 Kbps.
Choosing the right service provider and Internet plan is important. Many of the Internet "bargains" that you see advertised may have some major drawbacks if you read the German "fine print." Some providers bundle flat rate DSL along with phone service, but many then charge more for phone calls for example. Pre-selecting an alternate carrier and using calling-cards may not be possible. Package deals with free hardware and activation can save you money but most require a two year minimum contract, early cancellation fees do apply. Before signing on the dotted line, do check the terms and conditions and find out the costs for early cancellation. Look for plans that are flexible and find out if there is any English documentation or technical support.
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