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10 things you only understand if you live in Germany

From sauna etiquette and beer opening skills, to the myth of German efficiency and a strong welfare state, here are a few things compiled by The Local team that you only really understand if you've lived in Germany.

A person carries a beer on public transport in Hanover.
A person carries a beer (Wegbier) on public transport in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance / Sebastian Gollnow/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Moving to Germany as a foreigner could never be described as dull. From the challenges and shocks to the knowledge you gain from settling into the new culture, the Local team has compiled some surprising things we’ve noticed since putting down roots in Germany. 

Germany doesn’t run like clockwork 

To the outside world, Germany has an image of being super organised and efficient. People who live here know that this is a myth. Yes, Germany functions, but things do not always run smoothly. Let’s take the train service. From January to November last year only 65.6 percent – just under two thirds of long-distance trains arrived on time in Germany, and punctuality even dropped below 60 percent from July to August 2022.


And then there are the projects that take an age to finish. The opening of Berlin’s BER airport, for instance, was delayed by nine years. When you live in Germany you get used to the various long-winded bureaucratic processes that can affect daily life as well as the general running of the country.

Checking your mailbox is terrifying

Another curious thing you quickly learn about Germany when you live here is that you really need to keep on top of the mail you receive. While other countries have moved more towards sending emails, Germany still tends to prefer to do lots of things by mail; remember, this is a country that still embraces the fax machine. 

Opening your mailbox after a few days or a holiday and finding overdue bills with the dreaded ‘Mahnung’ (warning) is terrifying. The best thing to do is to face your fear, check your post every day and act on letters quickly. Whether it’s the Rundfunkbeitrag (TV licence) or the Finanzamt (tax office), you’ve got to deal with these letters and institutions to keep on Germany’s good side. 

Letter boxes in Frankfurt.

Letter boxes in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

Carrying cash is a must (and you may be asked for an ‘EC Karte’)

Many foreigners who touch down on German soil are eager to swipe their credit card or use contactless payments methods at the country’s many amazing bars, restaurants and cafes. But there’s one big problem with that – cash is still very popular in Germany. It’s not unusual for businesses to have signs up that say: “Nur Bargeld” (cash only). Although things have changed a lot in recent years, you quickly learn that you still have to carry around a good chunk of cash on you if you’re planning on having an evening out. 

Meanwhile, some businesses, including the post office – will say you can only pay with an EC (electronic cash) card, a giro card that German banks offer customers and lots of internationals are not familiar with.

READ ALSO: Is card payment finally gaining ground in Germany?

People are naked in the spa

Nothing beats a blast of hot sauna air or a refreshing steam room in the cold winter months. But what you quickly learn when you live in Germany is that there are strict rules when it comes to what you’re allowed to wear in these situations. And that is: nothing.

In many countries, not wearing a swimsuit in the sauna would be seen as unhygienic at best and pervy at worst. But in Germany it is actually viewed as much more hygienic to be nude (with a towel placed underneath you, of course). The thing is that being naked in designated public areas in Germany is not viewed as a weird thing. Naked bodies are not sexualised to the same extent as some other cultures. It’s kind of refreshing actually. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s sauna culture

A sauna at Berlin's Vabali spa.

A sauna at Berlin’s Vabali spa. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

Opening beer bottles is an amazing German skill 

Yes, Germany is famous for its rather tasty beer. But another lesser-known fact about Germans is that they are really good at opening beer bottles. 

They can use almost anything to crack the lid of a bottle, whether it’s a lighter or a concrete step. We don’t know if Germans are taught how to do this as youngsters, but we applaud it wholeheartedly. 

READ ALSO: From nudity to sandwiches – the biggest culture shocks for foreigners in Germany

Drinking beer in public is socially acceptable

Let’s stick with beer for a second because it really is quite surprising to see just how socially acceptable it is to drink it, wherever you are and whatever time it is. Beer on the U-Bahn? Why not. Beer while walking to the next bar? Definitely. Beer for the journey home from work? Sure, that’s what Feierabend (your free time after work) is for! There’s even a colloquial German word for a beer you drink while you’re out and about – Wegbier (literally a beer for the way). As a side note: this a much more pleasant term that Fußpils, which translates as a “pilsner on foot” but is also a horrible pun on nail fungus. 

Let’s be clear, it’s not as if the whole of Germany is drinking beer for breakfast but if someone is having a beer at 10am, nobody bats an eyelid. On the other side though, many Germans can sip a beer for quite a long time in a bar; there’s not a huge binge-drinking culture in the Bundesrepublik.  

Small talk is not a big thing… most of the time

Many foreigners who are used to more casual small talk and banter with strangers in their home country are often alarmed at how Germans – at least in cities – tend to avoid this kind of thing. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will give you eye contact let alone a chat.

Even servers at restaurants can’t really be bothered to talk to you. But when you live in Germany, you find that there are some places where there is acknowledgement of strangers. Like the doctor’s office – people in Germany usually greet the waiting room when they arrive, and say bye when they leave. Lifts are also a time for a little greeting among strangers.

When you spend enough time in Germany, you actually find that some people don’t mind a bit of small talk if you get to know them. For instance, if you go to the same little shop often you can build up rapport with the employees there. Just don’t expect the supermarket cashier at Netto to have a good chat about life with you while you’re buying your groceries.

A supermarket in Baden-Württemberg. Don't expect a friendly chat with the cashier.

A supermarket in Baden-Württemberg. Don’t expect a friendly chat with the cashier. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Tom Weller

It’s super easy to get to different countries

Thanks to Germany’s location in the middle of Europe with borders to no less than nine other countries, it’s quite easy to hop on a train or plane and get to a whole other place quickly. Germany has borders with France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland. And it’s really not far from other countries in Europe too. 

Even if you’re on a budget, you can hop on a bus or train and get to somewhere like Prague, Salzburg or Zurich in a few hours or so (depending on where you’re coming from). 

READ ALSO: Five European cities you can reach in under five hours from Frankfurt

Insurance is really a big thing

It’s a big surprise for many people to discover just how obsessed Germany is with insurance coverage. It’s not just the usual insurance you really need to think about, like in case you get burgled, there’s also a thing known as private liability insurance – or Haftpflichtversicherung. You are meant to have this for damage that you cause even if it’s an accident. For example if you break someone’s laptop or scratch a car with your bike. It’s not mandatory, unlike health insurance, but most Germans would argue that it is 100 percent needed and they are annoyed with you if you don’t have it.

READ ALSO: German words you need to know: Haftpflichtversicherung

Try not to knock over any vases if you don't have insurance.

Try not to knock over any vases if you don’t have insurance. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/HUK-COBURG | Jens Ahner

State support is good

A refreshing thing about Germany is that the welfare state is pretty robust. If you lose your job, you are likely to get support. Plus its worth noting that employee rights are taken seriously in the first place, and unions are fairly strong. 

If you’re thinking about starting a family, you’ll be pleased to hear that Germany has generous benefits as well as parental leave. Things are far from perfect, but we’re happy to know there is a social safety net.

Feel free to drop anything we’ve missed in the comments below or email us [email protected] with your observations. 

Member comments

  1. I think it’s worth noting how bad customer service can and often is. Like, taking months to fix things that should take a week at best. Germans will have one crew of guys fixing something and only one shift a day instead of round the clock. As a consequence, thousands of Germans are inconvenienced for months every day, rather than a well-paid crew who has to work a night shift one week. German businesses take vacations without even letting clients with appointments know. Strikes. Just rude.

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For members


Living in Germany: A day of transport disruption, regional differences and blossoming trees

In this week's roundup, we look at Monday's 'mega strike', German regional differences and cherry blossom trees.

Living in Germany: A day of transport disruption, regional differences and blossoming trees

If you’ve spent any time in Germany over the past couple of months you’ll be aware that strikes are happening a lot. But up until this point they’ve remained regional for the most part, even when several cities across the country have been affected.

But on Monday March 27th, unions are stepping up their action with a targeted nationwide strike aimed at paralysing transport. Staff at German airports, ports, the railways, buses and subways will walk out during the 24-hour strike, which will last all day Monday, the Verdi and EVG unions announced.

Strikes are not unusual – but the scale of the industrial action at the moment is huge, and is only heating up as employers and union bosses lock horns.

As in many other countries, people in Germany are struggling with soaring consumer prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent food and energy costs spiking. Unions are trying to negotiate wage increases for their employees to match rising inflation.

“Workers in Germany are confronted with historically high rates of inflation and losses in real wages,” Professor Dr. Thorsten Schulten, head of the Collective Agreement Archive at the Economic and Social Research Institute (WSI) of the Hans Böckler Foundation told The Local recently. “This is why the current collective bargaining round is focused on substantial pay increases and safeguarding purchasing power.”

Tweet of the week

Germany is one country, but this tweet highlights the differences between the 16 federal states (and there are many regional differences within the states too!)

Where is this?

Throughout Germany, blossoms are beginning to bloom, signalling the start of spring. Our photo highlights almond blossom trees in the city of Gimmeldingen, Rhineland Palatinate. The popular Gimmeldingen Almond Blossom Festival takes place this year from March 24th to 26th, and from March 31st to April 2nd.

Did you know?

As we mentioned, Frühling is coming. And nothing screams springtime in Germany like bursts of pink everywhere. Streets and parks come alive with rows of Japanese Kirschblütenbäume (cherry blossom trees), decorated with pretty pink blossoms.

For around two to three weeks in April and May, rows of these beautiful cherry blossoms brighten up the country, banishing the cold winter blues.

These trees have an interesting history. An exported Japanese tradition, the Sakura Campaign brought the blossoming trees to Germany after reunification. Japanese channel TV Asahi collected over 140 million yen (about €1 million) to gift the trees to Germany as well as to other locations in the world.

The ornamental cherry trees are very popular in Japan and are said to bring people inner peace and serenity. The first trees in Berlin were planted in November 1990 at Glienicker Brücke (Glienicke Bridge), a site that had symbolised the division of Germany.

Nowadays, the heavenly pink petals are in lots of locations around Germany and provide great photo opportunities, making them a social media favourite.