There are now only three network operators left in Germany:
E-Plus was acquired by Telefónica Deutschland, owner of O2, in 2014 to join and become one single network. So far Telefónica merged both networks either by national roaming between them or by network integration of E-Plus into O2. Both networks are planned to be fully merged and all of E-Plus switched off or over in 2018.
All other offers mentioned below are MVNOs of one of the three network operators shown above. MVNOs are particularly popular for prepaid in Germany and are mostly cheaper than the MNOs. They now have a market share of more than 40% for prepaid, which is amongst the highest in the world.
All providers are sorted according to the network on which they operate. A list is provided at the bottom of this article. In 2017 all three network operators are neck and neck: Telefónica/O2 is market leader by customer numbers, Telekom is still ahead what sales figures are concerned, Vodafone is in between and leads in EBITDA. That's why this guide follows the historical order of the networks usually used in the country: first Telekom, to be followed by Vodafone and concluded by O2 (Telefónica). For the 3 different operators, this has been moved to seperate pages. In this article, a general guide and comparison are given which network to choose best.
A tightening of security laws in July 2017 has led to new registration requirements for prepaid SIM cards which are amongst the most confusing for tourists and locals alike. Major brands can't be registered if you don't meet certain requirements. That's why this article deals with it in detail and Germany is temporarily greylisted.
Coverage and speed
2G and 3G: GSM up to EDGE speed is on 900 and 1800 MHz and 3G is on 2100 MHz like in most of Europe. Almost the entire country is covered by 2G, only few remote areas remain without any coverage at all. 3G/UMTS up to DC-HSDPA+ speed is available in most of the populated areas with blank patches left in the countryside.
4G/LTE: LTE has been rolled out on most common 4G frequencies in Europe on all operators: 800 MHz (band 20), 1800 MHz (band 3) and 2600 MHz (band 7). Band 8 on 900 MHz was added in 2017 and band 28 on 700 MHz will be added 2018 or later when digital TV has left this spectrum.
- Telekom coverage : LTE available on 92% of population
- Vodafone coverage : LTE available on 84% of population
- Combined O2 coverage with E-Plus integrated: LTE available on 80% of population (former E-plus customers can now use about 3/4 of O2's own LTE coverage).
The most convenient way to purchase a SIM card for a visitor is to go to one of the big supermarket, drugstore, service station, electronic market chains or an operator's store and look for one of the providers shown below. Remember that MVNOs tend to be generally cheaper than their MNOs:
Activation and registration
There is much confusion about how to register and activate a German SIM card and the law has been changed again in July 2017. That's why this following updated section deals with the new situation in detail:
By law, all SIM cards in Germany need to be registered first on your name and an address verified by your ID document to be activated. There are different options available for this new double verification, where and how to register a SIM card. Some can be swift and easy, others need some knowledge of German language or the help on an interpreter, and not all options are open for all brands:
- in a branded store of an operator (Telekom, Vodafone, O2, etc.) by showing your passport or national ID card
- in some other stores like MediaMarkt, Saturn and other electronic and telco chains for the brands and SIMs sold there with the same documents.
- online by video identification on camera showing a valid ID document through a video connection on a smartphone, tablet, laptop etc.
- some other ways like 'Post Ident' in post offices or by sending a copy or scan of your documents to the provider by email, fax, regular mail, etc.
The last options (gathered at 4.) all have the disadvantage of a long processing time, until you get connected, while 1.-3. all work rather swift within hours and therefore are shown here in detail.
For all options mentioned above you'll need:
- a valid ID document like passport, national ID card or any other internationally acknowledged ID document with your name and a photo on it.
- a German street address consisting of street name, house number, postal code (called Postleitzahl or in short PLZ in German) and the name of the location. You can give any German address, you don't need to have recidency. Normally, it won't be verified in any way. But it should physically exist as some systems run a plausibility check. So you might use your accommodation address or that of a friend you know.
All prior activated SIM cards will not be verified for identification and keep on working like before. No need for action, even if you haven't properly accounted for them. The new law only applies to new subscriptions from July 2017.
1.) registration in the store of a provider (point of sale verification)
This option is only possible with providers and for brands that are present in stores like the network operators Telekom, Vodafone, O2 and a few more brands and SIM cards purchased here, but no other brand or even the same SIM brand bought somewhere else can't be registered. This option is the recommended way for unexperienced foreigners, who don't speak any German as in most shops some English-speaking support is mostly to be found.
Note that Telekom can be very picky about the required address and sometimes wants to see a "Meldebestätigung" (certified verification of the address). Vodafone doesn't want to see this, but often inofficially charges €10 for the procedure or comes up with a minimum balance of €55 on the SIM. So O2 may be your best bet, if you are looking around in stores.
Most reseller brands sold in supermarkets, service stations and kiosks can't be registered at the point of sale. The ethno providers Lebara Mobile and Lycamobile are setting up own registration points in their sales outlets which are shown on their website. As these brands are popular with immigrants, it may be the easiest way, if you have an "unusual" passport from overseas.
You may shop around a bit to get the best deal and some shops may try to put you off or try to overcharge you. So stay polite and explain, that you can't give a German address for online registration or are able to understand the German online procedure at all. For finding the usual stores you should go to a shopping center or a downtown high street from Monday to Saturday during business hours (10am - 8pm). On Sundays or at airports a much smaller choice is available, if any at all.
2.) registration in other stores
Some other IT stores have set up registration points for SIM cards like the big electronic markets of the MediaMarkt / Saturn group, Euronics and EP (Electronic Partner). But they will only register SIM cards sold in their store and no others. They essentially provide only hardware or services for 1.) or 3.). As their registration schemes may vary, better ask before purchase, how long your activation will take to be processed. Lebara mobile and Lycamobile too are building up a chain of resellers with registration points where citizens of all nations can be registered instantly.
3.) by video-identification (called 'Video Ident' ,'Online ID' or 'WebID')
This latest state of the art technology is about to become the standard way for registration of new SIM cards in Germany. It can be used for most brands and operators. Here you need your pre-purchased SIM from any sales point (supermarket, kiosk, gas/service station, newspaper stand, postal agency, etc....) and do the ID check through a video connection.
For this you need to have your SIM card with its numbers, your ID and an address ready. Furthermore you need a rather fast and stable internet connection and a cam. This can be done through your smartphone, tablet or laptop or in any internet café like you do a video Skype or WhatsApp call. Of course, this high speed internet connection may pose a problem as you don't have a connection yet. But more and more WiFi hotspots are opening up in the country (locally rather called WLAN). For instance all McDonald's restaurants give you 1 hour of free internet through Telekom hotspots and the same is true to many hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, transport systems and airports already.
This registration option remains the only swift way to activate most brands as many resellers don't do it at the point of purchase. This applies to all supermarket brands or SIM cards that you buy off the shelf. You can't be sure to get an English-speaking agent available all the time, but most Germans speak at least basic English. To find the right online address for your Video Ident session look for the words 'registrieren' or 'freischalten' on the website of the provider.
Note that some providers are not able to register all passports from overseas so far, but all European documents are already accepted. So coming from a rather unsual country, check before, if this is an option for you, as for some brands, it remains the only option.
Theoretically, you can do the Video ID from abroad too e.g. at home before your journey with a SIM card that you have pre-purchased online. Ebay.de and Amazon.de are usual marketplaces for German SIM cards and all online distribution remains legal, as SIM cards must not be delivered already activated (but some of them still are).
4.) other ways to register
There are some other ways offered by some providers. They let you send a fax or an email or a regular letter with a scan or copy of your ID documents; "Post Ident" at postal offices is another option. These procedures are normally very time-consuming and therefore inconvenient for travellers and therefore not shown in detail. But they might still be an option, if you don't need to have connection instantly like on pre-purchased SIM cards doing the registration from your home before your journey.
What to do?
Buying a prepaid SIM card has got harder for everyone in Germany, but is still possible for travelers. You should be aware of two major hurdles:
- not all registration options accept all passports, but some can be picky about the required documents, if you come from overseas
- some registration options can even take days for activation, while others only a few hours or less
Travelling from another EU/EEA country, you can use "roam like home" at domestic rates on many providers now. Then, you don't need to buy a new SIM in Germany for a short visit. If you want to stay for longer, you will probably have time to sort out which registration option works best for you. Give us your feedback in the comments!
Tethering / Mobile hotspot use and VoIP
Tethering is usually allowed with all the shown offers below, except on the free ad-sponsored SIM of Netzclub and Lycamobile. Some providers don't supply a profile for the iPhone, but don't block it otherwise. VoIP calls are officially allowed only by O2 and some of its MVNOs. Other operators like Vodafone still officially ban them in their T&Cs without any real consequences. Only Telekom (and its MVNOs) has actively blocked and scrambled VoIP in the past, but opened all new tariffs for it now.
German SIM cards can be topped up in many ways, but only few of them are suitable for visitors as some of them require German payment systems.
- when you are in Germany only:
- Buy a top-up voucher called Ladebon in many stores with a PIN to enter. The vouchers of the network operators are most widely available. You can use Telekom vouchers for Congstar and ja!/Penny mobil, Vodafone vouchers for Otelo, Fyve, Edeka and new LIDL Connect; E-Plus vouchers for Aldi, ortel, Whatsapp, ay yildiz, Blau(world), NettoKOM and Norma Mobil and O2 vouchers for O2/Loop and Netzclub. For Fonic, Lycamobile and Lebara, you need special vouchers which are less widely distributed. Note that the billing systems of E-Plus and O2 haven't merged fully yet and you can't use one voucher for the other brand.
- Go to one of the three major drugstore chains (Rossmann, Müller, dm) or to large retailers like real, Kaufland etc. to top-up most brands and pay at the cash register with internatl. MasterCard, VISA and sometimes even AmEx.
- Newspaper kiosks, postal agencies, some service/gas stations, some supermarkets or even ticket machines of some public transport companies are further top-up points. Look for the logo of the provider, but acceptance varies according to provider.
- Most German retailers don't sell scratch cards, but hand out a paper slip with a PIN code. This usually involves either picking up a tag on display close to the cash register or asking the cachier for a Ladebon (= recharge voucher) for you carrier. You will be issued a paper slip containing the voucher PIN to be entered in your phone.
- When you are in or out of Germany (trying to keep an existing SIM card alive, topping up before arrival from abroad or while on roaming abroad):
- some SIM cards can be topped-up with international credit cards (VISA, MasterCard) and sometimes PayPal on the websites of the provider. But some foreign credit cards have been rejected in the past and a few providers may add a small surcharge.
- other SIM cards still don't allow online top-up by credit cards or have disabled that. Here you will need to use 3rd party agencies instead.
- The website/app prelado.de does most recharges without fees. Again, it might be picky about some credit cards from out of the country, but accepts PayPal, if you have a positive balance on your account. An alternative for a small transaction fee is aufladen.de.
- As a last resort international top-up agencies can do the transaction for a variable surcharge of up to 10%.
Top-ups of most major brands have a minimum of €15 which can be inconvenient because of the remaining credit. Lycamobile and Lebara let you recharge from €10 and Lidl Connect, AldiTalk (only at their Lidl/Aldi stores) and Vodafone (on its own website only) for as low as €5,
Managing your SIM card
German providers give you several ways to manage your SIM card e.g. to check credit, top-up, check remaining allowances or change plans, renew packages or add-ons for more data.
- on your online account you can register and log in to perform all the necessary tasks
- by entering certain USSD codes
- by calling customer support
- by using the app of the provider
Provider apps are a good tool to do all necessary tasks for tablets and smartphones. The major problem with German providers is, that most of them are offered only in the local Play Store for Android or App Store for Apple. Coming from a different country, they won't be displayed to be installed even if you are using a SIM card of the very same provider. How this obstacle can be bypassed, is written in detail in this manual. As apps can't be easily transfered to a translator tool, you should be cautious as long as you don't understand basic German as some of them may hide payable 3rd party services to be activated by a few clicks.
EU and Swiss roamingGiven the high domestic data prices in Germany, generally all providers give out "Roam like at home" all over the EU/EEA without major limitations. Telekom and Vodafone don't even specify any FUPs. So you can expect to use any prepaid data volume abroad at domestic rates without any restrictions.
This gives quite good roaming offers from the rather high priced country. For instance AldiTalk (see O2 section) sells 5 GB 4G/LTE data that can be fully used for EU roaming at 15 €. Of all mentioned providers only Lycamobile (see O2) seems to be unwilling to give out their data packages for roaming at domestic rates right now.
Beware that outside (domestic) data packages some providers still sell high roaming rates based on an excessive domestic standard rate of up to 0.24 € per MB in the country.
Roaming in Switzerland is now mostly excluded from the "roam like home" zone of German providers and billed very high on most plans as this country doesn't belong to the EU/EEA. If you are looking for a cheap roaming option for Switzerland too, you have a rather restricted choice:
- Deutsche Telekom: Magenta Mobile Start or Data Start, Congstar and Penny/ja! mobil (see Telekom): with data in Switzerland at EU = domestic Geman rates taken from the package, but not for calls or SMS in Switzerland.
- AldiTalk, NettoKom, Norma Mobil, K-Classic Mobil (see O2): These brands still offer 500 MB add-ons for 7 days valid in Switzerland too at 4.99 € and another one for calls from Switzerland.
The following list shows the most important players on the German prepaid market which can be bought in shops all over the country. Many other providers compete for special segments and audiences or online only. The German prepaid WIKI has an updated extended survey (in German only, use Google Translate): www.prepaid-wiki.de with additional information.
Due to its length the German article is now split into 3 further sub-articles according to network provider: Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, O2 (incl. former E-Plus) by Telefonica and their resellers.
Click on the logo below to choose network and relevant sub-page: