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Basics

There are now only three network operators left in Germany:

* Deutsche Telekom (formerly known as T-Mobile)
* Vodafone
* o2 (owned by Telefónica) currently merging with E-Plus (acquired by Telefónica)

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 survey 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 here a general survey and comparison are given which network to choose best.

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.

Availability

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:

* on Telekom: congstar, Lebara mobile, ja!mobil, Penny Mobil and others
* on Vodafone: Otelo, Fyve, EDEKA mobil, Lycamobile, LIDL Connect and others
* on o2 (and former E-Plus): ALDI Talk, Blauworld, NettoKOM, Ortel mobile, WhatsApp SIM, AyYildiz, NetzClub and others
Most SIM cards can be used for data as well as phone calls and SMS messages. Data-only SIMs are rather rare in Germany. The standard voice rate is around 9 cents per minute for a domestic call (to any mobile or landline) and about 9 cents for a domestic SMS.

Activation and registration

There is much confusion about how to register and activate a German SIM card. That's why this following section deals with it in detail.

By law, all SIM cards need to be registered first on your name and address to be activated. Registration is often not done in shops, but online or by phone instead. The German activation policy is somewhat incoherent and hard to comprehend to foreigners and locals alike. Generally, you have the choice of registering in two ways:

  1. in a branded store of the operator by showing your passport or national ID document
  2. online or over the phone by giving your name, personal data and a German postal address

The latter way may probably be somewhat tightened during 2017, but online registration will still remain an option.

In-store registration

What (1.) is concerned, this is only possible with operators that have branded stores like Telekom, Vodafone, O2 and a few more. No supermarket (like Aldi or Lidl) will register you there. For these brands you'll need to go way (2.). In-store registration also depends a bit on the willingness and mood of the staff. They often want to direct you to go online instead. So stay polite and explain, that you can't give a German address for online registration or are able to understand the German online way. Only with an in-store registration you can be absolutely sure, that you'll meet all requirements as a foreigner without a German address and won't be shut off anyhow.

Online registration

Online or by phone registration are the only ways to register for the most resellers as they don't do it at the point of purchase. This applies to all supermarket brands or SIM cards that you buy in service stations or post offices too. It may cause some problems: Remember, you might not have a phone connection or any internet access yet. Phone activation can be tricky, because of language barriers. You can't be sure to get an English-speaking agent available all the time, but most Germans speak at least basic English.

For online activation you can use any WiFi in an hotel or restaurant that becomes increasingly available all over the country. Online registration is often in German only, but possible with the help of an online translator tool. Look for the words 'registrieren' or 'freischalten' on the website of the provider and keep phone and SIM numbers at hand. Some operators like Vodafone or all ethno providers have English online forms available now.

As a foreign address is usually not accepted online or over the phone, you'll need to use a German address instead. This doesn't need to be an official address, where you are registered, but you'll need to give a valid German street address: name + street name + house number + postal code + city. If you don't have an own German address, use your name with c/o name and address of someone else (preferably you know of), e.g. the hotel or of a private accomodation, where you are staying.

Registration can take some minutes up to a few hours after having sent the online form or having done the phone call, until your SIM card finally connects with the network. You may need to switch off and on your device to connect.

As operators are required by law to verify your idendity, some operators have begun to send a "welcome letter" to the given address. If this letter is finally returned to sender, because you are unknown at this given address, your line will be suspended after a few weeks. Before doing so, they will send you a SMS about it with another chance to prove your idendity by sending a fax or email with a document copy attached. If you have friends staying at your address, tell them not to send back the letter to the operator.

Nevertheless, some operators like Vodafone or O2 still send out 'Freikarten' (free SIM cards) ordered online on their website by mail to any given German address for free. These SIM cards come already pre-activated on the name and address of the recipient.

The government plans to change this process as online registrations have led to many fake SIM accounts as you may imagine. A new registration scheme with showing an ID card or passport is intended, but not yet finally implemented. So be prepared to show your documents at the point of purchase soon and have some sort of video verification for online registration.

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.

Topping up

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 top-up vouchers called Ladebons 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.
    • Go to one of the three major drugstore chains (Rossmann, Müller, dm) or to a cash and carry market like real, Kaufland etc. to top-up most brands and pay at the cash register with internatl. MasterCard, VISA and sometimes even AmEx.
  • 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 start at €15. Lycamobile and Lebara let you recharge from €10 and Lidl Connect and AldiTalk as low as €5, but only at their Lidl/Aldi stores.

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 app, you should be cautious when not understanding basic German as some of them hide payable 3rd party services.

EU roaming charges

EU flag

For roaming in other EU/EEA countries very different rates are charged. But some providers sell EU data already at domestic German prices:

* On Vodafone and most of its MVNOs you can use all your domestic allowances within packages without any surcharges in all EU/EEA countries.
* O2 has matched Vodafone's offer from March 2017 and for some O2-Resellers like Aldi Talk, NettoKOM, Norma mobil you can buy weekly add-on packages at domestic prices for data use in the EU/EEA and even Switzerland.
* On Deutsche Telekom you can use your domestic data allowances in the EU/EEA too, but not voice or SMS. Data are "unlimited" and only throttled to 64 kbps when the package is used up.

Beware that without these options some providers still charge excessive roaming rates of up to 0.23 € per MB.

SUMMARY - Which network (and operator) to choose:

Deutsche Telekom (formerly T-Mobile): The former market leader has still the best network, what coverage and speed is concerned. This comes at the highest prices of all 3 operators, but includes hotspot use of Germany biggest WiFi network. While 4G/LTE is only available on Telekom's own offers, its resellers only give speeds up to 3G so far and in some of their tariffs VoIP is still blocked.

Vodafone: They have a pretty good coverage throughout the country, almost on par with Telekom given out at slightly lower prices. Like its competitor 4G/LTE is only given out on its own brand. All resellers stay on speeds up to 3G for now.

O2 (with E-Plus): The newly consolidated o2 network has a good coverage and 3G speeds in towns and cities, but can't match overall coverage in the countryside for now. 4G/LTE is open on O2's own brand and on most of its resellers too. This makes it the cheapest offer with LTE in the country right now. It's the only network that covers the Berliner U-Bahn (= metro, underground, subway) in full length by both 3G and 4G/LTE.

UPDATE 2016/7: Currently Telefónica is merging networks: This leads to switch on and off of base stations and networks with occasional overcrowding and service outages. For instance the old E-Plus LTE network has been switched off in 2016 and all 4G traffic is now routed through O2's own LTE network leading to congestion and slow speeds even below 3G rates in certain city hotspots and fast speeds in other places. Because of the issues any hotline support is hardly obtainable.

So choose:

  • Telekom for the best coverage and speeds at the highest prices
  • Vodafone for the cheapest roaming, if you want to use it elsewhere in the EU
  • O2 (+ E-Plus) for the cheapest domestic rates on LTE and for using Berlin public transport
You have the choice between the network operator and one of its many resellers (MVNOs). The operator gives better support and offers LTE at higher prices, while many resellers give better rates, but stay on 3G (except o2-MVNOs) with a minimal customer support.

To obtain a good deal, data packages must be booked on the SIM card after activation. As weekly rates are hard to find, there is basically the choice of:

  • daily packages for short-time heavy users (available from 500 MB to 1 GB per day)
  • monthly packages for other users (available from 100 MB to 20 GB for 28-30 days)

Take care, that the default rate is often charged very high at around 20-30 ct per MB while data in packages are between 0.2-2 ct/MB. So buy packages right from the start, shut off data before the purchase and enable only when this has been confirmed (see here).

More information

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.

Operators

The German article is now split into 3 further sub-articles according to network provider: Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, O2 (incl. E-Plus) and their resellers.

Click on the pic to choose network and relevant sub-page:

For resellers (A-Z) go to:

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