Am Telefon: Using a Phone in German

Wir telefonieren auf Deutsch

The Sony Ericsson T610 is a multi-band wireless phone that works in both the U.S. and Europe. Foto: Sony Ericsson

Using the Telephone in Austria, Germany, Switzerland

Gone are the days when most European countries had one state monopoly phone company run by the post office—the former PTT: Post, Telefon, Telegraf. Things have changed! Although the former German monopoly Deutsche Telekom is still dominant, German homes and businesses can now select from a variety of phone companies. On the street you see people walking around with their Handys (cell/mobile phones).

This article deals with several aspects of using a telephone in German: (1) practical Telefon how-to's, (2) vocabulary related to the equipment and telecommunications in general, and (3) expressions and vocabulary concerning good phone etiquette and making yourself understood on the phone, along with our annotated English-German Telephone Glossary.

Talking on the phone is an important skill for English-speakers in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or anyone who needs to make a long-distance call (ein Ferngespräch) to a German-speaking country. But just because you know how to use a telephone at home doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to cope with a public phone in Germany. An American business person who is quite capable of handling any business situation can quickly be at a loss in an unfamilar German telephone booth/box (die Telefonzelle).

But, you say, anyone I want to call probably has a cell phone anyway.

Well, you better have the right Handy or you're out of luck. Most U.S. wireless phones are useless in Europe or just about anywhere outside of North America. You'll need a multi-band GSM-compatible phone. (If you don't know what "GSM" or "multi-band" means, see our GSM phone page for more about using ein Handy in Europe.)

A German or Austrian public phone can be confusing if you've never seen one before. (See photo.) Just to complicate matters more, some public phones are coin-only, while others are phone card-only. (European phone cards are so-called "smart cards" that keep track of a card's remaining value as it's used.) On top of that, some phones at German airports are credit card phones that take Visa or Mastercard. And, of course, a German phone card won't work in an Austrian card phone or vice versa.

Just knowing how to say "Hello!" on the phone is an important social and business skill. In Germany you usually answer the phone by saying your last name.

A recent look at some of the latest high school and college textbooks for German revealed a shocking lack of vocabulary and information about using the phone in German Europe. One commonly used first-year textbook does have a short section about “Using the telephone in Germany,” but it neglects to mention many terms that I would consider important. (The more advanced levels of the same text not only fail to expand on the topic, but don't even cover it at all!)

Here are just a few of the items/terms this particular textbook omits: cell phone, to fax, fax machine, telephone book/directory, phone card, to answer the phone, local call, phone charges/fees, and toll-free.

(All of these terms are found in our Telephone Glossary.)

Nor is there any mention of something that I always made sure my school-exchange students knew when I took them to Germany or Austria: German phone subscribers must pay per-minute charges for all calls, including even local calls (das Ortsgespräch). This explains why Germans don't spend as much time on the phone as most Americans. Students staying with a host family need to know that even when they call a friend in the same town or across the street, they shouldn't talk for long stretches like they may at home.

Using the telephone in a foreign country is an excellent example of how language and culture go together. If you don't know the vocabulary involved, that's a problem. But if you are unfamiliar with how the phone system works, that's also a problem—even if you know the vocabulary.

Our annotated phone glossary is designed to help you with both the language and the culture of using a phone in the German-speaking world.

More About Using a Phone in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland:

Vocabulary: English-German Telephone Glossary

Photos: German Telephone Photo Gallery