July 2010


Banking in Deutschland: Züruck in die Zukunft

Once I got my new job in Berlin there was one easy decision: it was time to fire my local, parochial, hick, and awful bank in Weimar.

However this is not something done overnight, rather there is going to be a two or three month transition period while I redirect automatic payments that come out of that bank to my new bank and figure everything else out.

I’m not sure if I want to explicitly state the name of my new bank here—but it’s a big one and it’s abbreviation is the same as the train company’s, which led to a couple moments of confusion for me when looking over paperwork. I’m so used to thinking “train” when I see these letters that seeing these letters and realizing that they could also mean “bank” took a few minutes to register.

When I went to open my account I went to the branch nearest to my hotel where, happily, I found an English speaking representative who sat down with me (behind the counter) and helped me open my account. Upon learning where I was working she was surprised to have me open my account at her branch – although she understood when I explained it was the branch closest to my hotel.

The bank is not, shall we say, in the best of shape. The neighborhood is not really wealthy and it’s near the U-Bahn station where every single time I have been on the platform I have witnessed a drug deal, and now that I know what to look for, every single time I’ve been on a train passing through I’ve identified the drug dealers waiting on the platform.

The bank branch feels defensive. There are only two teller windows (and I’ve only seen one open either time I’ve visited the branch), and although there isn’t a visible security guard in the lobby, I get the feeling that there’s a lot of security ensuring the bank is safe and secure.

I’ve been happy with my choice because the very friendly woman who assisted me in opening my account has been patient and helpful. Let me very clear about that: she’s answered my questions and because there was a problem with one of my many new cards, she ordered a replacement with no questions asked. Her willingness to explain things to me and to help me has won a customer for life.

Meanwhile I’ve started to keep an eye out for other branches of my bank so that when I need to get cash, I can go somewhere convenient—and thanks to its very large ATM network, I don’t have to go far. From my temporary apartment, it’s a 7-minute walk. From my future home it’s a 5- or 10-minute walk.

And from my office? Well, I realized a couple days ago that there’s actually a branch of the bank within a five-minute walk of my office (although, truth be told, most banks in Berlin have a branch within five minutes of my office—the closest is about 15 seconds away).

The main thing to know about this branch is that I suspect the bank wanted to have a branch on this street and that this was the only available space at street level. Yes, it’s on Friedrichstraße, the hot shopping district, the hot tourism district, the hot business district.

I say this because the branch is enormous—1260 square meters (13,500 square feet)—about four times the actual space they needed, so instead of looking somewhere else, they came up with the following explanation:

Wir haben uns gefragt, wie eine moderne Bank im 21. Jahrhundert aussehen sollte, in der die Menschen weiter in den Mittelpunkt rücken.


We asked ourselves, what would a modern bank in the 21st century look like, in which the human being moves to the center of attention?

In other words, it’s a store as well as a bank—a large store that tries to capture the Berlin Zeitgeist. Yes there are some ATMs (fancy ones) near the entrance, but then one passes through a boutique selling trendy shit in a faux-sophisticated environment. T-shirts, CDs, and Berlin souvenirs are for sale, among other items.

Once through this one finds the tellers standing behind a series of free standing computer podiums instead of the traditional banking counters that we know and love in both the US and Germany. It’s like you and the teller are going to be best buds, and boy, you better be wearing smart clothing, or you’re not going to fit in.

I actually stepped into the bank this week to test out my new EC Card (EC is a standard card in Germany, basically its an ATM card and a debit card, but it’s not a credit card). I was impressed. It looks almost nothing like the branch where I opened my account.

But really, would a bank of the future be selling CDs? I suppose maybe a futuristic bank would sell Certificate of Deposit, but CD has only one meaning in German as the American banking term becomes a Depositenzertifikat.

2 comments to Banking in Deutschland: Züruck in die Zukunft

  • You haven’t really had any banking ‘fun’ until you open an account in France. If you are not an EU citizen, no matter what you want to do, it must be done at the main branch.

    • Have you tried opening an American bank account since the “Patriot Act” was passed? I can say that as an American, it’s a pain in the ass, I hesitate to imagine what it’s like as a foreigner to open an account in the US.