There’s no way of saying this nicely. Service contracts can be a massive pain for expats in Germany. 
 
Why? 
 
Because they’re so bloody inflexible. The customer, sadly, is a long, long way from being king. A long way even from being the guy who polishes the king’s shoes, in fact.
 
I’m not talking about the complaint frequently made by expats in Germany about poor customer service, although this definitely also leaves a lot to be desired. We’re not going to get into that debate here, although I will definitely say that it’s a valid one.
 
No, I’m talking instead about the very limited opportunities one has to cancel and get out of existing contracts. To anyone coming from English-speaking countries, where flexible contracts, a service mentality and “the customer is always right” ethos is a way of life, German contracts can often feel like they’re written in blood.

Beware expats in Germany! It’s not just the fir trees that are evergreen

The major difference between signing up for a contract in most English-speaking nations versus signing up for some or other service in Germany (and Austria and Switzerland too) is that contracts here are typically evergreen i.e. they don’t automatically expire or terminate.
 
In plain English that means service providers have expats in Germany by the short-and-curlies. They determine when and under what circumstances you’re allowed to terminate your service contract, NOT you.
 
Whereas in English-speaking countries, typically, when you sign up for something, it’s for a fixed period of time and with a definitive end date. If you wish to renew under the same conditions, that’s up to you, but typically YOU would need to initiate that discussion.
 
Fine, you say, it’s OK. It’s a minor inconvenience that I have to tell my service provider that I wish to cancel a contract. No big deal.
 
I would agree, if it were so simple.
 
It’s not.

The black list

 
Here are some typical contracts you may have signed that renew automatically for another year if you don’t pro-actively cancel them at a certain stipulated time. 
 
  • Insurance contracts 
  • Bahn Card
  • Gym
  • Memberships of clubs / societies
  • Landline / internet / cable TV
  • Mobile phones

 

Buyer beware

For unsuspecting newbie expats in Germany, it’s a perfectly understandable and common mistake to make. If you’ve already signed one or more of these contracts, then hopefully it’s not too late to send them a cancellation notice. Do it now, before you forget!
 
If you’re presented with a contract to sign and you’re unsure, then follow these next couple of tips, and don’t be afraid to be assertive. Germans are generally quite direct. Don’t worry, they won’t think you’re being rude (here’s looking at YOU, Brits and Canadians!!)
 
Don’t sign anything that you don’t understand. If a salesperson is pushing you to sign something, then it’s probably a bad deal. Good deals generally sell themselves.
 
Get any contract you’re not comfortable with translated or looked at by a friend
 
Or, use services such as Fiverr or Upwork to get a cheap, basic translation. For a more comprehensive legal translation of a contract, you can get quick, professional online service via our partners at LingoKing.
 
Tip: Save yourself some money and just get the clause entitled Kündigung (termination) or Vertragsdauer (contract duration) translated. If it’s only around 100 words, this should cost you a lot less. You don’t necessarily need a certified translator – just a competent German speaker.

Tricks to get around this

 

Small companies: 

Cross out the clause in the contract and initial the changes, asking them to do the same. You’re the customer. Don’t be afraid to remind them of that. Walk away if they refuse…their loss. One day this country’s business owners will comprehend who pays their bills for them.
 
Ask if there is an option which doesn’t have this clause and say that it’ s a deal breaker. You have more negotiating power than you think. 
 
Don’t let the language barrier put you off. Use your perceived weakness to your advantage and just be stubborn and insist.
 
 

Large companies:

Clearly you can’t dictate the terms of business for contracts with the likes of Vodafone and Deutsche Bahn.
 
After you’ve signed the contract, immediately send them a termination notice and request that they have confirmed receipt. A downloadable termination letter for many different types of contract can be downloaded here.
 
Ensure that you follow up with them to acknowledge your termination. Without an acknowledgement, legally speaking it’s difficult to conclusively prove that they received your cancellation letter.
 
The law states that contract termination notices must contain a signature. Therefore you should be OK to send a PDF file which contains an actaul signature.
 
Some service providers may still ask for correspondence to be by post. Most of them will still respond with a formal letter rather than an email.
 
They may cite data protection reasons for this. The reality is that most of them are just old-fashioned businesses who have been slow to embrace the technology everybody uses today. The cynic in me says it’s just another tactic to make termination of a contract that little more inconvenient.
 
Good luck out there and don’t get stung out of ignorance. Be informed, be assertive and stay savvy!