Advice to British Visitors to Germany and Vice Versa Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Advice to British Visitors to Germany and Vice Versa

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A passport.

You live in Britain and you want to visit Germany. Or perhaps it's the other way round; you come from Germany and you'd like to spend some time in Britain? Either way, you've done your homework and you've read all the relevant h2g2 entries. You're all set to go, happy in the knowledge that all European countries are similar anyway...

Be warned! Here are the bits no one told you about; a sundry collection of information for British visitors to Germany and German visitors to Britain, which may open the eyes of readers from both countries. It's always surprising to find out that what is 'normal' for one, is considered completely idiosyncratic in the other.

Traffic and Driving

The German visitor to Britain will know in advance that the British drive on the left. British travellers are also familiar with the concept that, on the European continent, people drive on the right. This applies to cars, motorcycles, bicycles, tractors - everything.

As a pedestrian, it can be a life-saving move to bear this in mind. In Britain, visitors to the larger cities and tourist areas are warned by 'LOOK RIGHT' and 'LOOK LEFT' marked in bold letters at their feet, as many pedestrians will be tourists from mainland Europe, the USA, or other countries where traffic drives on the right.

If you intend hiring a car, this means that the gear lever and the rear view mirror are also on the opposite side from what you're used to. The pedals, however, are in the same positions in continental and in British cars.

Be prepared to drive round roundabouts the other way, and watch yourself when you turn into an empty road: these are the situations where you are most in danger of driving off on the wrong side.

While roundabouts are an age-old feature of British and French road construction, it seems that in Germany, they weren't considered by the road planners until about 1985. They have been sprouting up all over the country ever since, as a cheap alternative to traffic lights, at the same time giving towns a chance to improve their appearance with sculptures or flower beds.

Although this Entry is not about language difficulties, it is vital to map-readers and navigators to know the following expressions:

  • Einbahnstrasse/One-way Street
  • Umleitung/Diversion
  • Ausfahrt/Exit
  • Autobahnkreuz/Autobahndreieck/Junction

There are an amazing number of stories of frustrated motorists looking for these on maps, having seen signs directing traffic to them.

German drivers in Britain

Please note that there is no system of 'priority from the right'. You are either on a minor or a major road, and the major one has priority. This is clearly marked at the crossing. A vehicle on a roundabout always has priority, just like in Germany.

The yellow grid lines at crossings are to be kept free until your exit from them is clear. If you are turning right, then it's OK to enter the box and wait for traffic going straight across to pass through before you turn right.

Also unfamiliar to Germans are the yellow lines along the kerb: one line means parking is restricted; two parallel lines means parking is prohibited. The standard blue disc with a red outline and a red 'X' through it is easily recognisable in both countries.

Distances in Britain are given in miles. Miles are longer than kilometres, so very often fractions of miles are used. On the continent, it would be very rare to see a kilometre distance given in fractions or decimals, except for foot and cycle paths.

British drivers in Germany

In general, the motorised British visitor to Germany may find the driving more aggressive than he is used to.

When driving in Germany, you will find road junctions with no markings. Basically, you give way from the right. Get into the habit of looking right at crossings. Cyclists often ignore this rule, so check the other direction, too, while you're at it.

If there is a sign like a diamond-shaped fried egg (a yellow diamond with a white border) you have priority until either the road ends or another sign annihilates this (unless there are also traffic lights installed and in operation).

Fortunately, traffic light colours have the same international meaning. Red means stop!

Other interesting facts about driving


The rules and guidelines for all participants in road traffic in Britain is the Highway Code.

Speed limits for cars are:

  • 30 mph (48 kmh) in built-up areas
  • 60 mph (97 kmh) on single carriageways
  • 70 mph (113 kmh) on dual carriageways and motorways

Once you have passed your driving test, you can drive unaccompanied at age 17. Learners (with a provisional licence) must be accompanied by someone in possession of a valid driving licence and have 'L' plates affixed to the car.


In Germany the equivalent set of rules and regulations is the Strassenverkehrsordnung (StVO).

Speed limits for cars are:

  • 50 kmh (31 mph) in built-up areas
  • 100 kmh (62 mph) on single carriagways
  • There is no legal limit on motorways.

Once you have passed your driving test, you can drive unaccompanied at age 18. A new system of provisional licence (from age 17) is being introduced in some states and permits learners to drive without a driving school instructor. They must be accompanied by a person who must be registered for the purpose, and who, of course, is in possession of a valid licence. Otherwise, learners are only permitted to drive a driving school car with a paid instructor.


Toilets in Germany have many ways of being flushed. When in doubt, press or bang away at anything on the wall above or behind you until the flushing starts. Or wave your hand - it might be sensor-operated. Failing that, look for a pedal to tread down, on the floor at the side of the pan (still to be found in trains).

The German visitor to Britain will still find chains to be pulled in ancient loos in pubs and old buildings. These are rapidly disappearing, but should you find one, remember that the trick is not too pull too hard - you might dislocate the ball valve. On the other hand, if nothing happens the first time, pull again hard and pray - or run!

Private and public washbasins in Britain are frequently equipped with two individual taps for hot and cold, which means that you cannot wash your hands under running water at a moderate temperature. For a good wash, you must find a plug and fill the bowl.

In Germany, the single tap which mixes the water to a homogenous temperature is universal, although in public toilets, you'll not always find hot water for washing your hands.

However, hot water is not always available 'on tap' for baths and showers in a British household - it is best to ask, or inform, your host that you would like to do anything that might take a lot of hot water. In Germany, this doesn't seem to be quite such a problem. But as water is metered in Germany, it is still not polite to spend hours in someone's shower just because you can.

If you are a plumber, or need to buy some piping, you will be surprised as a British visitor to Germany to find that the measurements of the trade are often marked in inches.


Tea and coffee

Britain has a reputation of being a nation of tea drinkers. German people seem to expect some kind of mystique to the tea-making ceremony, but it is a simple act, devoid of traditions or customs, executed several times a day to produce a fairly strong brew, often served with milk.

In Germany, tea first and foremost means an infinite variety of herbal infusions. A British person ordering tea in a restaurant or, if staying in a private home, when asked what kind of tea they would like, would do best to specify Schwarzer Tee (black tea). This will be served in a glass with sugar on the side. Very often, the glass or pot will only contain hot water, and a teabag will be balanced in the saucer. If the beverage arrives in a pot, this may be a complicated three-piece contraption with loose leaves in a removable section. You can remove the teabag or container with the leaves when the tea is strong enough for your taste.

The Germans are very proud of their coffee, and while not all households may have an electric kettle, they will all have a coffee machine. You will be offered coffee at all times of day (until 5pm), and expected to drink it very strong with a tiny drop of evaporated milk. Many restaurants and even households will not have plain milk available, as they need it neither for coffee nor do they eat cereals traditionally for breakfast.

As tea-drinking habits change in Germany, it is also becoming more common to find in Britain what a German person would recognise as a decent cup of coffee. Not many years ago, the British idea of coffee was based on soluble grains. Things have moved on, and most continental styles of coffee are now available in any café or tearoom.


German potatoes are yellow in colour. The main ways of cooking potatoes are as a potato salad or boiled potatoes. The German visitor to Britain has been known to find the paleness of the potatoes suspicious - but the ultimate in potato indulgence has just got to be that white fluffiness of mashed potatoes, served hot, with gravy and British sausages.


And, while we're on the subject, sausages are also very different in either country. There are, however, endless varieties in both Britain and Germany. The British eat them for breakfast, lunch, and tea - not all on the same day - served with other fried foods, chips or mashed potatoes. In Germany, sausages will be usually served with sauerkraut and are a popular dish at open air festivals and fairs.


Pastries in Britain can be delicious, but are not always what they seem to be. Once the German visitor has got hold of the idea that a Yorkshire pudding1 is not sweet and is not eaten as a dessert, he may be forgiven for expecting British pork pie to be a sweet dish with a funny name. However, German visitors take note: in this case, if it says 'pork pie' this really means that it contains pork. More than one German visitor has been known to spit out the first bite of the inviting golden pastry, having anticipated a sweet filling. But beware: having got used to the fact that a pork pie is a savoury foodstuff, don't be surprised to discover that the equally savoury-sounding mince pie is in fact sweet.

Pies are in fact comparatively rare in Germany. Bakers sell small pastries with apple, cherry, or nut fillings, but the idea of serving meat, fish or poultry between layers of pastry has not caught on, which may explain the confusion about pork pies among German visitors to Britain.


Butter; one of life's simpler joys, especially when served fresh on fresh bread. But due to the difference in German butter and British butter, and especially the great difference in bread types, the taste of a simple slice of German bread and butter is worlds apart from that of its British cousin.

The butter the visiting Brit will pick up off the German supermarket shelf will seem insipid in colour and taste - this is because it contains no salt. Then again, it may seem primitive to the German butter-eater that the British salt their butter which has a picture-book yellow colour. This has the advantage of easier spreading.

There are however more items peculiar to each country.

Whatever you are offered to eat: Try it, enjoy it, accept it' - Vive la différence!'


While not forgetting to cycle on the other side of the road, there are several things about bikes which take some getting used to when arriving in the other country. For example, in Germany, pedalling backwards often activates the brake. Try the bike out to check before cycling off; until you have accustomed yourself to this, be very careful. Apparently, this was not unknown in bicycles in Britain before the Second World War, but now you can only stop a common or garden British bike by using the handbrakes. Or riding into a haystack.

Bicycle lamps which are battery-powered and can be removed when you are not with the bike (to prevent thefts) are quite rare in Germany, where the dynamo is almost universal. In Britain, it is a common sign of a student or a cycling commuter to be seen with a bicycle lamp and a pump sticking out of their bag.

Bicycle pumps in Germany are fitted directly on to the valve. In Britain there is a flexible rubber tube to connect the pump to the valve which allows for the inevitable movement of the pump while pumping without wobbling the valve itself. Quite why they are not common in Germany is not clear. The valves are identical. It is a good idea to take half a dozen bicycle pumps as presents for your hosts if you visit Germany from Britain - they'll really appreciate it. Apart from anything else, you can pump your tyres standing up!

It is a relief to the British visitor to Germany (and a puzzle to the Germans) that bicycle tyres and bicycle sizes are measured in inches.


In Germany, windows are large and open inwards, which means you can clean the entire window, including the outside of the frame and the outside sill without leaving the room. In Britain, windows are often small, they open outwards, and often cannot be pushed right out to 90°.

In older houses in Britain, you may still find sash windows, which are divided into two parts horizontally and slide up and down. Germans find this quaint and romantic, but they are terribly impractical for cleaning. Although you can at least open them without having to move everything off the windowsill.

Most German windows also have a mechanism by which they can be tipped inwards. There's a knack to this; British visitors are best advised to have it demonstrated to them first if they wish to have the window open a little, for example at night...

German windows are almost invariably equipped with sturdy shutters: very old houses with the kind that open out, like in the fairytales; modern houses with a shutter that you pull up by a thick belt, and which rolls into a box installed above the window. While this very sensibly keeps the heat in and unwanted visitors out, it can give the British visitor a feeling of being imprisoned.

The metal container for the shutter prevents any form of curtain rail being affixed to the wall above the window, so curtains are attached to the ceiling. These are usually flimsy narrow pieces of cloth which cannot be drawn. In Britain the lack of shutters is made up for by curtains which can be easily drawn, made of heavy-duty materials, and often lined.


The currency is different, of course. Germany has taken to the Euro (€), although it has caused prices to double since its introduction in 2002. In Britain the pound sterling (£) is still the currency.

In Germany, paying your bills is done by direct debit, standing order, or transfer. In fact the most common way of paying through the bank is by transfer (u¨berweisung). Even small amounts can be transferred to repay small debts or to settle private accounts. Cheques are practically obsolete; cash is the preferred medium. Credit and debit cards, after years of resistance, are slowly being accepted. When using debit/credit cards in Germany, in almost all cases, you will be required to type your PIN number into the gadget on the counter.

You cannot have a job if you do not have a bank account. Well, you could, but you wouldn't get paid. All wages and salaries are paid directly into the employee's account, as are unemployment and sickness benefits and child allowances.

In Britain, debit and credit cards are valid forms of payment in most shops. Between private persons, debts can be repaid by cheque, although these are now becoming less commonly accepted in shops.

Eating Out

While it used to be quite common for people to eat out at least once a week in Germany, the introduction of the Euro has made this an expensive pastime. Old habits die hard, and eating out is still an option after a long day at the office, but people are generally becoming more careful - a meal that used to cost DM 16 now costs € 16 - an increase of almost 100%.

For Brits visiting Germany, please bear in mind that it is not usual to go to a Chinese or Indian restaurant. Your hosts might even be offended if you suggest popping along to either of these kinds of establishment. In fact, curry is to be avoided (unless you can tell that the restaurant is run by genuine Indian cooks). Do not be deceived by the name of the very popular fast food dish Currywurst, which is to be recommended if you are walking the cold streets of Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne and come across a kiosk selling them. Try one, but don't expect anything curry-like about them.

A German's local restaurant will probably be Italian or Greek, but when he has foreign visitors, he will want to introduce them to the local fare. It is well worth asking to try local food, whichever country you are visiting.

A note for German visitors to Britain on food in general: food in Britain may be reputed to be of bad quality and taste, but this opinion is usually only held by those who have not tried it. A good restaurant will provide an enjoyable meal with good service and in pleasant surroundings.

Similarly, German cuisine has a reputation among the British of consisting of lots of fatty foods and sauerkraut. This is true, in that it is still considered slightly exotic to be vegetarian, and vegetarian alternatives in the restaurants are not very imaginative. Meat, to a German, is, first and foremost, pork. Unless otherwise stated on the menu, you will be fed pork in endless variations. This is where the sauerkraut comes in - it contains the acids needed to break down the high fat content of the pork.

A British meal is not considered complete without cooked vegetables. These form an integral part of the dish along with meat and potatoes. In Germany, you will be served a salad separately; you may even be asked if you would like it before or with the main course. It may come on a plate or in a small bowl2. Cooked vegetables are then not included in the main course; the salad was the vegetables!

The British definition of a salad is a complete meal on a plate, possibly with a cold meat cut or veal and ham pie.

Chicken and other poultry is, of course, also readily available in German restaurants. The chickens in Germany are far smaller than those in Britain, so a normal portion would be a half a chicken, as opposed to the quarter-chicken in Britain. This can be a very enjoyable meal, fried crispy and served with Pommes3 - which is what the British call 'chips'.

For German visitors to Britain, the salt and pepper shakers on the table in your canteen or restaurant can be identified as follows: salt has one hole; pepper has several. This often causes raised eyebrows. In Germany they usually both have several holes.

In Britain, you will often get side dishes with your pizza. For example, half a pizza with chips. In Germany, a pizza is a meal in itself and will fill the plate (in fact it's often larger than the plate). You can order a salad separately (see above).

Tipping in Britain is often done by leaving money on the table when you leave. In Germany it is always dealt with when paying, rounding up the amount on the bill by a sum suited to the quality of service.

If a group are out together and by agreement everyone is paying for their own meal, a waiter in Germany will go through the list with each customer and everyone pays the waiter exactly what they ordered. He or she will always ask 'Zusammen oder getrennt?' ('Is one person paying the whole amount or is everybody paying separately ?'). If each person pays separately, it is to the waiter's advantage, as each individual will then add a tip when paying. In no other European country are waiters prepared to go to this trouble, and, in Britain and elsewhere, money is pooled, divided up equally, or one person pays for the whole evening.

In a German restaurant or bar, there is no concept of 'rounds'. In British pubs, the drinks are bought and paid for at the bar, so the drinks being bought are paid for all together, by one person. When the first glasses are empty, someone else goes to the bar and buys the next round, and so on, so that by the end of the evening, everyone has spent about the same amount.

For a German, the idea of paying for your drink before you have drunk it means that the landlord doesn't trust you. Therefore, there is no equivalent of a pub in Germany, because you have to stay sat at the same table (yes - there are always tables and chairs) all evening, while the waiter tots up your bill as you go through the evening, everyone paying their own bills at the end. Being anchored to the same table all evening reduces the amount of contact you can make with other customers in the place. This, however, suits the reserved German character.

The Germans have the impression that the British are reserved, though, so the idea of taking your drink over and talking to another group of people and actually standing or sitting next to or opposite people without a table between you is quite a surprise to the visiting German when he actually spends his first evening in a pub.

Social Interaction

Most foreigners are confused by the British reputation of being extremely formal and well-mannered. It is not compatible with the other image the British have, of being football hooligans and terrorising continental holiday resorts in drunken droves.

The Germans have a reputation of being regimented in all aspects of life and basically trampling over everything to ensure their own comfort.

Over the past decades, the two styles have improved and converged until the majority of each nationality can be said to be equally hospitable and polite to outsiders. This was unmistakably demonstrated during the Football World Cup in Germany in 2006 and will no doubt be matched in 2012 during the London Olympics.

Hopefully, and happily, general acceptance of and consideration for others seems to be one point where increasingly fewer differences can be found between the two cultures.


In Germany, shaking hands is the usual way to greet someone. Officially, a man should stand up for a woman and anyone should stand to greet an older or higher-ranking person. These stiff rules of politeness are becoming less rigid these days. In most cases, once it is known that you are from another country, it will be accepted that you can't know all the rules.

In Britain it is not quite so usual to shake hands4, especially not among younger people, or people who see each other fairly frequently. Hand-shaking is generally limited to first introductions. No actual alternative custom has been devised, however, which can lead to the occasional awkward situation.

Addressing other people

As in the rest of the English-speaking world, more often than not, people in Britain will be introduced and address each other by their first names. In Germany, there is a huge barrier to be crossed before you get round to first names. Even then, you may not have got as intimate as to use the familiar form of address (second person singular 'du'). Until then, you address men by their surname (eg, Schmidt) as 'Herr Schmidt' and women (whether married or not) as 'Frau Schmidt'. 'Fräulein' (Miss) is not acceptable and would be considered - and used - almost as an insult.

Among German students, children, apprentices, however, one always uses 'du' and first names. It would be a most embarrassing mistake for a student on their first day at a foreign university to address a fellow student as 'Sie' (even though they've never seen him/her before, and have just bumped into them in the corridor). Of course, to confuse matters, it would be equally embarrassing if you did use the familiar 'du', and that person later turned out to be a lecturer, who should, at least at first, be addressed with the formal 'Sie'.

Small talk

Two subjects that may come up when a British person is chatting with a German are 'The War' and '1966'5. Both subjects will probably be brought up by the British person involved in the conversation, as these topics, particularly the war, are not foremost in German minds. If the subjects cannot be avoided, British small talkers are recommended not to forget that these things happened before their interlocutor was born. German conversationalists will probably be surprised that the subject was mentioned in the first place.

Everyday Life


In Germany, recycling is part of everyday life. Exactly how it is done depends on the local council, but everything is collected separately: glass, paper, plastic and aluminium containers (these have to have a special logo on them), large items, compostable kitchen and garden waste, batteries, chemical waste. It's just done - nobody thinks about it anymore.

In Britain, it is accepted that waste should be recycled where possible, but the infrastructure for separate collections is not quite as developed. Paper, glass, etc, can be disposed of separately, but they have to be taken to a dumpster provided by the local council in a central place.


In German supermarkets you weigh your own vegetables in the supermarket. The scales are near the vegetable displays and you have to place your chosen wares on the scales, tap in a number or press the relevant picture, and the machine prints out the price label for the type of vegetable or fruit you have in the bag. Fortunately, to save time, many supermarkets now have an extra set of scales near the checkout because the sticky labels can come off in a full shopping trolley, or the shopper may have forgotten to weigh something. If the items are priced per St or Stck or Stück that means that the price is calculated per piece (eg, cucumbers, lettuces) and there is no need to weigh the item.

In Britain, the scales near the vegetable display are only for checking the weight of what you intend to buy. The pricing occurs at the till.

In Germany, stray trolleys are invariably kept in check on German supermarket car parks by a deposit system. To release the trolley from the trolley park, you slot a Euro coin into the handle, which you can reclaim when you dutifully return it after your purchases are all safely in the car. This system is not quite so widespread in Britain.

As part of the general attitude to waste reduction in Germany, it is not usual to pick up new carrier bags at the checkout to stow your shopping. You are sometimes asked to leave your shopping bags at a counter at the shop entrance (presumably to prevent theft). If you should need a new carrier bag, you will be expected to buy one at the checkout and pay around 15-20c, depending upon whether you choose one made of plastic, paper or cloth.

In Britain, thin plastic bags abound, free of charge, at the checkout for your shopping - the advantage is that you can bag your shopping at the till and put the bags straight in the car. However, the cost to the supermarkets and the amount of waste has prompted a movement towards providing bigger and stronger bags. These are still free of charge, but they are intended for repeated use.


In a British hotel room, you will find a kettle and a selection of teabags, instant coffees and hot chocolate. German visitors are hesitant about using these, as they are not sure whether they will be charged for them. They are free of charge. A British visitor needing a 'cuppa' outside of mealtimes in a German hotel will have to use room service or go to the bar.



In Germany, the usual game of Kegeln is nine-pin bowling. The ball is completely round. Occasionally you may find a bowling alley with the ten-pin version, which is the kind that is more popular in Britain. This will then be called a Bowling-Bahn.

It's the Little Things...

The intention of this Entry is to show that the differences between two countries are always interesting, sometimes surprising, but certainly not life- or lifestyle-threatening.

There will always be little things that are dealt with in different ways, but it is the fun of finding these out that makes us want to travel and get to know how people in other countries live. So don't let it stop you going to see for yourself if this is all true. You will certainly have lots of interesting things to tell your friends when you get back if you watch out for the little differences while abroad - and keep an open mind, be ready to admit that sometimes 'our' way is better, and sometimes 'theirs' is!

1Yorkshire pudding is made of baked pancake batter; it is not a pastry.2In a normal run-of-the-mill restaurant it will already be dressed. If you prefer to dress your own salad, you must specify this very definitely when ordering.3Pronounced 'pommess'.4The Germans, on observing this, find it acceptable, thinking it is 'more hygienic'.5Germany was beaten 4:2 by England in the final of the FIFA World Cup in 1966. The Germans dispute the validity of the crucial third goal to this day.

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