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Which card should I use for cashless payments?


Cash continues to decline in Germany, and people are increasingly paying with plastic cards, whether Girocard or credit card. However, not every card is accepted everywhere. Consumers must remain flexible.

Andreas Braun

Consumers are more likely to use card payments than cash, especially at the supermarket checkout. Girocards, debit cards and credit cards are used. However, in Germany or on holiday abroad, you often cannot get by with just one card.

During the European Football Championship in Germany, foreign fans are currently wondering why not every pub in this country will accept credit cards for their beer. Even though card payments in retail have continued to increase in recent years, the rule still applies: cash is king, especially in smaller shops, restaurants and cafés.

300 billion euros in cashless sales

And card payments are still far from being made uniformly by credit card in Germany. In stationary retail, around a third of payments were made in cash last year, according to sales. 61.8 percent of purchases were made with a payment card. This was determined by the research company EHI. Sales from cashless payments in stores exceeded the 300 billion euro mark for the first time in 2023.

A look at the turnover from card payments shows that three different cards are used at the checkout (see graphic). The Girocard is the most popular card. Almost 70 percent of the turnover goes to this account.

The EC card became Girocard

For many consumers, the Girocard is still known as an “EC card”, as Kerstin Backofen from Stiftung Warentest knows: “Many still say EC card, but it has been called Girocard for over ten years now. It's actually a simple term because it says that it's the card for the checking account. So the card with which I can withdraw money and pay, at least in Germany. And everything I pay for with this card is immediately credited to my account.”

Technically, the card is a “debit” card. The term debit stands for direct debit or “debit”. With a debit card, a payment is immediately debited from the account. The Girocard, however, only works for free payment transactions in Germany without any additional functions.

Maestro: Exceptionally until 2027

In order for it to be used internationally, it needs to be connected to a corresponding payment system. The credit card company Mastercard, for example, provided such a payment system with its Maestro service. However, Maestro was officially discontinued last year.

However, debit cards with the Maestro symbol are still being issued: “There were a few banks that were granted an exemption,” explains Backofen. “They said to themselves, before we have to look for a new partner here in a hurry, we would rather give our customers who are now getting a new card cards with the Maestro logo on them.” As things stand, these cards can still be used to pay or withdraw money abroad until 2027.

Debit card as the new standard?

For international payments, you actually need a debit card, such as those issued by major credit card companies such as Visa or Mastercard. It is integrated into the providers' global payment systems. Some German banks already offer it to their customers, as a kind of new standard, instead of the Girocard.

However, this sometimes has a catch in Germany: Smaller businesses in particular, such as the hairdresser or the restaurant next door, do not yet accept payment with it; this is often only possible with the Girocard – or even only in cash. The fees for merchants are usually lower when paying with the Girocard than with debit and credit cards.

Abroad – better to have a credit card

If you want to pay abroad, you are in principle well equipped with a debit card from Visa or Mastercard. But when traveling outside Germany, this only applies to a limited extent, says Kevin Schwarzinger from the consumer portal Biallo: “Actually, a debit card can do pretty much everything a credit card can – except that you don't have a credit limit and therefore can't make purchases on credit. Problems always arise when booking hotels and rental cars, because a deposit is often required.”

In order not to jeopardize a smooth vacation or business trip, it is advisable to have a credit card in your wallet. Your own bank usually offers credit cards for a monthly or annual fee.

“Horrendous interest rates” as a cost trap

If you open your own new credit card account instead, you can sometimes avoid paying such a basic fee. However, users should read the small print, especially with cards that appear free at first glance. Biallo expert Schwarzinger warns against the so-called “partial payment function” in particular: “This allows you to use up a credit limit, but the amount is not debited in full at the end of the month, only in part. Anyone who uses this partial payment function often pays horrendous interest. Consumers should check whether it is possible to switch to a 100% debit of all charges at the end of the month.”

It will probably take some time, especially for German consumers, before cards become the norm for paying in shops and online. In the meantime, other forms of payment using smartphones or smartwatches may replace cards anyway. Until then, a Girocard or debit card still makes sense in Germany and a credit card abroad. And maybe a little cash, just in case.

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