Stay safe in Germany
Germany is a very safe country. The crime rate is low and the rule of law is strictly enforced.
Violent crimes (murder, robbery, rape, assault) are very rare compared to most countries. For example, the murder rate in 2010 was 0.86 cases per 100,000 population, much lower than in the UK (1.17), Australia (1.20), France (1.31), Canada (1.81) and the USA (5.0), and still falling. Pickpocketing can sometimes be a problem in big cities or at crowded events. Begging is not uncommon in some big cities, but no more so than in most other big cities, and you will rarely encounter aggressive beggars.
If you are in certain parts of Berlin or Hamburg (Schanzenviertel) around 1 May (Labour Day), you can expect demonstrations that often degenerate into clashes between the police and a minority of demonstrators.
If you take the usual precautions, you will most likely not experience any crime during your stay in Germany.
The national emergency number for police, fire and rescue services is 112 (as in all EU countries) or 110 for police only. These numbers can be dialled free of charge from any phone, including payphones and mobile phones (SIM card required). When you report an emergency, the usual guidelines apply: Remain calm and give your exact location, the nature of the emergency and the number of people involved. Do not hang up until the operator has received all the necessary information and end the call.
Orange emergency telephones are scattered along the main roads. You can find the nearest SOS phone by following the arrows on the reflective posts at the side of the road.
Ambulances can be reached via the nationwide free emergency number 112 and will help you regardless of insurance issues. All hospitals, with the exception of smaller private clinics, have emergency rooms that are open 24 hours a day and can treat all kinds of medical problems.
The vast majority of foreign visitors will never face issues of overt racial discrimination or racism in Germany. Germany’s big cities are very cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic, with large communities of people from all continents and religions. Germans are also very aware of and ashamed of the historical burden of the Nazi era and are generally open and tolerant in their dealings with foreigners. Non-white visitors may sometimes be viewed with suspicion, but no more than in other countries where the population is predominantly white.
This general situation may be different in certain, predominantly rural areas of East Germany (including the outskirts of some cities with higher unemployment and high-growth areas such as “Plattenbau”). A few incidents of violence may be the cause of racist behaviour. Most of them occur at night, when groups of drunken “neo-Nazis” or certain groups of migrants are looking for trouble (and lonely victims) in the city centre or near public transport. It can also affect foreign visitors, homeless people, West Germans and people with a different appearance such as punks, goths, etc.
Public manifestations of blatant anti-Semitism are strictly prohibited by laws that are very well enforced. The Hitler salute and the swastika are prohibited, as is public denial of the Holocaust. Violations of these anti-racism laws are not taken lightly by the authorities, even if they are made jokingly. You should also avoid wearing a swastika, even for religious reasons.
German police officers are always helpful, professional and trustworthy, but tend to enforce the law quite strictly, so exceptions for tourists are not to be expected. When dealing with the police, you should remain calm and polite and avoid confrontation. Most police officers should understand at least basic English or have colleagues who do.
Uniforms and police cars are green or blue. Green used to be the standard, but most state and federal police have switched to blue uniforms and cars to meet the European standard.
Police officers are employed by the Länder, except at airports, railway stations, border crossings, etc., which are controlled by the federal police. In medium-sized and large cities, the local police (called city police, municipal police authority or public order office) has certain limited enforcement rights and is usually responsible for traffic matters.
If you are arrested, you have the right to a lawyer. Foreign nationals also have the right to contact their respective embassies for assistance. You are never obliged to make a statement that would incriminate you (or a person related to you by blood or marriage) and you have the right to remain silent. Wait until your lawyer arrives and speak to your lawyer first. If you do not have a lawyer, you can call your embassy or the local judicial officer will appoint a lawyer for you.
If you are the victim of a crime (e.g. theft, assault or robbery in public) and greet a patrol car or an arriving police officer, it is not uncommon for the police to ask you (sometimes very sternly: “get in”) to get into the back of the police car. This action initiates an immediate manhunt to identify and arrest the suspect. In this case, remember that you are not under arrest, but you must help the police enforce the law and perhaps recover your property.
German police have ranks, but they are not very enthusiastic; many Germans do not know the correct terms. Do not try to determine seniority by counting the stars on the officers’ shoulders to choose which officer you will address, as such behaviour can be seen as disrespectful. Approach any officer and they will answer your questions or refer you to the appropriate officer.
Prostitution is legal in Germany, but regulated.
Every major city has a red light district with licensed bars, go-go’s and escort services. Tabloids are full of ads and the internet is the main contact base. Brothels are not necessarily easy to spot on the street (outside the red light district) to avoid legal action from neighbours. The best known places for red light activities are Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne.
Due to Germany’s proximity to Eastern Europe, there have been several cases of human trafficking and illegal immigration. The police regularly raided brothels to keep this activity within legal limits and checked the identity papers of workers and clients.
Alcohol can be purchased by persons aged 16 and over. However, distilled drinks and drinks mixed with them (including the popular “alcopops”) are only available to people aged 18 and over. It is not technically illegal for young people to drink, but it is illegal to allow them to drink on the premises. Young people aged 14 and over are allowed to drink fermented beverages in the presence and with the permission of a parent or guardian. If the police find that the person is underage, they can arrest the person, confiscate the drinks and send the person home in the presence of an officer.
Smoking in public is allowed from the age of 18. Cigarette vending machines require valid “proof of age”, which in practice means that you must have a German bank card or a (European) driving licence to use them.
The situation with marijuana can be confusing. The Constitutional Court has ruled that possession for “personal use” is still illegal, but may not be prosecuted. Germany is a federal state; the interpretation of this ruling is therefore up to the state authorities. In fact, criminal proceedings are sometimes initiated for even small amounts, which will cause you a lot of trouble regardless of the outcome. As a rule, the northern federal states are rather liberal, while in the south (especially in Bavaria) even small amounts are considered illegal. Customs officials also know that you can legally buy marijuana in the Netherlands and have therefore introduced regular border controls (also on trains), as the import of marijuana is strictly prohibited.
Even if you withdraw the charge, the authorities can cause various problems, such as revoking your driving licence, and if you have more than a few grams, you will be prosecuted anyway. The drugs will be confiscated in any case.
All other recreational drugs (such as ecstasy) are illegal and possession will result in prosecution and at least one criminal conviction.
Crimes have been committed with date rape drugs, so be careful with open drinks, as everywhere else in the world.
Certain types of knives are prohibited in Germany: These are mainly certain types of switchblade knives, “butterfly” knives, knives with handles and others – possession of such knives is a criminal offence. Possession of such knives is a criminal offence. Knives intended for use as weapons are only permitted for persons over 18 years of age.
It is illegal to carry any kind of “dangerous knife” in public unless you have a valid reason to do so. For example, if you are fishing, you may always carry a fishing knife. Dangerous” knives are usually knives with a blade length of more than 12 cm and lockable “one-hand” folding knives.
Carrying a knife beyond the pocket knife (typically Swiss army knife) without a professional reason (carpenter, etc.) is considered very rude and unacceptable in Germany. Germans consider any unprofessionally used knife as a sign of aggression and do not accept this behaviour. Showing a knife (even if it is folded) may cause passers-by to call the police, who will take the future situation very seriously.
Firearms are strictly controlled. It is virtually impossible to legally carry a firearm in public unless you are a law enforcement officer. Fake” firearms may not be carried in public if they look like real weapons. CO2 and air pistols are relatively easy to acquire. If the police find a pistol or firearm of any kind on you, you look very suspicious.
Avoid bringing fireworks into Germany, especially if they come from outside the EU. Bringing fireworks into Germany can be a criminal offence. Fireworks are traditionally used on New Year’s Eve. Most “suitable” fireworks (marked “Class II”) are only available at the end of the year; they may only be used by persons over 18 on 31 December and 1 January. Very small items (marked “Class I”) can be used by anyone throughout the year.
Fishing laws vary greatly from one federal state to the next. Obtaining a fishing permit for Germans and foreigners has become very bureaucratic due to the Animal Protection Act.
Gay and lesbian travelers
Germany is generally very tolerant towards homosexuality. However, in some deprived areas “gay bashing” is very popular among neo-Nazis or other right-wing extremist groups. So use your common sense and pay attention to the behaviour of people around you. In small towns and rural areas, the open display of homosexuality should be restricted.
Attitudes towards gays and lesbians tend to be tolerant, with openly gay politicians and celebrities increasingly seen as normal. Although some people, especially older ones, still do not approve of homosexuality or bisexuality, they usually repress openly homophobic statements. For this reason, showing one’s homosexuality (by holding hands or kissing) will in most cases at best provoke looks or sometimes comments from children or older people.
Stay healthy in Germany
The sanitary and medical facilities in Germany are excellent. In the telephone book you will find the telephone numbers of various medical services. There are many help lines and services that are open outside office hours. See the “Medical Emergencies” section above if you find yourself in an emergency situation.
If you have a non-urgent medical problem, you can choose any local doctor. The German healthcare system allows specialists to run their own practices, so you can usually find everything from dentistry to neurology within easy reach. In remote areas, it may be necessary to travel to the nearest town to find a doctor, but the infrastructure in Germany allows for quick connections. General practitioners/family doctors usually refer to themselves as “Allgemeinmediziner”, which means “general practitioner”.
Pharmacies are called “Apotheke” and are marked with a big red “A”. At least one pharmacy in the area will always be open (usually a different pharmacy every day), and all pharmacies will display the name and address of the pharmacy on duty in the shop window. Some medicines, some of which are available without a prescription in other countries (e.g. antibiotics), must be prescribed in Germany, so it is advisable to find out before you travel. The staff of a pharmacy on duty are well trained and it is mandatory that at least one person with a university degree in pharmacy is available in every pharmacy on duty during opening hours. A German pharmacist can advise you on how to take medicines. The pharmacy is also the place to get common over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, antacids and cough syrup. Do not be misled by the appearance of the word “medicine” in the name of a drugstore group, such as the large chain dm-drogerie markt: In Germany, “drugstores” sell everything but medicines.
In Germany, medicines are usually expensive, so it makes sense to ask your pharmacist about “generics”: a “generic” is practically the same active ingredient and the same dose, often even produced by the same pharmaceutical company, but has no well-known brand name and is much cheaper. Since the brand names of even the most common substances can vary greatly from country to country, you should try to find out the scientific name of the substance you need, as this is printed on the packaging and trained pharmaceutical professionals will know it.
EU citizens who are members of a statutory health insurance scheme can obtain a EuropeanHealth Insurance Card. This card is issued by your health insurance company and allows you to use the public health system in any EU country, including Germany.
If you come from outside the EU or have private health insurance, check whether your insurance is valid in Germany. If not, take out travel health insurance – German healthcare is expensive.
Foreign insurance, even if it covers travel abroad, may not be accepted by local hospitals.
In the event of an emergency, you will be treated first and will have to take out insurance or submit a bill later.
Tap water is of excellent quality and can be drunk without hesitation. Exceptions are reported (“Not drinking water”) and can be found in fountains and trains, for example. In restaurants and cafés you often have to ask explicitly for mineral water, as it is usually not considered as such.
Many Germans avoid drinking tap water and prefer bottled water (carbonated or not) because they believe it is not pure. The term “tap water” actually means “plumber’s water”, which is not very attractive either. In fact, tap water is sometimes even of better quality than bottled water and, unlike in the United States, does not taste the least bit like chlorine.
Many Germans prefer carbonated water. Soda water is sold in all shops that sell beverages and prices range from cheap 19 cent bottles (1.5 L) of “no-name” brands to several euros for luxurious “premium” brands.
Many lakes and rivers, as well as the North Sea and Baltic Sea, are generally safe for swimming. Although there are no potentially lethal pollutants in most waters, you would still do well to check the local regulations. If you plan to swim in a large river, do so at best only at official bathing sites. Stay away from structures (power plants can cause currents that you cannot see from the surface) in the river or when crossing from the shore to the river, and also stay away from boats. Structures and boats, even if they seem harmless or remote, can create a lot of underwater suction. Pay special attention to children.
If you plan to swim in the North Sea, you need to be aware of tides and weather conditions – getting caught in a tide can be deadly, so can getting lost in the fog. Walking in the Wadden Sea without a local guide is extremely dangerous, so don’t go unless you really know your way around. There are practically no tides in the Baltic Sea.
You should know that rabies (rabies) has been a problem in some areas in the past, although the authorities take it very seriously. When hiking or camping, watch out for wildlife such as foxes and bats.
The biggest risks for hikers and campers are two diseases transmitted by ticks. In some parts of Germany there is a (low) risk of contracting tick-borne encephalitis; vaccination is advisable if you plan outdoor activities in risk areas. The risk of contracting Lyme disease is higher and vaccination is not available. Therefore, try to avoid tick bites by wearing long trousers and appropriate footwear. Chemical repellents can also be effective. You should also check for ticks afterwards, as the risk of transmission is lower if the tick is removed early. The safest way to remove a tick is to use a credit card-sized device called a “tick card”, which you can buy at most pharmacies. Other methods (fingers, using glue, etc.) may cause the tick to inject more infectious material into the wound. If in doubt, consult a doctor.
Today’s wild animals are abundant but mostly very shy, so you may not see many of them. When a few wolves were spotted in Saxony and Pomerania and a bear in Bavaria, their immigration from Eastern Europe caused quite a stir. In the course of events, “Bruno” (the bear) was shot and although the wolves were under strong protection, local hunters were suspected of killing them illegally. By far the most dangerous animal in German forests is the wild boar; especially the sows leading the young are not to be trifled with. Wild boars are used to people, as they often raid rubbish bins in villages and suburbs, and their teeth can tear big wounds. If you see one, run. The poisonous adder can also pose a threat (in the Alpine region and in nature reserves), but it is rare – do not provoke it.