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Guide to PCS-ing in Germany: How to Shop

Shopping cart in German grocery store

When you’re in the military, travel and relocating are an inevitable part of the lifestyle. At Service Credit Union, we serve members all over the world, including thousands of U.S. military members on Army and Air Force bases in Germany. If you’ve recently relocated to Germany or are scheduled to, we’re here with some basic tips to help make the transition smoother. This month, we’ll be covering shopping.

Shopping in Germany has its similarities to shopping in the U.S., but it also has its significant differences: There is the language barrier, currency conversions, metric system, and cultural habits that may make you feel like you are in, well, a different country. That being said, it can still be both enjoyable and a learning experience. Here are a few important tips to make the experience a little easier.

Get acquainted with the basics. The language barrier is one of those things that is expected with a permanent change of station (PCS) to any foreign country. Make an effort to learn the basics, such as numbers, greetings, and common food terminology. Take advantage of Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) Army Community Service’s (ACS) free German as a Second Language course. Being able to feel comfortable enough to initiate a conversation in the local language will also help you feel more comfortable speaking the local language.

One constant you will need to get used to is the metric system. The metric system uses the decimal system of measurements for weight, distance, speed, volume, and temperature. Familiarize yourself with what a liter of water looks like, what a kilogram of meat weighs, how far a kilometer is and what 20 degrees Celsius feels like.

Expect shorter shopping hours. Retail shopping hours in Germany are more limited compared to the U.S.. Typical hours are from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Quiet days are reserved for Sundays, locally known as ruhetag, when most shops are closed, with the exception of gas stations, restaurants, and cafes.

Taxes are included. Unlike in the states, the price you see stated on an item includes the sales tax. The standard Value Added Tax (VAT) rate is 19% for most items in Germany, and 7% for certain products, such as basic food items, some magazines, books, and hotel bookings. Pick up your tax-free VAT forms at your local MWR/Force Support Squadron (FSS) VAT office. This program allows U.S. forces stationed in Germany to make ordinary purchases for items such as furniture, clothing, electronics, car repairs, and groceries without having to pay the German sales taxes. The sponsor will have to attend a short briefing at the VAT office. During this time, the sponsor can add their dependents’ names to the VAT forms. Each VAT form will cost $5 each and you can purchase up to 10 at one time.

Monitor the exchange rate. You will need to consider the local exchange rate that fluctuates on a daily basis. Stores exclusively accept the Euro currency in Germany. I advise you to check the exchange rate prior to departing for your shopping excursion to get an idea of how much your shopping will cost you in U.S. dollars. What a carton of milk may cost you in dollars one day may increase or decrease the next business day depending on the exchange rate. Not all businesses accept debit or credit cards, so have cash on hand prior to shopping.

Bring a bag. Most stores encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable shopping bags by charging you for their bags at the store. You can use your own bag as you shop and empty it out at the checkout line. There are shopping carts available that require a refundable deposit of a Euro. This is to ensure that the shopping carts make it back to the corral for the convenience of the next shopper.

Expect to shop more often. The selections of items at the stores on the local economy will be similar to what you are familiar with back in the states. However, the refrigerators in Germany are a lot smaller and a pantry room is either smaller or non-existent. The produce and food items in the local economy will generally have a shorter shelf life than U.S.-made goods. In Germany, people tend to shop every day or every other day for their grocery needs. What you give up in convenience, you make up in freshness.

Most importantly, go out and explore your new duty station. There are quite a few challenges to overcome when PCSing to a different country, but after some time you will gradually realize how effortless it is to go out and shop locally.