Ask an attorney: cancelling German contracts

by Holger Blug
Kaiserslautern Legal Services Center

Q: My German cellphone contract is due to expire this summer when I am due for a permanent change of station. What, if anything, do I need to do to cancel it, and when should I do it?

A: If you’re like most Americans stationed in Kaiserslautern, one of the first things you probably did when you arrived here was sign a cellphone contract. Although some cellphone service providers give you the opportunity to sign a month-to-month contract, most customers choose to go with a 24-month contract because the monthly fees are lower and there is usually a good chance of acquiring one of the newest and fanciest cellphones at a more favorable price. However, when customers sign their contract, most do not realize that in Germany a 24-month contract lasts for at least 24 months, sometimes even longer.

First of all, it is important to recognize that German cellphone contracts have no military clause which allows you to cancel your contract early in the event of a deployment or relocation. However, you still might want to give it a try as some providers may be kind enough to let you out of the contract, although they still might require you to pay a penalty. For landline phones and internet service, the situation is a little better. The German Telecommunications Act allows you to cancel such a contract with three months’ notice if the service provider is not able to provide the service at your new address.

Customers often complain that it is unreasonable and very unfair to be forced to pay for a service that they can no longer use, but they need to understand that the only reason the phone companies offered them such a low-priced contract in the first place is because the company was relying on receiving payments for at least 24 months. From their viewpoint, they are still willing to provide the 24 months of service agreed upon in the contract; it is the customer who is backing out early and should suffer accordingly.

The most important fact to know about these fixed-term contracts is that, although they are referred to as 24-month contracts, they do not automatically end after 24 months. Twenty-four months is considered the minimum duration of the contract. These contracts automatically extend for another 12 months if you forget to cancel them in time. The cancelation notice period is usually three months, which means the customer must give notice of his intent to cancel the contract at least three months before it is due to expire. Otherwise, it will automatically be renewed for another 12 months. The tricky part is that you won’t find the automatic renewal clause on the front page of your contract but only in the fine print of the business terms. Hence, many customers are not aware of that automatic renewal clause, but as these clauses are considered valid under German law, you need to watch out and make sure you don’t forget to cancel your contract in time if you want the contract to end.

Such a cancelation needs to be in writing, and the customer has the burden of proving that the contract was canceled. This means it is not sufficient to walk into the shop and tell them that you don’t want or need the contract anymore. You need to make sure you get a receipt or written confirmation stating that the contract is canceled as of a certain date. It is advisable to send a cancelation letter by registered mail so you can prove that the company received the letter on a particular date.

Although the automatic renewal clauses are a well-known problem when it comes to phones and internet, they are not the only types of contracts that contain these clauses. Another popular one is the BahnCard. Train travel in Europe is very common because the rail network is so good. However, when you go to the train station to buy a ticket, they will probably tell you that the ticket is much cheaper if you sign up for a BahnCard. Although this is usually true, they neglect to tell you that the BahnCard is a sort of membership which has to be canceled by you within a certain period of time; otherwise it renews for another 12 months. You should make sure to cancel your BahnCard if you do not plan to take more trips by train. Automatic renewal clauses also apply to ADAC, gym memberships and many other contractual relationships.

Editor’s note: This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult an attorney for specific legal questions.