An EC card is a Euro-Cheque card with a 4-digit personal PIN number which is issued by your bank and can be used to withdraw cash from most ATM cash machines in Europe.
ATM cash withdrawals from your bank (or associated banks or branches) are free. There is a small charge to get cash from ATM machines of other banks in Germany, usually about 1%. Outside Germany, this charge can be around 2.5%; your bank can inform you about cash withdrawal costs in other countries.
The normal EC-card is sometimes called a cheque-card, its old name; there is also the new Eurocard, a credit card on the MasterCard circuit which is accepted world-wide. In Germany, most shops and petrol stations display the EC/Maestro sign; payment is fast and easy with your EC card, and a secure transaction is guaranteed by the requirement of your PIN or signature.
Stay informed. Get printed bank statements from cash machines at any branch of your bank using your EC card. These machine-generated statements list all transactions. Money transferred into your account has the symbol "H" (Haben) and money going out has the symbol "S" (Soll).
Most cards from European banks are compatible with the EC card system, so if you have a card from another country, it will most likely work in EC cash machines with no trouble. If in doubt, before travelling, check with your bank about compatibility. Visitors staying for a longer time in Germany could save on bank transaction costs by opening a German bank account and getting an EC card.
A couple of recommendations that bear repeating: in the case of loss or theft of your EC card, notify your bank immediately. And never reveal your PIN number: armed with your secret PIN, anybody could withdraw money from your account.
Although Germany is one of the European countries where most payments are still made in cash (keep this in mind while shopping), in most cases your credit card will be accepted. Payment using cards is spreading rapidly, the most common cards being Eurocard/MasterCard and Visa which enjoy almost universal acceptance. Information about which cards are accepted is displayed in shop windows or at the cash desk. It is not a good idea to withdraw cash from an ATM machine using a credit card that has a PIN, charges are steep.
When you are choosing which credit card is best for you, check out the various banks, Sparkassen (savings banks) and credit card companies, annual fees and miscellaneous charges can differ significantly. For a foreigner arriving in Germany and wanting to do banking, the best scenario is to have an account at an international bank that has a branch in Germany. You can, of course, get a credit card and open an account with a German bank although some banks are disinclined to welcome newly arrived foreigners. In all cases, when you get a credit card in Germany, you must sign a contract specifying the bank from which the monthly debit will be paid automatically.
Cash cards (Geldkarte)
The pre-paid Geldkarte has not found much favour with retailers and its use is limited. You can charge it with any amount at Geldkarte terminals but, unlike the majority of pre-paid cards, you need a bank account to get one.
The once popular Euro-Cheque was discontinued after the introduction of the Euro.