Shortly after you open your current (Giro) account, you will be sent a bank card, in addition to checks and transfer forms. This bank card was formerly known as an EC Card, but is now more precisely called a Maestro Card. You will also be issued a PIN number, which in most cases you cannot choose. The Maestro Card can be used to make electronic payments and to withdraw money from ATMs in Germany and throughout Europe. It serves as an acceptable form of payment at any business displaying the Maestro symbol, as well as in many shops and offices that do not display it.
Thanks to its lower fees for retailers, the Maestro Card enjoys almost universal acceptance in Europe and has proven to be much more popular than credit cards. It is a direct debit card, meaning that the payment is deducted directly from your Giro account (although it can sometimes take up to a few days before a transaction is processed). If you have overdrawn your Giro account, you will automatically be charged at your bank's predetermined annual interest rate (Überziehungskredit). There are no service fees if you use the Maestro Card to make a purchase outside of Germany but still within the Euro zone of the EU.
An important word of warning: make sure you keep your Maestro Card in a safe place and memorize your PIN number. (Never write it down in your wallet or on the card itself!) If your card is lost or stolen, report this immediately to your financial institution. And keep your ATM receipts until you can check them against your monthly statement.
For payments requiring only a small amount of money, the chip card (Geldkarte) can be used. Located on your Maestro card, the chip can be loaded and unloaded at your bank's ATM and comes in very handy for paying inexpensive items, such as your S-Bahn ticket when you are out of pocket change or photocopies at the library. Keep in mind, though, that the chip card operates without a PIN, meaning that if you lose your card, the amount of money loaded on your chip card becomes the property of he or she who finds it! It is therefore advisable to load your chip card with small amounts at a time.
Credit cards still have not made the inroads here that they have in many other countries. One reason is that retailers prefer the Maestro Card because of its lower service fees. Another reason is a cultural bias against buying something that you do not really pay for right then and there in cash. Nevertheless, credit card companies have been trying to change this mindset, and you will see promoters handing out application forms in major department stores or along main shopping thoroughfares. Banks have also begun issuing credit cards to current account holders, usually Visa or MasterCard. The first year is often free, followed by an annual service fee of 30 euros for a basic card.