Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve been in Germany for six years, finally have a proper full-time job, felt like I had my shit together. The other day I went by the BVG counter to buy an annual transport Abo (subscription). But when I gave the form with my info and bank account details to the clerk, he told me that me I had a SCHUFA-Eintrag and therefore couldn’t get my Abo. I think it might’ve been from an electricity bill I ignored after switching flats six months ago. Am I screwed for life? What can I do?
– Mark P.
Hans-Torsten: The short answer: not much! SCHUFA (which originally stood for Schutzgemeinschaft für allgemeine Kreditsicherung) is one of those acronyms hated even more than GEMA, because SCHUFA – Germany’s credit bureau – really can screw up your life for a while if you get on their bad side. SCHUFA is fed information about your financial life by banks you have accounts with and companies you sign contracts with: mobile phone providers, credit cards… anyone giving you “credit” of some kind. Rivalling the NSA in terms of thoroughness, they claim to hold over 479 million pieces of information on 66 million of the 80 million people in Germany – pretty much everyone apart from children and all those invisible, unregistered couchsurfing expats. This data is primarily made up of a list of bank accounts and loans under your name as well as unpaid debts reported by creditors – like your forgotten-about Vattenfall bill. Such a listing is known as a Negativeintrag.
If you want to get a phone contract or BVG yearly ticket or rent a flat, especially one in a desirable area with lots of competing aspiring tenants, a SCHUFA-Auskunft is a crucial component of the paperwork they’ll want to see. You can order your detailed SCHUFA file online for €18.50 – it takes about two days to arrive. If there’s a Negativeintrag, a potential landlord will doubt your future ability to pay the rent on time – and the BVG won’t let you sign up for direct debit.
So, what to do? Basically, the Negativeintrag will remain in your SCHUFA file for three full years, after which it is deleted automatically. There is an exception to this: if your negative SCHUFA listing is for an unpaid debt of €1000 or less and you paid it off within one month of it being reported to SCHUFA, you can send SCHUFA a request to delete it – and they are required to do so. It’s complicated. If your German is not up to scratch, get a lawyer or at least a German friend to deal with the paperwork. But it sounds like this time limit has passed for you, so if you really want that Abo, the only thing you can do is find a good friend with good credit and pay through their account.
The precursor to SCHUFA was founded in Berlin as a private company in 1927 – and we’re pretty much stuck with this monopolistic credit reporting agency for the foreseeable future. If you want to live a normal life in Germany... pay your bills on time!
Originally published in issue #120, October 2013.