How to Tell the Time in German

how to tell the time in german

It’s never too early to learn how to tell the time in German. This tricky topic can take a bit of getting used to, but it isn’t too different to the English way of telling the time.

After reading this post you will know:

  • Essential vocabulary you need to tell the time in German
  • How to ask what the time is in German
  • All the different ways to tell the time

German Time Vocabulary

Before we get started learning how to tell the time in German, let’s take a look at some essential vocabulary that we’ll use in this post:

Uhro’clock
viertelquarter
viertel nachquarter past
viertel vorquarter to / before
halbhalf
es ist…it is…
um … Uhrat … o’clock

In English we use the word ‘time’ for all sorts of situations, ‘what’s the time?’ ‘do you have time now?’ ‘how many times did you go?’

But in German there are different words for these situations:

  • die Zeit = the time = Ich habe keine Zeit (I don’t have time)
  • Mal = time = Wir waren 3 Mal am Strand (we went to the beach 3 times)

We don’t use the words Zeit or Mal for discussing the clock time.

How to Ask ‘What is the Time?’ in German

Asking what the current time is in German is quite straightforward, but quite different to how we would ask in English. There are two main standard phrases:

Wie spät ist es?What time is it? (lit. how late is it?)
Wie viel Uhr ist es?What time is it? (lit. how much clock is it?)

If you’re arranging a time to meet someone or are asking at what time something is taking place, use the second phrase, with um at the beginning:

Um wie viel Uhr ist es?At what time is it? (lit. at how much clock is it?)

So using some of the vocabulary above, we could end up with a conversation like this:

Wie spät ist es?What time is it?
Es ist 12 Uhr. Um wie viel Uhr wollen wir treffen?It’s 12 o’clock. At what time shall we meet?
Um 18 UhrAt 6pm

How to Tell the Time in German

So now you know a bit of the vocabulary needed to discuss the time, but how to actually tell the time in German?

One thing to bear in mind is that German uses the 24 hour clock, which I understand is not so common in the US (correct me if I’m wrong).

If someone asks you wie spät ist es? (what time is it?) you can still say es ist 5 Uhr instead of es ist 17 Uhr (it’s 5pm) as it’s pretty obvious whether it’s 5am or 5pm. But if you’re arranging a meeting time it’s best to use the 24 hour clock.

On the Hour

So you’ve already seen ‘on the hour’ examples used in this post. But let’s take a closer look.

On the hour times are easy enough for English speakers because the translation is almost exactly the same in German. Instead of ‘o’clock’ we say Uhr (clock):

Es ist zehn (10) UhrIt is 10 o’clock
Es ist acht (8) UhrIt is 8 o’clock
Es ist achtzehn (18) UhrIt is 6pm (18:00)
how to tell the time in german

You can also say:

  • Es ist Mittag (it is midday)
  • Es ist Mitternacht (it is midnight)

If you really want to be precise and emphasise at time of day, we can say:

  • morgens = in the morning
  • nachmittags = in the afternoon
  • abends = in the evening
  • nachts = at night

Say for example you have to catch it very early flight and you’re after a bit of sympathy for the crazy hour you have to get up, you can say:

Mein Flug geht um 5 Uhr morgens!My flight leaves at 5 in the morning!

The same can be done for all times of the day:

Ich bin erst um 2 Uhr nachmittags aufgewacht.I didn’t wake up until 2 in the afternoon.
Die Party begann um 9 Uhr abends.The party started at 9pm in the evening.
Mein Nachbarn sieht bis 11 Uhr nachts fern.My neighbour watches TV until 11 at night.

Half Past the Hour

When you tell the time, and it’s halfway between the full hour, in English we would say it is half past the hour.

But something that trips up German newbies (myself included) is that when you tell the time in German, it describes half to the hour.

half past half to clock

For example:

EnglishGerman
10:30Half past 10Half to 11
17:30Half past 5Half to 6
3:30Half past 3Half to 4

You need to change your way of thinking about half hours from ‘half past the hour’ to ‘half to the next hour’. And I totally sympathise that this takes some getting used to.

So if someone asks you wie spät ist es? this is how you would reply:

10:30Es ist halb elfIt is half (to) 11
17:30Es ist halb sechsIt is half (to) 6
3:30Es ist halb vierIt is half (to) 4
how to tell the time in german

Another way to describe half past / to the hour is to use the digital format, like we can in English. Instead of saying ‘it’s ten-thirty’ we need to add in Uhr so we say ‘it is ten Uhr thirty’:

10:30Es ist zehn Uhr dreißigIt is 10:30
17:30Es ist fünf Uhr dreißigIt is 5:30
3:30Es ist drei Uhr dreißigIt is 3:30

Quarter Past / To the Hour

To describe ‘a quarter past’ or ‘a quarter to’ the hour, we do this in a similar to in English. Instead of ‘quarter’ we say viertel.

quarter past quarter to clock
8:15Es ist viertel nach acht (8)It is a quarter past 8
13:45Es ist viertel vor zwei (2)It is a quarter to 2
22:15Es ist viertel nach zehn (10)It’s a quarter past 10

The Exact Time

Just like in English, you can be precise when you tell the time in German. If the time is still a round number, such as 10:10 or 15:55 there is a straightforward way of saying this. We just say:

  • Es ist … Minuten vor / nach … (it is … minutes to / past …)
10:10Es ist zehn (10) Minuten nach zehn (10)It is 10 minutes past 10
15:55Es ist fünf (5) Minuten vor vier (4)It is 5 minutes before (to) 4

When the time is 11:25 or 15:35, German uses a rounding up or down system. Instead of saying ‘it’s eleven twenty-five’ or ‘it’s twenty-five past eleven’ we say ‘it’s five minutes before half twelve’ (remembering that in German we say half to the next hour).

This is a bit of a tricky one so let’s take a closer look:

11:25Es ist fünf (5) Minuten vor halb zwölf (12)It’s 5 minutes before half (to) 12
15:35Es ist fünf (5) Minuten nach halb vier (4)It’s 5 minutes after half (to) 4
how to tell the time in german

If you want to tell the time in German to the exact minute, we use a similar format to English:

  • Es ist … Uhr …
06:23Es ist sechs Uhr dreiundzwanzigIt is six twenty-three
11:43Es ist elf Uhr dreiundvierzigIt is eleven forty-three
20:14Es ist zwanzig Uhr vierzehnIt is twenty (eight) fourteen

Learning how to tell the time in German can be challenging, but with a bit of practice you’ll get the hang of it. Remember that the biggest difference is the half hours, where German speakers say ‘half to the hour’ instead of ‘half past the hour’.

If you listen to German radio, you’ll hear the time being mentioned regularly, so this could be a good way to get used to hearing German speakers say the time. Deutschland.fm is a great, free way to listen to German radio stations.

One Comment

  1. Super-Duper blog! I am loving it!! Will be back later to read some more. I am taking your feeds also.

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