After opening a bank account, you will receive an EC (EuroCheque) card with a corresponding PIN (a secret 4-digit number). This card allows you to withdraw cash from the majority of cash machines in Germany and Europe. Withdrawals from machines from your own bank or associated institutions are free, while cash machines from other institutions will charge you a fee (normally around 1% within Germany, but this can be a as high as 2.5% in other countries), so make sure you find out from your bank how much this will cost.
To avoid misunderstandings: apart from the normal EC-card, still sometimes known as a cheque-card, there is also a Eurocard, which is a credit card connected to the Mastercard System and valid world-wide.
Many shops and petrol stations also allow you to pay for goods and services using the EC card in conjunction with your PIN or signature. Just look for the EC/Maestro sign on the cash register.
You can also print bank account statements at machines in branches of your bank using the EC card. All transactions are listed on these statements. Money transferred into the account has the symbol "H" (Haben). Money transferred from the account has the symbol "S" (Soll).
If you have a card from your home country, check with your bank to see if it works in EC machines (most European banks are compatible with this system) as this is an efficient way to get cash. If you intend to stay for a while in Germany, you should probably still opt for a German account and EC card as well, as this will reduce your transaction costs.
If you lose your EC card, notify your bank as quickly as possible. You should never give out your PIN number, as this could allow anybody to withdraw money from your account.
Germany is unusual in that it has a relatively low level of credit card usage compared to other European countries, with many people preferring to pay in cash. As elsewhere, the most common cards in Germany are Eurocard/Mastercard and Visa, however credit cards are not accepted everywhere. Check a shop's door for a sticker showing which credit cards are accepted or ask. If you have a PIN for your credit card, you can use it to withdraw money from ATMs, but watch out for the charges as these can be high.
Most credit card companies charge a yearly fee. When choosing, look at several banks or Sparkassen to find out which credit card is best suited to you. Some banks do not readily issue credit cards for to recently arrived foreigners, so if you need one, it might be worth checking if your current bank has a branch in Germany.
If you get a credit card in Germany, you will need to specify a bank account from which your monthly balance will be paid. The contract will include a standing order payment to allow the card company to debit payments automatically from your account.
Cash cards (Geldkarte)
The Geldkarte is a card that can be loaded with electronic money at special terminals. You need to hold a current account at a bank it you want to use this "electronic purse". However, the Geldkarte has failed to gain much penetration with retailers so you may find its application limited.
Following the coversion to the Euro, Eurocheques have become invalid and banks are no longer required to accept Eurocheques.