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How to tell the time in German

One might think that telling the time ought to be quite obvious in any language. After all, we all use the same kind of watch and have the same 24 hours. Why should there be any possibility to get mixed up?

Well, different cultures have different ideas sometimes …

How to tell the time in German

Formal and informal ways of telling the time

In German, there are two ways of telling the time.

If we want to be precise, for example when talking about a schedule or a business meeting, we use the formal or exact time. Otherwise we can also use the informal time.

The formal / exact time

The formal or exact time is the 24-hour clock.

It starts out the same as in English:

  • 3 am = three o'clock in the morning = 3 Uhr

  • 12 am = 12 Uhr

But instead of using p.m., the counting continues:

  • 1 pm = one o’clock in the afternoon = 13 Uhr

  • 8 pm = eight o’clock in the evening = 20 Uhr

Which means you simply add 12 to the p.m. time.

To tell the exact time you say the hour and then the minutes. Make sure to put the word UHR between the hour and the minutes when you say it:

03:16 = It’s three sixteen = Es ist drei Uhr sechzehn.

The informal way of telling the time

What time is it? = Wie spät ist es?

It's ... = Es ist …

  • 13:00 = one o’clock = ein Uhr / eins.

  • 15:45 = a quarter to four = Viertel vor vier.

  • 16:15 = a quarter past four = Viertel nach vier.

Again: it starts just like in English. But then it's getting tricky:

  • 15:30 (= English half three) = halb vier”.

How to tell the time in German

The Germans look ahead to to the following hour!

The word “Uhr” can only be added for the full hours:

  • Es ist drei Uhr or Es ist drei.


  • Es ist Viertel nach drei.

Let's take a closer look at the minutes:

How to tell the time in German
  • 5 nach (past hour)

  • 10 nach (past hour)

  • Viertel nach (past hour)

  • 20 nach (past hour) OR 10 vor halb (following hour)

  • 5 vor halb (following hour)

  • halb (following hour) = half

  • 5 nach halb (following hour)

  • 10 nach halb (following hour) OR 20 vor (following hour)

  • Viertel vor (following hour)

  • 10 vor (following hour)

  • 5 vor (following hour)

The fact that e.g. 'half four' is actually 'halb fünf' is one of the most common misunderstanding between Germans and English-speakers.

To make sure you’re talking about the same time, you can ask, using the formal time:

“Also, vier Uhr dreißig?”

Approximate ways of telling the time:

Es ist kurz vor 4. / Es ist gleich 4. (It’s just before 4)

Es ist kurz nach 10 (I’s a few minutes after 10)

Talking about time

If you want to know the time, you can ask: “Wie spät ist es (jetzt)?”

Literally that means “how late is it (now)?”. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone might be late – it’s really just the same as “What time is it” (Which, literally translated might provide you with an answer like “summer time”.)

“Wie viel Uhr ist es?“ is another way of asking for the time. A very colloquial way might also be “Was sagt die Uhr"? (What does the clock say?)

Answer/ Antwort: Es ist … Uhr / Es ist kurz vor 10 / …

Ist es schon (already) zehn?

Answer/ Antwort: Ja, es ist schon … /Nein, es ist erst (only) …

Wann treffen wir uns? = „When shall we meet?“

Answer/ Antwort:

Formal / exact time:

  • Um 13 Uhr

  • Um 13 Uhr 15

Informal time

  • Um ein Uhr / Um eins.

  • Um Viertel nach eins.

Words you need to know

die Uhr - watch, clock

der Zeiger - the hand (of a clock)

die Stunde - hour

die Minute - minute

die Sekunde - second

halb - half

das Viertel - quarter

Die Uhrzeit lernen

Word order in the phrase

German word order changes if you use a time phrase at the start of the sentence. The verb has to be the second idea, so make sure you swap the verb and the subject round.

  • Ich gehe um sieben Uhr dreißig ins Büro - I go to the office at 07:30.

  • Um sieben Uhr dreißig gehe ich ins Büro- At 07:30 I go tot he office.



  • For 'half past,' you say 'halb' and the following hour: Halb drei = 2:30 (= half way to three).

  • For precise times, you put 'Uhr' between the hour and the minutes: 'fünf Uhr zehn' = 05:10.

  • For many common situations (timetables, meetings), Germans use 24-hour time.

  • Add 12 to a pm time to get the 24-hour form: 2 pm + 12 = 14.00 (vierzehn Uhr).

  • 24-hour time is precise: 'zwanzig Uhr neun' = 20:09.

  • Watch out for eins: with time it's 'ein Uhr' (1:00).


You might also want to know:

What is Daylight Saving Time?

Daylight Saving Time (DST) also called „Sommerzeit“ in Germany (summer time) is a seasonal time change so that evening daylight lasts longer.

The clocks are set forward one hour in the spring and backward one hour in the autumn.


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