Time plays a fundamental role in our everyday conversations.
It’s more than just saying it’s two o’clock or a quarter past four. Telling the time opens up a world of storytelling, helps you to make plans with your German friends and ensures you don’t miss your train.
If you get excited when you hear the words, “a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” or panic when you realise, “our train leaves in five minutes!”, you know exactly what I mean.
Being able to talk about the past, present and future is all rooted in the ability to tell the time. In this article, I want to give you a foundation to help you express the right time, make plans with people and understand some of Germany’s time-related nuances.
German Time Vocabulary: The Words You Need To Know
Let’s start with some of the essential words you’ll need to express time, times of day and the German days of the week. Use these to create a spaced repetition deck or just add them to your revision list!
- Uhr – “hour or o’clock”
- vor – “before”
- nach – “after or past”
- viertel – “quarter”
- halb – “half”
- fünf – “five”
- dreißig – “thirty”
- Zeit – “time”
- um – “at” (related to time)
- gegen – “round” or “-ish”
- heute – “today:
- gestern – “yesterday”
- morgen – “tomorrow”
- Woche – “week”
- Wochenende – “weekend”
- Morgen früh – “tomorrow morning”
- Vormittag – “before midday”
- Mittag – “midday”
- Nachmittag – “after midday”
- Abend – “afternoon”
- Nacht – “evening”
- übermorgen – “the day after tomorrow”
- vorgestern – “he day before yesterday”
- wenn – “if/when”
- als – “when” (past tense)
Some of these words have other meanings in German (like how um also means “in order to”). So, remember these are only their definitions as they relate to time.
You’ll also need to know the German numbers before you try to tell numerical time.
On The Clock: Simple Ways To Tell German Time
On The Hour
To express a time on the hour, like one o’clock or five o’clock, you follow this sentence structure:
Es ist [Number] Uhr – “It is [number] o’clock”
It’s exactly the same structure as English, which is really simple and easy to remember. Here’s how that would look in practice:
- Es ist zwei Uhr – “It is two o’clock”
- Es ist fünf Uhr – “It is five o’clock”
- Es ist zehn Uhr – “It is ten o’clock”
Also like in English, you can use the 12-hour clock. So you can use zwei Uhr (“two o’clock”) to refer to the time of morning and afternoon. If you want to be more precise and still use 12-hour time, note that there is no a.m. or p.m. Instead, you can add either nachts (“at night”), morgens (“in the morning”), nachmittags (“in the afternoon”), or abends (“in the evening”). When referring to twelve o’clock you can say either Mittag (“noon”) or Mitternacht (“midnight”).
However, Germans can also express time using the 24-hour clock, something we rarely do in English anymore. For example:
- Es ist fünfzehn Uhr It is 15:00, or 15 o’clock)
- Es ist zwanzig Uhr (It is 20:00, or 20 o’clock)
- Es ist zweiundzwanzig Uhr (It is 22:00, or 22 o’clock)
Keep in mind this isn’t military time like we use in English. They don’t say “fifteen-hundred hours” like we do. It’s still the number followed by Uhr.
The Exact Time
If you want to tell the precise time, down to the minute, the sentence structure is also pretty simple. And in many ways, simpler than English. Here’s how it looks:
Es ist [Number] Uhr [Number] – “It is [number] o’clock [number]”
Let’s check out a few examples:
- Es ist zwei Uhr sechzehn (2:16)
- Es ist fünf Uhr zwei (5:02)
- Es ist zehn Uhr vierunddreißig (10:34)
Still with me so far? Good! You’re doing well.
Much like English, you can keep it pretty simple by rounding up to a closer, easier to express time, too.
Is It Half Four Or Half Five? How To Round Up To The Half Hour!
German time allows you to express the half hour, probably like you’re used to. When it’s 27 minutes past or 27 minutes to, you can say it’s half past as you normally would.
But what’s different is that Germans talk about the hour to come, and not the hour you’re currently in. Let me explain.
Take a look at these three time-stamps. How would you express them in English?
In British English, you would say half five, half nine and half ten, respectively. But in German, they would be expressed as half of the next hour. Like this:
- Halb sechs (5:30, half past five)
- Halb zehn (9:30, half past nine)
- Halb elf (22:30, half past ten)
This is pretty much the standard for Hochdeutsch speakers and the version I’ve heard most frequently since moving to Germany. This can take a little getting used to, so don’t worry if it takes a while to click.
If you want to express the time and keep getting this muddled up, don’t worry. You can also just use the example from the last section to say it’s 30 minutes past the hour.
Quarter To, Quarter Past, And Other German Roundings
German time also allows you to round up to different times between hours, such as quarter past and quarter too. To do this you would use this sentence structure:
Es ist viertel nach [number] (It is quarter past [number])
Es ist viertel vor [number] (It is quarter to [number])
This is virtually the same as it is in English. Here are a few examples:
- Es ist viertel nach drei (it’s quarter past three)
- Es ist viertel nach zwölf (it’s quarter past twelve)
- Es ist viertel vor vier (it’s quarter to four)
- Es ist viertel vor neun (It’s quarter to nine)
It’s always a quarter past the current hour and a quarter to the upcoming one. Though be careful! If neither vor nor nach are used with viertel, it’s best to ask for clarification. In some regions, they take the halb sechs logic further and use viertel sechs (literally “quarter six”) to refer to “quarter past five” and dreiviertel sechs to refer to “quarter to six”. That said, as long as vor or nach are used, there’s no room for misunderstanding.
There’s another rounding that is used in German. In English, you would also often say it’s 25 to or 25 past. Germans do this too, but they express it differently. They say it’s five minutes before or after half past. This is also combined with the rounding to the next hour we explored in a previous section. (Yeah, I know. I know.)
To keep this simple, let’s keep the timestamps exact. But these can be used when expressing a non-exact time in the same general range. Here we go:
- Es ist fünf vor halb sieben (It’s five minutes before half past six)
- Es ist fünf vor halb zehn (It’s five minutes before half past nine)
- Es ist fünf nach halb elf (It’s five minutes after half past ten)
- Es ist fünf nach halb zwölf (It’s five minutes after half past eleven)
Personally, I’ve not used this expression a lot. So don’t feel you have to learn how to say it. Just know that you will often hear it from German speakers. And it knowing it exists will save you the, “What the heck did you just say?” face I pulled when I first heard it.
Phew! Okay, that should just about do us for telling the time numerically. Let’s move on to the next section, asking for the time.
German Time Related Questions
Here we’ll look at some questions you might be asked (or can ask yourself) about the time.
What Time is it, Herr Wolf?
There are a few simple ways you can ask for the time in German.
If you really just want to know what time it is on the clock, you can ask any of these questions and someone will respond with one expressions you saw in the last section.
- Wie viel Uhr haben wir? – “What time is it?” (Literally: How many hours do we have?)
- Wie spät ist es? – “What time is it?” (Literally: How late is it?)
- Entschuldigung, können Sie mir bitte sagen, wie viel Uhr es ist? – “Excuse me, do you have the time?” (Literally and in polite German)
The first two on the list you could use in general conversation with your friends. The third and final option is if you stop someone on the street, or pop into a shop, to ask them what time it is. It is a really polite option.
This will be dependent on where you live as well. For example, in Cologne, unless someone is clearly older than you, you could ask in the impolite form. But if you did that in Bavaria, you might get some funny looks.
Wrapping This Up
I hope by now you’ve got a good grasp of German time, how to tell it, and how to ask some basic questions around it. Making plans and booking travel should be a breeze with this information.