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How using Germany's new digital car registration service turned into a bureaucratic nightmare

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
How using Germany's new digital car registration service turned into a bureaucratic nightmare
From September 1st, registering your car in Germany should now work online. But that's always the case. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

After reporting on an announcement that car registration would be moving online in Germany, journalist Sarah Magill thought she was all set when it came to registering her new car. But she was sorely mistaken.

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In our Everything that changes in September article, we reported that from the start of the month, you can register your car online - one of an increasing number of steps Germany is supposedly taking towards digitalisation of bureaucratic processes.

What a big change, I thought, and wrote about it in more detail in another article on how exactly this service would work from September 1st.

For me, this was great news. My fiancée and I were about to buy a car and would need to register it quickly – I need it to drive to the north of Germany next week to give a workshop in a place that would otherwise only be reachable by a 13-hour round trip by bus and train (and that's assuming all the connections run on time).

From previous experience, getting an appointment at a Kfz-Zulassungsstelle (car registration point) in Berlin is not easy and usually involves a wait of at least a couple of weeks. Just as well that the procedure has now moved online, I thought. 

Last week, after buying the car, I followed my own tips from the explainer article and gathered all the documents needed to register the car online: including the Zulassungsbescheinigung Teil I and Teil II  (Registration Certificate Part 1 and Part 2), the vehicle inspection documents, and I bought a yearly insurance and ordered the number plates.

All that was left was the registration and so, with everything in hand, I sat down to fill in the form on Berlin's new car registration website.

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The dreaded error message

The first thing that struck me on the website was that it said that a Neuzulassung (new registration) - when you need to register a new car for the first time - was not yet available online. This is not good, I thought, as that will affect lots of people expecting to be able to do this online.

Luckily for me though, I just needed to Umschreiben (reassign) the car registration details, as it is a second-hand car that had previously been registered in Germany. 

A Berlin license plate lies on a vehicle registration certificate part 1.

A Berlin license plate lies on a vehicle registration certificate part 1. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Robert Schlesinger

I uploaded the identification documents on the first page and then reached the second, on which I had to enter six different codes from the various documents. Two of these codes had to be scratched off from underneath a security seal from the registration certificates. 

After filling everything in and clicking weiter (further) I was met with an error message. Not a specific error message pointing to an unfilled box on the page, but a generic error message. 

READ ALSO: Driving in Germany: Eight German road signs that confuse foreigners

So I checked all of the details again and again, and I got the same error message. It was time to call the Servicestelle (service point).

When I reached an advisor, they told me they were unable to help with the online system and asked me to report the issue via email to [email protected], which I did. Whilst waiting anxiously for a response, I thought maybe I should ask to get an appointment.

A long wait

I called again to see if I could get an appointment, and a colleague informed me that the first available appointment was on September 25th - a week after I needed to drive to north Germany. I explained that I needed an appointment this week and the customer support worker - who was very kind and helpful - apologised saying that they could only offer me the appointments that were available, and most were already booked up.  

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Meanwhile, the service team responded to my email, asking me to verify if all the information was entered correctly. It was, but it still didn't work. 

I then called again, this time reaching a different person. I expressed again my frustration at my urgent need for an appointment and the difficulty I would face getting to work next week without a car. The employee hung up on me.

I called again and spoke to another, friendlier person, and asked if there was any way that I could get an appointment in the next few days, as the internet site was not working.

A sign signals a car registration office in Berlin.

A sign signals a car registration office in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Immanuel Bänsch

She explained to me that there are companies that offer appointments more quickly if you pay a fee (these companies book lots of appointments en masse and then sell them to their customers). But she also told me that, as I had already scratched off the security codes on the registration documents to enter them online, it was unlikely that they would accept these for the appointment. My only option was to wait for an appointment at the official registration office. 

Understaffed offices

I asked her why it was so difficult to get an appointment to register a car in Berlin. In other countries - such as my native UK or my fiancee's homeland Italy - you can register your car on the same day. She told me that the two Kfz-Zulassungstellen (car registration offices) in Berlin are woefully understaffed - hence the need for a functioning online system. 

She then advised me to call again tomorrow at 7:30 am, and that if I'm lucky, I may find an earlier appointment to get the car registered. It's also not possible to book appointments online in Berlin - this can only be done by calling the hotline.

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In my anger and frustration, I decided to write a complaint. I did some research and managed to find the direct e-mail address of the person in charge of car registration in Berlin and spent a long time constructing a long email in German to them outlining all the details of my case. 

I asked for an explanation as to why the digital service had been announced, despite not functioning properly and how such a system can operate without a dedicated technical team. 

READ ALSO: Is Germany a ‘failed state’ for public digital services?

I haven't yet received an answer to my email, but I did receive a phone call this morning from the registration service centre offering - as if by magic - an appointment the next morning to register my car. 

Too good to be true?

I asked how this appointment had suddenly become available and was told that an internal request had been received to find me an appointment following my complaint. 

Though I am very pleased to have gotten this appointment, I still won't be celebrating until I have the new documents in my hand. 

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But what my experience shows is that, if a new digital service is announced in Germany - especially in Berlin - it's wise to check that it is properly working before relying on it and foregoing the old system of making an appointment. 

Secondly, I've learned that it pays off to dig in your heels, keep calling and complaining and, if possible, directly contact the person in charge.

Digitalisation remains a heated topic in Germany, with many complaining it's moving at a too-slow pace and that too few funds are available to move services fully or partially online.

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