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Basic German: Telling Time

You’re in Interlaken, in der Schweiz (in-têr-lâ-ken in dêr shvayts) (Interlaken, in Switzerland) and you want to know what time it is. You have four choices: Look at your own watch; look at the nearest clock tower (most are absolutely stunning) and find out just how accurate the Swiss are in keeping time (very!); buy a Rolex for 1,399 Swiss francs (no euros in Switzerland); or practice understanding German clock time by asking someone on the street, Wie viel Uhr ist es? (vee feel oohr ist ês?) (What time is it?) You’re just about guaranteed whomever you ask will tell you the precise time.

German speakers have two systems for telling time: one using the numbers 1–12 on a standard clock and one using a 24-hour format. They use the 12-hour system in casual conversation and the 24-hour system when they want to avoid any chance of misunderstanding. Unlike in the United States, Germans don’t use the a.m./p.m. system.

When you need to ask someone for the time, you can use either one of the following two phrases:

Wie viel Uhr ist es? (vee feel oohr ist ês?) (What time is it?)
Wie spät ist es? (vee shpait ist ês?) (What time is it?)

To make your request for the time a little more polite, simply add the phrase Entschuldigen Sie, bitte (ênt-shool-di-gen zee, bi-te) (Excuse me, please) to the beginning of your question.

Many German speakers use the 12-hour clock format when talking casually. This system is one you’re already familiar with: You use the numbers 1 through 12 on a standard clock. However, German doesn’t have the expressions a.m. and p.m., so German speakers revert to the 24-hour format to avoid potential misunderstandings, for example, when discussing schedules and the like. (For more about the 24-hour system, head to the upcoming section.)

On the hour

At the top of the hour, telling time is very easy. You just say

Es ist . . . Uhr. (ês ist . . . oohr.) (It’s . . . o’clock.)

Of course, you include the number of the appropriate hour before the word Uhr.

Note: You say Es ist ein Uhr (ês ist ayn oohr) (It’s one o’clock), not eins Uhr (ayns oohr). However, you can also say Es ist eins (ês ist ayns) (It’s one) and leave out the word Uhr (oohr) (o’clock).

Before and after the hour

Indicating times like quarter past three, ten to eight, or half past eleven is a little more complicated, but you still need to know only three key expressions.

To use the German word for quarter, you include Viertel (feer-tel) (quarter) plus the word nach (nâH) (past/after) or vor (fohr) (to/before) followed by the appropriate hour, as shown in these examples:

Es ist Viertel nach. . . . (ês ist feer-tel nâH. . . .) (It’s quarter past. . . .)
Es ist Viertel vor. . . . (ês ist feer-tel fohr. . . .) (It’s quarter to. . . .)

Expressing the half hour isn’t quite as straightforward. In German, the word halb (hâlp) (half) indicates half of the hour to come rather than the past hour. You use the phrase Es ist halb. . . . (ês ist hâlp. . . .) (It’s half an hour before. . . .) followed by the appropriate hour. For example, when it’s 4:30, you say this:

Es ist halb fünf. (ês ist hâlp fuenf.) (It’s half an hour before 5:00.)

A few minutes before or after

When you need to break down the time in terms of minutes before or after the hour, you use nach (nâH) (past/after) and vor (fohr) (to/before), like this:

Es ist fünf Minuten vor zwölf. (ês ist fuenf mi-nooh-ten fohr tsverlf.) (It’s five minutes to twelve.)
Es ist zwanzig Minuten nach sechs. (ês ist tsvân-tsiH mi-nooh-ten nâH zêks.) (It’s twenty minutes past six.)

If you’re looking for a shortcut, you can leave out the word Minuten. For example, you can say either Es ist fünf vor zwölf or Es ist fünf Minuten vor zwölf. Both phrases mean the same thing: It’s five [minutes] to twelve. The same goes for talking about the full hour. You don’t need to use the word Uhr. You can say either Es ist acht or Es ist acht Uhr. Both phrases mean It’s eight [o’clock.].

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