WIE SPÄT IST ES?: How to tell the time in German

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Telling the time is as simple and direct in German as in English and particularly to Germans, being punctual is even more relevant than what you are going for. So if you are in Germany already or planning to go there, this would benefit you to know – the different timing systems and when they can be used.

Content in this post
1. The different timing systems in German
2. How to ask about the time
3. How to respond to questions about the time
4. Special time-group of the day
Table of content for time

The clock worldwide is similar and it rotates around 24 hours in every day. It is important to know that there are 60 minutes in every hour and 60 seconds in every minute. These are the measure for timing.

To tell the time correctly in German, it is important to know that there are two types of timing systems;

  • The twelve (12) hours system/ unofficial hour system
  • The twenty-four (24) hours system/ official hour system

To fully understand the time, the following key words are necessary to know

GermanEnglishReference point
UhrO’clock60 mark
Minute(n)minute(s)1-59 mark
Nachafter/past1-29 minute mark
Vorto31-59 minutes mark
Viertel nachquarter past3 O’Clock/ 15 minutes mark
Viertel vorquarter to9 O’Clock/ 45 minutes mark
Umaround/ at/ byspecified time
Gegenagainst30 before or 30 after
Halbhalf6 Hours/ 30 mark
Kurz vorshortly before2-3 minutes to
Kurz nachshortly after2-3minutes past
Gleichnearly1-2 minutes before
Fastalmost5-10 minutes before
Nouns, prepositions and adverbs used in telling the time in German

The 12-Hour system of timing in German

This system of timing is used for unofficial purposes which is mainly between friends, classmates, family members and close relatives etc. In this system of timing, the clock rotates between 60 minutes and 1 to 12 hours day and night . This can be likened to the English AM and PM. Similarly, it may/may not be said with “Minute”.

The minute hand of this clock is divided into two halves using the 30 minutes mark as a measure and it rotates between 1-29 and 31- 59 in opposite directions of the clock. The first 29 minutes before the 30 mark is termed “nach” while the last 29 minutes after the 30 mark is termed “vor” which means past/after and to in English respectively.

In this system, certain peculiarities such as “viertel” and “halb” can be used while “Uhr” which means O’clock is not used. Viertel is the 15-Minute mark before and after the hour. It is use with the preposition “nach” after the present hour and “vor” before the next hour. For instance 2:15 would be “viertel nach zwei” while 2:45 would be “viertel vor drei”. Halb is used at the 30-minute mark in respect to the next hour. If for instance the time is 2:30, it would be said as “halb drei” which literally means half of three in English.

The time around the 30-minute mark i.e 20-29 minutes and 31-40 minutes is told specially. The 20th-29th minute is used with “vor” with respect to the 30th minute. For example 2:25 would be “fünf (Minute) vor halb drei”. Likewise, the 31st-40th minute would be used with “nach” e.g 2:33 would be “drei (Minute) nach halb drei”. See more illustrations below;

Viertel/ 15 vor 6
Viertel/ 15 nach 10
Halb 4
5 vor halb 3
1 nach halb 10
Examples on how to write the 12-Hour time in German

The 24-Hour system of timing in German

This system of timing is simpler and used primarily for official purposes like in official gatherings, offices etc. It is sometimes used in unofficial settings too and doesn’t take p.m and a.m into consideration. One major difference between this system of timing and that of the 12-hour system is that the minutes in the latter counts from 1-29 while the former counts from 1-59. For example 10:50am in the 12-hour clock would be “Zehn (Minute) vor Elf Uhr” while in the 24-hour clock it would be “Zehn Uhr Fünfzig”. It also doesn’t make use of time related words such as Minute, viertel and halb but uses “Uhr”.

In written figure-form, Uhr is place after the minutes but in spoken form, it is placed after the hour. For instance, 4:50pm would be 16:50 Uhr in figure but Sechzehn Uhr Fünfzig in spoken words.

Also, the 24-Hour system unlike the 12-hour system when it rotates past 12 noon, on getting to 1pm it becomes 13 O’clock and so on until it gets to 12 Midnight which is either called “Vierundzwanzig Uhr” or “Null Uhr”. Examples of how it is used include;

13:00 Uhr
13:15 Uhr
17:45 Uhr
10:15 Uhr
11:45 Uhr
06:00 Uhr
15:30 Uhr
02:25 Uhr
21:00 Uhr
24/00:00 Uhr
Examples on how to write the 24-Hour time in German

Time Rounding

Instead of telling the exact time, certain adverbs such as kurz, gleich and fast and preposition e.g gegen can be used to give a round up of the time. For a duration of 5 to 10 minutes, fast is used. When it is just 3-5 minutes, kurz is used. For 1-2 minutes, gleich is used. Gegen on the other hand is used for a duration of about 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after the hour. See examples below…

  • 7:55 can be said as “es ist fast acht”
  • 8:34 can be said as “es ist kurz nach halb neun”
  • 2:14 can be said as “es ist gleich viertel nach zwei”
  • Ich komme gegen 11:00 Uhr means you will get there anytime from 10:30 to 11:30

How to ask for the time in German

There are two major reasons why someone would request to know the time; either to just know the time of the day or to be clarified on the time of an event. So, If you ever have to request someone to tell you the time in German, this can be done in one of two ways. You can say;

  • Wie viel Uhr ist es?
  • Wie spät ist es?

“Wie viel Uhr ist es” which is the German equivalent for “what time is it?” in English is used differently for the two major scenarios for why someone might want to know what time it is. For the case of just wanting to have an idea of the time, it is used just as it is but in the case of be clarified on the time of an event, the preposition um is placed before the question-word wie which in turn makes it futuristic. For example

1. Um wie viel Uhr kommst du?At what time are you coming?
2. Um wie viel Uhr fängt die Party an?By what time is the party starting?
Questions with um wie viel Uhr

“Wie spät ist es” on the other hand can be literally translated as “how late ist it?”. It is the most frequently used. It is used to ask for the definite time of the day at a present moment and never in the case of asking about the time of an event. It can not be used with the preposition um i.e it can never be used as um wie spät ist es?

How respond to questions about the time

So now that you have been asked wie spät ist es? or (um) wie viel Uhr ist es?, you are most likely to respond whether or not you have a clue of the time. You could then either respond with any of the following depending on what ground or event;

  • Es ist… (for present)
  • Um… (for nearest future)
Present questionPresent responseFuture questionFuture response
Wie spät ist es/ wie viel Uhr ist es?
(What time is it?)
Es ist 10:00 Uhr.
(It is 10 O’clock)
Um wie viel Uhr kommt dein Zug an?
(At what time is your train arriving?)
Er kommt um 15:22 Uhr an?
(It is arriving at 3:22pm)
How to answer questions about time

Time grouping of the day

Apart from knowing the precise time of the day, it is important to also note that every single hour of the 24 hours is grouped specially. There are 7 groups in total in German.

  • Morgen (Morning)
  • Vormittag (Before noon)
  • Mittag (Midday/ Noon)
  • Nachmittag (Afternoon)
  • Abend (Evening)
  • Nacht (Night)
  • Mitternacht (Midnight)

The duration of Morgen ranges from 6am to 9am and it’s followed by Vormittag which ranges from 9am to 12pm. From 12pm to 1pm is the duration for Mittag while Nachmittag ranges from 1pm to 4pm. Abend on the other hand is the duration from 4pm to 9pm. From 9pm to about 6am is usually considered as Nacht while 12am or 00:00am is known as Mitternacht. This is the cycle of the German day.

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