How to properly tell the time in German – Es ist 5 vor 12.

In this article, you’ll familiarize yourself with how to tell the time in German and how to make appointments. It is needless to say how important time is in communication from meeting with a friend to making a doctor’s appointment in German.

Understanding the Basics

Before diving into any details, it is wise to have an overview of how this article is structured. You will go through these steps as you read along

  • Learning relevant German numbers as they are needed to tell the time correctly.
  • Learning time-related vocabulary that will become super handy when making appintments in German.
  • How to ask about the time in German using basic fixed phrases.
  • Tell the time in German using basic fixed phrases.
  • Extra tips on 24 hour time format and specialties in certain dialects.

The German Numbers

For the sake of telling the time, you must at least know a few numbers. Not too many as you’ll rarely meet at 14:17 hours but rather say around a quarter past two. You can find out everything you need to know about the German numbers in this article of mine but for the sake of simplicity, let me provide you with the most important numbers for telling the time in German:

1 – eins [speak: aynts]

2 – zwei [tsvay]

3 – drei [dry]

4 – vier [fear]

5 – fünf [finf]

6 – sechs [zaex]

7 – sieben [zeeben]

8 – acht [arct]

9 – neun [noyn]

10 – zehn [tsayn]

11 – elf [elf]

12 – zwölf [tsvelve]

20 – zwanzig [tvantsig]

These words are an essential part of your basic German vocabulary and they are necessary for asking and telling the time:

  • Uhr (f) – o’clock
  • um – at/around
  • vor – before
  • nach – after
  • kurz – shortly
  • Viertel (n) – quarter
  • halb – half

And as we often make plans for next week, the weekdays in German will also come in handy:

  • nächste Woche – next week
  • nächsten Montag / am Montag
  • Diens.tag – is related to Mars like in French “Mardi”. EN and DE share the root it seems:
  • Mittwoch – Mid.week
  • Donnerstag – lit.
  • Freitag –
  • Sa.mstag – Sa.turday
  • Sonn. tag –

Asking About the Time in German

If all you want to know is what time it is you can use the following phrases:

  • Wie viel Uhr ist es?
    How much time (lit. o’clock) is it?
  • Wie viel Uhr haben wir?
    How much time do we have?
  • Wie spät ist es?
    How late is it?

Don’t forget to begin with “Entschuldigung” if you are asking people on the street for the time:

  • Entschuldigung. Wie spät ist es?
    Excuse me. How late is it?

Good to know

While there is a formal and an informal way to talk about time in German, you never need to use that. That kind of language is used on the radio or when working at the airport. The main difference is the use of the numbers 13-24, 0, 14, 30 and 45 . For now you can focus on the very basics which will serve you well until the end of level B1.

Telling The Time in German

Now that we have an understanding of the basic vocabulary needed to tell the time, we can use it to talk about time:

When telling the time always begin with Es ist (meaning It is) and the part afterwards is what changes.

To tell the full (!) hour we simply put Uhr after the number

  • Es ist ein Uhr.
    (It is one o’clock)

Just for your notice: for 24 hour timing, you’d use the same structure with different numbers:

  • Es ist dreizehn Uhr.

It is 13:00 hrs.

Quick question: do you understand the relation between one o’clock and 13:00 hrs? In most languages I’ve come across the relation is the same. 

AM or PM?

That problem doesn’t really exist in German. While it can at times come to a mix up with the typical 12 hour time format usually the context makes it very clear whether you mean 3am or 3pm. E.g. if your friend asks you whether you are free at “drei Uhr”, it is usually pretty clear whether she wants to meet at the middle of the night or in the afternoon.

Not every minute counts

To tell the minutes of the hour you don’t really need to know that many numbers. Yes, an hour in Germany also has 60 minutes but even in official situations there are very rarely appointments arranged for 15:34 hrs. Here’s what you need in 99% of the situations you’ll find yourself in (unless you become an air traffic controler or work in a nuclear power plant: 

If you meet 30 minutes past an hour (eg. 1:30), to tell the time in German you say that it is half of the next !!! hour (half of 2:00).

So for 1:30 we say: Es ist halb zwei
It is half past one
Literally: half two 

Here’s how the above makes sense

It’s actually pretty logical. The day starts at 00:00 hrs. 00:01 hrs is the first minute OF the first hour of the day. That means 00:30 hrs is the first half OF the first hour and therefore you’d call it “halb eins” (lit. half [of hour] one).

That’s basically the same for your birthdays by the way except that there you look backwards: your first birthday is the very end of your first year of being alive. With that first birthday your second year on this planet began. Makes sense?

If it is 15 or 45 minutes past something, you’d use “quarter past” and “quarter to” in German respectively.

  • 3:15 – Es ist Viertel nach drei.
    It is (a) quarter past/after three.
  • 3:45 – Es ist Viertel vor vier.
    It is (a) quarter to (lit. before) four.

A little trick

“vor” contains an “o” exactly like “to” or “before”
“nach” contains an “a” exactly like “past” or “after”

We can also use the same structure using “nach” and “vor” with other numbers for minutes:

  • 3:55 – Es ist fünf vor vier.
    It is 5 minutes to four.
  • 14:20 – Es ist zwanzig nach zwei.
    It is twenty past two.

Advanced time telling

And we can also combine nach and vor with “halb” when the time is just before or just after the 30-minute mark:

  • 3:25 – Es ist fünf vor halb vier
    It is five minutes to half past three.

Literally: five before half four.
British English: It’s five to half three.

  • 3:35 – Es ist fünf nach halb vier
    It is five minutes past half past three.

Literally: It’s five after half four.

BE: It’s five past half three.

If the time is just before or just after an hour or half hour mark use kurz vor or kurz nach 

  • 3:58 – Es ist kurz vor vier.
    It is just before four.
  • 4:03 – Es ist kurz nach vier
    It is just after four.
  • 4:28 – Es ist kurz vor halb fünf.
    It is just before half past four.
  • 4:33 – Es ist kurz nach halb fünf.
    It is just after half past four.

And to say that the time is exactly a certain hour, we use genau

  • 4:00 – Es ist genau vier Uhr.
    It is exactly four o’clock.

When to use “Uhr” and when not

One of the most common mistakes German learners make when telling the time is adding the word “Uhr” (literally: hour) to the time. You’d actually be fine if you NEVER used that word EVER. 

Whether you say: “Ich komme um vier”. or “Ich komme um vier Uhr.” doesn’t matter at all. But with full hours it’s up to you whether you want to use it or not.

With any (!) other (!) time of the day, you can’t use the word “Uhr”. Never. E.g. you couldn’t say “Es ist halb drei Uhr.” instead of “Es ist halb drei.” That’s a no no.

TL, DR: Uhr only with full hours.
Easy way to remember this: never use “Uhr” ever

Uhr’s strongest opponent: die Stunde

At times learners mix up the words Uhr and Stunde. Even though “Uhr” is basically the same word as “hour”, it is translated as “o’clock” and “Stunde” simply means “hour”. 

But keep an ear out for your fellow German learners that say things like: “Gestern habe ich drei Uhr Deutsch gelernt.“ When you hear that, you can jump up and throw your supercape back and proudly share with them that they mixed something up and tell them that they should try that sentence again. 

Times of the day

It is of course interesting to know what the Germans mean when they say things like morgens, mittags, vormittags, nachmittags or abends and nachts. There’s a very strict time table for those periods of the day. If you mix that up, you will be punished with a glance of disgust by the very time sensitive Germans:

morgens begins exactly at 06:00hrs.

vormittags is the hour before noon, i.e. 11:00hrs – 12:00hrs

mittags is the hour after noon, i.e. 12:00hrs – 13:00hrs

nachmittags is the time after that, i.e. 13:00hrs – 18:00hrs

abends goes from 18:00hrs – 22:00hrs

nachts 22:00hrs – 06:00hrs

Interesting to know

Of course, it’s not that precise. E.g. astronomically, the night starts with sunset and ends with sunrise and a vormittag according to Wikipedia is a time between the morning and noon. When exactly that would be nobody really knows. 

But regarding the Nacht, there’s a word you need to know and that’s the famous German Nachtruhe (=night rest). Whenever you rent a flat in Germany you’ll get a Hausordnung (house rules) in which you’ll find that it is not allowed to make noise beyond 54db (that’s called Zimmerlautstärke and means “room volume”) in the time between 22:00hrs and 06:00hrs. During that period of the day you have to keep the Nachtruhe.

A more logical but locally limited way to say “a quarter to/past”

In certain areas of Germany, there’s a very nice variant to saying “Viertel nach/vor” (a quarter past/to) and that’s “Viertel” (quarter of) and “Dreiviertel” (three quarters). 

Instead of saying: 

“Es ist Viertel nach vier” they’d say: “Es ist Viertel fünf.” – It’s a quarter past four (literally: It’s the first quarter of the fifth hour.)

“Es ist Viertel vor fünf.” they’d say: “Es ist Dreiviertel fünf.” – It’s a quarter to five (literally: it’s three quarters of the fifth hour.)

While this is very logical, it’s limited to the Eastern regions of Germany. Check this page (German only) to learn more about this lovely phenomenon.

How to make Appointments in German

One of the most common uses for asking about the time in German is making an appointment e.g. with your German dentist or your Grinder date. Here’s a bit of helpful information for such a situation:

  • Ich würde gerne einen Termin (aus)machen.
    I would like to make an appointment.
  • Wann können Sie denn? | Wann kannst du denn?
    When can you? | When are you available?
  • Da hab ich keine Zeit. oder: Da kann ich (leider) nicht.
    I don’t have time. or: I can’t (unfortunately).
  • formal: Können Sie am Montag um sechs? oder informell: Kannst du am Montag um sechs?
    formal: Can you start at six on Monday? or informally: can you on Monday at six?
  • Wollen wir uns treffen?
    Shall we meet?
  • Schlagen Sie eine Zeit vor. oder: Schlag eine Zeit vor.
    Suggest a time. or: suggest a time.
  • Hast du nächste Woche/nächsten Montag Zeit?
    Do you have time next week / next Monday?
  • Das ist mir zu früh/zu spät. Geht es nicht später/früher?
    It’s too early / too late for me. Can’t it go later / earlier?
  • Fortgeschritten: Wie sähe es am Montag um sechs bei dir aus?
    Advanced: How would things look like for you on Monday at six?

Whenever you talk about an appointment you use the prepositions “am” = on and “um” = at. One example:

Wir treffen uns am Montag um sechs.
We’ll meet on Monday at six.

This concludes our lesson about telling the time in German and how to make an appointment in German. I hope that you found this article helpful and wish you lots of joy and success with your German learning.

  • Tag – Day
  • Woche – Week
  • Übermorgen – Day after tomorrow
  • Vorgestern – Day before yesterday
  • Vormittag – Forenoon
  • Mittag – Noon
  • Nachmittag – Afternoon
  • Abend – Evening
  • Nacht – Night
  • Uhr (f) – O’Clock
  • Zeit – Time
  • Heute – Today
  • morgen – Tomorrow/morning
  • gestern – Yesterday

Written by Abdullah Aldabbagh

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