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By Capt. Andrew Rouchka (U.S. Army)
Stuttgart Law Center
Q: I need to get a personal cell phone. Should I sign a contract or buy a prepaid phone?
A: From a legal perspective, your safest bet is to buy a prepaid phone because you won’t form a binding legal relationship with your provider. However, your personal needs may warrant a contract that can save you money in the long run, especially if you want a smart phone. Be careful though, as there are some common pitfalls.
Under German law, a contract renews automatically unless a party cancels it. You’ll make an expensive mistake if you assume that a two-year contract, which just covers your tour in Germany, lasts for only two years. The two-year period means simply that neither party is allowed to cancel for the first two years. Normally, you can cancel the contract with written notice at least three months before the contract is up for renewal. In fact, you could submit your cancellation notice on the first day of the contract, but if you wait until the last day you’ll be on the hook for another year. Please note, this applies to other contracts, as well (e.g., discount cards for German trains, or “Bahncards”).
You could also find yourself in a jam if you lose or break your phone, as this does not release you from your contractual obligations or allow you to cancel the contract early. Also, the company will probably replace the SIM card for a fee, but you’ll have to buy a new phone unless you have insurance that will pay for it.
We recommend for several reasons that you carefully read any contract before signing it. First, the companies change their contracts constantly, offering promotions but sometimes also charging fees or limiting your ability to cancel. Second, you cannot rely on what the salesperson tells you, especially if it conflicts with a clause of the contract. Third, you’ll be held to the terms of the contract, whether you read and understand it or not. Take the time to get it translated if necessary and make sure you know what you’re signing.
Finally, don’t assume you’ll be able to terminate the contract early with military orders. Here in Germany, without the protections of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, you’re left with the terms of your individual contract. Some contracts contain a “military clause,” but most do not.
In summary, your decision depends on your individual needs and circumstances. You might save money using a contract, but make sure you know what you’re getting into.
This column is not intended as individual or specific legal advice. If you have specific issues or concerns, you should consult a judge advocate at 421-4152/civ. 0711-729-4152.