Paying in German — bezahlen vs. zahlen

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Paying in German — bezahlen vs. zahlen

Anyone who has visited or lived in the German speaking world will be familiar with this scenario. You popped into a restaurant for something to eat and drink. The food was quite good and the service was, well… it was what it was. You’ve had your food and now you’d like to pay. You’ve tried to make eye contact. The waiter / waitress (der Kellner / die Kellnerin) is bustling about taking care of other guests or just simply out of sight. And then it happens you catch their attention and you’re quick to seize the moment and make the international sign for the bill (die Rechnung / die Zeche). You get the nod and you’re sure that you’ll be out in a jiffy, but instead of just going and getting the bill the waiter comes over and asks: “Was darf’s sein?” At that moment your brain hits a fork in the road. Do you say: “Ich möchte bitte zahlen.” or “Ich möchte bitte bezahlen.” What is the difference between the two or is there even one?

To say there is no difference between the two, would make one of the words simply superfluous and mean that it really should have just died out, so there must be a difference, be it ever so slight.

Let’s look at the meaning of bezahlen and zahlen.

Words commonly used together with “bezahlen”


1. a. für etwas den Gegenwert in Geld zahlen (to pay the equivalent value for something with money)


Im Restaurant: Ich möchte bitte bezahlen! (In a restaurant: I would like to pay.)
Am liebsten bezahle ich mit Schweizer Franken. (I would prefer to pay in Swiss francs.)

b. jemandem für eine Arbeit Geld geben, zahlen; jemanden entlohnen (to give/pay someone for work; to remunerate someone)


Ich muss die Babysitterin noch bezahlen. (I still have to pay the babysitter.)

2. (Geld) als Gegenleistung geben (to give money as compensation)


Sie hat ihm 100 Franken für die alten Schallplatten bezahlt. (She paied him 100 francs for the old records.)

3. Einen Geldbetrag demjenigen zukommen lassen, der ihn fordert, dem er zusteht (to give someone a sum of money, which he requests and to which he is entitled)


Der Vermieter hat heute angerufen. Er sagte, dass wir die Miete heute bezahlen müssen. (The landlord called today. He said that we have to pay the rent today.)

Words commonly used with “zahlen”


1.a. (einen Geldbetrag) als Gegenleistung o. Ä. Geben, bezahlen (to pay or give a sum of money or the equivalent as compensation for something.)


Den Betrag zahle ich per Überweisung. (I’ll pay the amount due with a bank transfer.)
Im Restaurant: Ich möchte bitte zahlen. (In a restaurant: I would like to pay.)

b. Eine bestehende Geldschuld tilgen, besonders etwas regelmässig zu Entrichtendes bezahlen (to settle an existing money debt, especially where a periodical fee/sum/charge must be paid)


Jeden Monat müssen die Müllers 3850 Franken Miete zahlen. (The Müllers have to pay 3850 francs a month in rent.)
Seit der Scheidung muss Moritz ihr Unterhalt zahlen. (Since the divorce, Moritz has to pay her alimony.)

2.a. (umgangssprachlich) (eine Ware, eine Dienstleistung) bezahlen (colloquial: to pay for an item or a service)


Alfred muss die Reparatur selber zahlen. (Alfred has to pay for the repair himself.)
Den Schaden zahlt AXA Winterthur. (AXA Winterthur will pay for the damage.)

b. (umgangssprachlich) bezahlen (colloquial: to pay)


Wie viel zahlst du deine Putzfrau? (How much do you pay your cleaning lady?)
Die Firma zahlt recht ordentlich. (The company pays quite well.)

“Zahlen bitte!”

As you can see there is little difference and you can use both when you finally get the waiter’s attention. The more you learn and listen to native speakers the more you’ll intrinsically use the correct word. A simple rule of thumb is that bezahlen is explicitly for payment in money and zahlen is used when we’re talking about periodical payments. The past participle bezahlt is definitely used more than gezahlt.

One other thing to remember is that Zahlen is also the plural for the German word die Zahl (number).

The German prefix be-

Just before we end this week’s post, I just want to point out some features of the prefix be- when used for German verbs.

The prefix be- has the following meanings:

1. part of a word that describes a process or change of state z.B. befeuchte


Briefmarken muss man vor dem Aufkleben erst befeuchten. (One must moisten stamps before applying them.)

2. a word part, which describes a contact z.B begreifen


Kinder begreifen alle Gegenstände, um sie zu verstehen. (Children grab/touch all objects in order to understand them.)

3. part of a word that describes an engagement or thematization with something z.B. bezahlen


Das müssen sie ja schon bezahlen! (You’ll have to pay for that.)

The prefix be- is not separable so don’t place it at the end of a sentence. Also remember that the past participle of verbs with be- does not take a ge. bezahlen –> bezahlt

The last verb you’ll need to watch out for that you don’t use incorrectly for paying is zählen. That verb means “to count.” “Ich möchte bitte zählen.” means “I would like to count.” If you get a witty waiter, he might ask you what you’d like to count.

  1. German-is-easyGerman-is-easy05-14-2012

    🙂 and if do happen to say “zählen” and you do have a witty waitor, the right answer would be “Your tip… cause that won’t take so long.”

    Seriously… I have had arguments with students about how there MUST be a difference and I just coudln’t really get a hold of it… I work in a bar too and I think that the upper middle class tends to say “zahlen” … prefixes are for precarity… but it might also be on account of the fact that the upper middle class in the area where I work comes from southern Germany so maybe it is a regional thing….

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