Things An American Can't Do In Germany: Get a Official ID Card04 Nov 2005
When you move to Germany, one of the things you have to get over is registering your address with the authorities, the Einwohnermeldeamt. Yes, it's evil, but probably less evil than (like in the States) having your credit information available for anyone to buy. And there once you've opened a checking account, obtained a telephone, applied for a driver's license, registered to vote and filed a tax return, anyone who wants to is going to have your address anyway...
But I digress. Everyone here has to register their current address. But only German citizens get a plastic card that documents that, namely a Personalausweis or ID card. It's pretty handy, in fact you can travel throughout most of Europe with it instead of a passport, and it is accepted as identification for just about anything for which you need to identify yourself, and it's pretty much assumed that everyone has one. That favorite American ID card, the driver's license, won't work here since German DLs never expire and don't include an address. Strangely enough, the auto registration does include a current address, but no picture.
But foreigners can't get a Personalausweis. You need to rely on your passport and the paper receipt from the Einwohnermeldeamt. Technically you are required to carry identification with you at all times. In 15 years, though, I've never been asked by the police for identification. Actually, I hardly ever carry my passport with me since I'm afraid I'd lose it. I do have a photocopy of the important pages in my billfold, and I've been told that that will suffice.
Sometimes I've been asked to show my passport and registration when I least expect it, when performing suspicious and sensitive activities such as changing telephone providers, renewing my cell phone, or renting a video. Then it's a pain not to have a Personalausweis.