Do Austrians in Vienna speak English? Can you live in Vienna without speaking German?

While the answer to the questions ‘Do Austrians in Vienna speak English?‘ and ‘Can you live in Vienna without speaking German?‘ is a little more complicated than you might think, the basic answer to both questions is “Yes”.

That being said, let’s look more closely at how difficult or easy it is to be a native English speaker, or someone who speaks English as a second language, and who happens to be living or visiting Vienna. Especially if you don’t speak German.

After all, whether you live in Vienna or other areas of Austria, or are traveling here, it would be nice to be able to communicate with Austrians, eh?

Do Austrians speak English?

Yes, in most cases, Austrians not only speak English, they speak excellent English.

To the point that my running joke about Austrians in Vienna and English is that many will tell you “My English isn’t very good“, and then will proceed to have a long, involved conversation with you about politics or social issues.

In English.

When it comes to official statistics, however, approximately 73% of Austria speaks English, and I would venture a guess it is closer to 90-95% in Vienna.

When you compare that to the population of my native country, the United Kingdom, where a miniscule number of people speak German, and only 38% speak any foreign language at all, you can see right away how much more skilled at foreign languages Austrians are compared to the British. (Or maybe they’re just less lazy?)

When you consider a sizable number of Austrians also speak a third or fourth language as well, nobody planning on living or working in Vienna should worry about not being able to speak German.

In fact, in the more than five years I have lived in Vienna, I have only had a couple of instances where I have stopped a random stranger to ask for directions, only to discover the person I spoke to did not speak much English.

Each time, the person was elderly and, even then, still spoke enough English to be able to help me.

To someone (me) who spent 15 years living in Thailand and also traveled extensively around South East Asia where many people either struggle to speak English or don’t speak a word of the language, I find Vienna one of the easiest places on the planet for someone who only speaks English.

 

Why do Austrians have excellent English skills?

The Austrian education system is excellent.

Sure, Austrians complain about it just like any nationality complains about their own education system, but when you compare the Austrian education system to that of the United States, for instance, Austria comes out miles ahead.

All Austrians, therefore, learn English in school and most graduate speaking the language fluently.

When you also consider younger Austrians watch just as much Netflix as the rest of us, and listen to as much English or American music, you will notice quickly in Vienna and elsewhere in Austria younger Austrians speak English so well they even use the same English slang a native speaker does.

 

One of the lovely staff at L’Osteria — my favorite Vienna pizza place and, yes, they all speak English

English in restaurants, hotels, museums and tourist spots in Vienna 

If you do not speak German, whether you are moving to Vienna or visiting the city, you will discover just about every restaurant, hotel, museum and tourist spot is staffed by English speakers.

Most will be Austrian, some will be German or one of many other nationalities living in Austria, but all will be able to take your food order in English, book you into your hotel, sell you museum tickets, tell you about the exhibits and even joke with you in English while they do.

All museums and tourist spots also have brochures and programs in English (and other languages too), and you will be able to hire English-language audio guides at many tourist spots.

Even the public transportation system is easy to use if you don’t speak German, as there are English options at the ticket machines and on all the system’s signage.

In fact, just about the only frustrating thing about being an English-language speaker in Vienna is attempting to ask a question or place a food order in German, only to have the person serving you answer in English.

Yes, the Viennese love to practice their English once they realize you are not a native German speaker, which can be frustrating if you want to improve your own foreign language skills.

Dealing with government agencies in Vienna in English

The only drawback about not speaking German fluently when living in Vienna is dealing with government agencies.

Not if you go into an agency’s office needing to speak to someone, as just about everyone in most of them will speak English as well.

No, the only frustration is, unlike most other countries where I have lived where government forms in English are also available, all government documents in Vienna are in German.

Only in German.

That means, whether you are completing your application for a Meldezettel, applying for a new residency permit due to Brexit, signing an apartment lease, filing your taxes or completing any other government form, it will be in German and you must complete it in German.

Believe me, Google Translate helps enormously. And, if not, emailing the form to an Austrian friend for translation can be a lifesaver.

 

Even shopping for groceries is doable without speaking German

Can you live in Vienna without speaking German?

The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes”.

After all, I have lived in Vienna for over five years and my German is still…abysmal.

But that has not stopped me from renting an apartment, completing all the government documents I needed to complete to become legal in Vienna, opening a bank account, shopping, making friends, going to the movies, the theater, concerts, museums, restaurants, nightclubs or any of the other myriad of things I do on a weekly basis.

Sure, while I am now learning German, I do occasionally have problems that I cannot solve myself simply because I don’t understand the language being used.

A quick check on Google Translate or a text message to an Austrian friend, however, and my problem is solved in minutes.

In other words, if you are planning on moving to Vienna and do not speak German, or are traveling to Vienna and worrying about not being able to communicate with the locals — don’t worry.

As someone who has lived in five different countries, and traveled all over the world, I guarantee not being able to speak the local language in Vienna is easier than anywhere.

However, if you do plan on staying in Vienna long-term, I recommend you learn German — just as I am now doing — as it will open up the Austrian culture even more, and allow you to make Austrian friends even easier.

Michelle Topham