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Leo shows that both bezahlen and zahlen are translated as "to pay". I noticed that people sometimes use the one, and sometimes the other.

So, when to use bezahlen and when zahlen?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In many cases, zahlen and bezahlen mean the same and may be used interchangeably:

Sie haben die Miete noch nicht gezahlt/bezahlt.
Das Museum hat zwei Millionen für das Bild gezahlt/bezahlt.

Sometimes, there is a difference in register; otherwise, it is often a matter of personal taste when to use which. However, there are some cases where a more-or-less clear difference exists.

  1. You can’t use (at least not in standard language) zahlen with a person as the direct object:

    Sie macht lieber alles selbst, statt einen Handwerker zu bezahlen.
    Ich bezahle dich nicht dafür, daß du Löcher in die Luft guckst!

    (Exception: If the person is not the recipient of the payment, but the item that is being paid for, i.e. a slave.)

  2. Bezahlen may be used to indicate completion:

    Ist die Waschmaschine bezahlt? – Nein, er hat erst einmal nur hundert Euro gezahlt/bezahlt und zahlt/bezahlt nächste Woche den Rest.

  3. On the other hand, zahlen is more general:

    Firma X? Ja, die zahlen gut.

    (Although bezahlen isn’t impossible here.) It may also be preferred when talking about who’ll pay in the end:

    Dafür zahlt doch wieder die Allgemeinheit.
    Greift zu! Ich zahle. (= My treat.)

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If I understand correctly, I can always use bezahlen, and it won't be a mistake? –  BЈовић Jun 28 '13 at 6:29
    
I guess so, yes. There are some fixed phrases, however: Da zahlt man sich dumm und dusselig. But you’ll have to learn those anyway (if you want to use them). –  chirlu Jun 28 '13 at 7:26

As far as I know, the prefix be- is used on verbs that are born as intransitive to make them transitive. So, in the case of zahlen, you would say:

Ich zahle mit meiner Kreditkarte;

and

Ich bezahle den Verkäufer.

So bezahlen has to be used when you need an object.

EDIT: This rule does not apply to zahlen. See comments below.

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3  
It doesn’t apply here, though. Zahlen and bezahlen both can be transitive and intransitive verbs. –  chirlu Jun 27 '13 at 20:44
    
So, according to your answer, my second sentence could not use zahlen in place of bezahlen. While for the first I guess both of them would be correct? –  martina Jun 27 '13 at 20:47
1  
Yes, that’s right. Bezahlen can still be transitive when the object is not a person, as in die Rechnung bezahlen. –  chirlu Jun 27 '13 at 20:49
    
I also think you hit the nail on the head when you say you can always use bezahlen but you can't zahlen if the object is a person. –  falkb Jun 28 '13 at 7:04

That is a tough one, I find me using it interchangeably. However there seems to be a somewhat directed preference:

I would state it as bezahlen expresses the intent and the process of paying. Whilst zahlen only states the intent.

"Wie möchten Sie zahlen?" / "How would you like to pay?"

"Ich bezahle bar." / "I'll pay cash."

The first sentence inquires the intent. The second sentence signals the intent and the payment immediately after.

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