I think kostenlos and frei have the same meaning, but I really wonder if there is a very thin difference among these adjectives.

closed as off-topic by c.p., Burki, boaten, Jan, chirlu Nov 19 '15 at 12:01

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These words are often used in the same context, but each one of them has contexts, in which the other ones are less likely to be used.

When it comes to buying things, the one you should use is kostenlos. It literally means “without any costs”.

Gratis implies the same thing, but is in my experience used in cases, where someone tries to convince you or has already convinced you to buy something and then they or you highlight, that there is something else you’ll get (only) when buying, which you don’t need to pay for. When I hear the word gratis, I think of some situation, where there is a catch to a purchase and something is not as kostenlos as others want you to believe it is.

With umsonst you have to be a bit careful. For example in English you could say “Your efforts are for naught.” This is a case in which you could use umsonst. Umsonst’s actual meaning is closer to “without any use” than to anything implying that there are no costs. However, people use it for that as well. Another example of good usage: “Nun ist all unsere Arbeit umsonst”, which doesn’t mean that the work was not paid, but that the original goal of that work has either become irrelevant or impossible to reach.

Frei I’d say is the most general word of those. Frei is related to Freiheit (Freedom). In English you could probably say “I got that book for free”, but in German you couldn’t say “I habe das Buch für frei bekommen.” There are few cases, in which frei refers to the costs of something. There is for example Freibier, which means everyone gets some beer without having to pay for it.
When you use frei, try to use it when it is really about freedom and not about the costs. Here are some examples for the usage of frei:

  • Die Gedanken sind frei. – One’s free to think whatever one likes, but it’s got nothing to do with any costs.
  • Sie wollte frei sein wie ein Vogel. – She wanted to be free like a bird.

Oh and btw.: There is also kostenfrei, which means there are no costs attached to something and is the same as kostenlos. For some words you use the ending -los and for others you’d use -frei and for some you can use both to indicate a lack of whatever you appended those endings to.

  • bedingungslos
  • kostenlos/kostenfrei
  • alkoholfrei
  • Very good answer, thanks. However, I'd love to see you perhaps expand that last paragraph a bit more. – hiergiltdiestfu Oct 10 '15 at 17:34
  • @hiergiltdiestfu Hope these examples help. – Zelphir Oct 10 '15 at 22:29
  • Nice answer. A note on typography: If a quote ends in a full stop and is at the end of a sentence, only one full stop is actually written. American English always includes the full stop (there termed period) inside the quotation marks, British English and German distinguish whether it can belong to the quote or not. In any case, if after a quote full sentence the original sentence continues, a comma is written but not a full stop. – Jan Oct 10 '15 at 23:16
  • @Jan Hey, thanks for tending to my post, I was not sure if it is consensus here to use italic words, so I used quotes. If I understand your explanation correctly, it means that the folling is wrong: He said: "I am not free.". because the . already marks the end of the phrase and the outer phrase doesn't need to be ended again. Is that correct? – Zelphir Oct 11 '15 at 8:47
  • Yes, correct would be He said: ‘I am not free.’ (or with double quotes, that’s personal preference. – Jan Oct 11 '15 at 14:49

Kostenlos and gratis are synonyms and both mean free (at no charge). But note that gratis is not declinable, i. e. you can only say:

  • Sie erhalten eine Ausgabe gratis.
  • Sie erhalten eine Ausgabe kostenlos.
  • Sie erhalten eine kostenlose Ausgabe.
  • Sie erhalten eine Gratisausgabe (wrong: “gratise Ausgabe”).

Umsonst is an alternative in spoken language, but you will rarely see it on advertisements or in articles because umsonst also means to no purpose in German. Umsonst is not declinable either.

Frei basically means in freedom. I don’t recommend using it in place of gratis. However, kostenfrei is another possibility.

  • 3
    And remember the good old joke asking for the difference between gratis and umsonst: ‘Du bist gratis in die Schule gegangen, und ich umsonst.’ ;) – Jan Oct 10 '15 at 13:51
  • In "Freibier" oder "Eintritt frei" ist 'frei' nicht nur üblich sondern m.W. auch vorherrschend. – user unknown Oct 11 '15 at 11:16

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