31

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?

32

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.)

  • 2
    If I understand correctly, I can always use bezahlen, and it won't be a mistake? – BЈовић Jun 28 '13 at 6:29
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    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
  • But even then "bezahlen" would not be wrong. "Da bezahlt man sich dumm und dusselig" is also ok. Same with "Zahlen/Bezahlen bitte!". – ComradeMicha Aug 4 '18 at 11:02
  • The Dictionary of German Synonyms says that, in the case that you are paying to a person, you can either use "bezahlen" with accusative, as mentioned in this answer, OR use "zahlen" with dative for the person and accusative for what is being paid. eg "Ich habe ihm drei Euro dafür gezahlt". It also says that only "bezahlen" may be used with abstract meaning (eg "pay for your sins") – Alan Evangelista Feb 22 at 10:34
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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.

  • 4
    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
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    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. – äüö Jun 28 '13 at 7:04
5

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.

5

"Zahlen" means "to pay," that is using currency or money to pay for something, and "bezahlen" means "to pay up," that is to pay money to someone.

Ich zahle die Miete. I pay the rent.

Ich bezahle den Vermieter. I pay up the landlord.

You can also say, ich bezahle die Miete, I pay up the rent, that is, I pay money to satisfy the rent.

But you can't say, ich zahle den Vermieter. You need to use bezahle.

  • Very good, I was missing that last distinction in the previous answers! Though I do believe you are correct, I'm not sure whether the difference is just my opinion or etymologically provable. Can you provide linguistic evidence on that? – Philipp Oct 11 '17 at 5:27
  • same when it's about the taxi ride: "Wer bezahlt den Taxifahrer?" "Ich zahle das Taxi", both wouldn't work the other way round. – Tommylee2k Oct 16 '17 at 9:45

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