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I have been travelling around Berlin the last few days. I have bought a ticket for the underground zones A and B every day but my ticket has not been checked once and there are no barriers (I'm from London where both are the norm).

Can someone explain the underground system? Is there a ticket man that I've just happened to not come across or does Berlin use another system? Also what are the small machines that you put your ticket into and it punches some indents into the ticket? What are the penalties of not buying a ticket (and how would someone who doesn't buy a ticket get caught?)

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Tickets get checked once in a while, usually by people with nondescript clothes waiting for passengers exiting the platforms or getting into the carriage and revealing themselves as ticket inspectors once the doors close and the train is on the move. Happened to me once or twice when working in Berlin and commuting by public transport for 6+ months a few years ago so I can vouch that it does happen but it does not seem that common either.

It's true that it's a strategy (random check and deterrence) closer to what you typically find in middle-sized towns with only a bus network than to what you see in large cities like London or Paris. But then again, Berlin is no London.

Also, all students in Berlin get a “Semesterticket” allowing unlimited travel on the Berlin transit network. It's not free but included in their registration fee, which is a rather heavy-handed but very effective approach: A major group of potential fare evaders simply have no choice but to pay for a rail card, whether they want it or not, thus obviating the need to spend resources on enforcement, at least for that demographic.

The machines you described are date/time validators for “open” tickets. You ‘punch’ or ‘validate’ the ticket (it's called entwerten in German) when you first use it and it remains valid for two hours/one day/a few days after the date/time printed by the machine. Using this mechanism, you can therefore purchase several day tickets at once, and use them one-by-one whenever you want.

If you look at a validated ticket, you will also notice the name of the station, which is especially useful for Kurzstrecken-tickets, which are valid for up to three stations on the U-Bahn or S-Bahn or to verify you haven't done a round-trip (which is not allowed on a single-trip ticket).

Do beware, day tickets need to be validated. Since you don't have to use them on the day you bought them, they aren't valid if you don't ‘punch’ them with the machine when you do want to use them. If you are tourist and buy them from a counter, maybe the clerk would warn you about it but IIRC ticket machines always give you an “open ticket” (except the machines placed in trams).

The penalty if you are found without a valid ticket is a €40 fine (soon to be increased to €60).

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    @pnuts I was actually double-checking this at this very moment. – Relaxed Mar 18 '15 at 21:44
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    Does anyone know if the penalty is increased for serial offenders? €40 (or 60 for that matter) seems very little from a game-theoretical point of view. – Federico Poloni Mar 19 '15 at 18:09
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    @FedericoPoloni in addition to the "increased fare" you might get charged criminally for fare evasion. Up to one year in prison (but I guess this is only for the really hard cases). – Paŭlo Ebermann Mar 19 '15 at 19:29
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    As an addition: tickets sold in some kinds of selling machines (like in some/most/all (?) trams, and at the bus drivers) are pre-validated, i.e. the two hours start at the time when you buy them. (These usually have a different format and don't fit the stamping machines.) This is annoying when you try to buy some tickets for later use, and then realize that they are valid know. – Paŭlo Ebermann Mar 19 '15 at 19:51
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    @FedericoPoloni, generally criminal charges are only filed for repeat offenders. The usual penalty is a fine, with jail time only for those who do not pay. (These fines are scaled with the income of the defendant, so everybody should be able to pay ...) As far as game theory goes, a criminal conviction on the record is a bad thing for many people. – o.m. Mar 20 '15 at 8:17
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To my experience, tickets get checked by people dressed as passengers, so you cannot notice them when entering the metro and change your path. When the doors close, they rapidly ask everyone to show their tickets.

I was checked twice on the same day during my 3-day visit in Berlin, which was quite a shock to me. There are no barriers to enter the metro where I live, and I get checked once a month on average.

Edit: Gayot Fow adds that the people checking tickets show their IDs while doing so after the doors are closed.

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    +1, please add that they will always exhibit their ID's after the doors close... – Gayot Fow Mar 18 '15 at 21:22
  • thanks for the reply, I was wondering if you knew what the point of the ticket puncher is? – Andrew Brick Mar 18 '15 at 21:38
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    @AndrewBrick I believe the ticket puncher validates the ticket with date/time. If it is not punched then the ticket you have is not valid. – davidb Mar 19 '15 at 9:27
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    Also if you do not punch the ticket it may be refundable as unused. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 19 '15 at 17:35
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    cargo trousers and vests are typical attire – Jake Berger Jun 5 '15 at 13:33
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Note that regular tickets are not valid for round trips. You can use them up to two hours after validating them, and you can stop for a coffee break en route, but you cannot travel back towards the starting point.

English BVG site

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    Good point, but this looks more like a comment than an answer. – Federico Poloni Mar 19 '15 at 18:08
  • I have never heard of anyone getting fined for using the same ticket on the way back though. The people checking the tickets are usually very strict, but and I don't think they look at which station you started. They don't know your destination, so they can't tell when you are not taking the most direct route. They don't really have the time to argue whether you are on a round trip or were forced to make a detour because of network problems. – kapex Mar 20 '15 at 7:05
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    @kapep I sometimes wondered about that as well, especially given the density of the Berlin transit network. They can't really check if you are taking the most direct route or find out if you are already on your way back but I guess they could still fine you if you are on a train heading to your departure station (i.e. you have done a round trip and there is only one or two stations left to come back to your point of departure). – Relaxed Mar 20 '15 at 9:06
  • @Relaxed I think it's possible that they never really intended to enforce that rule. They might just profit a bit from obedient passengers without any costs on their side. I always suspected though, that they use that rule to get rid of people hanging around stations and asking for used tickets and selling them back to others. – kapex Mar 20 '15 at 17:26
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Tickets get checked periodically by BVG personnell on the train. You may or may not recognize them (they may disguise as regular passengers).

The fine is normally 40 €. You don't have to pay it immediately. You have to give them your identity card. They will note down name and address and then you will be fined 40 €. (If you get caught repeatedly, you might even get sued at some point, but normally that's only the case if you're a regular offender.) If you can't prove your identity, they will take you to the next police station so that they will identify you.

The small machines put a time stamp (and perhaps code of the station where you stamped it) onto the ticket. When you buy a ticket, it's normally not valid yet, since it doesn't have a date on it. You might buy it on one day and use it on another. After you put it into the machine, it has a time stamp on it and is valid for whatever period that ticket's supposed to be valid for.

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Tickets are checked once in a while by BVG personell (they are disguised however)

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