On 25 February, Switzerland confirmed the first case of coronavirus, a 70-year-old man in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino bordering Italy, who had previously visited Milan.
Switzerland is intrinsically more culturally diverse than perhaps any other European country. It has four national languages which have historically been dominant in various regions, or cantons. German, French and Italian are spoken in the regions bordering the respective country, and Romansch – a language of Swiss origin – spoken in the mountainous area of Graubünden.
Switzerland also has one of the proportionally largest expat/immigrant populations – literally every fourth resident (25.1% as of 2018) of the almost 8.5 million inhabitants is a foreign national – consisting of almost all of the world’s nationalities and ethnic groups.
Renowned for tolerance, neutrality and direct democracy, as well as almost-legendary affluence, Switzerland has one of the highest standards of living in the world – and prices to match.
Politically, Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, but the traveler will find the following regions more useful:
Western Switzerland From the northern shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) and the Alps to the Jura.
Berne Region The core region of traditional Bernese influence
Bernese Highlands The majestic Bernese Alps
Central Switzerland The birthplace of the Swiss Confederation and the legends of Wilhelm Tell
Northwestern Switzerland Culture, arts and home of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry; neighbouring Germany and France
Zurich The country’s largest city with a sprawling metropolitan area
Eastern Switzerland Between the Alps and Lake Constance, Abbey of St Gall, and home to many scenic dairy farms on rolling hills in Appenzell
Valais Switzerland’s highest peaks and Europe’s largest glaciers
Graubünden Officially trilingual, the region is very mountainous, lightly populated and home to many great tourism destinations and includes the ancient Romansh minority language and culture (in English also known as The Grisons)
Ticino Italian-speaking region including famous alpine lakes
The Swiss Alps stretch through the regions of the eastern part of Western Switzerland, Valais, Bernese Highlands, the southern part of Central Switzerland, almost the entirety of Ticino except for the most southern part, the southern part of Eastern Switzerland, and Graubünden.
- Bern (Bern) — as close as this highly developed nation gets to having a capital with an amazingly well preserved old-town, with arcades along almost every street; great restaurants and bars abound
- Basel — the traveller’s gateway to the German Rhineland and Black Forest and French Alsace with an exceptional medieval centre on a bend of the Rhine river
- Geneva (Genève) — this centre of arts and culture is an international city home to around 200 governmental and non-governmental organisations, birth place of the World-Wide-Web at CERN and the Red Cross organisation (ICRC)
- Interlaken — the outdoor and action sports capital of Switzerland; anything from skydiving, bungee jumping, hiking, white-water rafting, to canyoning
- Lausanne — scenery, dining, dancing, boating and the Swiss wine-country are the draws
- Lucerne (Luzern) — main city of the central region with direct water links to all of the sites of early Swiss history
- Lugano — a gorgeous old-town, a pretty lake; much Italianatà combined with Swiss seriousness
- Saint Gallen — main city of north-eastern Switzerland, renowned for its Abbey of St. Gall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it also functions as the gate to the very special Appenzell region.
- Zurich (Zürich) — Switzerland’s largest city and a major centre of banking with a thriving nightlife
- Davos — large ski resort where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum takes place
- Grindelwald — the classic resort at the foot of the Eiger
- Lavaux — A region of terraced vineyards on the shore of Lake Geneva and a UNESCO cultural heritage site.
- St. Moritz— glitzy ski resort in the Engadin valley in south-eastern Switzerland
- Jungfrau-Aletsch — A protected area around the largest glaciated area in the Alps. This high alpine park offers stunning views and is also a UNESCO natural heritage site.
- Zermatt — famous mountain resort at the base of the mighty Matterhorn
Entry & Visa Requirements
Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
- There are normally no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. This includes most of the European Union and a few other countries.
- There are usually identity checks before boarding international flights or boats. Sometimes there are temporary border controls at land borders.
- Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty.
- Please see Travelling around the Schengen Area for more information on how the scheme works, which countries are members and what the requirements are for your nationality.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, however. Therefore, travellers entering Switzerland are subject to customs controls even if there are no immigration controls, and persons travelling elsewhere in the Schengen Area will also have to clear customs.
As a tourist: Personal goods worth a total of more than 5,000 Fr. and cash and all cash equivalents in excess of 10,000 Fr. have to be declared. Also some amounts of foodstuffs, alcohol and tobacco. The importation of animal products coming from countries other than EU states and Norway is prohibited. When you enter Switzerland, personal effects, travelling provisions and fuel in the tank of your vehicle are tax and duty-free. For other goods being carried, VAT and duty will be levied depending on their total value (over Fr. 300) and according to the quantity. Also take care if you want to travel with your pets. And generally comply with bans, restrictions and authorisations regarding protected species, plants, cash, foreign currency, securities, weapons, pyrotechnic articles (fireworks), narcotics and drugs, transfer of cultural property, product piracy, counterfeits, medicines (medicinal products) and doping, radar warning devices, and citizens’ band radio (CB radio).
Unaccompanied minors (travellers under the age of 18 years) are strongly advised to have a note of consent from their parents/guardian, as well as a copy of the parents’ or guardian’s valid passport or ID card. For more information, visit the FAQ section of the website of the State Secretariat for Migration (under the ‘Border-crossing/Travel documents’ heading).
Banking in Switzerland
Switzerland has been renowned for its banking sector since the Middle Ages. Due to its historical policy of banking secrecy and anonymity, Switzerland has long been a favourite place for many of the world’s richest people to stash their assets, sometimes earned through questionable means. Although current banking secrecy laws are not as strict as they used to be, and anonymous bank accounts are no longer allowed, Switzerland remains one of the largest banking centres in Europe. Opening a bank account in Switzerland is straightforward, and there are no restrictions on foreigners owning Swiss bank accounts—except for US citizens. Since the latest sanctions by the US, many Swiss banks refuse to open a bank account to US citizens or anyone having connections to the US. In some cases, even existing accounts have been closed.
The largest banks in Switzerland are UBS and Credit Suisse.
Work in Switzerland
Work in Switzerland
If you want to work in Switzerland and you are not a Swiss national, you must obtain a work permit. Eligibility and conditions for these permits depend on your nationality, qualifications and the job itself – check all this in advance with the canton of the employer. Nationals of EU/EFTA states may work for up to three months without a permit, but still need to register their employment with the authorities.
Switzerland has an unemployment rate of about 3.3% (2015). The high level of Swiss salaries reflect the high costs of living, so you must spend a lot for accommodation and food when you negotiate your salary. In general, you nominally work 42 hours/week and have 4 weeks of paid holidays.
Switzerland has no general legal minimum salary. The salary depends on the industry you work in, with some industries, such as restaurant and hotel industry, personel paying a minimum of Fr. 3134 gross for a full-time job (purchasing power parity US$2100, August 2016) per month. This, however, is not far above the official poverty level. That is also one reason, why eating out is not cheap in Switzerland. Overtime work is usually paid for low-level jobs, if not agreed otherwise in contract.
If you want to check the average salaries by industry or make sure you get paid the right amount, Swiss employees are heavily organised in trade unions SGB and always keen to help you. Should you have a problem with your employer, the respective union is a good place to look for help.
In February 2014, the Swiss people narrowly approved a referendum that requires the government to control immigration by use of quotas. Switzerland had previously made agreements with the European Union that allows citizens of (almost all) EU states to work in the country. Following the referendum, Switzerland and the EU agreed to a scheme that allows for certain jobs in certain regions to be made available first to residents of the country, no matter whether they are Swiss or foreigners. Therefore little in practice has changed following the referendum.
Stay safe in Switzerland
Switzerland is not surprisingly one of the safest countries in Europe, but anywhere that attracts Rolex-wearing bankers and crowds of distracted tourists will also bring out a few pickpockets. Obviously, keep an eye on belongings, especially in the midst of summer crowds. Generally, you are safe anywhere at any time. If, for any reason, you feel threatened, seek a nearby restaurant or telephone booth. The emergency phone number in Switzerland is 112, and operators are generally English-speaking.
Quite a few Swiss establishments will print your entire credit card number onto the receipt, thus raising identity theft concerns when shopping with a credit card in Switzerland. Therefore, visitors using credit cards should carefully review the information printed on all receipts before discarding them. This happens, for instance, in some book and clothing stores and even at the ubiquitous K-Kiosk. This list is obviously not exhaustive; therefore, the visitor must beware whenever using a credit card.
Women traveling alone should have no problems. The younger Swiss tend to be very open with public displays of affection – sometimes too open, and some women may find people getting too friendly especially in the wee hours of the club & bar scene. Usually the international language of brush-offs or just walking away is enough.
Swiss police take on a relatively unobtrusive air; they prefer to remain behind the scenes, as they consider their presence potentially threatening to the overall environment. Unlike some more highly policed countries, officers will rarely approach civilians to ask if they need help or merely mark their presence by patrolling. However, police are indeed serious about traffic violations. Jaywalking or crossing a red pedestrian light, for example, will be fined on the spot. The upside to stringent traffic rules is that car drivers are generally very well-disciplined, readily stopping for pedestrians at crossings. Football (soccer) games are the only notable exception to the above rule. Due to the potential threat of hooligan violence, these games (especially in Basel or Zurich) are generally followed by a large contingent of police officers with riot gear, rubber bullets, and tear gas, in case of any major unrest.
Switzerland has very strong Good Samaritan laws, making it a civic duty to help a fellow in need, although without unduly endangering oneself. People are therefore very willing and ready to help you if you appear to be in an emergency situation. The same applies to you if you witness anyone in danger. The refusal to help to a person in need can be punishable by law as “Verweigerung der Hilfeleistung”, i.e. refusal of aid. The general reservation of Americans to avoid entanglement with strangers due to possible future civil liability does not apply in Switzerland, for it would be practically impossible to wage a civil suit against anyone providing aid.
The drinking age for beer, wine and alcoholic cider is 16, except in Ticino where the age is 18, while the age for any other alcohol (e.g. spirits, “alcopops”, etc.) is 18. The public consumption of alcohol in Switzerland is legal, so do not be alarmed if you see a group of teenagers drinking a six-pack on public property or on public transport; this is by no means out of the ordinary and should not be interpreted as threatening.
Switzerland is not a country of insane civil lawsuits and damage claims; consequently, if you see a sign or disclaimer telling you not to do something, obey it! An example: in many alpine areas, charming little mountain streams may be flanked by signs with the message “No Swimming”. To the uninitiated, this may seem a bit over the top, but these signs are in fact a consequence of the presence of hydroelectric power plants further upstream that may discharge large amounts of water without warning.
In mountain areas, be sure to inquire about weather conditions at the tourist information office or local train station as you head out in the morning. They should be well informed about severe weather conditions and will advise you about possible avalanche areas.
There have been problems with police assuming that any Black, East European, or Arab person without an ID card or passport is an illegal immigrant, and treating them accordingly. That could be a considerable problem if you are travelling alone. So keep your ID card or passport on you, even though you are legally not obliged to. However, police have the legal right to ask you for your identification on any occasion, and, if you cannot show an ID card or passport, they are allowed to bring you to the police station for identification purposes. So do as every Swiss does: have your ID card (or passport) with you.