Basic facts about Switzerland
Switzerland is safe, efficient and clean, with an outstanding transport infrastructure.
The high living standard in Switzerland is reflected in the high cost of living.
The four regions of Switzerland differ greatly in terms of culture and mindset, not just in terms of spoken language.
What will Switzerland be like for you?
Right now, you’re probably obsessing over...
'What’s life in Switzerland going to be like for me? How about for my family? Will I earn enough to be worth it? What about the infamous sky-high cost of living we hear so much about?’
We’ll get to that, but first, a small disclaimer. Asking others for advice about moving to Switzerland is a bit like asking for suggestions for pizza toppings. You’re likely to get very different answers and then get into an argument about pineapple!
This is especially true if you’re asking questions about Switzerland and you happen to start in the Italian region, jump into a German speaking canton or wander into the western part of Switzerland where there is a strong French influence. You’ll get different answers and wildly different ideas, especially when discussing cuisine.
When it comes to food, we readily confess to lean more to the left side of the map! It’s the cheese you see! We’re nuts about the cheese! Whether you’re from Britain and lusting after an ‘English Farmhouse Cheddar’, from the USA singing the praises of something called ‘Colby’ or hail from the Antipodes and think your ‘All-Australian Ash Brie’ is gold… well, hold your horses, it’s time to strap in for a whole new experience. Switzerland has cheese that can jump out of your fridge. You’ll get fit chasing it around the kitchen. I think that’s why they melt the cheese here. It stops it from running away!
But, let’s get back on track.
You'll love Switzerland
Switzerland is a beautiful country with breath-taking landscapes and impeccable infrastructure. Outdoors sports enthusiasts will be in heaven here. There are hiking and biking routes marked and signalled in the most remote corners of Switzerland. From paragliding to light hikes, you’ll surely find some kinds of physical activity you’ll love. And consequently always have a good excuse to eat pizza with lots of cheese. (Sorry, enough about cheese!)
The country’s high standard of living also translates into a high cost of living, but you generally get what you pay for in Switzerland (especially when it comes to wine and cheese!).
That being said, let’s dive into the most basic things we think you should know before you decide to move here:
1. Are the Swiss regions very different?
There’s a lot of chatter about the four regions of Switzerland and yes, they differ greatly in terms of language, culture, history, geography or economic activity (even cheese). Switzerland is a small, but incredibly diverse country with a wealth of experiences just waiting for you to discover.
2. Is learning the local Swiss language a must?
There are four official languages in Switzerland with English running in an unofficial fifth place. A basic grasp of German will take you a long way in the Swiss German part and if you happen to land in Geneva, then naturally, French is of great benefit.
Having said that, the Swiss appear to have been born with an enviable ability to speak at least half the languages on the planet and one of them tends to be English. You can survive here without German and French, but one of the two will make a huge difference when it comes to applying for jobs. Another big plus is that the locals love it when you throw in a ‘Grüezi’ (hello), a ‘Genau’ (I agree) or ‘Das ist fein’ (that is delicious) which you can use when lying about how much you appreciate some cheeses made from goat’s milk! In this article we discuss more about what are the benefits of learning your local Swiss language.
If you plan to stay in Switzerland for more than one year and you're in the German speaking part, take a quick class in 'Mundart' (Swiss German dialect). At least you’ll know how to say hello to your neighbours and impress your Swiss acquaintances.
A list of basic food items in German will save you a headache. Once I had ‘Hefe’ on my vocabulary list, shopping became a little bit easier. Oh – it’s German for yeast. You’ll need it for your homemade pizza bread.
3. Is finding a home to rent in Switzerland difficult? YES!
Especially in the bigger cities, vacancy rates are extremely low, so make sure you set the right expectations for yourself and your family: decide on the deal breakers and the things you can do without.
If you’re a newcomer to Switzerland, you might want to look for apartments in urban areas that are well connected by public transport. Living in the countryside may be idyllic and it is definitely easier to find available properties outside the large cities, but if you don’t speak the local language, you may end up feeling a little lonely.
Be aware of set moving dates. Depending on the canton, there may be several moving dates per year (in Bern for instance, there are two: 30 April and 31 October). And now you'd be forgiven for asking, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Ha ha! I know, I was a tad baffled as well. Rental contracts here tend to be nailed down to similar expiration dates, so that everyone can move house on the same day! Don’t ask why. It’s just one of those things that you need to know about before you start house hunting.More about renting in Switzerland
4. Is finding a job in Switzerland daunting?
There are certain ‘in demand’ professional sectors like medicine, IT (or potent cheese manufacturing), but if you do not know the local language and do not have enough experience, it may be very difficult and very time consuming to find a job in Switzerland.
Don’t give up, constantly ask for feedback, adjust your CV and your skills based on it. This might be a good opportunity to start getting that certification you’ve been eyeing for a long time or even set up your own business.
5. Switzerland is not as expensive as you might think
You’ve probably heard Switzerland is expensive, but make sure you compare costs with Swiss salaries.
The cost of transportation is high in Switzerland, but the infrastructure is generally impeccable, with minimal delays and good connections. The cost of a single trip on any Swiss city public transport network is around 5 CHF. However, for residents, there are discounts available (the half fare card) or you can buy a cheaper ticket for shorter distances. Find out more about how to save on public transport costs.
The level of taxes you pay also highly depends on where you live. Some cantons have higher taxes (like Geneva, Zurich, Bern ) while cantons like Zug, Uri, Nidwalden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, have lower taxes. Within the same canton, there will be differences between urban vs. rural dwellers. Find more infos here.
There are also numerous ways to save money in Switzerland, especially on food items and public transport.
If you’re from a country fond of a daily BBQ, consider going vegetarian! Meat prices in Switzerland will initially leave you puzzled, shocked or simply numb. I have friends from England who swear importing meat from UK is still cheaper! However, fresh food prices are generally reduced on Saturday afternoons. Why? Well, because 98% of the country’s supermarkets are closed on Sundays and they like shifting produce before it expires. You’ll soon be familiar with the stickers on everything saying 25% or 50% off.
The very few supermarkets that remain open on Sundays are located at major train stations, just in case you run out of something essential…… like cheese.
Both coop and MIGROS supermarkets run loyalty card programmes. Sign up for both because you’ll get asked for your card almost every time you shop for food and the points do build up.
A bit of haggling won't hurt... Despite not adhering to Swiss practice, I have occasionally asked when hiring a vehicle, ‘Is that the best deal you have for me?’ This is so not the correct thing to do here, but it turned out that one of my supermarket loyalty cards made me eligible for a discount and then the car hire company manager kindly added in a discount code with a further 10% off. Being an alien here, can from time to time allow you to deviate from the norm. Just remember to smile. My Swiss friends have been stunned into silence by my audacity.
One last tip: Bring your bicycle. You’ll save a small fortune and keep fit, just be prepared for hill climbs!
6. How long does it take to adjust to life in Switzerland?
Sunday is a day of rest. Just like in Germany, all shops close on Sundays in Switzerland. You’ll have to get used to doing all your shopping by Saturday at 5pm (when the shops close) and take more time to enjoy other things in life.
There are numerous events, local and Swiss wide, that completely change the face of any Swiss town (corona allowing). For instance, carnivals in February, alpine descents in early autumn, music festivals in summer. Find out more about the Swiss highlights in each season.
Learn the Swiss social etiquette: The Swiss are generally socially discreet, which may be perceived as rigidness or rejection. Planned social interactions are more common than spontaneous ones. It will not be a breeze to meet people and make friends, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
How well you adjust in Switzerland depends on how willing and open you remain to the rules and modus operandi. For example, if the paper and cardboard collection is on Thursday, don’t put it all out on the street corner on Wednesday. A self-appointed inspector (always male and over 75) responsible of recycling will pounce on you! Oh – and enjoy your time separating, correctly arranging and tying up your paper and cardboard. Within six months you will be proud of your efforts. The bow must in the middle of the flattened pile and the string lines at 90 degrees. You’ll see. Don’t over-worry too much about this.
7. Swiss rules and regulations
Some Swiss rules are a little ridiculous, but they almost all make sense to the Swiss. Many rules have been introduced to reinforce common sense. For instance, rules that may be included in your rental contract, like ‘no flushing and no shower after 10pm’ are there to enforce common sense and stress on the fact that you should not bother your neighbours. Rules enforcing Sunday rest (no laundry, no noise) are there for just about the same reason. You can obviously negotiate them with your neighbours, as long as you remain considerate. For instance, it is customary to inform your neighbours if you will host a party and even invite them to the party.
Law enforced rules like keeping certain animals in pairs, recycling, rubbish disposal and parking rules have quite severe penalties if not observed.
Of some surprise, it is apparently okay to smoke at bus stops and at train stations. And it’s quite common to share a bottle of wine or a beer on the train on a long commute. Well – hip hip for the latter!
8. Will my kids love Switzerland? (They’ll adore it)
Switzerland is a heavenly place for kids. There are so many things to do outdoors, you never get bored. Kids in Switzerland go out rain or shine as the common perception around here is that ‘there is no bad weather, you just need to find the right clothes’.
Childcare is expensive, even prohibitively so and you might have to juggle between various options. Two working parents employed 100% is almost an impossible occurrence in Switzerland. More common scenarios are: both parents work less than 100% or only one parent works 100%.
Kindergarten is mandatory and starts at 4 years old (if your child has turned 4 before last day of July).More on the Swiss school system
9. Is Switzerland really that beautiful? Well...just look at this gorgeous mountain scenery...
Glacier Express passing through the Oberalp Pass, Andermatt © Rhaetian Railway
If you want to see some of the best views in the world, invest in good quality clothes (hiking gear, winter gear), as you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors. And yes, Switzerland has stunningly beautiful landscapes.
Summer is short and the Swiss want to take advantage of every single beautiful day. Don’t be surprised if your local river or lake is flooded with people and portable grills. There are grill places (and even firewood) almost everywhere in Switzerland. You can even find BBQs at most children’s playgrounds.
In winter, expect the same crowds on the ski and sledging pistes (of course, now, observing social distance).Discover the best of Switzerland
10. Owning pets in Switzerland
The Swiss could be seen as a nation of animal-lovers but there are strict guidelines for owning a pet.
Cats are by far the most popular type of pet in Switzerland, almost three times as many as dogs. This is easily visible as soon as you walk past a Swiss block of flats – you will see numerous types of stairs enabling the furry creatures to get out and roam free.
Owning a dog is more costly, which probably explains the popularity of cats. In addition to the microchip, some breeds need compulsory training, insurance and also their own public transport ticket. Find out more about what it means to own pets in Switzerland.
Expect to have a fantastic time in Switzerland. Enjoy the magnificent scenery, the many beautiful lakes and rivers, the most intriguing history and when your guests arrive from abroad be sure to have some wine from Valais and a cheese platter ready to serve. Perhaps just open your windows and warn your neighbours. There are currently no rules relating to consuming cheese in Switzerland, but there should be!
And if you're ready to take the next step and move here, this article will explain exactly what you should do next and here, you'll learn how to mentally adjust to Switzerland and settle in. This video made by Packimpex relocation consultants will also answer some basic questions.
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About the Author:
The article was created by a team of Packimpex relocation experts and brought to comedic perfection by Bruce Anderson.
Best described as a kilt-wearing British-Australian with a slight Kiwi accent who now lives in Switzerland, Bruce graduated from London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1992 and has since visited almost 50 countries, some of which allowed him to perform on stage. His comic writing style, which has been spotted more recently in a variety of New Zealand publications has brought several editors to tears (in a good way!). Bruce has worked in marketing and business development for several multinational companies and was a co-founder of the European-based training and development company Dramatrix. His first travel book will be published in London in 2021.